The French Laundry, Chef Thomas Keller's landmark restaurant in Yountville, California, in the Napa Valley. A reservation, for lunch, 11:30am, October 21, a while ago.
Two days, two hours each day re-dialing, letting the phone ring at the French Laundry. Finally a voice at the other end. A recorded voice anyway, telling me how to go about making a reservation at the French Laundry.
I'm one day too early, two months in advance of Sunday, October 21. You have to call two months prior on the same date you want to be seated. But I want to hear a human voice. I hang on and finally I do. She tells me quite nicely about that exact date too.
The next day, August 21, I do get through again. The date and time are set. I have a 1-800-number to cancel or confirm -- two days prior. Yahoo! Really. I'm ready. Table for three.
Two books: Chef Anthony Bourdain''s "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" of the restaurant kitchen and the restaurant business "Kitchen Confidential." If you haven't, get it, read it. Buckle up. The restaurant world like being on the "Magic bus" with the "Merry Pranksters." Like going down the rabbit hole with Alice, Chef Anthony.
After that comes "The Soul of a Chef" by Michael Ruhlman. The title speaks to the subject matter. As smooth a read as fine wine, fine pate. The author devotes a course of his book to Thomas Keller and his French Laundry.
I'd heard of it, the French Laundry, in restaurant conversation. I'm a freelancer so I'm automatically a security guard somewhere. That somewhere is the Tower Cafe on Broadway in Sacramento, California. Good eats and a good price in an historic setting. Come on in or as everybody says today, "Look us up on the web."
I'm a freelancer so I have to live somewhere where the rents are bearable. $600 a month in a redbrick hardwood floor apartment in Sacramento, right across the street from the state capital's finest restaurants. Tapa the World. Espanol. No, not Mexican, Espanol.
In all my prior days in Sacramento I never can imagine a fine Spanish, I repeat, Spanish restaurant, cafe, bodega complete with fine flamenco right in my lap. I'll say it may be just one more time: freelancer, automatically Ernest Hemingway and Spain. To make a sweet story shorter, one my journeys to Spain included a trip back with the veterans still standing of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of the Spanish Civil War.
I reside at the tables and bars of Tapa's That's why restaurant books. A close association to the fronts and backs of my two places, the Tower Cafe and Tapa The World. That's why the owners of Tapa's will be joining me at the French Laundry. Yahoo! Make that olé en Español.
French/American or American/French. Where Chef Thomas Keller's talents come from. Paris in an American. What I know about fine French cuisine would fit inside a slice of a chicken bologna sandwich. But with the help of Chef Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman, this rube is about to cut the baloney and enter into the upper echelon of fine Angle/Franco cuisine.
Leaving Sacramento, passing into the magic act of the Napa Valley, in the fall in California, in the hints and highlights of New England's monopoly, among the hints and highlights of Halloween, into the hills and valleys monopolized by the growing of grapes.
What I know about fine wine is this: I've been to the finest winery in America: the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. Enough said?
My companions Conni and Chris have an ever growing and showboating wine list at Tapa The World. They will know for me. And we agree, the French Laundry, in the Napa Valley, should have an up to snuff sommelier to guide us.
To assist us. That's what were really counting on. The service. How will we be treated? The customers are wearing the Emperor's clothes. Will the staff notice? Will they care? Will they treat us the way Chez Panisse did once a long time, other folks and a few birthdays ago? Our server, a woman, was a complete jerk, treating us like she was doing us a favor. As Anthony Bourdain would say, "Up, yours!"
The food that evening? Forgotten, except for the desert. I can't quite remember but I remember crunchy chocolate that made me whimper with pleasure.
One of the pleasures of the French Laundry that I found in Michael Ruhlman's "Soul of a Chef," that I hope to find on today's menu, is a Thomas Keller signature dish: caviar, tapioca pudding with an oyster on top. Wow! I can't wait to have those combined tastes combined on the palate of my tongue. That and one main course I hope to include: Atlantic sea scallops with asparagus. Chef Keller stores his asparagus like flowers in a vase? Most everyone else stores them in a crate on the floor. Want more? Read "Soul of a Chef" and read on.
I have a copy of the book with me for Chef Keller's signature. I make maybe $18,000 a year in salary and here I am on my way to "the" restaurant for "the" meal. Vive la America!
The French Laundry is on the corner of Washington and Creek Street in Yountville. Not Napa or Sonoma, Yountville. Home to the California Veterans home. Being in Yountville adds a certain countrified to the gentrified Washington Irving of California countryside.
