The French Connection

Side Dish does the Laundry on a recent West Coast swing.

Die Another Day

The high point of a recent holiday in the Napa Valley was dinner at Thomas Keller's world-renowned French Laundry, a serene little Yountville restaurant where gem-like portions of edible art are the order of the day and securing a reservation is harder than making confit out of kibble. Professional connections cut no ice with Keller's staff, but we ultimately succeeded in scoring a spot the conventional way. Beginning at noon on the appointed day, exactly two months in advance of our planned visit, we began dialing, and redialing, until we finally made it past the busy signals.

Even for worldly diners, walking into the famous restaurant is like entering the sanctum sanctorum, and we shook off our reverie only when our waiter paused from filling our Riedel champagne flutes to ask where we were from. Our admission that we were Clevelanders made him smile. "My dad owns a restaurant on the east side of town," he said, "called the Baricelli Inn." We practically aspirated our bubbly. "Ohmigawd! You must be Paul Minnillo's son Michael!"

We knew the younger Minnillo had been in Yountville with Keller for the past six years -- ever since his proud papa sent him there for what was initially intended to be a nine-month externship -- but didn't realize he had moved from the kitchen to the front of the house about two years ago. He was coyly noncommittal when we asked if this was part of a grand plan to launch a place of his own (his dad suspects it is), but was far less circumspect when asked if he had any plans to return to his hometown. "I don't think so!" he laughed, perhaps a little too amused at the thought of leaving the Left Coast to resettle in the Rust Belt.

As for the nine-course chef's tasting (actually 11, if you count the signature canapé of salmon tartare, with sweet red-onion crème fraîche, wrapped in a sesame-seeded cornet; and the mignardise, a selection of tiny sweets that appeared at meal's end), it was the meal of a lifetime. There was duck foie gras, butter-braised lobster, lemongrass pot de crème, and huckleberry sorbet, just to name a few of the enticing morsels. Yes, the meal cost more than the round-trip airfare to SF -- $535 for two, to be exact, including wine, tax, and tip. But hey, after this, I'll never again blink at the prices at the Baricelli Inn, where a recent birthday bash for four added up to a comparatively paltry $300.

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