I must post about our experience with the French Laundry. I'll mention the very basics and the food in this post, while it's still very fresh in my mind. I'll try to mention more in future posts. We'll see how long my memory and motivation to write hold out, shall we?
We hit a couple of wineries in the morning. Mondavi gave an unexpectedly amazing tasting experience, while Sattui seems to be less impressive than it was. We stopped to check into the B&B. The B&B would be worth a post of its own if I weren't lazy as hell. It's within walking distance of the French Laundry, because my wife is amazing.
We headed over, and stopped to small-talk with a couple from Colorado. This helped answer Krissy's question, "do people really come from all over the country to eat here?"
We were seated by very polite waitstaff who asked the expected questions. Very shortly we had a menu, including a few things from the example menu on the web site, and a number of things that weren't. I had the chef's tasting menu, while Krissy had a modified no-seafood version.
On to the food:
Before the first course, they brought out small gruyere dumplings. They were perhaps the size of a medium marble, filled with melted cheese. Very pleasant and mild, a good warmup, and (compared to anything that followed) very simple.
Then, they brought out what appeared to be a tiny ice cream cone each for Krissy and me -- hers was green, mine was red. As it turned out, hers was chopped fennel and mine was chopped raw tuna, both on a tiny fried cone of some kind. There was creme fraiche inside, which went beautifully with the spiced tuna. It was oddly sushi-like, other than being very convincingly ice-cream-like in appearance.
My first course was "oysters and pearls", while hers was a savory egg custard, cooked in the shell with pomegranate underneat. The oysters were cut down to the central circular muscle, like a tiny scallop, and cooked very soft in a sort of thick, creamy butter broth. It had black "pearls" next to it, which by implication were caviar (caviar was mentioned!), but they mentioned tapioca pearls in the description... Was the caviar cooked down into the broth? Were the caviar and tapioca mixed so well I couldn't tell them apart (I tried!)? Thomas Keller knows the answer, but I don't. It was fabulous, of course.
We then both had foie gras (while it's still legal in CA, no less). When I say "foie gras", I mean each plate had a long, rectangular perfect block of pate on it. There were thick, warm pieces of toast, which a server replaced after a few minutes so we had hot toast throughout. Each plate had four whole, warm cranberries roast in honey, two thin, beautiful slices of chestnut, a small dollop of chestnut puree, and several small vegetable items I can't remember as well as I should.
There were also three tiny containers like miniature gravy boats, of finishing salt. One was a white, large-crystal salt from the Phillipines, one was a French "sel gris" (a sea salt?), and the third was "Jurassic salt" from the bottom of a Montana copper mine.
One of the joys of foie gras, if you're a picky bastard, is slowly and carefully assembling each bite from the range of supplied components. Getting fresh, warm toast halfway through is good if you're a picky bastard who takes too long to assemble your foie gras. Any similarity between that description and any person living or dead is your own damn fault. I mean nobody in particular. That's my story and it's sticking to me.
The foie gras was absolutely divine. The Jurassic salt was enormously better than the other two. The cranberries were wonderful but overwhelming, and having them only on some bites was the right choice. The chestnut puree was an excellent accent, and one I haven't tried before. The Jurancon, a sweet white French wine, was a perfect pairing (the sommelier chose it, not me).
Apparently California is banning foie gras in 2012. Perhaps you should all visit the French Laundry before that?
I then had a sauteed fillet of bluefin tuna with Spanish saffron. The tuna was seared on the outside, mostly raw on the inside, and in a small amount of very light broth, with vegetables scattered around it. The vegetables (celery? fennel that tasted like celery?) made the whole thing taste like the best imaginable tuna salad sandwich, which was weird for me. I don't like tuna salad. I liked this a lot.
While I had the tuna, Krissy had a butternut squash porridge of truffled arborio rice. The porridge seemed like a sort of thin squash risotto (again, arborio rice), with truffle oil in the bottom. But I'll let Krissy describe that for herself when she gets around to it. I didn't eat it, just looked at it.
