The French Laundry, Yountville, CA (May 2012)

I’ve been in enough restaurants to know that some use cameras to get a sense of when to fire the next course. But this was different. ‘Twas the course after Oysters and Pearls and all through the dining room, not a runner/server/or captain was in sight. Savoring the textural playground of Santa Barbara uni, English cucumber, avocado and chili threads, my brother–staring down into his bowl–asked, “Do you know what that creamy white layer is?” “Not sure,” I responded.

A couple minutes later, with all of us having nearly repristinated our plates, a server whose name I never managed to ascertain walked over to clear our plates, but before doing so said mischievously, “That white layer was a ginger panna cotta.”

Those zones of privacy the Warren Court identified in Griswald v. Connecticut don’t apply in The French Laundry, and I’m glad they don’t because it’s the front-of-house’s job to anticipate and to accommodate–within reason, of course–the diner’s requests. And that’s exactly what they did for just shy of six hours.

To say the staff at The French Laundry were gracious hosts would be stating the obvious. But occasionally the obvious needs stating. They were more generous than they needed to be, especially since we were first-time diners.* In the process, they set an impossibly high standard for my return visit to Per Se two weeks from now.


 

But my feelings toward the restaurant weren’t always so effusive. 

This is not Per Se, I thought, after spending 45 minutes on the phone, calling 4-5 times a minute to secure an 11:15am lunch reservation.** And the curt reservationist didn’t bother to ask about dietary restrictions, special occasions and couldn’t guarantee an extended tasting menu, but instead said it would be up to the chef on the day of our meal, adding needless uncertainty to our trip (yet when we sat down, Andrew, our captain, greeted us without menus and said the kitchen would be cooking for us). 

And then there were the inaugural canapés: the gougère seemed colder than Per Se’s with too much choux pastry and not enough mornay, and the cornet cone seemed thicker than I remember, partially masking the tartare.

From there, however, the expectations one brings into a three-star Michelin, perennial San Pellegrino Top 100 establishment started to not only get met, but to get surpassed one plate after another. The oysters and pearls were overturn-the-furniture-in-your-head good, with a bowl of sabayon so bottomless it was as if shoveling decadence into my mouth would eventually yield to the earth’s core. Chef Hollingsworth, who happened to be slicing diaphanous pieces of green tomato in preparation for the impending dinner service when we ambled off to the kitchen to thank him, and his small army of cooks don’t just make memorable dishes; they make you forget about your surroundings, forget about the cumbrous reservation system and convince you to return before your meal is even close to over just to see what they’ll do next.

The truth is there were about a dozen courses that merit a dissertation-length paean, as each successive set of plates confronts you with something unprecedentedly delicious:

An amalgam of textures and temperatures of beet that would daunt even the most dexterous of kitchens.  

Gnocchi, swiftly and surreally engulfed by a swarm of black truffles, which in turn delicately alert your olfactory that something inimitable is about to happen.

A comprehension-defying elision of squab breast and sausage dusted tableside (by maitre d’ and raconteur Larry Nadeau) with pulverized duck crackling and fleur de sel.

The sensual adventure of grilled Snake River Farms ribeye — the blushing piece of beef was beautiful and salty and madly grand, coaxing out of each of us a soft, irrepressible purr.

And on it went. In the end, though, the faultless service and the kitchen’s close-to-perfect execution must be experienced to be believed.

Salmon cornet

Gruyere gougeres with sauce mornay

Rabbit fritter with San Marzano jam

White asparagus velouté, garden strawberries and Sicilian pistachios

Cucumber velouté

Oysters and Pearls

White asparagus and royal osetra from China

Santa Barbara uni, young ginger panna cotta, chili threads, English cucumber and avocado
Kona kampachi sashimi, radish, cauliflower, peas, sesame purée and Nicoise olive

Hen egg custard with white truffle oil,  black truffle ragout and a chive chip

Wagyu tataki and tartare, meyer lemon, mizuna and black sesame

Salt-baked heirloom beets, beet sorbet, spherical beet panna cotta, buckwheat-pecan sablé, mache and navel orange
Gnocchi and black truffle beurre monté

More black truffles!

Atlantic halibut, grilled brioche crust and chowder sauce
Sweet butter-poached lobster tail, Sacramento Delta asparagus, bone marrow-infused bordelaise, tokyo turnip and king trumpet mushroom

 Sous vide squab breast and sausage, Brooks cherry, seared foie gras, tonka beans, charred cipollini onion and sauce périgourdine

Snake River Farms “Wangus” ribeye, morels, white asparagus, hen egg emulsion and veal jus

Tomme de savoie (raw cow’s milk cheese) cornmeal financier, endive, Sicilian pistachios, pistachio purée, sour ale gastrique and watercress

Salad of ?
Meyer lemon sorbet, lemon verbena, lemon curd and lemon granité

Applewood smoked chocolate cremeux, hazelnuts, banana and malted milk ice cream
Millefeuille of early spring peaches, vanilla bean crème patisserie and crème fraîche, nectarine sorbet, garden blueberries, 100-year aged balsamic
Coconut-shaped coconut sorbet with tropical fruit, chili threads and coconut water

Cappuccino semifreddo
Strawberry sorbet

Chocolate-powdered sugar macadamia nuts

Brioche donut holes

Hazelnut-praline, peanut butter and jelly, salted caramel, coconut cream pie, passion fruit and mint

Shortbread cookies

*  This was a meal that took several years to come to fruition. In my penultimate year at Cal, we floated the idea of TFL as a graduation present. Alas, a confluence of factors militated against it happening. 

