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Nick M

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  1. You can actually see the photos I took on the previous page. Most point and shoots have manually adjustable exposure settings (which I used for the indoor shots) - I thought they came out great for snap shots. They are also almost totally silent and have got to the point where ours is smaller than a deck of cards. I'd agree with you on the SLR's though - I wouldn't want to be subjected to bursts of shutter clicks while trying to immerse myself in the moment.
  2. We arrived early last summer so we could meander through the gardens and take photos. During the meal I took one photo - but it was after we had finished eating. On the way out I got to see the kitchen and snapped a photo there. So long as your flash and camera audio is off I say snap away... but just remember to focus on living the experience rather than recording it.
  3. Nick M

    Veal stock

    Although I've tried many veal stock recipes (including Keller's) and have eaten at The French Laundry, I have a much more basic approach. Browning the bones (and bits of flesh on the bones) brings out all sorts of flavors you simply don't get with a white stock. It's like making coffee with unroasted beans. I make my stocks with bones and water. First I rinse the bones if bloody, then I roast the bones (tossed with a bit of canola oil), then they go in a big stock-pot covered with a few inches of water. Simmer for 16-20 hours, strain through a wire mesh and de-grease if necessary. For veal stock I normally reduce it to a glacé. So 24 pounds of bones which produce about 3 gallons of good stock becomes 7-8 cups of glacé. I then use the Julia method of freezing it in ice cube trays (and transferring to a ziplock bag) which produces easy scalability of use - from a pan sauce for one to a giant pot of braised beef. If I want straight stock I simply melt out a cube of glace in some water. I like the the basics to be basic. I might not want the flavors of tomato or thyme in a dish that I use my stock for. The end result is a deep-brown sticky puddle of love.
  4. Nick M

    Steak at home

    I don't have any local über-options for prime meat, so I widen the gamut of possible cuts. Under ideal conditions I favor Rib-Eye, but a cut which is laced with thick bands of fat is generally passed over at my local butcher or Whole Foods. I generally consider Rib-Eye, NY-Strip, and Tenderloin. Sometimes I'll find a decently marbled tenderloin and opt for that. Sometimes I'll find that nice puck of Rib-Eye with proper marbling. Usually I end up with a good NY-Strip. I always go boneless, since the bone insulates and creates a gradient of "doneness" throughout the cut which I don't like. I trim off any excessive fat, and then let it sit on the counter for an hour or two to warm up. I prefer hot charcoal for my grilling. The steak gets rubbed down with some canola oil, kosher salt, and black pepper - then onto the grill (with lid on). One 45º rotation for the "pretty" hash marks, one flip, and then off to rest for 5-10 minutes. I like my steak cooked until the protein has a chance to begin to constrict - none of that gelatinous center, but thoroughly red throughout (as far reaching to the surface as possible). I find it off-putting to chew steak so under-cooked that the center hasn't yet developed any texture. Often I eat as is. When I get fancy (for me at least) I'll make a nice Bordelaise with some Burgundy, homemade Glace De Viande, bone marrow and shallot. Serve it with a round of homefried potatoes, some sauteed mushrooms, and micro-greens tossed in the board drippings with a drop of red wine vinegar. If I find a great deal on poorly marbled Rib-Eye/NY-Strip/Tenderloin I'll trim/cut it into cubes, and marinate it in canola oil, lemon juice, oregano, garlic (mashed to paste), salt and pepper. Then I'll grill it kebab-style with red onion and bell peppers.
  5. I'm beyond impressed by this thread. You people have taken things to the next level without a doubt. It makes my bagged cubes of glace de viande seem like fast food...
  6. Oh I understand this, but often the addition of acids to many stews is done in an attempt to make up for overcooking and the resultant blandness - such as a beef stew cooked in a crock-pot on high for 12 hours while someone is at work. I sometimes braise chicken quarters in a thai-style red curry, and then spike it with some lime juice at the end - looking for that particular flavor profile. But when it comes to a good western braised beef (similar to a Bourgogne or New England Pot Roast) I find that the wine I add (along with proper-length cooking) results in the proper flavor profile without the addition of vinegar or citrus at the end.