Krissy then had a "cuisse de poularde", which is a thick slice of chicken (thigh?) over rice, and I received a "boudin blanc de coquilles St. Jacques". In case that's as confusing to you as it is to me, that was a sort of scallop sausage.
Yup. It was white, crisp, and oddly reminiscent of that Japanese fake crabmeat but much, much better. It was scallop minced, spiced, mixed, and set in an artificial sausage skin, then removed before serving. So yes, scallop sausage. It had the lovely meaty, salty, decadent taste of very good scallop combined with an appealing crisp texture. I'm a scallop fan anyway, of course. I loved it.
Our meals again converged for the next course with "rouelle de tete de cochon." Those of you who know French are probably saying something like, "pig head? Ew" and thinking that "pig head" sounds uncomfortably like "head cheese". The rest of you weren't until I poisoned your mind with the image. Nyah-nyah!
The description from the waiter was similarly unsettling. "Components of a pig head" was in there and "fried", but so was "polenta and maple syrup", so we went with it, you know?
When it came out, it was a bit like a toasted marshmallow. By that I mean there was a fried, marshmallow-shaped cylinder in the center, on top of a white ring of polenta which looked a bit like melted marshmallow underneath. Then there was a thin layer of maple syrup around that. In the marshmallow analogy this would probably be "burnt bits", but it tasted a lot better than that :-)
Oddly, balanced on top of the whole assembly was a green, shiny, brazil-nut-shaped item which confused me by coming apart when I poked it with my fork. That was a compressed lump of wilted cabbage. Very, very neat. The "components of pig head" were mostly very bacon- or ham-like, so it was mostly like fried bacon with corn, cabbage and just a hint of maple syrup. Very nice, but quite heavy. Apparently Krissy also had trouble with the texture of the fried bits, which is reasonable.
It's worth mentioning that, although each of these courses was quite small, we were starting to get full. It turns out that "small" times about six or seven is still a lot of food. Who knew? Also, these were very meaty, greasy, salty things. That wasn't overwhelming because, again, small. But these small individual courses were quite filling food, but in tiny portions.
Then, they brought out the veal.
Each of us had a smallish cylinder of veal, perfectly cooked, surrounded by bits of cauliflower, pumpkin seeds, black trumpet mushrooms, and the whole thing in a Madras curry "jus". Like, the same sort of meat-juice as "au jus", but mild and wonderful and... curry-flavored. Awwww yeah.
Also present, and worthy of separate mention were little starchy-sweet "balls of awesome" that we couldn't identify, and had to ask the waiter about. They were the same kind of starchy-sweet as a lot of good Chinese pastries, if you've tried those. I described them as "like what would happen if you could caramelize a garbanzo bean".
As it turns out, they were dates. The waiter also grinned from ear to ear at the description "balls of awesome", which was wonderful and un-creepy until I wrote it down like that. So you should blame me for the creepy, not him.
Starting to get tired just reading this? Eating it was like that, too, except it was "this is incredible but I'm getting chafed" tired, not "your writing sucks, just talk about the food" tired.
Next course was a cheese, "Cadence" from Andante Dairy. It was a very soft cheese cut into rectangular blocks. The texture was like chevre (goat cheese), and the flavor was sharp like that, but not as creamy. There were a variety of accompaniments to try with the cheese -- poached red stalks of rhubarb, hazelnut "sand" (like hazelnut flour, but with a genuinely sand-like texture), watercress. All of it was nicely arranged around the twin slices of cheese in the center. Very, very nice. I'm told there was also caramelized endive. I'm not entirely sure what that would look like, but there were several objects I couldn't identify, so we probably had that too :-)
After the cheese was a dark and stormy. If you've had the cocktail of rum and ginger beer, that was the inspiration for this dish. There was pineapple sorbet with a small cube of pinapple in it, a thin slice of gingerbread cookie and a bed of gingerbread crumbs, and an absolutely amazing ginger beer foam over the top of the sorbet. So you could use the slice of gingerbread to scoop up a bit of the pineapple sorbet and a bit of the ginger beer foam, giving a bite of sorbet that dissolved instantly in your mouth into the taste of a dark and stormy (the cocktail). It was blissful, and tiny, and perfect.
