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A Canadian Foodie Dined and went to Heaven at The French Laundry: Part 2

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Of the nine courses on the menu (remember there were two appetizers not on the menu), there were two choices on occasion. So, we just told the waiter to serve one of each so we could try everything. Maybe, if we had remembered that the Torchon of foie gras was an extra thirty dollars, we may have not ordered it, but I am so happy we forgot that as it was another highlight of the meal. A divine delicacy that was served with a slice of toasted brioche and three salts. I am also a collector and user of exotic salts, and we both had fun trying all three with the brioche and foie gras. My dish, the Salad of Hawaiian Heart of Palm, was truly disappointing. Truly. So unfortunate when the goal of the restaurant, and the expectation of the participant, is that each morsel eaten leave you wanting more. What I thought was a little celebration of vegetables was very bland and flavourless. And, I love the canned heart of palm so was really looking forward to this fresh dish. The only sparkle was the brunoise quenelle of the heart of palm. I could really feel how important the precision of the knife technique was to the enhancement of the mouthfeel from that experience. That was fun for me. I could not taste the mizuna, and the kanzuri was also not memorable.  I really wanted my own foie gras! Is was so deadly, I am motivated to make it myself. We shall see. Watch for that in a future blog.
Not for long, as the next course arrived literally seconds after the table was cleaned of our messy brioche crumbs. I was served a filet of Japanese Medai and Vanja the Tartare of Island Creek Scallops in a Saffron Broth. Every morsel of compressed cucumber and every sliver of herb or drop of sauce was absolutely vivacious on the fish plate. The crispy skin was fatty and rich and succulent and chewy, and very fortunately, small. Again, the scallops were disappointing. Not as disappointing as the vegetable dish had been, but, still, not a memorable dish. The saltiness of the olives with the ceviche was complimentary, and the presentation was second to none. Look at the gorgeous bouquet. But the flavours fell flat. I kept eating it and chewing and pushing and squeezing the fibres of food inside of my mouth to find what I must be missing, but I just could not.

 

Course four: The French Laundry`s take on a Caesar Salad. A crisp Parmesan cracker with braised lettuce and Maine Lobster Tail poached in butter. What decadence! And, on top, some grated bottarga di muggine.  The salty dried grey mullet roe was a fantastic compliment to the rich buttery lobster that was undoubtedly the best lobster bite I have had in my life. A few generous bites, actually. There was a lot of lobster on my tasting plate. YUM! I am very familiar with lobster, so needed no time to acquaint myself with any new flavours on this dish. Just savour, enjoy, smack my lips, and lick my fingers. Yes, my fingers. I ate my Parmesan cracker with them and no flavour was to be wasted at this meal. The ingredients in this course were absolutely elevated to beyond what they each are on their own through the thoughtful preparation and combination of flavours.
Can you just see the plumpness of this lobster bursting with the delicate flavour of the ocean and the butter it was poached in?

 

