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January 4-10, 2006

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French Laundry

Still Life: The bar area of the French Laundry doesn't suffer hubbub lightly.

Doin' the Laundry

Reflections on eating an epic meal at one of the world's best restaurants

By Molly Jackel

Did I get taken to the laundry last month? Well, yes and no.

Taken, yes, because my husband, Jeff, treated me to a meal at chef Thomas Keller's French Laundry in Yountville. And no, I don't think I got "taken to the laundry," because despite my objections going in, I walked out believing it had been worth the price.

Why objections? I think sensible people who see profound financial need in the world might hesitate spending $210 per person (an amount that nearly doubles with the generous addition of wine) in such a fashion. And these same people might have their own fiscal needs, to the tune of towering credit card debt, large and undying mortgages and the lack of a second bathroom in the house. But years ago, Jeff promised his best friend that he'd join him for dinner on his 40th birthday at the French Laundry, so off we went, global and personal financial concerns aside for now.

But the questions did nag between the date of the reservation and the meal itself: Will this meal be worth the mortgage payment it essentially equals? Because I expect it to be miraculous, can it be? And will I need to do it again, once I've been so spoiled?

Needing to be made two months to the day in advance, reservations at the French Laundry are notoriously difficult to secure. The restaurant has only 15 indoor tables, and according to Keller, the most commonly heard plea is "Do you know who I am?" He thinks people should consider it more like an airline reservation. When a flight's sold-out, do you look at your Expedia screen and scream, "Do you know who I am?"

Our friend scored the reservation for 11:30am on a Sunday, which felt very French as we drove to a remote rural spot for a long, luxurious afternoon meal. Ours was to be a five-hour event that began with espying Thomas Keller himself through the kitchen windows while we wandered around the courtyard looking for the entrance. A beautifully dressed young lady promptly opened the door and beckoned us inside, making us feel suddenly less lost than found.

If you believe what you've heard about Keller's magic in the kitchen, also believe that his partner in business and in life, general manager Laura Cunningham, is a wizard in the dining room. I'm already forgetting the details of each course, but it will be hard to forget the service, which I found to be as subtle, appealing, thoughtful and innovative as the food.

We chose the nine-course tasting menu. There is also a seven-course menu with slightly larger portions and a nine-course vegetarian tasting menu. I won't list all the details (sample menus are on the website), but I will touch on a couple of unforgettable things that made it all worth it, such as the caviar. It rested in a generous and perfectly formed mound on a cauliflower panna cotta and we ate it off of delicate mother-of-pearl spoons. With its slight funk, tasting so much of the earth, the cauliflower was genius beside the clean, briny, sparkling sea taste of the caviar. The creamy panna cotta paired with the crunchy, salty minimarbles of Russian sevruga was a blast of sensations that I truly couldn't keep up with. With the caviar, we drank a Champagne (Pierre Gimonnet, Premier Cru) that afforded another aha! moment of perfect interplay.

Indeed, the meal lasted five hours. At one point we left the dining room to stroll around on the balcony overlooking the Laundry's garden across the road, dotted with artichokes, garlic and greens. While we ambled outdoors, it was almost as if time had stopped indoors, for when we returned, the plates started up again as if we'd never left.

Our waiter was warm and genuine. At the same time, he knew exactly what he was doing at every moment, down to precisely where he needed to stand so that nobody was craning a neck to look at him. I often felt that the staff knew what I needed before I knew it, or despite my not knowing it.

I understand that Cunningham hired a top choreographer to teach her staff the elegant secrets of professional dancers. The staff of Keller's New York restaurant Per Se was sent to a movement workshop by a renowned Baroque choreographer who taught them the minuet, an 18th-century dance of graciousness and manners, intended to put partners at ease.

I wasn't surprised to learn this, as the whole day felt like a dance during which we were all seduced—by the room, the wine, the fine handling—to the point that really nobody wanted to ruin it by mentioning what wasn't just right. In a meal such as this, can we expect to be dumfounded at every moment? I say yes, as often as possible.

And in many ways, Keller and Cunningham did deliver perfection. The experience that embodied this for me—and that made plain Keller's absolute commitment to (some say obsession with) creating and choreographing his vision of a transcendent dining experience, no matter the effort—occurred during our next course, the foie gras. We ordered one each of the two kinds offered. Jeff had the terrine of foie gras, which was served cold with preserved fuyu persimmon and hachiya persimmon essence (with which we enjoyed the second best pairing of the day: Domaine Weinbach late harvest Gewürztraminer).

But the real experience was this: When the squad of waiters descended on our table and did their ballet of alighting our plates at almost precisely the same moment (the ladies' a nanosecond before the men's), a small plate with a veritable butte of toasted brioche was set beside Jeff as a vehicle for his chilled foie gras. We were so absorbed in tasting the other huge portion of foie gras (the hot, seared one served with a 1986 Chateau Raymond-Lafon Sauternes) and the salads and whatever other playful little touches were enticing us on our plates, that the brioche did not see any play upon its perfectly toasted surface.

Before we knew it, the quickly cooling brioche toast was silently replaced with a new, warm brioche toast. Again, my husband neglected the fragrant fingers of the warm Bouchon-baked bread tugging at his nostrils until a third plate of freshly toasted brioche was placed by his elbow, this time with the gentle suggestion, "This one's warm."

The beauty of the tasting menu, as I understand it, is that it helps defy the law of diminishing returns. Keller likens it to that first beer you drink on a really hot summer day; that first one's perfect, but the effect diminishes thereafter. The same can be true with the typical restaurant meal, where the thrill is gone after the first few bites. But if you only have the first few bites, shock and delight are all you get. This is true for most of the menu, except for a few luxury items.

As Keller explains in his French Laundry Cookbook, there's a reason for occasional largesse. "With foie gras, I serve just slightly too much of it, because I want people to know what foie gras is all about. I go overboard with truffles and caviar too, so that people who have perhaps only eaten truffles in stingy quantities can taste them and say, 'Oh, now I understand.'"

Now with a better appreciation of Russian caviar, having reawakened to the pleasures of too much foie gras and having enjoyed the timelessness of leaving a restaurant table only to return to perfection, do I need to eat at the French Laundry again? Probably not. I am content with it as a once-in-a-lifetime sensual and intellectual event. Was it worth it? Yes. Was it perfect? No. Do I care? Nope. I'm no closer to getting my second bathroom, but I can say this about having had a truly great meal: "Oh, now I understand."

The French Laundry

Address: 6640 Washington St., Yountville.

Phone: 707.944.2380.

Hours: Open for dinner daily, 5:30pm to 9:30pm; lunch, Friday-Sunday, 11am to 1pm. Reservations are accepted from 10am to 5:30pm two months to the calendar date.

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