Friday, October 20, 2006

The French Laundry

Outside the French Laundry

Thanks to P & M for getting us reservations with them at the French Laundry as a wedding gift. It was a spectacular evening, full of incredible food, and hanging out with friends. Couldn't ask for much better.

Ei-Nyung worked from home, and I took the latter half of the day off so that we could make it up to Yountville in time, given the traffic heading out of the Bay Area on a Friday afternoon. If I lived up that way, I'd get a hybrid for sure, just for the ability to use the carpool lane. 1:20 after we left, we arrived, and found a parking spot across the street from the restaurant, a quaint little two story building. Next to our parking space was the French Laundry's garden, which had all manner of beautiful vegetables and such. Frankly, I was surprised - there's no fence, there's no... anything to protect it from anyone who'd want to grab whatever they wanted. Maybe a security cam or something, but no physical barriers whatsoever. Not that most people are like, "I'm gonna steal a head of lettuce!" but still...

The French Laundry's Garden

So, we got to Yountville a little early, and spent some time next to a little fountain with a statue of a fireman surrounded by rose bushes. Cute little park. We wandered down to check out Bouchon - we were interested in the bakery, where we picked up an orange mascarpone cream/hazelnut/chocolate tart, a couple cream-filled cookies, and a raisin pastry (and a bottle of water, since I hadn't had anything to drink all afternoon. Expensive water is going to be a running theme, here).

Outside Bouchon

We went to the little patio in the back of the bakery, and ate the tart, which was delicious. Subtle orange mixed perfectly with the hazelnut, and the slightly crispy chocolate... beautiful.

Mascarpone Orange Hazelnut Chocolate Thingie

We walked around a little more, curious about how much it must cost to live out here, then headed back to the park to sit on a bench and talk for the hour we had to kill before the reservations. P&M were delayed getting out this way, so Ei-Nyung and I had a pleasant time hanging out.

When P&M arrived, we got seated, and the meal began. Here's an important point: When someone asks you if you want sparkling or still water, the correct answer is "tap." "Still" is not the same as tap water - "still" water comes in eleven dollar bottles. This is a good point to note *before* the meal starts (which is why I'm pointing it out here), rather than after, when you've consumed more in water than you'd spend on most very nice meals. For future reference, and so that no one else makes the same inadvertent mistake.

Now, the meal, and I'll get to the end first. This was an extraordinary meal - the best single meal that I've ever had, without question. HOWEVER - we've eaten at a number of quite nice places in the last year or two, and had meals that I think compete in the same sphere as the French Laundry. The French Laundry beats them all - but *for the cost*, I can't say that this is number one on my value-to-pleasure ratio. Currently, I think Manresa "wins" when you factor cost and availability in. But still - money no object, I'd choose the French Laundry over anything else I've ever eaten in a heartbeat. For a complete meal, that is. The single best dish I've ever, ever eaten anywhere is the hot-oil scallop sashimi at Morimoto.

But I'm hemming and hawing at this point only becuase the meal was *so expensive*. If I can put the price aside, still, the quality of food was just astonishing.

Lemme go get the menu;

  • Gruyere Gougers - the same basic puffs that Ei-Nyung made for the FL dinners we did a while back, except that these were filled with some sort of cheese. Delicious, but actually flavor-wise, something we'd experienced in its entirety before.

  • Salmon Coronets

    Salmon Coronet

    The FL's signature item, and something we've both been wanting to try for ages. Eric & Christy made them for the FL dinner, and as good as those were, these were better. Much better. No offense to E&C, but the flavors were so perfectly balanced that every flavor was beautifully complemented by every other flavor. I took a couple tiny bites of the salmon, and broke off a bit of the cone, and they're individually delicious flavors, but the sensation is improved by an order of magnitude when you just take the thing and eat it in one bite, getting the crunch of the cone, the subtle brightness and creaminess of the creme fraiche, and the richness of the salmon all melding together into one mega-flavor. This, to me, embodied the essence of what makes the FL a worthwhile experience - the technical achievement is way out of my reach, and both the conceptual and technical executions are *brilliant* - flawless, in many respects. With every dish, you understand what the intention was, and know that it was fulfilled to the highest level that anyone could expect. Beyond, in many cases.

