French dining par excellencein California's Napa Valley

Diners splurge at top-rated French Laundry

At most restaurants, a dish called Peas and Carrots would look just like it sounds. But the French Laundry in California's Napa Valley is no ordinary restaurant.

Order Peas and Carrots here, and your waiter will deliver a crepe filled with succulent lobster, garnished with pea-shoot salad, and sitting in a ginger-carrot sauce. Ask for Macaroni and Cheese, and you'll get butter-poached lobster with mascarpone-enriched orzo. Even Oysters and Pearls arrives better than it sounds - an unforgettably silky combination of oysters and caviar with pearl tapioca.

Chef Thomas Keller loves to surprise. "It brings pleasure to a meal, and making people happy is what cooking is all about," he says. Mr. Keller has made so many people happy since he became owner and chef of the French Laundry that his classic French cooking has earned more awards than "Titanic" won Oscars.

Among them: the prestigious James Beard Foundation's Best Chef in California award (1996) as well as Outstanding Chef in America the following year. His restaurant has been named No. 1 in America by Gourmet and Bon Appetit magazines, The New York Times, and several other publications. And his visually stunning cookbook, snapped up by cooks and noncooks alike after its release last year, won top prize from the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

Of all this attention, the mostly self-taught Keller comments: "I hope this is a turning point signaling a change in the way people look at the restaurant business. A restaurant doesn't have to be a mega-store. It can be an intimate place where the chef is just doing great food."

Two-month wait for a reservation

A trip to the tiny town of Yountville revealed what all the fuss is about. The rustic, two-story, stone house surrounded by lush gardens is right out of Provence. Built in 1900, it became a French steam laundry in the 1920s. Many people don't get beyond admiring the building's charming exterior. They'd rather not pay the price - about $105 per person for a 12-course tasting menu. But others, especially in these prosperous times, choose to splurge for what they figure might be a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience. And for that, they're willing to wait the standard two months for a reservation.

Once seated in one of the restaurant's intimate dining rooms, diners get their first taste of Keller's inventive, often whimsical cooking. Every meal begins with a "Cornet" of Salmon Tartare with Sweet Red Onion Creme Fraiche, which looks like a cone of mango sorbet. Conceived at Baskin Robbins when Keller and friends were presented ice-cream cones in a serving tray, it is now his signature dish. "People always smile when they get it," he says with a twinkle in his eye.

Any resemblance between Keller's cornet and an ice-cream cone from 31 flavors begins and ends with looks. Preparation of Keller's invention involves five elaborate steps; calls for such gourmet ingredients as black sesame seeds, creme fraiche, and lemon oil; and requires a 4-inch hollow circular stencil and a Silpat (nonstick fabric used on baking sheets).

It's not for the average American cook who wants to whip up a quick meal after a long day. This is why many people buy the "The French Laundry Cookbook" (Artisan, $50) simply to ogle Deborah Jones's lovely photographs, read Keller's story, and dream about sampling even one of his150 recipes.

A consummate purist, Keller insists there are no shortcuts. "Cooking is not about convenience," he says matter-of-factly during an interview at his restaurant. "You must move slowly and deliberately and with great attention to detail."

Calm, orderly kitchen

One peek in Keller's kitchen, and it's clear that his whole team follows this philosophy. You'd hardly know every table is filled, people are waiting at the bar, and servers are shuttling to and fro. A sense of calm and order pervades as one chef focuses intently on straining shallot soup through a chinois, another pipes goat-cheese mousse onto a Parmesan crisp, and still another tops foie gras-infused custard with a dollop of prune marmalade and chives. As a visitor once remarked about the clean, quiet atmosphere, "It's like a watchmaker's shop."

Keller's perfectionist tendencies, which he attributes to his mother ("the biggest influence in my life"), are especially apparent in his choice of ingredients. Like many successful chefs, he insists on using the freshest, best-quality foods he can find. "Respect for food is respect for life," he says.

But he doesn't always ascribe to the Alice Waters approach of buying only locally grown or raised foods. Keller's pursuit of the best extends far and wide. His purveyors, with whom he's in constant touch, include Ingrid, the seafood lady from Maine; Keith in Pittsburgh, who Keller insists raises the "most extraordinary lamb"; and John, the heart-of-palm grower in Hawaii.

The restaurant's tasting menu gives diners a chance to experience a range of flavors and textures, Keller says, adding that it's also easier on staff. 'With a la carte, if everyone wants fish, the fish guy is swamped."

But more important, tiny portions of intensely flavored foods satisfy the palate and pique curiosity, he says, explaining: "Two or three or maybe four bites of a particular flavor is all our tastebuds really want. I want to leave customers thinking: 'I wish I had just one more bite of that.'"

Even more satisfying than teasing the palate, says Keller, is leaving diners with a lasting memory. "The bottom line is experiencing pleasure and creating memories," he says. "Our memories are the most important thing to us, after all is said and done."

If creating memories defines success, Keller has clearly made it. One diner who thanked him "for the memories" as she left her table, headed straight to the front desk to book her next meal there two months later. Next time, she'll bring her husband and children so they can linger over the meal together, swap dishes, and look back on the same fond memory.

California freelancer Judith Rosenberg contributed to the reporting of this article.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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