  7. For my braised beef I cut the shoulder into large pieces and brown them very well. Proper salt and pepper application throughout the process goes a long way. Then I thoroughly caramelize lots of shallots for sweetness, add a little roux, and build the sauce with pinot noir, mushroom stock (just ground dried-porcini in hot water) and a good amount of homemade glace de viande (which I make a couple times a year and freeze in ice-cube trays). Add the beef back in and simmer for 2-3 hours in the oven (covered). I don't use any herbs - even thyme. When it comes out I adjust with salt and pepper again, and serve with good crusty bread and the pinot that I used in the sauce. I've found that "dead" flavor comes about when you cook the braise too long. about 60-75% of the fluid used in the sauce is wine, so I normally find no need to add any additional acid - it's just right. ----- I enjoy dill, but I'm also very sensitive to cilantro. I definitely cannot handle eating whole cilantro leaves, although I find it's flavor necessary in things like guacamole - just not as much as most people use. I was once served a cilantro pesto, and couldn't finish it. I felt like I had a mouth-full of palmolive for the rest of the night!
  8. Simon - Glad to hear you enjoyed yourself! Carolyn - It's a shame that they know the bread is sub-par, but still choose to serve it. The "Pretzel Roll" we had towards the beginning was wonderful, as were the nut breads towards the end - but the rolls served in the middle of the meal were terrible. We were talking about going back when I graduate in a few years (for my graduation gift), but now I'm thinking about hitting Per Se instead to try that out (given we're on the East Coast). With the savings on flights, we might try to get another tough reservation as well.
  9. I'm looking for details. Traditions, new trends, etc.
  10. To be from New England (either natively or a resident for a reasonable length of time), and prepare traditional New England dishes in a restaurant setting.
  11. Every continent, country, and cuisine had it's chefs. What defines a New England chef? As a foodie from Central/Western Massachusetts, I have unique experiences and connections to the soil beneath my feet that lie in tradition and the constant flux of cultural and culinary evolution. From salt preserved goods to baked beans and Portuguese fusion, what defines us? I'd be interested to hear the experiences and memories of old, the opinions of late, and the philosophy of new.
  12. Thanks for the comments guys! The quiet I noticed at first was an overpowering quietness. A funeral home is what I associated my surroundings with (it's the closest relation I could make from my sensations). The inside of the French Laundry is similar to someone's home, everyone is dressed nicely, voices were simple whispers, and everyone sat away from one another waiting for a quiet-speaking director to greet them. Once the food began to arrive and the wine flowed it livened up a bit. To me, food is something that evokes emotion that should be celebrated and shared with others. To sit in a beautiful place, smelling beautiful things - eating wonderful food, drinking great wine - art for the ear was the only thing that remained absent. I wouldn't have minded some quiet background music - perhaps some local jazz, chamber music, or classic French melodies - but thats just my opinion. It's the type of environment that Thomas Keller desired his patrons to be immersed in, and I respect that. But it still reminded me of a funeral home...
  13. RAH - Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it. ----- tsquare - I definitely needed the wine list to recall some of the bottles that were overshadowed by the magnificence of the food. I'm not the greatest writer, but I do have the ability to pay attention, make connections, and remember experiences quite well. I also love food... both eating and cooking it -
  14. So my girlfriend Sarah and I spent five days calling the reservation line before we finally got through and booked a table for two. Two weeks ago we flew out to San Francisco for some vacation, culminating with a night at The French Laundry. Dressed to impress (as much as a middle class couple could - threads from JC Penny and shoes from Pay Less) we arrived at The French Laundry an hour or so before they opened. Yountville is a strange town - a small collection of farmers, commuters, and attractions for the affluent. The downtown area seemed overly sterile by design, like a casino or a state-funded rest area. There is a sense of plasticity to it. The shops sport $4000 leather jackets, blown glass knick-knacks, and an assortment of branded items from Michael Chiarello at his store "Napa Style" (and we did indeed see Michael greeting his customers). It was fairly warm, the forecast said 89, but thankfully there was a nice breeze. We parked our rental (a Prius) and happened upon a very well kept garden. Marking each plot was a