John Turi - Wine, Places to Try

The French Laundry, A Tale of Food and Wine Pleasure

“When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about.” ― Thomas Keller

An individual approach is needed, even before you decide to dine at The French Laundry. One must be exploratory. Also, it helps if you’re someone who enjoys creative and diverse foods within a highly skilled fine dining setting.

I would not recommend that you go into this experience thinking or expecting your life to be miraculously transformed into a higher level of consciousness, although mine nearly was. Do, however, expect to be transported into a living machine that moves with the gracefulness of Swan Lake, when being performed by the Bolshoi Ballet, and with the most accurate precision, you’d find inside a Rolex. It’s something to behold.

If you’re dining with others, make sure that they have the same appreciation for food, wine, and the joie de vivre that’s truly required to appreciate this dining experience.

I grew up enjoying fine dining, which began for me when I was six years old. As a boy living in New Jersey, I would visit my great uncle Frank on my mother’s side and, well, let’s just say, ‘he was connected.’

Early Induction

My late Uncle Frank was a particular kind of guy. He enjoyed the finer things in life. His home was years ahead of its time, from the in-wall vacuum system to the basement that was a replica, just a bit smaller, of Studio 54. Yes, my uncle had a disco, with studio lighting and a full bar in his basement. There were large Italian statues, white shag carpeting, and oil paintings throughout. His living room was the size of most people’s entire homes. But what I remember most were the black and white photos that covered the walls. Each photograph featured Uncle Frank with his arm around celebrities and influential politicians. One after another, there was Uncle Frank with Sinatra, Lou Costello, Joey Bishop, Tony Bennett; the list of entertainers and political leaders was endless. He was a man with clout, he was known about town, he had east coast class and rubbed elbows with people that he could help if they ever needed it.

How Uncle Frank acquired his “status” is still a family secret. Seriously, no one talks about it. At least no one ever spoke to me about it and, trust me, I asked. At the very least, I hinted at it in many roundabout ways but, in my family, mum’s the word. Italians never discuss family business, and if you’ve seen the Godfather, then you know what I mean. “Never talk about the family business, outside of the family!”

There was many a Saturday night that we’d drive to Uncle Frank’s home in Franklin Lakes. We’d make our way up that grand driveway and pull up to what, for me, felt like a mansion. I was captivated. Every time. It never got old. I was completely fascinated by his home, by his larger than life character and I was taken into the welcoming arms of his family. Even at such a young age, it was mesmerizing. Years, many years later, after Uncle Frank was gone, when watching “The Sopranos”, it just kind of hit me. Maybe I don’t need to know the details of ‘that part’ of his life, of what he did to provide for his family. Maybe it’s not something I need to be answered. Maybe it’s better off left where it is, a mystery. Something I loved doing was getting into his big Lincoln Continental, and he’d drive all of us (me, my mom, my dad and my sister) into New York City. When we’d arrive, it just felt like the sea, like the city was parting just for him.

I remember driving into Little Italy, a part of the city that’s nearly all gone now, having been swallowed up and absorbed by Little Chinatown. We’d arrive at our destination, and Uncle Frank would just pull up and stop in the middle of the street. We’d get out and then, seemingly out of nowhere, someone would get in and take the car away. That kind of thing never happened to my mom or dad, but something about it happening then just felt ‘normal.’ A traditional stop that we never missed was Ferrara’s Bakery on Grand Street. All the adults would order espresso and Uncle Frank would get me a hot chocolate and a cannoli.

As an adult, a highlight for me has been the joy I’ve experienced as I’ve taken up cooking and found the pleasure and passion of ‘home cooking.’ This is especially true with having mastered one particular treat that was a childhood favorite. The cannoli I grew up with. One day I made a batch for my late father, which turned out to be one of those ‘catching lighting in a bottle’ moments. He bit into it, nodded approvingly and smiled. He was a man of few words and was not a fan of bullshit. If he liked or if he didn’t, he’d tell you. Period. But in that moment, sitting there with my hardcore, Italian – New Jersey Dad, it was a kind of magic. He really liked it and that was a big deal for me. It still is.

