House of Worship (The French Laundry -- Yountville, CA)
***Addendum: For my thoughts on that famous reservation policy, see the comments.***
My apologies -- I posted this on Wed. night but since I *started* it on November 12th (I know, I know) and forgot to change the date, it appeared in the Nov. section. I'm just now moving it to it's rightful place. Sorry.
Here she is. I can't promise it was worth waiting for, but how could it ever be, right?
The title refers to a little experience I had on my most recent visit to The French Laundry. It was my third, and this time I was there with Jon and my Uncle G and Aunt L., who were in town for some biz. Uncle G. is my hero -- he's been there at the most critical times in my life -- and I don't get to see them that much so the time is always precious when I do. Aunt L. had always wanted to go to TFL, so we made a ressie and surprised her. When we walked by the sign and I pointed and said "We're going here," the look on her face was so priceless that the meal almost couldn't compare. Almost.
BUT. The title experience refers to about midway through the meal when I was getting ready to open my second stomach and needed a breath of fresh air. I stepped out onto the balcony (we were on the 2nd floor), looked across to their vegetable garden, looked down at the sitting garden, took a deep breath of the crisp fall air and then thought about how freakin' lucky I am, for so many reasons. It was the deepest, most thoughtful prayer I've taken part in in a good long while.
And that's the thing about TFL. It just makes me feel so deeply. Something about the whole experience puts me in a giddy, vulnerable place. Most of it's the food, some of it's the atmosphere and the service and a piece of it is the realization that I'm doing something special, that many want to do, but few have the PRIVILEGE to do.
I've now had that privilege three times. The first was December 26th, 2002 with K&B (Jon and I did this in lieu of any Christmas or birthday gifts that year) . The second was our fourth wedding anniversary on August 11, 2004 and the third was with Uncle G. and Aunt L. on November 6th, 2005.
We were there both before and after Per Se opened. I personally, do not think the quality has slipped since. Some disagree. I think the problem that we're seeing with TFL now is that it's no longer the "only." Other people have seriously upped their game. So it feels like "Gee, for almost half the price I can eat at Manresa." Or, "I can do the truffle menu at Campton Place and get a $20 glass of wine for that price." But I am still a champion of TFL, because there are things that make it like no other. Here are those things:
- On my first visit, Jon paid the ass rape fee for the foie gras and got a lovely preparation, complete with the most beautiful brioche toast I've ever seen. I begged him for some toast, he wasn't giving it up. What seemed like two seconds later, another plate of brioche appeared at *my* side, with our dear server intoning "I had the kitchen fire some toast for the lady." Fucking priceless.
- Those ubiquitous cornets. I feel like such a kid whenever they bring them. And I don't even love salmon all that much. But I gobble it down like the animal I am whenever it comes on it's beautiful little stand. The gougeres don't suck either.
- Thomas Keller's generosity. I mean, the caviar for fuck's sake. It's a ridiculous amount that he slaps onto whatever dish he fancies that evening. On two of my visits, it was the exquisite Oysters and Pearls, still quite possible the sexiest dish I've ever tasted. Those of you who aren't familiar should close your eyes now because once you know what it is, it will haunt you until you have some. This butter poached oyster in a sabayon-tapioca puddle with a huge ass lump of caviar on top is to die for. The cauliflower panna cotta with oyster glaze and osetra that I had on this last visit wasn't too shabby either.
- Or how about when K, the pickiest eater I know, fiddled around the menu and finally determined that what she wanted most was caviar and blini. Fine, for a $40 supplement. But when it was discovered that for the first time EVER, TFL had run out of lobsters, they just threw in that caviar for free.
- On that first visit, the table before us wouldn't leave, so we were seated late. And treated to a myriad of extra delights because of it. When our truffle custards arrived in perfect little eggshells, mine had mushroom stock, instead of the veal stock that everyone else got, since I had subbed something else in for the beef dish. Is that fucking great service or what? The custard, enjoyed again on this last visit, may be my favorite TFL item, next to Oysters and Pearls.
- A cheese presentation that focuses and excites. Such as the truffled, whipped Brie de Nangis that I enjoyed on my first visit, or the Pleasant Ridge Reserve I had on this last one. Nothing is more beautiful than those cheese presentations.
- The dessert parade. First comes sorbet. On our 2nd visit, I just about started kissing the feet of our server due to the extraordinary passionfruit sorbet. Then comes the major player, although after discovering it was our 3rd visit this past time, we got 2 majors. First was the ever famous (but never yet tasted by us) "Coffee and Doughnuts." I could die. Really, I could. For the 2nd major, the carrot cake and the "Snicker's bar" (chocolate financier, caramel ice cream and Spanish peanut crunch) didn't suck either. Then come the mignardaise -- little pots de somethings. Ladies usually get a mini creme brulee of sorts, while the gents get a "scented" panna cotta. When we lost our TFL virginity, it was the day after Christmas and they were scented with egg nog. TOO. FUCKING.RAD. And then come the petit fours, which used to be mini treats (boxed for us the first time due to our full bellies. And the fact that it was 2:00 a.m.), but now also include macarons in addition to the jellies and sandwich cookies and such. AND THEN....you now get a box of chocolates to take home. Pure heaven.
- The clothespin that holds your napkin and the laundry ticket that is your bill. Cute without being stupid.
- The impeccable seafood. Melt in your mouth Snapper. Cod with the most perfect white beans you've ever set eyes on. Lobsters I could eat 100 of. Poached in butter. Sometimes in a little ravioli. Sometimes with a paper thin sheet of potato balanced on top. Always good.
- The vegetable menu. Vegetarians usually get shit. I've subbed a few things in from the veggie menu before and the Matsutake mushroom tart is still one of the best things I've ever eaten in my life.
- Just the entire fact that you *CAN* sub things in from the other menus. Or they'll just make you a whole new thing that's not on ANY menu. This last time, I was going to sub in a veggie for the beef again. After quizzing me on my likes and dislikes, the server ran to the kitchen and returned with the holy fucking grail: "We'd like to make you some pork belly." THAT'S what I'm talking about bitches!
- The bread. Jesus Hebrew Christ, the bread. Little epi de ble's and ciabatta and walnut bread and all kinds of doughy goodness. With Vermont Butter and Cheese Co. butter AND Straus butter. Mmmmm...butter.
- The wine list. You can get a bottle of wine for $25 or $2500. And it's all good (well, I don't actually know about the $2500, because I'd never pay that much for wine, but you get the point).
- I believe it's implied in the other reasons, but the service. Yes, it can be a little on the "reserved" side until you let them know you are there to have fun. Or that it's your 3rd visit. Or that you want some toast.
- The feelings it evokes. On every visit, I've uttered the phrase "This dish reminds me of..." And by that I mean it's an experience I'm envisioning as opposed to another food item.
- The fact that no matter what, I always leave wanting to return, with a full belly and a full heart.
So is it the best? You could argue that all day. I think so, but not everyone agrees. And that's OK. Is it overpriced? Maybe. But Mr. Keller doesn't exactly love fame, and I think this price may be his version of a deterrent. In any case, I'd still save up my pennies and go back. Is it going downhill? Nah. I think it just keeps getting better and better. I really, really do.
So there you have it. I could dissect each dish point by point but what fun would that be? I'd rather tell you how it makes me feel. And as you can tell, it makes me feel happy, lucky and full.
And, Bacchus willing, I WILL be going back.
"To eat is a necessity. To eat intelligently is an art."
-- La Rochefoucauld