sign with the crop's name and "The French Laundry" in large print. Sarah and I had arrived more than an hour early, so we meandered about - our shoes picking up the fine California soil as we pointed out fingerling potatoes, Thai basil, and Serrano chiles. Five o'clock rolled around (our reservation was for the first sitting at five thirty), so we walked across the street to the courtyard and sat on a nice padded bench. The smell of veal stock was in the air. This outdoor waiting area could have been at any restaurant - the gardener had missed a strip of grass near us while mowing, and some of the flowers looked less than their best. A good deal of flies kept our hands waving about. The old building was beautiful - weathered wood, irregular stone, and soft brick. Exceptionally crafted windows with metal fixtures, bronze signage, and a homelike appeal. The additions, unfortunately, were lifeless and had the same plasticity we experienced in much of the rest of Yountville. These are aspects of the restaurant that are excluded from the photos in the cookbook. After fifteen minutes or so, a tall dark woman emerged and brought us each a glass of water. She asked for our names, and returned to the restaurant to “check us in”. Another couple arrived, and they walked to and fro, not exactly sure where to enter. I must admit, the entrance is not immediately apparent and the landscaping doesn’t usher you in a particular direction. A side door opened (to the kitchen I assume), and a cook shuffled towards us. Stopping short, he reached up into the tree above our heads, plucked a bay leaf, and returned to the kitchen – not something you see on a regular basis at your local gastro-pub or bistro. Finally, around five thirty a man came out and asked if we were ready to have dinner. The first thing I noticed was how dark it was. We were seated on the first floor near an empty fireplace in view of a set of stairs to the dining room above. Some rays of natural light filtered down, reflecting off the walls below. But other than that, we had only a low-watt recessed light (asymmetrically focused on our table), and a large white candle. Those amazing windows were closed to contain the air conditioning (jackets are mandatory for men), and the curtains were pulled to block the view of the road, tourists, and other distractions. It took a while for my eyes to adjust. There was no music, speech was in a hushed tone, and we had no connection to the kitchen. I leaned over to Sarah and said, "This feels like a funeral home". I was half-expecting to be ushered into the next room to view the recently deceased. Our waiter introduced himself and asked if we would like some water, perhaps some sparkling water. I answered, "Sure, how about some Gerolsteiner". "Actually we make our own sparkling water sir", he responded. Our glasses were filled and we were presented with menus. We had the option of either a Chef's Tasting Menu, or a Tasting of Vegetables - both nine courses with mignardises. Needless to say, we both chose the former, and decided to order differently when an option was given for a course (to enable a tasting of all dishes). The Chef's Tasting Menu that night consisted of the following: "OYSTERS AND PEARLS" "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar. ~ SALAD OF HEIRLOOM TOMATOES English Cucumbers, Horseradish Mousse and Garden Basil Vinaigrette MOULARD DUCK "FOIE GRAS AU TORCHON" Red Haven Peaches, Espelette-Peach Gelee, Cilantro and Melba Toast (30.00 Supplement) ~ SAUTEED FILLET OF RED MULLET Globe Artichokes, Piquillo Peppers, Arugula and "Bagna Cauda" MARINATED JAPANESE PIKE CONGER Tokyo Turnips, Santa Rosa Plums, Perilla Shoots and "Umeboshi" ~ NEW BEDFORD SEA SCALLOP "POELEE" Belgian Endive, Toasted Hazelnuts, Watercress and Tahitian Vanilla "Aigre-Doux" ~ DEVIL'S GULCH RANCH RABBIT SIRLOIN Wrapped in Hobbs Bacon, Haricots Verts, Yukon Gold Potato, Frisee, and "Sauce Dijonnaise" "CONFIT DE COEUR DE VEAU" Broccolini, Pine Nut "Genoise", Bing Cherries and Balsamic Vinegar Reduction ~ SNAKE RIVER FARMS "CALOTTE DE BOEUF GRILLEE" Sugar Snap Peas, Sweet Carrots, Crispy Beech Mushrooms, Bone Marrow Pudding, and "Sauce Japonaise" ~ GOAT'S LEAP "TOKO" Cauliflower, Marcona Almonds, Green Grapes and Cutting Celery ~ CANTALOUPE SORBET "Muscat de Beaumes de Venise en Gelee" and Compressed Melon ~ "LINGOT DE CHOCOLAT EN MOUSSE DE MALT CROUSTILLANTE" Candied Spanish Peanuts, Popcorn Sherbert and Caramel "REGAL DE FRUITS ROUGES AU ROMARIN" Rosemary Scented Genoa Cake, "Creme Patissiere" and Summer Berries ~ "MIGNARDISES" Next we were offered a tome-like wine list, somewhere between 75 and 100 pages. I flipped through it, identifying a wine here or there that I liked, but by and large it was chicken-scratch in the dark. Besides, The French Laundry employs a sommelier that not only knows the cellar, but also has intimate knowledge of the dishes being served. Sarah and I opted for a 175.00 (each) pairing option that included