The French Laundry Revisited – With Mark Van Name!

It’s been six years since my first trip to the French Laundry. I’d heard rumors that Thomas Keller had spread himself too thin, opening too many restaurants, too many projects, that the French Laundry had slipped and wasn’t as good as it used to be. I don’t know what these people are talking about!! And I apologize in advance for the length of this article. It was a nearly 5 hour meal. You’ll have to cut me some slack.

But I’m jumping ahead of myself. A few months ago I was contacted by my friend, Ticia, about an interview with Mark Van Name. He was coming out to the West Coast for World Fantasy Con, wanted to go to the French Laundry, and could I get reservations? Oh sure, you betcha! I have no insider connection, I just had to hope, keep my fingers crossed, and war dial the reservation line at 10am. The first day I tried for, I couldn’t get in. I called back three days later for the second available date and, miraculously, got a table for five at 6:30 PM. I about dropped the phone I was so excited.

When we arrived, the first thing I asked to do was see the kitchen. I didn’t do that last time and was kicking myself for it. I also wanted to do it before we started drinking wine…I figured that was a smart move! I was giddy standing in that kitchen. I was in complete awe. It was so quiet, so clean, and so precise. No one spoke above normal conversation levels and no one was rushing. I watched them assemble a plate of foie gras and it was so perfect (of course if it wasn’t it wouldn’t have gone out to the table). I felt like I had been granted access to the inner chambers of the food Vatican. I could have stayed there all night, watching, trying to learn, being enamored with the food and the dedication of the chefs. But we also felt we were in the way so we moved along.

We then headed up to our table in the corner of the second-floor. Earlier, when we’d just gotten into our hotel we were early so I took a little nap. The first thing I said when I woke up was, “Salmon Cone.” I anxiously awaited the croquette. It was just as heavenly as I remembered. The waiter then went over the menu with us in detail and I conveyed my weird, inconvenient-as-a-foodie, food aversions. These of course would not be a problem for the magicians in the kitchen.

Before we dove into the menu and I wanted to get my standard interview questions out of the way. I knew once we started eating we would want to talk about nothing but the meal! I also liked posing the questions before we ate knowing at some of the answers may end up changing throughout the meal… and I was right.

Chantrelle: What is your favorite comfort food?

Mark: Macaroni and cheese. The kind that is fake cheese, Velveeta. The kind that probably turns your insides orange!

Chantrelle: What is your best childhood food memory?

Mark: I don’t have many. I’d have to say Thanksgiving. We were living in a house with two adults and 10 kids and food was scarce. My mom usually worked so the other woman in our house did most of the cooking and she wasn’t a very good cook. But on Thanksgiving my mom cooked and it was the only day we had food in such excess. And there were pies! I would eat until I had to lie down, my stomach was so full. The rest of the year we would have things like stuffed peppers with one pound of meat stretched between 12 people. Thanksgiving was the only day we could eat as much as we wanted.

Chantrelle: If you were forced to eat food from only one region or country what would you choose?

Mark: Italy I think. I love Florence. That’s if I didn’t have to worry about my health. If I were worried about being healthy I’d have to say China. But without taking health into account I’d say Italy with France being a close second.

Chantrelle: I’m always torn between Italy and Japan because I love sushi so much.

Mark: Japan doesn’t do breakfast well. Have you ever had natto?

Chantrelle: Funny, I never thought of breakfast when I asked this question! I think that tips the scales for Italy. I make a frittata every week, I will never go anywhere near natto!

Since my interview with one of the cowboy junkies, the way I phrase this next question has changed. And it’s changed in a way that is perfect for you!

Mark: Which Cowboy Junkie?

Chantrelle: Alan Anton, the bass player. He’s a huge foodie.

Mark: Ah. Margo Timmins’ voice is like an angel.

Chantrelle: I agree! I used to ask what you want your last meal be. Apparently that was a little too morbid and depressing. So now, you are about to be shot into space, what do you want your last meal on Earth to be?