When people talk about comfort food, it’s about their reflection of nostalgia, about a feeling that a particular food brings up for them. For me, the cannoli is that food. It’s the memory of my family.

When my family ventured out of Little Italy and took us to the heart of the city, we saw my Uncle Frank more frequently. He would invite us to the most exclusive dining places around. New York City in the seventies hosted some of the most famous restaurants of its time and people still talk about them today. No doubt some, if not all the ones I’m going to share with you, will be familiar. They include Delmonico’s, Waldorf-Astoria, Barbetta, 21 Club, Le Pavillon and two of the most infamous, The Cloud Club, and The Rainbow Room at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

The biggest recollection I have of all these places beyond the service, beyond the food, beyond the great choices, was that Uncle Frank would just show up and they would always, always have a table for him. As with most kids (except those home-schooled kids and future Chefs on Chopped) I didn’t know the difference between French and Italian, Scandinavian and European. I couldn’t tell you a thing about Coq au Vin, Croque Monsieur or Ossibuchi alla Toscana. But I knew that something special was happening. I could tell you if I liked how something tasted or loved how something smelled. I could certainly tell how the experience made me feel and without question, I was aware of the way the staff treated us, cared for us and made sure that what was placed before us was not only to our liking, but beyond. I could have never expressed it like this at the time, but looking back, I now know that they were completely committed to giving us an unforgettable experience, and that stayed with me.

Those years as a young boy, experiencing fine dining at that level was totally lost on me; but there was something deeper getting under my skin, sinking in. Although I was not aware of it at the time, years later all of that culinary passion and precision, service and attention to detail would all come to the surface, and it would be these moments that I’d remember. They were certainly formative experiences, and I’m grateful for having them, not to mention they’re some of my favorite memories.

That fondness for formality and high-end dining, that love for superb food and wine, resurfaced when I got married. My wife, Shawn Marie, and I seek out such experiences. More than me, she requires being cared for when dining, loves the attention to detail, appreciates superb service and that lust of hers made me realize what I had been missing. She also applies that level of care, attention and respect to her life and her business, which is a creative and strategic consulting company, and she naturally also applies that same degree of style and aesthetic when buying shoes.

Setting My Sights

When I posted on social media that I was going to The French Laundry, one of the biggest questions people asked me was, “How did you get a reservation?” The answer was easy. When you want to dine at The French Laundry, you must call two months, to the day, ahead of time. That’s what I did and set our reservation, not on the first, not on the second, but on the third attempt. However, had that failed, I had a backup plan. One of my wife’s friends was a sous chef for Thomas Keller at The French Laundry before she took over for him at Bouchon and she told us that if need be, she will get us a table. The group of friends we were planning to have this dinner with agreed that January 16th would be a perfect date and, on that Saturday night, we’d head up to Yountville and have an unforgettable meal.

So, on November 16th at 10 am I dialed the number on the website and the call immediately went to voicemail. I dialed again, the same thing. It was starting to feel like I was phoning a radio station for free front row tickets to a Rolling Stones concert. I feverishly dialed a third time and, as they say, that was the charm. The phone rang once, twice and then a soft-spoken woman answered and asked how she could be of service. A few moments later I had a table for six at 5:30 pm, two months to the day. Keep in mind, getting through was just the beginning of the reservation process! After I had given her my credit card, she informed me that a $100 charge would apply if anyone in our party were unable to keep their reservation. I was also informed that we could lose the reservation if the party was smaller than it was secured for and again, for us, it was a party of six. In addition, I had to confirm via an email that they sent me, acknowledging our reservation and the terms of the reservation. The final act in this 5-step reservation process was that 72-hours before our meal with them, I had to call and leave a voicemail, confirming that we’d be keeping our reservation.

The friends joining me for this dinner have, like myself, dined at the best restaurants in the world and have consumed the finest wines and liquors on the planet. At my table would be two certified sommeliers, as well as a beer expert and world traveler. One of the somms has also been a fine-dining server at one of the most respected restaurants in Southern California, for over 13 years. That criterion coupled with me, a self-proclaimed ‘wine snob’ of the highest degree and food enthusiast to boot… good or bad, this was going to be an experience we were all going to remember.

