Wednesday, November 28, 2007

still full

A few years ago my mother gave me her copy of The French Laundry Cookbook. I thumb through it from time to time, day-dreaming about making the incredibly complex recipes, wishing I could replicate a meal that I might never be able to relish in person. The photographs of the food are pornographic. Each component, stares at you seductively, as if saying, "come on and bite me." Alba truffles are not uncommon on the autumn menu. I love to eat. I really love to eat well. Do I want to eat at one of the most-hyped restaurants in the country? Uh...yes.

I've never been able to get a reservation. I'm not sure if I'm "connected" enough to beg for a table. I don't like to beg. If I get a table like everyone else, cool. I hate favoritism. Two months ago I got a reservation for four people like everyone else courtesy of Open Table. I got lucky. It was a few minutes after 10:00 a.m. and I gave it a shot. BINGO! I got it!!! I even had two options. A table for four at 5:30 and a table for two at 9:30. This is a three + hour meal, so we took the early reservation. Then came the two month wait.

I am still full from last nights eating extravaganza. Pfffft. I can't believe I ate the whole thing....
My dream has always been to produce cheese fine enough that Thomas Keller would serve it to his staff as well as his patrons. After dining at The French Laundry, I really want to make that dream a reality.

Here's a slideshow of the meal, as it progressed:

Here's the recap.
We drove up to Yountville, CA in afternoon traffic. Our reservations were at 5:30 and we were cutting it close. Jim had to work and pushed our departure to the last possible second. With family in Marin, I knew we'd be hitting a lot of traffic on the trip to the Napa Valley. Highway 101 was a slow crawl from Corte Madera through San Rafael. Then we picked up the pace and zipped along highway 37 towards Sonoma and Napa. We skirted along the vineyards near the bay in the "Carneros" region of Southern Sonoma and Napa counties. When we reached the city of Napa, we turned left and dashed up highway 29 to Yountville, about 9 miles north.

We reached Yountville as darkness closed in. Washington, the main street is decorated for the holidays. All of the trees and many of the buildings are wrapped in white Christmas lights. Very pretty, but it is a dark little town. The directions we had printed off of their website didn't list their address, nor did they say WHICH Yountville exit to take off of Hwy 29. Yountville is small, so we figured the Yountville exit was the correct one. We were wrong. We drove up and down Washington Street looking for a sign. I was about to call our friends to get the address when my cell phone rang. "You just drove past us!" Catherine told me. "I was waving at you." I missed her. She gave us the address as we turned around. In a minute we were parked and entering the inconspicuous front door of the French Laundry.

We were lead up a staircase to a table along the interior wall. There were five other tables in the room. Another dining room was to the left of the staircase, as well as a larger dining room on the ground floor. The decor was surprisingly reserved. Creme and beige cast a flattering tone over the room, spot lights and candles illuminated each table. The table linens were floor length, with a second skirt of green, peeking out from underneath the top layer of white. The flatware was silver and the china was white with a small checkered pattern around the lip of each plate. The scene was impressive.

Our waiter, Guillaume, helped to orchestrate our dining experience. He lead us through the menu, made suggestions and was charming and warm, but not stuffy. Jim commented that for the first few minutes, there was more serving staff than diners. As we were part of the first seating, this was very true. The rooms were full by 6:30. The staff was constantly swooping in to fill our water glasses (we opted for sparking.) The seamlessly removed each course, and replenished our silverware with the appropriate utensils for each dish. Conversations flowed easily between us as we ooh-ed and ahhh-ed over each bite.

The cavalcade of cuisine began with a pate au choux filled with gruyere. This was followed buy a silver tray that appeared to have four tiny ice cream cones on it. It was a scoop of salmon tartare with red onion creme fraiche in a black sesame seed tuille coronet. Cute AND savory. Gone in two bites.

We perused the wine list and settled on a half bottle of Pinot Noir by Ken Wright of Carlton, Oregon. A Yamhill County Pinot. Perfect. Perhaps he'll be our neighbor in the future. Jim's uncle Wayne, is a big fan of Ken's wine and often opens a bottle when we're staying with him in McMinnville. It makes the property search more pleasant, I think.

