Monday, October 17, 2011

When It Rains It Pours

No posts for a long time and now two in two days.  Head over to to check out my guest post titled "Never Say Never" on how we started running.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The French Laundry

The roots of our trip to the French Laundry stretch far and deep.   We had talked about a special celebration with Kerry and Isaac several times.  We really got started in earnest when we met Danelle in Buenos Aires.  She had been before and dubbed the experience "life changing" for a foodie.  With that, we were sold.

Reservations are difficult to come by.  The restaurant accepts reservations two months to the day by phone only.  They completely book very quickly.  Since we had decided to target Lisa's fall break, we only had a limited time window that would work for us, making it another order of magnitude harder.  Sunday before we left for Colorado, Lisa called 140 times before getting through (think middle-school radio call-in-show).  She secured a lunch reservation for us.  Since Sunday wasn't the best day for us, Lisa and Danelle continued to call.  Between the two of them, they only got through once more and were placed on the waiting list.  We all felt very lucky to have a reservation.  We ended up going to the lunch reservation, and the waitlist never came though.

There are two menus at FL - the chef's tasting menu and the tasting of vegetables.  Both are nine courses and are offered at a fixed price.

It's nearly impossible to describe the experience.  The food and the service were both spectacular.  Napkins were automatically replaced when diners went to the restroom, entrees were placed on the table simultaneously, up to three at a time.  Since we were seated a bit later than most of the rest of the lunch seating so by the time that we were finishing lunch we basically had the place to ourselves.

We started off with a bottle of French champange.  This particular bottle is a blanc de noirs, which means that it is made entirely from pinot noir grapes.  However, the skins are removed very quickly, preventing them from transferring color into the wine.  It had a beautiful deep yellow color with just a hint of red.

We started with a quick bite of Gruyere fried in a wonderful breading, which was far more intoxicating than any other "mozzarella stick" ever consumed.

We moved on to the Oysters and Pearls - a sabayon of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar.  It was an explosion of creamy salty goodness with a nearly indescribable texture.

Isaac had a different course that featured royal ossetra caviar that was imported from China in addition to sea urchin, pacific hiramasa, garden melon, red ribbon sorrel and juniper creme fraiche.

Next, on the chef's tasting we moved onto Moullard duck fois-grois with flowering quince, French Laundry garden turnips, cornichon lamelles, and dijon mustard.  The foie gras was served with perfectly toasted brioche from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon bakery right down the street.  The salty foie gras was perfectly mated to the bright acid from the fruit and sweet bread.

For our gluten-free friend, the chef created a seared foie gras pared with walnuts and the tiniest tastiest spinach leaves we've ever seen.  The table agreed that Danelle won this course.

On the vegetable tasting side, Lisa enjoyed the Jardinere de legumes d'autume including “fairy tale” eggplants and the cutest and tastiest micro radishes that you've ever seen:

Our second vino course was a fantastic Sauvignon Blanc from Napa valley, pictured above.

After showing you our second bottle of wine, I recall that I should mention how unbelievably hard Kerry and Lisa worked to find the perfect hotel.  Since we were only booking two months out during a popular fall-break time choices were extremely limited (and wicked expensive).  Both Lisa and Kerry spent countless hours researching and calling places trying to find the perfect spot.  Ultimately, Kerry found Hotel Yountville which was just a few blocks away from FL, which was perfect because no one had to drive after lunch.

Next up: Sauteed fillet of mediteranean corvina (fish) served with chorizo, razor clams, filet beans, demi-sec tomatoes and spanish saffron.  The vivid chunks of chorizo against the bright yellow from the saffron made for a fantastic presentation.  It turned out that the chorizo was actually the highlight of this dish.  Unlike any that we have had before it packed a big wallop of flavor and salt that along with the mild fish and dry saffron created something special.

Lisa had the FL garden squash, Jacobsen's farm apples, brussels sprouts, and Madras curry pudding.   This dish was typical of Lisa's first few dishes.  They were perfectly prepared and quite tasty, but as Lisa is an accomplished vegetable chef herself, they were similar to dishes she prepares at home.  Lisa's best courses were toward the end of the meal.

One of Lisa's best courses was the fantastically delicate pretzel roll, only a few inches long but packed with fantastic flavor and a perfect vehicle for their two selected butters.

Next up were the "mits" of butter-poached maine lobster, gros michel banana, radicchio, watercress, parsnip puree and burgundy truffle.  We learned that burgundy truffle is between the typical white and black truffle with a superlative flavor which paired fantastically with the lobster.  It's hard to see in the picture, but the cut surface of the truffle was beautifully glistening and intricate.  The radicchio provided a bitterness that cleansed the palate allowing each bite of lobster, truffle, parsnip goodness to be appreciated anew.

This pinot noir was absolutely fantastic and provided the perfect transition toward the big red cab.  Even Lisa, a self-proclaimed red-hater, enjoyed a glass of the pinot.  We enjoyed it so much that we considered trying to visit the vineyard prior to leaving wine country.  Alas, they did not have an open tasting room :-(.

