Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Dinner at The French Laundry; or, the Realization of a Well-Worn Dream

The first time I ever heard anyone talk about Thomas Keller or The French Laundry was in a book called “The Soul of a Chef” by Michael Ruhlman. I was a sophomore home for Christmas in Miami, and the story was so captivating that I stayed out in the sun way too long and burnt myself to a crisp. That day I swore I’d make it to the French Laundry at some point. And that day came last week.

I started plotting my trip to the French Laundry as soon as I knew I’d be coming to San Francisco. Started calling for a reservation on the day their phones opened after the holidays.
It took me four days of calling every thirty minutes until someone picked up on the other end (I was hearing busy signals in my sleep). And when that someone was Laura Cunningham (the general manager), who said curtly that I was welcome at eight o’clock on February second, I whispered breathlessly that I was looking forward to it, we hung up, and I punched the air triumphantly, did a constipated little jig, then ran around the house looking for somebody to tell.

February second, I went to the park and did a solid hour and a half of yoga. I did not smoke any cigarettes that day. I did not smoke any pot. I ate austerely; saltine crackers, apples. Before I left the house for dinner, I put on a fresh change of underwear. You never know.

On the way to dinner, an hour away in the Napa Valley, I hit every green light. But after one somewhat suspiciously rural turn in the road, I popped into a sleepy 7-Eleven to make sure I wasn’t lost. I had gotten a sleek haircut the day before and was wearing a red linen Chinese jacket and black pants, fancy shoes that clattered on the concrete. A Mexican dude outside was slammed up against a cop car, getting handcuffed by a cop. It was the night’s last encounter with reality.

I am seated after a few minutes’ wait in the gray stone building, which actually used to be a laundry circa 1900. I’m the only one alone, and other diners steal discreet glances at me, which makes me feel rather glamorous. Other diners, that is, excepting the ones who are eating; at those tables, people look contemplative or ecstatic, thoroughly engrossed. Conversation only resumes as people finish their plates.

The maitre d’ brings me a ‘gougère with gruyère,’ (a light poof of cheesy pastry), and a glass of pink Champagne, and tells me that the French Laundry appreciates solo diners, who have obviously come wholly for the food; would it be okay if the chef sent out a few extra courses for me? It would, I tell him. That would be fine.

A waiter sails out bearing salmon tartare and red onion crème fraîche scooped into a crispy sesame tuile cornet, whisks it away as soon as I finish, and then presents me with a soft and creamy chestnut and black truffle soup in a tiny cup. So balanced. So smooth. Dots of truffle, chewy chestnuts. Like water ballet, I think to myself. And we haven’t even reached a dish that’s on the menu yet.

The French Laundry does things differently. Thomas Keller has carpeted the kitchen with special mats so that the staff will feel more comfortable on its feet, for example, and installed skylights to flood the kitchen with breezy light. This philosophy extends to the food as well. Instead of lying on its side, the asparagus in Keller’s walk-in stands straight up, a logical call considering the way asparagus absorbs water, but one few bother to think through. His fish, too, is set on ice in the swimming position to avoid unnecessary stress on the delicate flesh. Before he makes stock with veal bones, he actually scrubs them clean, and he peels his fava beans before they’re cooked (ridiculously time-consuming), because their color is better and they stay fresher that way. Some of his sauces are strained twenty times. And his dishwashing staff scours pans so mercilessly that they retain their brushed silver bottoms instead of accruing the well-worn carbon black usual to heavy-duty kitchens; eventually, the pans must be thrown out because so much metal has been scrubbed off that the handle’s weight topples the pan. Thomas Keller bothers to bother with. The man takes pains.

I’m drinking a Txomin Txaconis, a Basque white, when the first dish off the nine-course tasting menu arrives: a sabayon made with a beau soleil oyster, tapioca and Russian sevruga caviar, served with a mother-of-pearl spoon. The custard is lemony and creamy, and bubbles of supple tapioca and salty, high-strung caviar flex and burst in alternating rhythms against the roof of my mouth. Ruhlman writes about how Keller “achieve[s] irony and humor, not only with contrasting textures and products, but also with wordplay and associations from mainstream, middle-class America, transforming the ideas of America’s oft-maligned lowbrow food into bona fide, often extraordinary haute cuisine.” The dish above is classic Keller: he plops an oyster into what is basically glorified tapioca pudding, tops it with a little caviar, and calls it “Oysters & Pearls.” (He does another with braised beef cheek and calf’s tongue, and calls it ‘Tongue in Cheek.’) But god, what an oyster, what tapioca. What with all the alternately popping textures and tastes, I feel like I've got a perfectly orchestrated fireworks display going on in my mouth.

