I hope you enjoyed yesterday's photos of The French Laundry. (And if you didn't, feel free to leave a scathing comment here.) Now it's time to get to the real meat of the meal and answer everyone's burning question: how was it?
I am struggling with the answer. It's not because I don't know the answer, but because I worry how it might sound. After all, I know it is a privilege to be able to eat there -- and I don't mean in a we-got-a-table! sort of way, I mean in a we-can-pay-the-hefty-Visa-bill sort of way. Somehow, criticizing a meal that many people would never, could never, have the opportunity to eat seems crass. It seems pretentious and self-absorbed, and even wackier when you consider that every bite was absolutely delicious.
But the truth? The truth is that we were not blown away.
The first time I went to The French Laundry was nearly four years ago. It was Mr. Food Musing's 40th birthday and I wanted to do something special. At the time, I didn't write about food for fun, much less for money, and I hadn't eaten at very many high-end restaurants. Still, our expectations were high. How could they not be? The French Laundry could quite reasonably be called the country's best restaurant run by the country's best chef.
That first meal exceeded our expectations.
But this time it was different. For one, we have eaten there before. We have also eaten a lot of other very nice meals both here and abroad. That is not to say that we would be considered true epicures by certain standards, but we have been exposed to ingredients, preparations, and combinations that we hadn't the first time around. Our palates are changed. Hell, nearly half the cells in our body are new. We are, simply, different people.
We have also been through a life-changing tragedy, the kind that shapes you into a different human being with a different outlook on everything, including food. That is probably the biggest reason that I hesitate to critique the meal: I don't want to. It feels like looking a gift horse in the mouth. In the end, it is much more important to enjoy the meal's wondrousness than to belabor its downfalls.
The trip itself was perfect, one of the best days we have spent since Mr. FM's accident. We set off after lunch with the sun beating down on the tops of our heads and arms as we headed across the Golden Gate Bridge. Even with my eyes closed -- don't worry, I wasn't driving -- I knew the second we crossed that invisible line into Wine Country, knew instantly because of the smell. (If only I could bottle that hot, dry, full, sweetly fecund smell and dab it behind my ears on sad days and rainy days...) Once we checked in to our hotel and realized there was a pool, we zoomed back up the road to Target (yes, even in Eden there is a Target) and bought swimsuits. We spent the rest of the afternoon by the pool, reading, snoozing, swimming. We poured a glass of wine, then changed for dinner and walked past a riot of pink and purple flowers lining the road to the restaurant. The sun followed everywhere we went, warming me through and through in my short sleeved dress. We enjoyed a leisurely meal and breathed in the sweet night air on the walk home again. In the morning, we walked down the street in the opposite direction, I in my sundress and Mr. FM in bare feet , and brought back a bag of buttery croissants and sweet cheese danishes, brioche toast and caramel macarons from Bouchon Bakery. I moved a chair into the crescent of new sunlight on the patio and read the paper. I forgot about all of the things bothering me back home. Bliss.
So maybe you can understand my hesitation to admit that it was not the best meal of our lives, that it was not nearly as exciting as we'd remembered or as wonderful as other meals we've had. But the bottom line was it was just not that interesting. Was every dish cooked to perfection? Yes. But is a seared scallop over thick, applewood-smoked bacon and English peas innovative? What about foie gras on toasted brioche, or steak with bordelaise sauce? Even if these dishes are perfectly prepared, they are not that intriguing. Dare I say it? I could even make some of these at home. Not with as much artistry or skill; surely the sauce would be muddier or the peas less sweet, the steak imperfectly cooked or the brioche (certainly) not homemade. But still, these are dishes I could replicate closely enough and, more importantly, conceive of in the first place. I didn't eat very much that was truly eye-opening.
Still, the high points of the meal are worth noting. Looking back over the photos, the thing that stands out is the exquisite beauty of each plating. Another thing to celebrate is the third course, our favorite, with its smoky Japanese eel and silky sea urchin; the candied pine nuts sent this dish over the top. Just that small detail, that small extra nuance of nuttiness, toastiness, and creaminess made it otherworldly. My tortellini with fava beans, olives, and mint foam was so much more than the sum of its parts. The sweet, pure tomato confit on my small tuile cone that started things off. The "oysters and pearls," that much-celebrated dish of creamy tapioca, oysters, and caviar* is practically worth the trip alone. These things deserve their due.
But in the end, I couldn't help feeling disappointed that nothing really "got" me. Nothing made my feet dance beneath the table. That is what I was looking for, and I am sad, and just a little bit let down, that I didn't find it.
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*It is my one regret that I did not request the "oysters and pearls" with my vegetarian meal because let me tell you, turnip cream and umeboshi jelly does not even come close, folks. But otherwise, I didn't feel cheated by ordering the vegetable menu.