Monday, June 28, 2010

And At Last, The French Laundry

My husband is, in my estimation, a good-looking man. But I have rarely seen him look as handsome as he did on the night we ate at The French Laundry, dressed in a black pinstriped suit and glowing with completely unrestrained joy. If good looks were measured by such things as happiness, in fact, I do believe he was the best-looking man on Earth last Wednesday.

It was an epic dining experience, with foods I had never seen before and flavors pairings that I could not have anticipated. Each course made me catch my breath and wonder how something so beautiful could be created with little more than a knife, a flame and a steady hand.

We arrived a half-hour early and were received as if the hostess wanted nothing more in the world than to make us comfortable. We were treated graciously, without a hint of pretentiousness, by everyone who stopped by our table, as if we were honored guests. The nine-course tasting menus were presented, and when the dishes began to arrive, I watched Chef Matt's giddy adrenaline rush relax into a profound appreciation of what was clearly a genius at work.

With every bite, he turned his face upwards, like someone soaking up a warm sunshine. My understanding of cuisine complexities is not as sharp as his, but I, too, found myself savoring the few precious bites of each course with a deliberate intention to commit each flavor to memory.

We discussed each course at length -- oysters and caviar in a luxurious cream sauce, buttered lobster with sweet peaches, crispy pork belly with black truffles, creamy foie gras with bing cherries, graceful apricot sorbet, and the very best of them all, a slice of unbearably tender steak finished in a warm butter bath.

At the end of the meal, finished with a dessert labeled "Happy Birthday" in chocolate script and steamed cream for my coffee, we were invited to tour the kitchen. We accepted, very nearly tripping over ourselves in excitement, and viewed what was likely the cleanest working kitchen in America. Its surfaces gleamed like brand-new, and the chefs set to their tasks with a serenity I had never seen before in any restaurant. The sous chef autographed our menu and acknowledged our thanks with humility. We left, three hours after entering, laden with parting shortbread cookies and a full camera, and just stared at each other a bit in wonderment.

To many people, I suppose this seems like utter nonsense, getting so weepy over a restaurant. But I'm happy to be nonsensical in return for the best meal of my life, the best service ever encountered, and the pleasure of seeing my husband alight with inspiration. The restaurant business can be relentless, demanding and unforgiving, but our evening at The French Laundry restored my faith that it can also be positively magical.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Road to The French Laundry

I love to watch people observe experts in their craft, to see them glow with appreciation at nuances the rest of us miss. Last June, my joy in watching Chef Matt exclaim over the work of his fellow chef-artists evolved into a secret plan to get him to the epicenter of foodie perfection: The French Laundry.

"The Laundry", in Yountville, California, is home to some of the most gorgeous food in America. I listened to Matt mention this restaurant with a syrupy admiration that is shared by anyone who has ever worn a chef coat, and I knew that we must eat there. But two daunting barricades, one that I was expecting and one that I was not, threatened to spoil my well-laid plans.

The one I expected was the price. For two people to eat a single meal at The French Laundry, including the nine-course tasting menu and wine, it costs about $700. That is two months' worth of groceries, for one meal.

When I recovered from the physical sickness that arose at the discovery of such a ludicrous price tag, I put my head down and started saving. I pinched money out of every corner of our budget, set aside tax-return money, and pleaded with my family to give me money instead of gifts for my birthday.

The barricade I did not expect was the difficulty of actually securing a reservation. I had already bought the plane tickets, reserved the hotel, and told Matt about his impending adventure, before I set out to reserve a table. To my dismay, I discovered that I had about as much a chance of getting a table as I would guessing a perfect March Madness bracket.

The restaurant has 17 tables and only accepts reservations for three and a half hours each night. To reserve one of these coveted seats, you must call the reservation line the precise second it opens, two months to the calendar date in advance, and hit redial dozens of times, in hopes that a brief pause in the barrage of calls will open a sliver of possibility for your call's acceptance.

On April 23, I recruited 10 people to dial the reservation line at exactly 12:00:00 CST, and redial and redial and redial. At 12:02, my mother-in-law e-mailed: "I'm in and on hold!" By the time she spoke with an actual person at 12:14, June 23 was booked.

But The French Laundry was not lost to us. Matt stalked, and secured the one and only two-top they release each day. We could both barely breathe the rest of the day.

