Finally, The Big Eat – Part III: The French Laundry

We chose not to photograph inside the restaurant. Enjoy the pics of the grounds.

Day three in Yountville started with a modest breakfast in the hotel. In anticipation for our big dinner at The French Laundry, we enjoyed a relatively light lunch at Hurley’s, dining on olive oil poached tuna niçoise and Crab Louis salads. Both hit the spot without being over filling. We thought it best to go into dinner without hunger headaches and the salads were a refreshing departure from the big meals of earlier restaurant visits. After a long walk around the small town of Yountville and a trip to the sauna and steam room at the Spa Villagio, we were ready to sit and eat for the next three hours. Our meal at The French Laundry would soon be a memory and we wanted it to be perfect.

Reservations were set for 8:45. Arriving a few minutes early, the host seated us in the front room while our table was being prepared. The French Laundry is a model of service, as you should expect, and they work very hard to make sure every guest feels as though they should be there. As it turned out, we waited with a certain celebrity couple (Nicole Richie and Joel Madden –Happy Anniversary!) who did a very good job of keeping a low profile thanks to the discretion of the host. [We’re assuming TMZ is no longer interested in something that happened over a month ago, with no pictures.]

The French Laundry's garden with a view of the Napa Valley hills.

The restaurant is divided into three small dining rooms, one downstairs and two upstairs. We were seated upstairs with four other tables, variously populated with couples and groups, most celebrating some sort of special occasion. We were seated at a large round table next to one another with a view of the other guests giving us an opportunity to “see how it’s done” for those who were seated earlier.

The wine list is 112 pages long and is presented at the table in iPad form, open and ready for your review. We love to drink wine, but we don’t love wine as much as the people who composed the remarkable list. The sommelier patiently helped us reduce our choices to a couple of light reds, each in the $100 range. We selected a delightful French burgundy that we nursed throughout the meal. It was just enough and nicely suited to the evening’s menu.

The first bites, or amuse bouches,  arrive in the form of small, warm, cheesy, one-bite gougère. The gougères are quickly followed by the now ubiquitous Salmon Tartar Cornets – bite-sized dollops of fresh, minced wild salmon atop a light, crisp cone filled with red onion seasoned crème fraîche. The “dish” is gone in two delicious bites. That’s OK, because the meal is just beginning and the real starter was just a few minutes away.

Chef Thomas Keller is known for many things, but the one thing diners at both The French Laundry and Per Se, in Manhattan, have come to expect is his glorious “Oysters and Pearls.” Small, beautiful white covered porcelain bowls arrive warm, filled with delicate Island Creek Oysters swimming in a rich pool of “Sabayon” of pearl tapioca, topped with a remarkably large dollop of white sturgeon caviar. We’d heard about this dish from friends who have dined before at the FL, but we had no idea what to expect. While now “common” to FL and Per Se diners, nothing about this dish says “average” or “pedestrian.” Every bite was as good as the last.

Up next, an interesting Salad of Roasted Hawaiian Hearts of Palm with Petite Radish, Cilantro and Citrus “Vierge.” This precious portion stood out not for the flavor of the hearts of palm (simple, but not memorable), but for the fascinating use of citrus in the vinaigrette. We suspect the kitchen used finger limes to produce the capsules of fresh fruit that popped delicately with each bite.

We supplemented the “salad” course with the Moulard Duck “Foie Gras en Terrine” served with Cippolini Onions, Oregon Huckleberry and Celery Branch. The restaurant is known for its flawless execution, evidenced by the mid-course swap out of warm brioche toast. On cue, our server deftly removed the half-eaten portion of toast and set a new, warm piece of toast down to accompany the remainder of the terrine. We were impressed!

A beautiful head of cabbage.

The fish course consisted of Sauteed Fillet of Gulf Coast Red Snapper with Jingle Bell Peppers, young Fennel, Niçoise Olive, Arugula and Noilly Prat dry vermouth (adding vermouth to sauce is a tip we learned from Julia Childs). The fish, tender and oceanic, paired beautifully with the subtle Noilly Prat. Here again, the sauce was the standout.

Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster “Fricassée” came next with Hobbs’ Bacon, Red Wine-Braised Cabbage, Chestnuts, Tokyo Turnips and “Beurre Rouge.” Lobster, once a peasant food and used as fertilizer, is now king of the seafood chain. The smokiness of the bacon played nicely with the crustacean. We could have eaten more, but then, more was to come.

Our next course stands out as one of the evening’s greatest successes: Georges Bank Sea Scollop with Sunchokes, Piedmont Hazelnuts, Fig Compote, Red Ribbon Sorrel and Guinness-Chocolate Sauce. That’s right, Guinness and chocolate in a sauce with scallop. We get the affinity between the two, but with shellfish? Seriously?!? This one blew us away. The scallop was grand! Seared to a perfect crust, tender and barely cooked at its center, this was a scallop to remember. Swiping a bite through the sauce added complexity without overwhelming the sweet, briny morsel. Our first thought was that we wanted more sauce. However, that might have overwhelmed the scallop and then we would have ended up with a chocolate dipped scallop. Less is definitely more with the sauce for this dish!

The friendly chicken.

Next up, a glorious Four Story Hill Farm “Poularde” with Baby Beet, Tardivo Radicchio, Walnuts, Watercress and “Sauce Périgourdine.” Sophie, one of our charming servers, assured us that this chicken didn’t come from the FL hen house nestled among the garden greens across the street from the restaurant. Good thing too, because Jason had a bonding experience with one of the curious hens the day before and we couldn’t bear the thought of noshing on one of those lovely ladies. The meat was savory and richly satisfying, balanced by the bitter radicchio and spicy cress.

What came next will be remembered as one of the evening’s biggest surprises. “Tripe a la Provençale” in a sauce of San Marzano Tomatoes, Capers, Black Kale and “Pain de Campagne” arrived with our curiosity piqued. Steve learned that Thomas Keller is particularly fond of this “scrap” meat when he read Grant Achatz’ (Alinea chef and former sous chef with the FL) book life, on the line, so we were excited to see it on this tasting menu. Tiny pieces of extraordinarily tender tripe stewed in a simple tomato sauce couldn’t have been more spectacular. We’ve only shared tripe once or twice before at one of SF’s taco trucks, just to say we tried it. And now that we have a taste for it again, we’ll be certain to give tripe another try, maybe at a taco truck, fine restaurant, or maybe even at home (a future blog post in the making).

Elysian Fields Farm “Cote D’Agneau,” Chanterelle Mushrooms, Nantes Carrot, Roasted Mizuna and Madras Curry shocked us not only because of its delicate flavor, but also because of the scale of the portion. This was a large lamb chop and the kitchen didn’t skimp on a thing. The meat was unusually “mild” and the fat … well, we could have eaten more and it took some restraint to resist the temptation to gnaw on the bone when all was said and done.

We’re now starting to get that over sated feeling, as I’m sure you, the reader are too. This is not a good thing because we still have cheese and dessert to come and we want, or rather NEED, to enjoy it. The cheese course consisted of a warm bowl of Andante Dairy “Nocturnes” served with Yukon Gold Potato, Flowering Quince and Burgundy Truffles. A ripe, sheep’s milk cheese, the Nocturnes represents some of the best local cheese making to be found. The standout of this dish was the potato. Cut to the tiniest dice, the crunchy toasty bits were packed with earthy flavor. They paired nicely with the rich cheese and the sweet quince. We confess, this composed cheese dish had more than enough flavor to satisfy any happy glutton.

The rest of the flock.

A palate cleanser of Sour Cherry Sorbet, Coconut “Petit Beurre” and Vanilla Soda took the edge off the rich, ripe cheese course. How were we ever going to get through two desserts and all the other lovely sweets we knew were coming at the conclusion of the meal?

