Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The French Laundry


5:35 - After hours of struggle, I finally admitted defeat.

Insomnia had won again.

6:01 - Ate a cookie to go with my pills; stumbled around in the morning light gathering together things I don't normally wear/use:
  • Dress shirts
  • Ties
  • A jacket
  • Shoe polish
Six costume changes later, I knocked on my roommate's door (now that it's finally after 8AM).

With one eye open: "Not that tie, this one."

So it is settled. Black shirt, grey pattern tie.

Time passes...

11:01 - Text sent: "here."
11:02 - Text received: "we'll be there on time."

Time passes.

Time passes.

11:47 - Everyone is sat at the table.

The waiting allowed us to take the whole place in: original wooden beams, painted then stripped (an effect my father toyed with in the 80s, which made me resent house painting for some time). Brick and mortar, expensive flower arrangements presumably delivered every morning.

Vines, sunlight, leather chairs, finished veneers.

Oddly shaped display cabinets stocked with Spiegelau stemware. Smartly dressed front of the house staff quietly rushed back and forth.

"Are you folks on vacation?"

"Nope. I've been here for about 17 years." Our party consisted of an ex-pat from Montreal, three former Clevelanders and a New Jersey native (which, I might add, is the place of my mother's birth, lest we devolve into any stereotypes).

"Shaker Heights, originally," I added.

"Oh, no kidding? I'm from Pepper Pike," answered a sharply dressed, well groomed young man at the host podium. I don't realize it at the time, but the man may well be son of Cleveland restauranteur Paul Minnillo... worlds collide.

Fleeting glimpses were caught of Chef and owner Thomas Keller, actually at the restaurant, greeting VIPs. He would appear and disappear like a phantom, and that's as close as I would get that day in my ongoing adventures of celebrity chef spotting.

--

Everyone knows McDonald's, making it probably by rights the most famous chain of restaurants in the world.

But for people who know restaurants, the single most famous restaurant in the world is Thomas Keller's French Laundry. And while it may not be the best restaurant in the world, it is among an élite few on the top.

The restaurant has been written about endlessly, and I have no less than three books that directly broach the subject: The French Laundry Cookbook (Thomas Keller, Michael Ruhlman and Susie Heller), The Soul of a Chef (Michael Ruhlman) and A Cook's Tour (Anthony Bourdain).

Why write about it? Because I can; because I went.

I went because I lost a bet.

I made the bet, knowing I'd lose, because you kind of need to gin up an excuse to eat so extravagantly.

I'm glad I did, and I'll never forget it, because the French Laundry absolutely lives up to its hype.

--


Once in the main dining room all attention was on the service, the food and the wine.

The menu had two sets of prix fixe dinners, the Chef's Tasting Menu and a Vegetable Tasting Menu.
Of the six of us, all were committed carnivores. I'll have to take a couple of token vegetarians next time so I can poach off of their plates.

We divided the meal into nine courses (and various amuse plus fresh baked breads from Bouchon down the street) and three bottles of wine (plus one beer).

"We can go champagne or sparkling, white then red, or white, rosé, red or white, red, red," mused the Sommelier.

The consensus was white-red-red at the table (which is too bad since I secretly love anything sparkling and rosés).

All eyes were on me as we worked out the pairings: let's stay on the coast, starting with a crisp Chardonnay, maybe take a jaunt up to Willamette or coastal Oregon for the middle bottle, and back down to a fruit-forward Napa Cabernet Sauvignon (although Petit Syrah and Zinfandel were considered).

You would be hard pressed to find a bottle of wine on the list, presented to each guest on an indexed, searchable iPad, for less than $150 (Michael Symon's bar menu at Lola also uses the touch-pads, on which you can order apps and drinks).

In fact the least expensive item we could find was a bottle of Oyster Stout by HenHouse Brewery on the beer list.

--

Amuse Bouche

2010 Littorai Chardonnay B.A. Thieriot Vineyard Sonoma Coast

Silently, Spiegelau Chardonnay glasses were dropped in front of us. The Sommelier whisked in carrying the first bottle on a silver tray: 2010 Littorai Chardonnay B.A. Thieriot Vineyard Sonoma Coast.

