Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Where do we go from here?

Shall we continue?

Scottish Grouse "Cuit en Cocotte" - French Laundry Garden Tokyo Turnips, Hobbs' Bacon, Brussel Sprouts and Prune "Jus" (1/2). The first of two meat courses with the choice of the above pictured Grouse or the Rabbit shown below. As mentioned by our service captain when taking our orders, the grouse did have a strong game flavor, but I tend to prefer that myself. Apparently, grouse is also one of the ten rarest and most expensive things to eat.

Sauteed sirloin of Devil's Gulch Ranch Rabbit - Cipollini Onions, Sweet Carrots, Artichoke Puree and Dijon Mustard Sauce (2/2). While flavorful and moist, I preferred the grouse with it's stronger flavor.

Elysian Fields Farm "Selle D'agneau Rotie Entiere" - Black Rice, Cauliflower, Sultanas, Cilantro Shoots and Curry Sauce. This lamb was amazingly juicy and tender. While we were eating this dish, all of us agreed that the dish was delicious, but we couldn't quite identify that taste that made it unique. Sure, the servers had previously described all the elements of the dish, but I was too preoccupied trying to find the right angle for my picture. Eventually, we identified the curry sauce. Lamb and curry. Delicious.

As we waited for the next course, we took a couple moments to really sit back and absorb the environment. Above my head, I noticed that engraved onto the lamp shades were symbols that resembled hieroglyphics. Looking closer, turns out they are the same symbols that you see on the tag of your clothes...the symbols for laundry.

The ever growing bread plate after yet another bread service.

Hello blog world! I am hiding my face like this in the picture because (a) I like to keep semi-anonymous on the internet, (b) sad because the meal is coming to an end, (c) so overwhelmed with happiness, (d) frustrated because someone took pictures with flash in a nice restaurant, (e) absolutely stuffed and overwhelmed that I have more to eat, or (f) all of the above.
"Tomme Du Berger" - Jacobsen's Farm Beans, Chorizo, Piquillo Peppers and Arugula. All cheese courses should be like this. At the high end restaurants I've been to thus far, I've usually seen the waiter wheel out a large cheese cart with a wide variety of cheese. They dutifully cut small slices of cheese and spoon out crackers, jams, honeys and nuts onto the plate. Not so at the French Laundry where this was an actual, plated course. This semi-soft, semi smelly (mmm, smelly cheese are the best) cheese is a mix of sheep and goat's milk and paired beautifully with the spicy chorizo, peppers and arugula. This is a combination I'd love to try at home.
At this point, we were stuffed beyond belief...enough so that we asked to take a small break. We wandered outside to the balcony and enjoyed the crisp, cool air along side another party. I hadn't ever taken a break in the middle of a meal at a restaurant before, but it was incredibly refreshing. Meanwhile, we managed to snap a few pictures of the group as well as the picture above from the upstairs balcony looking at our table inside the restaurant.

Diane St. Clair Buttermilk Sherbet - "Pain Perdu" and Huckleberries. We returned to our table to being the dessert courses. I'll admit, when I saw this on the menu, I just couldn't get excited for this course. Thomas Keller of course proved me wrong. I loved the subtlety of the flavors and the mix of textures.

Sesame Seed and Chocolate Gateau - Tahini Ganache, Domori Sambriano Chocolate Creme and Shiso Sorbet (1 of 2). For a chocolate dish, I liked this. Don't get me wrong, chocolate is good stuff. Really good stuff. But I can only eat it in limited amounts and I'm not too much of a fan of those chocolate desserts served at most restaurants that are super rich. This one had a nice balance and the sesame/shiso combination worked surprisingly well with the chocolate.

Genoise De Pignons De Pin Grilles - Honey-Poached Cranberries, Marscapone-Pine Nut Ice Cream and Aged Balsamic Vinegar (2 of 2). Wonderful combination of not overly sweet flavors that blended flawlessly. I'd like a bottle of the aged balsamic vinegar and a pint of the ice cream to go.

Thankfully, the sommelier was kind enough to list the wines we had enjoyed throughout the night.

