Today was my 34th birthday, and I was completely blown away by an amazing surprise from my wife -- she kidnapped me and spirited me away to lunch at The French Laundry.

If you're into food at all, you know what a big deal this is. French Laundry is generally acknowledged as the best restaurant in America -- Thomas Keller, the chef is an obsessive genius who's crafted a tiny little oasis of perfection in Yountville, Calif.

I've wanted to eat at the restaurant for years, but the near-impossiblity of securing a reservation and the bank-busting cost conspired to keep me from getting there. So, when I realized, at the last moment, that we were going there, I was giddy with delight. Kristen deserves an Oscar for completely fooling me.

So, can any meal live up to the sort of hype that the French Laundry gets? Let's start eating, and see.

Salmon Tartare Coronet with Crème Fraiche

This is Keller's signature amuse-bouche, which has become such a signature that it will be on the menu forever. It's a perfect distilation of what makes him such an interesting chef -- it's beautifuly presented, delicious, and shows a sense of humor. Salmon ice cream cones? Sure!

It's a lovely starter, and I say that as someone who isn't a big fish eater. Clean flavor -- the coronet is especially flavorful. A great way to start the meal, but, as an amuse should, was most notable for the excitement it built for the rest of the meal.

"Cauliflower Panna Cotta" with Beau Soleil Oyster Glaze and Russian Sevruga Caviar

I had resolved to eat every single thing that was placed before me -- who am I to second guess a place like French Laundry with my palate? And immediately, a test. My caviar experiences in the past have been uninspiring, and I'm usually not interested in Cauliflower.

But this was wonderful. The panna cotta balanced an earthiness from the cauliflower with the rich texture of the cream. The caviar cut through that richness with its ocean-like salinity. I liked almost everything else better, but this would have been the best dish of any normal meal.

Salad of Big Island Hearts of Peach Palm, Marinated Sweet Peppers, Hayden Mango "Coulis" and Young Cilantro

All of my dining companions ordered the white truffle risotto (see below), so I figured that someone should stick with the salad, so we could take a look at it. And visually, it was magnificent. It's hard to imagine the precision that goes into sending out hundreds of plates like this at each service.

It was very tasty, as well, light and balanced. The hearts of palm when they're left large have a soft texture -- but one of the most interesting things was the small quenelle-shaped pile of chopped hearts of palm on the salad. They tasted completely different with a different texture.

The pickled peppers played off the mango dressing nicely, a good balance of sour and sweet. It was a nice dish, but no one at the table was paying much attention to it, frankly, myself included. That's because of...

"Carnaroli Rosotto Biologico", Castelmango Cheese and Shaved White Truffles from Alba

...the outrageousness of the risotto. As the plates arrived, a waiter presented a large wooden box (a modified humidor, they said) that contained two absoultely massive white truffles. Fist-sized monsters that smells so powerfully of the earth and decay that it was overwhelming.

God, and then they started shaving one of these monsters over the risotto, and the aroma filled the room. They shaved some, and then some more, and then more still. I was shocked at how much. Just crazily, over the top decadent. The $45 suppliment was looking like a bargain, as truffles like that go for three grand a pound.

Just the smell was enough, as the heat of the rice hit the shaved truffles. There wasn't a single subtle thing about this dish, just reveling in the amazing ingredients. I had a couple of bites of Kristen's, and that was enough for me; in some ways, it was just too much.

Sautéed Fillet of Gulf Coast Cobia with Jacobsen's Farm Sunchokes, Pickled Red Pearl Onions and "Créme des Ciboulettes"

Cobia is a common in the Gulf of Mexico, although I had never heard of it before. Here was another test for me -- growing up in Western Pennsylvania, I didn't really encounter a lot of good, fresh fish, and that's left me seafood-phobic.

It was just perfect. Firm, white flesh, cooked all the way through but not dry in the slightest. My cousin John, who was there with his wife Jenn, talked about the moisture of the fish, and I pointed out that it was absoultely drenched in butter, which helps more than a little.

The sunchokes were a nice compliment, slightly sweet. The sauces were a chive and a sunchoke sauce, rich with cream. The pickled red onions were absoultely delicious -- I could have eaten dozens of them. Surprisingly, this was one of my favorite dishes of the day.

"Peas and Carrots" Main Lobster "Pancake", with Pea Shoot Salad and Ginger-Carrot Emulsion

Get it? Peas and carrots? It's one of Keller's little plays on words, and it's an absolutely perfect dish. The real trick is that with everything else going on in the dish, the first thing that hits your palate is the taste of the peas from the shoots and the carrot in the sauce; the name doesn't feel like a parlor trick, but a real description of the dish.

