Monday, February 27, 2012

Date Night at French Laundry

My wife and I don't get to enjoy many dress up nights out these days, at least ones that don't consist of knocking on your neighbor's doors with little ones in tow demanding free candy under threat of unspecified retribution. So it was with great excitement that we recently embarked on our journey to The French Laundry to celebrate my better half's birthday.

For those unfamiliar, The French Laundry isn't a place to lose your favorite shirt but is instead a renown French restaurant located near Napa Valley in the small town of Yountville. Twice named "Best Restaurant in the World" by Restaurant magazine, it enjoys the exclusive company of just 106 Michelin three star-rated restaurants in the World, only ten of which are in the United States as of 2012. Guests get to choose from either a Chef's Tasting Menu that changes every day or one or two alternate menus, each of which offers nine smallish (French) courses for a fixed rate or $270 per person. While that's certainly a lot of dough, a couple of extra dishes are supposedly included, so we figured that worked out to a more digestible figure of about $25.54 per course.
We first read about this place in the paper, and agreed there would be no better way to celebrate the birthday of a best-in-world wife and mother than a few hours pampering as the former while temporarily escaping from being the latter, taking in some Best-in-World grub. The trick was getting a reservation.  The reservations window opens up, it turns out (and typically quickly closes) at 10:00am sharp exactly two calendar months before the requested date. We couldn't believe our sheer luck when she was able to secure reservations on only the fifth phone call. After that, it was just a matter of waiting until the big day came.

"I wonder why it's called French Laundry?" I wondered aloud as I was washing the Man Cave drywall dust out of my hair and getting dressed up to go. "Do you think they'd appreciate the joke if we showed up for our reservation with a hamper of dirty berets and striped shirts?"

The look she gave me in response reminded me of the time I took my first bite of the kidney pie I ordered at a British themed pub. I placed the order expecting it to be made of kidney beans because I was sure nobody would be so insane as to Frankenstein a cherished baked good with the animal equivalent of a used Britta filter. Leave it to the Brits to defile the sweet wholesome goodness of pie with something as bitter and wretched as kidney meat.

Anyway, I digress, but I knew my wife was laughing her head off at my little joke... quietly on the inside, as is often the case. She put on a hot-but-classy red dress, and I wore a jacket and tie even though I was pretty sure that was overkill. This was Napa Valley, after all, and I asserted that there was a fair chance there could be "a relaxed dress code" because of the restaurant's location nestled in the middle of California vineyards.

We arrived at a few minutes early and decided to browse down the road at one of those quaint wine country shops that sells things like $200 coat racks made out expired wine barrel husks. We told the nice saleswoman where we were headed, and she insisted we couldn't leave without taking advantage of the French Laundry's wine pairings to every course. We couldn't see how that could work, however, as my wife and I at best fall into the featherweight class in amateur sport drinking, and rarely have more than a glass or two at a meal. Perhaps--to our benefit--the smallish courses might be accompanied by equally smallish drinks, consumed--probably not to our benefit--out of tiny little french wine glasses you're supposed to hold with two fingers while sticking out your pinkie finger. A smallish price would be nice too, as nine (or eleven) glasses would surely add up quickly.

The French Laundry is housed in a quaint and unassuming hundred year old building next to a quaint but perfect French courtyard with meticulous landscaping. There are two floors with maybe a dozen tables each and some small alcoves here and there with additional tables. We were seated in a cozy alcove on the ground floor with two other tables that were currently empty. In front of each seat was a cloth napkin carefully folded into a French triangle and secured with an old fashioned clothespin tastefully bearing the restaurant logo and phone number. Nice touch.

We were presented with a leather folder that contained printed menus and a French iPad that housed the wine list. There were actually three menus that day, one Chef's Tasting Menu, a Vegethusiast (i.e. not quite vegetarian), and a special seasonal menu. Our Head Server (I say "head" because we counted a total of five people who actually waited on us in various ways that night) cheerfully described every dish on the Chef's Tasting Menu, and we made our selections in enthusiastic anticipation of a great meal.

Before receiving deliverance of our food, our Sommelier came by and asked us for our wine selections.  Avoiding embarrassing ourselves with our "winaïveté" we asked he select for us; a white for me, and a red for the birthday girl.  I got a German Reisling, and she got... er... something red.

#1 SALMON CORONETS - The food did not disappoint. The first appetizer dish wasn't on any of the menus but is apparently a regular favorite.  It was a salmon tartare cornet that resembled a small blob of fish meat jelly on a tiny sesame ice cream cone filled with sweet cream.  It tasted even better than that sounds. It was a refreshing start that combined two of my favorite tastes--sushi and ice cream--in a tasty and sophisticated ... and French... way..