A chorus line of waiters silently filed in and simultaneously dropped croquettes of salmon tartare in a cheese touille shaped like an ice cream cone, filled with red onion crème fraîche - the signature French Laundry amuse bouche.

Soon we were off, three bottles of wine, nine dizzying courses, un-enumerable extras, amuse, palette cleansers, and of course, beer.

--

Cours: Première

"OYSTERS AND PEARLS"
"Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters
and White Sturgeon Caviar

-or-

ROYAL OSSETRA CAVIAR
Hobb's Bacon Baked Potato, Scallion,
Petite Lettuces and Kendall Farms Crème Fraîche
($50 supplement)

Expensive eggs call for expensive plates.

For the two methods of preparation, of course, two different sets of custom made china:

First, a tiny bowl set on a mound of garnish in the center of an over-sized round, flat plate, and second, an arrangement of caviar, accoutrement and sauce in the indent of a bowl designed to look like a giant ceramic pillow.

Caviar... I suppose the thing to say here is "I can take it or leave it," and given the choice, most of the time I would leave it (oysters, however, I will never pass up).

At the French Laundry your choices are expensive or really expensive. Furthermore, it's the French Laundry - so even if you are not one to simply smear the stuff on a blini high above Las Vegas in your gold plated helicopter while sipping on impossibly expensive bubbly - you will eat it and probably like it.

Even if you don't like caviar, you will probably like what Keller and his team of top-of-the-class culinary school graduates put on the plate.

Describing the flavor would be hard for someone who hasn't experienced caviar the way that I have to understand. Often people say it tastes like the ocean, which I don't think is a very good description (especially for me, considering the number of times I've been knocked over by a swell and ended up with a mouth full of Atlantic brine - yet, I keep going back for more oysters and caviar and cockles and whatever else is supposed to "taste like the ocean").

Caviar is smooth, salty, pops like adult Pop Rocks in your mouth, has a hint of smoky, meaty umami and is generally a wonderful thing.

My first caviar was the large, eggy salmon roe served in preserved tins with the Midwestern sushi of the early 1990s that I loved in spite of all its mediocre qualities.

As you can imagine, if I liked that stuff then I love love love the good stuff.

Ironically, this may be the only time the staff screwed up - I got the Osserta but I wanted the oysters (again, oysters always!)... I don't regret even a second of it.

For those keeping score, another point for our Sommelier for matching this with the Chardonnay - a wine that had a popping effervescent quality (but was not actually sparkling), bright, tart, with a whiff of pineapple and maybe a hint of caramel on the nose.

Silently, the ninja like servers serve us miniature breads (presumably baked yards down the road at Bouchon). I elected to have the miniature brioche. The bread was served with impossibly expensive butter from cows that have better lives than I do.

Sadly, the last statement is probably not an exaggeration.

--

Cours: Deuxième

SALAD OF HAWAIIAN PALM
Jacobson Orchard Green Gage Plum, Padrón Peppers,
Cilantro, Chili and Coconut

-or-

HEN EGG "GNUDI"
Suckling Ham, Spigarello Broccoli, Tokyo Turnip
and Australian Black Winter Truffle
($75 supplement)

Did someone say truffles? Gnudi? Ham? Twist my arm.

My dinner companion ordered the hearts of palm, bless her, and we swapped mid-course.

When, in fine dining, one orders truffles (and pays $75 extra for the pleasure), one is treated to what we call the "truffle tease".

A junior staff member, perhaps a bus person follows the main server out, remaining 3 paces behind. The main server stops, turns, and allows the bus person (for the purposes of this let's refer to this person as perhaps a "paige" or "squire") to dramatically open an ornate wooden box (complete with silver joints and handle) revealing two impossibly plump black truffles sitting on black velvet.

"Quick," I told my companion, "make a distraction and I'll grab the shrooms."

Everyone laughed, including the staff (except for the paige, terrified to show any emotion at all). I remained dead-pan for a few more beats, just to eek out another giggle. Also, because I am plotting scenarios in which I can steal said shrooms.

Plates are "dropped". The ladies got the truffle shaving treatment first - a white gloved server with a silver truffle shaver shaved thin slices of black truffle over the gnudi. And shaves... and shaves...

