Chowhounds at the French Laundry
- Stanley Stephan Jul 6, 2003 02:41 PM
On Saturday afternoon a group of twelve Chowhounds met for lunch at the French Laundry. Each of us will write about one course and the complementary tastes. The lunch resulted in a nice donation to help Chowhound pay its bills.
There is a link below that I found interesting about how Chef Keller started the French Laundry (by maxing out his credit cards for the first five thousand dollars). The French Laundry made a profit that first year of $6.
The lunch started with a reception in the garden with three canapés. The menu (without complementary tastes or wine notes) follows. Hounds will follow up with details. Many thanks to Rochelle who put this together and to my pleasant dining companions for making me feel very welcome to the group.
The French Laundry
Chefs Tasting Menu
July 5, 2003
Cauliflower Panna Cotta Bagaduce Oyster Glaze and Iranian Osetra Caviar
Hawaiian Hearts of Palm Salad, Truffle Coulis and Perigord Truffle Syrup
Sautéed Fillet of Red Mullet, Roasted Sweet Peppers and Garden Basil Emulsion
Sweet Butter Poached Maine Lobster with Caramelized Fennel Bulb, Crystallized Fennel Chip and Sauce Noilly Prat
Applewood Smoked Bacon Wrapped Cloverdale Farms Rabbit Sirloin with Bing Cherries, Glazed Grey Shallots and Coriander Jus
Grilled Snake River Farms Calotte de Boeuf, Wilted Arrowleaf Spinach, Roasted Cepe Mushrooms, La Ratte Potatoes and Sauce Bordelaisee
Brescianella Salad of Mixed Summer Beans and Garlic Crostini
Maui Pineapple Sorbet with Toasted Coconut Financier
Delice au Chocolate et Carmel with Passion Fruit Coulis, Chocolate Dentelle and Yogurt Foam
Coffee, Tea and Infusions
This is the first time I tried rabbit, so I really had nothing to compare it to. It didnt taste like chicken.
The people in the group who had more experience with rabbit said it was an excellent version. Rabbit supposedly can be dry and this taste was tender and juicy. To me it had the taste, texture and color of pork, but perhaps that was because the sirloin was wrapped in bacon. One comment was that perhaps the preparation was rare which avoided the dryness factor. The idea of eating rabbit wasnt helped by the thought I was eating lightly cooked rabbit.
The small sirloin, perhaps the size of a scallop, had a rack of rabbit leaning against it. A cherry covered the top of the sirloin (which can give you an idea of size) and it was decorated with a wisp of a micro green. It was surrounded by a deep pool of deep brown coriander sauce. There was a half of rabbit kidney, little bigger than a kidney bean and a faint dusting of beet powder on the white plate.
The rack of rabbit was the smallest set of bones Ive ever seen. Either this was baby rabbit, some exotic micro rabbit, or unborn rabbit. One would think that a mouse would have larger bones (uh, oh).
As you can see, I obsessed with the look and content of the dish. The flavors did not jump, so to speak, out at me.
And at this first experience at the French Laundry, Id have to say the entire experience was like that. To me the French Laundry was perfection without passion. Technique without tantalizing tastes. It was all IN good taste, very conservative.
Everything was perfect, perfect, perfect. Service, quality, ingredients, presentation. However, I wouldnt go back and I wouldnt send a friend. I might bring a client if I was trying to impress them. And except for the experience of dining with the fabulous chowhounds, I would not say the money was well spent. I didnt feel cheated. I recognize what went into these dishes.
It is probably me. My palate isnt at that top level. Recchiuti chocolates leave me cold. The French Laundry reminded me very much of those chocolates. Perfectly crafted, wonderful ingredients, but should flavor be that restrained?
I can still remember in detail the chicken from the first time I ate at Chez Panisse about a decade ago. I remember a seafood sausage I had there at another meal. There is always one dish that is so wonderful and memorable at Chez Panisse that I can still clearly see it in my mind and almost taste like the yellow and red dish of summer tomatoes on another visit. I remember the perfect match of the oil to those tomatoes. I could describe every detail of that dish in terms of taste, color, aroma and ingredients.
In a three star restaurant I ate at in Paris, the perfect match of a white wine to the dish I was eating brought out the beautiful bouquet and taste of apples, which I can almost experience as I write this.
What will I remember at French Laundry? the price of the lunch. I could not tell you what I paid either in Paris or at Chez Panisse, but it was irrelevant. If I didnt have the French Laundry menu, ten years from now I probably wouldnt recall a dish on that menu, except for it being a first time rabbit experience. Even so, when I was reading this over and checking my notes, I had completely forgotten the rabbit kidney. This was a dish I had yesterday.
The one slip in all the service was that a occasionally a dish would not have all the ingredients for a few people in the group. One of our group thought, after the fact, that perhaps the kidney was missing on his plate. I say the kidney was so forgettable, you forgot it before finishing the dish.
I would say that the design of the menu summed up the French Laundry for me. They give you a white folder for the menu. Embossed on the front is a clothes pin. The name of the restaurant is on the back of the folder, in tasteful gray lettering. Inside on the bottom the address and phone is discretely printed in gray. It is very elegant and in good taste. For me, it is a little boring.
I framed one of my Chez Panisse menus with its bunch of strawberries. Many top restaurant menus prior to the 1980s were works of art. My mother loved to save these menus and literally I could create my own little art gallery using the box I have. When menus started changing weekly and with the seasons, the art work was replaced, for the most part, by menus straight off the printer.
Yet French Laundry, created a folder to put your menu in. One would think that they could take that opportunity to resurrect the beauty of some of the menus of the past. Like the food the menu was very elegant but lacked soul.
I will say I was extremely impressed with the service. It was what service should be. It didnt call attention to itself. You barely noticed the wait staff placing and removing the dinnerware. The staff that described the wines and the dishes were very knowledgeable and made the experience very comfortable. There was no snobbery at all and no one was too chummy. They were very pleasant.
