Tuesday, June 22, 2004
How do you go about describing one of the best meals of your life? By thinking back over it a couple of days later when the full weight of it has finally begun to sink in. Surprise and delight are the two main things you experience at the French Laundry and they are both slow to fade. The preparations are designed to taste good, to tantalize your senses, and not just your sense of taste but of scent and memory, and especially your sense of whimsy. Dishes are not overburdened with sauces, they are in some ways minimalist compositions, that highlight the highest quality of ingredients.
One of the dishes that most amazed me was spinach cooked in butter with sel gris and "calotte de boeuf" basically a piece of steak. But the spinach was ethereal and the beef was the most tender and flavorful I have ever had. When I asked the waiter about it he told me that the Snake River Farm in Idaho breeds a cross of Wagyu and American black angus. On the side was one of my favorite things, a morsel of marrow, that most rich, unguent, delicious center of the bone. But it was breaded and fried crisp on the outside. This is what I mean by surprise and delight. Many people have heard of signature dishes like the "ice cream cone" of salmon tartare or the "pearls of tapioca and oysters" but even knowing all that going in, you can not help but be dazzled by the array of delicacies set before you in mouth-sized morsels.
A chef's tasting menu is not like ordering what you want at a restaurant. You are putting yourself in the chefs hands. You are saying in effect, "show me what you've got". And so they show you, over and over until like so many other diners, you find yourself begging for mercy. So many things impressed me about the meal and the number of courses was so staggering, that it is difficult, near impossible to catalog them all. For one thing, the tasting menu that we enjoyed was not an exact replication of what was on the menu. There were many courses of things like appetizers and desserts that were "surprises". While both Lee and I ordered the chefs tasting menu our selections were different at every course. From what I'm told the tasting menu changes by 40% every day.
Dining at the French Laundry is akin to attending a top notch performance. A four hour affair. Everything is orchestrated to give you the best possible experience. The setting is a lovely old rustic building that while perfectly comfortable, in no way competes with the main event--the food. The service is as it should be, a team of people dedicated to making your experience as close to flawless as possible. Rarely do most of us get the chance to be waited on by so many gracious, polite, knowledgeable and yet unobtrusive servers. And in a restaurant that is expensive, they do not show the slightest attitude at your choices of meal or wine for that matter. Without doubt the French Laundry is the most expensive restaurant I have eaten at. But was it worth it? Oh yes.