Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The French Laundry

So last week, during our trip to California, Aviva’s parents Tanya and Bucky took Aviva and I out to dinner at the French Laundry, one of the best restaurants in the world. I have to say, I have eaten at a fair number of very good establishments, but have never had a dining experience like this. It was …. transcendent, like some kind of crazy yoga/meditation for your mouth and stomach. I will do my best to describe the meal here, but nothing I say will do any justice to the food we ate.

At this point I feel the need to warn you, this post is long ... the meal at the French Laundry was 4.5 hours and nine courses, and I describe the whole thing ....

At around 1715 we arrived at the French Laundry, an unassuming wood and stone structure in Yountville, just off the main road. It was pretty dark, so we could not see the gardens and headed straight inside. The place carries the elegance of simplicity, function, and attention to detail. Everything was simple and clean, and every piece of the scene, from the laundry-clip folded napkins to the delicate, barely noticeable logos on the lanterns, was set just so.

Our waiter (we would end up having at least 12 waiters, but this guy was a constant throughout the meal), lets call him Brian, came over, gave us some champagne and took his time explaining the two menu options. Both were pre fixe 9 course meals, one being the chefs tasting menu and the other the vegetarian tasting menu. He described every dish on each menu in great detail, answered all our questions and volunteered to replace anything on the menu with something else if we desired. He also recommended not shifting between the vegetarian and chefs menus, as the heaviness of the chefs menu would overwhelm the lightness of many of the vegetable dishes.

Brian also gave an explanation of how the flavors in each dish come together that managed to convince both Bucky and myself to get the “Oysters and Pearls” as our first dish, despite the fact that it is made up of caviar, tapioca and oysters, all of which we both dislike. So Bucky, Aviva and I each ordered the chefs menu, Tanya got the vegetarian menu and Bucky ordered a bottle of wine. We each chose from the different options available in some of the courses, and then sat back in anticipation enjoying our champagne, while Bucky chose a bottle of wine, which was soon decanted and aerating at our table.

Soon Brian brought out some openers, first a petite, flaky pastry filled with gruyere and a sweet crème. Each was about the size of your thumb joint and was very lite and refreshing. This was followed by a second opener, a small cone filled with crème fresh mixed with herbs and topped with a fresh salmon slurry. The slurry was a dull orange color, thick and juicy with a strong salmon flavor that was only savory and not at all salty. As we were all marveling at our faux ice cream cones, Brian brought out the decanted wine and poured each of us a glass.

At this point the first course came out. The “Oysters and Pearls” is one of the French Laundry’s most famous dishes. It consists of white sturgeon caviar in a tapioca sauces accompanied by the two oyster hearts. It is served in a small white bowl, with a spoon made from mother of pearl, because a metal spoon disrupts the flavors of the dish. Although I don’t like any of the ingredients, the combination was miraculous, a rich, sweet taste that reminded one more of spectacularly fresh, sweet butter than of seafood, as the saltiness of the caviar and oysters completely offset by the sweet tapioca.

It is important to note that like each of the subsequent courses, two waiters brought out the first course and served it to us in sets of two plates. After the dish was in front of each of us, the waiters would carefully describe each aspect of the dish in detail, and then very knowledgeably answer our questions. Although the waiters changed often, everyone who worked at the restaurant had an incredible understanding of every aspect of the dish they were serving, as well as most of the rest of the menu. Another excellent touch was that each dish was served on its own distinct, subtly patterned white dish or set of dishes, all of which simply added to the understated elegance and artistry of the meal.

The second course had two options, a salad of globe artichokes and the dish I had, Moulard Duck "Foie Gras En Terrine". This was really exquisite, a large block of foie gras with green apple relish, garden turnips, red ribbon sorrel and a horseradish creme fraiche. The dish came with fresh, crisped bread that looked like pieces of French Toast dyed in gold, and was very flaky. By spreading the foie gras on the bread with a dollop of relish and a little of the sorrel, horseradish and turnips, you were given the gift of a sweet, almost moist earthy-ness, tempered by a freshness from the veggies and a crackle from the bread.

Almost as an afterthought, I should mention that after my dish was served, I was brought another small dish containing three different kinds of salt, all with distinct flavors and textures, one of which was a million years old. These salts were simply to add a bit of flavor to my already incredibly rich dish. Also, just after the salts, they brought out the first of the three bread courses, all made fresh at their bakery down the street, all delicious, and all not really worth mentioning again because the rest of the food was so ridiculous. The breads were served with two equally sumptuous butters, both amazing, both of which I will not be mentioning again.

For the third course, which turned out to be my favorite, I had glazed japanese sea eel with compressed cucumbers, red radish and perilla and satsuma madarins. Every bite of this dish was a different flavor depending on which of the ingredients you ate together, and all of them were delicious. Overall the dish simply gave you a sense of exquisite freshness. It was an amazing flavor and I loved it. When the waiter came over to take my plate, off of which I had scrounged every scrape of food, I tried to tell him something that he could then tell the chef ... my statement, which was far from eloquent, went something like this, "This was ... could you tell the chef ... I loved this, it was so ... it was, like, like a garden in my mouth."

