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A Canadian Foodie Dined and went to Heaven at The French Laundry: Part 1

Pearls and Oysters. What more could one ask of a trip to the Pacific Ocean? This was my first experience with one of Thomas Keller’s spectacular signature dishes and I would choose this experience over a string of cultured peals any day, and I actually have! I quivered when the caviar spoon arrived and was a puddle in my chair at first taste. The buttery smooth opalescence awakened a sensual vernacular I had not been introduced to, but inherently understood. Pleasure distilled to its purest form: euphoria. I did not rush to the next bite. My illuminated palate ruminated as my tongue stroked the roof of my mouth and my lips capturing the last vapours of flavour. I remember regaining my vision and looking over at my husband who blurred into focus and was watching me with great pleasure wearing a wicked little smile. “œIsn’t this an absolute fantasy?” I revelled. “œIf you like fish eggs.” He smirked. Oh my, God! I got to finish his, too! However, I must tell you, he did eat almost all of it, and was surprised at how much he actually did enjoy the dish. “œI don’t have a sophisticated palate, Valerie. This kind of place just isn’t me.” By the end of the meal, I believe he felt differently. It was as if we were guests in the home of The French Laundry and our waiter was the warmest of hosts. I felt so comfortable, and so blessed.
Can you feel the joy when you look into my face after the meal that evening? I don’t recall there being a flash in the camera. I am certain it is my beaming smile that lit up the sky that evening. Thank you my dear sweet husband, Vanja. Thank you Chef Keller. Thank you Chef Hollingsworth, the Chef de Cuisine at The French Laundry who was solely responsible for expediting all of the food in the restaurant that night.
But I need to provide a little background to this “œthrill of a lifetime” for me. I have been particularly interested in Chef Thomas Keller as a chef only the last few years. I became aware of him through my ongoing research and more so when his first cookbook, The French Laundry, was published. Then he purchased five Thermomix machines from Lynette McDonald this past spring. I have been eager to interview him about his use and personal experience with the Thermomix, and was attempting to arrange for an appointment with him during our recent trip to San Francisco with this Public Relations Manager, Kristine Keefer. Instead, she was able secure a table for us at The French Laundry! Thank you Kristine Keefer! We had previously secured a reservation for Bouchon, but had been unsuccessful with finding an opening at The French Laundry until Kristine suggested she attempt to do this for us.
I was thrilled, but not too hopeful. I had excitedly told Vanja about the possibility, and he laughed and chortled, “œI hope not!” And I know this comment came from the per person price of $275 dollars. I choked a bit when I read that, but when I learned it included tax and tip, thought it “œdoable”. Maybe not “œreasonable”, but most definitely, “œpossible”! When the e-mail arrived about two days later that we actually had our reservation at the exact time I had indicated would be perfect, my laptop crashed to the floor in a heap as I found myself suspended in mid-air doing the most animated “œhappy dance” that I have ever done. When my feet landed back on the ground I realized that my husband may not be as excited as I. As a matter of fact, I panicked a little. I knew he would not be happy. At all. I spent two days trying to talk myself out of wanting to go. This was not that important to me, was it? Yes, it was. That strategy was not going to work. If we didn’t get a reservation, I would still have a good time. Of course I would. But, we DID get a reservation. I was pretty sure I could no longer have the “œgood time” I “œcould have had” before. I was sure I would be miserable. How ridiculous! I am an adult. I refuse to be miserable. Vanja deserves more respect than that. But, the reservations are really hard to get, and when will I ever get one, or even go there, again? Two days with all of this in my head, not yet sure I could live without going, but trying really hard to let it be an option, I e-mailed him the reservation and asked him what he thought about it when he got home that night. No surprise. He was very open, level headed, and kind, but said that it was a ridiculous amount of money to spend on an evening out for dinner only. I did explain, without wining, that this was not just a dinner. It was an experience It was art on a plate and on the palate. It would be an amazing experience. He nodded, looking at me for a moment, and then continued to read the paper.
I went about my evening chores. Upset, and upset with myself  Thinking, mulling, working it through. Of course, we could afford it. So, I just went back, sat down, and looked at him. I had decided I had to let him know how important this was to me. He put the paper down, looked at me, and without me saying a word, said, “œOk. Let’s go to The French Laundry!” He smiled, and I knew he would throw himself into making it a lovely evening  – even though he had to wear a dinner jacket. That was asking a lot of my sweet husband on a 35 degree afternoon, but, he did it, and we had a wonderful evening.
“œIt will be on the next block, the right hand side.” I said after we entered Yountville and had turned a couple of blocks. We were right in front of it, driving past it, when Vanja stopped the car, and said, “œThere it is!”. “œWhere?” I asked. We were the only ones driving on what appeared to be a beautiful residential road with a sprawling greenhouse and garden across the street. But, there it was. The French Laundry. I didn’t even see the name until I crossed the street and was almost upon it. It is in the bottom left on the walkway’s rock wall. No one was around. I had just pulled out the e-mail that said I was to confirm the reservation 72 hours in advance. I had not done that. I had received a voice mail asking for confirmation, and had e-mailed back saying we would be there, but that was done only the day before. I was somewhat worried that they may have let our spot go, but understanding the calibre of establishment this was, believed our reservation would be waiting for us.
I crossed the street immediately after jumping out of the car. Well, immediately after taking the picture of the restaurant. I ventured to the back of the yard. It was a lush, green, silent sanctuary. I could see people through the window. Were they in blue aprons like I had read about on the French Laundry website? I couldn’t really see. I could see that the serving staff were in black vests with white shirts and the wait staff were in black jackets with ties. Vanja was crossing the street. Where was the door? I could tell the door where the people were was a door to the kitchen area. The other door was blue with a gorgeous knob in the middle. This must be it. Clearly, it was manicured with pots and appeared to be the formal entrance. Yet, there was no other sign, and, it was 5:16, and the door was locked. Our reservation was at 5:30. Was there another door? It appeared not. So, I investigated the yard, went up the stairs to the balcony, quietly, and took photos from above. Came back down and sat with Vanja watching through the reflective windows to see what we could see which wasn’t very much. Occasionally, we would see someone very briskly walking from the other side of the kitchen through the open air walkway to the back storage area, or office area, and back. Then a couple came out of the kitchen door through the yard and back there. “œHello”. “œGood evening.”
I don’t know what I expected. Really, I do not. But it wasn’t this. I must have expected something a bit more obvious. Something a bit less subtle. Something a little more bold and obvious. I liked what I was experiencing. I felt like I was sitting in the Secret Garden and was kind of worried I might get caught. Another couple came, and then I heard the door unlock.
We were whisked into an intimate dining room and the first to be seated that evening at the table for two that I would have seated us at, had I been asked where I would like to sit. I loved that we were alone for a moment. We sat in the dining room at The French Laundry and we had it completely to ourselves. The elegant simplicity was perfect. Even the water bottles are hand blown; no two are alike, yet their design is of the simplest form. It disappears on the table in the photo with both of us, below, but it is there.
“œMay I start you off with a little champagne this evening?” I do love a bit of sparkly, but we had spent a magical day in the valley sipping wines: twenty two different tastings, to be exact, so I was not in the mood for any bubbles. However, our palates had definitely been awakened that day and we were both very interested in a glass of wine to savour with our food. But, what to choose? Who would know? Our waiter, of course. I gave him the wrong information. I said, acidic, but meant, not so acidic. I got a crisp puckering acidic glass of white wine. It overpowered me, so I could not drink it, but that was a lesson learned. Our waiter could not have been more gracious. He served two different glasses of white, and was to serve two different glasses of red with the second half of the meal. I eventually cancelled my red, as I was not able to consider wine with this food. My white was a glass of 2006 Alban, Roussane Estate, Edna Valley and Vanja’s was a 2006 Ramey Chardonnay from the Hyde Vineyard in Carnerus.

