Monday, February 27, 2012

The French Laundry

Alright, so my blog is mostly about guiding the kids through life, but part of that is teaching them to celebrate birthdays and occasionally enjoy the "finer things in life," right? So that must mean I can hijack the blog and write a post about my extravagant birthday dinner at The French Laundry. This year was a big birthday in our minds, so we decided to go all out. Our first thought was a trip somewhere tropical like Hawaii, but the thought of juggling 2 kids on a plane (one of which has a peanut allergy - talk about an airplane nightmare) sounded like more work for me than fun. So I opted to stay home and the hubby suggested The French Laundry for dinner. I am a big "foodie" and we have talked about going "at some point in life" over the last year, and hubby decided that there was not a better way to celebrate my birthday this year. I must say, he wasn't wrong! So we went. Why is this a only once in a while, extravagant purchase? Well, dinner is well over $200 per person, but worth every single penny (at least on the night we went it was!). We have already decided that we must come back in another 5-10 years. I will stop my rambling and provide the details.

It was a gorgeous day to be out! Warm and sunny and just overall beautiful. 

The building that houses the restaurant is a 2 story stone building built in the 1880s. It is so quaint and gorgeous with stone walls inside, open beam ceilings, and just an overall cozy feeling. The place began as a saloon and then became a brothel until finally in the late 1920s it became a French steam laundry, hence the name "The French Laundry." In 1974 the Mayor of Yountville purchased the property and started a restaurant and left the name as "The French Laundry" since that is what everyone knew it as. There was a couple who sat down in the room where we were seated who left shortly after arriving. The staff clued us in that they had dined at the original "French Laundry" restaurant in the 70s and since things have changed a little on the inside, they had a bit of sticker shock. In 1994, Thomas Keller purchased the property and opened up the current version of "The French Laundry" serving American food with French influences.

We were seated in a small room with a total of 3 tables (seating 2 people each) just off the wine cellar (we could see the wine through a small window). There were maybe another 6 tables that I saw on the first floor and maybe another 6 or so tables upstairs? I could be underestimating as I did not walk all over the restaurant, but there is not much seating. This is one reason why they take reservations 2 months to the calendar day and fill up withing minutes of opening the reservations at 10am. I called 6 times in a row in December right at 10am to luckily score this table for 2.

The staff was amazing and very attentive. I think I counted five separate people tending to us throughout the evening. I caught them checking on us through the little window in the wine cellar and I don't think my water glass was ever less than 3/4 full. When you got up, say to use the restroom, the replaced your new napkin with a fresh one nicely fan folded on the table where you left the dirty one. They did this so quickly and quietly that I thought I had somehow managed to keep my napkin in such fine shape. They also escorted me to the restrooms and knew which were occupied and which were not, essentially ensuring that I did not wait in a "line." Our main server, Andrew, was a gem and went out of his way to help me with alternative selections and options since I have a seafood allergy.

Dinner is officially a 9 course tasting menu with a few courses with options, but I think they also brought out an additional 3 or so courses that were not listed on the menu. Not that I minded.

The meal started with some canapes not listed on the menu. The first was a little black sesame "ice cream cone" filled with a red onion cream frasche and topped with salmon tartar. Oh my, this was a little sushi ice cream cone from heaven! I wanted about 6 more (which is their goal - give you 1-2 bites and leave you wishing for more).

The other was a small pastry filled with warm Gruyere cheese. Yum! Creamy, salty, and smooth melted cheese surrounded by pastry - need I say more?

Next at our table was a butternut squash soup for me. I think this was my favorite dish of the evening really. The bowl was brought empty save a small walnut and round of sweet apple and some sort of leaf (I didn't catch what it was - I was busy salivating over the soup). They then poured this perfectly pastel yellow cream into the bowl. If I wasn't in such a fine place, I would have licked that darn bowl clean. It was that good, but I restrained myself and instead used my spoon to scrape as much of that yellow goodness out of the bowl. It had an almost smoky, roasted butternut squash flavor. Delicate, but intense at the same time.

Hubby had the "Oysters and Pearls" (you can reference his blog at Maker Monkey if you're interested on his take on this dish seeing as I couldn't taste it). It is a sabayon of pearl tapioca on the bottom topped with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar. He said that the sabayon and caviar together were the perfect compliment!

