An espresso review for a restaurant where the cheapest item on the dinner menu is $210 may seem a bit irrelevant, but it is important for what it represents: a gold standard for food and wine. Back in September, we reviewed one of San Francisco’s most highly regarded dining establishments, Michael Mina. But to many of the fine dining elite and notable chefs alike, Napa Valley’s The French Laundry marks the height of American restaurant cuisine. Thus the question: given such immense expectations, how do they deliver on their espresso?
The French Laundry resides in a stone house with a low profile on Yountville’s main road (Washington St.). Among two floors of dining, a swarm of restaurant staff serve among two or three coordinated tasting menus of nine-course, set meals. Personally, my favorite courses included the carnaroli risotto biologico, topped with shaved white truffles from Alba (served out of the requisite wooden truffle box), and their signature roulelle de tête de cochon — quite literally a delicate pork roll made of meat from a pig’s head (it is far more appetizing than it sounds, regardless of its off-putting description).
The wait staff are serious, professional, and rather stiff. The challenge of getting them to crack a smile was often like that of the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace. But some opened up more than others — which was instrumental to learning more about how they made their espresso. Super Chef Thomas Keller (whom one relaxed staffer jokingly called “TK” with a sort of faux familiarity) has publicly sworn by Equator Estate Coffees. But their decision to use a superautomatic Schaerer machine is what caught me by surprise.
“Once in a while you might see me at In and Out Burger.” – TK
The staff beamed when speaking of how they could set a precise temperature for the Schaerer’s automatic milk frothing, and they liked how it could allow them to make espresso on auto-pilot. Ultimately, they seemed happily and blissfully ignorant of what it takes to make a decent espresso. (They all could recite their bean supplier offhand†, but, for example, they knew nothing of the machine until I asked about it.) Yet this is a restaurant that performs on-site training and development of their own sommeliers like a baseball farm club.
I should have guessed the level of institutionalized coffee ignorance at The French Laundry when I noticed a dessert menu item that included “crushed espresso beans”. Given that “espresso” is strictly a brewing method for ground coffee beans — a preparation — and not a flavor or style of roast, “espresso beans” makes as much culinary sense as “quiche eggs”. This may seem overly picky, but this is one place that has no excuse for getting it wrong.
They serve espresso with a somewhat frothy medium brown crema that’s not very thick, but it coats the cup well. It has a decent body and a more interesting and complex flavor than drip coffee. But otherwise, its modest flavor of mild spice and some herbal pungency does not distinguish it much. There isn’t a robust aroma, a bold depth of flavor, or even a delicate sweetness to the cup that I would expect from a restaurant of its caliber.
The French Laundry certainly delivers on high expecations for food with their elaborate nine-course tasting menus. They deliver on service with their educated and professional staff. And they certainly deliver on wines — from vintage bottles of Cristal Champagne to Gaja Barolo to Dujac Burgundy. (Though I am still surprised that, despite Keller’s perfectionist control over the menu, The French Laundry does not offer a single flight of recommended wine pairings.)
When it comes to espresso, they certainly deliver on expectations for what they serve their espresso in — porcelain from Raynaud of France. However, the espresso itself is clearly a let down here: “not bad” just isn’t good enough. They literally provide the same coffee service you can get with an $8.95 turkey club sandwich from Sellers Markets. TK: you could do so much better.
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