I now had a two-month waiting period before the meal, so the two other gentlemen I would be dining with, and I started a private text-messaging group about Thomas Keller. By the time this meal would take place, our wives would look at us like schoolboys talking about the first time they each got to third base with a girl.

A message I sent to Dave and Michael (my two dining companions) was a blogger who had just dined at The French Laundry and said the service was sub par, that his meal was overrated and that the price was just ridiculous. As I did some deeper digging into this particular person’s past reviews, I quickly learned that I was dealing with an amateur foodie. His claim to fame was eating at Chick-Fil-A during the gay marriage boycott. I read reviews written by other bloggers, who also stated that the experience was lost on them and one even said that The French Laundry was past its prime.

During our two-month countdown, I watched countless videos on YouTube of Thomas Keller, while at his restaurant, talking about the ingredients they use, how they are all sustainable and locally sourced. I also watched videos from former chefs who went on to create their Michelin-rated eating institutions. But of ALL the videos I watched, all the blogs I read, the reviews scanned, there was only one person whose opinion I trusted. One person who would tell it ‘like it would be when I sat down’ and this man is probably the only chef, writer, and person that matters to me in the world of food. That man is Anthony Bourdain.

I found a 2012 bootleg video on YouTube of Bourdain, when he did a show called, ‘A Cook’s Tour.’ In this twenty minute video, Bourdain is dining with famed chef Eric Ripert, writer Michael Ruhlman, and Chef Scott Bryan. The courses that were served to these four famed guests are the sole reason I made the reservation. Thomas Keller hires only the best, helps them hone their already brilliant skill set and makes team decisions about food based on how it should be plated. After watching the video at least five times (if not more) and taking in the experience Bourdain and the others had during this meal, I knew I was ready for whatever would be plated before me. Dinner at The French Laundry was a MUST!

Getting There

It was a lovely, rainy, late afternoon in Yountville. There was a 50-degree chill in the air and, given the perpetual perfect southern California weather we have, this change was quite welcoming. It set the tone for the night ahead and made the experience we were about to have felt comfortable and relaxed. The outside area leading into The French Laundry is modest. This part of town is very food-centric, and as you exit the St. Helena Highway on Madison Street, you will see a highly rated bistro called R&D Kitchen, which is close to the Napa Valley Lodge. A few meters ahead, you make a left turn on Washington Street and to your right is the Girard Winery. Next to Girard is a place I want to visit on my next trip, Redd Wood, a hip eatery with pasta, locally sourced wines and wood-fired pizza. Down a few more yards, you pass Jessup Cellars Tasting Gallery and Ma(i)sorry Napa Valley, a place that’s filled with things that give interior designers wet dreams. Finally, just ahead of the gallery, on the left, you have to look for it, because your destination is there, on the corner of Washington Street and Creek St. It’s rather unassuming from the outside, but I can tell you that as my wife and I walked up, hand in hand, it did not keep the boyhood butterflies away. We were here. This was happening.

Parking was very easy (not as easy as it was for Uncle Frank, but easy nonetheless). The entire street across from the restaurant and next to The French Laundry ‘outdoor public’ garden was vacant, so we parked there. The garden is a completely open public area. There are no fences, no gates, and absolutely anyone can walk about and admire what they’re growing there. Also, for anyone who’s paying attention, it’s clear how much consistent and accurate nurturing goes into a place like this. Sadly for both of us, my wife did not have the footwear for such a thing, and a hint of rain also shortened our visit to the open garden but made it no less inspiring.

As we entered, my friend Dave, the world traveler and beer connoisseur, gave me a thumbs-up and, in that moment, we both mentally scratched ‘dining at The French Laundry’ off of our bucket lists.