Yountville. Doesn't quite ring like Saint Helena or Calistoga on up the road but it will do just fine on this fine dining day, downtown Yountville all quaint and cozy, about as Napa Valley gentrified as a made-over mill town after the mill has left and the antiques have arrived.
Turn right on Washington Street to Creek Street. The French Laundry of the unassuming stone and lumber laundry.
Harry Potter. Chef Keller. From the pages and into reality.
The early fog, snug for a while in the surrounding hills has lifted, sunny and just enough still chilly. New England cider crisp.
First photographs in front of the unassuming stone and lumber. Posing for possible posterity. Will we ever come back? Someday?
Second, we're out in the delightful, proportionate garden, the three of us nicely, comfortably, proportionately dressed. For the men jackets are not required but expected. No jeans, no shorts, no sneakers, no service. We take a few more photos of each other in the garden in no jeans, no shorts, or sneakers.
There are a few other well attired types waiting with us. It's quiet, sort of reverent, you can see into some of the kitchen. Leonardo's studio?
A French Laundry employee comes to the door set in the side of the stone and lumber. "We can take you now," she says. Delightful. Delighted.
Quiet. No kitchen or customer clatter in the front foyer, Chef Keller's biblical cookbook in both heft and content set out on a concierge's counter.
I sure hope they have our reservation. Typical American anxiety? I have my copy of "Soul of a Chef," anxious to meet Chef Keller. I just hope he's included in our reservation which is on file as we file in behind the trim, blond hostess.
Sunlight glazes the unassuming rooms in a soft yellow-white. We are escorted to an alcove to our right.
It's a bit too alcovish, but so what? Still a bit giddyish from just being here. Conni and Chris are in a booth seat against the stone wall, myself in a chair across from them, a small open window above me in the stone wall. It lets in just enough of the brisk day.
I placed my book on the white linen table top. The book comes to life immediately, wooden clothespins with the French Laundry stamped on them holding the white linen napkins in place. I need a martini.
An empty table for two beside us. Four Miami Beach type retirees at the table behind us. Face-lifted ladies and comb-over gentlemen. Loud. Shut up! I need a martini.
Our waiter/server, whatever you please, Bob, is on the scene, long white apron, the color snow wishes it was and a sort of Nehru white shirt, the color salt wishes it was, buttoned up at the collar. He is bald and ruddy redish like a Caucasian ice cream cone. He will be our guide. He's warm and friendly and we warm up to him immediately.
Champagne to begin? Why of course. I still want that Bombay Sapphire martini. No liquor license for booze Bob tells us. He tells us that the sommelier will explain.
The sommelier will explain? I like that. Down the looking hole and into "Soul of a Chef." I have the book in plain view. Alas, and alas is the right word for it, Chef Keller is not in his kitchen. He's in New York -- the new joint. That's to make up for my use of the alas.
Oh well, it's his loss. One less disciple to kiss his ring, his apron.
Let the ceremony begin with recommended champagne of course, the crystal champagne glasses as thin and as tall as wading egrets. Giggly, the taste and our temperament.
I knew from my reading what would be served first, compliments of the chef. The blabby table behind us is being complimented first. Little ice cream comes from a clear ice cream cone carrier, carried by an expediter, a mocha ice cream cone version of our waiter. She's Chicano meets Maya, meets Peru, meets Goth, meets punk. She is way cool.
So's our ice cream cone. Our expediter has arrived with our complimentary cones. He's a fine mocha version of his sister worker.
Ice cream cone wrapped in a little napkin like a child wrapped in swaddling clothes. This Good Humor man would have to be driving a Renault.
It's salmon tartar in a cone I can only describe as sensual, rich and light together, with a white cream filling that's more sensuous, rich and light, sharp and tender under the cone scoop of salmon tartar that makes your senses water.
Okay we can go now. That was fine enough, lighthearted and serious enough to leave a lasting impression.
Impress on. Our menus are on the table with two empty half-bottles of champagne. Who poured us that champagne? Some helping hand from somewhere, some one of the staff that comes and goes and then retires from our table.
Their wine list is an NFL playbook. I'll be drinking white no matter what. Red wine to me is the full moon to Lon Chaney Jr.
Senior or Senior Jr. menu selections. The Chef's tasting menu at $120 for the lesser menu del dia at $105. We were all set for the longer Chef's tasting menu but I'll try the shorter version. That way we can spread the wealth of food around. And some of the selections from the second deck are more attractive than in the box seats.
Settling in rather nicely thank you. Restroom break to completely settle oneself in.
