My trip to The French Laundry was a culinary journey...one I embarked on 3 weeks ago, when I got an email that Thursday, July 17th.
'French Laundry, 8:00 Saturday. You in?'
By Thursday afternoon, we had booked a flight to Oakland, and reserved a car for the drive into Yountville. We arrived Saturday afternoon, about 1:00 pm and rented our car. We met up with Jan and Brian and they led the way in their rental. During the hour and a half drive, we spoke minimally of our expectations for that evening's meal. At one point, Marshal was saying he would be happy if the quality matched that of Todai.
As we arrived in Napa, Brian called and said he wanted to visit a winery before checking into his hotel. We debated whether we should hit the Eagle or the Crow, but decided we would be better off hitting Sterling. Although the wine was below par, the vineyard was gorgeous...a nice amuse-bouche, if you will, that really helped us mentally segue from the hectic LA life to the relaxed, rolling hills of vines feel of Napa. By the time we left Sterling, it was 6:00...only two hours til our reservation. We barely drive 20 feet, following Brian and Jan, when Brian stopped and hopped out.'We wanna go see a geyser...it's only 15 minutes away. There's plenty of time!'OK...we're relaxed. Why not. As we exited the vineyard, Brian again stopped...this time on the side of the road. He hopped out of the car and ran over.
'Jan and I are gonna pick some wild blackberries!'
'ok Brian', Marshal says. For the next few minutes, we watched Brian and Jan pick wild blackberries from these bushes on the side of the road. I thought to myself...what the hell? I hopped out and joined them. After 15 minutes, we headed for the geyser, which was in Calistoga. Brian was right, it was 15 minutes away. Unfortunately, it had taken us an hour to get to Sterling from Napa, with the traffic and all. The geyser erupted every 40 minutes or so, with the next eruption expected in 15-20 minutes. We waited around and fed the animals. Finally, steam started rising from the hole in the ground, and for ten minutes after that, water spewed into the air. 'The sky is officially pregnant', whispered Marshal.
At that point, it was 7:00. Luckily, Brian saw another route on the map and we made it back to the hotel. He checked in and we were able to change. We got to the restaurant at 8:15...not bad, considering I had visions of us eating chicken pot pie at Marie Callendar's. To this day, I don't understand how he does it. If it were me and Marshal, we would have been waiting at the door at 6:00...not berry picking or geyser watching. But Brian has this calm about him and we knew we'd be on time.
The four of us met Jane and John. From the moment we walked in, the feeling that everything was taken care of set in. Someone politely took the wines we brought, and someone else seated us. Within mere moments, the sommalier, Christopher, came to us and informed us that our bordeaux was uncorked and decanting, and our reisling was on ice. Upon explanation of the two tasting menus, we were prompted to choose. Then, Christopher came and discussed with us how we wanted to approach the meal with the wines. Considering their wine list is 105 pages long, we quickly decided to give him a price range and gave him carte blanche to choose two additional bottles to go with the two Marshal brought, and the two John brought. Unsurprisingly, we all chose the normal tasting menu over the vegetarian one. Within the 9 course tasting menu, there were choices.
In order, we had:
-a wild salmon amuse-bouche in a cone
-oysters and pearls-oysters and osetra in a warm tapioca sabayon. Paired nicely with a Meursault Chris chose.
-choice between a summer truffle salad or a foie gras terrine for an additional $30. Never have I had such an amazing interpretation of this dish. Those of us who ordered it sat in amazing quietness, as we savored the smooth texture of the terrine.
-choice of seared sea bass or grilled Japanese giant fin squid. Both of these were unremarkable, but I believe anything that followed that terrine had no chance.
-lobster claws poached in butter. These were tender, young lobsters...no more than a pound, pound and a half. I thought I was tired of lobster, but this presentation was amazing.
-choice of all day long braised Berkshire pork belly or veal sweetbreads. The belly was tender and sinful; the sweetbreads crispy on the outside, and tender on the inside. Both were incredible.
-aged sirloin, flanked by two different sauces, baby corn and morels. This is by far the best piece of meat I've ever had. It was rare, tender and extremely flavorful. We paired the bordeaux with it.
-Break time- They encourage you to go outside and relax on the patio for a bit, but we stayed in.
-Blue cheese panna cotta with a melon gelee. I can't say how amazing this dish was.
-cantaloupe sorbet with compressed melon. Sigh...
-choice of chocolate mousse cake topped with popcorn or cake topped with summer fruits. At this point, we were so full it was difficult to continue.
The tasting menu ended, and they proceeded to bring by four sweet dishes and coffee to end our meal. There was a nice creme brulee, a custard with hints of basil, shortbread cookies and candied nuts. After that, our waiter brought a tray of house made truffles. He offered six different types, and encouraged us to try them all. Throughout this meal, we were able to relax and enjoy the food. Seemingly, every thought we had was taken care of before it was even voiced. Our waiter provided us with impeccable service. Our sommalier provided us with great wines and even greater conversation. We stayed until 12:30 am, talking with Chris and with each other.
Did we think every dish was earth shattering? No. But that's the beauty of The French Laundry.
'In the end, a great meal is not about the food and the wine. A great meal is an emotional experience...a great meal is a kind of journey that returns you to sources of pleasure you may have forgotten and takes you to places you haven't been before.'
For three weeks, I've been trying to decide how I felt about our experience, how I felt about the food, how I felt about the restaurant. Then I browsed their website, and this quote from their Philosophy page said it all. Looking back, I realize how much just the thought of going to The French Laundry influenced our trip. From the initial email, to the flight two days later, to the sightseeing and berry picking...it was all a part of what The French Laundry inspired in us. Tasting the small samplings of each dish, we could almost see the thought put into the journey. With no ingredient repeated, we were subjected to memories of things past and experiences of things never encountered.
By the time Marshal and I got to the airport at 4:00 am(after a harrowing stop at a questionable Indian casino), we were emotionally spent and physically fatigued. We slept for 30 minutes in baggage claim, while waiting for TSA to open up the security checkpoint. We arrived at the gate and boarded our 6:00 am flight back to reality. The question begs...is this really the 5th best restaurant in the world? I think it is. The French Laundry gave me a memory and an emotional experience I shall never forget. Long lost feelings of home, comfort and a worry-free existence were brought back for one special night...feelings I thought gone. Since then, I've thought about The French Laundry almost every day. I've dreamt of her. It's almost like a love lost...a love I wish to have again. I've missed her dearly since I last saw her...I will see her again