The French Laundry – 12/23/09

The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599

The French Laundry is a food temple – a trek that any gourmand in America must make at least once in their lifetime. I first went in July of 2004, and it was easily the most anticipated meal of my life. I remember not being able to sleep much the night before. The restaurant had just gone through a renovation and had not announced an official re-opening date. I was playing around on OpenTable one night and stumbled upon an availability.  I remembered having to wake my dad to tell him this news, and use his credit card in order to confirm this reservation.

I had gone again in December of 2006, and now in 2009, figured it was time for a re-visit. It’s gotten noticeably easier to get a reservation on OpenTable. With a little persistence, I was able to snatch a 5:30 (in my opinion, the ideal time for a group not staying overnight) reservation over the Christmas holiday. Armed with a new camera (thanks Angela!), I was excited for this next trip.

Upon entering the premises, you walk into a garden and outdoor waiting area.

The famous blue door entrance to the restaurant.

The dining room is cozy and has a very warm and elegant feel to it.

Each table is set up with fresh flowers and the signature clothespin holding the napkin together.

The menu has two options: the chef’s tasting menu and the tasting of vegetables. The menu for the day is here: French Laundry menu – 12/23/09 and the chef’s tasting menu, which we all had, is shown below. There was also an optional supplement offering white truffles from Alba, shaved over an option of housemade tagliatelle, gnocchi, or a Carnaroli risotto.

The amuse bouche served here have been staples over the years. The first is the Gougères, which are cheez-it flavored light cheesy bread puffs.

The second is the salmon tartare coronet with creme fraiche. Simple and tasty, they make a great start to the evening.

Next was the first main dish of the night, also a staple of the menu.

“OYSTERS AND PEARLS”
“Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar

This is a really creative dish and a nice play on words. The oysters are trimmed and set into this tapioca sabayon with a dollop of caviar. Really delicious.

The next course had an option of a winter squash soup and a foie gras terrine.

SPICED WINTER SQUASH SOUP
Chestnuts, Arkansas Black Apple, Watercress and Maple

There was not much to the soup. It tasted of squash with a little spice, but not much else.

MOULARD DUCK “FOIE GRAS EN TERRINE”
Flowering Quince, Honey-Poached Cranberries, Celery Branch and Black Truffle

This was pretty good as a terrine goes, as I usually do not like them. The accompanying brioche was delicious and came with three finishing salts.

The next course, a seafood one, was a choice between a bass and scallops.

SHALLOT-CRUSTED ATLANTIC STRIPED BASS
Salsify, Spinach, “Soubise” and Red Wine Reduction

This was a great dish with a nice crust and a moist flesh. Definitely cooked well.

NANTUCKET BAY SCALLOPS “POÊLÉES”

Cauliflower, Satsuma Mandarin, Pine Nuts, Arugula and Niçoise Olive “Paint”


This was one of the more disappointing dishes of the night. I definitely prefer sea scallops to bay scallops because they’re just meatier and less prone to being overcooked. I don’t think the scallops were overcooked in this case, but the olive ‘paint’ was just way too overpowering for this dish.

The next dish, served to everyone, was a highlight.

SWEET BUTTER-POACHED MAINE LOBSTER
Forest Mushroom “Pain Perdu,” Sunchokes, Brussels Sprouts and Pomegranate “Aigre-Doux”
The lobster was cooked beautifully. The mushroom ‘bread’ was a nice earthy accompaniment, and the brussels sprouts and pomegranate were also a good compliment.

SHAVED WHITE TRUFFLES OVER CARNAROLI RISOTTO

After the lobster course was the truffle supplement. I chose the white truffle to be shaved over the risotto. This dish is quite an experience as well, as the server will bring the huge truffle around in a box to be smelled and then will proceed to shave it on top of the risotto. It was then finished with a little brown butter.

The risotto, prepared with shallots, butter and grated truffle, was really well-made on its own. The truffles, as well as the brown butter, completed the dish and made it unforgettable.


The next course was an option between white quail and rabbit shoulder.

WOLFE RANCH WHITE QUAIL
Chorizo, Cardoons, Sweet Peppers, Panisse, Spanish Capers and “Pimentón”

This dish was the single most surprising for me of the night.  White quail, as explained by the server, was a cross-breed between chicken and quail. I had never heard of this, let alone tried it, so I had to order it…and was glad I did. The breast was so juicy and moist, shocking as it was white meat (closer to chicken than quail).  The leg was good as well, but by comparison, paled compared to the breast.

“ÉPAULE DE LAPIN FARCIE AU CERVELAS”
Baby Fennel, Michigan Sour Cherry, Pistachio and “Sauce Périgourdine”


The rabbit shoulder was stuffed and glazed. Not a bad dish, but it wasn’t as good as the white quail.

