Monday, 4 February 2013

French Laundry

Some girls have shopping friends, boys have tennis/football/rugby friends, I have food friends. A mutual appreciation of good food make foodies gravitate towards one another, to share food, often while talking about food. One of my most trusted foodie friend is John, who I turn to for restaurant recommendations.  Through the years of our friendship, he has brought me countless foodie nirvanas. I remember his birthday 5 years ago when we went to Dinings and the chorus of "ohmygod" that followed every bite of the wagyu beef foie gras and truffle sushi. And my first experience at Dinner by Heston was courtesy of John giving me his booking during its opening months, when it was impossible to get a booking. He was also the reason I have tasted food from French Laundry without having to travel to Napa, an unforgettable dining experience that has stayed with me one year on.

John called me in September 2011 to say that he had a dinner booking for French laundry for 4 persons and asked if I would be interested. I debated (inwardly) whether it was too far to travel from London to Napa for a meal. Thankfully I kept my mouth shut as it transpired moments later that French Laundry was opening a pop up in Harrods for 10 days. There would be 1 seating for each table for both lunch and dinner. I immediately said yes and excitedly started brain storming, “who else to ask?” Problem was this level of fine dining is not to everyone's taste. At 250 pounds a pop (service and drinks not included), many, even die-hard foodies who love food, would refuse to pay that sort of money for a meal. I put some feelers out and with a bit of luck, got the final 2 locked in. JC was an acquaintance that had just arrived in London from New York to study. The fourth diner was an old school mate from university who I'd bumped into a couple of times while out and remembered him telling me about his love of food. It felt like I had put together some sort of heist team.

On the opening night, we showed up at the fourth floor of Harrods to find a facade made to resemble a brick house, along with a "grass lawn" outside with garden furniture for pre dinner champagne. We entered through the door to find a simple white dining room decorated only with flowers. Christofle silver cutlery flown in from Napa laid glistening on the crisp white table linen. Even the legion of servers flew in from the states, some from French Laundry Napa, a few from Per Se New York, Keller's other top rated restaurant.

Many of the courses offered are classics that feature on the menu of the original restaurant in Napa. We were told that where possible, they had sourced ingredients from the UK, but they have had to fly in others that could not be substituted with local produce. Food was exquisite. It was refined but not arrogant food and served in good portions, enough for a diner to get acquainted with the dish and fully appreciate it (I sometimes find myself feeling robbed when an entire course is served on a tiny porcelain spoon, the whole experience over before it had even begun.) Flavours, textures and aromas were in perfect harmony, I devoured each dish with satisfaction.  The best was the beef, it was so tender and the flavour so deep, I swore that could have been the best beef I'd ever had. Other courses such as ham and cheese “sandwich” and s'mores showed Keller had that common touch that is so often lacking in fine dining menus. Sometimes chefs try too hard to be cutting edge, forgetting that people enjoy familiar dishes just as much as innovative gastronomy.

Dinner lasted 5 and a half hours. Fortunately, conversation amongst this throw together gang of foodies flowed with ease and fuelled by wine as we talked passionately of what brought us together. Stories of foodie pilgrimages to Japan, Copenhagen, Napa, New York were shared. We described dishes that have made an impact to our palettes and stored eternally in our food-memory. A sense of camaraderie developed, as the saying goes "food brings people together".

Towards the end of our meal, we spotted Thomas Keller going from table to table, speaking to diners. He had been at the table next to ours, and we sat expectedly waiting our turn to speak to the famous chef. When he skipped our table in favour of the next table, we felt dejected. Determined to end the meal on a high note, we enjoyed the last drops of wine while chatting away and sure enough, our patience paid off and Keller strode over.

We sang him praise, offering compliments on the set up of the pop up and the food. We eagerly asked him whether the pop up was some sort of market testing, if he was considering opening a restaurant in London. To my dismay, he replied saying he was happy with the number of establishments he had and had no plans to expand to London. He was humble, polite and pleasant. There was an understated refinement to him, very much like to the food he serves.

All diners left with a goodie bag that contained literature on French laundry as well as a tea cake and jam which I devoured the next morning. Just as expected, the tea cake was lovely. Airy and light in texture with a mildly sweet and milky taste, it was complimented beautifully by the raspberry jam.

More than a year on, I still reminder that night in "French laundry" with fondness and it remains my favourite meal of all time. I visited Napa valley with my boyfriend last April, but was unable to get a reservation despite calling religiously for 3 days. That didn't stop me from paying it homage, we visited it for a look around. At the end of the main road in Yountville, a charming cottage stood amongst picturesque surroundings. There were lush trees and blossoming flowers. I resisted looking through the window into the dining room. I want to see it for the first time when I next visit Napa, armed with a dinner reservation. Where there's a will, there's a way right?


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