Although we had reached the last course, there was still more to come. Dual plates were set before us and we all sat in our seats, excited to see what came next.

This canistar looks a little spage age-ish.

But inside was a heavenly assortment of chocolates, nougats and candies. While one of each would have been excessive, it would have been nice to have multiples for sharing purposes.
A rather large container of chocolate covered macadamia nuts. I'll take a canister of these to go as well.

At this point, we were hurting from the fullness. And yet there was more! Truffles of all sorts..and of course we asked for one of each! Passion fruit, peanut butter, mixed berry, coconut, hazelnut, and banana. I think the group favorite was the hazelut.

Finally, along with the check, we received a parting gift of shortbreads. 9 plus courses and many glasses of wine later, we were quite content, to say the least.

So what did we think of this ultimate foodie destination now that we finally dined there? Everything was perfectly cooked. Everything tasted great. A handful of dishes blew us away while others were simply good.

That said - would we go back? Perhaps sometime in the future to see how things change at the restaurant. But on any given day? I think I'd rather dine twice at Michael Mina/Gary Danko/top tier SF restaurant/etc. in exchange for one dinner at French Laundry. Or go to Alinea.

So where does this leave us? I certainly never imagined actually dining here until much later in life and having finally reached a goal that you didn't expect to meet, it makes your life a little tispy turvy. It makes me re-examine my defintion of success in life and my goals in life. All this over one dinner is kinda crazy, huh? Overall, it's made me realize I'm one lucky girl.
I've been privileged to not only dine at one of the world's premiere restaurants, but to have dined there with some unbelievely great friends who appreciated it as much as I did (and who can put up with the crazy picture taking and blog talking). Yup, I'm pretty damn lucky.

Chu These:
Beautiful photos and descriptions of the French Laundry from No Salad as a Meal
French Laundry from the blogger that's cooked all the recipes in the French Laundry cookbook - French Laundry at Home
Experiences at the French Laundry through the years by Refined Palate, who has been to FL 100+ times

Thursday, November 6, 2008

May I replace your brioche?

Do you remember that boy/girl that you had a crush on for years and years? The one that you were pretty certain that you'd never ask out or would ask you out, so you sighed and then life went on, but always in the back of your mind, there was this little crush. Then one day, out of nowhere, said boy/girl asks you out! Oh, the excitement! And then after some of that excitement sinks in, the nervousness of not knowing really what to expect while at the same time, already knowing all these little details about said person since you've crushed on them for years (and you've probably facebook/myspace stalked them if we're talking about a recent crush).

Ok, I'm a little overdramatic. And just to clarify, I'm not really speaking from personal experience. But, I FINALLY got a reservation and dined at The French Laundry and that's the very best way I can describe the excitement, anxiety and fabulousness that I felt. Out of the blue. On Open Table.

Since I've moved to the Bay Area, I've been dying to go to The French Laundry. Reservations are two months to the calendar date, and rather hard to come by. I've tried on and off to call/reserve on Open Table, but it's always been one of those elusive dinners that until just recently have been on this pedestal in my mind. Managing to find the right people who would appreciate the food just as much as me, who would tolerate my obsessive picture taking, who wouldn't stress about how much of the paycheck the dinner was costing, and who would actually be available on any particular day, PLUS getting the reservation on a day I'm actually in finally all fell into place.

My good friend and fellow food appreciator, K, recently decided to go vegetarian for a month. Or in his words "in a test of endurance/bout of masochism/desire to score hot hippy girls." Me being the ever supportive friend that I am, started brainstorming ways to make him break his meat-free vow. And boy, am I glad I did because it all went down something like this -

"Would a reservation at The French Laundry make him break? Hmmm, let's check out Open Table for fun. Whoa...a reservation for four? I bet it's on a day I'm out of town. WHAT? I'm in town? It's late on Friday? OMG!!!! Quick, rally the troops! You guys can all go? Wow, I can't sit still! OK, it's official, we're going to THE FRENCH LAUNDRY!"