My first experience with dining with the Chowhounds was probably the warm memory of the lunch that I will keep with me. It was a joy to dine with people who noticed so much about the food details that I would have missed and not appreciated. Just like with the boards, it was an education a fun and interesting one. They were a charming group that made the new people in the group feel like part of the family.
I dont want to leave readers that I was disappointed by the restaurant itself. I was amazed at the intensity of flavor in some of the small bites. For examplem, there was a crisp crystallized fennel bulb cooked that was sliced so thin that it seemed that if you breathe on it it would shatter into a million pieces. It was amazing that despite the delicateness of the chip, the flavor of the fennel shone through. It was also an interesting and creative way to serve fennel. There were a number of experiences and tastes like that. However, I would have to say there was no one defining WOW moment.
On the whole, I would have to say the experience, for me, was a wash.
re: Gary Soup
I am sure that all eleven other people thouroughly enjoyed the meal. I look forward to their descriptions of each course so that I can appreciate in retrospective some of what I may have missed. And I hope someone who was there chimes in with a more educated opinion about the rabbit.
Strangly enough, I agree with this 1994 review by Michael Bauer. I think he nailed the French Laundry (those prices were probably why the Laundry only made $6 in the first year).
As Bauer says "Each dish is so labor-intensive that to describe all the elements would take a book." However, I'm more of a Cliff Notes type than someone who reads Shakespeare. So I don't have the culinary education to appreciate the nuances. And there are. For me, the craft was wasted.
So enjoy this review by Bauer to appreciate the skill that goes in these dishes and I'm sure the other hounds will have you salivating, mortgaging your home and pounding down the door to get into the French Laundry.
re: Stanley Stephan
I loved your description of everything. This is what good restaurant writing ought to be. From what you said, it was very much like a Kaiseki meal at an expensive place in Tokyo. Nice, delicious, but self-conscious in a very passive aggressive way.
But remember this is only your first impression. Over the years I have found that I never notice a new country very much until the second time I visit it. I can't explain why that is, but for me, it is so.
Perhaps you might have a better take on the French Laundry the second time you visit. Or, you will like it even less, and have clearer reasons for your conclusion.
I have never been there, and for some reason, am not that interested in going there. Yet. Too much Asian and Latin American food in SF to check out, I suppose.
Besides, when it comes to eating out, I have a bad case of spender's block.
re: Bryan Harrell
Thank you, but real restaurant writing will be what the other hounds write up on this place.
Perhaps it is like your first experience in foreign countries. There is so much to absorb, you can't really appreciate the experience until you are more familiar with it. However, for me, it's going to take smoozing a boss or winning the lottery to make a second visit to the Laundry. It won't be on my dime.
re: Stanley Stephan
"Thank you, but real restaurant writing will be what the other hounds write up on this place. "
I disagree. The others will post polished, detailed, nuanced notes that will be precise and educational. You, on the other hand, offered a vivid and personal impression that was extremely evocative for those who (for reasons of distance and/or expense) don't have opportunity to eat in this place.
Even though your notes weren't detailed or fully conclusive, they provide a virtual reality feel for what the experience was like....even for those who wouldn't necessarily share your conclusions.
That's the best sort of restaurant writing: bringing readers along for the ride, and enabling them to gauge for themselves whether the experience would fit their bill. As opposed to just, like, giving us Your Opinion.
The cost was set in advance at $350/person. This included a premium for the private room (which is how we got the reservation) and a donation to chowhound that I believe came to a little more than $50/person.
Melanie got hold of a copy of the wine list in advance and studied it carefully, narrowing the 50 pages down to a couple of dozen wines she thought would be both good and good values, so we could keep to a reasonable budget. Then after she saw the menu she consulted with the sommelier to make the final selections from the short list she had put together. The ten people who were partaking of wine shared 5 full bottles and a half bottle of dessert wine, which was enough to enjoy but not so much we couldn't drive home.
re: Ruth Lafler
Heartily agree with your last sentence. It was the FL tasting menu and the wines were just enough to enjoy a taste with each course. My only suggestion would be to have sparkling wine at some point during the meal, perhaps with the opening canapes in the garden? Or with one of the endless desserts?
re: Stanley Stephan
Yes, the rabbit was tender, juicy, but rather mild. The rack is a cute presentation, but there's really only a half bite of meat, and then tiny bones to suck/knaw on, which if I were with anyone other than immediate family or chowhounds I might not feel comfortable doing. For the tenderloin, the bacon flavor really dominated -- but it was *really* good bacon.
Does anyone know if FL cures its own bacon, and if not, where they get it?
The kidney was actually the most strongly flavored part of this dish -- intensely meaty, with just a hint of "innard" on the finish. It went well with the cherry sauce.
re: Ruth Lafler
Thanks Ruth. Unless he's changed, it's Hobbs bacon. See link below. The reason I hesitate is because Hobbs wasn't specifically mentioned on the menu.
I forgot about the grey shallots in that dish. Thinking back, perhaps a whimsical reference to tiny grey rabbit ears? Sort of rabbit ear shaped, eh? Ok, I'll stop it now.
re: Ruth Lafler
I was really impressed by the texture of this rabbit prep, so juicy and succulent. It was very mild in flavor, so much so that I wondered if milk-fed rabbit might taste like this. (g)
I hope that you overcame your self-consciousness and nibbled on the bones I did. The tastiest bits of meat were in between the little ribs. When I looked to my right, I noticed a pile of four teensy bones, picked clean, on Jaweinos plate. (g)
The rabbit course matched with the red burgundy was my favorite pairing of the meal. Both had youthful freshness and a delicate step on the palate. The dark cherry and kirschwasser notes of the lush and fruity wine echoed the rabbit loins Bing cherry garnish, and the earthy Asian spice and smoky tones melded with the coriander sauce and bacon wrap.
This shot barely shows the piece of half kidney positioned as a satellite on each plate. This little morsel was one of the most memorable bites of the meal for me. It was cooked so perfectly to bring out maximum intensity of flavor and was not at all muddy tasting. The last couple times Ive bought rabbit to prepare at home, the kidneys and liver were missing. Someones absconding with these precious bits . . .
re: Stanley Stephan
I am embarassed that almost six months after this post I just found it. In fact perhaps because I'm on the East Coast I wasn't even aware of this thread.