** For Per Se, one merely needs to call once at 10am and is put through to a reservationist after about thirty minutes.

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Michael Mina, San Francisco, CA (May 2012)

In July 2008, I experienced my gastronomic hymenorrhexis, dining at then two-star Michelin Michael Mina in the St. Francis Hotel–see photos here–which is now a Bourbon Steak. It was only three official courses, but as a freshly minted non-teenager, to give you a sense of my restaurant sensibilities, The Cheesecake Factory was oft-considered worthy of a special occasion. So I was admittedly spellbound by the immaculate service, multiple amuse, petite fours, all features of a meal I had up to that point never witnessed.

Four years later, and a hillock of Michelin-starred meals amassed, Michael Mina–now a one-star establishment on California Street in the former Aqua space–would be the relative Lilliput of our four-day vacation.
 

With meager expectations, I must say I was generally impressed. I should note that the first 45 minutes of our 3.25 hour dinner would be marred be a sozzled woman at the bar who had weaponized her voice with Fran Drescher-like quiddities. Following that, though, service was hiccupless, led by Thomas, our bespectacled captain and one-time manager at Bar Boulud.

As for the food, every savory item, from the creamy chicken-black truffle finger sandwich to the flushed medallions of strip steak, proved satisfying. I would return again to try two in particular: (1) an aggressively seasoned roulade (or porchetta) of rabbit fenced in by spring vegetables and (2) and a properly deveined, silky lobe of foie (a dish we added to the tasting menu), the sweetness of which was magnified by hints of vanilla coming from Jordan almonds.

Shortly thereafter, alas, with dessert things started to go a bit pear-shaped. These were Hannity desserts: one-dimensional and worryingly unbalanced. One was so boozy, I almost thought it asked me rhetorically, would you like caramel with your whiskey? Given that the restaurant permits a la carte dining, there’s no reason not to share several appetizers and entrees before venturing elsewhere for confections.

Red Rye’ding Hood: rye, strawberries, aperol, lemon
Chicken-black truffle sandwich and chilled asparagus soup
Sourdough with honey-mascarpone
Geoduck clam and fried clam belly, verjuice grapes, green almond purée and white gazpacho

North African spiced tempura fried soft shell crab

 Soba noodles, bonito, tomato, tomato consommé and green garlic aioli

Ginger oil-poached hamachi, scallions, beech mushrooms and tomato-ginger foam

Rabbit porchetta, foie gras, cippolini, favas and fiddlehead ferns
Jordan almond-dusted foie gras, orange marmalade, brioche, peppercrest purée and duck skin

Strip steak, carrot mousseline, roasted carrots, creamed spinach and black truffle vinaigrette

Coffee curd, espresso soil and milk snow

Deconstructed Snickers
Cardamon-roasted pineapple, coconut meringue, coconut-pineapple sabayon and cilantro

 

 Milk chocolate-honey lozenge

 Maraschino cherry sorbet, yuzu macaron, creme de violette and lemon purées
Caramel apple briquette with white chocolate

Jasmine and brown sugar wafers
Way too much whiskey!
 Whiskey-chardonnay
 Walnut toffee and dark chocolate crisps

The Slanted Door, San Francisco, CA (May 2012)

In need of a place for a little pre-dinner nourishment (and that would be open on Memorial Day), we decided to try The Slanted Door, a restaurant that seemed consistently brimful whenever I ambled past it prior to meals at One Market. 
Save for the mundane lemongrass pork shoulder and the de trop brown rice, every dish brought salivation-inducing intensity, especially the barbecue spareribs and chicken claypot. It’s the kind of food one wants to dig into as soon as it hits the table. And Moe, our tattooed and straggly-haired server, provided competent service and helpful drink recommendations.  For a quick lunch–ours was less than ninety minutes–The Slanted Door played its part in our dining agenda, and I’d happily return on future Bay Area excursions to sample a fresh selection of items.

Barbecued pork spareribs, cilantro, scallions, honey-hoisin sauce

Green papaya salad, pickled carrot, rau ram, crispy shallots and roasted peanuts

Gulf shrimp and pork wonton soup, five-spiced pork and egg noodles

My first Singapore sling
Grilled Berkshire pork chop, fingerling potatoes, soy-shallot-ginger sauce

 Grilled lemongrass pork shoulder, fish sauce, rice noodles, cucumber and mint
Spicy broccoli, braised tofu and lion’s mane mushrooms

Caramelized Gulf shrimp, garlic, (too many) onions and caramel-chili sauce

Chicken claypot, Thai chili, ginger and caramel sauce

My first latte 

Guava sorbet

 Strawberry gaufrette

Some Highlights from "MeadowLaundry"

I can’t think of a better designation than the neologism “MeadowLaundry” to capture the over eleven hours of dining and close to fifty preparations to which we were treated in a 24-hour period. Below are a sample of spellbinding dishes:

Sacramento Delta Asparagus with Foraged Greens

Copper River King Salmon Confit, Salmon Roe, Salmon Belly Butter, Salmon Skin, Smoked Salmon,  Rhubarb, Celery, Yellow and White Spring Peaches
Poppyseed-amarinth-farro tuile filled with hibiscus-cured foie, radish and popped sorghum
Sous vide and smoked beef, morels and pureé of foraged spice brush

Oysters and Pearls

Gnocchi, black truffle beurre monté, and shaved black truffles

Squab breast, Brooks cherry, seared foie gras, cipollini onion, tonka beans and sauce perigourdine
 Snake River Farms “Wangus,” Yukon Gold potatoes, morels, hen egg emulsion and sauce bordelaise