Meanwhile, there's everything else. Sweet lobster meat that pulls out the sweetness in the carrot sauce while highlighting the vegetal hit from the pea shoots. The chive crepe that ties it all together, the wonderfully seasoned sauce. If you had told me before the day that this would be my favorite dish, I would have been shocked, but that's how good they are there.

All-Day Braised Hobb's Shore "Poitrine de Porc", French Laundry Garden Collard Greens, Sierra Beauty Apple "Confit" and Blackstrap Molasses "Gastrique"

Move over bacon, it's time for something better! "Poitrine" is chest or breast, but this is what most of us would call pork belly. You know it better as bacon, once it's been smoked and cured. But take that same cut and braise it all day in thyme-scented stock, and you get this dish.

The big layers of fat might cause concern, but the meat is all falling apart and the fat does impart huge flavor to it. It's an especially nice touch to brown the top -- not only to add textural contrast, but as a nod to a nice crisp slice of bacon.

The greens and apples are natural riffs on pork -- greens from the South with ham hocks, apples and pork are a classic. It was a nice dish, very enjoyable, but it also might have been the only dish that I felt like I might have come up with on my own. Which isn't to say I could have done it anywhere as well.

Sirloin of Australian Platinum Grade "Wagyu", Broccolini "Fleurettes", Hen-of-the-Woods Mushrooms, Yukon Gold Potato "Mille Feuille" and "Sauce Bordelaise"

Kobe beef not raised in Kobe gets called Wagyu, after the animal itself. It's pricey, but unique. Imagine a piece of meat with the succulent texture of filet mignon, but with the intense beefy flavor of a good ribeye. That's what Wagyu is like.

It was simple and delicious. The potato Mille Feuille was sort of the fanciest scalloped potato that you've ever had, the sauce was impeccable. I didn't overcome my mushroom issue to eat this bad boy, sadly. Overall, probably my second-favorite dish, which shows the power of really great ingredients and the importance of preparing them so sublimely.

"Tomme de L'Ariege" Zante Currant "Bread Pudding", Grain Mustard "Vinaigrette" and Garden Arugula

All I can say here is that I tried. I tried to enjoy this goat's milk cheese, and it wasn't bad -- a sort of astringent chalkyness was my biggest hit from it. But frankly, it was lost on me. I admire cheese in the abstract, but I've never really enjoyed it alone. Which is a pity, as there's a whole world of really interesting cheeses out there that I'd love to love.

Also, this is the one course that I forgot to photograph before we dove in. More's the pity, as it was lovely.

Satsuma Mandarine Sorbet "aux Agrumes d'Automne et Feuille de Bric Croquante"

Mmmmm, dessert time. The sorbet itself had the classic Mandarin floral nose -- what was most interesting to me is the foam on top, which was stunningly intense, a pure hit of citrus essence. I think it was pomelo.

Underneath was a crunchy sheet of what I think was sugar, maybe bound with some gelatin. Overall, beautiful and refreshing, just as a sorbet should be.

Valrhona Chocolate "Dome", Tupelo Honey-Sicilian Pistachio "Nougat Blanc", Cocoa Nib "Coulis" and "Cerceaux de Sucre"

Good lord, this was delicious. We had been given a dessert wine to enjoy with this, and it was one of those pairings that takes both the food and wine to some metaphysical level that neither could approach on its own. Deeply rich with the chocolate, a fun surprise in the nougat when I ran across whole pistachios in there.

No photos of the bonus dessert -- miniature creme brulees or lemon custards with impossibly thin, crisp cookies made of pastry dough and sugar. I was too stuffed to take pictures at that point. And no pictures of the chocolates at the end, including a magnificent rosemary-honey concoction.

Just over four hours after sitting down, we were done, sent on our way with little bags of shortbread to snack on, which, it might not surprise you to hear, was the best I've ever had.

Overall, the meal was a knockout, easily one of the best two or three meals that I've ever eaten. You go into a place like French Laundry with such outrageous expectations that it's nearly impossible for them to be met, but somehow they pull it off. Service is casual but precise, gracious without being obsequious.

The wines, picked with the help of our sommiler, were delicious and a perfect compliment for the food. The company, both my cousin and his wife, and my dear Kristen, was impeccable. I couldn't have asked for a better birthday.

AuthorMark McClusky