Three days (and three sleepless nights due to excitement), we were on our way. I'm a bit surprised my friends didn't throw me out of the car since I was just downright giddy like a kid going to Disneyland for the first half hour and must have stammered, "I can't believe we're finally going to The French Laundry" at least 6 times. Then, the giddiness must have worn me out because I fell asleep only to awake once we arrived in Napa.

It's such a quaint little building; you'd never know what great things were going on inside those walls. I think I made cooing noises when I saw the building. Sickening, I know.

Since we arrived a little early, we wandered around the garden that is immediately across the street from the restaurant. Here, The French Laundry grows its own produce for use in the restaurant. Instead of cooing, I plotted ways to steal vegetables from the garden for use in my own cooking. I abandoned all those plans so that I'd be able to eat dinner at the restaurant instead of in some jail cell.

I nearly got run over while trying to take a picture of this sign. The things I do for the sake of food memories.

With a 5:30 reservation, we wandered into the restaurant to check in around 5:20.

We were politely informed that we could wait in the garden and they would find us when we were ready to be seated. Perfect - some time to relax and enjoy the nice evening outside in the backyard. Promptly at 5:30, we were led upstairs to our seats.

"Whoa! Look, it's like the cover of the cookbook!" (Which, by the way, I finally broke down and ordered. If I can throw down all the money on the meal, surely I can afford a souveneir and culinary schooling.) Our service captain introduced himself and walked us through the menu format. As if everyone who walks in doesn't know, but it was still exciting. The menu consists of 9 courses, some courses offering a choice between two dishes. With four diners, we decided to go with 2 of each where given a choice. Shortly after, our sommelier came by to help with wine selection. While they don't have a pre-fixe wine pairing for each course, the sommelier designed wine pairings to go with multiple courses within the $X that we wanted to spend on wine. And then it all began...

Gruyere Cheese Gougeres. You know those cheesy breads at Red Lobster? Those have nothing on Thomas Keller's gougeres. These savory cheese puffs are made with the same dough that makes eclairs. These bite-sized starters were melt in your mouth cheesy goodness. Since they are in the French Laundry cookbook, we made them for Friendsgiving and Thanksgiving. Yum!

Cornets: Salmon Tartare with Sweet Red Onion Creme Fraiche. This might have been the single dish I looked forward to most. There have been numerous write-ups and deviations of this dish and even a video with Thomas Keller demonstrating how to create these delightful treats. It was a perfectly fun way to start the meal and to banish any thoughts that this could be too "stuffy" of a dinner. I took the teeniest nibble off the top at first, wanting to savor this as long as possible, but found myself devouring these and wanting another. Or two. Or three. I could have eaten at least a dozen. The cones were light and crunchy with a sprinkling of black sesame seeds, and everything blended together seamlessly. When this dish lived up to, and then exceeded, all my expectations that I had, I knew we were in good hands for the rest of the evening. This is the first recipe in the cookbook for good reason, and I can't wait for an opportunity to try these too.

"Oysters and Pearls" - Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar. This is the one dish I probably actually dream about today. They bring the dish out covered with a tiny white dome. At this point in the service, the servers' actions were still perfectly in sync so they uniformally lifted the dome lids to reveal this little marvel of a dish. Even if you don't like oysters, you will like this dish. I promise. The rich sabayon versus the salty caviar, the combinations of textures...I would go back just for this dish. I stopped JUST short of licking the bowl.

Salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm - English Cucumber, Red Radish and Yuzu-Apple Coulis. Here was our first split course with salads being placed in front of two of us, and the following fois gras dish to the other two. While the salad was beautifully plated, making me think of a miniature playground or garden, the flavors were relatively bland. This dish was probably the biggest let down of the night, seeing that the fois gras was the alternative, which is certainly worth the extra $30 surcharge.

Moulard Duck "Foie Gras en Terraine"- Flowering Quince Relish, Frisee Lettuce and Spice Bread Puree. Where do I even start? Silky smooth fois gras. Flavors that compliment one another beautifully. Warm brioche baked daily down the street at Bouchon Bakery. Approximately five minutes had gone by after the salads and fois gras was served. A waiter shows up with a plate of brioche. "May I replace your brioche?" We looked baffled. He explains that they offer to replace the brioche so that the brioche is warm through the end of the dish. Yes, you read correctly, they wanted to REPLACE OUR BRIOCHE. Just wow. Not to mention this was served with three types of salts, each adding a unique touch to the foie gras.

