Friday, June 22, 2007
The French Laundry: Heavy on the Starch
There are some things in this world best left to the imagination; people, places or events so idealized they could never live up to the expectations built up around them -- your wedding day or a mènage a trois with a pair of identical twins or, in this case, dinner at what has been referred to as the best restaurant in the world-- The French Laundry.
Ten years ago, a friend organized a chauffeur-driven pilgrimage to the French Laundry. Being fresh out of culinary school, I could scarcely afford the dinner, so I politely declined the invitation. Besides, I had been taught that limousines were for funerals and diplomats, so riding in one was out of the question. I was anything but diplomatic in those days and, had I chosen to spend what little money I had from my $8.50 an hour kitchen job, the only funeral I would have been attending would have been my own after my parents decided to kill me.
I'd regretted not going ever since. I've since wondered what it would be like to dine there. When my friend Lyle invited me to join him in place of his mostly vegetarian and largely non-drinking girlfriend, I said yes. Two days later, I went to see Thomas Keller interviewed along with Dorothy Cann Hamilton at the Commonwealth Club. I enjoyed hearing him discuss his philosophies regarding life, food and a life in food. I was excited that I would soon be sitting in his dining room eating what he had to offer.
I don't think anyone living beneath a certain sky-high tax bracket can go to The French Laundry without making it into some sort of event. It is not, by it's own design, a place one goes to grab something to eat. When we visit, we pack our emotional baggage full of inflated expectations and drag it behind us through the little garden and into the front door. It is the one thing the hostess who greets you is unable to check.
My fellow diners and I arrived on time for our 6:30 reservation and were whisked into a little side room, dimly lit and cool like a cave with walls of river rock, where our table awaited us. A little window cut into the rock showed off the wine room. If this was, as I had sensed, a place of worship, we were seated in its chapel.
Two couples shared our space. One pair dined with such grim seriousness that I thought one of them-- or their relationship-- might have only days to live. The other couple, from Houston as I gathered from their limited conversation, looked a little bewildered and on their best behaviour. I leaned into the center of our table and whispered to my dinner companions, "Why is everyone so quiet? No one seems to be having a good time!"
It was true. Except for us, of course.
Our waiter soon introduced himself, explaining and expanding upon the nine course menu. He was aware of the two bottles of Burgundy we had brought with us and suggested that we might start with a bottle of champagne, since it went so well with the first four courses. Lyle was presented with a wine list and we were given a moment to look it over. Lyle passed the list over to me and I browsed. We had agreed amongst ourselves that we weren't interested in champagne, but some sort of white wine was definitely in order. I saw a short list of Austrian wines that interested me. When the waiter returned, asking which champagne we might prefer, I told him we were interested in drinking a still white wine instead. Feeling rather dense, I said as much and handed the list back over to Lyle. Our waiter once again suggested champagne. We once again declined.
Enter the sommelier. We assumed he was the sommelier, since he was very knowledgable about wine, but he did not introduce himself as such. I explained that I was looking at Austian wines. Lyle mentioned his preference for crisp minerality, for something interesting at around $60. The gentleman returned almost instantly with precisely what we were looking for-- and Austrian Riesling. We were very delighted with his selection.
The food began its slow, steady dance to our table. And I do mean dance. Movements are choreographed. Servers perform what is known as ballet service-- dishes are served in synchronized sweeps by, in our case, two people. Plates from the left hands glide down in front of diners one and three followed by plates from the right, supplying diners two and four. It is all seemless, perfect. A simple, well flavored gougère here, a doll-sized black sesame tuille cone filled with Scottish salmon served there. Both charming. The two amuses seemed to carry with them bold-faced bullet points in what I imagine to be Thomas Keller's mission statement: the former promised a mastery of understatement, while the latter promised the evening of theater that lay ahead of us. Conflicting messages certainly, but not incompatible.
Our food selections were noted and our deciphering of lampshades applauded by our waiter.
Wash. Do not use bleach. Iron. I wondered how many of the other diners in the restaurant had an intimate knowledge of laundering. We turned our attention briefly to the linen. Not a crease or stain to be found. I noticed that my napkin was the size of an adult diaper and was, in fact, folded as such over my lap. I quietly tucked the edges around my hips and under my crotch and hoped no one noticed as I looked down to admire my handiwork.
With the meal under way, our conversation turned to food, as it invariably does with foodies. "There's a slight bitterness to the foie gras. What is that?" ."Lyle? Okay. Did that little Tokyo turnip just explode in your mouth like it did in mine?" "Did he say Jurassic Period salt?"
And such like.
I am pleased to tell you-- pleased to tell myself, at any rate-- that I was too busy enjoying the company of my dining companions and the food before us to be snapping many photos of the food. I did manage one or two, like the one of the Line-Caught Atlantic Halibut shown below:
I made an attempt to capture the pretzel rolls-- Lyle's favorite thing-- on film, but it looked rather unappealing in the photograph. "Did you try a pretzel roll yet? God! It tastes just like a pretzel!" We then explained to him that it was, in fact, a soft pretzel which merely lacked a knot.