  • "Oysters and Pearls"

    Oysters and Pearls

    This was the first FL item that we'd never experienced in any form, and it was mindboggling. Out came mother-of-pearl spoons, and small bowl, filled with what appeared to be a yellow custard, a few oyster meats, and a small pile of caviar. The actual description of the dish: "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Beau Soleil Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar. Wow. I mean, wow. The "Sabayon" was a sort of loose-custard consistency, slightly warm, with an onion-chive flavor (little bits of chopped chives were spread throughout). The oysters were immaculately prepared - very ... "clean" - I don't really know how else to describe it. I've had what are supposed to be good oysters before, and I've never really enjoyed them all that much. Sort of, "Yeah, oysters. Whatever." Same thing with caviar. I know it's weird, but a while back, Joe brought home a whole ridiculous pile of caviar, and we ate it all. "Meh," was about as much as I could muster for the experience. Not really my thing. Except that in this? Wow. The warmth of the custard, the saltiness of the caviar, the ocean-y richness of the oysters all came together, and it was like magic. Caviar, IMO, is usually basically salty and fishy. But in this application, it was sort of like how people use anchovies to lend a subtle rich, sort of "depth" to flavors without immediately screaming "ANCHOVIES!!!" In this case, the caviar lent a saltiness, and the fishy taste complemented the oniony flavors of the custard in such a way that you never thought "fishy" - it just made the custard taste more complex, more interesting, enhanced all its flavors without even making its presence obvious. This, to me, was the dish of the night - just a perfect blend of everything.

  • Jacobsen's Farm "Musquee de Provence" Soup


    Hadley Farms Medjool Date, Curry-Scented Yogurt and Cilantro Shoots. When this came out, it was sort of a WTF? moment - we got shallow bowls with a couple random pieces of squash, a couple dates, and a stripe of yellow stuff (the curry yogurt, naturally). And I thought, "Hm. This is high concept, but almost a parody of what people think of when they think of California Cuisine." Then, they came out with a couple little ceramic bottles, and poured a rich orange soup on into the bowl, and it all clicked. Duh. This was a beautiful squash (pumpkin? <-Mr. Ignoramus) soup - rich without being overpowering - the sort of flavor that swirls around your mouth, but never feels heavy, or forced. Then, when you happen upon where the stripe of curry yogurt was, it's a surprising little burst of curry flavor (as you probably know, a wonderful complement to this sort of squash/pumpkin flavor the soup had going on). The dates were odd - almost totally uniform in their texture - smooth, like someone'd managed to puree them without actually breaking the skin. Weird, but very pleasant.

  • "Borscht"


    Ei-Nyung got this, I'll let her describe it.

  • Lake Erie Walleye Pike "Boudin"

    Pike Custard

    Tokyo Turnips, Nasturtium Leaves, Beech Mushrooms and Green Orange "Aigre-Doux". I have no idea what Aigre-Doux is supposed to be, but it manifested itself in this instance as a moderately thick, subtly orange-flavored sauce, upon which a pike custard sat, accompanied by some small mushrooms, some leaves that looked like mini lilipads, and a few perfectly done white turnips. The pike mousse was very subtly flavored, sprinked with some chunky salt crystals (a common and very well-used theme throughout the dinner) that burst in your mouth as you ate the custard. The thing that was interesting to me was that the custard sans salt was so subtle as to be almost plain. But then when you hit one of the chunks of salt, it was like being in a beautiful room with the walls covered in extraordinary art, lit only by a candle. When you hit one of the salt crystals, it was like the whole room lit up for just a moment, then dimmed. And you wanted the room to be bright all the time, but if it was, you'd lose interest quickly. I can't say I'm a fan of Nasturtium leaves, which were inredibly astringent. With the mushrooms and custard, it provided an interesting contrasting flavor, but I made the mistake of eating one by itself, and it punched me in the face with its astringency. It was like eating an aspirin.

  • "Fricassee" of Maine Lobster "Mitts"