tableside service by the sommelier. We were asked which types of wines we typically enjoyed, and which ones we tended to avoid (allowing the sommelier to tailor our beverages to both the dishes and our tastes). I mentioned that we drank a lot of Rieslings and Chianti, but tended to avoid big wines like Cabernet Sauvignon. The room we were in also contained two other parties - a table of four and a table of six (most of whom were sporting designer clothing). A woman from one group was complaining to a waiter that she didn't like some of the items on the Prix Fixe menu, and a man was firmly telling the sommelier, "We will be starting with a Cabernet Sauvignon" (who politely tried to advise that a white to accompany the canapés and fish courses might be a good idea). I think this earned Sarah and I a bit of favor, as we seemed to get first pours from bottles that catered to our tastes before they made their way to many of the other customers. And so, just like that, the meal began to arrive. We were poured a flute of Shramsberg Blanc De Blancs (2004), one of Napa Valley's versions of Champagne. To accompany this were two small Gruyere Gougeres on a small silver tray. These lovely balls of love were crisp on the outside and filled with a warm matrix of dough and cheese. The silver tray disappeared, and a two-piece tray was assembled at our table that contained what appeared to be two small ice cream cones - sesame studded cornets filled with a red onion crème fraiche and salmon tartare. The textures were fantastic, but I felt that the red onion was a bit over-powering as it dominated the delicate flavor of the salmon. As a side note, these canapés were not on the menu - just a couple of the "bonus" items that were part of the experience. Next came the first course, and the dish that The French Laundry is famous for - "Oysters and Pearls", the only permanent course on the menu. Served in a small, cupped depression atop three plates, I looked down at it with great anticipation. My spoon (carved from mother of pearl no less) dipped through the beurre blanc - down into the oyster juice sabayon picking up a tapioca pearl, piece of oyster, and then returning through a dollop of white sturgeon caviar. It coated my tongue like ice cream - a warm mixture that tasted of butter, chives, and the sea. My palate was challenged a bit, as I'm not used to having warm caviar, and oysters are not my favorite seafood. By the time I finished I had decided that this dish was not for me. I love food from the ocean, and eat everything from sushi to chowder, but this dish just didn’t strike me the way it does others. We had finished our Blanc de Blancs as well, so the flutes and plates were whisked away. A warm roll was brought to each of us. It smelled, looked, and tasted similar to a pretzel, but had the flaky texture of a biscuit (and it was absolutely superb). Along side it came a classic Vermont butter (my butter of choice) and a thick European style butter from nearby Petaluma. There was also a tray containing various salts – a gray sea salt from Brittany, France (Fleur de Sel), a pink salt from Hawaii, and a salt claimed to be 40 million years old from a copper mine in Montana. This I kind of laughed at – I mean really, it’s just a bit silly and over the top. That set the pace for things to come. Two new glasses arrived at the table, and we were each poured a different wine to accompany our second course. A ’07 Chateau Predeaux Rosé to accompany the salad of heirloom tomatoes, and a ’07 late harvest Sauvignon Blanc from Anthill Farms to match the richness of the Foie Gras. Then came the plates. From an enthusiastic foodie’s perspective, I was immediately drawn to the painstaking efforts involved with the preparation of even a “simple” tomato salad. Perfectly peeled heirloom cherry tomato varietals, marinated strips of cucumber that were pressed to remove any excess liquid, a perfectly balanced basil vinaigrette, and ever-tasty crème fraiche infused with the forward scent of horseradish. It was amazing, and the perfect dish for a warm summer day. The Foie Gras dish was, well, it was Foie Gras. At almost an inch thick, this was a serious piece of luxury (and fetched a 30.00 supplement on the bill). It was pinkish-brown and cold - not the traditional means of preparation most Americans are used to (including myself). Cold items don’t impact the palate with the same flavor and aroma that warm dishes do. This was cold… refrigerator cold. It tasted thick and flat, and lacked some of the maillard flavors that are brought about by searing it. Slowly it melted on my tongue, and it’s flavor came through. The wine pairing was spot-on – thick and fairly sweet, the grapes having been left on the vine to shrivel and concentrate. The acid cut through the fat of the Foie, and had aromas of stone fruit to complement the peaches. I did push aside the Melba Toasts that were thin enough to see through, crumbled in my hands, and served little to