Next up, a buttery roll pastry. Not sure exactly what it was, but it had a flaky texture and tasted like butter. They also brought 2 locally made butters. The one from The Animal Farm I could have eaten straight from the bowl. Not that I would. It is butter after all. Maybe...

They later brought around a small dish of five different kinds of small (about the size of your finger maybe) breads for you to choose from. They came by with those throughout the evening. I tried one of each by the end of the night, but also had wished I hadn't by the time we got to course 7. Oh my, these dishes and breads might be small, but my stomach must have been smaller. The breads were a pretzel bread, a sourdough, a multi-grain (my favorite as it had the best nutty smell), and a french loaf. All made just down the street at Bouchon Bakery (another Thomas Keller property). All heavenly and perfect (no that will not be my review for everything, I promise).

Next up, chickpea "crocquettes" for me. Think the most delicate and moist and perfectly seasoned chickpea falafel balls you've ever had. Served on top of a charred eggplant puree and garnished with hass avocados (even these were the smoothest, most perfect things I've ever tasted. Showed me I have terrible avocado picking skills), cara cara orange, and fava tips. I liked the fava tips the best in this dish surprisingly. They were tender and just a tad sweet. Reminded me a little of an artichoke heart.

For the hubby: Moulard Duck "Foie Gras en Terrine" or commonly known as duck pate. This did not sound the least bit appetizing to me upon ordering, but I was pleasantly surprised. The foie gras was as smooth and creamy as butter and slightly sweet. There was no strong taste to it, just sweetness. I really thought it was just like a pale pink sweet cream butter (only not salty). Served with cucumber relish, pickled pearl onions, and burgundy mustard and caraway "gastrique." Along side was a delicious toast that the replenished as soon has half the slice was gone.  

So I mentioned it tasted like unsalted sweet cream butter. Well, the provided 3 different kinds of salt to fix that problem (if it was ever a problem for you in the first place). I forget what each of these salts were, but they were all very different tasting! Hubby loved the grey salt (bottom right) and I liked the pink "prehistoric salt from Montana" (lower left). Really, I liked the pate without salt at all, but hubby was enjoying the sodium overload for the evening.

Note the adorable clothespin that was clipped to our napkins upon arrival. The say "The French Laundry" on one side with the phone number on the other. I assumed that the presence of the phone number meant I could take them home. Whoops on my part if I wasn't supposed to. If you put your phone number on it, I take that as a sign that this is your business card. 

So we had the choice of two types of fish for the next course followed by a lobster course. Since I cannot consume lobster with less than desirable consequence, I opted to have both of the fish dishes. Sadly, we were so consumed by the delicious food that we only managed to snap a photo of one of the fish dishes. This was the one I had in place of the lobster dish. We gobbled the other course up so fast that we probably didn't fit in with the restaurant atmosphere. This is the grilled pave of spanish mackerel served with serrano ham, globe artichokes, arugula and pepper essence. Did I mention that not a single ingredient is present more than once on the entire menu? This was what I considered the weakest dish of the evening, but it was by no means bad. I just think I'm not a huge fan of mackerel. A little too fishy tasting for my liking.

The fish dish we missed a photo of was my second favorite dish of the evening. It was a sauteed fillet of atlantic black bass with hearts of palm, petite radish, red chilis, cilantro, and coconut-curry emulsion. TO DIE FOR! A flaky, oily, and delicate white fish with a perfect slight curry flavor to the emulsion. Perfect.

Hubby had the sweet butter-poached Maine lobster "fricassee" with Hobbs' bacon, tomato compote, romaine lettuce and "ranch dressing." I doubt it tasted like any ranch dressing we've ever tasted. It looked divine. Again, not something I could partake in.