Shortly after the appetizer arrived, a youngish couple were seated at the table next to us.  They had just gotten married they announced proudly to the server.   As the fellow started reflexively taking off his jacket, he was politely asked to keep it on.  I thought perhaps he had unsightly pit stains from hanging drywall earlier in the day or something, but realized that must be restaurant policy. I guess there was no relaxed dress code after all, and I was basking in my smugness of both bringing a jacket and tie and not having thought of taking either one off before sitting down.  The new groom was a chef on the East coast, it turns out, and the couple had planned their entire wedding around coming this very restaurant.

#2 GOUGERES - Also not on the menu were these small tasty round pastries filled with Gruyère cheese.  Rich and tastly insides around a delicate and crunchy shell, they were definitely enough to get the palette warmed up and ready for more.

#3 BUTTERNUT SOUP - The first real courses arrived at last, ones we both respectively placed at the top of an amazing night of dishes.  My wife had a butternut soup as a substitute for shellfish, and found it hard not to lick the remnants out of the cup when she was done.

OYSTER AND PEARLS - This consists of Island Creek oysters and White Sturgeon caviar on "Sabayon" of Pearl tapioca base. The saltiness of the caviar perfectly complemented the creaminess of the oysters and subtle sweetness of the tapioca in a way that was just magical.

#4 - BREAD PASTRY ROLL - Next, we got served fresh bread rolls.  While they probably don't count as a real course on their own, French Laundry doesn't do anything half way. We were served two types of freshly made butter, the first from the local "Animal Farm" (where some butters are apparently more equal than others) and the second from a place I don't recall but is probably hand churned from milk of purebred French pygmy cows.  Being in Napa, most of the ingredients are locally sourced, and the restaurant even grows many of its own veggies in a garden across the road.

Periodically during the evening, our Bread Server also came by to offer us additional selections from a plate of fresh mini loafs. We had our choice of a mini baguette ("French" of course), mini sourdough, mini multi-grain, and mini pretzel (though I thought the pretzel bread really qualified as super-sized since it was like a soft pretzel only bigger...and not pretzel shaped).

#5 - MOULARD DUCK FOIS GRAS EN TERRINE - The next dish for me was the Foie Gras, which reads like it should be pronounced "phooey grass" and be something you ask the French laundry to scrub off the knees of your child's mime pants. Instead, spoken correctly as "fwah-grah" it reminded me of the unintelligible sound all the adults make when they speak in Charlie Brown holiday specials. The Fois Gras was another one of my favorites, richly sweet and not at all bitter (considering it's made of duck liver fat), and well worth the $25.54 IMHO.

The Fois Gras is served with English cucumber relish, pickled pearl onions, burgundy mustard, and bottomless brioche toast points that reminded me of the cheesy toast as the Sizzler, but tastier, smaller and of course more French.  As the brioche is to be eaten warm, the Brioche Server replaced my toast with new warm ones when I mistakenly took too long to eat them all and made the faux pas of letting them approach dangerously close to room temperature.

Of course the Fois Gras came with three types of salt to sprinkle on it: Montana "Jurassic" salt from an ancient inland sea, greenish Japanese Sea Brine, and a Parisian Grey rocky salt that I don't quite recall but am sure it was extraordinary.

CHICKPEA CROQUETTES - My wife got the chickpea croquettes, which looked like little French pine cones that she insisted was worlds better tasting.  They came with avocado, fava tips, orange in a charred eggplant puree.

As we waited for our next course, we glanced around and our neighbors at the next table.  They were a course or two behind us but seemed to already be taking the lead in the wine department. I guess they decided to try the full wine pairing experience. We recalled from the wine list that wines by the glass were about $47 each, so we figured the dinner must a wedding present. I was in no hurry to finish my first glass.

#6 GRILLED PAVE OF SPANISH MACKEREL - The next dish was the fish course.  I got the mackerel with serrano ham, artichokes and arugula, while my wife got the sea bass. The fish was perfectly prepared, but I definitely had fish envy when I tried my wife's sea bass, which was moist, buttery tasting, and even more exceptional.

About this time, a nicely dressed older couple joined us at the third table in our romantic alcove. We didn't think anything of it, but were surprised to see the gentleman get up and quietly leave after ten or so minutes, followed by the lady a few minutes later.

"Sticker shock!" we overheard the waiter explain to our lone surviving neighbors. We inquired ourselves and found out that the older couple were returning after having last visited French Laundry when it was a different (and no doubt more affordable) restaurant of the same name back in the 70's. We were told that the building had once indeed been a French steam laundry, and hence the origins of the current name.  It had also at other times been both a saloon and brothel, though it was unclear whether this was at the same time.  This newly found knowledge started us conjecturing about the prior configuration and use of our small alcove, and we amused ourselves by noting that it was about the right size for a few pieces of furniture and one well used bed. No doubt there was a more relaxed dress code back then.

