It’s not you, Thomas, it’s me.
I just need a little more yin with my yang. Or is it a little more right brain with my left brain? Or maybe just a little more id to do battle with your legendary superego. Lunch at the French Laundry was delicious, impeccable, fresh, creative and supported by excellent service (props to Dennis) and fine wine (particularly a stunner of a Pinot Noir: Skewis Reserve; Floodgate Vineyard). All it lacked was glee – a course or two of good gloppy fun to balance all those precise preparations and precious presentations.
Whining aside, though, if lunch at Laundry didn’t change my life it certainly improved it greatly for several hours, including the buzz that followed me around for most of the rest of the day, one of those food highs that you only get after excellent eating. I think there were nine courses, more if you throw in the amuses, and there was a fun mix of classics and dishes that one assumes were invented that day when the kitchen crew came in at 5:30.
Highlights included a green-garlic cream (surprise – I like the course with cream) soup with a weensie quenelle of San Marazano tomatoes that seemed to need a little more salt until the second spoonful, when the teensie dice of Nicoise olives was sufficiently stirred in, nudging the soup’s salinity to perfection. I can never turn down sea urchin – actually, I can never find sea urchin – this version, with three pink tongues lolling on a monkey-dish (anyone use that term any more?) full or risotto which was in turn scooped atop a truffle coulis was excellent. And who can resist lobster ‘n’ bacon, with a bacon emulsion. How cool is a bacon emulsion?
Classic preparations included the truffle custard in the egg shell, which I enjoyed quite a bit and the coffee and donuts. I guess I’ve never looked closely at the recipe and was unclear on the concept of a “semi-freddo” but I actually embarrassed myself by trying to drink the semi-freddo. Fortunately, the couple at the next table were gazing meaningfully into each others eyes and the waiter was away from the table, so no one witness my faux pas.
Rabbit rillettes fried in panko was kind of eh, and the entrée – veal tenderloin – lacked sumptuousness, despite it being paired with fried sweetbreads. And I didn’t much care for the dessert, a pair of rectangular solids roughly the dimensions of a lady’s elegant pinkie, one featuring a layer of passion fruit gelee atop a layer of chocolate, and the other featuring pistachio and sponge cake.
It’s carping a bit to complain about The French Laundry; “who am I to…” blah blah blah. And, like I said, it’s me. I’m out of step with the times – not to mention The Times. I’ve had this problem before, at a Michelin 2-star called Bateau Ivre where the savory courses came out with all the spontaneity of a schematic diagram and the chef appeared to have some sort of cream allergy or cuisine minceur addiction that prevented him from cooking anything that didn’t taste as though it were more an intellectual construct than dinner. Oh, and the waitress seemed to have a stick up her butt, which just kind of reinforced the feeling that you’d wandered into a modern art exhibit where it was more important to “understand” the work than to enjoy it.
Let me clear, though, that I found not a hint of pretense in the The French Laundry. From the hostess, who gamely took my cell phone number when I arrived un-announced the instant the restaurant opened, to the maitre d’ who smilingly told me in a French accent that made it all the better “you should play the lottery – to get a table today, you are very lucky;” to the waiter who seemed to go out of his way to make a solo diner feel welcome and who seemed to know all the local vineyard insider stuff (“She’s a great winemaker but the vines are only four years old. For that price…”) the welcome was warm and sincere.
Based on my one trip to the place (and, oh yeah, the opinion of pretty much everyone who counts in the culinary world) The French Laundry is a fabulous restaurant. I’m just not sure if it’s my kind of fabulous.
It looks like another trip to Napa is in the offing. Maybe this time I’ll just go Bouchon (or Ad Hoc – any reports on that one?). Could be that, at heart, I’m just a meat and potatoes guy. As long as a Keller-trained chef is making the meat and potatoes.