enhance the dish. But as said above, Foie Gras is Foie Gras. I appreciated having the opportunity to experience it in a new way. Just as I set down my fork, a waiter appeared (seemingly from no where), and whisked away the dishes. I looked up from the little world illuminated by our candle, and began to analyze the room. Only four tables, but there were at least three staff in the room at almost all times. I made eye contact with a waiter who quickly shifted his glance. They stood near the narrow hallway leading to the kitchen (known as the pass), and occasionally looked back to whisper messages. All the waiters seemed to cover all the tables. This made for an inconsistent familiarity of face as the meal progressed, but the instant our plates were clear, our glasses approached empty, or something was needed, they appeared like phantoms. Part of this illusion I soon concluded was due to the food. As the plates approach, your focus gravitates to them and peripheral vision simply shuts down. It’s just you and the food. It’s also how three hours of dining goes by in what seems like 45 minutes. The sommelier appeared with an old bottle. “A 1981 Eitelsbacher Karthaüserhofberg Riesling. This wine will pair well with your next two dishes”. Sarah and I drink a lot of Rieslings, but we have never drunk any Rieslings more than four or five years old (outside of an experiment of mine that ended in disappointment when a ten year old bottle I saved tasted absolutely terrible). As he left, another waiter approached with a basket of small breads the size of dinner rolls. There were four varieties, so Sarah and I each started with a different one. These left something to be desired. Bread is important – very important, and the ball was dropped here with no excuse. After a few unsuccessful attempts at chewing the leather-like hide I set it down. Sarah worked on hers out of politeness, but then again, she is a much more pleasant person than I. This bread had been sitting around for quite awhile – something I did not expect in a restaurant of this caliber. These were the sorts of things that I would make breadcrumbs or croutons from at home. They were not on par with the “Pretzel Roll” we had indulged upon moments ago. It’s expected that even the most elite restaurant will receive its caveats, but a kitchen laden with so much French technique should be capable of better bread. The third course approached. I started with the Pike Conger, and Sarah received the Red Mullet. Mine was a cold preparation, similar to ceviche. Our waiter “warned” us that the Pike Conger contained bones, and that this “tooth” was part of the experience of eating this fish caught north of Hokkaido Island. I was expecting a gentle crunch as my teeth sank into the delicate flesh, but was taken aback as my jaw shifted causing my teeth to gnash. A second bite to verify the bones was all I needed to pass the plate over to Sarah with a warning of my own. But the mullet was an entirely different dish. It was perfectly cooked, and tasted of the Mediterranean (undoubtedly aided by the anchovy used in the thin sauce beneath it). The artichoke hearts were a complement, and the peppery arugula provided a welcomed contrast in both texture and flavor - an excellent melding of Southern France and Northern California. It’s no secret that the sourdough breads and fish stews of the San Francisco Bay Area issue forth harmonics of classic French preparations. This plate was in perfect tune. But the aged Riesling was challenging for me to get around. I like Rieslings because they remind me of autumn in New England. The color of turning maple leaves, and the flavors of a crisp fall afternoon laden with cider, dried summer fruits, and that unmistakable scent in the air - hay, pumpkins, tractors, and fleece. This aged Riesling didn’t bring those qualities; it was complex, and represented snapshots through a different lens that was foreign to me. Unfortunately, I needed more time and more wine to understand it than I had. Now we were both under the impression that this aged Riesling was to last for two courses (both being “fish” ), so Sarah and I had reserved some of the Eitelsbacher Karthaüserhofberg. After the plates were cleared, we were surprised to see the sommelier return with two fresh glasses and another bottle. “This next wine will match your second fish course. I know I said the last one would pair both, but you guys get another”, he said. We were told it was a 2005 Les Tillets White Burgundy (Chardonnay) as he carefully placed each glass and poured us a healthy amount. Sarah gets tipsy quite easily, so I chuckled as I watched that flush smile spread across her face in the candlelight. Now I should mention that these glasses were by no means the mason jar-like stemware you get at the average restaurant. Nor were they semi-fancy big-bowl red and tall white pairings. Each type of wine had a specifically shaped glass to accentuate its body, and properly convey both the