#7 SWEET BUTTER-POACHED MAINE LOBSTER "FRICASSEE" - I've always thought of lobster as a "carrier food" meaning that it has little taste or character of its own but acts primarily as a delivery mechanism for butter, much as potato skins act as a delivery mechanism for bacon bits or Keanu Reeves acts as a delivery mechanism for dialogue which--if there is truly Mercy in the universe--does not require any use of an English accent.

The lobster in my next dish, however, was tender and tasty in its own right.  Accompanied by Hobbs' bacon, San Marzano tomato compote, romaine lettuce and ranch dressing.  It spoiled me forever more.

Alas, by comparison from now on, lobster anywhere else will be just a giant bug that eats dirt at the bottom of the ocean... smothered in butter. I guess with butter it would still be okay.

#8 LIBERTY FARM PEKIN DUCK - Next was the Best Duck Ever, apparently straight from Pekin, France. Tender and subtle on the outside, seared and crunchy yet delicate on the outside, it was accompanied by garden turnips and Pearson's Farm pecans.

At this point, the new bride next to us was probably on her fifth or sixth drink, leading here to be pleasantly chatty. I decided to follow her lead and live on the edge with a second drink of my own.  In retrospect, I probably should have asked the Sommelier to pair something appropriate this point in the meal, but instead showed my lack of sophistication and just asked for another Reisling.

My wife had had enough wine for the evening, however, and excused herself to visit the French Restroom. As soon as she left, our Napkin Server replaced her napkin with a clean, folded one. Our Bathroom Server already knew she had left her seat, and had already appeared at the top of the stairs, ready to direct her to an available restroom.

#9 SNAKE RIVER FARMS "CALOTTE DE BOEUF GRILLEE" - The next course was some of the Best Beef Steak I've Ever had.  It shared a plate with brisket pierogi (a kind of Polish pot-sticker), king trumpet mushroom, Arrowleaf spinach, Nantes carrots, and Bordelaise sauce. Everyone knows what steak tastes like.  Just imagine it better from the folks that invented fries.  We were starting to get really full at this point, and I "had to" help my wife finish her portion.  Yum.

#10 ANDANTE DAIRY "PARTITA" - I didn't get a picture of it, but the next dish was a cheese plate, and the only dish we didn't really care for.  The cheese was soft and had a strong smoky (stinky) flavor, which cheese connoisseurs would probably appreciate but was well above my "cheesophistication" level.  It was accompanied by sides of Michigan sour cherries and candied pine nuts, which we ate instead.

#11 CREAM YOGURT SHERBET - With toasted oats, pomegranate, Oxalis, and Osmanthus "Nuage".  The ice cream, oats, and pomegranate we all delicious, but I have no idea what a "nuage" is.  Wikipedia says that Oxalis and Osmanthus of flowers, however, so it must of been that lump of fluffy light stuff.on the side that tasted like a bit of flower flavored foam.  

#12 MEYER LEMON PARFAIT - Our third dessert was a plate of full on sweets, with French poppy seed ice cream, French Sicilian pistachios, and French Oregon huckleberries.  We were running as low on stomach capacity as I am now of complimentary food adjectives, but is was too good to leave any on the plate.

#13 SPONGE CAKE - Being a birthday celebration, we were pleasantly surprised with a small sponge cake topped with a lit candle and chocolate wafers to celebrate the occasion. 

#14 COFFEE AND DOUGHNUTS - Even though we were stuffed at this point, we were treated to one final desert of cinnamon sugared doughnut holes, candied macadamia nuts, and a “Cappuccino Semifreddo” which resembled a frothy coffee flavored ice cream.  We downed the cappuccinos (being mindful to properly stick out our pinkie fingers while doing so), and tastefully pocketed the nuts and doughnut holes for later, being careful to do so in the most sophisticated way.

If that weren't enough, after our meal, we were presented with a gift bag with numerous celebratory take-home items, including copies of the menus, handmade truffles, shortbread cookies, and chocolate. We also tossed in the clothespins figuring if they didn't want us to take them they wouldn't have printed their phone numbers onto them. I supposed the phone numbers could be there for a Good Samaritan to call after rescuing one from thieving former patrons, but we decided they would have a better life if liberated them from their daily napkin holding duties.

When we were done, the evening's tab approached $700, but we didn't regret it one bit.  In fact, we are already scheming for another excuse for which we can again experience the Best Restaurant in the World.

PS: for a more thorough description of the food, see my wife's blog