The French Laundry, Thomas Keller's acclaimed restaurant in Napa Valley's Yountville, has been described by the New York Times as "the most exciting place to eat in the United States". It's impossible to get a booking at short notice unless you're an A-list celebrity, so when a friend tells me he has an "in", I gratefully join him and his American companion.
Compared to the buzzy, informal Bouchon, its sister bistro up the road, TFL is as starched as its white tablecloths. On the night of our meal, the small dining room is oppressively airless. Smartly dressed groups talk sotto voce, young men with wispy goatees gaze expectantly at their high-maintenance dates, one of whom has lager poured for her on a silver platter.
The prix fixe ($240, £145) nine-course tasting menu is preceded by a signature canapé: a crunchy black sesame tuile mini-cornet with salmon tartare and crème fraîche, followed by a creamy artichoke purée with toasted hazelnut and a miniature orange segment. A list of wines by the glass offers a choice of six sparkling, six white, two rosé and seven red, plus sake, fortified, off-dry and sweet wine. Since there are no wines-by-the-glass suggestions with the tasting menu, we choose a ginger-spicy, grapefruit-zesty 2006 Grüner Veltliner Alte Reben from Bründlmayer ($150, £90) from the voluminous bottle list.
First up, "oysters and pearls" is another signature dish, a rich, buttery sabayon of pearl tapioca with an iodiney seafresh burst of tangy Island Creek oyster and white sturgeon caviar. The Austrian dry white is delicious with this and the next amuse-bouche, an open-topped egg shell containing a glossy mouthful of egg custard, white truffle oil and black truffle jus topped with veal stock.
The wine holds its own, too, with the moulard duck foie gras en terrine ($30 supplement). This is a triangle of foie gras with a pine nut glaze and poached blueberries, a Belgian endive relish and nasturtium and lemon "Génoise". It's delicate, but the foie gras is too creamily processed to comply with Keller's dictum that it should be "served with minimum interference to preserve its texture".
In preference to the option of tartare of Japanese bluefin tuna, I go for sautéed fillet of Columbia River sturgeon. The small square of lightly chargrilled white fish is rich and firm and so perfectly cooked and seasoned that my two companions, declaring their tartare "brilliant", eye it up jealously. It's followed by sweet butter-poached Maine lobster "mitts", a three-bite piece of slow-cooked, succulently fleshy pink lobster with black rice, pili nuts and grapes, suffused with subtle curry flavours and a liquoricey explosion of fresh basil.
For the all-day braised joue de porc, the perfumed, elegantly fruit-filled 2006 Anthill Farms Abbey-Harris Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir ($160, £97) is suggested by the attentive sommelier, Anani Lawson, and it does a perfect job. Given that The French Laundry is in the middle of Napa Valley, there is little encouragement to drink Napa Valley, not even a Napa wine by the glass. A mixed blessing because the subtle juxtapositions of flavours and textures of Keller's food could so easily be overwhelmed. The pig's cheek is impeccably presented with baby corn and little gem lettuce, the delicate bite-size squares of grainily textured white meat suggesting lightly salted chicken, with the added creaminess of avocado and a fresh bite of cherry tomatoes and coriander. No complaints about the entrée. Snake River farms' "calotte de boeuf grillée" is meltingly tender, fine-flavoured rare beef enhanced by earthy bluefoot mushroom, Yukon Gold potato mille-feuille and sweet garlic pudding with sauce bordelaise.
Manchester, a goat's milk cheese with mejdool dates, celery branch and black truffle, is dry and nutty but about as goaty as soy milk. I sheepishly ask if it really is goat, only to be informed about the roaming habits of said goat in the Vermont hills. A refreshing honeydew melon sorbet is followed by the final amuse-bouche before the pudding, an all-American cinnamon mini-doughnut ring-cum-coffee semi-freddo. Bouche duly amused, I go for the lemon verbena vacherin, essence of lemon sherbet and strawberry consommé with meringue, washed down with a $38 (£23) glass of a rich dried apricoty tokaji, 2002 Királyudvar Cuvée Ilona.
There is much to please the palate and the eye at The French Laundry, the soul I'm less sure of. The artful visual presentation, almost Japanese in the precision-engineering of its colour and texture co-ordination, is one of the high points. Highly crafted with the experience of many years, the thought-provoking combinations of flavours are brilliantly executed, even if occasionally verging on the itsy. I wish I could say that I'm hungry for more, but I'm satisfied that for once in my life at least, and once will do me, I have genuflected at the altar of American haute cuisine.
The French Laundry, 6640 Washington Street, Yountville, California, USA (001 707 944 2380)
Tasting menu about £145, including service, for nine courses
Side Orders: American idols
The Obamas are fans of this superb restaurant showcasing local artisan produce; mains include sweetcorn, zucchini and braised lamb belly ($32).
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The unashamedly experimental tasting menu here includes items such as: "BUBBLE GUM long pepper hibiscus crème fraiche".
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Sonoma Liberty duck breast with roasted onions, shell beans, and pancetta is a typical dish at Alice Waters' eatery.
1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, California (001 510 548 5525)Reuse content