This blog is not at all about restaurant reviews but I just have to share my birthday dinner experience last Wednesday at one of the most acclaimed restaurants here in California, The French Laundry. So if you are a foodie, get a cup of coffee, pull up a chair and get comfortable as this will be my longest post since the marathon recap. If you’re not a foodie, read this and you will be!
I don’t know about your hubby, but my hubby is a completely crazy driver. Total and complete maniac. (He doesn’t follow my blog, so I can say that). And for some reason, he thinks he can magically circumvent traffic; however, driving through Berkeley during rush hour followed by all the stop-and-go on the freeway made what could have been a 40 minute drive from Oakland to Yountville take an hour and a half. We were late for our reservation by 10 minutes- I was freaking out! But my in-laws arrived first and were seated, no problem, and when we arrived, our epicurean adventure began.
First things first- wine. The 135 page wine list arrived to our tale in iPad format- so cool! You could tap the table of contents to go to each section, click on a wine to get more tasting notes, then save it to the memory for discussion with the server. I was in heaven and we hadn’t even received the first course! (I am certain that all restaurants will adopt the iPad wine list in the near future- less paper, more dynamic, and just really, really neat!)
We listened to the server enumerate each element of their nine-course tasting menu and I just wish I had taken notes! The descriptions had descriptions with supplemental descriptions- all of the information was very overwhelming and I barely recall any of it. The ordering process took about a half hour, and after that we decided on a bottle of Schramsburg blanc-de-blanc (the French Laundry cuvee) to start with as our first course included caviar. And we were off…
Before our first course came, we had 2 appetizer courses that were divine- some sort of warm Gruyere cheese ball followed by a salmon pop, a tiny cone filled with creme fraiche and happiness, topped with a thin slice of raw salmon. SO FREAKING GOOD!
After that, our dinner began. For the first (really 3rd) course I chose one of the French Laundry staples, the “Oysters and Pearls”- a silky smooth vermouth and butter sabayon of pearl tapioca with oysters and caviar, complete with a mother-of-pearl spoon to eat it with. Of all the courses (13 in total), this one was my favorite and one of the most memorable of the evening.
For the second/fourth course, I just had to have the supplemental s’mores foie grass en terrine- that’s right, duck liver s’mores style. The pate had a graham cracker crust with tufts of marshmallows, cherries, and chocolate with candied chestnuts served with thick slices of brioche. Once we were served, they brought a selection of 3 different types of salts to sprinkle on top of the pate once spread- I don’t recall the names or types of the salts but my favorite was the pink. That combination was absolutely heavenly- the pate was delicate and creamy and the salt just amplified the flavors + the champagne = SPECTACULAR!
I would have been more than satisfied after that; however, we had 9 more courses to go… I avoided the bread (for the most part) and took a lot of deep breaths leading up to course #5: kanpachi (rare white fish) amandine with endive, almonds, and an orange “aigre-doux” (sweet and sour sauce). The fish was perfectly cooked in a brown butter, and just melted in my mouth. The layers of flavors just sprang to life- I have never, ever had food like this before.
Course #6 was a Maine lobster tail poached in sweet butter with fennel and a Noilly Prat emulsion. I wish I could tell you what that means but I completely forgot, all I know is that lobster was DIVINE! Tiny little tail, beautifully prepared! I tried to take my time with it but gobbled it right down despite how full I was starting to feel. It’s lobster. Who refuses lobster? One clean plate, coming up…
Course #7 was the porkiest pork belly I have ever had, on a bed of Japanese rice with mushrooms, pear, turnips, edamame and “sauce Japonaise”. I took a bite of the pork and was speechless. The Asian flavors on top of the glazed pork belly was pure perfection (not sure how that is a French approach but it was so delicious, I don’t really care!).
Next, course #8 if you are keeping track- I had certainly lost track after about #4 (thank goodness I have the aid of the menu to guide me as I write this!). The beef course. That is, “calotte de boeuf”. I completely forget what part of the cow this was but I recall the server saying it was “the top part” of the what, exactly, I do not know but it was, by far the most heavenly piece of boeuf I have had in my entire 37 years of life. After we took our first bite, we just sat there in silence staring at each other, completely astonished and wide-eyed. Finally, my father-in-law quite aptly said, “I just ate something really good.” HECK YEAH! It was a perfectly tender and juicy medium rare piece, served on spatzle with brussel sprouts, a borscht sauce, as well as tiny piece of brisket.
After that, I was full. I even gave hubby a bite of the brisket- am I a giving wife, or what? Even though I ate very lightly that day, after that course eight, I felt like I just couldn’t get anything else down! Just so much food! Nevertheless, the service at The French Laundry is such that they know and understand this, so they give you a longer break between courses when you really need it. My tummy settled and I was ready for more…
Course #9 was a cheese course with persimmon pudding, pecans, and a maple syrup. I ate every bite and then I KNEW I couldn’t eat anymore.
But then course #10 arrived and I ate the whole thing! Guava sorbet with moscato and ginger- an amazing palette cleanser complete with fancy foam. Love the fancy foam.
And then, finally, what I thought was going to be the final course (#11) of dessert was served- a white chocolate namelaka with hazelnuts, oats, and fig sorbet. I ordered some coffee, took more deep breaths, and noshed my heart out!
At the bottom of the menu, following the dessert course, is a bolded word: “mignardises”. Literal translation is “petite four” and I had no idea that The French Laundry version of a petit four is really a type of chocolate truffle. We were served 6 per couple along with a bowl of chocolate macadamia nuts- I had one chocolate and one nut and was done. Couldn’t eat another bite. So very satiated and way too stuffed so I asked to take the mignardises home, snapping a picture first of course…
But then the server brought out more silverware. I pleaded, “Why? There just can’t be more food!” There was more food. One final course, “lucky” #13, coffee and donuts. The donuts were warm donut holes and the coffee was actually coffee ice cream served in a demi tasse cup topped with more fancy foam. I was sure I was going to explode but ate one donut hole and had a couple bites of the ice cream- I had to! This is The French Laundry, people! A once in a life time culinary experience!
I wholeheartedly thank my in-laws, Allan and Kathy, for the most amazing birthday meal I will probably ever have. It was an experience I will never forget. We were there for 5 hours!!! When I got home, I didn’t even want to brush my teeth. The food was sublime and the service was stellar- we were waited on by a team of at least 10- and when we left I asked for a copy of the menu and it was handed to me in an embossed folder. Wow.
And then on Thursday night, I met up with a good friend to see “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress” about world-renowned Spanish chef & molecular gastronomist Ferran Adrià and his avant-garde approach to food. El Bulli has been deemed the world’s best restaurant and the movie depicts his innovative and artistic style, essentially, food as art; Adrià has been called the “Salvador Dali of the kitchen” but calls himself not a chef, rather, a tortured artist. The processes and images of the El Bulli creations are burned into my brain- check out the trailer for the movie here and run to see this film!
Within two days I was able to experience two very different approaches to food and dining- yeah, okay, one I actually got to EAT and the other just WATCH but I can tell you that I feel like a changed person because of both adventures. Well, maybe that’s just my age talking but I definitely feel like I reached a state of culinary nirvana- a liberation of the mind, of sorts- wherein my palate had been refined, my eyes entertained, and my brain completely stimulated.
I guess getting old isn’t SO bad after all…
Great. Now I’m hungry.
What has been your absolute, most fabulous food and/or dining experience and how did you feel after? Any fave food movies to recommend?