Andrew Cotto’s grand dreams of a fancy birthday dinner with his best friend, Mike, end in disappointment.
I grew up with great food and really got into what I considered to be “fine dining” in my mid-20s when I made good money and had an expense account. And since that time, I’d been dreaming of the French Laundry: the Holy Grail of American restaurants, nestled in the Napa Valley, owned and operated by the ingenious Thomas Keller, offering multiple courses of the most exquisite food, possibly, on the planet. On the Food Network I saw the four chefs’ pilgrimage to Napa and have multiple orgasms with each course. So inspired by what I watched, my wife and I planned a trip to northern California. We had everything ready to go: flights, hotels, rental car, time off. I learned the menu and the prices and the protocol for making a reservation. Then I called the French Laundry at 9:00 a.m. sharp (PCT) two months to the day we wanted to go. No chance. The hostess explained that they were, essentially, booked forever. Oh. Alright then. Never mind. We bagged the whole vacation, but I never forgot about the French Laundry.
Over the years, my passion for food continued. I ate well at home and abroad, though other things (kids, different interests, different career) caused my taste for fine dining to fade. Still, I was pretty excited to hear that Thomas Keller was opening a French Laundry outpost in New York. Per Se would have the same menu and motif as the French Laundry, high above Central Park in the new Time Warner Building. Cool. And when my 40th birthday approached, it seemed like a perfect time to go. All I had to do was sell my buddy Mike on the idea.
Mike and I had more than grown up together. We were born five days apart and lived five houses away. Our mothers knew each other well, and those five days between our births were practically the only days we didn’t see each other our entire childhoods. We were even baptized together—the only two babies to take the water that day. We go way back. He calls me “And” which is short for Andy, though to the rest of the world, over my second decades, I’d matured into Andrew. Mike and I stayed best of friends for 40 years, and we made plans to celebrate our birthdays together with our wives. I know Mike like nobody else, so I knew he’d never heard of something as precious as the French Laundry in Napa Valley or it’s newly opened NYC outpost. He’s a cop who eats like a fireman. Make that two fireman. Mike’s huge: six foot, two-hundred-and-plenty pounds of serious weight-room, steak and potatoes muscle. He has to feed constantly, and, on more than a few occasions, in the wee hours of very late nights, he’s made me feel unsafe being too close to his food. Despite the quantity-over-quality dynamic of Mike’s eating habits, he has a good palate. He has taste, though I didn’t know how he’d take to a tasting menu high above Central Park. So I asked him.
“Whatever you want, And,” he said. “Whatever you want.”
That’s what I wanted, so I made the reservations, told Mike where it was and when to be there.
When we got there, Mike was swirling a ruby wave around an oblong goblet.
“What’cha drinking big guy?” I asked.
He sniffed and said, “Barolo.”
Something hit me in that moment. Something that I’d felt since coming through the shining lobby of the Time Warner Building, up the silent elevator to the whatever floor then having to find the restaurant among other enterprises. The environment felt more like high-end retail shopping than some outpost of a Napa Valley restaurant. And seeing Mike, crushing an ornate chair, swigging Barolo by the glass, just made me think my big plan was a big mistake. And when we sat down and surveyed the menu, I was certain.
I remembered the prix-fixe from the French Laundry. That was years ago in another location, but I’d had the price in my head. And this is probably one of the reasons why we shouldn’t have been there: price was not an object to those who ate at Per Se, but it was to me, and I assumed for Mike, as well. So, when we sat down, at our perfectly set table, high over Central Park on a lovely July evening to celebrate our 40th birthdays with our two beautiful wives, I caught a little choke when the menu read more than twice what I expected. And this was exclusive of cocktails, wine, service, and (best part) the various supplemental charges available on the tasting menu. We were immediately met by a rotating staff of extremely helpful and impeccably trained servers. I mentioned, quietly, to sommelier #1 that we’d love some help culling the wine list for bargains. Recognizing my sticker shock, I assumed, he smiled assuredly and promptly sent over 4 glasses of champagne that cost more, each, than my monthly gym membership. Thanks, brother.
The disappointment really started to register when the food courses began. The first few were of the incredibly small variety you see in parodies of French restaurants. The kind of course that it takes the server longer to explain than the patron to eat. It can be funny in the movies, but not when you’re the one being served, sitting next to your best friend the cop who eats like two firemen. I looked at Mike. He looked at me. I studied the tiny delicacy on his plate and asked, “You gonna finish that?”
“Good one, And,” he said. “Good one.”
Course # 3, I believe, was a choice between fois gras and Hearts of Palm salad. I’d never in my life desired a salad at a restaurant, even a salad as exquisitely named as “Hearts of Palm.” Easy choice, except for the fact that there was a supplement for the fois gras. That felt like a thumb in the eye, though, there was a lovely choice of artisan bread (no charge!) on which to spread the internal organ of a bird. The discomfort I was having at this point is hard to explain. We were having a fine time—the four of us could have a solid conversation in a phone booth—but Mike knew I had issues with the place.
“Let it go, And,” he said, signaling our pal the sommelier for more wine.
But I couldn’t let it go. I was mad. Embarrassed. Guilty. Displaced. This cocktail of emotions was stirred by the undeniable fact, compounded with each course, that the food just didn’t taste that good. Each plate arrived with fanfare and the hope of redemption. The hope of the four of us tasting something incredible. Something shocking. Something that told us we were experiencing the extraordinary together as we celebrated the 40th birthdays of lifelong friends. Multiple orgasms high above Central Park. Eight courses of this. In my mind, that’s what we deserved. And that’s what I expected. But it never happened.
The last course arrived with a choice: lamb loin or Wagyu beef. Mike, way more intrigued by the voluminous prospect of “beef” over “loin,” asked friendly server #5 what Wagyu was, and she explained, rather formally, that it was special beef from Japanese cows that were raised being rubbed tenderly by the hands of women. The supplement was staggering. Mike got the beef. I told him at that amount, on top of everything else, he should be the one getting rubbed by Japanese women.
The night ended with an unmentionable tab. Mike tried to pay for the whole thing. We split it, though it really should have been on me. I’d overshot. Planned poorly and dragged my oldest friend and our wives down with me. But Mike’s graciousness redeemed the evening. In fact, it went beyond that. It reminded me of what I loved about food in the first place, what I learned growing up: food is about the friends and family we celebrate around the table, those with whom we share our time and our resources. It doesn’t matter where you are and what you eat. What matters is an appreciation for your life and those that led you to that table to share some time and some food together. The menu is secondary. Every time I’m lucky enough to sit down and eat with someone I care about in an environment that is appropriate, I’m enormously grateful, thanks to my evening at Per Se.
I’m not mad at Per Se or those four chefs who had the time of their lives at the French Laundry. They belonged there. They did what I wanted to do that night of my 40th birthday, but failed. I learned from my experience. Though, I have to admit, deep down inside, I’m already planning an evening for my and Mike’s 50th birthday, somewhere special, somewhere exquisite, somewhere with our wives out west, in a little restaurant nestled in a Sonoma hollow…
I’m paying (don’t tell Mike).
—Photo Craig Hatfield/Flickr