aromas to your nose, and the wine to the proper parts of your tongue. I have a limited selection of this type of glassware at home, but we were in territory beyond my normal exposure. As I reached for the aged Riesling (to further delve into it’s complexity), the fourth course arrived – damn. “Ah… now this looks like something I’m quite familiar with” I exclaimed (in my quietest four glasses of wine voice). “New Bedford Sea Scallop for the Sir and Miss from Massachusetts” he announced. Now some people think of perfect Filet Mignon from a carved up Chateaubriand and butter-poached Maine lobster tails when thoughts of luxury surf and turf bounce about. But I’m partial to a nice boneless Rib Eye and what sat before me – a tennis ball sized sea scallop. Perfectly seared, it was paired with a slightly sweet and faintly tangy hazelnut butter that had aromatic hints of fine vanilla. A braised endive with crushed hazelnuts tagged along. It was cooked absolutely perfect, just enough to bring the center through the initial stages of protein constriction creating a faint opacity. Its surface was crisp, and the rest was tender to the plate. The next bite I took included some of the Aigre-Doux. My first eureka at the French Laundry came with course four and the pairing of Sea Scallops with roasted hazelnuts and Tahitian vanilla. It was a combination of flavors I would have never came up with on my own, and demonstrated the pure talent and imagination behind the curtain. The something or other the sommelier had paired with this dish was so eclipsed by my attention to the food that I honestly don’t remember my thoughts on it – or if I had any thoughts at all. It’s said that people are changed after visiting this place, and the waiter could see that look of complete content on my face. “Being from Massachusetts, I have access to and eat fresh scallops like this rather often… but this was absolutely amazing”, I said to him as he cleared the plates. “I’ll pass that along to the Chef de Cuisine sir, thank-you”, he said, as he left towards the kitchen. I finished my two wines, and both Sarah and I got up to use the rest rooms. We were informed that there were bathrooms both in the courtyard and up the stairs in the room above. My guess is that the restrooms out near the gardens are for people who need the Readers Digest, so to speak. Heading up the stairs, I could certainly feel the slight buzz that four glasses of wine lays down. The upstairs of the French Laundry was surprisingly bright, almost like being in a sunroom. It was a completely different environment. We saw people marveling over the same courses we had just finished, but there was more discussion amongst the patrons. It was more family orientated rather than romantic. I assumed that the staff sat people in this way to create a certain mood. A waiter who must have heard Sarah asking for the restroom stood holding the door open for her. The restrooms themselves were standard fancy-pants fare with ribbon-wrapped TP and cloth hand towels. Returning to our table, we saw that someone had cleaned the crumbs, re-aligned all the settings, re-filled our sparkling water, and placed new napkins on our chairs. The bread peddler came around again with the little rawhide balls. Sarah and I chose the remaining two rolls we had yet to try. Again, my roll was like a Rottweiler’s chew toy. I set it aside and looked up to see the Sommelier returning. To accompany our first meat course he chose a 2000 Felsina Chianti Classico Reserva. Chianti, an easy drinking Tuscan wine made primarily from the Sangiovese grape is my favorite red wine. It goes very well with almost all hearty dishes (no pun intended), and is the type of wine you can buy cheap by the pitcher to enjoy with friends and family (of course, you can also buy wallet-busting Chianti as well). I was presented with the Coeur De Veau, or veal heart. It was poached in fat and shaved – showing off a beautiful red coloration. The offal was piled neatly beside a pignolia cake; accompanied by a stalk of broccolini and Bing cherries. A balsamic reduction finished the plate. Now I like to think of myself as a fairly serious foodie that makes his own stocks, glaces, and argues the thermodynamics involved with roasting a chicken. But outside of liver and sweetbreads, offal is fairly unknown territory for me. The heart tasted only the way a well-worked muscle could. The confit preparation ensured it’s tenderness, and I could feel the individual fibers separate in my mouth with little chewing. The fruit and reduced balsamic brought an Italian feel, which the Chianti made even better. As much as I loved the scallop, this was my favorite dish of the night. It was something I have little chance of ever preparing at home, and it tasted amazing. Sarah commented that I might have eaten more than my half as we swapped plates. So before me was the dish presented to Sarah for her first meat course. A moist piece of rabbit sirloin wrapped in bacon, a