The fourth course was the second of the famous French Laundry dishes, the "Beets and Leeks". It was a maine lobster tail "Pochee au Beurre Doux" in a puddle of red beet essence, with melted King Richard leeks, a single freshly made potato chip made by melting together a series of smaller freshly made potato chips. The leeks were so smooth and rich they might as well have been green butter. At this point I had decided the food was so incredible that if they had told me that the beet essence was derived by simply shouting the essence out of beets I would have believed it. The flavor of this dish was intense, the first bite being a small piece of beet-dipped lobster tail sitting on a piece of the potato chip covered in melted leeks. It was amazing, sweet and thick like lobster bisque, but tempered with a rich, oily-vegetable flavor from the leeks and balanced out with the crisp texture of the lobster and the chip.

At one point eating this dish I simply took a bite and stopped chewing, sitting dumbly with a bite in my mouth. Tanya asked me what I was doing and I replied, "If I don't keep chewing maybe the flavor won't go away."

The fifth course was another choice, I had the "Epale de Lapin Farcieaux Aux Ris Veau", with celeriac puree, honey poached cranberries and celery branch. For those of you, who like me do not speak restaurant fancy, the dish was a rabbit shoulder stuffed with veal sweatmeats. This course was simply rich and juicy, with a sweet, thick meatiness that was only heightened by the tang of the celery and the sweetness of the cranberries. The rabbit came around the shoulder bone, which was surrounded by a small silver implement that essentially allowed you to hold and cut the rabbit or pick up and eat the rabbit with your hands while remaining relatively dignified and clean. If I went to more places like this, my clothes would definitely have fewer stains.

The sixth course was a "Calotte de Beouf Grille" from Snake River Farms in Idaho. This turned out to be a sizable chunk of waygu beef, served medium rare, fed only on special grasses for seven months before slaughter. It was served with San Marzano tomato compote, chantrelle mushrooms, romaine lettuce and a mustard seed "Pain Perdu" in the shape of a half moon, which is essentially a bread made entirely of mustard seeds. Waygu beef, is a heavily marbled meat and when cooked the fat melts into the beefs to give it uncommon richness. I have eaten kobe beef a number of times before, and this was the best kobe beef I have ever had, if not simply the best steak I have ever had.

However, the clear star of this dish was in fact the tomato compote, which was so sweet and tasty that we were all sure it was tomato combined with cranberry or some other sweet fruit. In fact, it was just the San Marzano tomato, which I have since learned are an heirloom tomato often considered to be the best sauce tomato in the world. At one point, toward the end of this course, I said out loud, to no one in particular, "This is definitely the kind of food you want to get stuck in your teeth." When I am particularly happy and comfortable, things just slip out ...

At this point we were all getting full and a bit tipsy, but fortunately the courses started to lighten up a bit. For the seventh course I had Andante Dairy "Cadence" with a Jacobsens' Farm Fuyu Persimmon, Belgian Endive and Aged Balsamic Vinegar. This cheese also came with a delectable selection of breads as the third bread course (the second was somewhere around the rabbit dish). I loved the cheese, it felt like a brie but tasted fuller and lighter without being quite as sweet. I particularly liked it in combination with the balsamic vinegar.

The eighth and ninth courses were my least favorite, not because they were not good, but because I am not so into deserts. The eighth, which Bucky, Aviva and I all had was a Napa Valley Feijoa Sorbet with a Gros Micheal banana and a carmelized banana cake. It was a bit small, particularly compared to Bucky (see below), but very rich and very good. A feijoa, by the way, is a yellow fruit that is like a combination of a pineapple and a guava. I know a lot about fruit, and I had to look it up. My ninth course, the final choice on the menu, was a creme yoghurt "Bavarois" with "Pain d'Epices" (a cookie underneath the creme yoghurt stack) and Oregon huckleberries (on the right). I think Avivas Jivara Caramel "Roulade" (pictured on the left) with musquee de provence sherbert, pumpkin croutons and chocolate "Dentelle" was much better. However, I am not one to complain, as all three dishes were excellent, as were the variety of other taster than came after, the bowl of chocolate covered, sugar powdered macadamia nuts, the three level, 30-pound steel dish of homemade chocolates and the other tray of infused homemade chocolates. The orange, octagonal pumpkin infused chocolate was kind of incredible.

Overall it was an amazing experience, one that I will remember and treasure for the rest of my life. Certainly, like everything, I have in retrospect found somethings I might nitpick about, but generally it was a wonderful night. I loved the whole ambience of the meal, and while it may or may not have permanently changed my opinions about flavor and food, it was certainly a transcendant eating experience and, at this point, the best meal of my life.

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