The Best of Chopstick Cinema: Five Hours in Heaven
Five Hours in Heaven (February, 2007)
Through a chain of near-miraculous events, René arranged for the two of us to have dinner at the French Laundry last night.
For those of you who may have been living in the jungles of Borneo, or high atop the lofty slopes of K2, and have not yet heard of it, the French Laundry, by popular consensus, is the world's best and perhaps most famous restaurant. And to think, it's right up the road from my front door, in the town of Yountville, resident population 2,900.
All day yesterday, I managed to keep a lid on my anticipatory anxiety, reminding myself that it was 'just dinner', not dinner with the Queen or the Dalai Lama, just dinner...at the French Laundry. Yikes! Dinner at the French Laundry!!!
We arrived at 7:30, and much to my delight, standing at the reservation desk to greet us was my old friend Kevin Macway, a former co-worker with whom I spent many a busy Saturday night working side by side at the St. George restaurant in St. Helena, years ago before it became Tra Vigne. It was good to see him, and I immediately felt right at home. He seated us in the main dining room, at a table in the epicenter of the restaurant, front row center for the culinary ballet that was about to unfold.
Kevin started us off with a glass of Pierre Gimonnet champagne to sip while we perused the menu and the wine list. And after a descriptively detailed litany of the nine course pre-fixe tasting menu that awaited us, we turned our attention toward the wine list, which features an impressive array of both local and international labels, with a wide selection of half-bottles to complement the variety of dishes on the tasting menu. To accompany the lighter, early courses, we chose a half-bottle of Tantara 'Bien Nacido' Pinot Blanc, and to accompany the main dish meats, a half-bottle of Sinnean 'Resonance' Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley. And not to get ahead of myself here, but both proved to be excellent choices, not only for our mutual taste in wines, but also as fitting choices for the menu du jour.
One of the trademarks of a meal at the French Laundry is the unexpected appearance of 'amuse bouche', tiny tastes of things not mentioned on the menu. Gifts from the chef. And without further ado, the procession of edible treasures began:
First came a pair of Gougeres, no bigger than an olive or a bing cherry, filled with Gruyere cheese. An ethereal harbinger of the thousand pleasures to come.
Next: Cornets of Scottish Salmon Tartare in a Black Sesame Tuille with Red Onion Crème Fraiche. And when I inquired whether the onions in the crème fraiche were raw, as I am allergic to raw onions (they put me right to sleep), at no protest or insistence on my part, in less than two minutes, the waiter reappeared at our table with another one, this time with plain crème fraiche, no onions. This level of service continued throughout the meal, with plates and utensils discreetly appearing and vanishing without intrusion, stray crumbs whisked away, glasses refilled. And when René excused himself from the table, in a twinkle, his rumpled napkin disappeared, with a freshly folded one awaiting him when he returned.
And now, back to the food.
Next came another 'amuse bouche', an egg shell, filled with White Truffle Custard finished with Ragout of Black Perigord Truffles, garnished with a translucent-thin sliver of russet potato, inlaid with a single chive.
And then an attentive young woman came around with a basket of brioche, served with two types of hand-churned butter: a salted butter from Vermont, and a sweet butter from Petaluma. Who knew butter could be so unique in texture and flavor?
And now, on to the main menu. With the three 'amuse bouche' we'd already been served, I hesitate to call this dish an appetizer, so perhaps the term 'first course' would be more appropriate. 'Oysters and Pearls' - Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Beau Soleil Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar.
Second course: For me, Salad of Grilled Bluefoot Mushrooms, Compressed Hosui Pears, Celery Branch and Hazelnut Emulsion. For René, Moulard Duck Foie Gras en Terrine, Salade de Pomme de Terre, Confit de Langue de Canard, Laitue Frisee, Cornichons et Moutarde.
