Thursday, February 1, 2007

Eating My Heart Out, Part One

Tomorrow had to wait a day.

Took me a little while to recover from all that debauchery. And debauchery it is, folks. Well, in a good way. A writer I know calls it Food Porn. Well, the connotation isn't exactly correct but the building that houses The French Laundry, used to be a brothel (and later a laundry) and the experience, well it's definitely not for the faint of stomach.

Nor for the light of wallet.

Veterans we are of The French Laundry, it's been awhile since we've been and this visit we were in for a slight bit of sticker shock -- the prix fixe has more than doubled. But it's not like we're talking about a mere restaurant.

Calling this place a restaurant and the dining experience a meal is like calling Bob Dylan a humble busker.

No, my friends, this is an event, an extravaganza, the ultimate smorgasbord of delights - the Super Bowl of food, if you will. The Bountiful in Yountville – and the cost is in keeping with the specialness of it. Dinner for two is $580 minimum – and that's if you don't order wine. And if you don't order wine -- let's be real here -- you're one of three things: cheap, a teetotaler or an idiot. Take your pick but you shouldn't be allowed to wash the French Laundry's ... linens (ha, you thought I was going to say "laundry" - go on, admit it).

At any rate, paying for the vino and adding one or two of the menu's extra-cost items or "supplements" of the day, is going to add some serious Ben Franklins to the bill. And you will order a supplement, I am here to warn you. Because the truth is, resistance is futile, especially when presented with the choices we had Tuesday night. Did someone say shaved white truffles from Alba?

The wine is another trip of splendor. The French Laundry's wine list is one of the most thrilling you'll read anywhere this side of the Atlantic. It is worth noting the thoughtfulness of the restaurant in offering a wonderful variety of half-bottles, several which are bottled exclusively that way for the restaurant. A beautiful thing because it gives you an opportunity to sample more than if you had to buy it by the full bottle.

Point is, you will not get out of The French Laundry spending less than, say, $700 and it's even odds you'll hit the big one zero zero zero. Yeah, it's a grip and a half for the privilege of dining on Chef Thomas Keller's art on the plate, but hell, as my pal, Undercover Black Man reports this week, you could be paying $300 to see Prince in Vegas - and for that all ya' get is a bottle of chilled French bubbly.

Shit, if money's that important to you, then don't even bother reading any further. Cause that means you're one of those people who won't get it no matter how many adjectives I use (and I'm stocking up on those bad boys right now so hide the children). And that's totally cool with me. There's plenty of places for you to eat.

But if fine food is your religion, and we're not talking burgers and fries folks, then one day in your life you must make the pilgrimage to this little Place of Gastric Wonders hidden in Napa Valley's quaintly quaint village of Yountville, population 2,916.

The size of the bill, it turns out, isn't what this place is all about. To paraphrase, it's the food, stupid.

The French Laundry offers the ultimate "chef's tasting" menu – a nine-course, three-hour food-fest of perfectly prepared, exquisitely presented, brilliantly realized plates of goodness where every single bite is a little bit of Heaven on Earth.

Nothing is left to chance by an army of waiters who attend to your every need, from the moment you are seated in the old-school elegance in front of a starched white table cloths and napkin, pinched in the familiar wooden old-fashioned clothes pin (see photo above). Nothing is left to chance. Everything is practiced and perfect.

The room is simple -- the empty walls painted a subdued yellow, the comfortable dark-wood-stained chairs, the tiny-shaded lamps (with simple little symbols that represent laundry cycles on them) bathe the room in an almost womb-like low-light ambiance. It all serves one purpose: to be a backdrop for the food. Which answers the question why there's nothing on the walls, not even art. The art, it turns out, is on the plate. You can see beautiful examples of this in Keller's "The French Laundry Cookbook."

But it also gives each guest the impression that you alone are dining at the feet of the master. In fact, it's one of the few places I've eaten where, while you can pick up conversations from other tables (a hobby of mine – hell, I'm a writer), you can actually hear your dinner companions loud and clear without having to shout over the din.

The restaurant is nestled, literally, in a neighborhood of comfortable, lived-in houses crammed into curb-less, tree-lined streets. A wood and stone building that was built at the turn of the last century, Keller recently remodeled the grounds, expanding on the outside garden and hardscape. If you come early, you can walk the short distance from the tiny gravel parking lot past the kitchen and sit outside on a pretty bench surrounded by flowers and plants and perfectly coiffed green grass -- and smell the earthy goodness of wine country. Close your eyes and you could imagine you're in a French villa.

But that's not why you're here and you'll soon discover that the real sights are behind you, through the windows that give a bird's eye view inside Thomas Keller's kitchen (if you're lucky you can even see the Master himself at work there) and get a first-hand glimpse of only a small part of the intricate ballet that is required to bring you your dinner.

