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.

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