Fleur de Lys, San Francisco (January 2009)


Hirsute and more slovenly than usual, I walked into San Francisco’s oldest French restaurant, greeted by an equally casual host. From there, though, formality and precision reigned.

Experiencing perfection begets a challenge: how does one convey in writing those two and a half hours; how can one explain the tastes, textures, smile-inducing, conceptually inimitable fare? I will give an earnest effort, yet inexorably, I know my descriptions will only amount to a fool’s errand, for one must sit in Fleur de Lys’ dining room to truly understand haute cuisine.

The meal commenced with a piquant little shooter. You get acidity from the tomato base, heat from the horseradish, a briny note from the roe, and refreshingly watery cucumber pieces. 

Bloody Mary purée, cucumber, horseradish crème fraîche, osetra caviar, and poppy seed brioche
Out with the second amuse came warm baguettes and fig-pistachio bread with smoked sea salt. The mousse was, well, nutty and a bit sweet. 
Chestnut mousse and a corn muffin
This is my fragmentary ode to any vegetarian friends. Chef Keller took an inexpensive viand–cabbage–and not only made it posh, but also made it the plate’s main attraction. This pulchritudinous dish in its entirety, moreover, will keep me thinking well into the night, as the differential preparations still astonish me – braising, deep-frying, poaching, puréeing, searing and more.
Symphony with beef tartare, chickpea fries, foie gras and duck breast burger, lamb sausage, and braised cabbage flan and osetra caviar
The gratin and fried shitakes added textural contrast to the salmon’s and flan’s delicacy. 
Salmon, parmesan and rosemary gratin, and porcini flan, fried shitakes
Cutting into the gravid quail revealed, inter alia, creamy sweetbreads and toasted pine nuts. 
Stuffed quail, baby leeks, foie gras, veal and smoked apple jus
Before vacating his post, President Bush imposed an exorbitant 300% import duty on Roquefort cheese (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/28/AR2009012804071.html?referrer=emailarticle), so I savored each bite of the moldy mass. Artisanal cheese instills a budding nostalgia for pre-industrial times. 
Cheese symphony: Swiss, Roquefort, cheddar, grapes with pine nuts, Italian truffled goat cheese, and an unpasteurized cheese
As creamy as custard, the Époisses was a treat from the kitchen; I liberally dolloped the ooze onto the fig-pistachio bread.
Époisses
Ice cream and soufflés share a delectable symbiosis. 
Cardamon ice cream
The crème anglaise was eggy, but not overpowering thanks to the orange liquor.
Grand Marnier soufflé with crème anglaise
Once I finished my dessert, Chef Keller came out to confabulate. We talked about Michelin snubbing his Vegas establishment, the Roquefort tariff, and interior design.

Despite fasting for over twenty-seven hours, I could not degust the petite fours–actually about nine confections–or the madeleines. They were packaged and thus not photographed.

So how does Fleur de Lys compare to other San Francisco titans? Insofar as service, Fleur de Lys is at the top with The Dining Room. Conceptually, however, Keller surpasses Siegel. I only wish Fleur de Lys offered a tasting menu. The 3,4,5 course is a bit on the traditional side, and with the number of options on the menu, course selection can be difficult. Notwithstanding that minor gripe, Hubert Keller is a first-rate chef, deserving of dithyramb.

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