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{ In-n-Out } { Bouchon Bakery } { The French Laundry }

People always say that the trip home always seems to go a little faster. After checking out of Wuksachi Lodge, we started our drive back to San Francisco. With only a stop in Fresno to eat a Double Double at In-n-Out, it took us an hour less than our way up Sequoia Park. Miriam was driving from work to meet us at her apartment. We took our time to drink a couple of Hefeweizens at Toronado Pub on Haight Street. They have several bottled beers and plenty of draught beer from all over the States and Europe. What I appreciated though were the beers I rarely come across in New York City.



Back in Miriam's apartment, we rushed to get ready for dinner. We had three hours to spare but our destination was to be a fulfillment of a long-time dream for some foodies: Thomas Keller's The French Laundry. There were four of us now and we all wanted to beat the rush hour traffic during the hour-long drive to Napa Valley.



In Yountville, we bought iced coffees at yet another Thomas Keller establishment, Bouchon Bakery. The tarts and cookies were all tempting but we knew our 7:30pm dinner reservation would last at least four hours long. It was best not to eat anything at that time. We sat outside the pebbled garden and killed time. The French Laundry is only a few blocks away. I've always imagined it sitting on top of a small hill surrounded by a forest because of Michael Ruhlman's The Soul of a Chef, but the restaurant is actually in the middle of busy Washington Street.



The boy immediately recognized the tall man in the chef's uniform as soon as we walked into the garden. Imagine my glee when I finally realized that it is Thomas Keller himself talking with Laura Cunningham, the woman that made the great chef a true restaurateur. I did not expect to get a table for four two days before I left for San Francisco. I certainly did not expect the chef to be at the restaurant because of his commitments to Per Se, his newest restaurant in New York City. So when the chef walked by us and said hello, I was so excited I almost peed in my pants. Dinner hasn't begun and there was already a story to tell. The boy went in to tell the maitre'd that we were all ready to be seated. I'd like to believe that he was also responsible for what happened next.

We were just beginning to make ourselves comfortable at a very private table in the restaurant's alcove when we were told that the chef was ready to meet us in the kitchen before he leaves for home. The boy may have told the maitre'd that we were culinary students. Meeting Thomas Keller was like meeting a celebrity. Shaking his hand was better than shaking the hand of a political figure. His towering demeanor, both in status and height, left me nervous and speechless.



The French Laundry kitchen was white, bright and spotless; exactly how articles featuring Thomas Keller have described the way he likes his workspace. After taking a couple of group photos, the chef pointed to the flat screen on the kitchen's wall--it was a live video feed of Per Se's kitchen allowing the entire staff to communicate and consult with him from far away. Before we finally returned to our table, he signed copies of the night's menu with his infamous epithet, "It's all about finesse."



The next four and half hours were memorable and I will attempt to describe every sensation I felt with each bite, each superbly paired drink. But first, if there's anything that makes a restaurant divine besides the food, it's the impeccable service. We all chose the chef's tasting menu with its inviting set of nine courses. With each course, there were at least three people serving us. One would deliver the flatware to our table and two would simultaneously put our plates down the table in an orchestrated manner. Each course was graciously presented. If we wanted to know about an ingredient, there was always a satisfying answer. The sommelier was very accommodating without the snobbery. He suggested for us to start with a glass of champagne before eating and he also selected the half bottles of excellent white and red wine (Chateauneuf du Pape) to match our courses. The manager never seemed to forget us. He was always coming by to ask us about our experience but without being annoying or intrusive. We were certainly the youngest group in the restaurant but we never felt like we did not belong with the rich, white and gray-haired crowd.

Now that we've gotten that over with, let me tell you about the food. All quotes are from the restaurant describing techniques used as opposed to defining the ingredient. Our night began with two amuse-bouches. First was a puff pastry-looking thing with Gruyere cheese. The second is a Salmon Cornet, a thin and crispy cone filled with red-onion crème fraiche and salmon tartare with a dash of lemon juice. We haven't even begun eating the tasting menu and we're already learning about the true meaning of "little bites of delight."

Cauliflower "Panna Cotta"
with Beau Soleil Oyster Glaze and Russian Sevruga Caviar




This small appetizer blew us all away. It was a great start for the chef to show off and let us know that what lies ahead will be even better. I've had panna cotta before but never the cauliflower kind. I've also had caviar before but I never appreciated it until this. The caviar was salty and yet so mild. The panna cotta was light and cool; its smoothess was a perfect match with the caviar's tapioca-like texture.

"Peach Melba"
Moulard Duck "Foie Gras en Terrine," Masomoto Family Farm Peach Jelly, Pickled Peaches, marinated Red Onion, "Melba Toast," and Crisped Carolina Rice




I once read that culinary master Escoffier grilled a piece of toast, split it in half and grilled it again to please the wife of the Ritz Hotel owner, Marie Ritz, who complained that toast is never thin enough for her. She was impressed with his creativity and he called the toast Toast Marie. Escoffier renamed his creation Melba Toast when he served it to the Australian opera singer Nellie Melba after learning that toast was in her diet. He also created a dessert of peaches and vanila ice cream. He named it Pecheau Cygne until he added raspberry puree sauce to the recipe several years later. Only then did he rename it Peach Melba.