    Roasted Romaine Lettuce, Braised Applewood-Smoked Bacon, Baby Onions, Black Truffle, and "Creme de Homard." This is right up there for dish of the night. The waiter described this as lobster, that had been cooked with butter sous vide, and damn, it was the best lobster I've had. But to me, there were three significant things about this dish, none of which had to do with the lobster: 1.) The grilled Romaine lettuce was really good. And that was totally, totally unexpected. Like a less bitter endive, and a perfect complement to something where the flavors weren't overpowering. 2.) The Baby Onions were *perfect*. Caramelized on the outside, with just the perfect amount of onion "bite". Not limp at all, not underdone at all - absolutely *perfect*. One of those things that I've rarely noticed in other restaurants because though others have done them well, no other restaurant I've been to has done them *perfectly*. 3.) This was the first time I've had a large piece of truffle, enough that the flavor has filled my mouth, and I've known that it was *truffle*. In this case I could taste it clearly and distinctly. And this is the weird part - I can get this flavor for $4.25 at Gregoire, whenever they have their truffle scalloped potatoes on the menu - those are *incredible*, and provide a "complete truffle experience," as far as I'm concerned. So that was nice - knowing that that is what a truffle's *supposed* to taste like, adn that I have access to that experience in a more "normal environment was a pleasant surprise. The dish? Oh yeah, it was awesome.

  • Pork Belly w/Cranberries

    Pork Belly

    This was a substitution that M had requested, and Ei-Nyung got it as well. I'll let her describe it, but IMO, this was the best done pork belly I've ever had, better than the one from Rubicon, IMO, though I think Ei-Nyung disagrees.

  • Devil's Gulch Range "Jambonnette de Lapin"


    Melted Collard Greens, Yukon Gold Potato "Puree" and Blis Maple Syrup. This was rabbit. I've had rabbit before, and never really thought much of it - it was a long time ago. Tasted like chicken. And I like rabbits, you know, when they're not food - but I'd read "The Importance of Rabbits" in the FL cookbook, and you know, frankly, in this situation, if the FL had said, "the third dish is people," I might have said, "Ok, let's give it a shot." So, rabbit. This particular iteration of rabbit was pretty abstract. When it came out, it looked like a small, fried meatball with a bone sticking out of it like a drumette, sitting on a bed of potato puree. Then, there was a canelle of collard greens, which were basically cut up into brunoise-sized pieces. Everything about this dish, IMO, was awesome. The collard greens were very distinctly collard greens, but the astringency of the greens was balanced with the sweetness of the maple syrup, and enhanced by actual brunoise (carrots/celery/onion). The meatball? It was essentially shredded meat, balled up, lightly battered, and deep fried. It felt in some sense like a little chicken falafel ball. But the flavor! It was subtle, yet unlike chicken in any way other than the overall texture. It had flavor, much in the way that good chicken hasn't had all the flavor bred/processed out of it. It tasted like something unique - rabbit, I guess. I'd say that to whip out the SAT analogy style, beef:lamb, chicken:rabbit. Not the super-gamey lamb, but the more subtle stuff, where it's obvious that it's not beef, but you're not beat over the head with the gameyness of most lamb. To me, this was the most surprising dish of the night, and definitely one of my favorites.

  • Elysian Fields Farm "Selle d'Agneau Rotie Entiere"


    I have no idea what that means. The rest of the description: Sunchokes, Haricots Verts, Nicoise Olives, Toasted Pine Nuts and Sweet Red Peppers. I guess the part in quotes above must mean 'lamb' in some form or another. This was probably the most straightforward, and least surprising dish of the night. Good, and again, technically extraordinary, but in terms of a part of dinner, in context, almost ordinary. Honestly, I don't really "get" the lamb/olive pairing. Gregoire did the same thing, and they feel like flavors that just don't go together for me, particularly when you have lamb whose gameyness is so muted that it doesn't taste like anything when you pair it with something really punchy like an olive. Not saying it was bad - far, far, far from it - just in context of the rest of the meal, merely what I expected.

  • "Brin D'Amour"

    Cheese Plate

    Globe Artichoke, "Croquante" San Marzano Tomato "Fondue" and Arugula Mayonnaise. Basically the cheese course. Two wedges of a nice medium hard cheese with a piece of currant bread and walnut bread. The tomatoes were very similar to the tomatoes that Ei-Nyung made for the Haricots Verts salad she made for the first FL dinner, but the flavors were more finely tuned, which resulted in a more punchy tomato flavor. P said it had ketchup-y notes, not in a bad way, and he's right - it had an intensity of flavor and sweetness that weren't dissimilar to ketchup. I can't really say much about the cheese - I liked it, but it didn't stand out in my mind. However, the cheese + bread + arugula mayo + tomato = awesome. The globe artichoke was a tiny choke, deep fried to perfection. I wish I'd had a bowl of these to eat as snacks while watching TV or something. Absolutely delicious.

