Few American chefs are as revered as Thomas Keller. At his Napa nexus, The French Laundry, the three-Michelin-star maestro brought culinary credibility to the United States in the heart of wine country, Napa Valley.
Now, for the first time in its 36-year history, The French Laundry has made a big, boozy shift. Its 10-course tasting menus, which start at $270 and are revised daily, will be served with spirits as well as Napa wines.
This is a big deal for two reasons. First, this is Nahpaaah. Wine is big business, and a source of local identity in the same way that oysters equate with Island Creek, and high school football defines Friday nights in Texas. Second, whatever Keller does has major implications. Will other culinary luminaries start changing tried-and-true formulas? Is David Chang going vegan?
Before going into full-on alarmist mode, we went to the Keller compound to check out the goods. And, as it turns out, The French Laundry’s collection is considerably more interesting than your average Absolut-and-Evan-Williams rack. Think a 40-year-old Macallan served in limited-edition Baccarat crystal, rare cuvées of vintage green Chartreuse or a $1,500 glass of cognac originally bottled for Queen Elizabeth II.
“I didn’t want to open a bar serving the same cocktails you can get anywhere else,” the typically understated Keller told us last week on the French Laundry’s patio, quietly sipping a scotch and soda made with a 15-year-old Macallan. “That didn’t interest me.”
A whiskey man at heart, Keller professed his preference for Macallan or Pappy Van Winkle, served with a splash of water. “I don’t drink a lot,” he added. “But when I do, I want to enjoy it.” Good man.
As a result, the French Laundry does not serve mixed drinks of any stripe — a bold move in an era where restaurant mixology programs earn James Beard Awards. Instead, diners can follow their meals with a Cuban cigar and glass of something neat on the terrace, or reserve a tasting menu with customized spirits pairings.
At a recent Macallan-paired dinner, Keller and head sommelier Dennis Kelly created a menu that played on Scottish heritage and an insane array of Fine & Rare whiskies. An elevated take on the Scotch egg combined a delicately battered, fried Bantam hen egg with California red walnuts and Applewood-smoked bacon emulsion. It was served with a 1945 Macallan that had been aged in sherry oak casks from Jerez. Later, fresh-picked vegetables from the French Laundry garden were plated beneath a doubly reduced, velvety chicken consommé, and paired with a 1946 Macallan. Mercy.
The dapper Kelly reported that the 18-year-old Macallan is his biggest seller thus far, but he has also seen quite a bit of interest in the Pappy Van Winkle reserves, Martinican rhum agricole and a1940 grande green chartreuse, which retails for $950.
For reservations to the French Laundry, say a prayer or three to the god of your choice, and dial 707-944-2380 at exactly 10:00A PST, two months in advance of your desired date. Or beseech a nice hotel (or American Express) concierge for help.
If those paths prove unfruitful, try OpenTable. For. Real. The restaurant releases two tables for every dinner service online at midnight, 61 days in advance of reservation date. Good night, and good luck.
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