It feels a bit ridiculous: $700 and several weeks of stress beforehand (what if we don't get a reservation?!) for one dinner. But the sense of absurdity is quickly diminished by the thought of watching my chef's eyes widen and his lavish praise unable to manifest into the right words at the first bite of such peerless food. It will be the defining moment in his culinary education, and I can't wait to see it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

No Food Snobs in this Kitchen

The other day, Chef Matt and I were on a semi-date (which means that only one child was present, the non-mobile one), so we decided to go out for dinner. We drove by a number of options -- including a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant, spotted with the Asian Takeout Radar -- when he cried out, with absolute sincerity: "Oh, there's an Old Country Buffet. I'd eat there."

I have nothing against a buffet. When one is broke and hungry, buffets are a good option. What is so amusing to me, however, is that my husband the chef, who can pinpoint ingredients in dishes with razor-sharp accuracy and savors foods such as beef tartare and seared scallops, is willing, even excited, to eat canned corn and bulk mashed potatoes that have been sitting under warmers for a half-hour and have likely been handled by two dozen people.

Common belief about chefs says that they are food snobs, and I suppose that is true for some. Matt is a bit of a garbage disposal. He won't eat melon ("too watery") or raw onions ("then that's all I can taste"), but otherwise he is open to just about anything that resembles food.

He eats large quantities of Kraft mac-and-cheese and canned soups, loves Taco Bell, will never say no to a frozen pizza, and (although I have never seen it) will eat hot dogs dipped in applesauce.

He has tried, and loved, Scottish haggis, sweetbreads and tripe. If you're uncertain about exactly what those foods are, imagine innards on a plate.

In many ways, this is blessing. Whatever crazy concoction I put in front of him, he will eat. He can always find something he likes on a menu and is more than willing to indulge my fast-food or Dairy Queen cravings.

Food appreciation is all about situation. Braised short ribs at a fancy restaurant will elicit a different assessment than a quarter-pounder with cheese. I have to be impressed, however, that he can turn off those super-sensitive taste buds and eat drive-through cheeseburgers with the same enthusiasm as he eats expensive delicacies. A food snob he is certainly not; I like to think of him as an equal-opportunity-eater.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Problem With Stir-Fry

Stir-fry is an excellent back-up plan. When the baby broccoli is looking a little limp and the mushrooms a bit too shriveled, even for edible fungus, I dig out the wok and the General Tso and toss up what is essentially Remnants On Rice.

The beauty of a stir-fry is that anything can be sauteed in a wok and eaten with Boil-in-a-Bag rice. A handful of almost-slimy green beans? Nearly dry baby carrots? Mixed veggies and shrimp with freezer burn? Toss 'em in.

Generally, stir-fry night is when Chef Matt is working, which is unfortunate for two reasons. One: Matt loves any food with a spicy Asian sauce eaten with rice/skinny noodles. He has uncanny Asian Takeout Radar that can isolate any restaurant serving crab rangoons within a five-mile radius, even if it's a city he's never set foot in before. Two: If Matt made the stir-fry, it would be a perfect tower of flavors, coated just so in sauce, ladled artfully over not-too-crunchy rice.

When I make it, there is no precision. There is no careful calculation to determine when the sweated onions are ready to receive the red peppers, and no amount of sauce can mask the unmistakable flavor of "burned."

The big problem with stir-fry, however, is not that I can't make it right, although I suppose that is a problem, too. The difficulty is that it's a pile of vegetables smothered in sauce that's not ketchup, offered next to the starch that is the most easily wedged in between floorboards.

My two-year-old flat-out refuses to eat stir-fry, even when I painstakingly spoon around the offensive mushrooms and onions, digging out every kernel of corn to place on her plate next to plain rice and two relatively sauceless chicken pieces. I can be finished eating, have the kitchen cleaned and be halfway through a Harry Potter novel, and she'll still be staring down at the unacceptable dinner on her tray and the gummy rice she's scattered across the floor.

I am resolved to be firm with dinner and not give in with a PBJ. But when I'm on my hands and knees picking up individual pieces of rice, I'm tempted to swallow my pride.

It's such a wonderful idea, in theory: Use up leftover food AND get double the daily vegetable intake. In practice, I'd be better off giving the two-year-old animal crackers for dinner and saving my sad little stir-fry for someone who has spent enough time in good/bad/ugly Chinese takeout places to at least appreciate my attempt.