Houston food, restaurants and dining review. Urban living, travel, thoughts and other randomness.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

French Laundry (Yountville, CA) !!

If there is a best restaurant on the West Coast award, Thomas Keller's French Laundry would probably gather the majority of the votes. New Yorkers, being the East Coast Centric, granola-phobic egocentrists they are, would never acknowledge that the West Coast has intriguing food, let alone an award winner.

Rekha got us reservations for lunch weeks ago. For many of those weeks, I could not justify spending money on the flight, hotel, and incidentals ($41 per day parking fee at the hotel), that go along with a trip to San Francisco. Alas, her enthusiasm for the adventure bought my curiousity and off to San Francisco we went.

Yountville is in the heart of Napa Valley. We didn't see much of it. French Laundry is just off of Highway 29 (the oenophiles yellow brick road). We parked along the street and walked in the 100 degree heat in our best Sunday clothes. We had a reservation for 11:15. The restaurant didn't open until 11:11.

The odd lot of us waited outside in the baking heat: an elderly couple with the wife dressed in an aqua business suit with matching hat and gloves, a hispanic couple with the man dressed in his only interview suit, and a upper class family whose attorney father-figure (divorcee, recently married or dating the mother of the two boys) who eventually ordered several bottles of wine.

Finally, entrance into the gastronomic temple. Hushed conversation under low roof, dim light, and an army of waiters. We got one of the few booth tables. The picture below shows our table setting.
French Laundry Pin
There are three menu choices: 7 course lunch, 9 course lunch and 7 course vegetarian lunch. We opted for the entire 9 courses with the $25 foie gras upgrade ($175 per person without upgrade). With a reverential flourish, they came with our amusee, a cheese pastry. Interesting, but hardly ground-breaking
Cheese Pastry
Then came the first course, minced salmon in a wafer cone filled with creme fraiche and hints of chive. The concept was original, but the cone shape made it impossible to taste the wafer, creme and salmon all in one bite.
Salmon in Cone
We followed the inventive salmon cone with the even more inventive cauliflower panacotta topped with Russian Sevruga caviar. The interplay of the sea in the caviar, the earth in the cauliflower, and the fresh air of the panacotta texture brought delight to my tongue.
Russian Sevruga Caviar and Cauliflower Panacotta
All lathered up from the foreplay, they treated me to more foreplay (I didn't get the foie gras upgrade) and Rekha to some heavy petting. Her foie gras with peach gelatin reminded me of Noe's fois gras--a difficult feat considering my love for the foie gras at Noe's. It is a damn crying shame that California will be banning this delicacy.
Foie Gras
Thomas Keller's kitchen (the master was in New York) followed with a halibut that smelled a bit fishy when they brought it to the table. But it tasted wonderful. Thick, fleshy, caramelized on top and delicate all at once.
We followed the fish main course with a Mexican scallop, a rather large scallop with a surprisingly meaty texture. I liked the presentation, seafood on a bed of foam, but, the taste couldn't hold a candle to the scallops we had the night before at a tapas restaurant just off of Columbus Street in downtown San Francisco.
Our third main course was a fantastic duck strangely served with a regular knife. The only guffaw in the whole service, the knife did more damage to the plate than the duck. When the steak knife finally came, the duck's taste improved immeasurably and became my favorite dish of the whole tasting. The experience was enhanced when we discovered that the chef had used a new berry they called a wonderberry. Sort of like a small grape with the texture of a fig and the taste of wine (not grapes). The waiter told us no one knew anything about these berries except that the farmer across the way made them in his spare time.
Duck with Wonderberries
We finally finished our main courses with a piece of grilled ribeye. They told us they used the part of the ribeye with the most marbling and that their beef came from Idaho. I can see why I've never met anyone from Idaho--why leave the state with meat that good?
Idaho Ribeye
We followed these savory delights with cheese. Nothing really interesting (I'm not a cheese expert), except that the presentation had flare... as you can see.
Cheese Course
Finally the desserts. They started off with a hint of the possibilities, mango sorbet with some sort of slightly sweet grainy accoutremont. Then came the fantastic chocolate mousse and vanilla icecream.
Mango Sorbet
Followed by yogart that reminded me of my childhood and an ordinary creme brulee. Finished with a flurry of little sweets... including the caramel I never got to try.
Flurry of Desserts
French Laundry has deservedly earned a reputation as a one of the pre-eminent restaurants in the world. Places like Noe's and Tru's show that they can imitate this West Coast institution. Even so, it's always good to try on the original.

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