Oh, hi there.
Do you know where I am?
Or, at least I was.
And, oh, what a night we had.
On Saturday, August 16th, I turned the page of another incredible chapter in this journey of mine. But let's begin at the beginning, because this trip was so much more than the amazing, incredible, and wonderful food at The French Laundry. It was about the whole package: being with friends and family, celebrating what has been a pretty fantastic year, immersing oneself in the entire Thomas Keller experience, having the most glorious weather, drinking really good wine, and spending some time in a town that felt remarkably like home.
I flew into San Francisco on Friday the 15th. My flight was late, but I was still on time to meet Shuna at Tartine where we ate and gabbed and laughed until it was time for her to meet a friend and time for me to try and beat the rush-hour traffic out of the city and head up north to Napa County.
I drove north, then west, then north again... the radio blaring, my car windows down, and the dorkiest grin on my face as I sang along at the top of my lungs to every song on the radio. I stopped at a Starbucks to get a cup of iced coffee then continued up Route 29 in stop-and-go traffic as I inched my way toward Yountville.
I turned off 29 onto Madison Street, took a right onto Jefferson, and pulled into the driveway of the house my friends, Marisa, Ron, and Jon, and I rented for our time there. I was the last to arrive, and when I got there, they'd already been cranking the tunes while unpacking and dropped everything to give big hugs hello. My parents had arrived the day before and were staying in their own rental house a few miles away. We brought in my luggage, and after just a few moments of ridding myself of the smell of the airplane and the drive, we hit the town.
Walking four abreast down Jefferson Street (and somehow lined up by height as if we were posing for the poster from The Usual Suspects or the cast of Oceans Eleven -- only hotter... um, heh), we made our way to the market where we stocked up on provisions for dinner -- sausages, fresh corn, spinach, goat cheese, peas, the makings for a vinaigrette, and a few bottles of wine. We walked back to the house, and instead of veering back down Jefferson, we stayed on Washington, and got a little quiet as we neared 6640 Washington Street. We were on the garden side of the street, and we stopped for a moment to take in what was just a few yards away on either side -- an acre or so of garden to our left, and The French Laundry to our right. We stood there for a moment to take it all in, smiled at one another, turned right onto Creek Street, then left on Jefferson, and headed back to the house to fire up the grill. I couldn't wipe the smile off my face the whole rest of the walk home. None of us could.
We made ourselves a wonderful dinner on the grill that night -- so simple, and so perfect for a group of friends who have known one another since 1986, have seen each other through our very best and very worst moments, and can always pick right up where we left off -- even though we are only able to get together once a year, at best.
Jet-lagged and having been awake for nearly 21 hours, I dragged myself off to bed. I wanted to be rested for the big day, for dinner at The French Laundry was the following evening.
I love being an east coaster traveling on the west coast, because I love waking up at 4 or 5 in the morning, and getting to see the place where I am when it's still so very quiet, and only beginning to stir. I woke up that morning around 4:30, and stretched as I laid there in bed, breathing in the fresh, cool air blowing through the window. I tiptoed across the cold bamboo floor into the bathroom across the hall to brush my teeth and freshen up a bit before heading out for a walk. Marisa's husband, Ron, was up early as well, and was heading out for a run. Jon was still asleep, and Marisa had just gotten awake. While the others got ready, I took a little walk through town. It was so great to be in such a small town in which everything is walkable, the architecture and landscaping so lovely, and the gardens and trees so fragrant. It reminded me of my favorite beach town, and a little bit like where I live now. Lots of bungalows, gorgeous gardens, and a general sense of neatness and order, interspersed with at least one house on every block that has, shall we say, "character."
Around 7 o'clock, I circled back to the house, picked up Marisa and Jon, and we walked to Bouchon Bakery for breakfast. A sampling of the pastries was in order, but as soon as I saw a cup filled with thick, creamy yogurt and some apricot purée, I was sold. That, a piece of leek quiche (which, HOLY CREAMINESS, was that good) and a large, steaming cup of coffee, and I knew I was gonna love this town. We sat outside the bakery and enjoyed our treats while we got caught up on one another's lives, eavesdropped on a few conversations, and enjoyed the general feeling of connection many of the regulars there seem to have. It felt so good to be on vacation, and to be sharing it with such great friends.
