Wednesday, November 08, 2006

San Francisco Dining: The French Laundry

Ahhh, the French Laundry.

By Alex Whitney, First printed 2/12/01

Visited on January 27, 2001

The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, Ca 94599
(707) 944-2380

1989 Domain Ramonet Le Montrachet, methuselah. That´s six liters.

I could end this article right here, but that would do an injustice to the 1985 Billecart-Salmon blanc de blanc magnums. I get ahead of myself by way of setting a tone for the evening.

Some meals are made of legend. If you´ve eaten at the French Laundry, you understand, and if you haven´t, well then it´s time to live vicariously. I was lucky enough to be invited to dinner across the country in Napa Valley, with twelve of the finest dining companions, the best treat of all. It was a birthday party, a weekend really. We stayed at the Meadowood resort, and I recommend that you do, too. As we are about dining and not resorts so much, on to what a legendary meal is like.

It started at about three in the afternoon. We´d gathered a few apostles and spent several hours honing our tasting skills in Napa, and were ready to stop by the French Laundry to open the Bottle. I´d never been there, and we quested up and down the street a bit, parking and walking through the driveway to the garden. It was worth milling about identifying the herbs, laurel, and other fragrant beautiful green accoutrements. The bar waited patiently, although my host Pete-O did not, and he went in to work some magic. We chatted with people at the tiny, lovely bar, and shortly It appeared.

A towering green bottle with a large white label was put on the bar by the sommelier. It seemed to weigh 40 or 50 pounds. Nice things were said. A man who was at the bar showing some wines said to his wife, grinning hugely, "Remember that one..."

People talked quietly about great white Burgundies they had experienced. Our other host observed that 6 liters was only two and a half glasses each. Somewhat anticlimactically, the bottle went "pop!" just like all the others. One leg at a time, I thought.

We had a small glass of tight, dark straw-colored liquid. It was decent — complex, long finish, with notes of butterscotch and oak. I can only say it was tight in retrospect. We hung about in our civilian clothes and were probably vaguely disturbing to the end-of-lunch crowd that trickled out looking... not happy, delighted. Every face was shining.

We went back to Meadowood for a break and a nap.

I woke up with that curious anticipatory nervous tension one gets before a memorable event. I dressed in my ill-fitting suit, hoping the last few great meals didn´t show too much. We had a cocktail and some cheese.

Twilight saw us back at the Laundry, milling about, identifying herbs, which is much more fun than it sounds. Enjoying the fine (hey, I´m from New York,) weather, we chatted and found out who had been there before, and rigorously interrogated them. We sat, upstairs in a room just large enough for twelve, with space for a waiter to slide around the edge with a very large bottle. Perfect dishes and cutlery, a white tablecloth, stemware galore, a manila menu: The French Laundry Chef´s Tasting Menu. We were introduced to what I'm almost certain was a magnum of 1985 Billecart Salmon blanc de blanc, a rare specimen. We were delighted with the acquaintance. Long, dry and crisp, it had structure against which played little wisps of bread dough and rather more citrus. It was poured with one hand, stabilized by a thumb inserted firmly in the punt, an impressive feat with so large a bottle.

The chef sent out an amuseé, and, wait a second, another… wait… the truth came out. Pete–O had trouble deciding which one would be best, so he had ordered quite a few. They were fabulous, and their names may be lost to history. We sipped and munched and became acquainted, and looked at a list of dishes: it was going to start light, and grow richer.

Service was very well done, unobtrusive, present when needed, friendly and talkative about the great champagne and wine, which appeared shortly. The Le Montrachet had opened up, becoming mellower and richer, with toast and a depth that continued to expand throughout the evening. It was accompanied by the first of many interesting dishes: "Oysters and Pearls", "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Poached Malpeq Oysters, and a dollop of Osetra caviar. A salad of palm hearts followed, artfully offset by cilantro

We went up a level at that point, in volume, joy and dishes, with a Black Bass, served on a fascinating opaque saffron and vanilla sauce, with a dollop of impeccable spinach. We continued to dent the Methuselah. The menu-stopper (where menu readers go, "oooh, what´s that?") arrived, part of a one two punch: the left to the chin was "Macaroni & Cheese," butter poached lobster with a cream-lobster stock and orzo with marscapone; the right hook was whole poached foie gras with roasted mushrooms and a balsamic glaze. This last dish was massive and rich, and in fact, full disclosure, I got seconds. I figured out that it is best to find a wine is tight by experiencing it later when it is not. Our knees buckled, the bell rang, we went back to our corner, a metaphor for a stroll in the garden, for we were looking out at a dangerous landscape before us, filled with duck, lamb and red wine. We left the table for 20 or 30 minutes. Some of us walked a bit.

The duck was a lovely medley with carrots and parsnips ("Them´s parsnips? You don´t say!") among the root vegetables, and Elysian Fields shoulder of lamb, braised. Now, I´m a brasier, I must have braised forty or fifty times in the last year, and I can´t say I achieve the texture, which still has body, and the juiciness, with just enough wine to compliment the flavor of the lamb. The quality of the crescendo of lamb infuriated me even as I slowly savored every bite. A pair of Hubert Lignier wines, a Gevrey-Chambertin and a Charmes-Chambertin, called les combettes, accompanied them. I did not record the vintages.

The talk and the wine flowed with topics touching on technology and books, where people had traveled from and how they were acquainted, and a few people reigned in on the last courses, as the amount of food was not modest; some would not even grace the first half of our meal with the word modest. Our hostess showed her skill, savvy and grace by steering the chef away from the listed dessert menu, toward chocolate. She is a kind and decent person, with a fine taste in restaurants, favoring Terra, which we had been to the night before. I was quite pleased with her choice then, and was confirmed in my suspicion of her good sense when the desserts came. What was to be pears, mango and pineapple confit was modified toward a veritable cheese plate of desserts, including crème bruleès and a molten chocolate thing. I got a bit foggy, perhaps, because my notes thin out: I was more interested in discussing the swooping edible parts with my companions.

There may have even been a dessert wine at the restaurant, but all I remember was a (´67?) Chateau D´Yquem, back at the Meadowood resort. I do remember my face when I left the French Laundry. I remember all of our faces. Every face was shining.

Steven Shaw recently wrote about the Zagat Effect. I agree heartily with his views... read this article.

It's not right to call this a food review site. There are people who work much harder at that. Call it a food story site if you'd like.

We'll be back shortly, to talk about our growing fondness for Grammercy Tavern and about an unusual meal at Peacock Alley.

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