After the train ride from hell, we joined all of our family in San Francisco. It was several days of celebration: a couple of kids’ birthdays, one family had their Seder while others dyed Easter eggs. Little did I know of the celebration of celebrations. I was instructed to be sure to wear the sport coat that Susan had insisted on packing. All of the family showed up, the children prepared for a day of play and the adults dressed up – unusual for a family gathering. The mystery deepened when a long white limousine pulled up in front of the house. The kids were left behind with the oldest teenager and a sitter in charge. The adults piled into the limo and headed through the Presidio to the Golden Gate Bridge. I was told we were celebrating my upcoming birthday, but nothing more. The conversation turned to family activities and reminiscences as we maneuvered the weekend traffic in Marin and San Rafael out onto the green expanses of the Delta farms and marshes. It became evident that we were heading to Napa when the flatlands gave way to rolling hills and rows of close-trimmed grapevines.
Finally, we pulled up to a gray stone building that was immediately recognizable as The French Laundry, the legendary restaurant that all of the family knew had been on my must-do list for many years. This was their surprise to commemorate my eightieth birthday.
We were greeted by a young man who had known Sarah and Evan since their days in New York where he had worked at Per Se. He and a young woman dressed in black led us on a brief tour of the gleaming kitchen filled with at least two dozen cooks in whites, each stationed at a specialized work space creating one or another beautiful dish. The woman in black then led us through the chilly wine cellar of 13,000 bottles into an elegant room that would be our home for the next four hours of eating. She pushed back a glass door and next a louvered screen to open the room to the outdoors and a beautiful garden scene. Then the performance began. The first act was a ritual sabrage performed by a tall man dressed in formal attire and carrying a shiny sword. With one whack of the sword, he lopped off the cork and bottle neck, losing nary a drop of champagne that he then poured into our waiting flutes after stabbing the sword into the lawn in front of us.
Then the food began.
The meal was filled with French Laundry classics. First were coronets: black-sesame-studded tuiles shaped into cones filled with crème fraiche and salmon tartare. Whimsical, beautiful, and tasty at the same time. Each coronet came in a little silver stand that was centered on the huge blue Limoges service plate. They outshone the accompanying “Ritz crackers”, tiny little cheesy biscuits, in visual drama but not necessarily in flavor. Both offerings were delicious.
Next came a small white bowl that nestled two perfect white asparagus tips and a dark disc of Perigord black truffle, Holland White Asparagus “Vichyssoise”. It was a little sad to see the composition disappear beneath a small lake of creamy soup, but the flavor made up for the visual loss.
Then came what is arguably the restaurant’s most famous dish: “Oysters and Pearls.”
Hen Egg Custard with ragout of Perigord truffles served in an egg shell with a laser-sharp rim and topped by a chive imprisoned between two impossibly thin, matched potato wafers
Éleveges Perigord Moulard Duck Foie Gras “Torchon” served with wine-poached sour apple, wild sorrel, and fennel “gastrique”
Sautéed Fillet of Mediterranean Turbot served with cream braised La Rotte potatoes, buttered brioche and black winter truffle emulsion. The fish and truffle emulsion were a perfect flavor combination.
Alaska King Crab “À La Plancha” served with bantam hen egg “gnocchi”, winter radishes, garden celery and “Consommé Madrilène”. The fragrant, flavorful broth tied everything together.
“Bread and Butter” was a perfectly formed rosette “Parker House Roll” with a center of roasted paprika and served with a quenelle of Diane St Clair’s Animal Farm butter.
Devil’s Gulch Ranch Rabbit satsuma “Suprêmes”, served with glazed garden turnips and arrowleaf spinach
Herb Roasted Elysian Fields Farm Lamb with pea shoot “Pakora”, slow-roasted Nantes carrots, and Spanish caper-brown butter jus
“Gougère” Andanta Dairy “Etude” and Australian black winter truffle “Fondue”.
Tropical Fruit Ambrosia young coconut puree, lime scented golden pineapple, Matcha “Genoise” and Cherimoya sherbet
“Gâteau Pear and Caramel” caramel mouse with pear compote and “Pain de Gênes”
“Mignardises” – handcrafted chocolates and truffles of many flavors and beautiful coatings
To be sure, it was a most amazing meal. But the best part was to be surrounded by family and to share remembrances and stories that had already been retold many times and to laugh with one another. It was a wonderful way to mark eighty years of being on this earth, and this post is one way for me to thank all of my children and their loving spouses.