Then the nine courses began to arrive.

First up:
Oysters and Pearls. Guillaume informed us that this is a classic, signature Thomas Keller dish, oysters in bath of sabayon of pearl tapioca served along side vanilla scented white sturgion caviar from California. It was presented at the table with a white dome over the wide-rimmed bowl. A silver stem rose up from the peak of the dome. The server grasped the stem to reveal the contents beneath. A pool of sabayon with two oysters and a dollop of caviar bathed in it's rich broth.

The bread service began and we were never lacking. I don't want to fill up on bread at the French Laundry, but it was accompanied by butter from two people. I like it when you can name the person who contributed to a part of your meal. Soyoung Scanlan, the Andante Dairy cheese mistress makes a soft, rich, sweet butter for the table. This was served on a crystal and silver dish. "Pass the UFO dish of butter, please," Jim said as he slathered his french roll with this high butterfat delight. The other butter was a salted butter from Orwell, Vermont. Diane St. Clair of Animal Farm makes it in small batches and sells most of her 87% butterfat butter to Keller's restaurants like French Laundry. That's a nice relationship! Her butter was the favorite of the table. It was salty with a slight tang. It went really well with every bite of bread. We wanted to take the crock home with us, but we refrained.

2nd: The salad course:
Catherine, Ian and I had the Salad of Golden Chanerelle Mushrooms served a persimmon with pickled hearts of romaine lettuce and Dijon mustard. Three mushrooms were assembled on the plate with a diamond shaped piece of lettuce on top. The sweet persimmon was diced and placed next to the mushroom. A swath of mustard tied the pieces together. It was quite artistic, as well as delicate, and balanced. Just the right amount of acidity to counter the sweet and earthy notes on the palate. Off to a good start. Jim had the Moulard Duck Foie Gras in Terrine with compressed green apples, chestnuts, and greens. It was served with warm brioche toast and three different kinds of salt, one grey from France, one white from ?, and one from Montana with a red hue (the most minerally.) Very decadent, rich, and indulgent. Jim LOVE foie gras and will usually order it if given a chance. I love to take a bite, but an entire dish is too much for me. It was good, and the brioche toast was perfect with the creamy foie gras. There was an up-charge for the foie gras. It was THAT decadent.

We eat more bread and butter. It is so good, we can't help ourselves.

Next up, 3rd: Fish course.
We all had the Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Poached Atlantic Halibut with tomato compote, Yukon gold potato confit, three leaves of arugula and nicoise olive oil emulsion. This dish really hit the mark when all of the components were combined on the fork and danced across the tongue. The fish was sweet and super moist. Not oily at all. The tomato tasted like fruit, extra-sweet. The salty olive spread really brought the party together, like adding anchovy paste to a ceasar dressing. The arugula wasn't bitter or peppery, but the greens added another layer that made the dish sing. We all made happy noises while we cleaned our plates. "Yum," "Mmmm," and "Ohhhh," were echoed around the table.

The other choice was Santa Barbara coast Sea Urchin. "Urchin twice in week?" Jim asked. Don't think so. Last week we had seared urchin at Ebisu, our local sushi bar. Not our favorite sushi, but it was good.

4th course:
"Pinces de Homard Pochees au Buerre Doux"
I don't speak French but this dish was lobster claws poached in two?!? butters (thanks for the correction: not two butters, soft butter) with diced sunchoke, broccolini, and pinenut ragout served with black winter truffle coulis. I love lobster. And poached in butter? Works for me! Perfectly prepared, but I thought it could have used a bit more punch. I'm used to butter and lemon with my lobster, I guess. I couldn't taste the truffle.

5th round:
Ian was the odd man out by having-- Wolfe Ranch White Quail with roasted cipollini onion, griddled corn financier (polenta?) Pruneau d' Agen, and sage jus. The quail was served with breast with crispy skin and a confit of leg. The bite I had was nice. Again, the marriage of all of the ingredients made the sum of the dish work well.