This was the first of Lisa's dishes that yielded envy from the omnivores.  Beautiful, perfectly ripe figs were paired with their dried counterparts, marcona almonds, arugula and perched atop a carmelized fennel bulb.  The plate was dressed with three beautiful dots of 100-year aged balsamic vinegar.  The freshness of the figs paired beautifully with the melt-in-your-mouth sweet spiciness of the fennel.

Next up was the salmon creek farm pork belly "en fuille de brick" served with baby beets, parsley shoot, choucroute, and horseradish creme fraiche. This dish contained one of the main highlights of the meal for the entire table - choucroute.  Choucroute combines cabbage, onions, juniper and cider vinegar with bacon fat to make a perfect blend of sugar, acid, and fat.

Lisa's degustation de pommes de terre, fingerling potatoes, red radish, petite lettuces and australian black truffle was one of her favorites.  Lisa's been lusting after a new culinary tool called a tamis (a.k.a. drum sieve) that can be used to make the smoothest, finest mashed potatoes that we've ever had.  One funny thing about this dish is that Lisa thought that she didn't like truffle.  Apparently truffle in the hands of the FL staff suits the lady just fine.

Mmmmmmmmmmmmm such a great big red to finish out the meal.

Chestnut agnolotti, celery branch, pomegranate, and fontina d'aosta.  This was definitely Lisa's best savory dish.  The fresh-made pasta pared with the smoothest, sweet, nutty chestnut filling cut by pomegranate was sublime.  Little bits of pungent fontina poked through for another layer of flavor.  This was Lisa's favorite dish of the evening.

Snake river farms "callotte de boeuf grille" served with chanterelle musrooms, glazed pearl onions, nantes carrots, scallion salad and sauce carbonnade.  This dish is hard to put into words.  It's by far the best preparation of beef that I've had in my life.  The server educated us that the callotte is chef Keller's favorite cut and is also known as the crown of the ribeye.  Paired with the big fat cabernet and sweetness of the perfectly prepared veggies this dish will not soon be forgotten.

After the big rich mains, a cheese course was the perfect interlude to starting dessert.  For her cheese course, Lisa enjoyed the FL's take on a welsch rarebit - combining Cabot clothbound cheddar, califlower florets, mustard frills and bitter ale bechamel.  The bechamel and cauliflower were served together, amounting to a super-rich soup that was balanced perfectly with the toast and melted cheese.  When coupled with the double-decker presentation the result was a real knock-out.

For those of us on the chef's tasting we couldn't really compete with Lisa's cheese course.  We had Point Reyes blue with FL garden apples, celery branch and marcona almonds provided a tasty palace cleanser to shift toward sweet.  It was tasty, but paled in comparison with the rarebit.

Yummy dessert #1 for Lady was Mountain Huckleberry Sorbet, cornmeal genoise, yogurt parfait and crispy lemon curd.  The presentation was pretty spectacular as you can see.  This one fit firmly into the "don't try this at home" category.

I'm missing a picture of the Chef's menus dessert #1 - Verjus sorbet with candied cashes, grape relish and mountain mint.  The real standout of this dish was the amazing mint leaves.  they were only about the size of a fingernail, but packed a wonderful mint punch.  The candied cashews were a close second.  Really though, these were just "appetizer" desserts as the real finale was yet to come.

For the chef's tasting - carmelized white chocolate namelaka with peidmont hazelnuts, toasted oats and black mission fig sorbet.  This one was divine.  Again featuring the super tasty figs and amazing candied nuts.  The hazelnuts were so well prepared, I thought that I was tasting hazelnut for the first time.  The creamy sweet texture of the namelaka was a great contrast to the tart sorbet.  All-in-all a nearly perfect dessert.

Nearly perfect until you compare with the second choice dessert for the chef's tasting.  For this course, there were actually two different desserts available for the chef's tasting.  The peach melba with Sicilian pistachio "pain de gene", andante dairy yogurt, biscotti and raspberry sorbet.  The most amazing portion of this dessert was that instead of some crappy gelatin with bits of fruit sprinkled through, the peaches were actually layered super-super thin on top of the pistachio crust.  This dessert was definitely killer.

The FL take on pecan pie, was something special.  The presentation was so amazing that I had to include a detail shot of the tastiest, tiniest poached pear ever and the beautiful transfer-sheet decoration on the chocolate.  Lisa was in heaven, and it was the perfect way to (almost) end our meal.

Thus begins the set of "mignardieses" which are tiny, bite sized desserts served at the end of the meal. Otherwise known as small bites of heaven.

A semi-freddo that was basically a perfectly chilled mocha custard that was made to look hot, but was ohhh soo cold.

Tasty little cinnamon doughnuts.

More amazing candied hazelnuts covered in chocolate and confectioners sugar.

Just when you thought you were completely stuffed, they bring out Valhrona truffles.  Clockwise from the upper left - Olive oil, dark and stormy, PB&J, Michigan cherry, hazelnut, and lemon.

After all of this, they brought out a giant magazine for each of us along with copies of the menus, and beautiful little to-go packages of their tasty shortbread.

The service was so nice, and our server offered to take pictures of our party in front of the famous blue door.  We left after the best 4 hour 30 minute lunch of our lives, feeling incredibly lucky to have this kind of experience.

We went across the street and took hundreds of pictures throughout the FL garden across the street. More on the garden visit coming soon!