Wednesday, March 12, 2008

'Epic'urean Weekend Part 3... SUNDAY The French Laundry

The French Laundry

For those of you that are unfamiliar with the French Laundry, it is located in Napa Valley, California, more specifically in the quaint, rustic town of Yountville. The French Laundry is only one of Chef//Owner, Thomas Keller's Legendary Restaurants of which he has five in California, Las Vegas & New York. The French Laundry itself was first opened in July of 1994 and quickly became a multiple award-winning Restaurant. It was modeled after the 3 Star restaurants that he apprenticed at in the French countryside. The Cuisine is American with a French influence and the Dishes are artistic and imaginative, using high quality, unique ingredients.

What fascinates me so much about Thomas Keller is that after reading Michael Ruhlman's The Soul of a Chef (a book that I highly recommend for you fellow Foodies), I learned that Chef Keller had no formal or professional training whatsoever aside from what he learned on his own as a young man working in one of his mother's restaurant kitchens in Southern Florida and as an apprentice in various kitchens abroad in the South of France. He has the highest regard for Food and everything related to what it takes to bring it from the Farm or Garden to your Plate. And today, The French Laundry as well as his restaurant, Per Se in New York are both 3 Michelin Star rated restaurants, one of the highest accolades a restaurant can achieve in the world and he is the only American Chef to have two restaurants that are 3-Star Michelin rated.
Pretty impressive, huh?

Reservations are extremely difficult to come by as you may have read in my earlier post and after trying for the past five years, I did as suggested and called 2 months to the date of when I wanted the reservation and finally scored one back in December.

So that weekend, we woke up early Sunday morning in anticipation of our Lunch at the French Laundry. We arrive in Yountville a half an hour early to stroll the gardens, but upon arrival, we were actually sat early and were led to one of the upstairs dining rooms.

After perusing the Menu, in which you are given a choice between a 9 Course Chef's Tasting Menu or a 9 Course Vegetable Tasting Menu, we made our selections for the parts of the Menu that allowed for supplemental items such as Foie Gras for an additional $30. All Tasting Menus are a fixed price of $240 per person (Service is included) and we opted for
wine pairings by the Sommelier. The Sommelier, whose name escapes me, was Parisian and when approached by him, his clever question to us was, "Would you like to stay local or do you prefer to travel?" Our suggestion to you is to definitely travel.

Rather than give complete thoughts and musings on every single Dish, I thought I would post photos of all of the Food, of which there are many, with full descriptions from the Menu. And if any of the Dishes stood out, then I will elaborate of course.

One thing that I will mention before I start is that Thomas Keller is known for his Culinary imagination behind his Dishes, and as I was writing about our FL Experience, I began to recognize and interpret some of the ideas behind some of his Fare. See if you can too.

So Here Starts Our Culinary Journey...

Our Amuse Bouche was the Signature Savory Salmon Tartare Cornet prepared with a sprinkle of Black Sesame Seeds... Simple & Delicious.

Cauliflower "Panna Cotta"
with Island Creek Oyster Glaze & Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar.

KJ & I personally enjoyed this Dish but our dining companions, JZ & JL did not as they are not fans of Caviar. I thought the combination of the saltiness of the Caviar went well with the creaminess of the Panna Cotta. This was what we had instead of Keller's Signature Dish, "Oyster's & Pearls", a play on Oysters and Tapioca Pearls with Sabayon and Caviar. *sniff*
Perhaps another time...

Salad of Yukon Gold Potato "Confite"
with Kohlrabi, English Peas & Garden Mint Vinaigrette

Hardcore Carnivore that I am, I still have an appreciation for Vegetarian Dishes from time to time and this one was a 'star' in my mind. The Potatoes, which where prepared Confite-style were tender & creamy yet fresh-tasting. A lovely Dish...

Moulard Duck "Foie Gras au Torchon" (a $30.00 supplement)
with Compressed Hosui Pears, "Granola", Watercress Leaves & "Trockenbeerenauslese" (a German/Austrian Dessert Wine) Vinegar-Wildflower Honey "Gastrique"

I am not a huge fan of the Torchon or Terrine Preparations of Foie Gras. I prefer just the simple Pan Seared style, because I love the Crispy & Creamy contrast that you get in those preps, especially when it is prepared with a nice Brioche and Fruit. In this particular case, I thought the the size of the portion of Foie au Torchon was just too much. I could not even finish it, which is a shame and I even shared it. I also was not too keen on the large, unwieldy size of the Brioche Toasts that we got to accompany it. They were tasty, but they made a huge mess on the table. I would have preferred less Foie, more Fruit and smaller Brioche.