Upstairs alongside a balcony window would be the best, nothing fancy, an historic building set to use as a restaurant almost as if the tables were set up for a wedding party in someone's home, out of place it seems but fine, fine, a fine natural light and that long, fine balcony, veranda. California style like you could announce a gold rush or serenade a señora.
A señora Martha Stewart style explosion of flowers in a beautiful bouquet in a corner prior to the restroom. The restroom interior is just enough quaint but not too much.
Back at the table my mates are ready for some wine. Like I said, I'm no wine expert and I don't pretend to be like half the population of the United States. But having wine here. I sipped from the grotto at the Jack Daniel's distillery. This will be a Lourdes of that variety.
Too many varieties. Our waiter will recommend and we will follow.
Oh sorry, in the quiet excitement of being on this page in my telling I've skipped a basic ingredient. Before the wine, what did we order? Sorry. Here, from the quiet excitement still is my best remembrance.
But first. Sorry. I was sorry and here's why.
I'm asking our waiter. "But I'd like to have the tapioca pudding and the caviar appetizer?" Like Dali designed an appetizer. I've been tasting it ever since Michael Ruhlman introduced me to this Chef Keller creation which Chef Keller has never tasted. I guess it's, You don't need to climb the Alps to know there is a great view.
Caviar and tapioca pudding. Chef Keller's serious whimsy. A trademark? Those two tastes combined. Wow! The oyster on top? I don't know about wow! When in Rome, Paris.
Nope. They don't have it on the menu, waiter Bob is sorry to say. I have $300 in cash shoved in my sports jacket pocket. I demand that you put it on the menu! I didn't come all this way -- yeah, sure. Alas, "that's a shame," meekly.
Ordering: Roasted Hen of the Woods mushrooms salad, caramelized fennel and 50-year-old Sherry mignonette.
Peas and carrots -- Maine lobster pancake with sweet pea shoot salad and carrot-ginger butter.
Grilled Calotte of prime beef, Haricots Des Saison en Daube, Crispy bone marrow and red wine sauce.
Percorina Con Foglie Di Noce, Roasted sweet pepper crostini, garden arugula and basil infused extra virgin olive oil.
And for dessert: on our waiter's recommendation, "Coffee and doughnuts, cinnamon and sugar doughnuts with cappuccino semifreddo.
I'd spotted sweet yellow polenta cake. Polenta. Makes my mouth water just writing it. But I'll go with Bob's expert pointing finger at "Coffee and donuts." Again, like Chef Keller's peas and carrots, that's serious whimsy to remind you, encourage you, relaxing and reassuring.
We are not so sure about the wine. But our waiter is. He'll have time to consider while my companions Conni and Chris order from a more lengthy menu list. I'll fill you in on their selections as best I can as we go.
We'll go with some white wine to get us going.
The restaurant is going to be full, the well attired arriving, rather quietly -- too quietly.
We'll make up for the lack of buzz with our natural giddiness -- our serious whimsy?
Our sommelier, Bobby, has joined us at our table. Husky good looks, a Jean-Paul Belmundo meets The Rock of the WWF. Thick dark hair cut in a puffed-up, punked up crew cut stack that's all the rage now. He needs a tailor or an adviser. Meaningless blue blazer and striped tie, colorless shirt and forgettable trousers. So what, because he's pouring our half bottles of somebody's vintage white into our pure as ice crystal glasses.
Delicious, delightful, dry and crisp enough to crack it. Crack open another one there, Bobby. We decide, he's the sommelier in the French Laundry in the Napa Valley. That means he's the Pope.
I hear our waiter say something to me like, "Compliments of the Chef," meaning me I guess, and he places a soft boiled egg cup with an egg shell in it down in front of me. The top crescent of the eggshell has been sliced away. There's something sticking up out of the egg shell. The little presentation is paperwhite, set on a little paper white china plate.
"Yeah?" is all I can say, deeply touched by this, a knowing, smiling, nodding agreement between my companions, myself and our waiter. Because "Yes, we have no bananas -- no caviar and tapioca pudding, we will make it up to you with this."
Bob tells me what it is but I can't hear him. I don't care to hear him. Inspecting my little treasure like it was just that.
They've supplied me with a small amber colored spoon. It's not silverware. It's earthenware. Where did it come from? Maybe it is amber? Mysteries abound.
Only one way to find out. First for the chip stock in the eggshell. It looks like a deep-fried dragonfly's wing from some heavy-duty unknown tropical jungle dripping dragonfly. It's crisp and somewhat unimportant.