ELYSIAN FIELDS FARM LAMB SADDLE
“Pommes Purée,” Nantes Carrots, Snap Peas and Béarnaise Reduction

The lamb is prepared sous vide for 80% of the cooking, and seared for browning the rest of the way. This was a great piece of meat that was juicy and tender, and not too gamey.

The next course was the cheese course. Not being a fan of the cheese course, I opted to substitute this out for a potato gnocchi dish. Everyone else, however, stuck with the cheese.

“SCHARFE MAXX”
Hobbs’ Bacon, Roasted Romaine Lettuce and Tomato Compote

The substitute dish, a russet potato gnocchi, served with brown butter and grated black truffle, was very simple and good.

Next, the first of three desserts.

“DARK AND STORMY”
Maui Gold Pineapple Sorbet, Spiced Gingerbread and Gros Michel Bananas

This was a light dessert, serving to cleanse the palate and give a sweet introduction to dessert courses.

Our next dessert was specifically requested off the menu, due to the fame it’s garnished over the years. Luckily for us, the kitchen obliged.

“COFFEE AND DOUGHNUTS”
Cappuccino Semifreddo with Cinnamon-Sugar Doughnuts

This was probably the best doughnut I’ve ever had. Warm and soft – it was just delicious. The semifreddo had a rich coffee flavor to it (I took a scoop to show the “coffee” under the “milk froth”), but the highlight was really the doughnut.

The final dessert was a choice between two dishes.

“GÂTEAU SAINT NIZIER AU MANJARI”
Mango-Chili Relish, Valrhona Cocoa Nibs, Lime Foam and Coconut Milk Sorbet

This was a flourless chocolate cake, and I really liked the coconut milk sorbet. The lime foam, topped with sea salt, was not really necessary, in my opinion.

BAKEWELL TART
Huckleberries, Marcona Almonds and Crème Fraîche Sherbet

This was an interesting dish. A little bit doughy, a little fruity – this would be a nice end to the meal.

MIGNARDISES

The mignardises for the night included a pecan tart, caramel and chocolate covered macadamia nuts, and assorted chocolates.

The pecan tart and macadamia nuts were not remarkable, but the chocolates were good, especially the pumpkin (orange and white colored at top). Unfortunately, we were so full that we were not able to try all of the flavors.

At the end of the meal, the bill comes out on a laundry tag, a fun touch that the restaurant has had since its inception.

In addition, we each got some shortbread cookies to take home.

We were lucky enough to be invited into the kitchen at the end of our meal.

We were told that Thomas Keller had been in the kitchen and left an hour earlier (DAMN!). However, it was great to be able to check out the kitchen, which was spotless. I was surprised by just how small the kitchen was, and how it was able to serve such an array of dishes in such a small space.

In all, it was a great experience. I was a little anxious that it wouldn’t live up to expectations, because they were quite high, and I had been hearing a lot of peoples’ concerns about Chef Keller’s decreasing involvement in the kitchen. However, the restaurant definitely lived up to my expectations and proved to be a fantastic meal.  We were all very pleased, and I can’t wait for my next trip back.

Drago Centro – 12/8/09

Drago Centro
525 S Flower St. Suite 120
Los Angeles, CA 90071

Drago Centro has got to be, for me, one of the most frustrating restaurants in Los Angeles. Food-wise, it’s one of my favorites in LA. The pastas are just delicious, and their entrees and desserts have also been solid each time. However, it’s the service that kills me. It’s completely unpolished. It’s very inconsistent and frequently lacking – for a restaurant of this caliber, it falls way short.

I’ve eaten here 5 times now since it opened in November 2008, and have gotten a good picture of what to expect from the food and service.  I feel like the service is generally unpolished, but that you do get better service if you’re older and/or in a suit. The service was actually very good the one time I came with my parents, but has fallen flat each other time. Problems have been everything from inattentive waiters, forgetting wine pairings with food, and serving a dessert with bacon bits to someone who is a pescaterian (it was made known at the beginning of the meal).

On this latest occasion, 6 of us tried the new Eat & Run menu that debuted the Monday prior. The new 3-course menu for $25 is advertised as catered to the business crowd and is aimed at getting you in and out in around 30 minutes. In all, we were there for about 90 minutes. However, I will not rant here about the timing and service. The food is the showcase – the 3-course this day was:

le lattughe miste
mixed baby lettuces, shaved parmesan, red wine vinaigrette

la coda
braised oxtail, soft polenta

il tiramisu
individual tiramisu

The salad was simple and fresh. There were only three ingredients. Lettuce, parmesan and the vinaigrette. I tend to like salads like these to start meals, and the parmesan was a nice saltiness to the vinaigrette. 

Another in our party ordered a la carte and had the lobster bisque.

This was a rich and flavorful bisque, with a good lobster flavor that was not overpowering.