For $75, they had better.

Describing the wonder of truffles to the novice is nearly impossible. My recommendation would be to march to Lucca's or some similar gourmet specialty store and get a small bottle of truffle oil. Black or white, doesn't matter (although I recommend the white for pasta).

Make a batch of gnocchi.

If you can afford it, buy some porcini mushrooms (like, a couple ounces) and shave over the warm gnocchi, dust lightly with pecorino cheese, add a few heap pinches of chopped herbs then drizzle with the truffle oil.

While still hot, breathe in the steam coming off the truffles.

Multiply that by 50, and maybe you get close to the real deal.

My companion and I swapped mid-course.

Every single element of the hearts of palm blended together. The flavor is like what something chef Danny Bowien from Mission Chinese Food might make in 20 years when he's learned restraint*: clove, peppercorn, lemongrass, spice, citrus, chiles.

Another point for the Sommelier. Ninja servers swooped in and refilled all our glasses throughout, carefully measuring out wine for the last white-wine course, coming up in a moment.

(* Just having a bit of fun, chef. We love you and Mission Chinese Food, viva the Death-Star!)

--

Cours: Troisième

SAUTÉED FILLET OF MEDITERRANEAN LUBINA
Marinated Cherry Tomato, Young Fennel,
Littleneck Clams and Castelvetrano Olives

The olives were cut into uniform rings, perfectly pitted, each ring the same height, standing above a tomato broth.

...Cut by hand.

A single, small, perfectly concassé cherry tomato also stood above the broth.

...Peeled, raw, by hand.

To concassé a tomato so small already filled me with anxiety: the technique requires peeling only the thinnest skin layer off the fruit without damaging it.

Normally this is accomplished by quickly blanching then cold-water shocking the fruit. This method is eschewed by Keller ("...damages the fruit..."), so all of that is done without the benefit of a quick, skin loosening blanche.

The lubina was at the center of the plate. The flesh was perfectly soft except for the crust, face up, which was crunchy upon tapping like a brulée. It must have been fried in pure clarified butter, probably the same impossibly rich butter that came with our bread courses.

This was the first of several courses with silverware that we found oddly shaped and perplexing. I used mine to gather and scoop the tomato broth.

--

Beaux Frères Estate Pinot Noir 2007 Rabbit Ridge

If I have a favorite grape varietal, it's probably the pinot noir. Aside from Champagne (the region), my favorite pinot noir region is Oregon - Willamette Valley (coastal), Rabbit Ridge (inland), etc.

A truly good pinot noir will elicit immediate responses from tasters. Clockwise from me: "that's the stuff," "oh!", "hmhmm..," "nomnomnom," "oh wow," "oh my!".

Let's see if my notes do it justice: grass... flowers... peppers... reminds me of 2008 Ken Cancilla Pinot Noir... spice... perfume... leaves... sap... herbs... fresh cut tarragon or dill... hint of anise.

--

Cours: Quatrième

SWEET BUTTER-POACHED MAINE LOBSTER TAIL
Baby Beets, Morel Mushrooms,
Charred Shallots and Mizuna

"What's mizuna," asked one of the guests. I glanced around to make sure that there weren't any ninja-like servers waiting to field the query. None.

"It's a lettuce," I answered, "it's a little like arugula but sexier."

A mizuna butter was drawn across the plate like a line of demarcation (between delicious and also delicious?) in a bright green, drawn out, piped line - a peppery purée of lettuce, butter and cream.


If you want to tune out for the next few paragraphs, assuming you haven't already, now is the time...

The lobster was prepared sous vide, a technique now de rigeure among chefs fancy and no-so-much. The lobster is sealed in an plastic bag with all the air sucked out with an unseemly amount of butter, Madagascar vanilla bean and what ever other unholy expensive thing they want to infuse into the lobster tails (which are probably still in the shell).

The sealed bag is immersed into a heat controlled fluid circulator which maintains a precise temperature - as low as just above freezing to as high as above boiling (if immersed in oil or treated water).

Immersion circulators are a tool used by scientists, normally. Growing crystals at a certain temperature, or culturing bacteria, or fostering cellular respiration (or arresting it).