Stanley, this is superb writing. I just really wanted to thank you for such a really pleasureable read. Coincidentally, I am also one of the few who does not think the French Laundry has quite the "wow" factor that I expected, based on two visits. I agree with you in your description of it, its technical excellence and execution, if you will. But my wife and I just had an incredible meal at the three star Le Calandre outside of Padua. This was a mouth dropping, moaning, wake up in the middle of the night panting in desperation for another bite type of experience. I didn't have that in Yountville. There was a passion with the staff, an excitement, if you will, in the restaurant. The 28 year old, 6'5" Massimiliano repeatedly strolled through the dining room over the four hours we were there. He REALLY cared what people thought of his food. And there was genuine feeling from everyone in this restaurant.
We also did not leave hungry. We did at the French Laundry. Both times.
As you mentioned there are other restaurants, other experiences you've had that "wowed" you, that were just so over the top good no matter what the expectation going in. For myself sometimes these have involved circumstances that I could never repeat: a meal at the three star El Raco de Can Fabes where we sat next to a visiting two star chef and his family. Santimaria was intent on "wowing" him. I asked if my wife and I could be served the same meal. They said fine and 17 courses and four +_ hours later it was at that time the best meal of my life. (I went back four days later with several friends and tried to repeat it. We could not. Excellent. But not the same.) In New Orleans in 1980 I met Paul Prudhomme through a good friend. I had just 1/ lost 142 pounds on a diet (I've kept it all off!) and 2/ had just come from meals on three successive nights at the original Ninfa's on Navigation Boulevard in Houston which Newsweek only a month or so before called America's best Mexican/Tex Mex restaurant. Chef Paul was there the week before, two nights back to back. He liked me, took an interest in me and invited back into his kitchen. This whole experience was about the time of Mimi Sheridan's piece that raved about K-Paul and helped started his national reputation. Anyway, over the next two or three hours he led me around the kitchen, letting me taste every single dish that he or others made. After this we sat down and talked for two more hours. After midnight and with five pounds credited towards the 142 I left. This may have been my best experience ever. Not Gagnaire, not Robuchon, not Ducasse, but Prudhomme.
But there was a real "wow" factor in all this. There was with Santimaria's first meal. There was at a meal that D. C.'s Maestro prepared for us five months ago after I'd raved about them to the Wall Street Journal. They went all out and 22 courses later that matched, bite for bite, the deliciousness of anything I have ever had anywhere, Robuchon and the others included.
The French Laundry just didn't "wow" me. Perhaps if I had showed up with Anthony Bourdain, perhaps if they wanted to impress a visiting chef, perhaps if Keller had ever had a weight problem and wanted to discuss it over Tex Mex, but it just didn't "wow" me.
I should note that I did have one of my best meals ever in the Bay Area, about two years ago sitting at the bar at Gary Danko and sharing over 20 courses with a couple sitting next to me. I reported that on the D. C. board. The food was superb, the experience a real "wow."
Somehow, for me, the French Laundry just seems too practiced, too stiff for this to happen. Or at least for this to happen to me there.
Anyway, a great read. Thank you, sir.
re: Joe H.
Well that is a real compliment from one of my favorite posters. Thanks for pushing me into 2004 with a smile.
Loved this post as well. Thanks so much for sharing those experiences.
Also thanks for that link to the Relais Chateaux website. No El Bulli on it that I see. I haven't been following the International Board lately. Are you giving El Bulli another try this year?
Have you tried using the Relais Chateaux website for any other restaurants?
re: Stanley Stephan
Thanks for the nice words-I really did think that your post is one of the very best that I've seen on any message board anywhere. It was a real pleasure reading it!
Below I've linked a representative (!) photo from a meal that I organized for 30 at Roberto Donna's Laboratorio in D. C. in early November. I think if you click on this link it will speak volumes! There are another 40 or 50 photos but this was really a meal that was extraordinary. I should also note that Roberto told me that we set the "house record" for wine consumed, averaging slightly more than two bottles per person for the evening.
We're going to try to beat this with another blowout meal at the suburban Maestro on February 18th; I've organized 64 people for this in an effort to replicate the extraordinary need for aspirin that we all felt at Laboratorio!
I wish I could have attended the FL dinner. This is the type of thing that I would have absolutely loved. What makes an experience like this all the more extraordinary is being able to share it with others who have similar values or priorities and fully appreciate that which is placed in front of us.
If you guys do another dinner please keep my e-mail and let me know. I've sold Paramount's Great America a great deal of equipment for 2004 and have a number of trips to make associated with this. If I could arrange one to coincide with a SF CH outing it would be fantastic!
Honestly, after severl reviews and essays that I've read about El Bulli I've lost most of my interest in it. Additionally, on eG I know the two chefs who Lizzee mentioned who were very critical of it. As a result of their comments and others I no longer have the same obsession to visit it.
Having said this, I honestly believe-for me-the best restaurant on earth is the one that my wife and I were at three weeks ago in Rubano, Italy, the three Michelin star Le Calandre. I am doing everything in my power to try to create a business reason to return there.
This seems to be my 2004 obsession.
Stanley, if you're ever in the D. C. area please contact me. It would be a real plesure to meet you and share a glass (or two) of wine.
Since I arrived 10 minutes late, I was informed that last one to arrive at a Chowhound event takes all of the meal notes. Thankfully this was amended to allow each of us to have a turn per course, and I started with the canapes that we chose to have in the garden. It was a pleasant day in Yountville, but the sun was still out and most of us took refuge in whatever shade we could find, while we sipped some sparkling water.
Our first canape was a gougere - a small, round puff pastry that looked like a cream puff but had a subtle bit of gruyere within, rather than pastry cream.
Next up was Chef Keller's signature cornet: a small cone studded with sesame seeds containing a sweet red onion creme fraiche, topped by a scoop of Atlantic salmon tartare, with a chive sprig. The salmon seemed to melt in one's mouth. I wish there was a way to do a salmon/creme fraiche ripple cone so that one could have the effect of both cone contents at the same time, rather than the salmon first, then the creme fraiche. Maybe one of those soft-serve ice cream machines that can pipe both vanilla and chocolate into a cone at once??