  • Bartlett Pear Sorbet

    Pear Sorbet

    Wildflower Honey Cake and Whipped Tupelo Honey. This sorbet was like eating the perfect pear. Nothing more, and nothing less. Thing is, we've had sorbet at Manresa and FL, and one of the main things that separates these places from other places I've had sorbet is that it's all about the texture. The sorbet has no noticable ice crystals - it's just *smooth*. It feels like cutting into nothing, when you cut into it with your spoon - it's almost like a transport medium for pure flavor. I've tried to make sorbet on several occasions, and the recipes inevitably end with "freeze according to your ice cream maker's instruction manual." To this, I say, "go screw." My ice cream maker can't produce sorbet of a hundredth this quality. So, I guess my only recourse is to go to expensive meals. Alas! This, I think, is simply a technical limitation of home cooking. Not many of us have industrial ice cream machines, and the difference, in a case like this, is painfully obvious.

  • "Chalice de Chocolat a la Noisette"

    Chocolate Apocalypse

    This was one of the most convoluted desserts I've ever seen. White Chocolate "Granite", Toasted Hazelnut "Sable" and Praline "Semifreddo." Whatever all that means. Basically, it was a white chocolate brownie, topped with a freakin' creme brulee, which itself was topped with a milk chocolate/hazelnut cream, which was *all* surrounded by a thin chocolate cylinder. Next to it was the praline semifreddo, which sat on top of a white chocolate granita. Holy crap, this was extraordinary. Just the variety of flavors, the fact that you could eat them all separately, or all together, and that the creme brulee was still noticable because the top still crunched even though it was hidden under a layer of foamy cream? Just totally bizarre, and ambitious beyond my wildest imaginings. So many parts, all of which had to work together in just the right way, then get served within moments of being assembled, lest the brulee get soggy and pointless... damn. Incredible.

  • Additional Desserts

    Assorted Desserts

    These included a creme brulee for the ladies, and the gents got a plum-topped trifle. Both delicious - my personal preference was for the trifle, as the creme brulee was relatively straightforward. Then, a selection of a truffle. I got a butterscotch one, Ei-Nyung got one infused with allspice. Good, but at this point, I was a bit beat up - my head was spinning from the sheer amount of sugar in the desserts. Or the caffeine from the cappucino, or the ridiculous quantity of ridiculous food we'd just eaten. When *even more* stuff came out with the check, I didn't even think about it, I couldn't eat any more.

Total bill: $210 per for the tasting menu per person, $55 between the four of us for way overpriced water.

Wow. That's a lot of scratch. Yes, it's an awesome meal. And for an almost-once-in-a-lifetime experience, worth it easily, simply to know what's *possible* with food, and in some cases, how things are really supposed to taste. It definitely skirts the line where part of my brain is like, "HOLY CRAP that's expensive." But it was a great night out, again, with friends, food and an experience that couldn't be beat. In that respect, who cares how much it costs? Life's for living, and there are some things that if you can do it, you should. For me, this was one of those things.

Much thanks to P&M, who secured the reservations, for both letting us accompany them, and for a wonderful time. Given the opportunity, I'd definitely go back, but probably not more than once every two years or so. And that, if we can even manage to get a table.


Anonymous perlick said...

Okay, so imagine if the French Laundry had been your first gourmet dining experience of any sort, as it was for me. Completely blew my mind, and set a standard it is hard for any other restaurant to match. Not just the food, which was exquisite, but the whole experience.

mmmmmm. Now I want to go back. It's been two years since my trip so I can justify it, right? Guess it's time for me to start calling up per se to try to get reservations.

6:45 AM  
Blogger Seppo said...

If this had been my first gourmet dining experience, it would have totally blown my mind, no question, and very likely nothing we'd been to before would have measured up - individual dishes, maybe, but nowhere has the overall experience come even close, in terms of uniformity of awesomeness.


10:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In that respect, who cares how much it costs? Life's for living, and there are some things that if you can do it, you should. For me, this was one of those things."

I guess I do these days. The marginal value of these experiences is falling fast.

Like others, I've been fortunate enough to have a lot of these kinds of dining experiences. But with each successive spending spree, it gets a little less "worth it." I'm more critical and less "blown away". It's not an overwhelming experience. It's, "well, that pork belly isn't as good as X. That lamb was a little tough compared to Y."

As a result, it's getting less "worth it."

I sort of feel like I should be lookng for "experiences", which are readily available, that don't make me think about the iPods I could have bought for the same price. I mean, last week I went down to Chinatown and had a fantastic meal for a fraction of the cost. (for the NYers: Oriental Garden, 14 Elizabeth St.; tied for highest rating in Zagats for Chinese food, 24/$29).