Catherine, Jim and I had the other choice: Slow-Braised shoulder of Devil's Gulch Ranch Rabbit. It was stuffed with sweetbreads and served over melted swiss chard, glazed salsify and sour Michigan cherries. The rabbit was presented like a lollipop, with a silver stick to grasp onto the braised, stuffed rabbit. The sauce was almost like a barbecue sauce. It was a bit sweet and with the sour cherries, it just exploded in your mouth. The sweetbreads were finely chopped and added a nice soft texture to the entire dish. This is one of my favorite dishes of the evening.

We were all doing small, happy dances in our seats, swaying back and forth, saying, "Mmmmm, Mmmm, Good." Getting full now and we still have more food coming.

6th course:
Grilled Pave of Snake River Farms Prime Beef Sirloin. A cross between an angus and a Japanese Kobe beef breed. Makes for a nice piece of red meat. It was served medium rare with marinated red beets, corned beef and cabbage stuffed pierogi, watercress and sauce raifort (horseradish jus.) This was my other favorite dish. The beef was amazingly tender. It dissolved on the tongue. It was perfectly seasoned with salt, pepper and a hint of horseradish. You could cut it with your spoon. Imagine the best roast beef you've ever had and tenderize it. Serve it with a warm reduction sauce. The pierogi was a nice touch, showing off another way to prepare a beef dumpling.

7th course: CHEESE!
Senne Flada, a wash-rind, cow's milk cheese from Switzerland. Served with flowering quince puree, caramelized fennel bulb, mache lettuce and toasted pumpkin seeds. I must admit, I don't like fennel AT ALL. So, that being said, this was a nice match. The cheese was semi-soft, not too stinky for a wash-rinded cheese, with a mild meatiness, sight custardy-egg overtones. Overall it was very creamy on the palate. Some say it has hints of coffee. I didn't pick that up. It reminded me of a good, Alsatian muenster. It played well with the sweet quince puree and the toasted seeds. I tried it with the fennel. OK, it was good, but I don't think the fennel added anything to the mix. I could have left it off the plate. I wonder where I can find this cheese so I could play with it some more?

8th Course: Sorbet
Feijoa Sorbet with Maui pinapple relish and angel food cake.
What is a feijoa? It is a pinapple guava. A new fruit for me. It makes a very, refreshing sorbet. This was a very, straightforward dish and we all loved it.

Number nine, number nine, number nine...
S'mores or Charlotte aux poires et aux dates.

Ian and I had the S'mores with cashew nut "parfait," caramel "delice," and sauce a la guimauve brulee (torched marshmallow sauce.) A smear of Valrhona chocolate was placed on the bottom of the s'more components. It was good, sweet, and chocolatey. I polished mine off, in spite of the fact I was so full.

Jim and Catherine had the Charlotte of Pears and Dates, with bartlett pear sorbet, Japonaise, candied hazelnuts and pear coulis. Not as sweet, with an excellent sorbet. Jim really seemed to enjoy the dish. I was too busy with my S'mores to pay much attention to his.

The servers came out with more little bites over coffee and tea. Small sweet cakes with shaving of olive on top. That was nice! Roasted and caramelized macadamia nuts rolled in dark chocolate and dusted in powdered sugar. Oh my! These are too good. Good thing I couldn't face another bite. I would have eaten then entire ceramic crock that they were served in, just to get at the chocolate covered nuts.

Then came the check. Yep. Most expensive meal I've ever been lucky enough to devour. The check was cute. It looks like a laundry tag. Lots of good attention to detail.

Time elapsed: 3 hours, 45 minutes. I never felt rushed. Nor did I feel like we were waiting for any course. The service was seamless.

I'd go back if someone wanted to take me. Just let me save up for another year.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Idle time

My days have not been so idle. I've been feeling a bit overwhelmed. The holidays are here and I hosted Thanksgiving. I brined a beautiful bird and put out a very tasty spread. I picked up some a bunch of wild mushroom and made a great stuffing with them. No cheese, but we stuffed ourselves with plenty of other food. I tried to keep things healthy this year, so we had veggies and dip, olives, and Molinari Salami for pre-dinner nibbles. I actually managed to lose weight this week! It feels good to be in control during the holidays.