The application of the immersion circulator in cooking was not conceived of until scant few decades ago when molecular gastronomists (not called so at the time) pondered "what would happen if we took this whole beef tenderloin, in the KryoVac bag, and put it in this geek toy for 24 to 36 hours at 135ºF (perfectly rare)?"

Cooking meat is not just rearranging the molecular structure of protein, fat and sugar with heat, but also time. Tougher connective tissue made of more elastic proteins like collagen take time to break down at any temperature, but preferably low.

Think of a sous vide as a braising method that is entirely self-contained: nothing boils off, not alcohol, not water, not acid. Flavors penetrate the meat, connective tissues become unwound, the result is moist, flavorful, tender meat.

Imagine doing this with a pork shoulder or leg of lamb... good? Now try it with lobster.

--

Cours: Cinquième

SMOKED LIBERTY FARM PEKIN DUCK BREAST
Persian Cucumber, Cabbage, Petite Radish,
Pumpernickel "Crumble" and Pastrami Jus

-or-

DEVIL'S GULCH RANCH "ÉPAULE DE LAPIN"
Squash "Risotto," Braised Pine Nuts
and Italian Honey Fig

2008 Shibumi Knoll Vineyards, Shibumi Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon

The wine: huge, fruity, tonnes of vanilla and caramel. Deep cherry red color.

Initial responses to the duck: "Hurk! ERMAGERD..." "oh my gawd this is too good..." "Keller is a mad man... a mad genius..."

By now, we are cozied up to the staff. The S&M jokes fly*. Tales of misdeeds in the city. Anecdotes of gaffes, fine dining bloopers, industry gripes.

Clearly, the person having the best laugh is Chef Keller, punctuating the otherwise fatigue-filled middle part of a lengthy meal with whimsy and very strong flavors: rich, perfectly cooked duck breast, the aroma and flavors of the New York deli counter at once delicately balanced with cucumber and radish.

Mild rabbit matched up to sturdy squash risotto and the floral, sweet figs.

Both worked excellently with the Cabernet Sauvignon.

(* Our safe word was pomegranate.)

--

Cours: Sixième
MARCHO FARM NATURE-FED VEAL
"Ris de Veau," English Peas, Brentwood Corn "Agnolotti"
and Summer Truffle

Veal. Yes, veal. Weaned and allowed to roam, do not worry about the images in the back of your heads of penned up calves in crates so small they can't move with weak, brittle bones prone to breakage.

That's how commercial veal was raised the 1980s... This is the French Laundry where every effort is made to conscientiously source everything that comes to the table on a plate or in the glass.

...And don't get me started about the misconceptions some people have about gavage.

I'm sorry I ate a baby animal, for those of you who are still squeamish. I just ate a bunny rabbit in the previous course.

Here, read this, and know that if you eat meat, you have to kill an animal to get it: http://gourmetfood.about.com/od/cookbookreviews/fr/frenchlaundry.htm

It was good and I'd eat it again.

--

Cours: Septième

"RONCOL"
"Frais de Bois," Celery Branch, Garden Blossoms,
Pearson Farms Pecan and Violet Mustard

Each detail was carefully placed on the plate, and it felt a bit more than the rest of the meal like an act of dumb, violent, blind barbarism to dare eat it.

But I didn't dare not eat it. Each bite like a little bite of the garden, literally yards away across the road. Being any closer to the source of the food would almost be impractical... Memories of picking pole beans off the vine at my aunt's, or raspberries in my back yard as a child, or eating the flowers of "touch me nots", picking the most tender clover from the grass on a hill top in July summer sun ... you get the idea.

Salad days. A simple salad took me to being six again. That, and maybe all the wine, of which we were running out.

Sommelier (at the 3/4 position on my left, list in hand): So, sir, we have coming up a cheese selection and a couple desserts. Did you want another bottle...

Me (not super excited about the prospect of another $300 bottle of wine): As a matter of fact I had been thinking about that, and I saw something on the beer menu that piqued my interest.

[Sounds of everyone else groaning at the prospect of eating more, people loosening their belts. "...I'm not much of a beer drinker..." was uttered, but I won't name the speaker of such blasphemy.]