We began every morning of our trip with a walk to Bouchon Bakery for breakfast and some coffee, and it was such a nice ritual. I miss it, not just for the food, but mostly because I wish Ron and Marisa lived closer so that we could do this kind of morning walk thing more often.
After breakfast on Saturday, we decided to walk home via The French Laundry so we could spend some time nosing around the garden a bit and see the restaurant in the early morning light. I'd already learned how to pace myself, food-wise, in preparation of a chef's tasting menu when I ate at Per Se, so I knew I was just going to be snacking on some almonds and eating a salad or other light lunch and that was it. We walked through the garden (it was just barely 8 o'clock and still nice and cool outside), and marveled at the wide variety of vegetables growing there, and wondered what was going to be on our plate that night.
We made a quick trip to Trader Joe's in Napa for a few provisions, and spent the day hanging around the house listening to music, relaxing in the hot tub, reading magazines on the deck, and taking long walks throughout the town -- exploring neighborhoods, getting ideas for future landscaping projects, and checking out the new construction. One of the sites for a new inn and spa had surrounding it a Portrait Project, which had just gone up a few days before we got there; it was fun to look at the photos on the wall and try and figure out who was who and what their story was.
Early afternoon turned into late afternoon, and we began the getting-ready-for-dinner part of the day. Remember how I said getting ready for dinner at Per Se the first time I went there felt like getting ready for a first date? Well, getting ready to eat at The French Laundry was a little like getting ready for a second date -- you already know you like the person well enough to see him or her again, and there's a slight sense of familiarity, but there's still a little nervous energy going into it because you want to make a good impression.
My parents met us at our house, and we all went over to the restaurant together. We took some pictures of ourselves across the street in the garden, and then walked back across the street, under the arbor and through the blue door into the restaurant. We were whisked upstairs to the private dining room, which, when you look at the front of The French Laundry, is in the front, right-hand corner -- and met our service captain, Zion Curiel.
Zion took great care of us all evening -- he was an absolute joy to meet, and made sure our dinner service ran smoothly. Our sommelier, Anani Lawson, was also great fun, and helped with some outstanding wine pairings throughout the evening.
Now, let's get to the menu. I didn't take photos of the food because I just don't feel comfortable doing that. I'm sure if you Google these dishes by name, you can find photos posted elsewhere by other diners who ate there around the same time we did. Alright, here we go:
*We started the night with a Pierre-Gimonnet champagne and with that had the Gougères and the Salmon Cornets. Perfection in pâte à choux, and decadence in a cone.
* "Oysters and Pearls"-- "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar. As I think most of you know, I was a bigtime oyster hater before starting this blog. Couldn't stand 'em. This is the dish that turned me around. Of course, I really won't eat oysters any other way, so perhaps I'm spoiled, but this dish is the epitome of ocean and cream and salt and smooth. I'd had it before at Per Se, but no one else at the table had, so I just sat there smiling, as I watched everyone take their first bite and realize just how amazing this food was going to be.
* Truffle Custard. Suffice to say, theirs was beautiful. When I made it, not so much.
* Salad of French Laundry Garden Turnips -- Sugar Snap Peas, Red Radishes and Ginger "Aigre-Doux." Imagine beautifully turned, teeny, tiny, baby turnips, blanched perfectly, and arranged most beautifully on the plate with the most delicate sugar snap pea pods and thinly sliced radishes. The "dressing" or "aigre-doux" (French for "sweet-sour") was delicious and really pulled everything together. It's important to note that this dish was plated on a somewhat oblong plate that had an acutely angular base so that the plate tipped forward a bit to better present the dish. Beautiful. With this course, we had a 2005 Prager "Hollerin" Riesling.
* Sweet-Butter Poached Maine Lobster Tail -- Belgian Endive, Watercress and Apricot-Riesling Emulsion. This dish was extraordinary. The lobster tail was done sous vide (as so much of the food there and at Per Se is done), and was so incredibly solid, yet succulent. The endive was gorgeous, and I loved having a bit of apricot on the plate, because it made me think about my favorite breakfast discovery at Bouchon Bakery and made me quite happy. With this course, we had a 2006 Domaine de Pegau "Cuvée Réservée" Chateauneuf de Pape from the Rhone Valley.