While eating this dish, I would sometimes forget I was having foie gras because of all the other textures having a party in my mouth. The jelly was softly sweet and delicate while the crispies provided the right amount of crunch, all while the foie gras melted in my mouth. This was a pleasure to eat even at an extra $25 supplement charge. We're already sitting in The French Laundry, what can possibly stop us now from splurging some more?

Miriam and the boy passed on this dish and chose the Salad of Toybox Tomatoes and Summer Melons with English Cucumber "Bavarois," Crisp Young Ginger and Tomato-Watermelon "Jus." I only had a small taste of it but I remember the sweetness of the tomatoes and the melons with the watermelon jus. It is probably the prettiest dish I've ever laid my eyes on.



Crispy Skin Fillet of Japanese Suzuki,
Hen-of-the-Woods Mushrooms, Baby Bok Choy, Sweet Peppers and "Aigre-Doux de Vervene"




One of our servers told us that Suzuki is like sea bass. Again, I'm familiar with several types of white fish but I've never had crispy fish skin like this. It was perfectly seared without sacrificing the firm but velvety texture inside. All the tiny vegetables that were served with it tasted a bit like they had a splash of sweet vinaigrette (aigre-doux, vinegar and sugar) but I don't know where or when Vervene comes in. The closest search result I found was for the herb vervain but my Harold McGee book does not mention either plant or herb.



It was after this dish that I took a walk outside the garden with Miriam to help me begin to digest. All I can think of was my poor performance--only the third course and I was already getting full! I was so ashamed!

Pan Roasted Sea of Cortez Diver's Scallop,
Sweet Corn and Caramelized Fennel Bulb "Ragout" with Perigord Truffle "Coulis"




I would certainly protest if any other restaurant served me a single (one!) scallop but I was too distracted because here was one thing on the menu in which words used were actually familiar to me. The fennel and truffle sauce made this dish whole. The sweet corn, of course, added pleasurable texture to the firmness of the scallop.

Glazed Wolfe Ranch White Quail,
"Casoulet" of Summer Heirloom Beans and "Pancetta" with Jacobsen's Farm Blackberry "Gastrique"




As soon as this dish was placed on our tables, we all gave a laugh because the quails were all the same shape and size, as if the bird was smooshed in a tiny pear-shaped container. Miriam found out the next day that gastrique is a reduced mixture of vinegar and sugar; the only difference from aigre-doux is that gastrique is prepared with heat until all the liquid evaporates--more like a glaze rather than a liquid sauce. The quail looked tiny but it was heavy and filling; it's what I like most about dark meats.

I took another walk after this dish.

Elysian Fields Farm "Selle D'Agneau Roti Entiere,"
Yukon Gold Potato "Mille-Feuille," Grilled King Richard Leeks and Sweet Carrots "Vichy"




In other words, lamb. More specifically, the saddle part of a lamb, roasted.

This dish is a good example of why a lot of the French words in The French Laundry menu are in quotes. Mille-feuille (meel-FWEEH) is pastry in several layers, usually with sweet fillings, but with this dish, the potato was created to look like a small square of dessert, nothing more. And if I learned anything from working with textiles for almost two years while in college, vichy is a type of plain weave of both horizontal and vertical bands. But hey, what do I know especially when the carrots came out the size of pennies. I'll give this up and just say that Vichy was the capital of France while it was occupied during the war. I was already full after this dish anyway.

"Chabichou de Poitu"
Thompson Seedless and Zante Grapes, Celery "Ribbons" and "Verjus Gelee"




When this dish came out, all I could think of was, "Dessert! It's almost over!" both in delight and melancholy. Chabichou is raw goat cheese from the Poitu region of France. The rind is soft but the inside is rich and thick; a perfectly good choice of cheese with grapes and jelly. The celery curlies were just a delightful addition.

Hayden Mango Sorbet,
Yuzu-Scented "Genoise," Goma "Nougatine" and Black Sesame "Coulis"




At first we thought that the powder all over this dish was the yuzu. We applauded the use of yuzu in powder format, just because none of us have had it that way before. But after some research, I found out that the powder is actually the goma nougatine, a sesame caramelized sugar. It makes sense now because genoise is a sponge cake and that was right next to the sorbet. Again, the textures of this dessert have Thomas Keller's name written all over; silky sorbet with fluffy cake, crunchy powder and gooey black sesame.

"Tentation Au Chocolat Noisette et Lait,"
Milk Chocolate "Cremeux," Hazelnut "Streusel," with Madagascar Vanilla Ice Cream and Sweeted Hazelnuts




Hold up, we're not yet done.

As the name suggests, we couldn't pass on this second temptation. Who would when it is a combination of milk chocolate and vanilla ice cream with hazelnuts?

We were expecting the mignardises to come after, but to our surprise, we were served a third dessert, sort of the end version of an amuse-bouche. Miriam and I both got the tiny crème brulee and the boys received a crucible of panna cotta that tasted like really good yogurt with hidden apricots at the bottom. The boy greedily spooned every last bit, refusing to share any more.

The boy also asked for a cup of coffee while the three of us chose mint tea to close the night.

"Mignardises"

The mignardises finally come and we quickly request for all of them to be packed for later.

And a dream come true finally ended after two walks to the outdoor garden, two trips to the bathroom and thirteen hundred dollars.

In-n-Out
None in the East Coast

Bouchon Bakery
6528 Washington Street
Yountville, CA
707/944-2253

The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA
707/944.2380




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