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