Your super-saver plane tickets need only two or three weeks advance booking. But your restaurant reservation can require a month. If you want to try the hottest chefs, they typically book tables no more than a month ahead. Thus, when the telephone lines open at 9 a.m., reservations for an evening 30 days hence are sometimes gone by 10.
That's why, when I had the rare chance to compare the country's two hottest chefs, a continent apart, in one week, I knew I'd need luck and a speed dialer. I hit the jackpot. Tuesday at the French Laundry in Napa Valley, and Friday at Jean-Georges in Manhattan.
You also need to hit the jackpot to pay for such dinners. Figure on $150 a person if you are careful choosing your wine. Is it worth it? Is a van Gogh worth $40 million?
THE FRENCH LAUNDRY
(6640 Washington St., Yountville, Calif.. 707-944-2380. Dinner seven days a week; lunch Friday-Sunday)
Not only doesn't the French Laundry sound like a restaurant, it doesn't look like one. It's a two-story stone house in a residential neighborhood; from the street it smells more of flowers than food.
Even before you're seated -- in the candlelit garden or one of the stone-walled, minimally adorned dining rooms -- you're given a hint of chef Thomas Keller's playfulness: a tiny crisp cone filled with creme fraiche and tuna tartare, more wildly delicious than any ice cream cone. Waiters in long white aprons -- a subtle hint of the restaurant's name? -- explain the menu: five-course dinners, one of them vegetarian, are $65; a nine-course tasting menu is $80. As is the custom in Napa Valley, they present the wine list with the reverence of the family Bible.
The best of Keller's dishes are identified by their wit. "Oysters and Pearls" is a dollop of caviar and barely poached oysters on savory, custardy tapioca -- soft, softer and softest. "Tongue in Cheek" is beef cheek and veal tongue, cooked to near melting, and sharpened with horseradish.
Keller invents textures -- a lobster soup as frothy as cappuccino -- and makes a science of interweaving flavors as unexpected as lamb with figs, scallions and pearl onions. And he has an instinct for the adorable. Rabbit, wrapped in a crackly veil of potato, is accompanied by tiny rabbit chops, each the size of a large pea.
Portions are minute, yet precise, geometric, three-dimensional. You imagine doll-size ovens, surgical knives. Keller's is intellectual food, seemingly devised in the mind rather than intuited by the abundance of the market. Yet he never loses sight of deliciousness. Almost never: Fish dishes are less consistent than meats or vegetables.
You will definitely have room for dessert -- several, in fact. Fruits and wines and even herbs are fashioned into cold souffles, custards, ice creams, sorbets and syrups, then arranged in complex miniature still-lifes. The after-dinner sweets are button-size tarts and chocolates so perfect that a magnifying glass is unlikely to reveal a flaw.
As Keller says, Napa Valley is "the only place in America where people go to eat and drink" as their main activity. He is one reason.
(In Trump International Hotel and Tower, 1 Central Park West. 212-299-3900. Main dining room open Monday-Friday for lunch, Monday-Saturday for dinner)
Napa Valley vs. Manhattan. A small stone cottage vs. the glass-walled ground floor of a high-rise luxury hotel. Hardly could two $150 American meals be more different. Jean Georges looks massive, though it seats around 60. Outside the glass wall is a gigantic globe: This is a clubhouse for Masters of the Universe.
Countering the starkness, Jean Georges seduces with aromas. It has revived tableside finishing -- carving, pouring sauces from silver pots -- and every sense is stroked: High-back chairs are soft as leather gloves, glassware is so thin there's hardly a barrier between mouth and wine.
Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten creates tone poems on the plate -- sweet clear spices, low vibrations of herbs. Every texture fulfills its extreme: velvety, melting, crackly. Scallops are topped by commonplace cauliflower that is rendered fabulous, with a frothy and unprecedented caper-raisin emulsion. Duck smells like an Arab spice market, yet gently so, while squab has a gamey, earthy luxuriance with its homey skillet corncake, an irony of foie gras on top. Arctic char is so silky it just slides along your tongue, layered with crackly potato lace and a prickle of tart sorrel. And lobster is showered with a gorgeous coral broth haunting with pumpkin seeds and fenugreek. The menu is small -- eight appetizers, eight entrees -- which allows for perfection in each dish.
Restaurants in this stratosphere all have artistic, multimedia desserts. What stand out here are the intensity and clarity of the flavors. Chocolate souffle tastes like a distillation of chocolate. The ice creams are bursts of the tropics. The meal ends with housemade -- and surprisingly fragrant -- marshmallows.
Vongerichten is, after all, a master of essences. He's invented oils, vinegars and juices that capture fruits, vegetables, spices and herbs. His cooking is, more than anything else, about flavor -- aromatic melodies that can lodge in your memory to be played back ever after.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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