Thursday, June 21, 2018

The French Laundry

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 combination.

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.