Last, we were served "bacon and eggs". We were offered a tray which contained spoons set on a rack. Each spoon held a warm poached quail egg with an applewood smoked bacon lardon sprinkled with a brunoise of veggies in a beurre monte.
I liked all of the appetizers - none of them seem to be at war with the others; they complemented each other nicely. Normally I wouldn't pay this much attention to each item with its ingredients, but anything for the cause!
I had a great time. Yesterday I found my "Cook's Tour" tape with Anthony Bourdain's visit to the FL. It was a hoot to see others in the room where we had had our meal and also to see some of the same staff members. The sommelier who discussed our wines with Melanie on Saturday presented Bourdain and his guests with the salmon cornets on the show. And the staff all wore whites rather than the suits in which they served us.
One thing Thomas Keller said on the "Cook's Tour" show: "Perfection is something you never actually attain. It's only something you search for. Because once you've reached it, it's not perfect. You've lost it - it's gone. You'll never be perfect."
I thought Keller came fairly close. And it was a treat to see him crossing the street while we were ogling the garden the restaurant maintains between Highway 29 and Washington. He was very gracious, signing menus for any of us hounds who asked, asking our names, personalizing the inscription, and writing "it's all about finesse".
The FL web site states that the tasting menu, which we opted for, costs $135. With wine, extra canapes, extra charge for the room to alleviate reservation frustration, and a good chunk for Chowhound, the price I paid was worth the day.
Great day, wonderful company, and decent chow.
re: Christine Vallejo
I'll confess that when I first saw the gougere, I thought, "how uninteresting". This is because I have made them myself and am often served them at wine tastings (they're from the Burgundy wine region). But of course, this was no usual gougere. I think it was Jaweino who said it was the best one he's ever had, and it's the same for me too. Perfect proportion of dry crispness and tender moistness inside, bigger hollow in the center puff, and more intensely flavored.
Here's the shot of the cornets in mass. Like you, I wish there had been a way to get all the flavors into one mouthful, which became a continuing theme for me throughout our meal. Limster managed to shoot it, maybe I'll have to try that my next opportunity.
With this course, we also got a lesson in napkin folding from our server so that we can duplicate this presentation at home. (gg)
re: Melanie Wong
When our server described the ingredients in this dish, one of us asked him to repeat the sauce. "Beurre mon-TAY" he said, which sounded very foreign to my ears. Before he left, then I asked again and got the same answer with no explanation. When I turned to the group for illumination, everyone shrugged and said they'd look it up on the 'net when we got home. (G)
I ended up with the First and Last Course reporting duties:
First, thanks to Rochelle for organizing and thanks to Melanie and Joel for their wine picks - the wine definately added another delicious dimension to the meal, as it should.
Now to the food:
Cauliflower panna cotta with Bagaduce oyster glaze and Iranian Osetra caviar was a wonderful version of panna cotta with a hint of sweetness from the cauliflower and a salty, fishy, oystery finish from the glaze and caviar. This was a good wake-up to start the meal -
probably even better if you like oysters.
This was followed by a complimentary course of white truffle custard in an egg shell (just one example of the very labor intensive work "finesse" that goes into these meals) with black truffle sauce and an incredibly thin slice of yukon gold potato chip. This was one of my favorite dishes - for the novelty, for the creamy custard and for the flavors - we decided it'd be too gauche to break open the shell to lick it clean but we did the best we could with our spoons.
And then skipping to the end of the meal, after the two dessert courses, more dessert!
According to Google's translation "mignardises"
means preciousnesses - which at the French Laundry translates to many tiny desserts. These included Taitian vanilla bean creme brulee, Midsummers night pot de creme - consensus was that it was probably
black raspberry, almond macroons (like those that Bay Breads sells), and a three-tiered tray of tiny tarts and such - pecan pie, passionfruit tart, dark chocolate and coffee tart with gold leaf, coconut macaroons, the tiniest caramel cream puff I've ever seen ... and I'm sure I've forgetten something.
It was just the thing to push us over the "I'm full" edge.
All in all it was a wonderful experience. Gregory patiently answered our many questions and described each dish for us as they were served. Since Lee has a shellfish allergy, they were very accomodating, leaving off the oyster glaze on 1st dish and subbing the lobster course with skate wing over green beans and an almost carmel sauce on the plate (he didn't take notes!). He cleaned that plate - amid jealous glances from the rest of the table - I had a bite and
think he didn't miss a thing by not having the lobster.
I think the experience was well worth it - to share the meal with fellow Chowhounds, for Melanie and Joel's wine choices, to not have to hassle with the reservation issue.
The food is definately more about what they do to the ingredients vs. the ingredients themselves (although they were all top notch), I was kind of surprised by how much food was shipped in (like Atlantic salmon) although it sounds like they are putting the garden to
I'm not in a rush to head right back, but certainly wouldn't turn down a chance in the future. And Bryan's take that a second visit would provide more 'insight' certainly is something I'd like to experience!
I think the truffle custard was my favorite dish of the meal. I haven't had much experience with truffles, and this just exploded with truffle deliciousness. The presentation was also stunning: the potato chip had a whole chive embedded in it -- people remarked that the translucent varigated brown chip with the chive looked like Japanese paper.
re: Ruth Lafler
Various friends who have dined at FL multiple times over the years also find this complimentary course their most memorable and favorite. The sublime silkeness of the egg custard, the sheer intensity of truffle flavor, the contrast of the crisp chip with the creamy egg, plus the simplicity of the presentation, set this apart. I felt very sorry for Stanley and Bonni who couldn't taste the wallop of truffleness in this dish.
Here are the tiers of precious sweet dainties. Theres not one of each for everyone, so some forethought was needed to make ones choices. Fortunately we were full at this point and no fights broke out over who got what. (g)
Im skipping the picture of the double-filled almond macaroons because they dont look like much more than hamburger buns in the shot. I hope someone took the last one that was still left on the plate as we were leaving.
