My husband and I had the good fortune help our friend Mark and his wife Karen celebrate his birthday at the French Laundry this weekend. Before we had even gotten out of the car, we were impressed by the restaurant's beautiful garden, and while we waited for our friends, we saw a chef in his white apron scurry across the street to get a bunch of herbs for our lunch. About our lunch, what is there to say? The food was perfect. There was absolutely nothing you could quibble with about it. Each course--all nine of them--was exquisite. The service was discreet, knowledgeable and helpful without going overboard in any way. Even afterwards, although I felt full, I did not feel that there was a crise de fois waiting for me around the corner. That evening, as we remembered our meal, I made a comment about it being inspiring for our own cooking, and we wondered whether we could achieve grilled mackerel en escabeche with orange slices, fennel, chorizo and saffron emulsion with the silky texture and mild flavor of the French Laundry's without being oily and strong-tasting.
But does a meal like that really bring inspiration to the round of breakfast-lunch-dinner cooking we do every day? Or is it just a fantasy world of tartare of Kuroge beef from Shiga Prefecture and Moulard duck fois gras en terrine that we live in for a couple of hours, until the magic stops, and we're back to the reality of burritos and spaghetti with only a faint memory of cauliflower panna cotta with oyster glaze topped with California sturgeon caviar? Honestly, it's unlikely that I will attempt to make the New Bedford sea scallop course, which involved trimming the scallop, creating a mousse with the scallop trimmings and molding it together with the scallop to cook it sous vide, then rolling the outside of the scallop in powdered hazelnuts and serving it on a puddle of black truffle sauce with a soupcon of melted leeks (my favorite dish, if I had one, and one whose preparation one of the staff described for us in detail).
And yet, I did feel a renewed interest in food upon our return. No, I did not go to the specialty shop to ask for Kuroge beef (they probably don't have it anyway), but I didn't just throw my top sirloin steak in the pan either. I trimmed the fat, rubbed it with olive oil, sprinkled it with salt and pepper, and watched it carefully to judge when it was done. I went out and bought a pineapple so we can try to somehow recreate the golden vanilla-roasted pineapple on coconut sorbet. I haven't looked for mackerel yet, but last night's red snapper I marinated in a Moroccan chermoula sauce, baked it in its sauce and spooned out the juices to sop up with bread when it was done. Maybe I would have done all those things without going to the French Laundry, but somehow I feel I did them with more attention and care. Every once in a great while, we need an immersion in savarin au citron, surrounded by citrus vierge and drizzled with Per Mio Figlio olive oil, to bring some creativity back to our table at home.