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Dinner for Four: An Evening at the French Laundry

Peter Schilling Jr.

If you read anything about the world of haute cuisine—as Janice and I do—you will eventually come across the name of The French Laundry restaurant. For those of you not in the know, The French Laundry is either the best, or one of the best, restaurants in the entire United States. Its head chef, Thomas Keller, has been the subject of a few books and countless magazine profiles, and his own pair of cookbooks are eye-popping, twenty pound coffee table tomes that make you either salivate or roll your eyes at the ostentatious nature of gourmet dining. Chefs and food critics alike drool as they search for words to express their pleasure at his cuisine. Being food snobs, we've tried to get a table with every visit to our friends in San Francisco. But thanks to its reputation, the French Laundry has a two-month waiting list to get in, and even then it is nearly impossible for the layperson—that is, you or I—to get a seat.

This year, we got in. In January, Andy worked some of his reckless magic, giving away his credit card to a perfect stranger to secure a reservation and hopefully not a case of identity theft. In the weeks prior, both Janice and I were giddy, cautious, and guilty over the thought of eating at this place. As I gazed over the lavish French Laundry Cookbook, I knew, deep down, that there was not a chance in hell that I was going to survive between now and our dinner date. Certainly, I was going to get killed in a bizarre work accident, or die on the plane, either from a crash or choking on a peanut-free snack. There was also the growing unease of how we were going to present ourselves. What does one wear to the French Laundry? Do you talk loudly, or whisper? Sneeze into your napkin or hand? Of one thing I was certain: there was no way on earth I would get to the French Laundry, and if I did, I was certain to embarrass myself.

On Friday, the day of our flight, a blizzard hit Minnesota, a snowstorm that our friend Wade promised, not two days before, would be a "deal-breaker"—as in, it was going to be so profound as to break the deal of our vacation. At first arrival at the airport, after fighting traffic for nearly an hour, we made it to our gate just in time to hear that our flight was cancelled. Passengers were racing through the airport, shouting, cursing, drinking, and collapsing in a heap by telephones, desperately trying to make new reservations. The next possible flight to San Francisco would be on Sunday afternoon. Since the French Laundry beckoned early Sunday evening, that didn't bode well for us. I found myself sitting on the floor myself, beneath a telephone, trying to keep my frustrations in check. Surrounding me were the usual bitchy businesspeople, believing that the world revolved around them, yelling into the telephone in the hopes that they would intimidate Northwest's agents into changing the weather. Across from me sat a mother trying to keep her two very well behaved children occupied for what would be a long night. Since everything was relative, I thought, "well, I guess I'll have to just figure it out, or we won't go." So I booked us a midnight flight to Sacramento, only an hour from our friends. On the flight, a lens dropped from my glasses, keeping me from my book, and then the airline lost our luggage with our dress clothes inside. But we made it to California, got our luggage at 3am Sunday morning, and made our way later that day to Yountville, home of the French Laundry. Needless to say, I didn't die.

Yountville is a strange place. It is located a good hour or so from the city, in the heart of wine country. On the way I fell asleep, a deep sleep, and woke in Yountville as we passed a small vineyard in the center of town, three acres to show off to the world. The Yountville Inn, where we were staying, was a rock and mortar affair, beautiful, cozy, and roasting, thanks to Andy's insistence on running the gas fireplace. I walked out behind our room, where a patio faced a muddy stream and an ivy covered wall which separated us from a trailer park.

I fell asleep again while Andy, Sherrod and Janice took a walk to the Bouchon bakery and to double-check the reservation. Though you couldn't tell from looking at us, everyone was a bit butterflied. Earlier that day we had inexplicably feasted on a horror of a goose egg breakfast (a Berkeley farmer's market selection that I would recommend to no one) that left my stomach reeling. As our reservation neared, and we dressed, Andy kept after me that I didn't have a tie ("You're not wearing a tie?" "I don't need one." "I've got an extra one for you right here." "I don't need one." "You sure?" "I'm sure."), and then we walked the half mile to the restaurant.

