Looking for a special way to celebrate Ruth’s birthday, I suggested we go to Yountville in the Napa Valley and dine at Tom Keller’s French Laundry, one of the 50 bet restaurants in the world according to Restaurant Magazine.
Naively, I called to make a reservation four months before the event and was told to call back at 10 a.m. exactly two months before the occasion. Naively, I didn’t call until 10:45 and was told, of course, that The French Laundry was completely booked. But I could get on the waiting list.
I gave up, but Ruth didn’t and 6 days before the occasion TFL called and said we’d be welcomed at 11:45 a.m., the first seating, which wasn’t our first choice. But we were in. We received an e-mail reminding us to re-confirm 72 hours prior and to honor the dress code–for me, jacket required.
Not used to having a big meal at 11:45 in the morning, I checked the Laundry’s understated website hoping for a hamburger and fries option. Again, naive. Since this was a few years ago, the prix-fixe menu was $250 per person. It’s now $295.
Yountville, looking anonymously prosperous with a mind-your-own-business aura, was shrouded in fog with a light, surprisingly icy rain falling at 11: 30 on December 28 as we sat in the rental, waiting. “This is silly,” I said. “Let’s go in.”
We were greeted as if the staff’s favorite diners, taken to an elegantly discreet dining space, and seated at a table for two. A large round table in the room’s center was already occupied by a multi-generational family also celebrating a birthday. The tone was hushed, almost religious. Understated lighting. Brown and tan carpeting. A perfect vase with baby calla lilies and white mums with green holly berries graced our table.
I used a visit to the men’s room as an excuse to see the upstairs dining area. When I returned Ruth was looking at the multi-paged wine list and discussing her birthday with a young woman dressed like an investment banker. I was also handed a wine list as the woman said warmly to Ruth, “Would you like to start with a glass of champagne to celebrate, Mrs. Harbaugh?” I just happened to be looking at the choice as Ruth said its name. It was $40 a glass. Ruth smiled and ordered it. I passed. I almost passed out.
Menus were brought, the cover was completely beige with a tiny clothes pin near its center. As if suddenly vegetarian, we both ordered the Taste of Vegetables.
The first of nine courses was a minuscule Valley Oak Acorn Flan with compressed Fuyu persimmons and black truffles. “I wish I could take a picture,” Ruth sighed. It was beyond delicious. The service, which was included, was assured. Each server had comprehensive knowledge of ingredients and preparation.
Next a waitperson brought an unexpected ball the size of a marble, some type of cheese, establishing a precedent for frequent off-menu treats.
Rolls were gently set down, and we were told that one of the butters was from Vermont and the other local.
The salad appeared. Compressed Shin Li pears, mizuna and juniper berry “Aigre-Doux” looked like an austere Japanese print brought to three-dimensions in the exact center of the plate.
For the next two hours we were presented with a succession of dishes of unparalleled excellence, some with unlikely allure—watercress pudding, sea beans, parsley root, stewed chestnuts. Was the “Caprino Lucano”, a symphony of fennel bulb, toasted pecans, mâche, and sour Michigan cherry purée better than the Diane St. Claire Buttermilk sherbet with granola and honey-poached cranberries? I savored each bite.
Along about the seventh course I decided that this experience was, without question, worth the expense. Small servings were turning into vast fullness.
On the way out with gifts, shortbread cookies and chocolate candy, I spied a comment in the guest book, “Lovingly stuffed.” Indeed. We both knew that for the rest of our lives together, Ruth’s birthdays would always, at some point, include the question, “Remember the year we dined at The French Laundry?”