What course are we at? Counting the unlisted one, this would be course #6. At this point I had lost track of where we were and what came next. I wasn't full yet, but a few more bread selections would take care of that. Then they brought out the pekin duck. Now, my husband is Chinese, so I've had duck before, but only in the "crunchy skin" version of duck. That is a very good fried duck skin on top of a very overcooked dry piece of heavily seasoned duck. Not a bad flavor - in fact, I enjoy crunchy skin, but this dish makes me want duck in a whole new way. The skin was crunchy and sweet and topped with a very light dusting of salt. There was a small soft layer of fat under the crunch and then a very moist and lightly cooked hunk of duck meat. It melted in my mouth. The duck was served with turnips from The French Laundry garden (a VERY impressive garden across the street) and pecans. Wonderful toasted pecans. The turnip was amazing as well. I ate the entire thing - greens and all. I assumed anything on my plate was edible. If not, well, that's my not so refined upbringing I guess.

The last meat dish was a tip of the rib steak (calotte de boeuf grillee) served with a brisket pierogi (a very fancy and yummy beef filled potsticker), trumpet mushroom (yes, just one), arrowleaf spinach, nantes carrts, and bordelaise sauce. Again, an amazing dish. I thought the mushroom was a piece of seared beef fat. Hubby assured me it was indeed a mushroom. Never had a mushroom taste like a cow before. The sauce was fantastic and the meat tender. This was the point in my dinner where my belly hit full capacity and I wasn't sure how I was going to fit any more in! As much as I loved this steak and wanted to eat the whole thing, each bite I took made me more and more queasy from fullness. So hubby ate his steak and mine too. I so wish I had been able to eat the rest of this.

Then came the cheese course. This was a local dairy cheese served with fennel, sour cherries and candied pine nuts. Ok, so I like cheese, but I did not like this cheese at all. Maybe it was the extreme stuffed point I was at, but one bite of this fragrant cheese sent my stomach turning. Hubby described it as "you know how they say stinky cheese smells like stinky feet? Well, this pretty much tastes like that right?" Was he ever right. I don't have refined taste it cheese it seems. The candied pine nuts and sour cherries were fantastic though! I did eat those. The staff was concerned when they returned to a practically full plate of cheese and offered a cheddar or other cheese selection to better fit my tastes, but I politely declined in fear that I would not have room to enjoy my dessert course. Good thing too since they ended up bringing 3! Two were not on the menu. Sadly, we did not take a picture of the fragrant cheese.

Then came the palate cleanser - cream yogurt sherbet with toasted oats, pomegranate, and a "nuage." It was essentially very very good frozen plain tart yogurt. Just my kind of thing as I love the plain tart stuff over some of the sweet stuff at the fro yo joints in town (I know, no comparison). I loved it and it seemed to help soothe my stomach a little and make a little more room. The oats and pomegranate offered just the right crunch while the "nuage" (which translates to something like 'cloud') was a light foam with very little taste. It sort of reminded me of egg whites beat to a foam. Strangely, if you google just the word nuage and nothing about it being french you'll find that is also the term for the look of the Drosophila (fruit fly) germline cells (think reproductive cells). Hmmm...

Then came dessert! My favorite course even when not at The French Laundry. I chose the Meyer Lemon Parfait, and can I just say, that was the correct choice to make (not that I tried the other choice of praline mousse). A little lemon parfait with just the right tartness to sweetness ratio and fluffy soft served with huckleberries (perfectly tart), pistachios (a great slightly salty crunch), and poppy seed ice cream. I am not a huge fan of poppy seeds, but really enjoyed the ice cream. It sort of reminded me of an upscale version of vanilla bean ice cream (or at least that is what I was thinking it was until I reviewed the menu later on). They also brought a little tiny round sponge cake with a candle to help celebrate my birthday. It was the softest, airiest cake I have ever eaten. I'm not sure if I have ever had sponge cake before, but a good one is true to it's name. It had the texture of a very soft, wet sponge. It sort of tasted like a raspberry cake with a light cream layer on top of a chocolate "crust" that was nothing really like a crust. Sooo good! Was I ever happy to have finally eaten every bite and be done! WRONG! You are never done at The French Laundry.

They brought out a SECOND dessert (or is this our third?)! Yikes! At this point I'm just worried about not keeping more food down. Of course I have to try everything anyway. They brought a coffee flavored dessert that was described as "more like coffee ice cream." It was wonderful as well as oh so cute in it's little cup. Hubby missed the memo that is was ice cream and tried drinking it (it looked that real on top)! They also brought some chocolate covered macadamia nuts and little house-made doughnuts. I couldn't fit the nuts or doughnuts in my tummy, so I wrapped them in a tissue when no one was looking and stuffed them in my purse. Classy huh? No way was I letting those little balls of doughnut heaven go back to the kitchen! Good thing too because even the next morning, they were the best doughnuts I have ever had. Same with the macadamia nuts. Oh my goodness!

