If someone said to you, let’s go to this restaurant that’s supposed to be pretty good. They only offer tasting menus, and you have to choose one of the two: the all-vegetable one, or the one with meat. There are eleven courses, but they’re all pretty small (the lamb serving is the size of one third of your palm) and four of them are desserts. The price is set at $295 per person. There are a couple of alternatives for some of the courses – substituting a tiny amount of Wagyu beef for the tiny amount of lamb, for example – but this adds $100 to the price of the dinner. The same for adding some Australian truffles to one of the vegetable dishes –$100. You may of course order wine from the wine list, the wine is additive to the food cost. This is not a “wine pairings” sort of dinner, and the wait staff resists requests to make it so. The service is fine, the restaurant is in a two story sort of old building that is pleasant but architecturally undistinguished. So, you wannna go?
We are as small children in the land of gourmet adults. We did not know those things that grown-ups know. We did know that a lawyer friend from NYC had reserved a table for four at the desirable [sic] time of five thirty, the requisite twelve weeks ahead of time. We knew that the chef now has his own line of cook ware which he has partnered with All Clad to purvey, not at his restaurant but on the internet. Eat the food, buy the pan, wear the t-shirt. But they don’t sell t-shirts.
The restaurant, as many of you more sophisticated than we will have guessed, is the legendary French Laundry in Yountville, CA. It is thought by many people, none of whom I know, to be the best food in America or perhaps the world. It is certainly very cute food. One of my vegetable dishes had a line of a slightly quivering pink something swerving down the center of the plate, looking a bit like a small snake. Except that snakes don’t have a rectangular cross-section, at least none that I know of do, your average snake tends toward the circular. The dish was supposed to be radish sprouts and possibly a dime sized piece of broccoli and a penny sized piece of kale and several dna-like curls of zucchini skin and a couple of black spots of nine thousand year old balsamic dressing, recently discovered in a tomb in western China. “What’s this pink thing?” I asked in my best high class, I been everywhere, I know food, I used to subscribe to Gourmet before it went broke tone of voice. “Gel” the waiter explained, with no further detail. So I ate the pink trail of gel, and the three radish sprouts and the broccoli and the zucchini and the kale nugget. Wiped up the three drops of black goo with a piece of bread. A small piece of bread, a large piece would have been $50 extra. It all didn’t taste like much other than what it was, especially the gel which tasted like basically nothing. Nice.
One of the desserts was something like “Doughnuts with natural Madagascar organic vanilla bean and Faeroe Islands sweet cream sherbet.” I do know doughnuts, having been a doughnut fan since my childhood back when spudnuts existed, which were for some reason doughnuts made out of potato flour. Perhaps there was a wheat shortage that year. But they were pretty good, although the basic recipe was German and they were favored by people from Idaho, for no doubt potato-like reasons. And Sarah Palin even mentioned them in a speech, but this was long after I was grown up and it was too late to save the chain. Doughnuts, as everyone knows, are round delights of fried dough, with a hole in the middle to promote even cooking and not leave a nasty gooey uncooked center for the unwary to bite into. Frequently thrifty doughnut makers take the “holes” which have been cut out of the uncooked doughnuts and cook them separately, coating them in cinnamon sugar and selling them as (you guessed it) “doughnut holes” or sometimes “donut holes.”
The dessert at the French Laundry was some pretty plain vanilla ice cream, with small round bits of fried dough, coated in cinnamon sugar. I suspect that for another $100 they would have put an authentic vanilla orchid blossom on your plate as well. But these little fried sweet things were NOT doughnuts, they were obviously doughnut holes. There was no indication as to what had become of the actual doughnuts, perhaps you could have had one of them for an extra $200. They were not that day on offer, however. Maybe not elegant or creative enough, but are doughnut holes and vanilla ice cream that clever?
And so we diligently worked our way through the many small plates with the even smaller amounts of food arranged artfully on each plate. The culminating moment was the presentation of the bill, weighted down with a tiny aluminum tin of four shortbread cookies, the FL’s signature clothespin embossed on the top of the tin. Oh, right, Laundry, clothes pin, I get it. Our share for two persons, including a decent but not show-off tip and a couple of bottles of wine between the four of us, was close to five figures, if you count the pennies. We did not realize that shock and awe were not limited to military expeditions in the middle east.
And so the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this short essay: There are no simple answers. Never mind all this niggling criticism and the cute remarks. These guys seat you on time, when they said they would. They don’t have any wall mounted TV sets blaring out professional sports anywhere in the establishment. This in itself is remarkable in this day and age, and something of a blessing. You can actually hear yourself and your companions as you debate about the wine selection, pretending to know what you’re talking about. The restaurant has survived the worst economic downturn since most of us have been alive, in a very dicey business. The experience is in many ways remarkable, quiet luxury and elegant food in a beautiful city, in a beautiful part of California. So maybe you go if you want to see what it’s like. Then you come home to Leucadia and on Sunday go to Tom’s Donuts on the Pacific Coast Hiway, and buy a real donut, a really good real donut, for eighty five cents.
—- Robert Hemphill is an author and former senior executive with a global power company. His most recent book is Dust Tea, Dingoes and Dragons, a humorous look at international business. Learn more at www.rfhemphill.com.