We were escorted upstairs at the landing, were taken to the right and seated at a beautifully set large, round table in the corner, next to the windows. My other friend, Michael (the somm, cheese expert and fine dinner server himself) told me that he judges all dining places on the cleanliness and style of the bathroom. The French Laundry wins five stars for the quality of their toilets, sinks, tile work, towels and attention. My wife agrees.

Speaking of Michael, he and his wife were a few moments detained, and they joined us about 10 minutes after we’d been seated. Since they were late, it’s customary that the first bottle of Champagne was on them. The first bottle ordered was a California Sparkler, made exclusively for the restaurant by a favorite winery of mine: Schramsberg. It was called Modicum, a Blanc de Blanc, North Coast, 2011.

My good friend Dave Burrell captured the night magically
Watch the video before you read on 🙂

The Experience

The rest of this article is taken from slurred notes I was yelling into my iPhone, things I attempted to text in my Notes app, out-of-focus photos I took and tidbits of information I asked my wife to remember. Bottom line, I was all in for this adventure and the next three-plus hours would be a blur, but I did my very best to capture every moment of this beautiful evening, all while trying my damnedest not to be a foodie-hipster.

If I’m being honest, this does happen to me when I go out fine dining. I get food-drunk and drunk-drunk. Don’t get me wrong! I’m well-mannered and, growing up; I was taught proper etiquette: how tables are correctly set, where the water glass goes in reference to the wine glass, and I can tell you what those little tiny spoons and forks are for. However, when I’m presented with world class accommodations, in every sense of the word, well… I’m going to dive in headfirst without checking if it’s the deep end or the shallow end first and if I make a splash, then I make a splash.

The lead server handed me a leather-encased iPad that contained the French Laundry wine menu. As I scrolled through well over 100 digital pages of mouth-watering selections, I thought my wife might notice me drooling and feel compelled to wipe it away with her napkin. She understood, though, as I’m a wine lover and she is too, as are Michael and his wife Tiffany, so I was in damn good company. I knew Dave would drink anything I selected, no matter the price, so he was going to be of no help. I turned to our server and asked if she could just pair the wine with our meal. Then the question: “Do you have a bottle price?” My eyes grew wide, as my pallet was certainly all in but if I wasn’t careful, this could easily be a $15K+ night. We were going there, but not to that tune and then, just like that, our savvy, intuitive, sophisticated server, suggested that they serve each bottle matching the dinner cost. The pre-fixed menu runs around $295, so ten courses would get us about eight bottles. “Perfect!” I yelled loud enough for the guests at other tables to turn. At that moment, and many more times throughout the night, my sweet, sexy wife would gently put her hand on my left knee and give it a slight, firm squeeze and whisper in my ear: “Baby…” with no need to say anything else. Yes, I can get loud when rallied with enthusiasm. I think it’s that part of me that loves to entertain others as well as myself. We had table ‘small talk’ and looked around at the coziness that surrounded us. The room was dimly lit, which is optimal for dining. The main lighting was on the table and when your food arrived; it was lit like a Picasso in a gallery setting. The first paired wine was served and I knew what it was, having recognized the bottle. I had just a few months before, written an article on this beauty. It was from the beautiful Alsace region of France.

Our server came over to me and explained the wine. I told her I did not need to taste it first. “Please, just pour for all of us. And for the rest of the night, just open and pour, your selection will no doubt be perfect and exactly what we’d desire if we were choosing ourselves.” The Weinbach, Pinot Gris, Cuvee Laurence from Alsace 2007 was opened, poured, and a lovely nose surrounded us. We made a toast and as we sipped, our first teaser course arrived.

This, I can tell you, is the moment when the magic begins. This is when the gears of the Swiss watch travel in meticulous, perfectly-timed, pinpoint accuracy. Out of nowhere four servers delivered a French Laundry tradition: Salmon Cornets. These little beauties consist of salmon tartar with sweet red onion cream, and they look like a miniature ice cream cone. The proper way to enjoy it is in one bite. We all raised our cones and welcomed the first treat of the night. At this point, more wine was poured.

