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THE FRENCH LAUNDRY - World-Renowned Wine Country Retreat by Kaya Morgan

You'll need to make reservations at least two months in advance for the one restaurant touted by the New York Times as, "The most exciting place to eat in the United States!" About as close to the perfect dining experience as you can get — and well worth a special trip to the wine country — this small, 62-seat eatery is quite probably the hardest restaurant in America to get into. Many patrons travel hundreds or even thousands of miles, paying top dollar for the privilege of dining at The French Laundry — and, chef/owner, Thomas Keller, never lets them down.

The tiny town of Yountville, in southern Napa Valley, has become the focus of world-wide attention as The French Laundry continues to garner the highest accolades. The restaurant could easily fill an entire wall with the awards they've received since opening in 1995. The most recent in 2001 include — "America's Best Chef" (Time), #1 Top Food (Zagat), Five-Star Award (Mobil Travel Guide) and the "Outstanding Wine Service Award" (James Beard Foundation). This can all be attributed to one important factor — Thomas Keller's driving passion for his work.

The setting is more like a theatre production in the small, turn-of-the-century, converted home humbly built of timbers and fieldstone. A low stone wall out front proudly displays the name of the two-story restaurant behind it. Once inside, the cozy warmth of the fireplace, the subdued lighting with exposed staircase and odd room angles along with the crisp white table cloths and bare ivory walls clearly directs the focus and sets the stage for the food itself. Even the smallest details like the clothespins holding the dinner napkins and the laundry ticket that turns out to be the bill all become part of the total presentation.

Considering the fact that his intended vocation was carpentry, Keller would have been the most unlikely candidate to become one of the best chefs in the world. After completing high school, he found himself working at one of the restaurants his mother managed, the Palm Beach Yacht Club. When the unexpectedly chef quit, his mother informed him that he was the new chef and his culinary career took wing.

Then in 1983, he moved to France in pursuit of his new vocation, serving estagiere apprenticeships in ten Michelin-starred restaurants, including Taillevent, Guy Savoy and Le Pre Catalan. Returning to the U.S. in 1984, he gained national recognition at La Réserve and Restaurant Raphaël in New York City, receiving rave reviews including front page coverage in New York magazine before opening his own restaurant, Rakel. Five years later he made the move to the West Coast by accepting the position of executive chef to the well-known Checkers Hotel in Los Angeles. But nothing thus far had been his pièce de résistance until in 1994 when he founded his new location, The French Laundry in Napa Valley.

Keller believes that the single most important skill of a cook is to season properly. By his side at all times is his "magic box" — a container filled with pungent oils and spices — squab spice (a mixture of toasted cinnamon, cloves, mace, coriander and black pepper), citrus powder (lemon, lime and orange zest dried and ground), tomato, carrot, beet and mushroom powder (the ground dried pulp of each vegetable) hot paprika, and pepper confetti (red, yellow and green bell peppers). Add to that the brilliantly-colored oils of basil, parsley, curry, coriander, thyme and lobster coral, and it is any wonder he is considered a true magician of the culinary arts.

Menu selections offer a choice of fixed price dinners or the chef's tasting menu. The food is truly out-of this-world with taste-tempting courses of roasted hen-of-the-woods mushroom with caramelized fennel and 50-year-old Sherry "mignonette," Monterey Bay dungeness crab salad with poached hayden mango, haas avocado and yuzu-mango vinaigrette, or the sautéed Moulard duck foie gras with jus de truffle. Then moving on to the next layer of mouth-watering delights could be medallion of Chatham Bay cod with new crop potatoes, celery branch and truffle emulsion, the sirloin of Columbia Crest farms, young rabbit wrapped in applewood smoked bacon, tomato confit hache, Chanterelle mushrooms and rosemary-infused oil, or the pan roasted Elysian Fields farm lamb saddle with white corn polenta cake, sweet peppers and braised fennel bulb. Of course, one might expect that the desserts are beyond belief with house favorites the likes of chocolate ravioli with banana Mascarpone filling and chocolate ice cream or the royal Blenheim apricot and almond tart with lemon fomage blanc ice cream and basil-infused extra virgin olive oil.

With cuisine so exquisite it almost brings tears to your eyes — created by the master himself, Thomas Keller — you will long remember a trip to The French Laundry. And, you may even find some of his secrets in his own The French Laundry Cookbook.

Parmigiano-Reggiano Crisps with Goat Cheese Mousse

Parmesan Crisps:
Preheat the oven to 325º F.
1 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (from a moist piece of cheese)
1 clean egg carton

Line a baking sheet with a Silpat or use a nonstick baking sheet. Place a 2 1/2-inch ring mold in one corner of the Silpat and fill it with 1 T. of the grated cheese. Using your finger, spread the cheese into an even layer. Repeat to make 8 rounds, leaving at least 1 inch between them.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the crisps are a rich golden brown. Remove the pan from the oven and let cool for about 30 seconds to firm the crisps enough so you can remove them with a spatula. One by one, remove the crisps and gently press each one into a hollow in the egg carton to form a tulip shape. After a few minutes, remove the cooled crisps from the carton and make eight more crisps.

These easy Parmesan crisps form small cups for a creamy goat cheese mousse. It's best to bake only half the crisps at a time, because they may harden while you're working with them.

Goat Cheese Mousse:
6 oz. fresh goat cheese (or other soft goat cheese)
4 - 6 T. heavy cream
1 T. Italian parsley, minced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the goat cheese in a food processor and process (depending on the cheese used, it may look smooth or crumbly). Pour 1/4 cup of the cream through the feed tube and continue to process until the mixture is smooth but will hold a shape when piped; if necessary, add a little more cream. Add the parsley and salt and pepper to taste and mix just to combine. Taste and adjust the seasoning. The mousse can be refrigerated for 2 to 3 days; let stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes to soften slightly before piping. Place the mousse in a pastry bag fitted with a medium star tip. Pipe 2 - 3 t. of mousse into each Parmesan crisp and serve.

Yield: 16 crisps

For reservations contact 707.944.2380

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