The next dish out is a white truffle custard with a black truffle ragu in half an eggshell, with a chive chip sticking out like a proud mast. According to the division of labor in Keller's kitchen, it takes five cooks to make this truffle custard: one person to cut and clean the eggs, one to make the custard, one to make the sauce, one to chop the truffles that go into the sauce, one to make the chive chip. And it isn’t even on the menu. Just one more of those little trans-course freebies that lucky patrons get. It’s creamy, delicately pungent, and when I accidentally break a piece of eggshell after straining to get the last drop with my spoon I feel like a criminal. I almost don’t want to drink my wine because it’ll flush the warm, melty taste out of my mouth.

Bread comes out with two butters; a sweet Californian and a hand-rolled salted Vermonter. I’m taking swipes at both, giggling and smiling as if I’ve never tasted butter before, when my waiter comes out with a small risotto. The maitre d’ follows him with a varnished box out of which, with great ceremony, he removes a black truffle the size of a fist and elegantly grates a massive, fluffy mound of truffle over the rice. I drink a 2003 Cotes du Rhone, Eric Texier’s Brezeme.

Time for fish. I’ve never tasted Japanese suzuki before, but after my first bite I conclude that it’s the best fish I’ve ever had, ever. It comes with celeriac puree, ruby red grapefruit confit, and a tellicherry pepper ‘gastrique,’ but they fall behind; all I can taste is this divine crispy-skinned fish, its sweet clear notes. The unifying principle of Keller’s food, I decide, is clearness, clarity. Every taste is unambiguous and lucid, like the best kind of symphony, where listening closely reveals each individual instrument, but zooming out lets them meld into a harmonious (but clear!) whole. This food is trans-pa-rent, I scrawl in my notebook. I am definitely getting drunk.

Next is a 2002 Beaune pinot noir from Louis Boillot, and on its heels “Beets and Leeks,” or Maine lobster poached in butter with melted green leeks, pommes maxim and red beet essence. Best lobster EVER, I scribble. Leekiest leeks EVER. Clearly, note-taking has become futile at this point. Then comes a set of rabbit rillettes with braised red cabbage from the French Laundry’s garden, glazed chestnuts and juniper berry-infused jus. Following that, grilled beef from Snake River Farm with roasted king trumpet mushrooms, broccolini and sweet carrots in a marrow sauce, with FL-blended Modicum wine. At this point I write in big letters, loopy as hell, “If I die, it’ll have been worth it,” and sign my name at the bottom as testament.

I'm puzzled at feeling so stuffed, because the portions have been minuscule, but then I realize that several hours have passed during which I’ve been focusing intensely on food. What I am is more saturated than full, really; it’s grueling, tasting so much! But the onslaught continues.

The cheese comes out, a nude reclining on beans. It's an Edel de Cleron on a three-bean salad with a Spanish caper vinagraitte: unctuous, balanced, tangy, ripe. Then an espresso granité with a Meyer lemon chiboust and biscotti. The granité is about as good as Lecce’s most famed; the biscotti is better. A Banyuls Rimage arrives on the elegant arm of the maitre d’, my last wine of the night. And then, the dish I’ve fantasized over for two years, Keller’s ‘coffee and donuts:’ homemade sugar-cinnamon donuts with an espresso semifreddo topped with milk foam. If they started serving these at Dunkin' Donuts, cops would never arrest anyone again. So light. So perfect. Beats Krispy Kreme to the fucking ground.

Out comes a timbale of Valrhona “guanaja mousse” with ice cream; a devil’s food cake base topped with a silky chocolate mousse, the whole locked inside a chocolate crust that looks painted on. And then a deluge of mini-desserts floats out on the arms of these glorious server-angels: crème brulée the size of three fingers, lemon tartlet, orange financier, coffee macaroons, caramel candies, chocolate tartlets. A mini cappuccino with six different chocolates. Finally, “mignardises,” little candies, that I ask for in a take-out box, because as much as I would like to, I am really, really unable. The last thing I write in my notebook is “I can’t believe I’ll ever actually be hungry again.”