Earlier we had admired the care that went into the floral centerpiece also shown here. Ginny gets points for correctly identifying the scabiosa. (g)
Alternating around the table, half of us received one dish and half the other type. They were meant to be shared with your neighbor. For me the brulée suffered in being baked in such a small and thin dish. Loved the flavor (black raspberry?), but Peter and I agreed the texture of our shared tiny pot de creme was curdled.
[Note: Peter Yee left for vacation before this thread started. Ever responsible, he turned in his homework early for me to post on his behalf.]
Maui Pineapple Sorbet with Coconut "Financier"
The sorbet had an intense, fresh pineapple taste, but seemed creamier than
a traditional sorbet. It was served as a quenelle, beneath a thin slice of
dried pineapple. Accompanying the sorbet was a coconut financier -- think
macaroon, but not overly sweet and tasting of nicely baked coconut. This
toothsome morsel was crisp on the outside, but with a nicely chewy interior
and was dusted with powdered sugar. Between the sorbet and financier was
a stripe of a coconut sauce, but I have to say that the pineapple sorbet
flavor blended slightly with the coconut sauce to produce something like a
pina colada on the plate.
I really like the sorbet -- such an amazingly natural, fruitlike flavor.
re: Alt-Peter Yee
Delice au Chocolat et Caramel with passionfruit "coulis", chocolate "dentelle",
and yogurt "foam"
The delice was an assembly of a shortbread cookie on the bottom, a caramel
chocolate ganache on top of that, and a coating of dark Valrhona chocolate
fondant. A bit of salt (kosher, perhaps) was sprinkled atop the chocolate
fondant. Stuck into the fondant/ganache was a chocolate dentelle, essentially
a triangle of a lighter chocolate. Also on top of the fondant was a something
we described as a croquant or tuile, made of chocolate and caramel. On that
was nestled a quenelle of crème fraiche. Surrounding everything was the
passionfruit coulis and the yogurt foam which served as the simple but well-
paired sauces for the dessert. Limster opined "this dish has all flavors:
it has salty, sweet, bitter, and tangy elements." Melanie noted that it was
best to pay attention when eating this dessert. She inadvertently ate a large
portion of the salt on the top, which was a bit overwhelming. Personally,
I didn't find that the salt enhanced the dessert, but I prefer to enjoy the
purity of the chocolate (especially Valrhona -- "Yay!" said Bonni).
I hope these notes are useful. Auf Wiedersehen!
The most subtle of the courses for me, the panna cotta was tabula rasa for the two expressions of brininess contributed by the oyster glaze and the osetra caviar. A continuing theme in these posts is the kitchens perfect execution, and the meltingly tender texture of this dish was yet another example. The accompanying wine, a bone-dry Vouvray, added a limey accent, a chamomile tea undertone, and an oyster shell-like minerality.
We joked about taking home the mother of pearl spoons as souvenirs but I think the servers collected them before anyone had a chance to squirrel them away.
re: Melanie Wong
Actually, I thought the panna cotta had a lovely, sweet cauliflower flavor on it's own, although when combined with the caviar it simply acted to mediate the brininess of the caviar.
I know next to nothing about caviar -- can anyone add any specific comments that would educate me about it? I was a little surprised that it had a kind of wrinkled, dull look, although the eggs themselves were quite large (and there was a whole lot of it, over an oun. I looked up "Iranian osetra" on the web and the pictures didn't look like that -- they were glossy and smooth the way I think of caviar as being. Was this cured in a different way?
Here are the early arrivals at the start of the reception in FL's flower garden. As you can see the men are nattily attired in jackets on this warm day...I felt glad to not be bound to the suggested dress code.
We had sparkling water to rehydrate and refresh after the long drive that most had to get to Yountville (on the server's tray). I agree with Christine's comment that some bubbly would have been nice with the canape course. Originally we had picked out the MV Billecart-Salmon Rose' Champagne ($96) for the reception, but on further consideration, we thought that most would not have eaten anything before our lunch and it would be best to not have alcohol on a completely empty stomach. My unscientific poll of about half the attendees revealed that no one had breakfast, confirmed by the hungry looks when I didn't signal the start of the reception promptly at 11:30am. (G) So, I think it was the right decision to get a little food in them first.
This garden adjoining the restaurant also has a small herb garden and some vegetables grown in raised beds for microgreens. Mrs. Jaweino interviewed the gardner tending this patch - I hope she'll fill us in.
re: Melanie Wong
The garden made a lovely transition from the drive to the meal -- a place to relax, sit in the sun, chat with my fellow hounds, and set the mood of being in a special place.
Also, I thought the sparkling water was exceptionally good. I generally don't like anything with bubbles -- soda, mineral water, beer, even champagne. I don't like the sensation of bubbles in my mouth, and I don't like the harsh, chemical quality of the carbon dioxide of the bubbles themselves. I drank this because I was in the mind set that whatever they offered me, I was going to at least try. This water had very fine bubbles, and the mineral taste was faint but pleasant.
Sautéed Filet of Red Mullet, Roasted Sweet Peppers and Garden Basil Emulsion
Caveat: Taste-impaired review follows:
When she wrote for the L.A. Times, food critic Ruth Reichl referred to her then-husband
as the RG (reluctant gourmet) because he loathed going to food events with her. (I
believe hes now her ex-RG, no surprise to food-addicted CHs!
You can call me the W.G.--wistful gourmand--because I love to go to food events and
stuff myself, even though sinus problems have taken away my nose and I can taste
only tongue taste-bud sensations of salt, sweet, sour and bitter.
Since Im taste-impaired, Im more attentive to visuals and textures. Visually, this dish
was art: two delicate fillets of butter-sautéed rosy-skinned fish crossed off-center on a
large white plate, accented with a small mound of finely-chopped roasted red and yellow
sweet pepper on one side and a large exclamation point of basil oil emulsion on the
other. A confetti swirl of dried pepper and tomato powder garnished the plate.
