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Pairing Beer at the French Laundry

23 July 2012

In May, during a trip to California, myself, my wife and two of our friends were lucky enough to get a table at the French Laundry for one of our meals.  (If you are unfamiliar with the restaurant, the list of accolades speaks for itself.) Before the trip, I had blankly stared down the 100-page wine list and had mentally prepared myself to drink wine with our meal. But, when I found out there was a beer pairing, I couldn’t pass it up.

Our sommelier for the event, Christopher Hoel, was excited to branch out from the wine, though he still had to manage a wine pairing for the ladies at the table while the gentlemen had beer. I could go on forever about the 10 courses we had, but suffice it to say that the meal is easily in the top three of my life. And a gnocchi course, which was given to us as an extra and not on our original menu, is easily the single best dish I’ve ever tasted.  I’ve never experienced a more perfect preparation of anything, and hesitate to say that I ever will again.  But the real question is, did the beer live up to the food?

The short answer, unfortunately, is no.  While the beers were good, solid selections, there was nothing anywhere near as breathtaking as the food.  We began with a Jever Pilsener from Gernany and moved on to North Coast’s Scrimshaw. The Jever was good, but sending out another unremarkable pilsener afterwards was not what I was expecting at this caliber restaurant.

We moved on to the more enticing Delirium Tremens.  It cannot be argued that this beer is a classic, and very good. Following it was Hitachino Nest’s White Ale, which was one of the most exciting beers of the night (which won’t be said often about this beer).  This Belgian witbier is something I’ve seldom seen or had, so it was refreshing to have a great beer that was also not overdone.  Unfortunately, for our next course (the “free” gnocchi mentioned above), our sommelier brought out the Delirium Tremens for a second go-round.

Things picked up afterwards, though, when Hoel brought out a bottle of Russian River’s Pliny the Elder—finally, something from the rich local beer scene! I was concerned that the sheer power of the hops in the Elder would overwhelm the food at the table, but that wouldn’t be the case.  The beer was bottled in February, three months before our dinner.  Some would consider this an inexcusable affront to the beer—you can’t sit on Pliny!—and our sommelier even noted that he would rather have a more recent vintage. This was what upset me most about the beer pairing: you’re one of the top restaurants in the world, and you are serving something subpar.  If something coming out of the kitchen wasn’t exactly perfect, they wouldn’t serve it. So why am I getting a less-than-perfect beer?

Our next beer was the best of the night, and fulfilled all of my criteria.  It was interesting, something I’d never had before, and delicious.  We were presented Brooklyn Brewery’s Blue Apron, a Belgian dubbel produced solely for Thomas Keller’s restaurants—Per Se, Bouchon, Ad Hoc, and French Laundry.  This malty, slightly sweet gem was the finest beer of the night.

The pairing ended on a less than enthusiastic note, with an Amber Tradition by Fischer from Alsace, France—an unmemorable amber ale—and a Rogue Mocha Porter to pair with our dessert.  The mocha porter was good, but made for an anti-climactic finish to our meal.

I don’t want to give the impression that it was a bad pairing; it was just disappointing for what it was.  As I mentioned, the beers all tasted good, I just had higher hopes for what we would get at such a place.  And I do realize that it is a French restaurant, which would naturally lean towards wine, especially since it is in the middle of America’s most famous wine region.  But, for the cost and the emphasis on having an outstanding experience, there should be no excuses on any front.

Finally, in the vein of our friends at 22nd and Philly, who just did a comparison of a few elements of San Francisco to their counterparts in Philadelphia, I would say that the beer pairing at Vetri was much more exciting and inspired than that of the French Laundry, which is something Vetri sommelier Steve Wildy should be very proud of.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. jim boxter permalink
    24 July 2012 12:53 am

    Seems 2 me that if you go to place such as the french laundry, you might want to branch out and transform to “insearchofwine” for one evening… you got what you deserved, an unmemorable pairing as beer never pairs well with 10 courses of fine dining. too bad.

    • Ryan permalink*
      24 July 2012 7:47 am

      I wouldn’t say I “got what I deserved.” For a restaurant who claims “No detail or element can be less important or more important than another,” it sure seemed like the beer was less important than the food and wine. And to say that beer never pairs well with fine dining, I think, is a complete fallacy: like I mentioned at the end, the beer pairing at Philadelphia’s top fine dining restaurant, Vetri, was excellent. Beer can pair with food just as well, if not better, than wine and I would put it to that test any day of the week.

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