The iPhone stores your most recent hundred calls. I know this because about 20 minutes after I start calling The French Laundry, my recent calls list shows only a single entry: “(707) 944-2380,” followed by a faint “(100).”
But I keep calling for far longer than 20 minutes.
To get a table at Thomas Keller’s venerated restaurant in the plush Sonoma County city of Yountville, CA, I pick up my phone at 10 a.m. on a morning in early April, exactly two months to the calendar date before I want a reservation. Since I’d prefer not to stay on my computer till midnight at the prayer of snatching one of two tables released each night online, this is my only option. I dial, and for the first time in years, hear a proper, old-fashioned busy signal. Boooop boooop boooop. I hang up and try again. And again.
Boooop boooop boooop.
I quit after 45 minutes. The next day, for a Saturday reservation, I enlist Magan, my partner in dining and life. She quits in half an hour, but I dig in, determined to hear something besides boop come through the earpiece. And finally, I do. After an hour and fifteen minutes, I get a pre-recorded message telling me all tables for the night are taken.
I master the art of redialing with my left hand without looking, learn the hopelessness of booking any table for Friday or Saturday, and even cancel one successful call because it is difficult to plan two people’s future around one meal. Then, one morning, some god of patience decides I have passed its trial, and I secure a reservation for 5:45, the night of Sunday, July 1, 2012. A table for four, as Magan’s friend Melissa will be joining us, perhaps with a guest.
That day, I only have to call for 20 minutes.
Two months later, when I approach the maître d’ and tell him we’ll be three for dinner, the level of disappointment in his voice is impeccable. “We were expecting four,” he says, his intonation stern, professional, and laced with a nearly undetectable note of scorn. “We’ll have to rearrange your table,” he tells us, inviting us to sit on the couch while this chore is undertaken.
This restaurant made me uncomfortable long before I walked through its famous blue front door. The suit coat I bought after college has become too tight, and the collar of my dress shirt chafes against my sunburned neck. But even if the clothes fit perfectly, going to a place that requires them feels alien. I have little experience with houses of etiquette, and the maître d’s icy reaction to my entrance only reinforces my sense of not belonging.
We move to the couch, I reach for a copy of the restaurant’s gorgeous cookbook, and before I can read a word, the maître d’ returns. Our table is ready.
In normal conditions, I think $100 is pretty spendy even for a nice meal for two. But somehow, swaddled in the fineries of The French Laundry’s second floor dining area — the huge floral bouquets so verdant they look like sections of rainforest, the wall inlaid with mirrors polished to high gleam, the nested set of exquisite white porcelain plates rimmed with a faint houndstooth pattern — I seriously consider selecting the beef, a “$100 supplement” to the chef’s tasting menu, which costs $270 itself.
I know this is a cognitive defect, like how a $500 sports package seems trivial while outfitting a $20,000 car. But my logical mind can’t muster enough willpower to correct itself. Instead, I try to talk Magan into choosing the $75 truffle dish for herself so I’m not alone in my recklessness.
“Ah, Pliny the Elder, a wonderful beer,” the sommelier says to me. “You’ve tried it before, sir?”
“Yes, a couple of times,” I say.
“Very good,” he says, and pours the beer in silence.
He rounds the table and addresses Melissa, “And are you familiar with this type of sake, miss?”
“No, I’m not,” she says.
A playful smirk crosses the sommelier’s face, and he launches into a colorful, eloquent, fully researched lesson on what, exactly, makes this sake special. We learn that most sake brewers use lactic acid to keep bacteria at bay, but the grain mash of yamahai sake is left exposed, building up multitudes of bacteria, except, in a miracle of nature, the last bacteria to invade is Lactobacillus, which purifies the sake and leaves behind a distinctive taste.
He fills Melissa’s glass and leaves the room. I wish I told him I’d never heard of the beer.
I hear the line three times during dinner, once spoken to our table. It’s the same thing they’ve been saying since 1994, when the restaurant opened. While presenting the salmon cornets — a tiny ball of salmon tartare resting on crispy rolled sesame dough filled with red onion crème fraîche — the server says, “It’s our interpretation of a Baskin-Robbins ice cream cone.”
The dish and its story have become culinary folklore, a symbol of Thomas Keller’s great genius and whimsy. As it is placed in front of me, I hesitate at the thought of consuming so much history in a single bite. With an object like this, expectation threatens to overwhelm reality.
I pinch the cone and nibble, laughably, at the lump of fish. Then, almost involuntarily, as though my mouth realizes my futility, I bite the thing down to its base. As the fabled balance of texture and flavor fills my senses, I know I fretted over nothing. It’s impossible to expect more than perfection.
The staff speak about the foie gras as if it were an uncle sent to prison for a crime he swears he didn’t commit. “It’s very disappointing,” they say, “but it’ll be back.”
Tonight, though, it’s gone. As of July 1st, foie gras cannot be served in the State of California. We are eating at one of the country’s top French restaurants the very first day the holy grail of French ingredients is banned.
The restaurant, bless its heart, does its best to compensate. The truffle dish, which Magan has selected, replaces the foie gras on the menu. Before her plate comes out, our server arrives at the table with a man holding an ornate wooden box in tow. They open the box and present it to the ladies first, then turn it to me. It contains several black truffles, and I try to show how impressed I am by their size, even though I have no frame of reference.