I still have hot flashes thinking about the money we blew at Per Se (2 people for almost the price of your 4).

I'm not ruling out going to fancy places in the future, but I really can't help but think about the cost and the value I derive from each dollar spent.

11:13 AM  
Blogger Seppo said...

Oh, sure. I'm not saying, "Life's short! Let's do this all the time!" That'd be ridiculous. But though October was a pretty ridiculous month for us, spending-wise, I can either think about the 360 I could have got, or realize that this was a more-or-less once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and not really sweat the expense.

I know I'm still pretty damn frugal most of the time, so it's not like my expectation is that we'll do this often. No freakin' way.

1:18 PM  
Blogger Seppo said...

I think for me, the French Laundry is basically the apex of food - maybe I'll get to try something better in my lifetime, but I sort of doubt it. In THAT regard, it was worth getting to the "top" of the pile at least once, despite the ridiculous expense.

Ei-Nyung & I were talking last night, about given the choice, if we had to schedule a night of fine dining for some special occasion, whether it'd be the FL or Manresa - both of which are pretty darned good, and pretty darned expensive, and just about as far away from us as each other. Both Manresa and the FL far surpass anything that we're capable of making without question, to the point where the differences are noticable, but in terms of the overall enjoyment of the experience, not substantially different.

In that regard, Manresa is cheaper, it's easier to get into, and it's a bit on the less traditional and more surprising side. For me, I'd pick Manresa, given the cost and trouble getting seats into the equation. Cost no object, and if someone else is making the reservations? FL for sure. But still, we don't live in that world, and even if we were spectacularly wealthy, it's not an experience I'd undertake on a regular basis.

Now that I know what "the best" is, frankly, the thing that I'm most motivated to do is up *my* cooking skills, so that in whatever capacity I'm able, my cooking can begin to head in that general direction.

2:12 PM  
Blogger ei-nyung said...

We should have asked for the mignardises to be packed up to go. Apparently, this is standard practice. I cry.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Angry Chad said...

Every once in a while the people behind the counter at Taco Bell really just *nail* the soft taco. Ususally, it's like "meat, cheese, lettus, yeah whatever. it's a taco. meh". But last week man they just put the right amount of everything in there, all wrapped up inside a perfectly folded, not too crispy or soft, flour tortia. It was so good, I didn't even need put on the single packet of Fire sauce I usually use. Yeah, wow.

7:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Semifreddo = semi-frozen, origin. Italian, commonly refers to an extra light and foamy semi-frozen dessert made by folding whipped cream into gelato and then freezing, the whipped cream keeps the texture very light and mousselike.

Selle d'agneau rotie entier = saddle of lamb roasted whole

aigre doux = literally sweet sour, traditional french sauce made by degalzing a saute pan with vinegar and sugar where the sugar melts and its sweetness mellows the sourness of the vinegar and it combines with whatever other ingredients were in the pan.

olives and lamb = a popular provencal pairing, both ingredients are very typical of provence and the combo is a classic, like you though I personally prefer the other classic combo lamb with herbes de provence

10:33 AM  
Blogger h said...

*laugh* at Chad.

I have to admit, I'm not a foodie. I love good food. I won't turn down invitations to nice restaurants. But I don't often seek them out, either. And I've never, ever been to a restaurant like French Laundry or Manresa or probably anything over $60 per person without alcohol.

I know that with experience and education, I would be able to understand and appreciate those kinds of places; that kind of food. But walking in there right now would be like when I visit contemporary art museums: "Looks nice, doesn't look nice." So I'd be able to say "tastes good, doesn't taste good" but I wouldn't have the tools of vocabulary and experience and rules to judge what I was experiencing.

I feel like food is for you guys what music is for me, only I don't make music myself. Hm.

In any case, anything that inspires you to throw dinner parties is fine by me. :)

4:17 PM  
Anonymous Perlick said...

To h:
I had no vocabulary for my experience at the French Laundry. I only went because a friend of mine had a reservation with an extra seat, and he'd been raving about it to me for months. I thought I was like you where I wouldn't really be able to appreciate it. But I did. A lot, obviously, since it got me to start going to more such places and enjoying the experience. I'm still nowhere near somebody like Seppo who can make this kind of stuff and tease out some of the flavors. But I was definitely surprised there was a foodie hidden inside me.

12:42 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home