Mark: My answer may change after tonight!

Chantrelle: We predicted that may be the case. But as of now….?

Mark: The 16 course truffle menu at Robouchon in Las Vegas. With the banana cream pie from Emeril’s.

Chantrelle: Really? Emeril??

Mark: You don’t have to eat anything else there. But if you like banana cream pie he has the best.

Chantrelle: And my favorite Food Porn question: What do you consider the sexiest food?

Mark: It depends on who is eating it. Anything can be sexy with the right person eating it! A hot dog eaten correctly by a woman can be quite sexy. But I’d say foie gras. Cooked perfectly but not cooked through so it’s just warm in the middle.

(This question was later revised when the white truffle course was served! Wait for it….)

Formalities out of the way, it’s time for serious eating.

First up, the famous, now classic, “Oysters and Pearls”. I was concerned. I don’t like cooked oysters, I don’t really like caviar. That was the biggest blob of caviar I’ve ever seen on a plate in front of me. After my first bite I added to my list of sexiest foods. There was so much sumptuous butter in the dish I don’t think I would’ve cared what was cooked in it. Pure, fatty bliss. I almost licked the bowl but I restrained myself. This was followed by a black truffle brioche. Everyone else got some cheesy thing. I got a hot-air-filled pastry balloon of happiness.

For the next course, it was a choice of soup or foie gras. Mark got the Moulard Duck “Foie Gras au Torchon” with Gingerbread Purée, Tokyo Turnips, Watercress, Pecans and Cranberries. He was a happy, happy man. If I could go back in time I would take a picture of his face upon the first morsel of foie hitting his tongue and pair that with the sexiest food question. The rest of us got the Musquée de Provence Pumpkin Soup with Chestnut Beignets and Whipped Maple Syrup. It was sweet, it was toasty, it was autumn in a bowl…a very refined, fancy, somewhat elitist autumn. Before this course we got some bread. Luckily I had a piece left so I actually got to mop up every last drop of the soup!

There was an extra “little” menu addition. We happened to show up during white truffle season. Just to add to my weirdness, I’m a fungophile who doesn’t really enjoy truffles. I love to smell them and would love to hunt them (I never have) but they are too overwhelming of a flavor for me. I was the only one at the table that did not opt in to the truffle supplement menu. The waiter didn’t want me to feel left out so asked if it was okay if he brought me a little egg custard infused with white truffle oil… like I would say no! It was lovely but still too truffley for me. I enjoyed two or three bites and really enjoyed it with our wine (2006 Corton Charlemagne, Coche-Dury that we picked up not too long ago as a pre-arrival at Kermit Lynch).

They brought the truffle humidor around for all of us to smell the beautiful fungus! Then shaved the most truffle I’ve ever seen on one plate. It was such a beautiful thing, I thought I’d share. Sorry there’s no smell-o-vision!

My husband described the truffle experience best when he said, “The wine with the truffles made me taste colors I’ve never seen before.” And when discussing the experience later, “Washing down a mouthful of freshly shaved white truffle with a slurp of Coche Dury Corton Charlemagne was a new peak moment for me as a foodie, though I suspect it guarantees that I will, in fact, be going to hell — if not for the sheer decadence of such an indulgence, for the so-called “statutory grape” of opening an ’06 a decade early.”

After the richness of the truffles came a refreshing tartare of Medai Belly with Fuyu Persimmon, Yuzu, Black Sesame, Radish and Mizuna. The plate was a beautiful combination of colors. It was sweet, crunchy, fresh and made my sexy food list longer once again. I think I’ll have to add this whole dinner into that list!

Exit fresh and light and return to rich and decadent: Maine Lobster Tail “Pochée au beurre doux” with Michigan Sour Cherries, Sunchokes, Piedmont Hazelnuts, Pearl Onions and Coffee-Chocolate Emulsion. Yes — coffee-chocolate with lobster. I’m not going to say it was something I’d request on a dish again, but it wasn’t bad or as weird as I thought it would be. It didn’t take away from the dish, it was quite mild, but I don’t think it added anything either. It wasn’t a “miss” but it was the only thing all night that wasn’t a life changing taste with each bite. The lobster itself was though!