* Snake River Farms "Calotte de Boeuf Grillée" -- Potato Confit, Baby Corn, Chanterelle Mushrooms and "Béarnaise" Reduction. This is one of those dishes for which I had no words. I think Marisa summed it up best when she took her second bite, turned to me, and asked, "Would it be bad form to weep right about now?" This was the best dish of the night. We were all pretty speechless at this point and the meat was so tender, it was almost like slicing butter. I also loved the wine we had with this course -- the Shafer One Point Five Cabernet Sauvignon (2005). So smooth, so soft, and so perfect.
We took a short break at this point to walk around the restaurant's courtyard/garden area and get some fresh air. It was a lovely, breezy night, and it felt good to step outside onto our little balcony and walk down to the garden and peek into the windows of the kitchen for a few minutes.
* "Sao Jorge" -- Grilled Globe Artichokes, Carrot Ribbons, Cilantro Shoots, and Caraway Dressing. Thankfully, mine came without cilantro shoots, but this cheese, this Sao Jorge, was really phenomenal. It's boisterous and sharp, but not overpowering or too tangy. My friend, Ron, grew up in the Azores and said this was the standard cheese they'd eat in sandwiches and for snacks, so for him, this course was an unexpected trip down memory lane. With this course, we had a bottle of Turley "Ueberroth" Zinfandel.
* Pudwill Farm's Blueberry Sorbet -- Andante Dairy Yogurt and Puffed Quinoa. Perfect palate cleanser. Cool, crisp, and a great textural pop... but it made me a little sad, because I knew we were nearing the end of our night.
* "Délice Au Chocolat et à la Menthe" -- with Amedei Chuao Chocolate-Mint "Parfait" and Mint Syrup. Okay, I have to link to someone else's photo of this dish, because it was a really interesting presentation. It was really very good (and I love dark chocolate, so I was a happy camper), and was followed by the standard post-dessert service of Mignardises (filled chocolates -- I OD'd on the peanut butter ones) and salted caramels. Anani poured a 20-year Dow's Tawny Port with, and although I'm not usually fan of Port, this was outstanding. Really warm and smooth and complemented the chocolate and mint quite beautifully.
We ended the night with a quick visit to the kitchen so we could thank Corey and the team for preparing a most lovely dinner for us. It was late, and they had already begun breaking everything down to clean up, but it was so nice to meet him and be able to get a little glimpse into that beautiful kitchen that has earned itself a special place in the history books.
They sent us home with a few packages of shortbread, and invited us to linger in the courtyard/garden for a little while with a glass of wine since it was such a beautiful night. My parents left (they had plans the next morning, and it was late), and the four of us just sat at a little table and enjoyed the rest of the night. We called a few friends to gloat about where we were calling them from, and watched as the remaining diners spilled out of the restaurant, had their picture taken in front of the door, and made their way home.
Although it was hard to tear ourselves away from that magical place, we got up from the table, once again thanked our service team who was closing up shop for the night, and made our way home under a clear sky loaded with stars and a bright full moon that lit up the night sky.
* * * * *
The next day, we lolled around like listless manatees hung over from the overindulgence of food and wine the night before. We managed to shuffle through the day, taking naps and reading, and rallied for dinner at Bouchon that night.
I needed to go easy on my digestive system, so I stuck with the familiar -- French onion soup and gnocchi with lightly sautéed vegetables and brown butter. My dad had the Poulet Roti (and loved it), and I'm drawing a blank on what everyone else ordered because once Marisa eyed the small side dish of sweet corn on a neighboring table and decided to order that, SWEET MOTHER OF LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY it was so good it stopped us dead in our tracks. I only got one bite of it, but it was life-changing. Turns out, it was done sous vide in a packet with butter and thyme, then sautéed with a bit of Pernod, and then some crème fraîche whisked in. I am not exaggerating (and I'm sure Marisa will chime in with a comment) that this may have been one of the best things I have eaten in my entire life. It was so good, in fact, that I went back to Bouchon twice before leaving town to eat it again.
So, dinner at Bouchon Sunday night was followed by a brisk walk home and a good night's sleep.
