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The Butterfly Effect, part 3

The Butterfly Effect
Part 3: A meal

French Laundry


A few years ago, well before Thomas Keller expanded his influence to New York, we received a pleasant surprise in our email inboxes one day. The subject line was, "Mr Keller requests the pleasure of your company." In point of fact, Mr Keller was not personally inviting us, but our dear friends Cam and Anita were. They were lucky enough to land a reservation for four, and we were lucky enough to be their third and fourth wheels. The one catch was that it was a 9 pm reservation on a Tuesday, but when Mr Keller beckons, you snap to.

We arrived at the restaurant shortly before our allotted time, after having met our friends at their bed and breakfast, Maison Fleurie, and enjoyed a nice bottle of white wine and balmy evening air on the roof deck. Anita checked in with the host, who suggested we wait in the garden while they got our table ready. It was a pleasant night, so we thought that was a perfectly delightful idea. And so we sat in the garden, chatted, admired the herb gardens and watched the evening light fade.

After a while it occurred to us that we had been waiting for some time, so Anita went to check in and get an update. Moments later, she came storming back toward us with the real maitre d’ hot on her heels, all but scraping and bowing in her wake. It turns out that whoever we checked in with was not the host, and that person had never communicated our arrival to the host, and so they thought we were a no-show and gave our table away. He offered first to give us a seating the next night, which we could not do. (We had, after all, just driven over an hour to get to this place.) So, instead, we would be seated that night, as soon as a table could be made available, and in the meantime they would begin our amuse-bouches and some champagne while we waited in the garden; plus, they would comp the wine pairings and the foie gras course. We decided that was a suitable arrangement.

And so the marathon meal began. For each course — and there were many, as they were pulling out all the stops for us — there were two preparations, so each half of each couple got a completely different meal from the other. Keller’s dishes are famously whimsical, but I was utterly blown away by the creativity of the dishes, from the combination of ingredients down to the final presentation.

Some were playful, like the Oysters and Pearls, a malpeque oyster with tapioca and caviar. The combination of textures — silky, crunchy, slippery, explosive — was a revelation. The complementary preparation of caviar in a soft-boiled egg was set in an egg bowl that was atop a stack of maybe ten plates of decreasing radius, forming a pyramid, an altar to the dish itself.

Perhaps most remarkable, and certainly most memorable, was the foie course. I’m not a big foie gras fan, though there was nothing wrong with the truffled foie terrine with brioche. But they set in the center of the table a large silver tray with probably a dozen varied salt cellars, each with a unique salt: Black salt, red salt, grey salt; sea salt, mineral salt; salt from France, Hawaii, other places far-flung. With each bite, a sprinkle of a different salt changed the complexion and flavor of the dish utterly. The downside of that was, smack in the middle of a lengthy meal, we filled up pretty heartily on foie gras. It’s a gut buster.

Course after course, wine after wine. The servers whisked away dishes and silverware with perfect synchronicity, replacing them with the same graceful timing. The night grew late, our bellies ached, food kept coming. At one point, during the inevitable change of guard of silverware, Anita grabbed a fork and muttered, "no more new silverware!"

By the time we were in the meat courses, the luxurious food felt more like punishment than reward. Lollipop chops so petite they must surely have come from lamb just barely liberated from its mother ewe’s womb were insurmountable challenges. Tiny slices of tender roast beef might as well have been huge slabs of steak. In the end, we even got tiny take-away containers with the world’s smallest leftovers.

The kitchen staff long gone, the last few servers hovering about us, we finally received the little gourmandises cookies and wrapped up our meal at around 1:30 am. And then we embarked on the hour-plus drive back to San Francisco. The next day we awoke hungover, not from wine but from the sheer quantity and richness of the food. It’s what the French refer to as a "liver attack." We felt like fattened geese primed for the kill.

And yet, clearly, it remains the most memorable meal of our lives. It’s not the sort of place you would go to often, but we have often evangelized it as an experience everyone should have at least once in their lives. I think our livers may almost be ready for a repeat visit.

Next: Part 4 >>

This Post Has 8 Comments
  1. It’s stilll very vivid for me, I ate there a year ago and when my mum met Thomas Keller she said, wagging a finger, “Do you know how long it took me to get a reservation here?” Ha!
    The first long tasting menu after which I have not woken up with a food hangover, was Alinea–didn’t even feel particularly stuffed by the petit fours.

  2. I’ve been tempted to get the French Laundry cookbook. I’ve heard that it’s a beautiful book to peruse, but that making most of the dishes requires a herculean effort.
    The meal sounded fantastic–if not a tad excessive!

  3. Gosh, I don’t remember making the silverwae comment, but I definitely can imagine saying that 😀
    You’ve got an amazing memory, my friend.

  4. Great story, nicely told. I was similarly “hungover” from my one protracted meal there (and it’s been a few years now; I’m almost ready to return).
    But what I want to know is: Did the lout who sent you to wait in the garden steal your table? Couldn’t you have ID’d him?

  5. Tejal: I’ve been dying to go to Alinea! I understand he’s “out-Kellered Keller.” Guess it’s time to book a ticket to Chicago…
    Kevin: My friend Hugh has the FL cookbook. It is a work of art, indeed. Some of the dishes are actually pretty feasible by mere mortals, but on the whole, yes, it’s a tad high-concept for the home cook.
    Anita: I remember it like it was yesterday. 🙂
    CC: Well, I think the person Anita checked in with was one of the staff, who simply screwed up and didn’t communicate to the host. Meh, all’s well that ends well. After all, their snafu resulted in all the more memorable of a meal.

  6. When we lived in Seattle, we put together a potluck with our foodie friends to celebrate Julia Child’s birthday: Every person made a dish from one of her cookbooks, and our most oenologically savvy participant picked the wines, and we all chipped in. (Potluck is sort of unfair, as we all brought prepped ingredients and served the dishes in courses.) It was a great way to try a whole meal of fabulous dishes that would have been too complicated to do on your own.
    We always said the next potluck would use the French Laundry Cookbook, but we never got around to doing it before we moved back to SF…

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    Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, but for the foodie set, its where most of us find our stomachs. Few places in America have such a rich tradit…

  8. I must chime in that my dinner at The French Laundry was the best of my life. I’ve been brave enough to make several of the recipes from the cookbook too. Not all of the recipes require a “herculean effort.” The Salad of Haricot Verts, Tomato Tartare and Chive Oil is fairly easy, with stunning results. I take the shortcut of buying tomato powder at the health food store.
    I recently made “Oysters and Pearls”, which was a hurculean effort, but it was worth it. “Peas and Carrots” was also incredible. His method of cooking lobster yeilds the best tasting lobster ever. The Lobster Broth recipe is amazing too. I’m getting hungry!

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