tiny rib chop (with a tediously frenched bone), and half a kidney. It was good, but the bacon dominated the flavor of the rabbit, and the mustard sauce was simply too bold for such delicate flavor. Again, the plates were cleared and the Sommelier returned with new glasses and a new bottle. Sarah and I were starting to fall behind, as we still had some Chianti left. The sommelier announced the selection as he poured the rich wine into our fresh stemware, a 2002 Ridge Cab/Merlot from the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains. It was time for the best cut of meat on the cow - the Calotte De Boeuf, the small cap of meat sandwiched between layers of fat on the Rib Eye. Beneath it was a spoonful of white pudding, exploding with the flavor and mouth-feel of bone marrow, along with some tempura-like mushrooms and crisp peas and carrots. A soy infused veal demiglace drizzled along the plate was the last component. Some people like gelatinous beef, so rare that it’s almost cool at the center. This beef was cooked perfectly – no gelatinous center, but red through and through. There really isn’t much to say here, it’s a classic. Think of the best steak dinner you’ve ever had, just downscaled in size, and meticulously assembled. We finished our Chiantis, and sipped at the Cab/Merlot. The belly was starting to feel full as our plates were cleared. Then around came the bread man again. “Oh god the bread man”, I said. I was beginning to despise this guy, trouncing around shoving his dried out potatoes at people. But this time he carried small slices of raisin and walnut bread. “Why yes, I think I’ll try a piece – Thank You”, I said with a smile. Sarah kind of rolled her eyes a bit to express how full she was getting, but that didn’t stop her either. The new breads were fantastic. Not only do you eat a lot of courses (interspersed with bread), but also the courses get progressively heavier – not to mention the wines. The next plate was a perfect departure from this trend, a traditional cheese course. Although I wasn’t fond of the cheese (a soft and heady goat varietal), I appreciated its placement, and the time it provided for my meal to settle. A couple wedges of cheese scattered with nibbles of impeccably fresh fruit, vegetables, and nuts. This course came with an exhale, as I sipped some sparkling water and let my mind rest from its constant absorption and analysis. There was a nice pause, and I looked around the room at people marveling (either in appreciation or confusion) at what lay beneath their forks. This place played with every one of your senses – a constant back and forth between raw right-brain exposure and frenzied left-brain thought. Course number eight arrived on cold plates. A quenelle of cantaloupe sorbet next to melon flavored gelatin, and yet more melon – sliced and pressed. The delicate flavor of cantaloupe was concentrated and presented in angles of different texture - Just a few bites, but a powerful simplicity that was refreshing. This was classic French technique at it’s finest - respecting the ingredient, and enhancing it’s natural flavor with proper technique. Our plates were cleared, and the sommelier returned with two different glasses. “For dessert I have for you a 2006 Bouletin Muscat De Beaures De Venise and a 1995 Le Cave Del’Abbe Reuse Banyuls Grand Cru for the Lingot De Chocolat”. I was ready. Dessert is Sarah’s favorite course, so she was go for launch too. Two of the most fantastic deserts I had ever seen were placed before us. I had a magnificent looking finger of chocolate cake layered with mousse and topped with both gold foil and candied Spanish peanuts. Beside it were a quenelle of sherbet, bits of sugared popcorn, and a drizzle of creamy caramel. Sarah had a piece of buttery-looking cake, a dollop of pastry crème, purple sherbet, fresh berries, and multi-colored coulees. I dove right in with a taste of my cake. It was like a creamy, dark chocolate malted milk ball. The peanuts lent a salty-sweet spin, and the caramel was definitely a nice touch. The sherbet tasted remarkably like buttered popcorn! Its very offsetting to experience flavors you don’t normally associate with certain temperatures and textures. I thought it was fantastic. But even more remarkable was the wine. My Le Cave tasted like rich, buttery, caramel popcorn. The pairing was so spot-on, that I called over the sommelier to express my delight and ask for the label. It was truly an amazing combination. Now Sarah is a chocolate girl, so her eyes were on my plate from the beginning. I quite enjoy chocolate myself, but berries are New England staples that have always been dear to me. The Genoa cake was scented with rosemary, perhaps a bit much. The sherbet, fresh berries, cream, and coulees made for the ultimate berry sundae. I criticize the rosemary cake, but I had no trouble polishing it off. The Muscat paired well. So there we sat, basking in the candlelight like two hogs having put down nine