Texturally, the fish reminded me of sand dabs. Able taster Limster insisted he detected a
shrimpy flavor. That might well be if the fish had dined on krill before it was caught--
who knows what red mullet eat--or maybe Limsters taste buds were seduced by the
fishs glowing pink skin. Wine maven Melanie was also struck by the pairing of the basil
flavor with the wine, a Gruner-Veltliner. I could only sigh wistfully.
While seldom seen in the US, red mullet is common in Europe, known by its French
name, rouget. Our knowledgeable and informative head waiter, Gregory, confided that
FL orders it often, along with their lobster, since its easily available to them via FedEx
re: The Wistful Gourmand
Bonni, compared to your artful description of the presentation, this actual photograph looks flat and dull. Even the quenelle of chopped sweet peppers (so beloved of Paul H) appears deflated. We noted that some of the basil exclamation points dressed right while others veered left and wondered what production line process had created these.
The Grüner Veltliner Smaragd we'd enjoyed with the hearts of palm carried over to this course. I thought it married especially well with the peppers and the basil elements.
re: Stanley Stephan
Thanks, Stanley. One of the good things about the individual plating (vs. the family style service at most of our "chowdowns") is that I didn't have to hold up the group for the photo shoot. (g) I should also acknowledge my able assistant, Peter Yee, who helped style some of the plates and held onto my camera and other paraphenalia that I otherwise would have continued dropping on the floor.
Fwiw, the 'hounds I visited in NY expressed how much they enjoyed reading your impressions of our lunch.
The last meat course before we got into the cheese and several desserts was Grilled
Snake River Farms Calotte De Boef, Wilted Arrowleaf Spinach, Roasted Cepe
Mushrooms, La Ratte Potatoes and Sauce Bordelaise.
While driving home the three of us were discussing which was our favorite course .and
This was my nominee, so Im glad to be writing about it.
Snake River Farms is American Kobe beef. The animals are massaged ala Kobe, but I
dont know whether they are fed a beer laced diet. The beef is a cross between Japanese
Kobe Wagyu bulls and Black Angus cows. In Japan they cross the Wagyu bulls with
dairy cows. The link below will take you to the Snake River Farms web site. The meat
was wonderful. It was very thickly marbled and extremely tender, literally cuttable with
a fork. It was also intensely flavorful. I participated in the Kobe Beef and Bordeaux
Chowdown dinner at Fringale a couple of months ago, and I thought this beef was far
superior. The Calotte is the cap of the eye roast. We were served three nice slices
about 3/8 thick arranged atop the spinach, sliced Cepe mushrooms and roasted Ratte
potatoes. The accompaniments really complemented the beef in texture and subtle
nuances of flavor but did not compete with its own rich flavor. The Bordelaise sauce was
perfect. The Ratte potatoes, a French heirloom variety, had pleasant nutty flavor. The
spinach was very small young leaves that were shaped like arrowheads. Their appeal was
mainly visual, but they did offer a different texture and a nice gentle taste. The
mushrooms soaked up the flavors of the beef juices and the sauce, and added an intense
woodsy flavor. They also had a pleasant crispness in their contribution to the textural
melange. There was a little smudge of black pepper on the side of the plate for those that
wanted to add a little.
The Havens Reserve Merlot we had with it was also wonderful, and went exquisitely
with the beef. It was full bodied and well balanced. Melanie will expound on it more in
her wine post. I liked it so much, I went right from the FL to Havens, which isnt very far
away. To my distress they closed at 4:30, and it was 4:50 when I got there to an empty
parking lot and a darkened building. I persisted however, found someone inside, the very
congenial Peter Robichaud, Wine Informant, who was cleaning up, and got him to sell
me a half case of it and give me a good bit of background information on the winery and
the wines. In fact, once we got him talking we ended up staying there for about a half
I thought the afternoon was magical, not only for a spectacular meal , but experiencing it
with a group such as we had that would make any meal memorable. The five hour
length of it exceeded our previous record 3 1/2 hour lunch at Daniel in New York. It was
also my first time at FL, but I do intend to return. That is not to say that I dont have
some serious quibbles with the place. My first problem is that every bottle of wine
except for the last one left the table with a significant amount of wine still in it. I think,
and expected that they would top off glasses that went down too quickly or just finish the
bottles off before they removed them. I know I finished my first wine with the first
course, knowing we had a new wine with the scheduled second course. However when a
surprise extra course arrived, my glass was whisked away instead of having a splash
added to it. None of the wines were old enough to expect sediment in the bottom, and if
they were they should have been decanted. I noticed that when the bottles were returned
at the end of the meal for their photo opportunity, they were quite empty.
My second problem was that my coffee was never refilled through the many desserts.
My cup was empty long before the desserts stopped coming. The only glasses they
condescended to refill were the water glasses.
So much for my quibbles. The overall impression I had of the place especially of the
food was simple elegance, striving for perfection. The place itself is a country cottage
with simple adornments, but very comfortable and inviting. The lawn and garden were
well tended with comfortable shaded benches. The flowers on the tables were beautiful,
but not intrusive. The service at our round table was done by a clock method, that Ive
only seen at The Masters of Food and Wine before. Six servers would arrive with 2
plates each, and the whole table would be served in two quick passes. The plates and
silverware were designed to enhance the enjoyment of each dish to the maximum. I
especially liked the sauce knives that help scoop up every last bit of sauce. I think Keller
described his philosophy succinctly, when he signed some of our menus in the vegetable
garden after lunch -- Its all about finesse. Each dish was carefully constructed with
finely nuanced detail. Each dish has great subtleties of flavor that had to be slowly
savored to be appreciated. I am often criticized for eating too fast. That may work with
intensely flavored foods. For this kind of food, slow eating is the order of the day, or it
will be easy to miss the fine subtleties and artistry of the dish. One thing I like about
Chowhound is that it makes me a more careful eater, in that I look for these fine points
more than I used to.
