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.


Kate said...

Beurre doux translates as "soft butter." Two would be "deux."

Sairbair said...

Ahh! Merci! My sister got the language genes.