Since it was my birthday, I was in quite an enjoyable mood and decided to upgrade a few of the dishes. Our fantastic server created a list and printed for me all the exceptional wines we drank. She did this because I told her I would never remember. Michael also pointed out that I was a wine blogger and that documenting these moments, especially “this one” was crucial to me. I could be wrong, but I had a feeling that they already had a sense of us. I can’t tell you how they would have known, but I had this feeling that they already knew I was a writer and that Michael was from fine dining and that both he and his wife were sommeliers. Again, I can’t say for sure, but there was just something about the way the entire staff interacted with us. Although it was spotless and superb and formal, there was also an ease they seemed to feel with us. With everyone who was assigned to our table (and there was a gang of them) we talked and laughed; things were pointed out and discussed and commented on that only people of a familiar ilk would understand. It was perfect. They took incredible care of us, and we showed them the utmost respect, while also giving them the space to open up a bit and relax. As a result, there was an ease that we all felt throughout the entire evening, and there, in this Michelin-rated establishment, things seemed unrestricted. Being impeccable pros, they met us exactly where we were, while never missing a beat and being on top of our every need, at times before we even knew ourselves.

Course One and Upgrades: On the menu, there are a few ways to turn a course up a notch. Instead of having the “OYSTERS AND PEARLS”; “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar, you can upgrade, which I did, to the ROYAL OSSETRA CAVIAR; Maine Lobster “en Gelée,” Horseradish “Bavarois,” Fines Herbes and Oyster Crackers for an extra $60. If you’ve ever had eggs in aspic, then you are familiar with food arriving in a gelatinous state. That is how the lobster was presented. It was served with caviar on top with tiny oyster crackers that resembled Smurf-sized loaves of bread. The best way to enjoy this dish was to mix it around, so you get each element at the same time. It was one of the best and most savory pieces of lobster I’ve ever had.

Have you ever seen the movie “Arthur”, the 1982 classic with Dudley Moore? If you have, remember near the beginning of the film, when he’s dining with the prostitute? Well, by the time the second course was on the horizon, I believe I was behaving like he did in that most memorable scene. And by the way, if you’ve not seen the film, you are missing a masterpiece of comedic genius.

The smells of the food, the flavor of the wines, and the conversation with my friends put me in a place of joy. If you know me, you know I don’t use that word to describe myself, well, ever. As I write this article now, 30 days after that night, I get to relive all of the passions I felt for three and a half hours, all over again. This has been a difficult article to write. Between having to constantly stop and look over notes, getting online and doing more research, and watching videos of the restaurant, this was so much more than just sitting down to write. This one, more than most of the articles I’ve written, had layer upon layer upon layer and I didn’t want to miss a single detail if I could at all help it.

Like the meal I had on January 16th, this article is not to be rushed. These words, at least for me, are to be slowly digested and felt. I understand The French Laundry is not for everyone, but for me, by the second course I was transformed, and I understood what Bourdain said when he ate there the first time, “This is the best restaurant in the world.” He may have changed his mind over the years, but at the time, at that moment, he felt it, he was one of the kids who had the ‘Golden Ticket’ and Willy Wonka was going to show him the magic that lived behind the curtain.

Course Two: HAWAIIAN HEARTS OF PEACH PALM; Spice Poached D’Anjou Pears, Sicilian Pistachios and Garden Chicories. Or you could upgrade to ÉLEVAGES PÉRIGORD MOULARD DUCK FOIE GRAS “RILLETTE”, White Wine Poached Sour Apples, Garden Mâche and Piedmont Hazelnuts. At the ripe old age of 40’ish, I’m not much of a fan of Foie Gras anymore. As a kid, I enjoyed it, to a certain degree, but as I get older, it’s just not doing it for me. As we talked about the food and the next Michelin 3 starred restaurant we want to fly to, a lovely assorted bread basket was being delivered. I could not get enough of the pretzel roll. If I had bigger pockets I would have stuffed a few of them in there. Wait a second; another bottle of wine was uncorking. To compliment, the Hearts of Palm, an Arietta, Sauvignon Blanc, Artist’s Reserve 2011 was opened. Yes, please pour that one! I’ll enjoy that because I know soon enough the whites will be in our bellies and the Reds will start flowing, and I could only imagine what they would be.