My big challenge is staring me in the face. I'm going to Vermont on Friday. I'll be taking a class on Spanish Cheesemaking Practices at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese. It is a part of the University of Vermont. I've never been to Vermont, or Burlington and am looking forward to exploring the area. This class sounds exciting, too. We'll be going over the production of Spanish cheeses like idiazabal, blue cheeses, and Basque cheese. Oh boy!

It is snowing and cold in Vermont. I'll be leaving San Francisco, where the high is 60 today and I'll be whimpering about the high of 20. The low this weekend is supposed to be around 5! Oh dear God. I hope I have enough warm clothes. I hope the clear the roads well. I hate driving on icy and snowy road. I'm a California weather wimp! And I like to worry.

Here's a photo from the last time Jim and I touched snow. Near Lake Tahoe, Jan. 2005.

I'm taking a few extra days on either side of the class so I can find some of these fine Vermont Cheesemakers and see how they do things. I'm planning on visiting Mateo Kehler at Jasper Hill Farm so I can see his elaborate cheese cave and help him make cheese. He, along with his brother, wife and sister-in-law make some of my favorite domestic cheese. Constant Bliss and Bayley Hazen Blue. Raw milk and superb. Constant Bliss is a soft, bloomy rind, dome shaped cheese that oozes when you cut into it. Sometimes it smells like warm, buttered popcorn. It goes very well with California chardonnays. Mmmmm. Dee-lish! Bayley Hazen Blue is a well balanced blue with a texture like a Stilton. The sweet milky, salty flavor with a hint of campfire smoke. It is balanced by the moderate blue veins. It is my favorite blue to sell at Cowgirl. I think it really shows off the quality of the milk and the cheesemaker. I emailed Mateo in October. I'll be paying a visit to Jasper Hill Farm on Saturday. Up-and-at-em at 6:00 A.M.!!!

Other Vermont cheesemakers I'd like to see: The Majors of Patch Farm, producers of Vermont Shepherd Tomme. They make an aged sheep's milk cheese that could be mistaken for a Basque cheese. It has a roasted nutty flavor with hints of salty butterscotch. Orb Weaver: They have a stunning cave that I'd like to see. Hewn out of the earth and decorated with stone carvings. I like functional art.
Twig farm: They didn't have farming background and now they have goats and make cheese. They've been in business since 2005 and are producing some nice aged goat cheese. I think I might have some things in common with the folks at Twig. Michael Lee, the cheesemaker was a cheesemonger at a cheese shop in Boston.
There are lots of cheesemakers, I hope to meet a few of them while I'm in the area.

Pray for good driving conditions.

Oh! Did I mention I'm having dinner at the French Laundry tonight? No special occasion other than the fact we've always wanted to eat there and we've never been. I wonder what's on their cheese plate? I'll find out in a few hours. Our reservation is at 5:30.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Harley Farms, Pescadero, California

Two miles from the Pacific Ocean is the small village of Pescadero. It is in San Mateo County and feels like a world away from the Bay Area. In reality it is just over the hill from Silicon Valley and the hustle and bustle San Francisco and the peninsula. There are three big attractions in Pescadero for those of us who like to eat. Duarte's Tavern, Norm's Market/Arcangeli Grocery Company and Bakery, and Harley Farms. The three destinations add up to a day-long feast in one square mile.

Dee Harley is English. Umpteen years ago, she married a member of the Duarte family and settled in Pescadero on a nine acre farm. Today, with nine employees she makes a stunning array of fresh goat cheeses from her herd of 200 goats. Her make room is small. It has a bulk tank, a square pasteurizer, a cheese draining rack, a work table and storage shelves. Not a lot of room to crank out the many varieties of award winning fresh chevre, feta, and ricotta. Her cheese is distinctive as well as delicious. Many of them are covered with edible flower petals. They are edible works of art.