Now this is important, my earth spoon gives me a beef taste, again, light and heavy, not a gravy, more like a meat or beef sauce. It's only a bit after noon on a Sundays so it's a bit odd to be placing such a beefy taste in my mouth and just as I'm about to make a face about too much of a beef sauce at high noon on a Sunday my spoon comes to a custard. Oh my.
The best way, or I'll do my best, to describe it is bone marrow meets flan meets creme brulee without the sweet setup attached, a bit creamier, a bit thicker, wider, light and heavy again, a rich, succulent texture mixed in now with the beefy sauce.
That's it, here's my 300 bucks. I'm satisfied as I scoop out every last texture of it. I'd lick the eggshell but I've got a sports jacket on. And then the wine to Parisien it down.
What can I say to our waiter? I can only genuflect with a knowing smile and a nod of Thanksgiving.
The bountiful begins: Roasted Hen of the Woods mushroom etc. It's a little cottage of food served in a virgin white salad saucer. Fly me to the Valley of the Moon, the hills and woods around us. That's the savoring of it in the mouth, in your humanness, earthiness, fragrant and pungent, serious and delicate.
Our sommelier is around again with some softer, smoother, plumper white wine for me. Conni and Chris, true to their Spanish restaurant tradition, have kicked into the reds, their waiter-assisted choices being served in robust, fat man wine glasses, almost close to brandy snifters.
Conni has been served with what looks like an Hawaiian cottage. You can't depend too much on me at this point to point out every point of interest. I've got my own to deal with but I think it's Hawaiian hearts of palm salad. I stopped thinking right after my chef's compliment's eggshell.
Compliments of our sommelier we learn a bit about why no martinis. The building as a French Laundry didn't have a liquor license of course, so when the whole business was grandfathered into another business no booze could be brought along or something along that history line. Who cares now? On with the meal.
Compliments of Chris. He has a confit of Mallard duck foie gras. It's a Japanese Zen Garden, the way it's presented on a long, low pure white oval slab of a plate.
The taste of it, the foie gras on a chunk of bread. First of all, this can't be and isn't any taste I've ever had before. There's nothing to compare it to but bliss, pride, generosity, purity, eternity, hospitality and certainty. The bread is sexual. Makes us whimper with joy.
No salt and pepper on the table. It takes us a bit to realize that the white and the gray black are there as designs on your gleaming white canvas-plate. Oh my.
"Peas and carrots," Maine lobster pancake with sweet pea shoot salad and carrot-ginger butter.
A lovely pillow cushion of the planet's gifts. A pod of earthly pleasures, a pure feeling of connection, harmony with the gifts and pleasures of being a human on a planet such as this with all its natural gifts and we get to reap and sow and fish and farm.
More wine. Drunk? Can't be, too much current, too much electricity passing between all of us gathered at our table, expediters quietly removing and replacing silverware, sommelier and waiter making sure, conversations carrying on between us until we all know Conni and Chris's Tapa the World in Sacramento.
Keith, the assistant sommelier here is dating a ballerina of the Sacramento ballet. The ballet dancers frequent Tapa the World. Small world. That's what my peas and carrots is -- a small world of tastes.
Touch the plate. It's been warmed to the body temperature of a warm handshake or a warm hand on a warm cheek. It's perfection.
Nothing's perfect. The only flaw we've noticed so far is one or of the expediters approaching our alcove with a serving, realizing that this serving doesn't go here and then making a quick about face. Shh, don't tell Chef Keller. Perfection and all that attempt and intention of such.
The next time I look up there's my grilled calotte of prime beef harricots des saison en daube crispy bone marrow and red wine sauce, the serving more like a bed of roses than a meal.
Quoting Chef Anthony Bourdain, "If you don't eat meat please leave my restaurant."
Perhaps this is the time to mention that there is a vegetarian listing on the menu. This isn't Les Halles in Bourdain's meaty Manhattan. This is California. I guess you have to.
I guess I have to dig in, into my bed of roses.
Meet as tender as poetry, as succulent as sexual flesh. In the same neighborhood anyway. Over in Conni and Chris's neck of the woods they are indulging in rabbit, pan seared sirloin of Columbia Crest Farm's rabbit with toasted pearl barley, butternut squash, braised cippolini onions and pancetta.
The rabbit's haunch and leg (at least that's what it appears to be), brown as milk chocolate, are posed on their plates as if the rest of the nonwhite rabbit had just gone down the white china rabbit hole.