Grilled "Pave" of Kindai Bluefin Tuna (One of my Most Memorable & probably my Favorite Dish)
with Ruby Red Grapefruit, Crosnes, a type of Japanese Artichoke) & French Laundry Garden "Tatsoi", a dark green spoon-shaped type of Asian green, that was Sauteed and added a nice Creamy Texture to the perfectly medium rare grill of the Bluefin Tuna, the Tartness of the Ruby Red Grapefruit & the interesting flavor and texture of the Crosnes. The combination of all of the flavors & textures knocked it out of the park for me. I can still taste it as I think back and am even salivating as we speak...

Sea of Japan Bigfin Squid
Globe Artichokes "a la Grecque", Spanish Caper "Pain Perdu", Sweet Peppers and Field Arugula

JL was the only one to have this Dish, as the rest of us had the Tuna, and in a nutshell, he thought it was nothing special.

Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster Tail (Another Favorite for Me)
New Crop Fava Beans, Sunchokes, Marcona Almonds and Madras Curry Emulsion

This was a favorite for me and the rest of my Dining Companions as well. The Art of Poaching Lobster in Butter is a technique that Chef Keller is known for and the result is exceptional - Lobster that is extremely tender and delicate. Superb!

Four Story Hill Farm "Cuisse De Poularde"
Applewood Smoked Bacon, "Spaetzle", Savoy Cabbage, Pickled Pearl Onions & Caraway-Infused "Jus".

Not sure if i just did not 'get' this Dish, but it did not do it for me at all. The rubbery, Raw Bacon-like texture of the Chicken was strange and I did not care for it..

"Filet Mignon" of Marcho Farms Natural-Fed Veal
with Bluefoot Mushrooms, Green Garlic, Sweet Carrots & "Bearneaise Reduction"

The Ladies opted for the "Filet Mignon" naturally expecting a Filet of Beef. As I mentioned earlier, this is one thing you have to be careful with when ordering from Chef Keller's Menu because he enjoys various 'plays' on different Foods and Dishes, as in the cuts of Meats in this particular case. We were mildly surprised and enjoyed the Veal immensely.

Kuroge Beef and Black Winter Truffle "Saucisson En Croute"
Fennel Bulb, Cherry-Truffle Coulis & Garden Mache

While the Ladies enjoyed the Filet Mignon of Veal, the guys opted for the Kuroge Beef which is a breed of Wagyu Beef and they were extremely disappointed. JL said that he thought it tasted like a hot dog, in which he was not too far off the mark as Saucisscon En Croute is essentially - Sausage prepared in Pastry. Now why you would do that to a Kuroge Wagyu Beef is beyond me!

"Vacherin Mont D'Or"
Garnet Yams, "Pecan Pie" and Cutting Celery Greens

This to me was unremarkable.

Diane St. Clair Buttermilk Sherbet
with Spiced Streusel and Honey-Glazed Cranberry

I liked the Creamy, slightly Sourness of the Buttermilk Sherbet that was paired with the Crispy Spiced Streusel and the Sweet, Tartness of the Honey-Glazed Cranberry. A nice, refreshing Palette Cleanser prior to Dessert.


Valrhona Chocolate "Dobos"
Chestnut Butter, Candied Chestnuts and Brown Bread Ice Cream

Granny Smith Apple "Bavarois"
Cinnamon "Sable", Dijon Mustard Ice Cream and Crystallized Napa Valley Mustard Blossoms.

It was light, creamy & refreshing, just how I like my Desserts typically. And How beautiful is this dessert? How do they do that?...

We were not only presented with the Desserts that we chose from the Tasting Menu, but were We were given a plethora of extra Desserts & Mignardises from Creme Brulee to little Petit Fours & Cookies. A Happy Ending all around...

To sum it all up...

The Restaurant itself. Rustic, Beautiful and Subdued...
The Service. Outstanding.
The Food. The Star. Simple, Imaginative, Artistic...
The Overall Experience. Once in a Lifetime.

The Question is, would we do it again? We are not so sure. I mean, I am all for splurging on a Meal, especially if it is in a place that is as highly regarded as the French Laundry. I think that if you are spending that type of money on a Meal, then every single Dish or at least the bulk of it should be exceptional and knock it out of the park. I loved three or maybe four of the nine or so Courses, so I admit that I was a little disappointed. Although as I was writing this I did begin to learn to appreciate the artistic nature of the Dishes, as well as Keller's reverence for Food and of course, it goes without saying that the Service was impeccable. So I guess if you factor all of these things in, it was worth it. Foodies that we all are, we definitely agreed that at the very least, we are glad that we were able to experience the French Laundry.

At the end of the Weekend, we collectively agreed that this was one of, if not, the best Weekend that we had ever done in Wine Country. It truly was an 'Epic'urean weekend, or as KJ put it, it was Bacchanalian, Dionysian & straight up Gangster all in one...

All in all, when you finish your weekend with the French Laundry, you know you've got it made.