Course Three: SLOW COOKED FILLET OF WILD SCOTTISH SEA TROUT, Ruby Grapefruit Confit, Caramelized Garden Beets, Wild Sorrel, and “Beurre Maltaise”. There are only two vegetables that I don’t care for. One is the Bell Pepper. I believe it is the Devil’s veggie and he grows them in his garden of wickedness. The other is the Beet. That night there was no bell pepper anywhere near me. But this course had beets. For the record: They were the size of olive pits. I was there to eat everything presented to me, so as I dove into the beauty of the sea trout with that freaking sexy grapefruit confit, I saw them: two little beety bastards looking at me! I forked one and chewed. Holy crap, that little beet was phenomenal! It was rich in flavor and crunch and wasn’t earthy or gritty. My wife was shocked that I ate the beets. By this point, I had three wine glasses in front of me, all white. So I did what any abnormal wine critic would do… I killed the remaining whites and made room for the fourth course and a gorgeous white Burgundy being opened.

Course Four: SUNFLOWER SEED CRUSTED STONINGTON MAINE SEA SCALLOP Charred Eggplant “Panisse,” Compressed Persian Cucumbers, Globe Artichokes, and Brokaw Avocado Yogurt. Um, I drank my whites too soon. As I looked around the table, everyone was still enjoying theirs while I had but a few drops of the Schramsberg in my glass. So I wasted no time diving into the bivalve mollusks. This was not just any scallop; this delicate clam melted in my mouth. It was so damn tasty, that as I’m writing this sentence, I can still recall the texture and firmness. Rounding out the dish was an eggplant that looked like a bouillon cube and packed a wallop of flavor. Our proficient server walked up to me and noticed I was low on bread. Yes, more bread please! The bread, by the way, comes from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon bakery down the road, a place where the mornings wait for a scone looks like a 1970’s Russian bread line. Seriously.

Course Five: FOUR STORY HILL FARM POULARDE Toasted Buckwheat “Blini,” Glazed Cipollini Onions, Sour Cherry Jus and Applewood Smoked Foie Gras “Torchon” or for a $125 upgrade you can get a “CARNAROLI RISOTTO BIOLOGICO” “Parmigiano Reggiano” and Shaved Black Winter Truffles from Provence. Maybe it’s my age or the indulgences I’ve had for years, but I’m burned out on truffles; the taste, the smell, the mac-n-cheese truffle, truffle fries, truffle-infused salt, truffle risotto, truffle ice cream, etc., etc. My wife and Dave went for the upgrade. What came next was a royal presentation! One of our servers carried to the table what looked like a large cigar humidifier. He opened the box in front of my wife and inside were 4 or 5 cue ball-sized pieces of black truffle. He then pulled out a lovely, shiny shredder and began shredding piece after piece of blackness that formed a small mound on top of the risotto. It was a sight to behold. Then it was Dave’s turn, and it happened all over again. Somewhere beneath a mountain of dark fungus was his fifth course. I had a bite of Shawn-Marie’s dish. It was yummy, but I’m still burned out. About this time a bottle of Jean-Philippe Fichet, Meursault, Burgundy 2013 was opened, and a glass was poured for me, and even though it was a tad young it had a nose that burst with flowers and citrus. It’s just what the poularde needed against the sour cherry jus. To my left and my right, my wife and Dave were having one orgasm after another, with every bite of their black truffle course. At one point I think they came together and made the rest of the table blush with fungus envy.