courses and seven glasses of wine each. The feeling in the room had shifted to normal talking and laughing as The French Laundry’s wine cellar was put to use. I really had no powers of critical analysis left. When the waiter asked if we would like a hot beverage we pretty much let out a “Why not!” with a smile and a laugh, “We’ll have some cappuccino”. Soon after the waiter returned with, what we thought were our cappuccinos, but were actually a crème brulee and a star anise pot de crème - a big Swedish-Chef looking man with our cappuccinos followed him. Of course the cappuccinos had a mountain of frothed milk, and the creamy coffee below was highly aromatic – but smooth, with no trace of bitterness. Sarah cracked the sugar of the crème brulee as I dipped into the pot de crème. Both dishes soon lay empty at the center of the table - their insides coated with specks of vanilla bean. A waiter brought a dish overflowing with chocolate covered macadamia nuts along with a plate of shortbread cookies filled with honey butter. I thought I was going to die when another waiter returned and placed ice-cold metal squares in front of us on porcelain chargers. He left, and then quickly returned with a giant tray, “Truffles, made here at The French Laundry” we were told. Like children in a candy store we picked one of each and put them on the cold plates. Of course it was then that we realized that we couldn’t actually eat what we took. Capacity had been reached a long time ago, and this was simply bulls trampling the flowerbed. We asked to have it boxed up while we finished our cappuccinos. Le Bill. Obviously this wasn’t an inexpensive experience, and I say experience, because this was more than “Going out to eat”. It came in a black book, hand-written on an old Laundry tag (a nice touch). Gratuities are included, but there is a line for “Additional Gratuities”. Two tasting menus, two wine pairings, tax, and a very humble tip came to 1000.00 even. Some might scoff at this and call patrons of The French Laundry either rich, foolish, or both. To the well off this is a place of status – the place to dine when your private jet brings you into the Valley. To foodies, this is Mecca, and an experience that is often pre-empted by years of practicing many of the dishes and techniques that are executed here with perfection. I first heard about The French Laundry eight years ago, and I regularly pour over the cookbook for inspiration in developing my own style of cooking. Making the dishes at home, and then having them here brings an intense sensation of satisfaction. Our original waiter returned with a goodie bag that included our chocolates, some shortbread cookies, copies of the nights menu, two handwritten lists of the wines we had, the laundry tag bill, and the clothespin souvenirs that held our napkins. As we headed towards the door I peered down the pass to the kitchen. I must have paused for quite a while, because the Maitre D came over. I asked if we could see the kitchen, and he replied “Sure!”. Heading down the pass, there were four lanes of traffic. People with food had the right of way, and everyone else pressed themselves against the walls until the coast was clear. It was quiet, and everything was spotless. The individual components of each dish sat in their own little tray on fresh napkins. The chef de cuisine and sous chef were carefully assembling each plate – one by one. I quickly grabbed a couple photos, and then got out of everyone’s way. On the way down the pass the Maitre D asked if I was in the business, to which I replied, “Nope, just a foodie”. Someone behind met my comment with, “That qualifies sir”. Outside, Sarah and I walked around Yountville burning off some of the wine, and stretching our legs. It had cooled off nicely, and was a rather pleasant night. We laughed, and talked about all that we had just experienced. After the hour drive back to San Francisco we found that the first-come first-serve parking at our hotel was filled. We just double-parked and went to bed. I often criticize restaurants for being “Confused”. When a menu includes everything from pulled pork to fried rice, there is no theme to the meal, and great meals have great themes. The ingredients and menu at The French Laundry are all over the place – Italian, French, Russian, Chinese, you name it, and they’ve got it. They get away with it because everything is treated with the utmost respect, and it’s elevated to the top shelf – a repetition of perfect overkill that carries out the trailing figure to a level of diminishing return that is out of sight. Every once in a while you can catch a glimpse of error (it’s unavoidable – it’s inherent) – but oddly enough it only serves to contrast with the rest of the experience to elevate it even further. We’re already planning to go back as a graduation gift when I finish my engineering degree in a few years. It gets two thumbs up from me!
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