First dessert consisted of Alpaco “Mousse Au Chocolat,” Spice Pudding, “Panna Cotta,” Fuyu Persimmon and Almond “Glacée.” Whoa! The marvel of this dish was the cylinder of panna cotta lying on its side, holding its shape as it gleamed and sparkled in the light of the dining room. How did they do that? Our guess, from watching way too many cooking shows, molecular gastronomy. Silky and cool, this one reminded us just how satisfying panna cotta can be.

We also selected the “Pommes Anna” served with Funnel Cake, “Pruneaux d’Agen,” Rum “Anglaise” and Salted Caramel Ice Cream. This was a beautiful dessert. The apple was sliced ever so thin, stacked into a multi-layer round and cooked to tender perfection. The funnel cake was a delicate, playful companion to the sweet apple. Salted caramel ice cream, now available everywhere (even homemade in our freezer), added just the right amount of richness, though we were finally at our limit and barely finished.

Some lovely blueberries that will one day be on the menu.

The menu complete, we sipped the last of our wine and savored the recent memory of the fifteen or so things we’d just eaten. Our server returned to the table with a “special treat” of coconut cake – a congratulatory gesture from the kitchen to say Happy Anniversary (19 years! We met when we were in preschool.). We know the staff is prepared to help lots of diners celebrate special occasions given the likelihood that many of the guests on any given evening have made this special pilgrimage to honor an important occasion. Nevertheless, we felt personally recognized by a group of professionals who care deeply about the service they provide.

Next came the restaurant’s signature “Frozen Capuccino,” a creamy mousse of coffee topped with whipped cream. That’s right, more cream … and chocolate … and sugar. And then a tray of house made chocolate truffles, each with its own uniquely flavored ganache filling. Oh, and a bowl of crunchy, chocolate covered macadamia nuts. No lie. We tasted a couple of nuts and promptly threw in the towel. Not another bite. Any more and we would be miserable beyond redemption. A cup of coffee was all that we could muster at this point in the evening. We asked our server to box up the truffles and the rest of the nuts.

Our goodie bag and a few extras from Bouchon bakery.

Before leaving, we were presented with a bag that contained our boxed up goodies as well as a couple of bags of short bread cookies. A copy of the evening’s menu is delivered along with the bill and the night finally comes to an end. It was about 11:30 when our server invited us to join him in the kitchen to take a look. We gathered our things and headed downstairs where we waited for another group to complete their kitchen tour before heading in. We were most fortunate to get some one-on-one time with Executive Sous Chef Philip Tessier who graciously congratulated us on our anniversary and answered our questions about the kitchen. This was a memorable end to an unforgettable evening.

Stuffed to the gills, we made our way back to the hotel in a cold light rain. Yountville was quiet and sparkling. Our food holiday was now complete and our bellies were full. Three days of total indulgence now behind us, it was time to return to the real world. Damn!

The Big Eat – Part I

At least once in every food-obsessed person’s lifetime, the opportunity to go absolutely nuts must be seized. This has been an amazing year for us and we’re celebrating our good fortune by indulging in what may be our most epic culinary splurge – ever! It’s Friday, December 9, 2011 and we’re sitting in our beautiful room in Yountville, California’s Vintage Inn, just steps from Ad Hoc, Bouchon and one of the world’s greatest temples of food, The French Laundry. Yountville is a diner’s paradise, chuck full of the best food California has to offer and we’re here to eat as much of it as we can stomach in three days.

Journey begins...

We started this weekend’s celebration with lunch at Chef Michael Chiarello’s Bottega. Tucked away in a discreet, but easy to get to spot on Washington Street (arguably the globes most prestigious culinary address), Bottega fits right in with the stylized European-inspired architecture common to this short stretch of a town with its rich, earth colored interiors and old world sensibility – entirely appropriate in the heart of California’s wine country.

