As a Napa resident, I always have
a response ready when someone asks about the French Laundry. “Yes, I was there
once many years ago. All I remember is that it didn’t matter whether I liked or
didn’t like each course, because it was just one bite.”
After my second visit, I've changed my tune. “Wow! A true dining
adventure—a chance to experience the chef’s brilliant combination of tastes and
textures with service that is attentive without being annoying.”
How to begin? Well, with the
amuse bouche which was a bit of raw salmon (my first taste ever) in an adorable
“cone” of other ingredients I can’t name but that blended into some kind of
perfection. Followed by nine courses. I usually don’t eat oysters, but wasn’t
going to miss the signature “oysters and pearls” sabayon, a smooth blend with
caviar and tapioca. It was served in the smallest of three nested bowls, just
beautiful. Next came the ruby beet salad, a piece of art on the plate, which
included several dots of a plum puree with balsamic vinegar that was so highly
flavored I was sure there was a component of meat in it. Gorgeous and worth
savoring slowly so as to absorb all the flavor.
Somewhere near the beginning the
host was asked to select wine. He chose a Napa Valley chardonnay and a
cabernet. We sipped the white during the fish courses and the wait staff
swiftly removed our glasses and brought a set of red wine glasses for the cab
as the first meat course arrived. The wine got better with every sip; I have
never before noticed how much food and wine can work together, each improving
my enjoyment of the other.
This was followed by tastes of
sturgeon and lobster, then the bread course, another sensuous moment: the
tomato brioche, about two inches across, was seated in a hollow, heated ceramic
bowl. The waiter referred to the buttery layered pastry as “laminated.” It was
served with a milky dish of burrata for dipping or spooning onto the bread.
Delicate and delicious.
I was impressed by the sheer
number of staff, all dressed in black, waiting on every table. When my water
glass was half empty, it was refilled. Each course was explained, the
regular and vegetarian versions. The wait people were pleasant, helpful, and
not so serious as to make me uncomfortable to be getting all of this attention.
They deftly assisted each other in placing and removing dishes swiftly without
disturbing the conversation around the table.
The sixth course was a small
circle of rabbit prepared like chorizo served next to a tiny carrot on some
creamed peas. Bugs Bunny might not get the joke. Then came the lamb course. I
am not a big fan of lamb, but am glad I didn’t miss this. The circle of meat
was positioned next to a rib, as if it might be attached. So tender and
delicious, with rancho gordo beans and artichoke, an amazing flavor
We were all beginning to feel
full, when the cheese course arrived: a gougère filled with melted cheese and
served on a cream with Australian truffles. It was so yummy I wanted to pop the
whole thing in my mouth, but forced myself to use my spoon to break it into
pieces and scrape up every bit of sauce.
As if six kinds of animal protein
and all the rest might not be enough to satisfy, the dessert course blew us
away. We were celebrating a birthday, so a special cake was brought on a board
with a vase of flowers, candle and all, then whisked away and cut into two inch
square slices for each of us. In addition? A tiny espresso cup with a creamy,
foam-topped cappuccino ice cream, another dish with butter ice cream (like
unbrowned caramel) and a tiny bite of cake, another with a different cake
topped with some kind of meringue and fruit, and just in case that was not
enough sweet stuff, two bowls to share, one with tiny macarons and twists of
caramel candy, the other with house-made donut holes.
After three hours, as we sipped
our coffee and began to sadly consider the necessity to depart, a server
arrived with a box of chocolates, described each of ten different kinds and
asked us to choose one. Oh, my.
If all three star dining is like
this, I am ready for more. As long as someone else is paying the bill! This was not just food. It was an experience to be
savored and remembered for a long time.