10.06.11

The French Laundry Revisited

Chef Thomas Keller is recreating the magic of his famed Yountville restaurant at a pop-up in a posh London neighborhood. Venetia Thompson on whether it’s worth a trip.

Going to The French Laundry for the first time is like going on a perfect first date: you giggle excitedly, become tongue-tied, light-headed, and more breathless as the evening progresses, and try not to think about how and when it will end, because you don’t want it to—you want it to last forever. Back in March, all I could think about was whether I would see that heartthrob calotte of beef again, and after a tense six months of waiting by the phone, day-dreaming about smothering myself in hen egg truffle custard and "Oysters and Pearls," last Friday night I finally got my second date with The French Laundry—this time on my home turf, at Thomas Keller’s 10-day Harrods pop-up.

I felt sick with anticipation driving into Knightsbridge, much like most of London’s chefs who had all booked themselves in for lunch or dinner to worship at the altar of the mighty Chef Keller—and perhaps discover how far off the mark their own restaurants are in comparison. But would it be the same over here? Could it be? After all, part of what makes The French Laundry so special is its unique location, the smell of dusk in Yountville, Calif., the vegetables just picked from the restaurant’s garden, the incredible service…how could this possibly be recreated on the somewhat forgotten fourth floor of Harrods in London?

The second I got out of the elevator and felt grass underfoot, caught sight of the familiar French Laundry entrance façade, and was greeted by General Manager Nicolas Fanucci, I knew I needn’t have worried—every detail, from the light fixtures to the butter and the familiar faces (Keller put together a dream team plucked from his different restaurants, and even alumni now based in Europe) had been transported from Yountville or perfectly re-imagined. My reunion with two of the classic French Laundry dishes—"Oysters and Pearls"—tapioca, oysters, and white sturgeon caviar, and the "Hen Egg Custard" with Perigord truffles—was emotional: tapioca and egg custard have always been two of my gastronomic Holy Grails, but in their French Laundry incarnations they send me into the sort of crazed, joyous stupor best ridden out safely in private, not in the middle of a roomful of other diners. I felt like the Incredible Hulk, but rather than being unable to contain my anger, I was unable to keep a handle on my rapture. My boyfriend was looking at me with trepidation, "Aren’t critics supposed to play it cool? You have that look in your eye, like you’re about to run into the kitchen and plunge your head into a vat of tapioca."

I drank a glass of Schramsberg "Cuvee French Laundry" Blanc de Blancs 2007 (yes, they have their own fizz now, delicious) followed by some Domaine Bachelet-Monnot 2008 in an attempt to calm down, which only made matters worse. The Burgundy, perfectly gritty and balanced, which should have grounded me a little, instead made the "Chowder" (Sacramento River sturgeon and razor clams with sturgeon "bacon") and the "Beets and Leeks" (butter poached lobster) take off. Then along came a perfect truffle, briefly unleashed from its beautiful blue box to delicately straddle our gnocchi and tagliatelle, and the wonderful Poulard en Brioche (moulard duck, foie gras, turnips, more of the Perigord truffle temptress) both enjoyed with a hefty slosh of "Modicum" Rutherford 2005, which came out of the blocks all black fruit but underscored its point firmly in chicory, and sat perfectly alongside the hunky Midwestern calotte of beef—the way you want all beef to taste, all the time.

Finishing with "S’mores" (a heady mix of peanut butter, popcorn sherbet, and Tahitian vanilla marshmallow) was apt—I was left desperately wanting s’more, as were London’s top chefs—as Michelin-starred British Chef Tom Aikens put it: "It’s untouchable, perfect, if there is such a word—it’s like eating with angels, you never want it to end—it’s touching the void with food." I wish I’d been lucid enough to say something similar when I briefly set foot in the kitchen to see Chef Keller, but all my attention was focused on restraining myself from letting out a tearful, "Your food…makes me….so…happy!"  Instead I admired the brand spanking new industrial induction hobs.

There has been much debate in London as to whether paying £250 ($385) for The French Laundry at Harrods pop-up tasting menu is worth it, but with hundreds of people on the waiting list every day (it runs until Oct. 10), Britain’s (and indeed Europe’s—I know of Keller fans flying in) food lovers have clearly not been deterred—and nor should they: £250 to eat with angels? It’s a bargain.