Bread was served through out the meal, each time offering a different selection of mini-breads. Served along side the bread was our choice of salted and unsalted butter, but this had to be the best butter I've ever tasted. Too bad it's not so easy to get.

Sauteed Fillet of Pacific Kahala - Hen-of-the-Woods Mushrooms, Broccolini, Lilly Bulbs and Ginger Emulsion (1 of 2). What a delightfully golden brown crust with a tender, moist yet flaky fish.. The sauce was light, but flavorful and paired well with the vegetables. Speaking of the mushrooms, when my dad was in town for Thanksgiving, he brought along some of these Maitake mushrooms, otherwise known as hen-of-the-woods mushrooms served in this dish. While my potato gratin with maitake mushrooms won't be served at a three Michelin star restaurant any time soon, it was mighty tasty.

"Tartare" of Japanese Bluefin Tuna - Charred Fuyu Persimmons, Cutting Celery and K&J Orchard Chestnuts (2 of 2). The other half of the table was presented with this raw dish. Initially, I wasn't very excited about persimmons and chestnuts (perhaps two foods I should add to my "to like" list), but the combination of the slightly tart persimmon and creamy chestnut sauce was a great compliment to the butter-like tuna. This tuna reminded me slightly of the tuna from Tru in Chicago.

"Beets and Leeks" - Maine Lobster Tail "Pochee au Beurre Doux" with King Richard Leeks, "Pommes Maxim's" and Red Beet Essence. One of the WOW dishes of the night. After all, this lobster tail is poached in butter. And after this dish, I firmly believe that all lobster tails should be poached in butter always. Without exception.

And with the clearing of the heavenly lobster dish came another bread service. Time for more bread.

Like I'm sure many of you males out there think, my dad is not a fan of restaurants that have tiny little portions that leave you driving through the In 'n Out on the way home for dinner #2 after spending your entire rainy day reserves. So while I've been blogging about many of these meals over the past year, in the back of my head, I hear my dad thinking to himself that sure, that food looks pretty and maybe while it's tasty, is it really worth it? Aren't you hungry aferwards? I'll admit, before I'd been to any tasting menu meal, I wondered the exact same thing. But by the time we reached this bread service, I politely declined any bread because the pants were starting to feel a little tight and the tummy a little full. And let me tell you, I eat a lot.

So to answer the question in your head now, no, that's not the entire bread tray that they offered the table on this dish nor is it my own bread plate (since those that know me know how indecisive I can be). Instead its a sampling of breads for another indecisive diner at the table who decided to take one of each. And why not? We're at the French Laundry.

Coming up: The second half of the meal!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Brussel Sprouts - no, really, they're delicious!

I promised recipes and other food related posts...and I've sorta, kinda upheld my promise. As in, I have been cooking a little bit more and even remembered to take pictures, but the blog posts just haven't quite magically appeared. Thus the sorta, kinda.

I'm back to doing the traveling thing and with traveling comes the regiment of eating out constantly. "Eating out every day...and having it paid for? That's great!" Almost. Unfortunately, eating out usually consists of the same 4 or 5 restaurants day in and day out. While I'd be content dining at some SF restaurants consistently, when the airport eatery employees know your order and the Starbucks barista knows more about your weekend than any of your friends, it suddenly feels a little old. Luckily, it's managed to give me a deeper appreciation of how much Bay Area restaurants are focused on local, seasonal ingredients and the abundance of those types of establishments.

And so, my Saturday mornings have been filled with visits to the Ferry Building Farmer's Market to ooh and aah over the fresh produce and completely over-buy for the couple of days that I'm in town. On those weekend days home, I wind up eating vegetarian just due to the overwhelming desire to consume as many fresh vegetables as humanely possible. Most recently, I've been indulging in this delicious brussel sprout recipe from 101 Cookbooks. It's quick, easy, and filling, giving me plenty of fresh vegetable satisfaction/nutrition and time to reconnect with friends in the few days that I'm home.

