by Stephanie Block
What separates a good restaurant from a great restaurant is the way they handle adversity. In this case, the adversity was me.
French Laundry is the Bentley of restaurants, the Monte Carlo of restaurants. It is among the best restaurants in the world and is virtually impossible to get into. You cannot make a reservation more than two months ahead of your desired date, and you feel like a kid trying to get concert tickets as you frenetically dial and redial the number, hoping to get a live reservationist.
After waiting on hold for hours for Ticketmaster, I mean table master, I finally got my golden reservation.
And I guess it is like an adult rock concert in a lot of ways. You figure with ten courses, the show will last for 3 hours; the amuses count as a sort of opening band. And throughout your experience your celebrity chef is harmonizing the hell out of your tastebuds, wailing on them like a genius possessed.
Though I live a mere foie gras’ throw away from the wine country, I don’t get up there nearly as much as I’d like. It is my favorite place on earth with its perfectly organized rolling vines, chateaux, charming gourmet markets like Oakville Grocery and French oak barrels as far as the eye can see. So for my birthday, I thought, now here’s an excuse to finally go to famed French Laundry, one of few delights that has eluded me.
Dinner meant an overnight stay, and who better to invite than my mom and sister? Prized reservation reconfirmed, I promptly called Auberge du Soleil for accommodations. My ultimate Diva birthday was set.
For two months, I flipped gaily ahead in my calendar, ignoring July completely to stare at the magic date in August: the 16th. On Wednesday night the 16th, I would be dining at the degustatious French Laundry. It would be a dreamy first for me and my younger sister, Corey; though for my Mom, both Auberge and the restaurant were old hat. Ah, well. We can’t all be fabulously chic mommies.
August finally came and brought with it the unexpected and sad death of a hometown friend. I found myself back in Texas fighting back tears and wrestling with old memories on a humid day in a house I practically grew up in. I vowed to toast this departed friend at French Laundry because she would appreciate it.
Then I came back to California and tried to understand the cycle of death and life as the celebration of my own birth came on the heels of a big loss. The champagne ran like water and the future and past collided but felt soothing and mellow, this dance between tragedy and celebration, and I marveled how at 33 I was moving with more fluidity than ever through life’s many courses. Now it was time for French Laundry’s many courses.
I picked my mother and sister up and we headed to Napa on the morning of August 16th to get in some wine tasting before dinner. A friend at Mumm, Sophia (you must ask for her), gave us a private tour and a sumptuous tasting of—count them—eight different varieties of sparkling wine and champagne. Eight glasses of champagne. Seven and one to grow on.
Then two more wineries.
We collapsed in our suite at Auberge with an hour or so to relax before dinner. We turned on the giant TV and found ourselves watching a movie with Fat Albert and his gang, only they weren’t cartoons but real people. This tells you the sort of level at which we were operating at this point.
Now if you haven’t guessed by now, birthdays are a big deal to me. So I had already gone ahead and let it slip that it was my birthday to the reservationist when I called. And to the reservationist when I reconfirmed. Twice.
The maitre d’ was all excited when we walked into the small, nondescript little house off the main drag in Yountville: Miss Block! Miss Block, right this way!
They poured complimentary champagne for us. Happy birthday! There was even a birthday card on the table for me. I am the happiest little peacock on the farm. In addition to the ten courses on the menu, the chef begins with an amuse or two. Corey and I are good at math: twelve courses??
We start with salmon. Then a real egg carved out and filled with truffle custard and veal broth. Then caviar. It takes a small army of servers and a French-English dictionary to suss out each tiny dish. Every garnish is given the attention of a Shakespearean sonnet, each morsel from the restaurant’s own garden across the street creating a whole experience. Together, the miniscule carved celery root, the infinitesimal garnish, the carefully cut beet shavings… it is all impossibly wrought. The chefs are doll house precise.
We move onto a fish I’ve never heard of (and in California, one hears a great deal about a great many fish), and truffles and truffle oil with nearly every succulent morsel.