That was all they required us to eat in the restaurant, but they didn't send us home empty handed! They brought out a cute little bag with copies of the menu, some gorgeous (and irresistibly yummy) truffles, chocolates, and shortbread cookies. I added the 2 laundry pins and my nuts and doughnuts so they wouldn't get sugar and cocoa powder all over the inside of my purse. Note that they write your check on a cute little card that looks like a drycleaning/laundry tag!

The French Laundry has earned "best restaurant in the world" twice, has three stars in the Michelin guide to San Francisco (handed out to only a select number of restaurants), and has been called "the best restaurant in the world, period" by Anthony Bourdain. If the man from No Reservations says this, then more need not be said. I wholeheartedly agree with all of this. The French Laundry has rightfully earned these titles with amazingly fresh and wonderful food, a great atmosphere, and a fantastic staff. The price tag is high, but well worth it at least once in your lifetime. Although, I have a feeling we will try to make it twice.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Our Creative Side

So we've been exercising our creativity these past two weeks. Well, ok, week and a half. After the last post, Big Monkey started having tooth pain. After several days of pain, we found out that the tooth he had chipped a few weeks prior was dead and infected. So out the tooth came and the tooth fairy paid us a visit a few years early. So Big Monkey had a little lesson in money. He got 4 quarters for his tooth (he went through a LOT to get that tooth out, so it was probably actually worth a whole lot more). He spent the time putting them in and out of his monkey piggy bank until he broke the bank (literally). While doing this he learned to identify a quarter, a nickle, and a penny because that was what was in his bank. Not sure if he retained this information (other than knowing which one a quarter is) as we haven't revisited it. Maybe next week we will need to learn a little about money again.

Anyway, so we started the week by practicing our sharing skills. We've been reading a lot of The Berenstain bear's Learn to Share book this week along with The Berenstain bears Forget their Manners book. Two very good skills for the Big Monkey to keep on top of! So here is Big Monkey giving Baby Monkey a ride on Baby Monkey's fire truck. They came up with this all on their own one evening.

We've also had some heavy use of the playdoh this week. They played on the kitchen tile one morning for about an hour maybe (and I recommend keeping this commercial playdoh off the carpet as it does stick to the carpet when it dries). I've made my own playdoh in the past, but we have a ton that came with all the playdoh cutters and other goodies we got for Big Monkey last year before Baby Monkey was born.

Baby Monkey has quickly learned that Playdoh is not for eating. He's tried though, believe me. That and he tried to eat a plastic glitter ornament out of the sensory bin this week (yes, we're still using the Christmas sensory bin in February). That was a mess to clean up! He didn't seem to like the taste, but I caught him trying to eat another one today.

Oh and black playdoh is horrible. Any other color is so much better. Black turns the fingers and fingernails black. Blah...

Then we tested out some nuts, bolts, and washers! The boys really adored this activity. It only lasted about 20 minutes, but 20 minutes for my boys is really good! That means it captured their attention. I raided Daddy Monkey's tools and found bolts of various sizes and washers of various sizes that would fit onto the various bolts. Then I found nuts that they could screw onto the bolts. Big Monkey thought playing with Daddy's tools was great!

Baby Monkey got his own set too. No nuts as I wanted to unload the dishwasher and was afraid he would try to eat them when my back was turned. He loved taking the washers off the bolts and trying to put them back on. The hardest part for him was trying to pick up the washers off the tray when they were flat. Then when he got tired of putting them together, he started tossing them on the floor one by one to hear the noise they made against the tile.

Big Monkey has taken new interest into drawing again this week. He drew me a butterfly and told me "look mommy, there is a caterpillar, 2 wings, and butterfly legs." It really did look like a butterfly. I should have taken a photo of that, but it was right as we were getting ready to head off to bed.