'Epic'urean Weekend in Sonoma Part 2... SATURDAY the Sonoma Wine Country

Wine Tasting.

Now, Having been in the Bay Area for the last 10 years, I have been to the Wine Country many many times. But this is the first time that I've done it 'strictly Sonoma' and I have to tell you, that I really like it there much more than Napa. I love the down-to-earthedness of it all and there are some pretty darn good wines to be found to boot...

First stop, Moon Mountain...

We started of our day of wine tasting with a beautiful drive up a winding road to a Vineyard called Moon Mountain. The first photo above was taken on the way and it was breathtaking to be completely surrounded by vineyard after vineyard. Although the Wine was alright, it was certainly not our favorite of the day... They do have a nice Winery with a big deck where you can take a glass of wine out there and view the the pretty scenery and the surrounding vineyard atop the mountain. It looked like a really cool place to have a party, which they did say they were apt to do...

Now our next stop was Little Vineyards...

What great little spot! We drove in and as you can see from the little building on the left, this place truly lived up to its name. For such a little vineyard, the wine and its proprietors were larger than life and super friendly. The Wines that they offer are Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Resonance and a Band Blend which was our favorite and it was a 2007 Sonoma County Harvest Fair Gold Medal Winner. The Band Blend even comes with a little CD. What was really cool was that Rich, the owner had this interesting instrument that he called the Stick (basically it's a guitar and bass in one and is played by tapping it) and he played as were tasting the Wines. He even let some of us try it. I don't know if I will be successful with this, but I have attempted to put the video of this below... Check it out.

After Little Vineyards, we went to Loxton Cellars...

Their main focus is Syrahs and Zinfandels, although they do offer a Chardonnay and a really great Port. The proprietor is Chris Loxton from Australia and was raised on a Shiraz vineyard in South Australia. When he moved to California, he had to adjust to the 'native' grape of Zinfandel. He founded Loxton in 1996 and we loved the Syrah and the Port. Definitely recommend this Winery for a quick stop in Sonoma if you are into Syrahs, Zins or Port...

Our last stop was a little hidden gem of a spot that is such that, which we happened upon completely on a funny little fluke... One of my companions has the last name Lee and this place is only open by appointment only. So he called them up that morning to make an appointment to stop by and initiates the conversation with a boisterous, 'What's up cuz!'. They have a brief exchange and after that we figured that we were all set. So after traversing Sonoma County going from Moon Mountain to Little Vineyard to Loxton, our fourth stop was C**** L** Vineyard. This place is not very easy to find, because there was no signage and all we had was the address. We hesitantly drive by it at first, unsure as to whether we were in the right place or just intruding on some random people's property. We drive up the short hill that is their driveway and are approached by a friendly couple.
They peek into our car and we ask if we are in the right place. They said yes and we are warmly welcomed and then led to the side patio/deck with an outdoor adobe-style kitchen overlooking their vineyard. It was decorated in a simple, yet elegant Southwestern theme with scattered cactus plants in large pots throughout and a couple of charming chimineas burning amid cloth umbrellas hovering over wooden tables & wicker chairs. It was a lovely setting reminiscent of New Mexico and Arizona.

So to continue with the story, after conversing with the couple and introducing ourselves, we quickly realize that the proprietor's name is not C**** L**, but in fact a combination of the couple's middle names. Their first names being Guy & Debbie. After we had a laugh over the mistaken coincidence, we were generously poured a tasting of all their wines and given little nibbles of a fabulous Truffle Cheese & Crackers to accompany. Mind you, I say generous which is almost an understatement, because they have a very small property, that is just a few acres.
As I said, this was truly a hidden little gem of a spot that I am hesitant to share with too many people, because you would only want to share it with your most favorite people if you know what I mean...

*So if you are interested in finding out the name of the this Vineyard & Winery, then shoot me an email and I will gladly share the details...

Monday, March 3, 2008

an 'Epic'urean Weekend in Sonoma Part 1... FRIDAY the Arrival.

Hello Food Lovers! I know it has been taking me some time to write about the weekend that we went to the French Laundry. Life has been in the fast lane as of late and I haven't had a moment to sit down and write. But at last, I have found some time before I go to Puerto Vallarta at the end of this week.
Because this particular post is such a huge undertaking, I mean, we're not just talking the French Laundry, the entire weekend was fantastic! How do I even begin?

I decided to break it down into three different posts starting with our arrival into Sonoma on Friday morning, followed by our exploring the Sonoma Wine Country all day on Saturday, and rounding it up with the much anticipated French Laundry for Lunch on Sunday...
It was spent with three of my favorite friends, who were chosen for their Love of Food, as well as my Love of Them. Lucky them and lucky me!
It truly was an Epic Weekend, as the title of these next 3 posts implies. And so starts the recounting of the 'Epic'urean Weekend in Sonoma...

