Posted on Tuesday, 4th October 2011
The French Laundry at Harrods, the 10-day pop-up restaurant by six-Michelin starred Chef Thomas Keller (3 stars at The French Laundry, 3 stars at Per Se) was a project that was 18 months in the making. The idea was conceived in April 2010, and every detail has been meticulously planned, including the timing of the harvest at The French Laundry Yountville garden to ensure that the vegetables that were brought over for the pop-up would be perfect. Yes, lots of ingredients were flown in from the US to recreate a true French Laundry experience, but let’s not judge the food miles but the meal alone.
The pop-up restaurant occupies part of the Georgian Restaurant on the fourth floor of Harrods. Much has been done to recreate the feel of the original, from the sign at the front door to the clothes peg pinned to our table napkins. Crockery came from The French Laundry Yountville, and a number of the chefs and the service team were made up from a cross section of chefs and waiting staff from within The Thomas Keller Restaurant Group including The French Laundry and Per Se.
Amuse bouches kicked off with Thomas Keller’s famous smoked salmon cornetto, a sesame cone filled with crème fraiche and topped with smoked salmon. The salmon was wonderful, but the cone was impractical to eat as you inadvertently ate all the salmon before reaching the crème fraiche. Gruyere gougère was lovely with a runny centre.
From left to right in the photo below, a freeze-dried cherry tomato served with an olive oil jelly was texturally interesting. It was dry, but provided oodles of flavour and packed a zingy punch.
British rock crab beignet with a fennel salad, chilli curls and ranch dressing was very tasty, as was the foie gras parfait topped with Earl grey jelly and a honey poached cranberry. But the most exhilarating amuse was the pork belly sandwich with arugula purée and truffle. With its rich fattiness, it provided layers of unctuous satisfaction.
To say that Thomas Keller’s signature dish of oysters and pearls was sublime is an understatement. Maldon oysters had been poached in clarified butter and served with a creamy, decadent tapioca sabayon which moulded beautifully with the punchy sea flavour of the oysters. To complete this harmonious dish was an indulgent dollop of exquisite Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar. This was an amazing dish.
Salad of Hawaii heart of palm was a dish resplendent with earthy freshness. The palm, as both a strip and mousse, was served with Medjool date jelly, coconut jelly, sweet carrots from The French Laundry garden, candied pili nuts, red radish and a zingy Madras curry. Accompanying the salad was a wonderfully buttery and warm Viennoiserie bread to be eaten with butter from Vermont.
A ‘chowder’ in a deconstructed form consisted of a poached Sacramento River sturgeon perched on chowder foam of celeriac and razor clams, and a sprinkling of corn powder. The fish was meaty and firm, and the foam, when combined with the powder became something ethereal and lovely. This was a stunning and clever dish.
Classy pieces of Maine lobster tail and claw had been poached in butter. The lobster left a lingering sweetness on the palate with its meaty, exquisite flavour. I could still taste the loveliness of the lobster gong after I had finished eating. Alongside the lobster were lovely accompaniments of leek mousse, sweet beets and red beet essence.
‘Poularde en brioche’ (chicken thigh, breast and mousseline) encased in brioche was pleasant but unspectacular. A topping of shaved frozen foie gras torchon, shaved at the table, provided a visual spectacle, but the brioche casing detracted from the dish as it was dull and flat. But the chicken was tasty, and the accompaniments of turnip, compressed green apple and truffle purée were wonderful.
Prime rib beef from Nebraska was succulent and meltingly tender and inspired gasps of awe. Hints of fat ran through the meat giving it an incredible flavour. This cut of beef brought back memories of the wondrous wagyu beef that I had at Per Se when I dined there. Braised brisket was also excellent, as was the Musquée de Provence pumpkin served as both a purée and a pumpkin ball cooked in luscious beef fat. To complete the dish were trumpet mushrooms and a fantastic Bordelaise sauce with tiny pieces of tongue.
The bread selection included French baguettes, pain de campagne, multigrain and pretzel. All were good with crunchy crusts and soft centres.
The cheese course was a ‘Monte Cristo’ sandwich, the sandwich being in reference to the croque monsieur. Also on the plate were wedges of Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese, Iberico ham, slices of fig and fig jelly. The individual ingredients were lovely, but the sandwich seemed pointless.
The pre-dessert was a wonderfully zingy huckleberry sorbet served with huckleberry muffins, almond crumbs and verbena foam. The sorbet was excellent with its sharp and sweet qualities. The crumbs provided a touch of crunchiness and the foam added a fresh and inviting finish.
The dessert was a deconstructed ‘S’mores’, a classic American dessert of graham crackers filled with melted marshmallows and chocolates. Here a caramel délice topped with peanut butter pavé was accompanied by marshmallows (melted and whole), graham cracker crumble, popcorn pieces and a popcorn sorbet. The sorbet tasted a little odd, almost rubbery, but otherwise this dessert was yummy and satisfying.
The mignardises came in a space-ship looking plate. Themed as a ‘night at the movies’, they paid homage to Keller’s mum with whom he enjoyed many nights at the movies. The selection from left to right included coca-cola paté de fruit, potato crisps with celery salt, junior mint, root beer float, and raisinettes (an American brand of chocolate-coated raisins). All of these proved fun to eat.
The service was wonderful and attentive, but surprisingly no one came to de-crumb our table.
A couple of courses didn’t work as well as the others, but overall the meal delighted with its finesse and skilful execution. And then there were those dishes which thrilled. The oysters and pearls dish was sublime with its velvety overtones and harmonious flavours; the chowder wowed with its magical combination of ingredients; and the prime rib of beef, with its intensity of flavour and soft tenderness, was exquisite.
At £250 plus a 15% service charge a head (excluding drinks but including water), this was by no means a cheap meal. But astronomical efforts went into reconstructing this Yountville experience at Harrods. New stoves were put in for these ten days, and this has been a venture which has been 18 months in the making. And considering the quality of the ingredients, some of the wondrous dishes on offer, and the fact that this was a once in a life time opportunity, I couldn’t really begrudge the price tag.
The French Laundry at Harrods runs from 1 to 10 October 2011.
Food rating: 4.5/5
Service rating: 4/5
Price: £250 for a ten course tasting menu. Excludes drinks except water, and excludes service.