Our server places a broad shallow bowl of potatoes, radishes, and sea urchin mousse in front of Magan, grabs a chunk of truffle, produces what looks like a handheld guillotine, and diligently smothers the bowl in truffle shavings. It’s quite a show.
The dish is undoubtedly excellent, with the starchy root vegetables grounding the viscous brininess of the mousse, but Magan concludes that the truffles are the least remarkable aspect of it. We’ll never know, but I doubt she would have said that about the foie gras.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see several servers round the corner, plates in hand, and make for our table. I fold my hands in my lap awaiting the next course, but the servers turn on their heels and scurry back around the corner. They forgot our silverware. They hastily correct their mistake, then return with our food.
I hope nobody gets fired.
In the end, three beige morsels the size of peanuts cost me a hundred bucks. Oh, there’s other stuff on the plate — a shockingly well seared brick of wagyu beef with a pink-red center as vibrant as a pomegranate, for example — but the words that subdued my common sense long enough for me to opt for this exorbitant supplement were “bone marrow croutons.”
Just three months ago, I had the best beef I ever ate, a steak from Aviary in Portland, served with a bone marrow foam. The combination of meat and marrow released a cascade of savoriness across my palate that bordered on overwhelming. I can still taste it now. So I figured, fuck it, I’ll only eat here once, and decided to see what The French Laundry could do with the same pairing.
While the Aviary’s steak took a battering ram of umami to my tongue, The French Laundry can afford a subtler approach. Their beef possesses a meat flavor of astonishing depth, with layers of complexity like a long-simmered stock, yet I’ve never chewed a steak more tender. The marrow crouton serves as a bass guitar to the beef’s lead, laying down a rich, warm note at the foundation of the flavor, while adding a crackly contrast of texture. A final flourish of acid and sweetness comes from a wine reduction and english pea custard, and as the taste crescendos and fades, I don’t think about the money for a second.
I don’t like cheese, but I love video games. So, I can explain why I enjoy the “Rupert” course so much (Rupert being a raw cow milk cheese from Vermont). It’s because the dish follows the legendary design pattern of Super Mario Bros. level 1-1.
The core of Super Mario is running and jumping. Every object and enemy in the game exists to give you a range of interesting scenarios in which to run and jump. Think about all the things you do in that first level. You run to the right, you jump on a slow Goomba, you jump up into bricks, you run after a mushroom, you jump over piranha plants and endless pits, onto Koopas who leave behind shells that can also be jumped on, and then you get the star, so you can run and jump with tyrannical impunity until you reach the flag at the end and make one last great running jump. In one short stage, the game teaches you how much fun you can have by running and jumping
So too with Rupert. It is the only cheese on the plate, little creamy boulders nestled amongst a smattering of diverse ingredients. Rupert is the core of the dish, and each other element emphasizes a different aspect of the cheese. I eat a bite of it with peppery greens, with small delicate brown beans and long crunchy green beans, with sweet-tart rainier cherries and delightfully smoky bits of bacon. Several ingredients and one chunk of cheese rest on a long slice of pumpernickel, changing the rhythm of the dish, adding chewy grain to several consecutive bites.
When the plate arrived, I feared it might be the first of the night I’d send back unfinished. I get lucky with Rupert, though. As I learn while my fork plays its way across the dish, this is not a sharp or pungent cheese. It distinguishes itself by its toasted milky taste, its restrained saltiness, and by the melty tang that lingers on the tongue for one brief moment after the other flavors have passed.
If you’ve ever watched a big fireworks show on the Fourth of July, you’ll recognize the approach The French Laundry takes to their finale: they bombard your senses until you can’t take any more.
First, a lime sorbet in a bath of sangria — light, refreshing, and cleansing. Then, an abstract-expressionist take on chocolate and bananas, with eggs of sherbet, freeze-dried banana crackers, and ribbons of chocolate scattered violently across the plate. Next, an adorable “cappuccino and doughnuts” of milk foam, coffee custard, and fried brioche balls — I never consume caffeine at night but I can’t stop myself from inhaling the whole thing. And a dazzling tray of bon bons — the passion fruit is my favorite but salted caramel is damn good too. And a bowl of chocolate covered macadamias dusted with powdered sugar, which languish on the table, half-eaten, and mockingly declare victory.
The check comes, an elegant, handwritten, faux-vintage laundry tag with “$1094” written across the bottom. Our server returns with credit card receipts, and deposits a tin of shortbread cookies and a heavy paper folder containing the night’s menu before each of us. Then, either because Melissa mentioned she is a pastry chef or because they do this with all guests, our server escorts us to the kitchen. It is huge, imposing, and hot. Before I can process what is happening, we’re having our picture taken behind the expediting table. Our server guides us back out to the lobby, where he hands us a final parting gift: a magazine about the Thomas Keller restaurant empire.
We thank him, step out the blue door, and into the soft Sonoma night. I take of my jacket, untuck my shirt, and roll up my sleeves. The evening breeze catches my skin and a giddy rush bounces through my body, settling in my swollen and deeply contented belly.
Photos by Melissa Santos