So the weekend that we had reservations at the French Laundry for Sunday Lunch, we all decided to take the Friday before off to head up early and spend a long weekend in Sonoma. I had scored the reservation for 4 at the FL back in December, exactly 2 months to the day of the reservation, so you can imagine the anticipation that had built up to this weekend.

Epicures that we were, we had it all planned out...

We arrived in Sonoma at 1030am and we had reservations to stay at the Trojan Horse Inn, but could not check in until later that afternoon. The Boys had golf at the Silverado Golf Club, and JZ and I had spa treatments at the Sonoma Spa on the Plaza at 1230pm, so we decided to grab a bite first on the Square.

After wandering around the Square, we chose the Sunflower Caffe on the recommendation of my foodie friend & coworker, the Food Rat, who raved about this place on Yelp and said that I 'had to try' the Smoked Duck Sandwich there.

We walked in, placed our orders and then ambled out to find a lovely outdoor garden patio in the back. Fortunately, it was gorgeous day! The Food was brought to us and we all agreed the everything was fresh and delicious. Everyone but me had something on the lighter side: JZ & JL both had the Half Sandwich & Soup combo with Chicken Salad for their Sandwiches. The Whole Roasted Chicken Salad was yummy with big chunks of Chicken, and prepared with Celery, Onions and Parsley. KJ had the Cold Smoked Salmon which was very fresh and was served on a Bagel with the usual suspects as accompaniments - Cream Cheese, Red Onion, Tomatoes, Capers & Lemon.

And I, of course, had the Smoked Duck Breast Sandwich made with Sonoma Saveurs Smoked Duck served warm on a Baguette with Carmelized Onions, Melted Gruyere and a Side of Fresh Mixed Greens. Smoked Duck and Melted Gruyere? It was as expected.. Delicious!

Thanks, C!

After our wonderful spa treatments, shopping & pedicures, my girlfriend, JZ and I caught a cab to the Trojan Horse Inn to check in and change for Dinner that evening. We were greeted by Bethany of the Husband & Wife team owners, and were then shown to our rooms.

Let me tell you about the Inn. This place is a serene, elegant and romantic inn, recently updated with six unique rooms, all with private en suite baths with stand up showers (although some of the
rooms did have whirlpool tubs). These we did not have, but I have to tell you what a wonderful little place this is! The husband & wife owners, Greg & Bethany could not have been nicer and accommodating. And they were a great help in recommending what wineries to visit the next day, which only contributed to what would become an epic weekend...

Every morning at 9am, a Gourmet Breakfast was served - the most memorable being the Creme Brulee French Toast which the name itself, needs no description for how good it was. There is an outdoor whirlpool spa in a lower garden terrace with fireplaces. The Inn is large and spacious enough that you didn't get the feeling of it being obtrusive, or it was not overly frilly, both of which we loved.
And the Beds... Oh My God, the Bed was unbelievably comfortable!
With 600 thread count Frette sheets and a huge, fluffy pillowtop mattress, it felt like sleeping on a cloud. This place was great!
I would definitely stay there again, if I ever find myself in the area.

We had Dinner that evening at the El Dorado Kitchen (or EDK as the locals call it) on the Square. EDK is a gorgeous and classically modern, trendy Space with warm interiors and Food that is pretty damn good.

Here is what we had...

Because we were there during the Olive Festival, we chose to start with the Feast of the Olives, which consisted of Picholine, Nicoise & Lucques olives, served with Hummus and Wood Fired Flatbread. The Olives were deliciously fresh, as were its accompaniments of Warm Flatbread and Creamy Hummus which worked really well together. A terrific start...

Other Starters were the Warm Brie & Mushroom Tart with Maitake & King Trumpet Mushrooms, Melted Brie and topped with Frisee, which was alright, and the Prince Edward Island Steamed Mussels in a Creamy Sauvignon Blanc Broth, Tarragon and Crispy Fries which was fantastic.

For Our Mains:
JZ had the Beef Tenderloin with a Mushroom Risotto, Watercress, Glazed Carrots and I had the Bistro Steak with the much toted, Truffle Fries and served with a Horseradish Crème Fraiche which were both quite good.
The Boys both had the Bacon-wrapped Pork Tenderloin served with Creamy Garlic Polenta, Caramelized Brussel Sprouts and a Prosciutto Vinaigrette which they enjoyed.

After we finished dinner, we headed to the bar for after dinner drinks and to discuss our plan for the following day. We had a great time and really enjoyed our Meal. Overall, it was a down right great Dining Experience for all of us and would highly recommend EDK should find yourself in the area.

Afterwards, we headed back to the Inn and had a bottle of Sparkling Wine to end the evening.
Great Friends, Great Food & Wine...

It was a perfect first day in the Wine Country...