I woke up early Monday morning, took a walk through town, and had another apricot yogurt parfait at Bouchon Bakery for breakfast. I went back to the house and got ready for a very much anticipated lunch meeting in St. Helena at the Culinary Institute of America. Who was my meeting with? Why, the infamous Stephen Durfee, of course. He took me on a tour of the CIA's classroom and kitchen facilities and we had a very nice lunch together. It was so nice to meet him, and to spend time in such a beautiful building. In fact, it was so great to meet him that I'm kind of feeling the need to re-do a certain dessert which caused me great agita (and for which I have blamed him because he was credited with inventing it) -- and do it in a more honorable way. Thanks, Stephen, for a great afternoon. I really appreciate it.
I had the rest of the afternoon to myself (my parents and my friend, Jon, left that morning, and Ron and Marisa were visiting our college friend, Richard, who owns Sonoma Organics) so I did a little shopping in St. Helena, drove the Silverado Trail for a bit, then plopped my butt on a stool at the bar at Bouchon and had a glass of wine and a dish of that phenomenal corn for my afternoon snack.
I went back to the house and took a nap while I waited for Ron and Marisa to get home. We had dinner reservations at Ad Hoc that night, and while I was a little sad to have missed Fried Chicken Night (the Monday night before), I knew the food would be good nonetheless.
As soon as we walked through the door at Ad Hoc, I immediately felt at home. The restaurant's manager Nick Dedier, greeted us and led us to our table. If anyone from the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group is reading this, let me take a moment right now to beg, plead, persuade, cajole, and offer whatever certain, ahem *favors* may sway you to PLEASE PLEASE PRETTY PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF JOHN C. REILLY open an Ad Hoc in Washington, DC, for this was one of the best, most comfortable, most lovely and most perfect evenings I've ever had.
We started with a glass of champagne (we'd had to wait a minute or two for our table because the previous diners had made a mess of the space, so Nick saw to it that we had some bubbly, which was a very nice and unexpected touch), and gave us our menus so we could see what we were going to have. I also ordered a glass of Etude Pinot Noir rosé because both Russ Parsons and David Lebovitz had written recently about rosé in the LA Times and I wanted to give it a whirl (and now I'm a convert -- thanks, guys!).
Here's what we had to eat:
Jacobsen Orchards Stone Fruit Salad
-- fresh plums and nectarines on chopped romaine, general lee cucumbers, candied pecans with citrus mint dressing
Mishima Beef Sirloin Tip
-- with sautéed summer squash, rosa bianca eggplant, juliet tomatoes; tfl garden fingerling potatoes and chive butter
Carr Valley Cheese Benedictine
-- with marshall’s farm wildflower honey with k & j orchards gala apples
Warm Chocolate Brownie
-- with vanilla ice cream, caramel sauce
This was not even a home run; it was a freakin' grand slam and the World Cup and the NBA finals and the Oscars and a drum lesson with Stewart Copeland and a first kiss and the lottery and new lipstick and finding a $20 bill in the back pocket of your jeans and WOO-HOOOO!!! all rolled into one. Every single bite was fresh and extraordinarily good. The ambience was fantastic, and the music was so great -- it felt like someone had plugged in my iPod and played it throughout the restaurant all night. The staff was really great, and I'd go back there in a heartbeat. And, if Ad Hoc were to open in the DC area, I'd eat there at least once a week, because for $48 a person, it was a STEAL. We had a really great night, and yet another nice walk home in the cool night air.
I woke up Tuesday morning to the sound of my cellphone going badonkadonk. It was my birthday, and some of my friends forgot I was on the west coast and started calling at 7 a.m. east coast time, which is... well, you know... VERY EARLY in California. But I didn't care, because it was fun to get those messages. Especially when people sang to me. Ahem. You know who you are.
We sauntered down to Bouchon Bakery for our standard morning repast, and then scooted across the Yountville Cross Road and down the Silverado Trail until we got to the Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. The lovely Leah McNally invited us for a tour and tasting a few weeks prior to my coming out there, and we were so honored to spend our morning there seeing the vineyard, touring the facilities, and tasting the wines. Thank you, Leah, and Ben, who was a great host, as well.
We didn't know it beforehand, but we happened to be there on the day the Chardonnay grapes arrived for pressing and production, so they had a special "blessing of the wines" ceremony at which a priest did his thing and blessed the grapes, the workers, the owners, and the buyers. It was really neat to see, and we enjoyed meeting so many people whose hands and hearts go into some really wonderful wine.