Jim and I drove to Pescadero with our friends Jim and Ali. We spent two hours on a Saturday, touring Harley Farms with one of Dee's employees, Shar. Shar let us spend time with the does. Since it is autumn, the fragrant bucks are cosying up to the girls and anyone else who would dare touch them. Some of our group learned how stinky bucks can be the hard way. The bucks are just as friendly as the does. The does are clean. The bucks are damp with their own urine and, uh, male essense. Shar answered questions about the goats and their care. The goats have nice, lush pastures and a good size loafing barn in which to live. The goats of Harley Farms are extremely friendly, and move from person to person, nuzzling them and wanting to be petted. They're great ambassadors for the dairy goat world. Most of them were quiet, too. I miss hanging out with goats. I know I don't want an entire herd to milk, but a couple as pets would be nice...and you can't beat the taste of fresh milk....

We moved into the milking parlor where we got to milk one of the does. The farm dog joined us and early awaited her afternoon treat. Lucky dog gets fresh goat milk with every tour! When it was my turn at the udders, I reached up, grabbed on to the udder, and got a good stream of milk right away. "You've done this before, apparently," commented Shar. "Yeah. Once or twice," I replied. This girl was calm and easy to milk.

The tour continued into the restored dairy barn. We walked through the sales area and into the "make" room, where cheese is made. We donned hairnets and washed our hands. Gathering around the pasteurizer, Shar explained how they make their fresh chevre. Many folks asked lots of questions. Shar handles the business affairs of Harley Farms, so some of the more technical questions she struggled with. Things got really exciting when she moved us around the work table and made a small, petal covered goat cheese. It was fun to watch her compose the disc. Petals were placed in the bottom of a small pie tin lined with plastic wrap. Shar then worked the cheese like it was play-doh and pressed it into the tin. A layer of dried herbs was spread over cheese and then it was topped off with more cheese. The plastic wrap then enveloped the disc, and viola! A work of tasty art! The group moved into the hayloft of the barn and we ate the freshly prepared cheese with fresh ciabatta bread. This concluded the tour and we were free to wander downstairs to sample and buy cheese. Dee was downstairs tending to the retail shop. She spotted Jim and I and came over to say hello. She asked how things were going. We told her about our plans to move to Oregon and my experience at Goat Lady Dairy. She lit up when I mentioned GLD. She wanted to hear all about the Dinners at the Dairy. They're an example of diversification that others want to emulate. She's still very supportive of our efforts and wants to see us make cheese, too! Harley Farms is doing really well and is getting lots of press these days. I'm really happy for Dee. Oh, and we bought some chevre and ricotta.

Dee Harley makes picks up her ciabatta bread from Norm's Market in Pescadero and serves it with her samples of goat cheese. Talk about eating local! Fresh local goat cheese on local bread that is still warm from the oven. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it.

Downtown Pescadero is about two blocks long. At one end is Norms/Archangeli's Grocery. Across the street at the other end of Main Street is Duarte's Tavern. Norm's/Archangli's is a local grocery store that has a bakery in the rear of the market. They bake Italian style bread all day long (every two hours I was told.) They also make their own line of condiments, salsas, mustards, and cioppino We struggled, trying to decide which delicious bread to try for our afternoon snack. An employee pulled up to the bread rack with a shopping cart full of artichoke herb bread, straight from the oven. Sold! I grabbed a warm, crusty loaf and put in into my basket. We also grabbed some olives and some cinnamon bread to take home. We took our bread, cheese, and selves and drove to Pescadero State Beach. We spread out our nibbles on a picnic table overlooking tidepools, a sandy beach, and the Pacific Ocean. The bread was still warm as we all tore into it. Big chunks of artichoke hearts emerged encased in crisp, chewy bread. OH MY! Perhaps the best bread I've ever tasted. A wonderfully balanced flavor, slightly salty with a dusting of herbs on the crust. I'm glad I don't live near this place. I'd overdose. We spread fresh chevre from Harley Farms on the bread and had an even more amazing fiesta on our tastebuds. We blissfully ate our bread and cheese while watching seals play in the surf and brown pelicans fly overhead.