Sommelier: I'm listening!.. (with a look of actual interest, since this is a deviation from the norm for him)

Me: I was looking at the oyster stout. I think it has the perfect flavor profile for cheese but is light enough for the sorbet, the fruit, and definitely the [lowering my voice to a conspiratorial hush] coffee and donuts.

Sommelier: Interesting choice... and I think that would work out very well. You'll have to tell me how it pairs. Good choice, sir!

[Look, I know they get paid to suck up, but I really did think I was on to something, and I really think the sommelier was genuinely interested. ]

HenHouse Brewery Oyster Stout

It was a bit down the road, but I wanted to keep the "coffee and donuts" a surprise for a couple of the guests at the table.

The rest of us, of course, had read extensively about the French Laundry and it is almost impossible to find an article that doesn't mention the end-of-meal dessert amuse or the salmon cornettes.

This post is no different.

I unbuttoned my dinner jacket as we got to the palette cleanser.

--

Cours: Huitième

PERSIAN LIME SORBET
Chilled Summer Sangria, Lychee
and Opal Basil


The flavors are clean. Even though it sounds strange, you think of soap. I think of fresh linens and spreads in "Better Homes and Gardens" and that expensive lemon-verbana shampoo I'd steal from the Four Seasons (l'Occitane, for the record; it's great stuff but expensive!). 

This was our palette reset. A tart, bracing wash of fruit and acid with a basil at the herbal high note.

"SURRENDER"
The gentle effervescence of the oyster stout helped carry away seven courses of butter and animal fat and cream and all these super rich things. Good thing, because more richness was on the way.

--

Fromage

A composed plate of crudité and cheese came swirling out with more Bouchon bread and water refills and beer pours... all served with fluid precision by a staff that to my eye was beginning to resemble the talking, singing flatware from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast."

I wish I had taken better - or any notes during the cheese course. My only words are "surrender."

All the cheeses were excellent: I recall a few hard, gouda-like cheeses speckled with crunchy bits of salt, a runny, stinky French-style cheese made locally (and raw milk, the scandal!), several notable specimens from a variety of sources, preference on California, Oregon and Washington fromagier.

--

Cours: Neuvième

"MARJOLAINE"
Praline Mousse, "Dacquoise"
and Banana Sherbet

-or-

CREAM CHEESE "BAVAROIS"
Tupelo Honey "Granite," Yellow Peaches
and Black Pepper "Aigre-Doux"

Done? Hardly. We at the table were almost unanimous about our excitement about the honey "granite" (a shaved frozen syrup), yellow peaches with black pepper (recalling my grandmother who would salt and pepper peaches and pears when I was young - an oddly continental touch in the context of her otherwise post-World War II Southern diet of canned monstrosities, casseroles and margarine).

Those who got the praline mousse protected it with the intensity of San Quentin inmates, violently jabbing at anyone who dared come near (I guess it was pretty good too).

--

MIGNARDISES

In French, literally, "cuteness." A series of whimsical sweets, chocolates, cookies, dusted pecans, a few more bites of cheese perhaps?

Espresso (sorry, there's no Fernet Branca to be had at the French Laundry, and if ever it was appropriate, then was the time), "coffee and donuts" (sugar and cinnamon spiced little donut holes with a chocolate and chili pot de creme), and almost with a sense of relief, the bill.

Trust me, this is a lot better than what I had feared.
--

Outside in the late afternoon, the sky above Napa Valley was as blue as it gets. Tourists milled around Washington Street, lined up outside Bouchon Bakery for pastries, coffee or sandwiches.

I bought my roommate a dozen macaroons, something called "monkey bread" and an almond and chocolate croissant.

Unable to get my Fernet Branca fix until we returned to San Francisco, I bought iced coffee.

As we crossed the river and drove down through Pinole and Richmond, the sky went from blue to grey. The sky was gunmetal as we crossed the Bay Bridge.

My companion and I walked into Bender's Bar that chilly San Francisco evening. Without saying a word, the bartender poured us two shots of Fernet Branca and said, "I want you to tell me everything about it."

...and ... scene.

Bouchon Bakery, Yountville, California
--

6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
(707) 944 2380

6528 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
(707) 944-2253