After our wine tasting, we headed over to Taylor's Refresher on Route 29 where we shared a bleu cheese bacon burger, heirloom tomato sandwich, sweet potato fries, chocolate shake and myriad other foodstuffs to fill us up for the wine tastings to come. Sooooo delicious.....
After lunch, we did a tasting at Joseph Phelps (oh, that Insignia!) where we tasted some really great wine and saw the most beautiful little hummingbirds flitting from plant to plant, then drove down the Silverado Trail to get back home. We went back to the house and read and hung out listening to music for the rest of the afternoon before our last dinner together. We decided to go back to Bouchon one last time -- not just for the corn, but also to sit outside and watch the sunset and just enjoy the people watching and a relaxing dinner outside. Our server was really engaging and we had a great dinner. I had the Boudin, as well as a side of macaroni and cheese and a side of the CORN!
Here's the cute All-Clad dish the boudin came in. Must get me some of these:
Sorry I don't have a photo of the boudin -- it looked so good and I was so hungry, there was no time for photography. After our lovely dinner, we headed back to the house for laundry and packing, since we were leaving the following morning.
On Wednesday morning, Ron and Marisa left first for their 10-hour drive back up to Portland. I left shortly thereafter and got to SFO in record time -- enough so that I could hop on an earlier flight, which meant I got back home at 11 p.m. instead of the originally planned 1:30 a.m.
I had many, many hours on the plane to reflect on my time in Yountville and the Napa Valley. It was so wonderful to be able to have my first time at The French Laundry include my parents and my close friends. Because of the private dining room's space constrictions and some travel schedules, I couldn't have everyone there I wanted (hence the booking of a dinner at Per Se the following weekend for the rest of my besties... and I'll write about that next).
I can't wait to go back to Yountville. I'm the kind of person that when she vacations just likes to settle into a place. I'm not a big sightseer. Never have been. I don't consult magazines or make a list of the 25 things I MUST do or see in a certain locale. I just kind of hang. It's the most relaxing thing for me, and it helps me get a feel for a place. Even when I was a kid, all I wanted to do on vacations was hang out by the pool with my cheese and peanut butter crackers and read or people-watch -- even at freakin' Disney World. I'm just not activity girl, so being in a place like Napa is perfect, because I can come and go as I please and just revel in the experience of seeing people, eating great food, walking around, and enjoying the everyday.
So, Carol... you must be asking yourself... after all this time, what was it like to finally have dinner at The French Laundry?
It was incredible. And, almost indescribable.
I have spent nearly two years cooking my way through The French Laundry Cookbook -- getting to know the food, the process, the technique, the order, the methods, the stories, the people, and the nuances that help shape the experience. And, it's had a profound impact on me. I've met Michael Ruhlman. I've met Susie Heller. I've eaten at Per Se. I've met Chef Keller. I've been able to live this most amazing dream, and have my brain and my palate and my fingertips on the keyboard take me places I never even knew I wanted to go. Eating at The French Laundry for the first time was yet another step in that journey. It's not the apex. It's not the zenith. It's not the final chapter. It's not the end. It's an incredibly significant milepost in what has become something so very personal for me, it's really difficult to put into words and do it justice.
You'll see that I italicized the words "for the first time" above, because I do plan to go back again. I don't know when, but I will. There's so much more for me to learn from and experience at The French Laundry, and I look forward to the day when I can turn off Route 29 onto Madison Street again -- my hair a mess from the open car windows, my voice hoarse from singing along with the radio, my lips dry from all the dorktastic and anticipatory grinning, and know that I'm hungry for more, in every sense of the word.
* * * * *
Before I go, MAJOR BIGTIME THANKS to my lovely and dearest friend, Marisa, who documented everything visually, while I tried to focus on the "wow, how the hell am I gonna write about all is?" Many of these photos are hers.
And, speaking of photos.... something pretty special arrived at my house while I was traveling. Wanna see what it is?
Yep. That's the Alinea cookbook. Believe it.
Stay tuned, kids. It's gonna get even more fun up in here.
Up Next: Continuing the birthday celebration at Per Se...
Read My Previous Post: Q&A with Carol, Part 3