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French Laundry: better than ever

June 11, 2003|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

Yountville, Calif.-- DESPITE the distractions of opening a new restaurant in New York, and nine years at the stove of his Napa Valley restaurant, the French Laundry, Thomas Keller has never been better. His cooking is still full of surprises, and a recent meal at the French Laundry was truly dazzling.

Almost since it opened, the French Laundry has been considered one of the best restaurants in the world, and Keller's signature dishes -- his cornetti of salmon tartare, his butter-poached lobster, to name two -- have been copied the world over.

But while so many other chefs succumb to celebrity and are content to churn out the dishes that made them famous, Keller continues to challenge himself and his chefs. Each time I visit, he's honed and edited ideas down to a concise expression of the ingredients. And his raw materials are extraordinary. As his cooking has evolved from intellectual to the unabashedly sensual, he's come up with startling juxtapositions of flavors and textures that seem as inevitable as the classics.

A meal at the French Laundry is always pure pleasure. Dinner might begin with a glass of vintage rose Champagne in the garden where roses and flowering vines clamber over the old stone and timber building. To the right is the kitchen, where you can glimpse the brigade of young cooks intent at the stoves.

Meals unfurl at a leisurely pace. Over hours, five courses or, if you opt for the chef's tasting menu, many many more tiny exquisite courses unfold like a series of vignettes. "Oysters and pearls," for example, is a dish of pearl tapioca sabayon topped with an oyster and a heap of oscetra caviar. He might pair sweet white asparagus with field rhubarb and play off both their flavors with a truffle syrup. Or serve shad roe like caviar, which is so beguiling you wonder why everyone doesn't do it. (They probably will very soon.)

One dish, a few bites really, might arrive on a pyramid of five or six plates, another beneath a porcelain cloche. Keller has a thing for fine china and buys unusual dishes wherever he goes. He's even designing his own line.

The French Laundry is such a reflection of Keller's aesthetic, it's hard to imagine how he will maintain such a high standard once the new restaurant opens in the fall, though Keller does have a strong chef de cuisine in Erik Ziebold. But whatever New York brings, at this moment, Keller is among the handful of the world's best chefs.

The French Laundry, 6640 Washington St., Yountville; (707) 944-2380; Chef's tasting menu, $135; 5-course prix fixe menu, $115; 9-course prix fixe vegetarian menu, $115. Corkage, $50 for bottles not on the list. Menus change daily. Dinner daily, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m; lunch, Friday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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