I look for flaws all meal long, testing. Will a server attempt to fill my glass of still water with sparkling? Will an inapt dot of sauce appear on a plate rim, a bone in the flesh of my fish? Will anyone, in this gleaming ballet dance of silverware and plates, forget a fork? Not one slip, one oversight. The French Laundry, I conclude, is perfect. I’ve eaten crystal and diamonds all night.

I pay $309 for this four-hour, six-wine, sixteen-course sensual extravaganza. Once it’s over, I want to cry. Not because I spent too much money. Because it’ll be far too long before I can afford to go again.


Blogger galinusa said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your experience at the French Laundry. I only regret I was not very gastronomic when I was in San Francisco as a student, to take advantage of all the wonderful and excellent restaurants in the area. Thanks for sharing! I felt like I was right there with you!

3:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i love this entry! it is my dream to make it there one day too..

12:15 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

Nathalie - this sounds so wonderful. I am ashamed to say that I just cant be bothered to do the phone call thing and hence have not been yet. Maybe I have to try and perusade fred to do the calling ion my behalf...?

9:54 PM  
Blogger Leila's Daddy said...

Love this. I remember my first encounter with Thomas Keller in a Gourmet several years ago. I, too, have always wanted to go to the French Laudry and have never quite made it. Fantastic to read your experience.

12:28 AM  
Blogger Suebob said...

Wonderful writing. Thank you for sharing your experience! I keep wondering if I can ever justify the cost...Maybe I can.

11:47 PM  
Blogger Meagan said...

I have been dreaming of going to the French Laundry! Thanks for your wonderful, descriptive account of your experience. I read it out loud to my boyfriend so that he would want to go as badly as I do! Maybe when we move back to the States...

1:26 PM  
Blogger Clare Eats said...

That was an awesome food review!
Thanks so much, if I am EVER in America....

3:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Found this post through Google... I've wanted to eat at the French Laundry for so long. Perhaps I'll get there some day.. Thanks for sharing your experience!

- visitor from Hong Kong.

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Neurolinguistic Programming

In the early 1970s in America Richard Bandler, then a young college student studied the work of Fritz Perls and later Virginia Satir and found that he could reproduce their high-level therapy skills to a degree that even surprised him. Bandler seemed to have a natural ability to mimic (model) the language patterns by Virginia and Fritz.

At the University of California at Santa Cruz, Bandler who was well versed in the teachings of patterns in mathematics and computers teamed up with a college professor, John Grinder to help him understand the processes that were at work. Soon Bandler and Grinder, who used what he knew about patterns in linguistics, created a new model for personal growth called NeuroLinguistic Programming.

Bandler and Grinder had set out to model the hypnotic skills of Milton Erickson. They had astounding results. They built a communication model about human "thinking" and "processing" and used that model of how we see images, hear sounds, reproduces smells and tactile experiences in our mind to track and model the structure of subjective experiences.

Sounds very complicated but really it works very simply. Here is an example as used by Paul McKenna - probably the best & most successful hypnotist in the world.

Close your eyes and think of a negative memory. Become involved in the situation as best as you can. Feel the emotions that you felt, see the things you saw and hear the things you heard.

Now take that memory and project it onto a mental screen seeing yourself in the picture. Put a frame around the picture and view it as if it is an old photograph. Next drain all the colour from the picture and shrink the screen to the size of a matchbox.

Have the feelings associated with the picture decreased in any way?

Another good example of NLP involves Anchors. Have you ever smelt a certain perfume or aftershave and had it remind you of a certain person or situation? Gone to a certain place that brings feelings long forgotten flooding back? Or been in any situation that creates emotional responses that would not normally be associated with it? Well if you can answer yes to any of these then you have experienced anchors. Some anchors are associated with positive feelings and some with negative emotions. However, you should be aware that anchors can be consciously installed or already existing ones altered. Here is an example:

Think of a time when you were really happy. If you can't think of one then imagine something that would make you feel really happy. See what you would see, hear what you would hear and feel what you would feel. Really get into the picture and try to experience it as though it were happening now.

Now brighten the colours and make them richer. Increase the volume. Make the picture bigger, brighter, louder. That's it and more and more....

Now press your first finger against your thumb and fully experience your happy feelings. Do this everyday for 2 weeks and you will create an anchor that will instantly recreate these feelings. Whenever you want to feel like that again just press your thumb and first finger together and wham the feelings will come flooding back! Don't believe me? Just try it and see!!! hypnosis

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