There was also, randomly, a tiny little ball of what we're told was Gros Michel (roughly "Big Mike") banana. It was perfectly good, and slightly sweeter than I'm used to, but in a dish that good it was simply adjacent rather than participating significantly. Perhaps it was meant as a historical footnote, now that we pretty much all eat Cavendish bananas?
I swear, half the time I think I was served jokes. Not because of anything about the food quality, which was amazing, but because there were a lot of dishes that seemed like variations on a theme, in the musical sense, where the theme was entirely unexpected. Thus, the random bit of banana feels like a theme I didn't quite recognize. I *like* food that makes me think.
After our fabulous dark and stormy, which was a sort of break in the proceedings for refreshment, we moved on to the actual desserts. Krissy had a tart with huckleberries, almonds and a creme fraiche sherbet. I had a "gateau St. Nizier au manjari" -- basically a flourless chocolate cake with mango cubes, a bit of chili sauce, cocoa nibs, lime foam and coconut milk sorbet.
Oddly, on top of the lime foam was some kind of lime salt. The alternation of the powerful, powerful chocolate with and without the salt was interesting and a bit difficult -- heavily salted chocolate isn't my thing, even if sea-salt caramel is really good. Still, it was a fabulous and intense chunk of cake, and everything else was just pitch-perfect. The mango-chili theme was a bit like the Dagoba Mayan Chocolate bars, if you've had them, and the lime went beautifully with that flavor palate (palette?). The sorbet provided a break every few bites, which was really needed in a dish that intense.
It was amazing, naturally, even with the salt :-)
After that, we had finished the whole menu, so they began on the post-menu desserts. Of course.
They brought out two tiny, beautiful tarts. Each had an amazingly thin pastry shell around it, and a layer of custard covering a layer of pomegranate gelee. There were a couple of whole pomegranate seeds on each.
Krissy had an excellent black tea and I had a very nice, very mild peppermint tea. They brought out six lovely chocolate truffles in six different flavors. The first was white chocolate with green tea and embedded bits of puffed rice. It couldn't quite decide if it was a truffle, a Krunch bar, or a tea sweet, but it was very good. There was a triple-citrus truffle (yuzu, orange and Meyer lemon, I think?) with beautiful swirls on the top. There was a white-chocolate cinnamon truffle. The cinnamon was very mild, and the truffle's flavor very warm. There was a pecan praline truffle, caramel-y and liquid and wonderful. It was much softer than the caramel that I'm used to in pralines, with separately-candied nuts embedded in it. There was a caramel sea salt truffle, deep and rich and simple. And there was a chocolate peanut butter truffle. It was very nice, but far outclassed on a plate like that...
After that, they brought chocolate- and caramel-covered macadamia nuts rolled in powdered sugar. The caramel formed a thin, crisp coating inside the milk chocolate, and the powdered sugar was compressed into another shell on the outside. Krissy and I could manage one each without exploding, so we did. We regret nothing.
This would have been the point in the meal where I'd have considered ordering a dessert wine, probably a nice vintage port. When you're there (before 2012, remember!), you should. Krissy and I had gone through three half-bottles of lovely, expensive wine at that point, and she's pregnant so I was doing more than my share. A man who holds his drink better than I do should certainly have port at that point. I caved, and didn't. Tell me how it is, and whether they've got the Taylor Fladgate '77, which would have gone *wonderfully* with our desserts...
Oh, and they brought the bill, and little bags of complimentary shortbread to take with us. Have I mentioned that we didn't go away hungry? And I haven't specifically talked about the wine yet, or the selection of miniature loaves of bread...
And I have entirely failed to mention the quality of the service because it was so good it deserves one or more posts of its own.