Any foodie will tell you that Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Yountville, California is a must do restaurant. As such the demand for reservations is always high. Getting one for the day and at the time desired requires technique, dedication and luck. My friend, Leslie, the magician, has these traits and more. Twice now she has garnered reservations for our group, the most recent being for lunch this past Saturday.
When I think of french laundry I think pristine, meticulous, immaculate, impeccable, and stylish because anything French has to be just so, n’est pas?
With this in mind, The French Laundry does not disappoint. The staff is attentive to every detail of your visit. The walled in garden is meticulously laid out and trimmed. The dining rooms are decorated in perfect harmony with the old farmhouse in which they reside. No water spot on glass or smudge on silverware can be seen, nor is there the slightest wrinkle in your napkin, even after hours on your lap. The vegetables grow gladly, albeit briefly, in the kitchen garden until the morning of the day they will be eaten. The fish, fowl, and meats are firm and fresh. The cows that give their milk for custard and ice cream are the happiest in the land. Every plate is just so. There is not a leaf, a dot of sauce, or a cube of meat or fish out of place any where.
So why wasn’t I perfectly soothed and delighted by it all? The tasting menu takes you on a journey through dairy, fish, seafood, fowl, meat, and sweets. Saturday’s trip disappointed me. Leading flavors didn’t pop. Tapestries of taste and texture didn’t always mesh. With each bite I hoped for flavors that would burst in my mouth, play together, linger a bit, and then go on their way. Often my wishes went unanswered.
Sometimes, balance was lost. A dollop of super concentrated tomato overpowered the mildly salty fresh taste of tuna tartare. Sometimes, flavor went missing altogether. The expected clean, earthy flavor of freshly dug-that-morning turnips eluded me. The poor little things had simply been plucked from the earth too young. (Although, I am sure that they were of a variety meant to be harvested within a hair of growth from their starting point as a seed.) When I was a child my father would admonish me for picking vegetables too soon before earth, water, and sun could do their work or for picking them too late when the same elements had toughened texture and taste. Vegetables have to be picked just right he would tell me as he pointed to two pods of sweet peas in the palm of his hand, one just right, the other too old.
Temperature is important, too. Hot dishes were not hot; cold dishes were not cold. Everything seemed slightly off temperature. I wasn’t yearning for too hot or too cold, but I was seeking that just right temperature that comforts or excites.
The expected crowded the menu: The lobster tail, the squab, the loin of lamb, the tuna tartare. Never again do I want to see the pairing of banana and chocolate. But among the many, there were moments of delight: The custard served in the egg shell, the cube of braised lamb (next to the lamb loin), the single ravioli stuffed with a mixture of trumpet mushrooms, and the three bites of moist sturgeon.
Then, I found the ambiance problematic. To explain let me return to laundry. One associates light and air with freshly done laundry. I yearned for both. We ate in the downstairs dining room. Shuttered, it was dark and and airless even for a winter afternoon. The few flowers about the room were pasty. Perhaps, at night, the room transforms itself into a cozy cocoon against the night, but in the day the light demands entrance.
The impeccably set, chosen-just-right tables were a little too close for my comfort. Even though diners spoke discreetly, in low tones, threads of conversation so distinctly wafted from table to table that at times I felt that I was intruding on my fellow diners. If this were a lively space with big voices talking all at once and jolts of laughter booming throughout, the commotion, itself, would have created screens of privacy around each table and the close knit seating wouldn’t matter. I admit that I was jealous of the upstairs diners who, bathed in natural light, enjoyed their lunch with vistas of kitchen garden beyond and with what seemed like more space among the tables. Several times I slipped upstairs to visit the ladies’ room, take a breath of fresh air, and let the light stroke me before descending once again into the darkness.
Perhaps, I expected too much. Or perhaps, my expectations are changing. Maybe, I wish to return to simpler things. It could be that within the ordinary, I seek delight’s surprises. Like the delight of freshly done laundry. Whatever it may be, I am grateful that I can spend a Saturday afternoon with my husband and friends, sharing a meticulously prepared meal in an old farmhouse, remembering the pleasures of other times and places, and telling stories that make us laugh and cry. For this I am eternally grateful.
All original contents Copyright 2009 Mary E. Slocum