Somebody is enjoying his duck. Course five: Epaule de Lapin de Facie aux Ris de Veau (rabbit shoulder stuffed with sweetbreads) and Fricassee of Liberty Farms Pekin Duck. Both of these dishes were extraordinary! The duck was tender and I was particularly excited to try the Huckleberry Sauce as I had never seen or tasted a huckleberry before. Interestingly, I could not discern a distinct flavour from the berry or the sauce. I was sharing, so only took a little taste, and then I took another berry with some sauce to really understand the flavour, but I still couldn’t grasp a flavour. The texture was chewy and that of a dry, dense berry. It was a bit of fun. There was a sweetness, but I just could not taste a bright note that I could identify as a flavour I understood or was familiar with. The rabbit was placed before me with an outstanding presentation as I have never before seen the utensil that the bone was clamped to. I was equally as excited to taste the pumpkin seeds that were cultivated from a pumpkin grown just for the seeds. They were larger, more plump and much harder than I expected. The flavour was dark and complex, and again I had difficulty discerning the specific flavour notes of the seed on its own, but it was a wonderful crunch and a little side adventure on the plate. Vanja had tasted the cardamom in the sauce with the rabbit and had pushed it my way, immediately. I was happy about that. YUM. The silver vice clamped to the bone enchanted me. What is it called? Someone please tell me. The texture and the flavour of the rabbit with the sweetbreads in the aromatic jus was addictive. The exotic Eastern spices in this dish coupled with the strength of the cauliflower puree rocked me into a hypnotic state as I nodded and chewed and chewed and nodded and savoured and flavoured and flavoured and savoured. YUM. YUM YUM. My favourite was the rabbit with the cauliflower foam and Vanja`s was the duck. That worked well! 
Drum roll please! We are approaching the crescendo: course six, the Calotte de Boeuf Grillée from Snake River Farms. And now, the red wine: a 2006 Shelter, Cabernet Sauvignon, from Headwater in Napa Valley. We both really enjoyed the flavour of this wine, and I found it beautifully enhanced the little taste of the beef I sampled. Mmmm.
At this point, I must have left the table five times. I have massive digestion problems, and need to walk about a bit between courses that seemed to come at us at a rapid pace, yet we were there a total of three and a half hours, and did not drink much wine, so maybe we weren’t rushed. I believe it was not the intent to rush us, at all. I just felt I needed a little more time between each course. Every time I returned from my little jaunt outside, I had a clean napkin. I was feeling a bit guilty about this, so wrote our waiter`s assistant a little silly message: “œI am still clean. It is all right if you leave me on the table.”Â  Apparently, he grinned, and changed it anyway.
The beef is the cap, or the top of the tenderloin, and was past superb. I tasted it, and gave mine to Vanja. Too much to digest in one meal. He was thrilled. The waiter had offered to prepare me something else earlier, when I saw that it was beef. I was actually delighted, for Vanja`s sake. I was also deeply pleased that the opportunity is there to have something special made, even with a set menu, should the need arise. It makes sense, but it is not always so warmly offered. This, and the lobster, were the highlight of my husband`s meal. I had many. The oysters and pearls, the foie gras, the rabbit and sweetbreads, the presentations, the condensed cucumbers and melons, experiencing the brunoise of heart of palm in my mouth,  the beefy hen-of-the-woods-mushroom, the texture of the melon on top of the chocolate cake, yet to come. There were many.
“And a new choice of breads with your cheese course, madam?” Again, each was compelling!
The puff pastry was as light as air, yet as rich with butter as you would ever desire. The Vacherin Fribourgeois tasted slightly nutty and had a lovely creamy texture that was perfect with the fig tart and the Marcona Almonds. It seemed like I inhaled mine and that my plate was clean seconds after landing on the table. I was able to eagerly polish off the seventh course with relish. Surprise!
Ah, a quenelle. Chefs love quenelles. Not me. I like scoops! This ambrosia melon sorbet was surprisingly bright and clean. The frozen watermelon tidbits, basil nuage and condensed miniature melon balls absolutely left me wanting more. Yes, even after all I had eaten. More. “œPlease sir, may I have some more?” I did not ask, but I was tempted.
My palate was now cleansed. On with the spoils! I wanted the Gateau St. Nizier au Manjari (flourless dark chocolate cake with mango chilli relish, lime foam and coconut ice cream). Another quenelle. Ahh! And the little red chilli curls were so cute, but not hot as I expected. No matter. YUM! The melon on top and garnishing the plate was shaped into little bubbly bursts of juice. The mouth feel was completely unique to me. How was this done?
And Vanja received the Lemon Verbena Meringue with the Tellicherry Pepper Panna Cotta at the table, and then a fragrant Strawberry Consomméwas carefully poured over it. Gorgeous. It was light, and lovely and fresh: like a soft little breezy sticky wet kiss. Yum.
The menu stated Mignardises at the end, but we never received them, or maybe we did in the bag to take home? We ordered espresso and coffee, and were then given a copy of the menu, and a little thank you bag of truffles and shortbread cookies. So unexpected. Such a treat! But I was a little disappointed to not be served the mignardises. I had forgotten to expect the signature donut, and didn’t miss it at all. Nor did I miss the signature truffled egg from the cookbook that I had earlier anticipated, but I still want to try it someday. I did miss the mignardises. I love sweet tidbits at the end of an extraordinary meal.
There was a table of six seated in the middle of the room beside us. It was apparent that one of the men was an owner of a winery in the valley. They had a special meal and I tried not to be too obvious with my interest their way. It was so unfortunate to see the amazing courses they received without any acknowledgement. One was a soup with summer truffles sliced into it. The truffles were brought out in a special cigar type of wooden box with a staff member appointed simply as the holder of the box. As the truffles were sliced into each dish, the conversation continued, the laughter continued, and it appeared that no one even noticed that they were being served individually, or the delicacy they had been served. It was almost as if the service was a bother to them. I did not once hear any of the guests at that table mention their food. And, sadly, yes, I was listening. To me, this kind of artful attention to each minute detail on a plate needs attention. It needs focus. To me, the conversation is on the food. This calibre of restaurant is rare. I wanted to stand up and applaud when it was over. Where was the chef. Not “œin” this evening. Ah, but he was, though I hadn`t realized that evening that Timothy Hollingsworth was the newly appointed Chef de Cuisine as of August 1, 2009. I learned that when I returned home.
Now, for our tour of the kitchen. Heart a flutter. I have been through a few kitchens in my life. I just didn’t expect such explicit calm. It was a busy place, and people were moving from here to there with an intent sense of purpose, yet there was a calm well earned confidence that comes with years of learning, hard work, careful thought, and fervent attention to detail.
Our waiter did point out Chef Hollingsworth (in the fore front of this photo) and explain his position that evening. I did thank him most sincerely for the amazing meal, and though I am sure he has heard it so many times before, I could see true appreciation in his eyes. Even our waiter was pleased when I voiced my gratefulness for the evening`s experience to the chef. I am so happy I had this opportunity. I should have clapped and sang to them all, and I don`t even sing. They were just too busy, but somehow. I wanted to give back a little of what I felt I had been given.

 

And, our waiter pointed out the TV screen in the kitchen with a real time connection to the Per Se kitchen in New York. I left the warm room walking on air. Picked up my gift bag and menu at the door, and then let myself out in to the coolness of the evening air and the beautiful yard. Vanja took the camera from me and directed me to stand in front of the back lit sign. “Here. It is your turn for a photo. Express yourself.“
The French Laundry is now a formidable full bodied memory that still sends sensations of tingly excitement through me whenever I think of my time there. Ahhhhh! Incredible.
(Ok, admittedly, the writing about this experience is definitely more than “over the top”… but, no one is paying me to edit my work, or to censure my enthusiasm, or to “refine” it. I love writing in my blog! It is so wonderfully self indulgent!)

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About Valerie Lugonja

Educator, Writer, Gardener and Traveler who believes in buying and eating locally, and most importantly cooking at home!

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  1. Can you please adopt me???

    I followed your trip toEurope and now this?
    Fantastic post! You made my Sunday

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