Third course: For me: Tartare of Japanese Hamachi, Fennel Bulb, Nicoise Olives, Piquillo Peppers, and Winter Citrus Vierge. For René, Sautéed Fillet of Atlantic Halibut, Wilted Bok Choy, Glazed Tokyo Turnips and Preserved Kumquat Butter.
Fourth course: Main Lobster Tail Cuite Sous Vide, Belgian Endive, Field Rhubarb Confite, Watercress Leaves and Sauce Paloise.
Fifth course: Sirloin of Devil's Gulch Ranch Rabbit, wrapped in Applewood Smoked Bacon with Ragout of Mayflower Beans, Arrowleaf Spinach and Black Truffles.
Sixth course: For me, Filet Mignon of Marcho Farms Nature Fed Veal, Sweetbread Pierogi, Baby Red Beets, Caramelized Savoy Cabbage and Toasted Caraway Crème Fraiche. For René, Herb-Roasted Sirloin of Australian Wagyu Beef, Crispy Broccolini, Pearl Barley, Green Garlic and Vinaigrette Bordelaise.
Seventh course: Brillat Savarin cheese, Muscovado Sugar-Glazed Pecans, Cipollini Onions and Arugula.
Eighth course: Fuji Apple Sorbet, Gateau au Gingembre and Tahitian Vanilla-Scented Apple Puree.
Ninth course: Pavé de Chocolat Blanc au Thè Vert, Pistachio Pain de Genes, Passion Fruit Jelly and Bitter Chocolate Sauce.
And as if that weren't enough to send us into the stratosphere, interspersed with the apres dinner treats were several more 'amuse bouche': Meyer Lemon Custard, a tiny Crème Brûlée, Espresso Mousse with Cinnamon Sugar Beignets, Sugar-dipped Macadamia Nuts, and an assortment of truffles.
And as if THAT weren't enough, we were sent home with two packages of shortbread cookies tied with a navy-blue French Laundry ribbon.
I may never eat again... More Musings on the French Laundry (February, 2007)
Yesterday morning, after my gastronomic orgy at the French Laundry, I was more focused on recording every detail the evening's events and describing the menu than waxing poetic or analyzing the experience. But now that my feet have returned to terra firma, I have some thoughts on the subject...
In the almost three years that I've been creating menus for Chopstick Cinema, and the years before that, when I dabbled in gourmet cooking on a fairly regular basis, and years before that, when I was a front-row spectator as a waiter in the kitchen of the St. George restaurant, and years of watching the Food Network, I've managed to piece together a pretty good culinary education. But Thursday evening at the French Laundry, I realized early on that I was WAY out of my league. I felt like a Danish peasant at Babette's Feast. Although I had a pretty good idea of what I was eating, the names of many of the components and sauces were unfamiliar, and my pedestrian palate was utterly unprepared for the whirlwind of tastes, textures and aesthetics that were laid before me that evening.
More than anything, the experience raised in my mind the philosophical question of quality. Wherein lies the secret of the 'fine-ness' I experienced at the French Laundry on Thursday evening. Although I strive for it with each and every dish I prepare, I had to wonder what magic renders transcendent the bewildering array of delicacies served each evening at the French Laundry, while mine, no matter how artfully prepared, still hover somewhere around the level of yummy, tasty, delicious, and occasionally Wow! But never transcendent.
Of course, that is a rhetorical question, as I already know the answer to it. The transcendence of French Laundry cuisine is a gestalt of ingredients, expertise, ambiance, attention to detail, and, dare I say it?...Cachet. Had I been served similar or comparable dishes at, say, Domaine Chandon, or even Bouchon (Thomas Keller's 'other place'), both of which are just up the road from the French Laundry, and both of which are places I've had the exquisite pleasure of dining, would I have been as impressed, mesmerized even, as I was by the meal I experienced at the French Laundry? The answer, I think...is No.
The French Laundry is the French Laundry because it's the French Laundry... It's a rapturous riddle wrapped in a magnificent mystery inside an epicurean enigma...