It exists quietly sixty-plus miles from any major city, on a dark street where people live all year. You walk into the hard-to-find and unassumingly blue front door and are met by an unknown friend who's been expecting you without a blink of impatience. She asks you to wait five minutes on a luxuriously familiar sofa where the chef's own cookbook, obscene in its temptation, opens itself in your hands.
Then you're at a large table--all the restaurant's tables are large--with your companion, and it feels like you're in the house you've always wanted to live in for the rest of your life. A server appears and speaks to you in a high baritone that you know is a performance but such a perfect one that you forgive it immediately. You glance at the menu but there isn't much choice--you're there to eat what the chef wants to cook for you that night. Trust is the mother sauce.
A few words and that server is gone, but another soon materializes in his place. This isn't a restaurant where a single wage slave is lashed to your table all night. Here, a gently buzzing hive cooperates as suavely as the zeroes and ones in the guts of an iPhone to get you what you want, when you want it, and nothing more.
There is a wine list, over a hundred pages long. Its nectars range from geeked-out gems like Pacific Northwest Gewurztraminer to the baller blockin' five-figure extremes of DRC 2005. Nothing is cheap, but everything is purposeful--as it must be when the same dinner is served to a hundred people, each of whose different noses and tongues need a specific wine to carry the food to their personal euphoria triggers.
And, the food: Nominally French/New American, but truly the borders-be-damned Esperanto of culinary transcendence. Flavors you're surprised you can comprehend wait like a cocked Mayweather right and punch your lights out the instant you dare to swallow. Every conceivable texture is conjured fearlessly: creamy, crunchy, tingling, liquid, chewy, popping, ambrosially slimy. Spread over nine (de facto eleven) courses, the array of stimuli suggests nothing less than infinity. It is a selfish and thoroughly unproductive achievement of man to create a restaurant this good. Please help me find it."
"Well, pilgrim, you stand under the Golden Gate Bridge, point your nose to the North Star, and stop when the locals correct your pronunciation of 'Yountville'."
The name of this restaurant is, of course, The French Laundry, and I would like to relate a recent evening spent in its care. Not because I want to trumpet my ability to get the reservation (you just need an account on opentable.com, two months' notice, and a talent for left-clicking) and to foot the bill (you just need a black AmEx or a low financial IQ--guess which one applies here), but because I left 6640 Washington Street way past midnight with a bulging doggy bag of perspective on indulgence, gastric wellness, and why I bother making my mouth available as a port of entry.
Paeans to Thomas Keller's virtuosity come easy, so I had ample time to get excited about experiencing his food, then become cynical and lower my expectations, and finally get excited again. In the week before leaving home, I read M.F.K. Fisher's "The Standing and the Waiting" three times on the subway, sure that her lyrical account of a near-perfect meal would put me in the proper frame of mind for "the best restaurant in the Americas".
Then I was there, and the "Pinces de Homard Pochees Au Beurre Doux" with Morels, English Peas, Garden Herb Salad, and "Mousseline Americane" were in front of me, and I felt very sick. I swallowed a salty half-teaspoon of saliva to stem the reverse peristalsis that was threatening to propel courses one through four across the tablecloth. It did not pair well with the Rebholz "Kastanienbusch Birkweiler" Grosses Gewachs Riesling Spatlese 2004. Perpendicular, W's rapture was apparent as her second piece of lobster dissolved in her mouth. I ran my fork's rightmost tine through a blot of pea puree and drew a little hook.
Suddenly I was sweating and asked if I could remove my jacket. The server mumbled that it was against policy before graciously consenting. An oncoming burp promised temporary stomach relief, treacherously arriving as a searing acid bath for my esophagus. I'd heard of these ultra-rarified restaurants occasionally doubling as vomitoria, but it was a much funnier notion on a sheet of newsprint than in my gullet as I stared down a savory, glistening "Pressee" of Four Story Hill Farm "Poularde" with Hobbs' Applewood-Smoked Bacon, Arrowleaf Spinach, Sunchokes and Royal Blenheim Apricot.
I was suffering this way because I had eaten too much--way too much--the previous day, and drunk just enough to compound the torment. For breakfast in San Francisco, black bean cakes, eggs, and cornbread at Dottie's True Blue Cafe. Mid-morning, a sourdough loaf from Boudin Bakery on the Fisherman's Wharf. Late lunch at Swan's Oyster Depot--dense clam chowder, six icy Blue Points, and a huge hill of crab salad accompanied by Muscadet and Anchor Steam. An aperitif bottle of Artesa Pinot Noir 2005 upon arriving at the Best Western in Napa. Very late dinner at Mustard's Grill beginning with Far Niente Chardonnay 2005, Perrier-Jouet NV, and small plates galore, continuing with rich Sonoma rabbit and a killer Willamette Valley Pinot 2006 called Antica Terra. Zero physical activity all day.
I probably would have gotten away with all this if I had held off on the banana cheesecake, key lime pie, and Prager Port-style Petite Sirah at Mustard's, but I didn't, and crumpled into bed around 1AM with a spinning head and distended belly. I woke up at 3 and never got back to sleep. Nothing had been digested. I was dehydrated and it hurt to move. I thought of Bruce Bogtrotter in Roald Dahl's Matilda, a zaftig child forced to eat a gigantic chocolate cake by an evil schoolmarm. For two hours I writhed, hoping no one else was awake. Finally, I made the death row walk to the toilet and vomited prolifically.