I like cooking these in my cast iron using a little bit of bacon fat, although I suppose that throws the vegetarian claim out the door. I keep both a spare package of bacon in the freezer as well as a jar of bacon fat in the fridge from previously cooking on hand almost all the time. Especially when I'm home at random intervals, it's an easy way to add flavor to an otherwise average dish. Usually, I use just enough bacon fat to cover the bottom of the cast iron to prevent sticking. If you're using regular bacon out of your fridge or freezer, you could cut up small pieces and cook before throwing in the brussel sprouts. Either way, this dish is hearty (and satisfying) enough to stand alone as a meal or an easy side dish.

When buying brussel sprouts, be sure to choose ones that are approximately the same size so they will cook evenly. Look for ones that are tightly closed, without raggedy leaves. After they are washed, you can also trim off the bottom. For one meal, I bought 1 1/2 big-ish handfuls - once cut in half and covered in cheese, it's much more filling than you'd think.

And for the brussel skeptics out there, because I know you are. I think you could roast just about anything, add some bacon, salt and pepper and it would be delicious. So, just that alone should make this worthy of trying. :)

Brussel Sprouts

20-30 brussel sprouts - washed, trimmed and cut in halves
1 tsp bacon fat (or olive oil)
1/4 c grated cheese (parmesan, gruyere, romano, etc.)

Heat skillet over medium heat. Add bacon fat/oil. Place brussel sprout halves face down in pan. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook for approximately 5-7 minutes. When the bottoms are brown, turn up the heat. Flip brussel sprouts over and cook just long enough to brown the other side of the vegetables. Remove from pan and place into serving dish. Quickly, sprinkle cheese and allow to melt. Best served hot.
Chu these:
Golden Crusted Brussel Sprouts from 101 Cookbooks
Roasted Brussel Sprouts from My Husband Cooks
Balsamic Brussel Sprouts from Dena's Recipe Exchange
Pan Roasted Brussel Sprouts from Dessert Candy

Thursday, September 11, 2008

To the point...

This one will be short and sweet - food postings to resume shortly :)

23 years ago, he was born and I got the best baby brother in the world. Of course, I always liked to say that you were sent from heaven because they wanted it quiet up there. It must have been too quiet for them.

7 years ago, they tried to bring America to its knees. Instead, America came together and showed the rest of the world what it means to be an American.

Quietly on that day, he mentioned to me that he'd never be able to celebrate his birthday properly out of respect for those who lost their lives on this day. Not a selfish comment, just more of an observation.

6 years ago and every year since, I'm remembering those words of his. Today, I think of those who suffered and their families. But for me, I'll be just a little bit selfish and mostly, I'll remember you and wish you a very Happy Birthday.

Happy Birthday, little bro. <3

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Beet and cranberry bean salad

There are a handful of foods that I've always avoided not because I have bad childhood memories of them myself, but instead based on stories of friends' childhood memories. Beets, brussel sprouts, lima beans...foods that I didn't really eat (or was forced to eat) growing up, but that many people remember as being the foods that forced them to sit at the dinner table until they cleared their plate. I'm really thankful that my parents never really pushed us into eating foods that we didn't care for, other than the obilgatory "just try a little" bite.

Recently, I seem to have lost a lot of my motivation and desire to cook, so instead, I've been resorting to sad, yet delicious, acts such as eating a wedge of Humboldt Fog or Brillat Savarin with a little fruit for dinner while working on whittling down the list of "to try" restaurants in the Bay Area. But then came the swift kick in the pants when I attended a dinner by a friend's boss. Inadequate, jealous, awe-struck could all be words used to describe that night. Walking in, I first noticed the hanging pots. This wasn't a pretty, shiny set of All-Clad, but instead some serious cookware whose wear and tear spoke volumes about the number of delicious meals they had been used to cook. I turned around in the small kitchen to see the counter covered in containers holding dozens of wooden spoons and spatulas, whisks, and ladles. The stove looked to be straight out of a restaurant kitchen; I was a little intimated even looking it up and down. Then, we were ushered outside. First, I saw the smoker - one that you would use if you regularly competed in bbq cookoffs. To it's right, was an oversized large bowl (big enough that you could have used it to sled) filled with, literally, a make his own charcol, of course. As I covered my wine glass to avoid the random pieces of ash from the wood, I saw a monstrocity of a grill, although the word grill couldn't be more of an understatement. And the deep fryer - an industrial size, two basket deep fryer that stood about waist tall and looked something like this. Oh, and I didn't even mention the meat slicer, french fry maker, meat heat lamps, or wine storage. Then...there was the meal. Double fried potato wedges, broccoli soup, a beet and cranberry appetizer (that motivated the recipe later described), shrimp skewers, veal chops, filet mignon, zucchini, mushrooms and poutine, all from scratch of course. I think I had to nearly be carted out of their dining room.

