The French Laundry, part 2: “The Food”

I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially when the first course showed up and it was no bigger than my baby-finger fingernail.  A Gruyere cheese puff that popped with flavor.  Followed by a small bowl (smaller than the palm of my hand) filled with warm pearl tapioca custard, topped with two oysters and caviar.  Then there was the single slice of beef served with miniature oyster mushrooms and an incredible mushroom sauce.  There was a single slice of duck pate with pumpkin relish and spiced pumpkin seeds, a tiny filet of whitefish with orange pudding and black olive oil, a small slice of squid with avocado, tomatoes and crispy beans, as well as lobster tail with potatoes and red beet reduction sauce.  Everything was tiny, tiny, tiny, and everything was yummy, yummy, yummy.  I think that was about 1/3 of all the dishes we tried.  I lost track after plate 12, or was it 15?  After awhile, it didn’t matter.  I realized it WAS worth the money for me.

They were even kind enough to ask: “Is there anything you do not wish to see on your plate?”  That was easy: “Brussels Sprouts!” When Jamie received his one dish with the one vegetable I have spent 50 years trying to enjoy (and I have tried them every way you can imagine- please, no “I have a recipe you will love- please…I won’t!) and can finally admit that “I just don’t like them!” they were kind enough to put carrots on my plate.  Every dish was paired with wine, and at the end of the meal when we didn’t want the night to end, they poured us a glass of wine and invited us to sit in the garden.  Not without a small detour to the kitchen to see the center of the action, of course, and then with an offering of a platter of house-made chocolates for us to enjoy as we finished the evening.

For a food lover, this is comparable to going to Disneyland for the very first time as a child.  Everything is magical, bright, and engaging.  Every dish was like going on another ride, and the thrill of anticipation was half the fun.   I really didn’t want the night to end.  This was every bit as exciting as so many other highs I have experienced in life.  Everyone is there to ensure your dining experience is as perfect as possible.  Coming out of that experience I was on a TFL-high for about 5 days, went through a 2-day post-TFL depression, and then returned back from Cloud 9 to land firmly on the earth.

So, what is the magic of TFL?   I have been pondering that question. I want to be able to explain to “hesitant” guests why the money is worth the experience.  Many times one party in the relationship went to all the trouble of making the reservation and will appreciate the experience, and inevitably the other party can only see the dollar amounts in front of his or her eyes.  So, let me try to explain… I will take the “magic” of one dish as my sample: Lobster tail poached in butter, sitting on a beet juice reduction, with a thin circle of potatoes that have been baked crisp and are very salted.  I “deconstructed” the dish: ate a piece of the potato and found it too salty, followed by the lobster which was too buttery, and then took a small taste of the beet sauce and discovered it was almost too sweet.  Then I took all 3 pieces together, put them into my mouth at the same time, and it exploded with flavor.  It is as though the chef takes each individual element of food on the plate, takes it to the extreme, but then balances it out with at least two other elements and creates a symphony of flavor that is incredible.

It was like that with every dish.  I would deconstruct the individual elements, find their essence, and then allow them to dance together at once on my palate and enjoy the ride through its finish.  Sometimes the “presentation” was cute (the little covered bowl of tapioca), or sublime (the duck pate with just a few seeds and a small delicate dollop of pumpkin relish), or colorful (white lobster with red beet reduction with yellow potatoes).  It wasn’t over-the-top artistic with big loops of vegetable, or fancy designs of sauces on the plates; but rather was constructed with great attention to detail- every small miniature cube of turnip was perfectly square (I know how much work that can be!), a single line of pomegranate reduction to offset the oval seeds and the round cut of pate, or a light smudge of mustard to enjoy with the Iberian ham.  It is that attention to detail and the marriage of flavors, added with the superb service in a small 14-table restaurant, that makes it such a special place.  The time it takes to make these sauces, as well as all the small pieces (elements) that go onto a single plate, multiplied by a minimum of 12 courses, is what sets this restaurant apart from any other.

Is it for everyone?  I don’t think so. For the man or woman who wants a steak and potato and dessert for dinner, TFL is not the place to eat.  For those who see “food as fuel”, TFL is not the place to eat.  For someone like me who loves food, reads about food, and enjoys the flavors that can enhance and delight the palate, TFL is an absolute must. Four hours of dining on “little pieces of food” was perfect; not something I want to do every day, but—Jamie, are you reading this?—I sure wouldn’t mind doing this every year for my birthday!

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