The pain faded as the sun rose, but any thought of consuming food met with severe physiological punishment. I steeled myself for a day of wine tasting and managed to swallow some canned pineapple and grapes at Denny's, while burying the prospect of dinner at The French Laundry as deeply as my brain stem allowed. Nothing budged over the next twelve hours. As we traveled I envisioned my body as a porno-addled hard drive, infested with free radicals and chemical imbalances.Back to the evening, my despair peaked when I realized that the second bottle of wine I had ordered, a Robert Groffier Chambolle-Musigny "Les Sentiers" 1995, would be on the table soon and there was no way I'd be able to finish it. I faintly beckoned the sommelier and explained my plight. He returned with a half bottle of Gros Frere et Soeur Grands Echezeaux 2005 and transferred it to a Riedel "Duck" Decanter. Seeing this was comforting. And tasting the wine--the most intense, lilting Pinot Noir I've ever encountered--was temporary anesthesia.
Not a miracle cure, but I caught my breath. Then, like when the Yellow Submarine triumphantly returns to Pepperland at the Fab Four's most desperate moment, our initial server descended and asked if we were ready for the next course. I handed him my half-finished "Poularde" and our eyes met with understanding. The Elysian Fields Farm "Selle D'Agneau Rotie Entiere" with Panisse, Globe Artichokes, "Piperade", and Spring Garlic Jus came next and W accepted a third of mine. She was happy, which was wonderful.
Minutes later, watching a local cow cheese being quenelled tableside over Yellow Corn "Financier", Caramelized Fig, Mache, and Black Truffle Coulis, I knew I was out of the woods. My GI tract was free of acid and inching towards equilibrium, I had a half-glass left of gorgeous grand cru Burgundy, and the remaining two courses brandished relatively few animal proteins. I smiled weakly (see right) and passed on coffee.
The bill arrived on a charming laundry ticket: One thousand sixty-one dollars and thirty-four cents. To reveal the cost of this four-hour hallucination certainly breaches etiquette, but it's necessary to understand my final impression of the night. There was no sense of wastefulness, and only a twinge of anticlimax. What followed me home down Route 29 as the witching hour approached was a conviction that my approach to dining--and more broadly, nourishment and consumption--needed adjustment.
Food has been a cerebral pleasure of mine since 2005, when I tossed my pothead Munchos-and-salsa jones onto the junk heap alongside my DiGiorno-and-YooHoo high school meanderings. Day to day now I don't demand haute cuisine that costs a month's rent--I just want food that sits on my spork minimally altered from its natural state, free of artificial chemicals, and capable of telling me something interesting. This affords me a sense of wellness without compromising my unwavering love of fat, salt, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol (which, if need be, I am perfectly willing to let kill me a decade or two early).
My lesson from a tumble in The French Laundry is that the food one consumes is an ongoing and interconnected narrative--once it's done keeping you alive, it sets to work coloring your perception of your next bite, your next meal, your next restaurant choice. If you, the author, value a good story over a good sentence, you need to consider how today's Wyoming burger will flavor tomorrow's gravlax. I didn't. It's so easy to deface the big picture when Sonoma rabbit and banana cheesecake tease you from a menu page, but you pay in the end--well over $1,061.34.
The only objective complaints--and they really don't matter--involve Keller's two alliterative vices: Quenelles (at least three, they got boring) and quotation marks (count 'em--seventeen pairs on the menu). But everything he prepared was delicious--the finest ingredients on earth handled minimally in the most innovative and perfect proportions imaginable. The setting is beautiful without ever intimidating. And a trip to the restroom is so much more satisfying knowing that Tom Cruise and Heidi Klum occupied the same commode days earlier. Nothing about this evening gives me reason to begrudge The French Laundry's place at the pinnacle of American eateries.
And yet it lands at the bottom of my twenty most pleasurable dining experiences. I'm reminded of (and confounded by) an analogous 24 hours in Philadelphia when I followed a Yuengling bender with four Dunkin' Donuts for breakfast, cheesesteak at D'Alessandro's for lunch, and then the ten-course degustazione at Vetri, which was top three without question.
It's hard to grapple with the Orwellian truth that we are mobile food bags, and I frustrated myself trying as I lay voluntarily awake that night. Comfort came when I remembered that "The Standing and the Waiting" ends with madame in tears.
- Domaine de Lagrezette "Zette" Malbec 2003: Perfume of dried fruits and clove gets you ready for brawny raisin and tobacco flavors. Gains some acidity and depth after being open and re-sealed for a day. Take that, Argentina!
- R Wines, "Boarding Pass" Shiraz 2005: No mistaking this 15.7% bigfoot, though the finish is impressively non-boozy. Smoky attack and nice blueberry syrup midpalate.
- Domaine A. et J-P Colinot, Irancy "Les Mazelots", 2005: A black sheep from Burgundy, this 90% Pinot Noir / 10% Cesar (Julius should have kept it) is sharp and austere with scant varietal typicity. Nice for the novelty, but not for enjoyment.
- Chateau de Rully, Rully "La Pucelle" 1er Cru, 2005: Fat, almost California-style oak jumps out first, but closer examination reveals a basket of Cote Chalonnaise fruit: Green apple, barely ripe pear, a little lime. Toes the new world-old world line well.