Did I mention I'm competitive? Having had such an amazing meal, it made me start thinking....I want to have dinner parties that people pathetically blog about later! Or, that dish was great...but could I, and how would I, make it even better? Oddly enough, having beets and cranberry beans on hand from my Mystery Box, I set out to cook. My cooking mojo was returning.

So, beets stain. Badly. I knew this before cooking this dish, but previously, I might have learned this the hard way. Hands, clothes, cutting name it, they stain it. So, a couple of hints if you are preparing beets for the first time -

1. Use gloves
2. Wash cutting boards/counter tops/dishes immediately after using
3. Roast beets whole. Leave a few inches of the greens before you cut. Scrub them a little in the sink to remove any dirt. The skin peels right off after they are roasted (again, gloves advised).

The original dish was much more beet focused, consisting of cooked beets, raw shaved beets, a tad bit of lemon, and homemade vinegar marinated cranberry beans and onions. Keeping the dish relatively simple to avoid over-powering the beet and cranberry flavors, I started with the beets and beans, adding a few of my favorite flavors - goat cheese and nuts (in this case, pistachios).

Cranberry Bean and Beet Salad

I haven't listed measurements below because this really can be (and should be) done to your own personal taste. I had some fun making it look pretty, but I think you could easily chop the beets into bite-size salad pieces instead of slices and make this more of a tossed salad to serves many people, family style. Also, you could try some shredded raw beets on top for a play with texture like I originally ate. For a more substantial meal, put this mix of ingredients on top a bed of spinach or arugula.

Cranberry beans
Pistachios, crushed
Goat cheese, crumbled
Fleur de sel
Freshly ground pepper
Good quality olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 400. Leaving a few inches on the beet, cut the beet greens off. You can save these for sauteeing later. Scrub beets and place on a foil covered baking tray. Coat lightly in olive oil. Cover in foil and place in heated oven for approximately 45 minutes, or until easily pierced with knife.

2. Meanwhile, shell cranberry beans. Bring a pot of water to boil and cook beans for approximately 15 minutes or until tender. Drain.

3. When beets are tender, remove skins and slice thinly.

4. Lay out beets on plate. Place cranberry beans in center. Sprinkle crushed pistachios and goat cheese. Drizzle olive oil and top with salt and pepper.

Link love: Other beet dishes

Arugula salad with beets and goat cheese from Simply Recipes
Roasted beet salad from Serious Eats
Carmelized beets with garlic from Farmgirl Fare
Roasted beet and blood orange salad from 101 Cookbooks

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

6 years.

Disclaimer: My favoritest blogs are ones that I feel like I have a friend on the other side of the Internet in addition to all of their pretty food pictures, stories and recipes. These are the ones that keep me coming back time and time again as I wonder how people are doing, even though I've clearly never met or spoken to most. While I do still prefer to keep this blog semi-anonymous for practical reasons and I have occassionally written a non-food post, I was recently inspired by a recent posting from one of my favorite bloggers to share something a little more than food adventures. If you are here just for the food, please forgive my intrusion and skip today's post. I'll have a recipe for you shortly :) Otherwise, I'd like to share a very important part of my life in the words forthcoming and part of my motivation for cooking.

