This is the kind of meal you tell yourself that you do once in a lifetime; and once in the dining room, you look around at fellow diners wondering if this is a once in their lives as well. The Laboratorio, a smaller dining room and open kitchen at the back of Roberto Donna's Washington restaurant, Galileo, is how a master chef deals with career burn-out. Instead of leaving the kitchen, create your ideal kitchen. On certain evenings, Donna cooks a 12 course meal for about 30 diners who allow the chef leeway to be inspired by the market and season, cooking by instinct and inspiration. You don't choose from a menu, but are allowed to express food preferences and allergies in advance. In fact, when the reservation confirmation sheet asks if any in the party won't eat foie gras, you know what kind of meal you're in for. Thankfully, our party, which included two hunters, four Italians, and someone who'd eaten both brains and considerable amounts of organ meats, was not averse to foie gras.
The meal began with bread (circus comes later). Breadsticks with solid snap, chewy little rolls that echo with pure wheatiness, and breadsticks soft and redolent of ground black olives. Fingers of salty fried dough are brought around, but we are warned by a soignee waiter, not to fill
up on bread. "This is a big meal, and you will be too full, and then angry with me for not telling you."
It should be said, that your server is not exactly a waiter. He's more of a host who knows how to clear plates with out undue noise and spillage. He is dressed in a perfectly draped and fitted suit. His salt and pepper hair is combed in thick waves off his brow, and he has a beak an eagle would envy. He is not so much a waiter as the type of man you hope will hit on you when you're alone at a bar and feeling self-destructive.
Our dinner was shot through with flavors of the season - mushrooms in terrine, sausage, as a base for squab, thick bean soup. As the meal moved through its courses, the male members of our party started to whisper and mumble about red meat. Naturally the females rolled their eyes and agreed a nice green salad, some bitter lettuces, maybe some chard.
The only off notes were the fish and custard. The fish was surprisingly too salty and at that point in the meal, even the subtle and tender custard was too rich. Even setting aside the salty fish, we couldn't finish the custard.
Dessert was a little terra cotta cup of frothy, drinkable chocolate zabaglione. Sophisticated and childish, just what a dessert should be.
The meal was balanced, satisfying, entailed the right amount of labor and luxury ingredients for the price, but was also the the excuse, setting and backdrop for a dinner party as it should be. A mix of people who know each other well and just sort of, who have interests in common, but unique experiences, and who can share an equal level of shock and humor when the bill appears.