|An Egg Thing Dish with Potato Chip|
I don’t live to eat. Don’t get me wrong, I know good food from bad food and I like good food, it’s just not high on my priority list of things to do. If I had to choose between going to a nice restaurant and going to a writer’s conference, I’d pick the writer’s conference and happily eat crackers and protein bars. So, when I told my friend I was invited to eat at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, California I didn’t understand her reaction it was somewhere between awe and disgust. The disgust came from the fact that I didn’t actually remember the restaurant’s name and she had to help me out. She begged me to take pictures of every course. Every course? Really? Okay, I told her, I’ll take pictures. Strange woman.
The restaurant didn’t stand out when we drove up to it, in fact there were no visible signs telling us it was anything other than an old building on a corner across the street from a garden, that was later told to me by our waiter provided the veggies for our meal. There was no valet service for the line of limos and fancy cars parked around it in gravel. It was as unassuming as me.
My family parked our car and I followed, in painfully high heels, into the restaurant. It was quaint and no different than a lot of restaurants I’ve been to that were formerly something else, like a barn, or a gas station, or a mini-mart. Its tiny staircase reminded me of the one in my grandfather’s house that was too small even for my feet, and if I didn’t take each step carefully I knew I’d trip in the fancy heels of mine and show everyone the color of my undies.
But I made it to the top of the stairs without so much as a flip of my dress. We were ushered into a private room where our party of eight could celebrate my mother-in-law’s birthday. The reservation for the room was set up a year in advance by my sister-in-law who had to speed dial for days between Noon and 1:30 p.m., the only time the reservation line opened. Still, really? It was that hard to get into this place? Yeah, I know I’d just seen a commercial for the American Express card a few days before, celebrating the guy, whose name I still don’t remember, and his amazing French Laundry restaurant. But I eat to live, food is food.
As we sat waiting for the rest of our party to arrive I surveyed the room. The small lamps scattered around us caught my eye and I laughed. Their translucent shades had the wash, tumble dry, iron-safe symbols on them. I appreciated their humor and subtlety. At each of our place settings an old fashioned clothes pin, with The French Laundry name burned into it, sat on top of a menu printed just that day, since every day was special enough to get its own menu, with a birthday wish emblazed to my mother-in-law. Okay, I’m starting to think this place is pretty cool.
We were ready for the first course, one of eight. The four hour parade of food began with bread the size of a golf ball. It balanced alone in the middle of my teacup plate. Huh. The waiter described the bread. It was made using blah, blah, blah, and cheese. Cheese? My ears perked up when I heard one of my favorite ingredients mentioned. I ate the bread ball in two bites, which I was glad of since the flavors electrified my mouth. It was unlike anything my finely tuned Wisconsin cheesehead taste buds had ever, well, tasted.
Our plates were cleared without so much as a tinkling of glass. A soup cup was placed in front of me. Course two. I glanced in the liquid-free cup and found a few dry ingredients and a purple flower. Hard not to think, and? Four waiters entered the room in Matrix-like suits. They stood behind each lady and in perfect unison poured the soup until the purple flower floated gracefully to the top of a sea of cream. Breathtaking.
Each of the eight, yeah eight, courses were all the same kind of choreographed dance, lifting lids at the same time to reveal display after display of edible art. I wondered early on in the meal how portions that small over four hours could fill me up. I mean I’m used to grazing all day at home and with two kids I rarely sit down to eat. But at the end of the performance, called dinner at The French Laundry, I was relieved to be wearing a dress and not pants with a button and a waist band because surely the button would have popped off.
At nearly midnight we ended the epoch meal with the last of the four desert offerings, an assortment of truffles. I only managed one bite and then suffered a moment of nausea. I was officially full. I can’t say that I have ever been so satisfied calorically in my life.
As the charming restaurant lights receded in my rearview mirror I smiled. I eat to live, and yet that food experience will forever be one of my topics of conversation. And as for pictures, I made a book of them. There are pages dedicated to the edible art, and each photo still makes my mouth tingle.