The French Laundry is in a small, virtually anonymous, two-story riverrock and timber building that used to house a saloon, a brothel, a French laundry, and now the French Laundry. There is an air of quiet magnificence about the place, a feeling that those who have made it in this world—the powerful—have a place of respite here. Which frightened me. On one hand I told myself that in many ways this is the fruit of success that many artists seek (and Thomas Keller is certainly an artist), but it is also the stomping ground for those jerks who are paid more than they're worth, like stockbrokers, professional athletes, and movie stars. Every word was spoken just loudly enough to be heard. The room was cozy, tastefully decorated, and lacking any of the usual signage that greets you in a restaurant: none of the credit card stickers in the window, the requisite award plaques, and framed dollar bills. Our maitre'd was a handsome young lady in a suit. A sommelier arrived and offered Andy and I some champagne. It tasted great, although I have no clue as to what makes a good champagne, except that it doesn't seem sour. This one tasted of roses. I liked that.

While we waited, I asked to use the restroom. A sexy young girl in a man's suit led me to the upstairs bathroom, opened the door for me, and then smiled with a look that seemed to say "Would you like me to join you?" But she didn't ask and I didn't ask; it was just a smile. I was enjoying myself already.

Our headwaiter was a quiet gent, perfectly manicured, with soft features, a smooth-as-caviar voice, and hands big enough to pop open a champagne bottle without wincing. I would have understood if he had been an eye-rolling snob who felt that we were out of our league. But he wasn't, even though we were way out of our league. Rather, he took his time explaining each menu item, flexing his knowledge but never bludgeoning us with it, and offering suggestions (the Chef's tasting menu for the carnivores, definitely). After his explanations, he ushered the eager sommelier our way. This young fellow was very friendly and put us at ease… he put me at ease, anyway. I have a bizarre sensation when I'm being served, either by salespeople or soft-speaking waiters, and it feels as if someone's injected morphine into my brainstem. My whole body relaxes, and there's almost a post-coital softness to my entire being. A perfect feeling for a dinner such as this.

By now the place was slowly filling up. Behind us, a group of four exchanged gifts and had their photo taken by the waiter (prompting us to do the same), and then a cute young couple sat elbow-to-elbow and were congratulated on something by their waiter.

Our first course was a puff-cheese pastry that epitomized the term "melt in your mouth", and helped keep me glued to my seat—the champagne was going to my head, making me feel like floating away. It seemed to be going to everyone's head, even those who hadn't touched a drop. We were laughing pretty loud, making some lewd jokes. Next came the restaurant's famous cornets, little savory ice cream cones filled with salmon tartare or, in Janice's case, a vegetarian hash of eggplant caviar and sun dried tomatoes. We scarfed them down and I swear it was like doing drugs—nitrous oxide, perhaps—the pleasure was so acute (and shortlived). Sherrod loved it, even after having read about these in the cookbook (where Keller describes his inspiration was the cones at a Baskin-Robbins), making a face, and saying, "I'd rather have ice cream than raw salmon." Then again, she was pregnant with triplets.

The cavalcade rolled on. The carnivores enjoyed "Pearls and Oysters": hearts of the bivalve resting on stock-infused tapioca, with a headstone of caviar, all of which we downed with a mother-of-pearl spoon (for silver can react to the caviar, don'tcha know). Next, Andy was brought his foie gras and Sherrod and I had a risotto with shaved truffles and a white-truffle milk broth. Each dish was served by a corps of waiters, one for each of us. Our headwaiter brought the truffles, in a lined walnut box, which, when opened, seemed to contain a pile of turds. Of course, these were the truffles, which were shaved over the risotto. Again, there was the melt in your mouth effect, the morphine in the nervous system, and I tried my best to resist wolfing down my meal (as is my wont). My poor, inarticulate tongue was doing its best to understand the flavors.

Next came the olive oil poached red snapper. Sherrod said, "Admit it, dude, this one's a disaster." Andy didn't like it much either. But I enjoyed it: a light fish, vinegary, a palate-cleanser after all that rich baby cow broth had coated my tongue. Those who felt otherwise somehow managed to finish this, their fifth course.

By now, Janice had already been orgasming to her own feast. Watching her pleasure at each dish (it wasn't subtle) almost gave me an erection. And it made me understand the strength of being a pure vegetarian, as she is. When the chef (not Keller that day—by now he's handed the reins to his followers) can reach the heights that she did with plates of fennel bulb, white asparagus, or pureed mizuna (whatever that is), it is a little masterpiece every time. Meat sees you halfway: I could have deep fried that fish until was the consistency of a baseball glove, and would have downed it gladly. Vegetables are not so fortunate.