Course Six and Red, Red Wine: “CHÂTEAUBRIAND” OF MARCHO FARMS NATURE FED VEAL Braised Veal Breast, Romaine Lettuce “Émincée,” Garden Radishes and “Sauce Dijonnaise” or for an upgrade of $100, CHARCOAL GRILLED JAPANESE WAGYU Gold Potato and Gruyère “Rösti” with Garden Broccoli “Panade,” Sweet Carrot “Buttons” and Wild Mustard Blossoms. This course is where I was torn. Did I want veal that was sure to be like nothing I’ve ever had? Or did I want to see what Keller and his team could do with a piece of Wagyu? I flipped a mental coin and picked the veal. This was a ‘Sophie’s Choice’ moment. This was a “Do you want to drive the Ferrari or the Porsche?” moment. Others took the Wagyu upgrade. My wife, not being a fan of veal, looked at me as if I drove into the iceberg on that cold April 14th night in 1912, when I made my choice as she opted for an off-menu item that was with the vegetarian selection. Yes, that is correct; The French Laundry has two menus: one for normal folk and another for vegetarians. The selections on the veggie menu sounded nice. They were serving everything from Saffron Braised Globe Artichokes to Garden parsnip “Agnolotti”.

I watch as four servers bring large mushroom shaped wine glasses for all of us. Our primary server shows me the bottle and begins to pour Giorgio Rivetti-La Spinetta, Barbarescoo, “Starderi”, Piedmont 1998. At this point, I tip the wine glass on its side and let it rest horizontally on the table, but the wine is not pouring out. In unison, the rest of the table puts their glasses in the same position. What the hell is up with these wine glasses? iPhones are pulled out, and we all take photos of these punch bowl shaped glasses sitting on their sides. The aroma of the Starderi is filling the table. All six of us exchange glances and come to a realization that this meal and the people at the table are what make a night like this an unforgettable experience! When I eat with friends and we unanimously agree that we’re all in, this to me is the key to fabulous dining.

This moment brings me back to childhood as I watch my parents marvel at the type of world my uncle had the means to both live in and also introduce them to. Many years later, as I sit here, the etiquette and panache are not lost on me. Yes, I may sound like a kid in a candy store, but so you understand this type of dining, the attention to detail, surroundings, the showmanship, this is what I live for. Food and wine are my passion, my hobby, my love. I don’t golf. We don’t have children. So my wife and I indulge.

Course Seven: ANDANTE DAIRY “MÉLANGE” Golden Raisin “Pâte de Fruit,” Marcona Almond Shortbread and Cauliflower Cream. By the time this course made its way, I had spotted another bottle of wine on the table that I’d not seen before. I’m sure it was presented to me, as all bottles had been, but I had just missed this one; Arnoux-Lachaux, Vosne-Romanee, Burgundy 2010. The Arnoux-Lachaux had a lovely nose of currant, and I believe the word I wrote down in my Notes app was strawberry, but it could have been raspberry. Yes, the typo was that strange. Whatever berry fruit, I was finding this pinot noir was working with the shortbread in front of me. There were more wine glasses around the table than you’d find at a Grand Cru wine tasting event. If you closed your eyes for a moment and listened, you heard the delicate sounds of glasses constantly being toasted, forks tapping against the flawless China, friends chatting and laughing and of course, the exclamations that you hear all over the restaurant from the 1st timers to the executives that bring clients there often… “Wow!”

Wait! A server is pouring one of my favorite winemakers; Heidi Barrett’s La Sirena, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley 2006. I whispered to Dave’s wife Ronda, “When did that one get here?” She looked at me and said, “I’m not sure, but it’s in your hand, and you’ve been telling us how you love the person who makes this wine.” I smiled, lifted my glass, looked at the empty plate in front of me and pondered the courses I’d just finished. The flavors that lingered the textures still dancing in my mouth, the aromas that all hung in the air like music. I knew what was next. It was the course of courses! But before that was going to happen a birthday cake appeared, small and rectangular with a single candle. I don’t remember if there was singing. I hope not: like bell peppers, I despise the Birthday Song. It hurts my ears. Then this happened…

Course(s) Dessert: ASSORTMENT OF DESSERTS, Fruit, Ice Cream, Chocolate and Candies. I consider the final sequence at The French Laundry an opera, each dessert its own aria. As I was devouring my birthday cake, I felt a swarm around me. I looked up as servers from every direction were holding multiple plates of decadence and, as it was, all of the dessert courses were to be presented at once. In front of me were the most beautiful homemade cookies. The beignets plated to my right were sprinkled with orange sugar. To my left were small chocolate goodies and honestly, I don’t know what they were, but they were there. And there was a cheesecake as I recall, that as everything else did that night, melted in my mouth (or so say the scribbles). Then a bottle of Philippe Foreau, Vouvray, “Domaine du Close Naudin”, Demi-Sec, Loire Valley 2003 was shown to me, “Yes, please!” The grapefruit scent from the wine was intense and beautiful and made those little donuts with the orange sugar dance as they made their way into my belly.

