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The French Laundry

A Meal of a Lifetime

How do you go about describing one of the best meals of your life? By thinking back over it a couple of days later when the full weight of it has finally begun to sink in. Surprise and delight are the two main things you experience at the French Laundry and they are both slow to fade. The preparations are designed to taste good and to tantalize your senses, and not just your sense of taste but of scent, memory and especially whimsy. Dishes are not overburdened with sauce; they are in some ways minimalist compositions that highlight the highest quality of ingredients.

One of the dishes that most amazed me was spinach cooked in butter with sel gris and "calotte de boeuf" (basically a piece of steak). But the spinach was ethereal and the beef was the most tender and flavorful I have ever had. When I asked the waiter about it he told me that the Snake River Ranch in Idaho breeds a cross of Wagyu and American black angus. On the side was one of my favorite things, a morsel of marrow, that most rich, unguent, delicious center of the bone. But it was breaded and fried crisp on the outside. This is what I mean by surprise and delight. Many people have heard of signature dishes like the "ice cream cone" of salmon tartar or the "pearls of tapioca and caviar" but you cannot help also being dazzled by the array of more petite delicacies set before you in mouth-sized morsels.

A chef's tasting menu is not like ordering at a restaurant. You are putting yourself in the chef's hands. You are saying in effect, "Show me what you've got." So many things impressed me about the meal and the number of courses was so staggering that it is difficult, near impossible, to catalog them all. For one thing, the tasting menu that we enjoyed was not an exact replication of what was on the menu. There were many courses of things like appetizers and desserts that were "surprises". While both Lee and I ordered the chef's tasting menu, our selections were different at every course. From what I'm told the tasting menu changes about 40% every day.

Dining at the French Laundry is akin to attending a top-notch performance; it's a four-hour affair. Everything is orchestrated to give you the best possible experience. The setting is a lovely old rustic building that, while perfectly comfortable, in no way competes with the main event -- the food. The service is as it should be, a team of people dedicated to making your experience as close to flawless as possible. Rarely do most of us get the chance to be waited on by so many gracious, polite, knowledgeable and yet unobtrusive servers. And in a restaurant that is expensive, they do not show the slightest attitude at your choices of meal, or wine for that matter. Without a doubt the French Laundry is the most expensive restaurant at which I have eaten. But was it worth it? Yes.