As I mentioned before, Duarte's does seafood, soup, and pies right. Their cioppino features an entire dungeness crab with mussels and a white fish served up in a tomato, celery and herb broth. They give you a nut cracker, bib and basket full of sourdough bread. Yes we ate it. Yes we loved it. Yes, we took home a piece of pie. We were too full to eat it there.

updates and ass kicking

Delays are a part of life. If you've ever tried to fly into or out of San Francisco, you learn that fact each an every time.

Finding our new home is subject to delays. We haven't found a place after months of searching! Yes, I'm frustrated. Yes, I'm disappointed. Yes, I'm impatient. I just want to get going. I'm ready to go mentally and physically. For whatever reason, the right place has not made itself known to us. What's a girl to do? She gets physical!

I'm not a Cowgirl too often these days. I worked a couple of shifts this week but that's not the norm, lately. Since I've got all of this time on my hands, I need a project. If I don't have a project I go stir crazy. My current project? Me! I'm working on my body, strengthening, toning, and dropping the extra pounds that have been clinging to my frame for a few years. I want to be in top shape for making cheese. Cheesemaking is back-breaking work, literally. If my back and body are strong, I won't injure myself as easily. If I'm hurt, I can't make cheese. If I don't make cheese, I don't have cheese to sell to the masses. That's bad for business and the bank account.

I need help getting fit, strong, and lean. I walked into Golden Gate Fitness a couple of months ago and signed up. It is a small gym down the street from my house. Everyone in there lives in the neighborhood. It isn't glamorous, they don't have a pool, the don't have yoga classes. They have instruments of torture - a rack, an iron maiden, iron weights, etc. They have lots of machines and mirrored room for stretching and doing mat exercises. What fun! I have a lot of natural strength thanks to the Eastern European peasant blood in my family yet I lack coordination, motivation, skill and tone. To get over these hurdles I hired Al Garza, a personal who works at Golden Gate Fitness. I see him twice a week and he willingly kicks my ass in the nicest way possible.

Al's great. He's a firefighter/EMT for the San Francisco Fire Department. He's a fitness trainer on the side. An SF native (very rare these days,) he actually grew up in the neighborhood. As local as can be. He's a fitness freak. While the other firemen like to cook up big, heart-clogging meals like lasagna, Al will be stir-frying veggies with shrimp. He's a big fan of feta cheese. It seems to be a weakness of his. He says he can eat a whole block of it in one sitting. Perhaps I'll make some feta and give him some for Christmas. I'd like to practice my feta making. Al has been great, motivating me to push my limits and makes me work up a sweat within seconds. I leave the gym tired, but feeling really good. He's got a very positive approach for which I am most appreciative. Sometimes I'll watch myself do these silly squat maneuvers and look completely ridiculous. I can't help but start giggling, grow weak, and have to stop. Al's good and keeps his composure. The harder I work, the more I'm seeing results. My clothes are baggier. This is good.

Not only am I working out regularly, but I'm taking a belly dance class. Why? Because it is fun, and I should be having fun while I'm embarrassing myself in front of four other women. I'm not the most coordinated of people. When my instructor says pick up your left foot, I usually go for my right. I've taken two classes, so far. It is a great work out for your abs, legs and arms. I'm usually sweating after about five minutes. This week we had the added bonus of an earthquake during class! Did I feel it? No! 5.6 magnitude on the Richter scale and I totally missed it! I came home and Jim has the details pulled up on the computer. He's amazed that I didn't feel it. I lasted for 20 seconds. That's a moderate earthquake by any measure. I guess the earth under Glen Park is very stable. No damage around here. The local TV news crews had fun going to grocery stores around San Jose looking for broken wine bottles, pickle jars, and loose items scattered across the floor. Mostly rattled nerves it seems.

I'm having a good time getting fit and remembering what it feels like to feel my body move. I've got a lot more energy and with the help of Weight Watchers, I'm losing some weight, too. Yee haw! Cheese is not a low calorie food, so being in shape will help me in many ways.


I've been busy. Stay tuned for upcoming posts: Class Reunions, Field trips, and more educational opportunities.