Our meal started with a nice hunk of crusty bread and a bit of olive oil embellished with bits of hard cheese and herbs. The antipasti menu had us agonizing over so many choices, but we managed to settle on the Wood Grilled Octopus and the Lamb & Egg. Both were excellent. The octopus was served with a slice of olive oil braised potato, pickled red onions and a salsa verde. While the dish was delicious, one of us was less impressed than the other because of his near obsessive adoration of the many octopus dishes we devoured in Spain this summer. Now nothing seems to meet his high bar.

The Lamb & Egg was amazing! The kitchen’s “house made” lamb sausage is served with a pepperonata (caramelized peppers) and a crispy soft boiled egg, red endive and smoked olive oil poached enoki mushrooms. The creamy, soft-yolked eggs are briefly boiled then lightly battered and finally quickly deep-fried. The crisp, slightly bitter endive tempered the richness of the egg yolk and sausage. The mushrooms, while texturally perfect, were a bit flavorless and superfluous with everything else going on in the dish.

Lamb & Egg; Wood Grilled Octopus; Red Wheat Tagliarini Bolognese; Paprika Oil Marinated Grilled Skirt Steak

Bottega’s pasta menu is inspiring. We opted for the Red Wheat Tagliarini Bolognese. Thicker than spaghetti, the tagliarini was cooked as it should be – toothsome and well seasoned. It came smothered in a rich, meaty sugo of veal, pork and porcini mushroom scented with rosemary and enriched with parmigiano reggiano. We wanted to lick our plates clean once it was gone, but thought better of it. We still had the Paprika Oil Marinated Grilled Skirt Steak to eat, after all, and we didn’t want the rest of the dining room to suffer a couple of poorly mannered chow hounds. The steak arrived just as ordered, medium rare and tender, accompanied by Yukon Gold potato chips, salsa rossa and a pile of arugula.

We washed the meal down with a Trumer Pils and a flight of zinfandels served to represent the diversity of styles available in a wine that has its origins in Croatia. The Italian was light and unremarkable while the Chiarello produced California zinfandel was typical of the region with its big, chewy fruit. The Croatian wine was the star of the trio. We would have been happy with a bottle.

Service at Botegga was spot on – informed, efficient and friendly. Our meal was memorable and a fine beginning to a long weekend of grand dining.

Ad Hoc

Our second course.

Our Friday dining splurge didn’t stop with Bottega. After lunch, we did a little shopping before returning to the hotel for an evening wine tasting and a walk. We needed to keep moving to work up an appetite for our next big meal at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc, a decidedly casual destination that serves hearty, four course, prix fix meals that change nightly.

Our first course was a salad of baby mixed greens, toasted sunflower seeds, shaved shallots, pickled baby fennel and cauliflower, olives, anchovies and crispy capers, dressed in a red wine vinaigrette. The Snake River Farms Pork Loin gave us pause until it arrived. The savory, juicy pork was surprisingly delicious as were the accompanying black eyed peas, roasted baby beets, toasted farrow and braised chard. In spite of all we’d eaten up to the point of the pork loin, we wanted to lick the pan it was served in and we still had two courses to go.

Salad of Baby Mixed Greens; Ubriaco; Sanke River Farms Pork Loin; Tiramisu

Our third course, a wine washed raw cow’s milk cheese, was as rich as you might imagine made all the more so by the accompanying paladin toast and black trumpet mushrooms. We couldn’t eat it all. When the tiramisu arrived at the table, we nearly fell out of our seats. Desert was presented in a big soup bowl that was filled to the rim with mascarpone and house made ladyfingers. We were ready to cry uncle, but we dove in anyway. While tasty, it wasn’t amazing. The cookies were tough to cut through with a spoon. It’s a small complaint, and after all we’d eaten, it would have taken nothing less than perfect to get us to finish desert. We simply couldn’t this time.

A Domaine Dupeuble Pere et Fils Beaujolais Nouveau washed the meal down, aided by an end-of-meal espresso. Our hats off to the staff at Ad Hoc. Our server couldn’t have been more charming.