And Janice's next dish was the topper. As the carnivores were served our main dish, Janice was given a plate with nothing more than a pair of roasted globe artichokes. Next, a handsome young waiter with dark hair, equally dark eyes, and a rugged face that seemed aged by a childhood in the moors, leaned in carrying a beautiful ceramic tureen. He knelt beside her and whispered about the pleasures of the vegetables he was slowly ladling onto her plate, culminating in spoonfuls of broth. No mere food, this.

At this point we were all beginning to feel a bit daffy. Andy had, by then, put away a tremendous amount of wine, but even without the spirits we were all on sensory overload. With the conclusion of the lamb course, we were all staring with great disappointment at the tiny slivers of meat still clinging to the bone, wishing that we could take these in our paws and start gnawing away, growling perhaps. We were telling lewd jokes much louder than before, nearly rolling on the floor. Adding to this effect was the power party at the table next to us. This was a group of middle-aged men, one of whom was some sort of retired sports star. They knew this place inside and out, spoke with hushed and forceful tones, and seemed to hold the world on a string. It was all I could do to keep from belching or trying to get a rise out of them.

Dinner over, it was time to begin the four course dessert, which began with cheese. On my plate were three little triangles of cheese and some stewed fruit. Cappuccino for me, some dessert wine for Andy. Then a banana sorbet on a cookie. Then a chocolate mousse and a hazelnut strudel. At this point, Janice had a white chocolate something or other, a "Granite", with a passionfruit sauce and caramelized olive pieces. Yes, olive pieces. I liked it; the rest found it strange. We all agreed the sauce looked like goose jism. Don't ask how we came to that conclusion.

Ah, but there was a secret dessert course sandwiched in between the goose jism and the final cookie tray. A pot of vanilla pudding for the men, and a crème brulee for the women. We switched. I ate my crème brulee and ignored all the cookies, for if I had taken one more bite, that sexy young woman in men's clothes would have had to lead me to the restroom to vomit.

Originally, I wanted to buy a bottle of wine to drink after dinner in our little hotel room (which of course had fine glassware—this is wine country, after all). But by the time we stumbled out, enough was enough. This whole evening had been somewhat of a mystery to me, what I ate and what I drank, strange and magnificent things that made me feel stunned with life. I was in a mood to go home and curl up by the fire and try to figure out what the hell Wallace Stevens was all about. It was a night like that—I could sense the artistry in the meal, in the way that every piece was cut the same size, the freshness of the ingredients, the mastery of the broths and the dressings. In my pocket was the little clothespin we'd stolen, with the French Laundry stamped on it, and a notecard from our waiter, with our wine selections on it. This was wine that I will certainly never drink again, not the least because I'm a beer drinker, though mostly because they were too expensive.

Back in our hotel room, we lay on our beds, laughing, making jokes about how pricey our next bowel movements were going to be, and sucking bits of caviar out of our teeth. We watched some "Animal Planet", and then, one by one, the others fell asleep, especially Sherrod, whose snoring kept me awake.

After tossing around on my full belly for a half an hour, I decided to take a walk. The night was warm and wet, and I wandered the streets of Yountville. I thought that this is a bizarre age we live in, when a teacher and a struggling writer who puts in a few hours at a Home Depot can dine at the finest restaurant in the land. I stopped to read the bus schedule outside the entrance to the trailer park, the bus that no doubt ferries the help in to clean our dishes and make our beds as we traipse around wine country.

Yountville, at one time, held a swarm of low-lifes, blue collar workers, truckers, etc. At one time, people enjoyed or were abused in the various brothels, greasy spoons and dime bars. I don't think it's necessarily bad that the town has changed. But I do want to remember what it once was, and what it might be again. As I walked the rain-drenched street, I wondered what it was exactly I was feeling at that moment. Triumph? Guilt? What did I want exactly? Maybe I want to be able to access the opulence, then feel better by criticizing it, and somehow purify myself in the process.

So I came back to the hotel room, found my book but not my journal, and sat in the breakfast room of our hotel, scribbling this piece in the front papers. I came back, took a bath, and fell asleep. The next morning, we woke late, dressed, and said goodbye to Yountville forever.

Loafer's Magazine

"No Skepticism"

#14 Holiday 2005

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