Culinary Nirvana. Defined.

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!

kneeling in gravel in the freezing cold and taking pictures of signs, that's how i roll

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.

the iconic blue door

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!)

fil allan and hubby pouring over the wine-ipad (photo credit: MIL Kathy)

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!

cheese balls (fancier than it sounds, trust me)

cute little salmon "cones"

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.

oysters & pearls (photo credit: MIL Kathy)

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!

never had s'mores like this before!

me and the super salt (photo credit: MIL Kathy)

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.

tiny portion, huge punch

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…

i dunno what noilly prat is but i sure want more!

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!).

simply sublime

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.

i was nervous about taking pics so they didn't come out too great, that really is the blurry boeuf though, i swear

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.

cheese? yes, please!

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.

just begging to be eaten...

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!

i thought this was the last course... i was wrong...

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…

flavors clockwise from bottom left: peanut butter and jelly, olive oil, meyer lemon, hazelnut, pumpkin pie, and dark chocolate

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!

oh my happy, big fat 37 year old tummy!

french laundry "doggie bag" complete with a package of shortbread cookies

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.

1st half of the menu (click to view)

and the 2nd half (click to view)

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!

hang it on the wall or eat it?

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?


14 thoughts on “Culinary Nirvana. Defined.

  1. Wow, thanks for sharing that magnificent experience with us!
    One question — how did you guys get reservations? I heard they’re very hard to come by.

    • Supposedly you have to call 2 months in advance for the same date, exactly 2 months in the future- we ate there on 11/16 so the resi was made on 9/16. You have to call and call until you get through and then, again, your only choice for a date is the ONE date 2 months out. (It took about a week of calling.)

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience with us! I loved seeing the pictures and reading your amazing descriptions of each course. Ahhhh….bliss….

  3. Ooookaayyy, reading this when there’s still an hour and a half left till lunchtime was a bad idea! *wipes drool off keyboard*.
    I think it’s cool to see how much of Thomas Keller’s style (in food presentation and also other details, like the keep-able menus) Grant Achatz took with him to Alinea, even while trying to spin off into a much more molecular gastronomy sort of angle. You can really tell that the culinary world is all about apprenticeship and the influence one chef has on their…students? Proteges? Would love love to get to taste TK’s food first hand–can’t spend all these years in the Bay Area without getting to go the the French Laundry at some point, right?!

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