We are on course four, stanza three. I know the lobster is next, and in that instant, I start to feel a little funny. My body goes hot then icey. Suddenly a wave of nausea of vast proportions hits me like a garlic press. The smell of food is disgusting and it’s everywhere. I push back in my seat to get away from my family’s food. I start to shake.
I excuse myself to the ladies room. It’s upstairs and I am in a hurry. And the doors aren’t marked and there are beautiful diners everywhere and I have no idea where I’m going. A waiter points me in the right direction. I close the door and splash cold water on my face. I look at myself in the mirror. I’m green. Stephanie, you MUST get through this! Only 6 courses to go—you can do this!
I feel a little better. I return to my table. The wave has departed and I am okay. A rabbit dish is set in front of me; its delicate little kidney eyes me next to its delicate chops. Corey is dealing with a poached quail egg. Nausea ensues.
I move my rabbit bite around in my dish hoping to make it look like I’ve eaten a half bite out of the one total bite on my fabulous plate. I take a sip of cold water. Corey wants to know if I’d like to try her fish. I really don’t. But I can’t spoil everyone’s dinner. So I take the bite from her and push it around my plate. Ten waiters take our plates away. So far so good. I don’t think my family can tell that I’m not eating.
Then the lobster comes. Huge pieces of my favorite succulent food. I defy my body to reject this! I take a bite. My stomach reacts in such a foul manner that I have to spit the piece out gently and in a ladylike manner into my napkin. At this point I order a 7Up. No one orders this kind of bubbly at French Laundry. Five waiters enquire whether I like the meal. I smile faintly and murmur something about pacing myself.
My family looks at me and an unfamiliar sight: Stephanie with an untouched full glass of champagne and a plate full of lobster that she’s not touching. Obviously, something is very, very wrong. They eye me. I have no choice—I tell my mom and sister the bad news.
Mom orders me chamomile tea. At this point our 12 waiters begin to suspect that I’m ill. They hover around me, stealing my air. I drink the tea but still can’t eat the lobster. I am Tantalus in a horrific cosmic punishment. What have I done to deserve this cruel fate? Five courses to go. Will my appetite come back? Will I triumphantly recover? We’ve already been here for 3 hours. Three blessed hours at famed French Laundry.
I have to face facts, I think to myself as my stomach lurches like it’s trying to set a world record on the bucking bronco of my intestines. What the hell is going on in there? I cannot stay here. I am way too sick. Maybe it’s the hantavirus. Maybe it’s someone’s love child. In disgrace, disgust, and total disappointment, I throw in the towel. My mom tells the waiter that I am sick and that we have to go. She puts her hand on my head to see if I have a fever. I want my mommy and thankfully she’s right here. The head waiter offers to box up our meals. We shrug and say okay. I go outside to get some fresh, cool air.
I’m feverish and it’s possibly spinal meningitis, but I’m relieved to be alone outside in the crisp air. One of the waiters bolts out the door and dashes down the street to their sister restaurant, Bouchon. He returns with a stack of to-go boxes. French Laundry has never done a to-go box before. I can see through the windows into the kitchen from where I’m sitting, and I watch a line of cooks frantically boxing up our meals. My mother emerges with a huge shopping bag, and we go back to the resort where I pass out, a gurgling, odor-sensitive, nauseated, hot/cold mess.
The next day after three hours at the Auberge spa, a hot stone massage, a soak in the steam room and a dip in the hottub on a ledge overlooking their stunning olive grove and sculpture garden (seriously the most beautiful spa I’ve ever seen in my life), and much Pepto-Bismal, I am in a holding pattern, and we manage to make it back to San Francisco to my mother’s house.
No one has to work the next day, so I plan to just chill out at my mom’s house all day and night with my Mom and sister, thus allowing them to nurse the failed birthday girl back to health. I finally feel a bit hungry, so we start opening the to-go boxes one by one. And we feast. The rabbit is excellent. The lobster superb. The shopping bag keeps laying its golden eggs, including several ribboned packages of shortbread cookies and an obscene amount of gourmet chocolates.