As we finished off the bottle of Austrian Riesling and tucked into a beautiful Volnay given to Lyle as a birthday present, our conversation became more animated. So, too, did the main dining room. I actually heard laughter from some place other than our table. I turned around to see a room full of 55 to 65 year-olds dining and chatting. Over my right shoulder, a table of European businessmen with deep voices and, surprisingly bright-colored socks. I wondered what they were talking about and where they would go after dinner. I made no plans to join them.
Back at our table, the conversation turned to Evelyn Waugh-- Brideshead Revisited and my favorite character, A-A-Antoine. He had a stutter. Lyle's friend Jack and I offered our impersonations. I asked if he had ever seen or read The Loved One. He offered a detailed rendition Liberace's brilliant upselling of funeral services at Whispering Glades. I was impressed. Later in the meal, I learned why Jack took such an interest in that scene-- he's a funeral director.
At this point I went up the narrow staircase-- a staff member nearly hurling himself over the bannister to make way for me-- to wash my hands for the second time and, for the second time, found the single occupancy room empty and spotless. It seemed as if it were merely for show-- toilet tissue wrapped in silk ribbon, unused. Cute, but I wondered if people in polite society ever rid themselves of unneccesary body weight, or if they had people to do that for them. I returned to our table to find my diaper folded neatly on the table. We finished our sixth course -- a Snake River Farm "Calotte de Boeuf Grillée"-- with not too much comment. It was excellent. Techinically perfect. Of course it was.
Yet something was not quite right. At least to me. I couldn't quite put my finger on it. The food was uniformly beautiful, flavorful and perfectly executed to the detection of both my eyes and palate. The dishware and silver were often conversation pieces. The rooms were lovely-- well-appointed and understated as though to counterbalance the fact that this building once housed a brothel.
And the staff? A sudden chill came over me. Or was that the Glacé de Fruits Exotiques set before me after the cheese course?
There was, below the smooth, perfect surfaces of the French Laundry, a subtle uneasiness; a tautness under its skin, like that of a woman fresh from a facelift-- eager to please her wealthy lover and unable to relax her facial muscles.
I scanned the members of the staff. Everyone was clean, very attractive and well tailored. They all smiled, but not too widely, as though no one should have a better time than the guests. Eye contact was always just narrowly avoided. Or did I imagine that? If our waiter would attempt levity, he would say, "I am only joking" before any of us had even the time to react. The fear of offense was fascinating. There was a Stepford-like quality to the members of the front-of-house staff that I found troublesome.
When he spoke at the Commonwealth Club, Thomas Keller stated that "Cooking is about repetition-- the perfection of the task at hand." I would agree with him there. Mr. Keller has perfected his cooking through strict repetition. But that repetition seems to makes its way into the dining room as well, which is unfortunate. When our food was brought to the table, it was described in marvelous detail, but it the delivery of information gave the impression of having been memorized, scripted and completely uniform. No color. Words like gougère and gratinée were mispronounced.
When our bill was presented, we were disappointed but not terribly offended that we had been charged $50 for uncorking the bottle we'd brought and had opened for us. In my experience as a waiter, if a guest brings a bottle of wine yet purchases a bottle from a restaurant's wine list, the corkage fee is waived. But I do not make policy and we were already of the mind to pay it before we even sat down, but it struck a slightly sour note at the end of our evening.
As we looked over our bill, Jack made a generous offer-- that he would pay for the food if the rest of us took care of the rest. Then the waiter, who happened to be standing between Lyle and Jack, offered that he would be happy to split the check four ways, if we liked. Jack replied that that woulnd't be necessary and that we just needed a minute to figure out the bill. Instead of leaving us alone with our bill, our waiter picked it up from the table. I cannot remember why, but I'm sure there was a logical reason for it. Lyle asked what the total was and, in what I hope was an attempt to be helpful, our waiter then read our bill-- which was, I'm sure quite conservative by French Laundry standards-- out loud.
"Food: $1,020... Wine: $166..."
We were pleased to know that everyone in the room knew how much we spent. Perhaps our waiter thought that a guest at one of the other tables might avail us of his or her superior math skills. We were, all of us, quietly horrified.
The check was paid. Shortbread cookies and copies of the night's menu were distributed, two round coasters with the restaurant's name on them that reminded me of dress shields were pocketed and we left.
On the drive home, we talked about our experience. We all enjoyed it very much. The food was wonderful, but only the little Tokyo turnips and chocolate-covered macadamia nuts were hailed as "amazing." We were well-sated bodily. Just enough food, just enough wine. But none of us saw it as truly fantastic. Not the best meal ever.
And that is our own damned fault. Or mine, at least. There must be such tremendous pressure to operating a restaurant like The French Laundry. It's an institution. It's a shrine to which so many come expecting the greatest meal of their lives. With food prices of $240 ($270 if one opts for foie gras), one almost demands it. How can one restaurant satisfy all the unspoken expectations of, well, everyone who has ever dined there, or ever will? It can't.
Perhaps Mr. Keller is correct in his approach of uniformity and repitition. It seems to be working for him and, I'm sure, the majority of diners there. It is his consistency that has kept his machinery well-oiled and running more or less smoothly since 1994. I just don't think it's for me. Which I can accept as either my own virtue or my own flaw. Whatever the case, it is my own.
I am, however, extremely glad I had the opportunity to dine there. I applaude Keller's food, his technique and his sense of fun-- at least on the plate. Now if he could just get his waitstaff to loosen up...