Yountville, Calif. — “I have just eaten the best meal of my life. Hands down. No question.” Those were the opening sentences of a column I wrote just five weeks ago after dining at Per Se, in New York.
Stop the presses. I have just experienced a humbling, 32-course culinary bacchanalia at the hands of Thomas Keller, and the statements made just five short weeks ago are now old news.
I have once again eaten the best meal of my life. Hands down. No question.
On a warm evening in July, I experienced a slight hint of what Sir Edmund Hillary might have felt when he reached the peak of Mt. Everest. Though mine was a culinary pinnacle, it was a zenith, nonetheless. For years, The French Laundry has been my gastronomic Mecca. I have finally reached the summit.
The French Laundry in Yountville Calif. is widely considered the nation’s finest restaurant, a reputation it has dutifully earned over the course of the last 12 years. At The French Laundry, excellence seeps from of every nook and cranny and percolates from every personality. It exists— actually thrives— several strata above even the finest restaurants in New York. Nothing compares.
I arrived with three friends; an artist, an architect, and a CEO. Our reservation was scheduled for a 7 p.m. seating but we arrived an hour early and were seated immediately. In an instant the server informed us that Chef Keller had developed a special menu for our party, and instructed us to sit back and enjoy the ride.
There were sixteen rounds of culinary brilliance on tap for our small group. I sat across the table from the architect. The artist and CEO faced each other to my right and left, respectively. When each course arrived, the artist and CEO were served the same item, which was an entirely different dish, though similar in flavor profile, to the course served to the architect and me. As I always do when dining out, we shared and tasted each dish, all 32 of them.
The wine pairings were made with the artist and CEO receiving a similar pour, while the architect was given a different wine to compliment his course. I, as always, being the only teetotaler in the group, resigned myself to drinking distilled water and focusing on the food. Gladly, this would not suffice at The French Laundry. It was after the first course, when the sommelier learned that I would not be drinking, that I was blessed with one of the most brilliantly amazing “touches” I have ever witnessed in a restaurant.
Sensing that I would more than likely be turning down every wine offering, he asked, “Would you like me to design a non-alcoholic beverage tasting to be paired with your meal, sir?”
I have been eating professionally for 18 years and not drinking for even longer— 23 years. Never had that question been posed. I had resigned myself to a life without pairings. Not if Thomas Keller’s staff was going to have anything to say on the matter. Not at the French Laundry.
I’m not talking Shirley Temples’ and Roy Rogers’. Before each course, after he had poured the wines, the sommelier presented me with some of the most unique and inventive beverages I have ever tasted. While the others drank rare French champagnes with their chilled avocado soup, I was served a sparkling apple cider that was the perfect accompaniment. When the artist, architect, and CEO were poured a fine Maderia with their White Truffle Custard, I was given a gourmet root beer with a truffle syrup reduction that paired with the dish perfectly. Other courses were accompanied by such inventive beverages as a Lavender and Chamomile Mimosa, “Chaud Froid” Corn and Truffle Cappuccino, and Golden Monkey Black Tea with Porcini Shavings. Each inventive, each a perfect pairing, and each created on the spot. Brilliant.
Typically, this column comes in at 750 words. I could use twice the column inches allowed and still not begin to breach the surface of the truly amazing aspects of this meal.
After eating a meal such as this, a food writer runs the risk of using overly flowery verbiage and exaggerated adjectives to describe the experience. The problem with this restaurant is that any description I would commit to paper couldn’t do justice to actually sitting in the dining room and experiencing the actual meal. From the maitre d’ to the servers, to the kitchen staff with whom we visited after the meal, everyone was at the top of their game. I couldn’t find one single negative in the entire experience, a rare treat, indeed.
It is the only meal I have ever eaten that needed a halftime break. After the 10th course, the maitre d’ asked if we would like to take a short break in the garden. We did, and the overly attentive service continued, even outside of the restaurant.
A quick tour of the kitchen, and an opportunity to thank Chef Keller in person ended, with what will now be described, as the finest dining experience of my life. While browsing through my notes of the meal I see comments such as “extremely professional and informed staff,” “perfect service,” “best ever,” and “truffles, truffles, truffles!”
In conclusion, 32 courses, five hours and 15 minutes from start to finish, brilliant food, excellent service, good friends, and the country’s greatest culinary institution made for a most memorable evening.