We've been trying out some new afternoon snack ideas as I've noticed that Baby Monkey has more meltdowns when he doesn't have a good snack around 3pm. We eat dinner fairly early around here, but the solid snack really seems to help. This week's favorite for all of us (including mommy) - ritz crackers topped with soynut butter (we are a peanut free home, but if you are not, then peanut butter) and ants (raisins). Big Monkey put his own ants on his crackers, which I think made it all the more fun for him. I made him count his raisins too (never miss a chance to teach them something, right?). Notice the lack of a front tooth in this photo. :)

And because Baby Monkey is so cute (to me), here he is wearing his little bear hat this morning. He decided today was a good day to run around in a beanie (despite it not actually being cold at all).

Hope everyone had a happy valentine's day (we did not do anything special here except have a little chocolate) and have a safe and happy President's Day weekend! Next week, we celebrate Mama Monkey's Birthday! Big Monkey has been making me sand cakes all week long and singing happy birthday already. It's cute.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Learning life lessons

Well, this past week or two has been more about learning life lessons than "classroom" lessons. Who is learning the lessons? Well, that is debatable. Possibly Mama Monkey is learning more life lessons than Big Monkey. Baby Monkey is of course nothing but a sponge and absorbs everything! So maybe he has us all beat. Here he is figuring out how to stand on top of the table despite no chairs (I have since moved it).

Baby Monkey has also been enjoying art time. He is picking up on the coloring skill and has decided that crayons are not always just for eating (although this still seems to be their main purpose).

He also enjoyed painting for the first time! He actually used the brush to spread around a blob of paint and didn't put any of it in his mouth! Big Monkey enjoyed using his hands more.

Big Monkey's current life lesson is "we can't always get exactly what we want." This is coming in many forms recently. Big Monkey attempts to dictate every move of our day. If he doesn't want to go outside, then he tries to keep us from going outside. I am gently discouraging such behavior. Sometimes it's impossible - I can't take Baby Monkey outside and leave Big Monkey inside alone. That's just not a safe option. Instead, Big Monkey occasionally wins that battle and occasionally has to stand by the back door outside complaining for a little while (just long enough to seem like an eternity for Big Monkey - so that is what, 5 minutes?) while Baby Monkey and I play. Sometimes he decides to join us instead. Whew, this is a hard lesson for both Big Monkey and myself. It's all worth it though when we all get to have some sandbox fun.

This is also taking place during our soccer lessons. Big Monkey started last week and goes once a week for 30 minutes. We've been twice. Well, both times he has kicked the ball around a little and then either 1) sits on the ball like a chicken egg (as his coach says) or 2) bolts for the car/stroller with me running after him to direct him back to the game. I've successfully gotten him back involved with kicking the ball by altering the games a little to suit his interests without changing it to the point that he thinks he is getting his own way. Obviously doing things we don't necessarily want to do and following rules is something we need to start working on. Yes, I realize that if he were in preschool he would be learning these things (you know some of you were thinking this), but that is the point of homepreschool! I have to find ways/activities to teach him these lessons and skills. More work for me, but at least I can make sure he is responding the way I would like him to! I will try to snap a photo of Big Monkey playing soccer next week - or at least one of him bolting for the car.

Mama Monkey's life lesson this week - the terrible twos are so overhyped and everyone forgets to prepare mamas for the threes and other following years, which are much harder. Or at least come with challenges that are much more important. Yes, the twos are not "easy," but at least I was prepared. Child throws himself on floor screaming and kicking because he has a desire or thought that he just can't quite communicate with you. Frustrating yes, but you pull out your hair, take a deep breath, talk to your child, and eventually they start to communicate better. The threes have brought on a whole slew of new challenges. Big Monkey is testing out the waters of "manipulation." Maybe that is too strong of a word (possibly testing boundaries sounds nicer?), but it sure feels that way! He tries to claim that something hurts or that he doesn't feel well in order to 1) watch tv, 2) delay going to sleep, 3) try to get out of getting in trouble. Oh and he'll go from his tummy hurts, to his head, to his foot, to he is just hungry all in a 3 minute time frame. Fastest moving aches and pains problem that I've ever seen. Whew, it's all just a phase. It's all just a phase. I'll just keep telling myself that for the next year.