It's September. It's the start of fall (proof offered by the arrival of pumpkin loaf and lattes in Starbucks today) and the beginning of the gorgeous months in San Francisco. For many, it's the start of school. And for me, while I clearly not starting a new school year, it marks a very important day of the year.

Six years ago on the first day of the new school year, my brother was killed in a car accident. I remember that day like it was yesterday, but it's been a long, empty six years without my best friend. I miss him like none other.

By no means do I want to use this to recount all of the memories of my brother; there are entirely too many and I think I already have plans to share some of the best in a later post. Sure, there are the fights over who got the bigger or better < insert childhood toy or food here > and finger pointing to say "I didn't do it; he/she did!" But what childhood would be complete without those? I remember always thinking I couldn't imagine having a best friend as part of the family. I felt pretty darn lucky.

The summer between my freshman year and sophomore year of college was our last summer together. At the time, my family had relocated to a different part of the country from where I grew up, so I knew few people. That summer was devoted to knocking a couple of courses out at the local college, spending time with my brother, and my first forays into cooking.

He was a fantastic swimmer, a true delight to watch, and when he wasn't eating, sleeping, or geeking out, he was in the pool that summer. While he's no Michael Phelps and certainly didn't consume 12,000 calories a day, he WAS a growing boy and those numerous swim practices a day certainly worked up an appetite. His willingness to eat just about anything put before him and his trademark smile and appreciation when it was something new and delicious motivated me to experiment in the kitchen and really learn how to cook. It diminished the feeling of failure when something doesn't turn out that great that I still had someone willing to fork down the food; it must not have been that bad after all! I can't imagine how different things would be without that jump start into cooking.

One of the last memories I have of my brother was a meal, just the two of us, of Pho. He even paid. So today, I had pho for lunch and the smell brought a small smile to my face when I reminisce about our last dinner. Perhaps, I'll one day learn to make my own pho in his memory.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Eleven Madison Park

I've mentioned it before, and it really hasn't changed. I apparently like self inflicted stress because we found ourselves in a time crunch yet again before dinner on Day 2 of our NYC trip. Thanks to extra innings to an already long game, we nervously kept peeking at our watches wondering if we'd have to risk losing our reservation at Eleven Madison Park to see the outcome of the game. While I'd rather the A's have pulled off a win, the Yankees sent us running towards the subway just barely in time for our dinner at Eleven Madison Park.

Eleven Madison Park is one of many fantastic restaurants that along with Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Tabla, Shake Shack, etc., etc. make up the Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group. In 2006, along came Daniel Humm (I really didn't PLAN on going to former Bay Area chef run restaurants), previously of Campton Place in San Francisco's Union Square. While I hadn't been to the restaurant prior to Humm's arrival, from the many articles I've read, he's really taken the restaurant to another level.

After being seated, we were handed our menus, which AB didn't even open. He looked at me and asked if he even had a choice in ordering, a well made point since the Gourmand tasting menu had to be selected by the entire table. It's nice to dine with people that know you well.

Before we even had waters or drinks on the table, the waiter presented a long oval plate of Hors d'oeuvres. Both of us eyed the plate as it was placed on the table and were delighted to find that there were two of each so we wouldn't have to fight over them. I would have won anyway. Nothing comes between me and food. Especially good little morsels like these:

Sadly, I can't remeber exactly what was in each. My best guess, clockwise on the bottom: rabbit; tuna; asparagus and fois gras on cracker; parmesan, tomato and basil with cracker.

And then the fun continued...

These savory types of ice cream always make me a bit nervous. I ADORE ice cream, actually obsess over it, and baked potato ice cream just doesn't do it for me like mint chocolate chip does. But this dish was great. The little crispy potato crisp with the creamy ice cream, sour cream and chive tasted like one of the best baked potatos I've had. And royal sterling caviar...I would eat this out of the little jar with a spoon if I could afford it, so paired well only makes it that much better. Great start to the dinner...

Part of the reason I love my Mystery Thursdays from Mariquita Farms is because it makes me try, and often times makes me loves, new foods. I've mentioned before that I'm on a quest to remove all my food dislikes and beets were a newly removed item, thanks to some freshy fresh beets from the farm. Even if you don't like beets, you'd like these beets (the yellow, pink and dark purple squares). Then the little beet gelee placed on top of a goat cheese panna cotta. Cheese and beets can't be beat. Oh, the cheese(ness)...