We all had a funny reaction to the delivery of the Fricassée of Liberty Farm Pekin Duck with Cèpe Mushrooms, Toasted Farro and Brussel Sprout Leaves… we forgot it was on the menu, all thought it was the beef course and didn’t two of the five of us order lamb? Well, yes they did but this is the duck you dingbats! What, are you getting full?!? You are only halfway through! But was I happy to get this duck afterall! I don’t even like duck… or Brussels sprouts. It was moist, juicy, rare, tender, flavorful, roasty-toasty, rich and earthy. Turns out I like duck when it’s been run through the Keller-Magic-Pan-of-Yum.

Now, no one else complained about this but me. The Snake River Farms “Calotte de Boeuf Grillée” with Horseradish Dumplings, French Laundry Garden Beets, Romaine Lettuce, Crème Fraîche and “Sauce Borscht” was an abnormally large portion for the French Laundry. I actually said, “Why is that so huge!?” I was already full at this point and had been powering through for a couple of courses. I took a couple of bites and shared the rest with the table (no one objected!). The meat just melted away. Two others at the table shared the Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Saddle with “Cassoulet” of Autumn Beans, Tomato Compote and Garlic “En Persillade”. One of those two was my husband and he doesn’t like lamb. He had a similar epiphany that I had with the duck. How can the kitchen transform flavors like that?

Thankfully the cheese course, “Camembert” with Black Truffle, “Pain Perdu,” Quince, Celery Branch and Brown Butter, was next which meant I got a little refreshing salad break. This is the first time I’ve been happy about not liking cheese because I think I would have exploded if I tried to consume that much fat and richness at this point in the meal.

Ahhh, on to dessert. Simple, yes? Just sorbet and then a little chocolate, right? WRONG! First up was the Bartlett Pear Sorbet with Roasted Jacobsen’s Farm Pears and Chai Tea Sablé. It cooled the senses, gave the illusion that you could keep eating. Pear sorbet has become a favorite dessert for me (Scream Sorbet at our farmers market sells their’s, in season) and this one, of course, encapsulated every bite of peariness imaginable.

Second, “Gâtueau Saint Nizier au Manjari” with Mango-Chili Relish, Valrhona Cocoa Nibs, Lime Foam and Coconut Milk Sorbet. Can I just say that for the first time I *EVER* loved foam! Now I finally get the foam thing. It’s not like a little pile of flavored bubble bath soap on your food, it’s denser and flavorful, still light, and this particular one was like a little, frothy virgin margarita topped with crunchy salt and lime zest. And yes, this paired wonderfully with the chocolate.

That’s the end of the menu, so were done. The album is over…Nope! There’s that hidden track that’s not listed in the liner notes! Now the multilayered box of cookies and confections: nuts, sesame, caramels, toffee, things I don’t even recall. Then the plate of truffles: caramel, peanut butter, pumpkin, peppermint, coffee. Good Lord! Just like six years ago, this last surprise course came home with me for breakfast.

Thankfully we didn’t have to find room for more food. Sadly, the dinner was concluding. Tea, coffee, a little parting gift of shortbread cookies. We lingered as long as we could. Mark then ventured into the kitchen to be awed by the work in there as well. He came out sufficiently venerated.

To be honest, I usually would have more quotes from my interviewee in my write-up. We talked about books: his and others (“Shoes off and the whale!“), tech work (Mark is CEO of Principled Technologies). We discussed many other restaurants: Pigeon, Beast, and Sel Gris in Portland, Little Washington, Alinea and El Bulli). We talked about his upcoming book projects, family, and more food. Alas, my recorder failed and all this has all come from memory. I think that means we have to do this again! We’ve all agreed to return to the French Laundry together and this time LICK THE PLATES!!! Etiquette be damned!