This was truly my Willy Wonka moment. Looking across the table at this sea of sweets, more wine glasses than I could count reflected happy, smiling faces as laughter from my friends filled the room. It was then that I ordered the crown jewel of cognacs. When I speak of cognacs, I talk about them in the highest regard of importance in my life. The order of importance is as follows: my wife, my dogs and cats, my external family, my book collection, my wine collection, my art collection and then cognac. Notice how I didn’t say cognac collection. I cannot keep it in the house. It’s like crack to me. I will finish a bottle so damn fast that I lose the splendor of its beauty. So, I only enjoy when I have had a great meal out, and the cognac list is worth of my time. I saw Dave with a glass of 10 Year Madeira, so I ordered him and myself a 2-dram pour, which is about 1/2 ounce, of the 1953 Hine Grand Champagne Cognac. This was the best liquid that I had all night! I can only enjoy cognac after a big meal, and this 100 point sensation was the fat lady singing, the final act, the curtain call, I could go on, but you get the picture, the crème de la crème, the cherry on top of one hell of an evening. As I finished the glass and looked around with the blurred vision that accompanies the indulgence of food + drink + friends, I attempted to focus on the server who came to inform me that she would be escorting our party for a tour of the kitchen. I lit up like a kid on Christmas morning from this news and  turned to my wife; she kissed my cheek and said, “Happy Birthday!”

My wife is a woman of influence. I’m not mincing words when I say that she gets what she wants. She’s that way in life and business. She shows up, and she makes shit happen. Always has. I just sit back and watch in awe, when we walk into a packed restaurant that has been overbooked for months and she gets us a table, or when she gets our cable bill free for six months, or gets front row seats to a play that she wants us to see and not only are they comped but she gets us VIP access as well. So, it came as no surprise that she got us a kitchen tour. Let it be known that without that visit, without seeing how the heart of the French Laundry worked, this article would have been less personal.

Shaking hands with chef de cuisine for the night and watching as this kitchen moved with a pulse that only a jazz drummer could explain, I leaned over to my wife and said, “it’s so quiet in this kitchen, but it’s musical.” The staff, with purpose and precision, could care less that we were there. I witnessed the attention of each plate received, how each item was presented on the moving dishes as they moved like starlings from one station to the next. Being in that kitchen, after having the kind of night we’d just experienced, only further confirmed what I had read and learned about Thomas Keller. That his passion, his eye for talent, his dedication, his impeccable taste and what he’s created over the past twenty years makes him a true master. Bravo Mr. Keller. Thank you.

Worth It, and Then Some [or: Exhale]

As we drove back to Sonoma, to our little cottage on a small vineyard, I posted the bill for the evening on my personal Facebook page [the final bill was a few dollars shy of $5000]. People were commenting that they couldn’t believe what we’d spent. A few private messages said that I could have had a years’ worth of food for that price. One person said I could have purchased a nice, reliable used car. Someone else stated that we got out cheap. But in the end, fine dining is a desire of mine. My wife told me that dining with me is half the experience, that I make the dining adventure entertaining.

When dining is done right, no other meal will compare for a long time to come. That’s part of the beauty. With that said I’m looking at the calendar and preparing to take a trip and visit yet another Michelin-rated restaurant. This one is co-owned by a chef that I also admire. I want to enjoy a different take on world-class eating. So someone please tell Eric Ripert that we’ll be at his restaurant Blue, at the Ritz Carlton in the Grand Cayman Islands, very soon.