A friend of my complained about a recent fine dining experience where he felt that the dish was just "vegetables thrown on a plate." While this dish was certainly not "vegetables just thrown on a plate," the tomatoes were so amazing, I would have been equally pleased with "tomatoes just thrown on a plate." While the tomatoes may have outshadowed the tuna on this dish, the basil gelee really tied it all together and made us go "wow." Gelees seem to be so hit or miss, but when it hits, the intense flavors sure do make mouth happy. I wish I could make this.

The one "eh" dish of the night was this three part fois gras course. I love fois gras as much as the next person and the cherry+fois gras combination is something like Remy's mushroom revelation in Ratatouille. My favorite part of the dish was the cherry in the first picture was stuffed with a delicious fois gras mixture. But, the cherry mousse with a fois gras liquid in the bottom and cherry brioche left me wishing they left these two out of the dish. The texture reminded me of toothpaste foam and the brioche was dry and almost flavorless. Perhaps the let down though made the next dish all the better.

You really can't go wrong with bacon. Or corn. Or lobster. So throw all three together, and I'm one happy happy girl. I loved this dish if you can't tell. I don't even have words. Just enjoy the picture.
Speaking of pictures, this is the one picture I really screwed up. This was my absolute favorite dish of the night and one of their signature dishes according to the waiter. On the right, the most delicious slow cooked piece of skinless turbot. On top, what looks like scales is actually little pieces of zucchini. A marvelous saffron sauce (although the fish didn't really need it in my opinon, but it added a nice dimension) and then...the zucchini blossom.

Cut open the zucchini blossom and see what happens!

I forgot to get a picture of the finely minced ratatouille contained in the zucchini blossom, thus the link above. Perfectly executed. I'd eat this daily.

This is the dish for my dad. The pork had a perfectly crispy top with juicy pork beneath. I noticed a lot of people that ordered off the regular menu had ordered the bigger version of this dish, so I suppose it must be popular. The onion was amazing...I know, an onion? Talk about intense flavors.

Again, I think the accompainments to this dish outshined the main attraction. While the lamb was perfectly cooked, the fried sweetbreads and the creamy eggplant and cumin sauces would have been enough to satisfy my palette.

There might be one thing that beats my love of ice cream and it's cheese. Having missed out on the cheese cart at Gary Danko, I can't make a comparison, but we enjoyed our cheese selection that night.

Oh no, we were getting close to the end of our meal. Can't we extend this a bit? This was a relatively simple dessert dish, but a nice refreshing begining to the end of the meal.

I'm always hesitant to mention bananas when they ask about dietary restrictions. No, I'm technically not allergic to them, but they will cause me to lose my entire meal at the table if I eat them. I dislike them THAT much, despite how much I want to like them. Thankfully I brought them up (though almost ducked under the table as I said it out of sheer embaressment) since this dessert featured bananas. So I can't tell you how this dish is, other than I wanted to eat the caramelized sugar off the banana.

Instead, they gave me caramel ice cream! You couldn't have done a better job of substituting cream and caramel as you know are at the top of my love affair list. And no, I wasn't just being overly sentimental in my description because AB kept sneaking bites of my dessert.

We were stuffed. And then they brought these out...again, with one each so we didn't have to argue. I wish we had thought to take these home because we were stuffed. But, even in our stuffedness, these were delicious tasty snacks to end our meal.

Overall, I'd easily go back and do another tasting menu during a different part of the year (for variety). The service was pretty unpretentious, although there were a few awkward "why are you standing there" moments. On the other hand, once the sunlight had faded and the darkness made it impossible to get good photographs, the waiter did facilitate my trigger happy finger by shining his little flashlight on the food to get the cool lighting effect that you see in the second half of the post. And any decent restaurant that will do little things that make my dining experience complete like that certainly wins my affection.

Link Love - Read about other visits to Eleven Madison Park.
The Amateur Gourmet
Hungry Hedonist