For those unfamiliar, The French Laundry is considered one of North America’s premiere dining establishments, and it’s chef, Thomas Keller, has developed something of a cult following.
The meal was remarkable. I won’t go into the details here–you can witness it, blow by blow, in the Flickr Photoset I created of the meal.
What’s not captured in the photos is the totality of the experience. Eating at The French Laundry isn’t just sitting down for a good meal. It begins with the drive up there — to Yountville, in Napa Valley. About an hour north of “the Bay Area,” this excursion serves to leave your day-to-day life behind and travel to another place — a jaw-droppingly beautiful countryside, nestled in hills, groomed with agriculture.
Upon arrival, we were seated in an alcove off the main dining room. This was by chance, but it was delightful. We had the building’s original stone masonry around us, connecting us with the site’s history in a very direct way.
The serving staff is a near theatrical operation. We had a main server (I believe her name was Marta), whose job was to take our primary orders, and to appear throughout the meal to make sure things were going well, to suggest appropriate wines, and generally to look after us. But over the 9 courses, we must have had at least 7 different people serving us food. Some had specific roles — the Truffle Bearer and the Truffle Shaver and the Sommelier. Others were just food servers. It was a remarkable feat of orchestration.
The food, of course, is exemplary. I won’t attempt to describe the flavors — that would be an exercise in futility. Suffice to say it was mind-blowing, mouth-melting, and challenging. I marvelled at the “vision” (“taste”?) of the chefs to know that they could create such savory medleys.
The meal lasted about 3 hours. 3 hours of eating rich, decadent food, drinking complex surprising wines, and talking about various and sundry. We spent another 30-45 minutes in the garden afterward, relaxing, digesting, and getting our heads together to complete the trip home.
Almost from the moment we entered the garden, I felt a seeping sadness. Because the meal was over. Because those flavors — that exquisitely marbled beef, cooked rare, that chocolate mousse cake, so smooth and cream, that buttery buttery lobster, those candies, etc. etc. — were fleeting. I was already beginning to forget what things tasted like. Or I couldn’t trust my memory’s re-creation of those flavors. I had never had a meal so thoroughly satisfying from start to finish.
And when would I again?
I pretty much couldn’t eat for the next 24 hours. The idea of eating pedestrian day-to-day food has as much appeal as placing ashes in my mouth. I didn’t want my tongue to lose its connection with this bounty it had experienced.
But I know it must. Obviously, I need to eat. Obviously, I must move on.
And what surprised me is how sad this made me. How distraught I was. (I know this sounds… pathetic. Boo-hoo! You ate at the French Laundry! Oh how you’ve suffered!) But I have to admit I did face some existential despair. It almost called into question the value of the experience — because yes, it was so good, but it’s also, by nature, FLEETING, and you can’t help but feel like anything after that is a letdown.
Should one forgo the mountaintop if, in relation, other experiences fall short? Does one visit the mountaintop as much as possible (which is: until you have no more money)? Does one simply accept the marvelous bounty placed before you, live in THAT MOMENT, and just move the hell on? Part of the point of a French Laundry experience is the memory created — how do you move on from that? How do you retain the magic of that memory without it overshadowing what you feel today?