We each want what the other's having. We share. It's an orgy. Pleasure. The rabbit is as succulent as leg of lamb. The only rabbit I've ever eaten was served at USMC Camp Pendleton, California, before shipping out for Vietnam. It had to be jackrabbit, freshly or rather rubbery and grisly, killed. This rabbit is veal in a taste pool with no shallow end.
Our table is a busy port of call, comings and goings, bringing and leaving and a taking away. I'll leave some of the remaining main course cargo to your imagination and appetite. I don't want to hog the whole meal. So let's skip, literally, around the additional cheese servings and head for dessert.
Me, coffee and doughnuts. Cinnamon sugar doughnuts with cappuccino semifreddo. How many times in your life do you read about a desert and then meet it? Never, once? Once is enough because here it is like a cup of cappuccino cuppa-joe all heavy and mug and saucer, brimming with a cloud formation of foam, the two doughnuts like cuddly cinnamon pets on the saucer.
The doughnut with the hole holds the other ping-pong ball sized doughnut in its hole. They are both as warm as morning toast. Morning in the Lewis Carroll household. Schmitt Farms golden delicious apple tart with creme fraiche ice cream and apple syrup. Conni and Chris and their desserts. Wonderland. Wonderful.
Usually I don't care for dessert after a fine meal of any dimension. I like to retain the taste of a meal with my coffee. When in the Lewis Carroll household.
Will wonders never cease? No. Creme brulee in its own little earthen pot, sticky and gooey, crusty and burnt sugary, waiting patiently as I scoop out the last of the foam mixed cappuccino semifreddo all moussey and rich, from out of the papal white cappuccino cup. Doughnuts all done up like the most dignified cup in the most dignified diner.
The table is humming, almost moaning with pleasure as more pleasures arrive in port. Tiny cakes topped with tiny treats. A blue confectionary tin of treats like a Whitman-Keller sampler.
Altogether now, all of it. It's what the planet, the flora, the fauna and us together are capable of: harmony, perfection.
Nothing is perfect? Not even Chef Keller's search for such? Search is the crucible I guess. The individual silver pot servings of coffee. Not perfect, not memorable at all, somewhat lukewarm as we sit with all due respect to the meal we just finished, just including our negotiations with our waiter about seeing the kitchen and getting a copy of the menu. "Certainly," closes out our meal.
But not so fast, not so leisurely to the kitchen. We do have to pay. There is an entrance fee to Wonderland.
Don't ever cease with the wonders here. The tab is on a cardboard laundry ticket, complete with white string, the kind you get when moms and pops were in the business of the day.
The tab is $722 and change -- for three. Don't do the math, pay up.
Wonder of wonders. I won't have to pay a dime. Why? Conni and Chris own a restaurant. Can you guess? I guess the gods can bless you when they give you what you ask for. Conni and Chris can write it off as a business expense. I need a martini.
$50. That's what I'm going to add to our waiter's built in 18% as he returns to our table with a copy of today's menu in a snow white binder with a white wooden clothespin emblazoned on the cover like the calmest coat of arms ever.
We gather out our senses and are cordially invited to view the kitchen. Oh, there were people sitting next to us at the other table.
Oh man. You can see the kitchen, the kitchen light, at the end of a not too lengthy and not too short breezeway that seems to roll to and from the kitchen like the deck of a ship.
It's Jack London's cottage in Glen Ellen, this breezeway, lovely natural light and flowers outside the windows in the country wooden walls.
The heavenly light. I say this because it is, the light emanating and yes, radiating from the kitchen.
Because of the breezeway I can eliminate sterile, industrial, medical to describe the kitchen. "Soul of a Chef" set the conditions before I came so I'm not at all surprised.
It is an efficiency attached to reality, that heavenly light, almost a cliche color of Hollywood attempts that comes in from the skylights above and from some other electrical source.
Angels move about in the beautifully busy efficiency. Michael Ruhlman spoke of angels moving about his table as he had his meal here.
Blinded a bit by it but turn around to that breezeway where three of the Angels are polishing silverware and the glassware and you are relieved, inside the best of our worlds. Technology and humanity.
Conni and Chris want just one of the silver polishers to return with them to Sacramento and Tapa the World.
Chef Gregory Short wouldn't be so bad either. He's mentioned in "Soul of a Chef."
Chef Gregory Short is a stocky, strong safety version of the actor Eric Stoltz. But he's Chef Gregory Short. We pay him our respects just for stopping for a moment to step over and join us. Thanks. Thank you and then we are standing again in the garden examining the rabbit hole.
Will we ever come again? Should we ever come again?