The beef course stood out for me too. Perhaps because it was less "intellectual" than the others. By that I mean that it didn't require the same intense concentration and analysis to appreciate it, a departure from the "slow eating" you describe needed to ponder and understand a dish's finer points. Our lunch was extremely mentally taxing for me to scrutinize each bite in this fashion to not miss a single nuance. In contrast, this heartier dish was the most familiar in taste and texture making it easy "to get".
Remember when our server attempted to recall the type of pepper which dusted the plate? He stuttered, "it's telli- " and three people completed his word blurting out, "tellicherry". Celery commented that this must be the only group where that would happen!
My previous visit to FL the beef course was made from this same cut, although not wagyu. I recall our server telling us then that it is one of Keller's favorite cuts to work with for its intense beefy flavor.
I'm glad you were able to score some Havens Reserve Merlot. The 1999 is showing so well now. It's a much underrated wine and a terrific value.
The second "official" course on the nine-course tasting menu was "Hawaiian hearts of palm salad, truffle 'coulis' and perigord truffle syrup."
The plate was composed of hearts of palm and truffles, each presented in three different forms: the hearts of palm were presented whole as an angle-cut cylinder and two batons, flecked with shaved truffle; the truffle took the form of a coulis and a clear, brown syrup with finely minced truffle; and the two elements together together: a dollop of finely diced truffle and heart of palm. The "salad" was given a shot of green with a small handful of microgreen sprouts (celery?) dusted with fleur de sel.
The mild, tender hearts of palm supplied mostly body and texture and some sweetness that balanced the pungency of the truffle. But mostly they stood in the background and let the truffles be the star. The diced mixture was a superb "truffle delivery system" exploding with both aroma and flavor. I could happily have dug into a big bowl of it with a soup spoon!
re: Ruth Lafler
"Truffle delivery system"...like your turn of phrase! To me this was the most creative combination, putting the texture of hearts of palm together with the intense flavor and aroma of black truffles. Yet, much as I love truffles, I'm not sure that I really liked the combination.
We had this with a Grüner Veltliner Smaragd from Austria's Wachau. When our server Gregory presented the bottle to me for inspection and tasting, he whispered that he was impressed by this choice and thought it was inspired. (g) The grassy and green pea notes blended with the palm and microgreens and the richness of body and layers of flavor wove in and out with the truffley elements.
It looks elegant and composed. Half a tail and a claw of lobster sat on a small pedestal of caramelized fennel. Accoutrements include a robe of sauce made from vermouth and lobster broth, a crown of crystallized fennel made from a thin sawtoothed flower-like section and a feathery laurel of green fennel tips.
Lastly, a decoration of fennel powder on the side of the plate, like the many thematic powders and confetti that glided other dishes. Even the garnishes that add little to taste are labour-intensive efforts.
Iron chef fans will remember when Ron Siegel pulled out massive blocks of butter for poaching some lightly boiled lobster, finishing the cooking process for one dish in the lobster battle against Sakai. Siegel's French Laundry pedigree was nowhere more evident as when he utilized this recipe many credit Keller with popularizing.
The lobster takes on the richness well, a buttery vestment that is easy to feel on the tongue. Unlike other exceptional lobsters I've tasted that were firm, snappy but tender, this lobster came across as more moist and rich, but also softer, with less of a textural assertiveness. It is the butter talking.
The sauce was very precisely calibrated, blending nuanced fennel-licorice and a toffee-like sweetness. It is subtle and very effective against the natural sweetness of the lobster and it harmonizes lobster with the caramelized fennel.
A faultless lobster on the whole, though not necessarily better than other superlative interpretations of this crustacean I've had at Lucas Carton or Auberge de L'Ill.
Extremely refined technique applied to classical flavour combinations. Sauces are exquisitely balanced, prime ingredients are cooked with extreme precision to exact textures, flavours are concentrated, tuned and matched faultlessly. Preparations seem labour-intensive, presentation is artful but demure.
There is no risk taking, no daring. I don't think there were any flavour combinations at this meal that one would consider unusual.
But there's a cool confidence from this kitchen that is sure of everything -- just look at the chive pressed into the the potato chip, or the crystallized fennel.
Favourite dishes were the deep deep truffle custard, the rustic bean salad with cheese and crostini, and the perfect pot de creme.
Interestingly, the last two reminded me of great things from the kitchen of Chez Panisse: the pure beans, lightly and simply dressed with olive oil taste like something CP would serve and the berry flavour in the pot de creme brought back memories of the black currant tea creme brulee that I had at the cafe at CP.
I came more with a curiousity than with high expectations, so I wasn't disappointed. I thought it was of even value -- I wasn't impressed beyond what I expected, but was I very satisfied. I certainly wouldn't rush to come back, especially since some of the three starred Michelin places in Europe are cheaper to get to from Boston and reservations more easy to secure.
Thanks for articulating so clearly some of what I was feeling.
I went in with higher expectations due to the impossible reservation system.
It's like watching two ice skaters where one may have the technically perfect performance that you have to admire while another may fall because of taking risks. The latter is more exciting. I guess I was expecting a wildly risky performance perfectly executed.
The pot de creme was perhaps the dish I liked best. Of everything it is the taste I still remember. For me, the heart of palm was the least exciting due to my inability to taste truffles.
Nice to meet you. Sitting next to you, I took some mental notes about how to thouroughly savor each bite
re: Stanley Stephan
Thank you, the pleasure is mine. Always great to chow with the hounds; I learn something every time. Should add especial thanks to Melanie for selecting the wines (I LOVED the dessert wine) and to Rochelle and Jaweino for organizing the affair.
And yes, tis true, FL is much harder to get in than say, Guy Savoy, where Keller once cooked at. Actually, this trip really made me want to try Tailevent on my next trip to Paris, the other major Parisian place in Keller's training. Would be neat to see the influences.
I'm curious to see if anyone has eaten at both Elisabeth Daniel and FL and would like to make a comparison. I ate at ED during its better days (Oct 2001) and thought that while it wasn't as ultra-finessed as FL, the cooking style was bolder, a good balance of technique and ingredients. I'm still impressed by the cracked wheat "risotto" that I tasted there. Wonder how it's doing now.
