I’ve been in enough restaurants to know that some use cameras to get a sense of when to fire the next course. But this was different. ‘Twas the course after Oysters and Pearls and all through the dining room, not a runner/server/or captain was in sight. Savoring the textural playground of Santa Barbara uni, English cucumber, avocado and chili threads, my brother–staring down into his bowl–asked, “Do you know what that creamy white layer is?” “Not sure,” I responded.
A couple minutes later, with all of us having nearly repristinated our plates, a server whose name I never managed to ascertain walked over to clear our plates, but before doing so said mischievously, “That white layer was a ginger panna cotta.”
Those zones of privacy the Warren Court identified in Griswald v. Connecticut don’t apply in The French Laundry, and I’m glad they don’t because it’s the front-of-house’s job to anticipate and to accommodate–within reason, of course–the diner’s requests. And that’s exactly what they did for just shy of six hours.
To say the staff at The French Laundry were gracious hosts would be stating the obvious. But occasionally the obvious needs stating. They were more generous than they needed to be, especially since we were first-time diners.* In the process, they set an impossibly high standard for my return visit to Per Se two weeks from now.
But my feelings toward the restaurant weren’t always so effusive.
This is not Per Se, I thought, after spending 45 minutes on the phone, calling 4-5 times a minute to secure an 11:15am lunch reservation.** And the curt reservationist didn’t bother to ask about dietary restrictions, special occasions and couldn’t guarantee an extended tasting menu, but instead said it would be up to the chef on the day of our meal, adding needless uncertainty to our trip (yet when we sat down, Andrew, our captain, greeted us without menus and said the kitchen would be cooking for us).
And then there were the inaugural canapés: the gougère seemed colder than Per Se’s with too much choux pastry and not enough mornay, and the cornet cone seemed thicker than I remember, partially masking the tartare.
From there, however, the expectations one brings into a three-star Michelin, perennial San Pellegrino Top 100 establishment started to not only get met, but to get surpassed one plate after another. The oysters and pearls were overturn-the-furniture-in-your-head good, with a bowl of sabayon so bottomless it was as if shoveling decadence into my mouth would eventually yield to the earth’s core. Chef Hollingsworth, who happened to be slicing diaphanous pieces of green tomato in preparation for the impending dinner service when we ambled off to the kitchen to thank him, and his small army of cooks don’t just make memorable dishes; they make you forget about your surroundings, forget about the cumbrous reservation system and convince you to return before your meal is even close to over just to see what they’ll do next.
The truth is there were about a dozen courses that merit a dissertation-length paean, as each successive set of plates confronts you with something unprecedentedly delicious:
An amalgam of textures and temperatures of beet that would daunt even the most dexterous of kitchens.
Gnocchi, swiftly and surreally engulfed by a swarm of black truffles, which in turn delicately alert your olfactory that something inimitable is about to happen.
A comprehension-defying elision of squab breast and sausage dusted tableside (by maitre d’ and raconteur Larry Nadeau) with pulverized duck crackling and fleur de sel.
The sensual adventure of grilled Snake River Farms ribeye — the blushing piece of beef was beautiful and salty and madly grand, coaxing out of each of us a soft, irrepressible purr.
And on it went. In the end, though, the faultless service and the kitchen’s close-to-perfect execution must be experienced to be believed.
* This was a meal that took several years to come to fruition. In my penultimate year at Cal, we floated the idea of TFL as a graduation present. Alas, a confluence of factors militated against it happening.
** For Per Se, one merely needs to call once at 10am and is put through to a reservationist after about thirty minutes.