And best of all, we are probably the only people on the planet who know that French Laundry tastes even better the second day!
Stephanie’s Ultimate Napa County Guide:
Coppola Winery, or Rubicon Estate as it is now called, is the perfect winery—it’s beautiful, the wine is good, the grounds are lovely, the shop is fun, and best of all, it has a museum full of famous relics from various Coppola movies: Dracula, Apocalypse Now, The Godfather and more.
1991 St. Helena Highway, Rutherford
Opus One is one of the valley’s premier wines, and the expensive tastings are by appointment only.
7900 Saint Helena Hwy, Oakville
Sterling is not the best wine on the planet but its grounds are gorgeous, and the main attraction is a serious tram ride up a mountain to the tasting room with gorgeous valley views.
1111 Dunaweal Lane, Calistoga
Domaine Carneros is a beautiful chateau and is one of the first wineries you come to, the perfect stop at the beginning or end of your trip. I always like to start off my day with a little bubbly…
1240 Duhig Road, Napa
Mumm is on the Silverado Trail and is a classic maker of California sparkling wine in the great French tradition. Take a tour and learn how the bubbly is born, sit for hours on their gorgeous terrace overlooking the vineyard, and be sure to check out their impressive art gallery.
8445 Silverado Trail, Rutherford
800.MUM.NAPA or 707.967.7700
Darioush is also on the Silverado Trail and is a hot, new winery founded by a Persian family with a pension for Roman empire decor. Their boutique features unusual and special items not found in most Napa wineries, and for a real treat, make sure you stop by on Fridays at 3 pm to experience your tastings with Cowgirl Creamery representatives, makers of unbelievable cheeses.
And did you know: Syrah is probably the French interpretation of the word Shiraz, which is a varietal originally from Persia? So taste Shiraz at Darioush as it was meant to be tasted.
4240 Silverado Trail, Napa
Brix is a great place to eat an easy and casual lunch on the terrace and then wander through their lovely vineyards after your meal or between wines.
7377 Saint Helena Hwy
Napa, CA 94558
Auberge du Soleil offers arguably the best lunch in the wine country. Its sumptuous fare, unbelievable wine list and terrace seating overlooking the valley is second to none. Perfect for romance or a decadent afternoon with the girls!
See below under ‘Overnight’
Tra Vigne is an old family favorite of ours. We love to have lunch on their patio beneath a canopy of grape leaves and enjoy our fabulous Napa outing. If you can only go to Napa once, have lunch at Auberge. If you can come a second time, have lunch here.
1050 Charter Oak Avenue, St. Helena
Domaine Chandon is a fabulous all-in-one house of sparkling wine where you can wine taste, tour and then settle in for a delightful lunch. Oh, and more bubbly…
One California Drive
Yountville, CA 94599
French Laundry is open for lunch on the weekends, Friday-Sunday. It might be slightly easier to secure lunch reservations than their famous dinner reservations.
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
www.frenchlaundry.com, and look for yummy recipes on the website!
To Die For Dinner:
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
**707.944.2380—Choose your desired date and then count back the calendar days 2 full months. Mark that date in red and begin to call IMMEDIATELY the minute the phone lines open for reservations, 10:00 am Pacific Standard Time.
Grocery and Picnic Needs:
Oakville Grocery is the best grocery in Napa! What a great place to stop for the ultimate gourmet picnic.
Oakville Grocery Napa Valley
7856 St. Helena Highway
Oakville, CA 94562
Limousine and Itinerary Planning Needs:
Events by Candace
1 Upland Road, St. Helena
R & M Sedans with driver Ric Raquel
Auberge du Soleil is gorgeous. If you can spare the time, definitely indulge and make a spa appointment. The three dipping pools (hot, cold and just right) overlook the valley and a magnificent sculpture garden and olive grove. The spa is for guests of the hotel only, so you cannot experience this true delight unless you’re also treating yourself to an Auberge slumber party.
180 Rutherford Hill Road
Spa du Soleil: 866.228.2490
Spa’s specials in Napa to check out.
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