The butter-poached lobster was the dish I was most looking forward to. Was even more excited to find a botrytis-laden Chardonnay on the wine list that I thought would be a good pairing for the expected buttery richness and over-the-top flavors of this preparation. It was fun to see our sommelier's reaction when I inquired whether the two might work - "Absolutely, it will be fantastic!", Nate said as he leaned backwards as if bowled over by just the thought of the opulence of the combination.
Later, when the lobster and the wine choice were married at the table, the hugeness of the mouth-filling flavors did indeed snap my head back for real with its sheer power. I know I heard more than one "WOW!" around the room. (g)
This was the one dish where I didn't think I could have consumed a larger serving. It was that stultifying. Yet as Limster describes, subtle at the same time. Guess that's the finesse. The herbal tones of the vermouth sauce played beautifully against the fennel to keep things in check. I was also impressed by how on point the texture of the separate claw and tail portion were...one more example of the kitchen's perfect execution.
re: Melanie Wong
I know one of the "Wow"s was mine. And I don't even like lobster much. This was pure richness, both the lobster and the wine. The crisp caramelized fennel chip on top added both flavor and texture to the dish. I'm not sure I could have eaten any more lobster, but I could have used more sauce to mop up with bread.
When is the full wine write-up coming? I don't think any of us has properly thanked you for the amazing wine pairings you selected for us -- not to mention the fun of listening to you interact with the sommelier.
Didn't know if anyone else was going to mention it, but the rolls were from Panorama Bakery and we were given two different butters: Strauss Organic and Vermont. I liked both, and I had two rolls: one to test the two butters and one to sop up juices. The sauce spoons were a nice touch but nothing beats a chunk of bread for cleaning a plate.
The Bouchon bakery is due to open any time (S. Irene Virbila's Napa restaurant review in the LA Times a month ago said it was to open the week after her trip), and I didn't get a definite answer from any staff people at TFL about a date.
re: Melanie Wong
It's the French Laundry's "business card" -- it has the name of the restaurant and the phone number on it.
There was one at each place setting.
I suspect the Vermont butter is the Vermont cultured butter I've been eating at home -- I prefer it to Straus. For some reason the Straus is oilier at room temperature, which I find unappealing, and perhaps because of that my perception is that it goes rancid more quickly.
The Vermont cultured butter in the gold-foil one-pound bricks (see below) is very reasonably priced ($4.79, IIRC) at Berkeley Bowl.
Finally, I thought the bread was the weakest part of the meal -- flavorless and tough once it cooled from being warmed. I drew unfavorable comparisons to Acme's "little roll," every time I tear into one of which I'm reminded of Paris.
Presumably Paramount was a stopgap against the fact their evening bread purveyor apparently doesn't deliver in time for lunch, and the lunch-time bread will improve with opening of the new bakery down the street.
Hey ya'll! I just wanted to thank everyone for being so cool and hospitable. I was SO happy to be able to spend the day with all of you.
I'm back in the heat of the East Coast - flaunting my menu to anyone who will look at it.
I have pictures, which I'll post on my website (see below) once I get finished weeding my garden!
Here are some of the 'hounds in FL's vegetable garden across the street. The kitchen staff were out there spreading mulch around and Chef Keller came out to supervise. I imagine that the fennel used in our lobster dish was in the ground (the bed with the pale green feathery fronds) not long before it was served to us.
The cheese course was titled Brecianella Salad of Mixed Summer Beans and
The presentation was two slices of Brescianella cheese atop a thin crisp garlic crostini
atop and surrounded by a melange of at least seven kinds of beans. The cheese was a
washed rind cows milk cheese with an orangy rind that showed some of the striations of
the wrapping it dried in. The cheese had a relatively strong pungent, somewhat earthy,
mushroomy, yeasty aroma, but a much milder subdued flavor that exhibited all the
complexity of the aroma.. It was slightly astringent and puckery, but very creamy in the
mouth. The rind was a bit crunchy and slightly salty from the washing.
The costini was perfect. Crispy and just a little garlicky, so as to complement the cheese
and not overpower it.
The beans were interesting. They were drizzled with olive oil and cooked so that they
were still crunchy. There was one very large bean, a Romeo, that I, and I think most if
not all of us had never encountered before. Both Melanie and Ruth did not get one on
their plate, and the waiter brought us a little plate of Romeos to make up for the gaffe.
There were finely cut green onions mixed with the beans.
This dish was a textural delight. The creaminess of the cheese, the crispness of the
crostini and the crunchiness of the beans blended very well in the mouth. There were no
strong flavors in this dish, but there was a lot of complexity in the subtle flavors
combining with one another. I heard both Limster and Bonni say that it was their favorite
If anyone is interested in trying the Brescianella cheese, I know that they carried it at
Whole foods at one time. It might still be there.
Whoo hoo, this is the last food picture. It's taken me so long to post these, Peter Yee almost beat me home from his three-week vacation before I was done.
This was a lovely example of Brescianella, an Italian Stracchino-type (that's the word I was trying to remember at FL) related to Taleggio. Like everything else we were served, the paste was in perfect condition with a soft yielding creaminess.
I was a bit distracted by the absence of the giant black bean on my plate - Romeo and forgot to ask my question. These beans had such firm resiliency, I wondered if they were an assortment of fresh shell beans, anyone find out? Mixing edible pod beans with shell beans was an interesting combo.
Our wine for the cheese course was the 2001 Müller-Catoir "Mussbacher Eselshaut" Auslese which drank like a Beerenauslese, it was so ripe and concentrated.
re: mike g
I have detailed notes on the wines, but since I'm on the East Coast at the moment, they're not at my finger tips. A description of the wines for this luncheon and discussion of The French Laundry's wine list will be included in an upcoming issue of ChowNews. You can follow the link below to subscribe.
As others have recounted, after lunch, we strolled across the street to take a look at the vegetable garden. The kitchen assistants had been redeployed to spreading mulch among the beds, supervised by Chef Keller. First Ruth, then the others asked him to autograph their menus. I was at the ready with my camera, memorializing each person's time with him, and felt much like I was recording children's visits with Santa Claus.