And what a ballet it is. A seamless, soundless dance of perfection. Service is dead but not at The French Laundry and that is a large part of its appeal, supporting the argument by many a patron that you really do get what you pay for. Watch them work at their stations, every task performed perfectly. Take in the food and the presentation and the military precision of it all and you'll not be surprised to learn he is the son of a Marine.

And what do you get exactly?

For starters, you are warmly welcomed to your seat (for all its haute appeal, this place is decidedly bereft of snobbery and stuffiness) by the waiter who is more of a Meal Director, as he orchestrates each course, adding details, answering questions and ensuring your glasses are always full, your every whim satisfied. Our (tall and good-looking) main man was named Dennis and his first words to us -- "Good evening and welcome back to The French Laundry" -- completely floored us as we didn't say anything to anyone about this being a return visit. And the last time we'd been there was something like four or five years ago. "How did you know?" we asked him to which he replied "A good guess." ( He didn't wink but he might have and that would have been all right with me.)

The pleasantries attended to, you are offered a complementary bottled water (still or sparkling), and gentle nudged toward a glass of champagne, which it being our first anniversary celebration, we accepted happily. The reason for the bubbly is it's a perfect complement to the first two offerings – the amuse bouche which is a Thomas Keller classic – Atlantic Salmon Tartar seated on top of black sesame cornets filled with Creme Fraiche -- they look like ice cream cones. This dish is the right sort of introduction to Keller's idea of good food -- he's at once an artist, a cook, a technician and a conductor. A rare chef who combines vision with execution -- and a delicious dollop of whimsy to round out the whole package.

The amuse bouche is followed by the signature French Laundry dish and probably the one I take with me to the desert island: "Oysters and Pearls". You cannot imagine how good this dish is – a heart-stopping mix of Sabayon and tapioca, the salty seawater taste of oyster and the caviar finish – music for your mouth. Your first thought as you painfully refrain from licking the special oyster-shell spoon is "it's all down hill from here."

How wrong you'd be.

The next plate arrives and you start to wonder if this how the Beautiful People get treated every day of their lives. A creamy, cheesy plate of risotto is brought to you by one waiter who is followed closely by yet another waiter, this one carrying a Wooden Box on a platter. What is in that Wooden Box, you ask?

Ahhh, what's in the Wooden Box will change your life.

What's in the Wooden Box is the most enormous and perfect white truffles you have ever seen in your whole life (like this, only more white and more beautiful). They are so big, so amazing, so trufflerific that you feel completely unworthy in their very presence. Let me tell you that unworthiness in the face of a fungus is a serious, serious blow to a person's ego.

I cannot describe the scent of these truffles except to call on the experience of you potheads out there. I know it's been awhile, but remember those college days when you tried to hide that ginormous bud from your college roommate only to have everyone in the entire dorm smell it when they passed your door.

This is what happens when the Wooden Box is opened and the whole freaking place catches the scent. And they all want to be you.

You're already in nirvana even before Dennis shaves them onto your plate – and he is not cheap with the shavings I'm here to report. Your plate is filled with a nice, healthy helping of slivers. When Dennis dribbles the whole pile with a few drops of melted butter, it's all you can do not to faint dead right there face first into your plate.

Can I just say that "Holy fucking shit" just does not do this experience justice.

And to think there's seven courses left to go . . .

. . .to be contined. . .


Susie said...

That's an expensive clothes pin, but worth every last bone, at least in my opinion.

I've never been but I did volunteer at the Meals on Wheels event at Universal they were giving those salmon ice cream cones away.


I've really got to try the rest of the meal.

Undercover Black Man said...

S.O.L., you know how to live. I like to get my grub on, but I must admit that a super-classy price fixe place like this brings out my social inadequacies...

I friend of mine once treated me to a dining experience at the Inn at Little Washington (did you check this place out when you lived on the East Coast?) It was cool, but I was uncomfortable throught... like, what to say to the sommelier and shit?

S.O.L. said...

UBM, I remember the Inn at Little Washington well. I hear it remains as good as ever.
I hear ya about how these places can really make a person feel "this" small, but one thing I love about The French Laundry is how "democratic" it is. Everybody's basically getting the same meal.

As for what to say to the sommelier ... well, I don't really know that much about wine (though I'm learning now that I'm here in wine country). There was a great piece in the New York Times recently about how difficult it is for restaurants to find really good sommeliers and that the best ones are knowledgeable without being pushy or snobby. Even if you're not lucky enough to get one of those, ordering wine is simple as "I'm eating this and I don't want to spend more than that."

The sommelier at TFL steered us to a South African red we never would have considered. But it was in our price range and tasted great with what we ordered.

My food education comes mostly from hanging out with my husband, who has made good food and cooking good food a hobby, so I usually let him run the show but even so, store your social inadequacies at home and don't be afraid to ask questions.

One great piece of advice he gives is to order "locally" -- as in choose food that's grown, made, created, whatever nearby where you're dining. That pretty much ensures you're getting the freshest and best ingredients -- the rest is up to the chef. And if you're dining finely, then there are worse things than putting your faith in the man (or woman) in the kitchen.