 

 

It seemed like seconds after being seated and introduced to the menu, we were served a choux pastry with gruyere cheese, and immediately after that, another one of Chef Keller`s  signature dishes: Salmon Tartare Cornets with Sweet Red Onion Crème Fraîche. I quivered with excitement. Not only with the placement of this dish on our table, as I had definitely seen it before in his cookbook, and elsewhere, but with the presentation and the anticipation. Our wine was served, and two appetizers not even on the nine course menu sat before us. What to do? Take a photograph, of course. Capturing a good photograph has become almost important as the eating to me, as the memory of the flavours is also captured when I am able to take a great close up. Most restaurants are far too dark, and I am not successful. I was not afraid, even in this setting, and when I asked if I could photograph my food, was told that this evening was mine to enjoy how I chose. What a lovely philosophical gift from this establishment.
We each tasted our wine, after swirling, and sniffing, of course. Then tasted each others. I preferred his. So did he. Interestingly, throughout the entire day of tastings, our palate was very similar. Then, the choux pastry. Yum. A sharp savoury awakening of the palate. “Hello! Are you ready for this?“ Then the wine. Hmmm. Maybe not. We each picked up a cornet. I was eager; Vanja, tentative. “How do you eat it?“ “Just take a bite off of the top with as much as you can to get the full impact of the intended flavours,“ was my philosophy. So we did. Oh, heaven and earth and salmon and onions in cream! YUM! The last crunchy bite of the cream and onion scented cornet was the perfect chaser to the delicate oiliness of the salmon tartare. “Yes, I am ready for this!“

 

And then the Oysters and Pearls were served in the simplest wide lipped bowl topped with a porcelain dome that revealed a steamy sea of opulence. Our waiter`s assistant took our photograph which I did want, but also did not want any distraction from that moment. Do you see the water bottle? The beauty of its invisibleness had me mesmerized. The flowers on the table, I learned the following day, were from The French Laundry garden across the street. I was admiring exactly that about them. They looked like freshly picked garden flowers, and they were.
OK. What can one say about buns and butter? Well, Vanja and I usually only have butter with bread when we eat out, so it is a treat we do really enjoy. But, the selection of buns baked at the Bouchon Bakery just down the street, were exceptional. And the butter, well, carefully considered and the one in the silver pot almost completely gone by the end of service. It was salty and wet and absolutely wonderful. The other was heady and cheesy and whole all at once.

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About Valerie Lugonja

Educator, Writer, Gardener and Traveler who believes in buying and eating locally, and most importantly cooking at home!

Join The Conversation!

  1. I’m so glad you got to experience dinner there. It truly is memorable, isn’t it? And Oysters & Pearls are one of my favorite dishes there. So luxurious and almost sensual. It’s stunning.

    • That was also my favourite dish of the evening. It is brilliant. The foie gras au torchon was my next favourite. I have some fois gras in the freezer now, and need someone to teach me how to “torchon” it. :)

  2. Here are the photos from my trip to the French Laundry (I had two desserts!) :-)

    http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=102214&id=613215170&l=104cc47daf

  3. Oh my goodness. I cannot wait to experience a dinner like that. We are planning to go out there next year, but I have no doubts about how difficult it will be to get a reservation. Thank you so much for sharing this amazing recap!

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