The main entree was the oxtail, which had a surprisingly generous portion of 3 oxtail chunks over soft polenta and a rich sauce.

This dish was delicious. The oxtail was nicely braised and tender with a rich sauce made from the braising liquid. The soft polenta was a nice complement as well, its soft texture mixing with the chewy, yet tender meat.

We also got an order of what has traditionally been my favorite dish at Drago Centro. The pappardelle with pheasant and morel mushrooms is one of my most memorable dishes of 2009.

It’s a very rich, creamy sauce with nice chunks of pheasant and homemade pappardelle. I remember the first time I had this it was so so good. Now, after I’ve had this each time I’ve had it, maybe I’ve gotten a little tired of it. It’s still quite tasty, but I can’t see myself eating a whole plate of it anymore. Still great for sharing.

For dessert came the tiramisu.

The problem with this tiramisu was the custard:lady finger ratio was way too high. See picture below.

There was very little in the way of the lady fingers. The custard was sweet and tasty, and probably could have been good on its own. However, as a tiramisu, I expected more lady fingers.

The decor is nice – tall ceilings and windows let in a lot of natural light.

There is an impressive wine tower as you walk in. All glass, it fits in with the decor.

The bar area is separated by the hostess stand and wine tower.

My overall impression of Drago Centro remains the same. The food is top-notch and some of the best in the city. You can go well with just some pastas (I like the pappardelle with pheasant and garganelli with sausage), or stick to one of the entrees (the branzino and osso bucco have both been good). The decor is nice and open. However, the service is really lacking and takes away from the whole experience.

Steak – 12/7/09

Lately I’ve been trying to find the butcher shop with the best steaks in LA. Steaks are something I cook on a somewhat regular basis, and I feel I can now cook a good one consistently. A while ago, I told myself what I would only cook USDA Choice steaks until I knew I could cook consistently – it would be tragic to overcook a Prime piece of beef. So, now has come the time.

I had read LA Mag’s food lover’s issue where they had a segment on butcher shops in LA. Last weekend, I checked out one of them, Alexander’s Prime Meats, in San Gabriel, which had USDA Prime beef from Harris Ranch. Taking a look at the meats, I was a little disappointed as the marbling on them looked akin to what I would expect for a Choice grade piece of meat. I decided to try out a rib-eye anyway and found it good, but not too tender and not outstanding – basically, I couldn’t distinguish it from a good Choice steak.

This past weekend I checked out Marconda’s Meats in the Farmer’s Market on 3rd and Fairfax. They primarily serve certified Piedmontese beef from a ranch in Montana. Piedmontese cattle, originating in Italy, are known for its tenderness and lower fat content. Taking a look at the steaks, the New York really caught my eye.

A picture of the steak I purchased is below.

Immediately, I noticed the steaks’ marbling. It looked like what I thought looked like USDA Prime, much more marbled than the ones at Alexander’s.  So, I had to try one out.

My preferred cook-at-home steak method is to get a cast iron skillet as hot as possible, sear both sides, and then to put it on a rack and finish in the oven. This creates a nice crust on the steak, while maximizing the pink meat in the middle of the steak. One of the ways I judge how well a steak is cooked, aside from doneness, is how much brown area there is on each side of the steak. Ideally, this will be minimized, and leaving juicy medium rare meet in the center.

I seasoned the steak with garlic salt, pepper, and a little olive oil.

Then, it was placed in the superhot cast iron skillet to sear.

After being finished in the oven, I took the steak out with an internal temperature of 125 degrees.  I let it rest to let the juices redistribute, and it settled at about 133 degrees after resting.

I decided to cut up the steak on a cutting board first to really get a look at the meat. This was the moment of truth!

I got a pretty good sear on the crust; however I think I seared it a little too long on each side. The brown around the outside of the meat was thin but noticeable.  The meat was definitely more tender and had a nice flavor. It wasn’t as juicy as other steaks I’ve had though. Unlike the steak from Alexander’s, I could tell a bit of a difference from a Choice grade steak. Was it the best steak I’ve cooked? Hard to say. Maybe…but I’ll have to keep searching.

Seafood Risotto and Chocolate Cake – 12/6/09

There aren’t too many things as soul-satisfying as a nice risotto on a cold day. Even better – one full of seafood. Thus, on this winter night, a seafood risotto was in order. Also, I had recently read Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s molten chocolate cake recipe and it sounded so incredibly simple and easy, I figured I had to give it a try. The menu was complete.

Now, I found myself at four grocery stores on Sunday, trying to get the right ingredients. I don’t think it was so much the lack of selection of the stores, but maybe the fact that I’m picky…really picky when I cook – I want everything to go right. The chief ingredient decisions were:

What type of seafood to use?
I ended up using fillets of swai, shrimp, mussels and bay scallops. These were all pretty easy to work with, and I thought they’d all go well.

What type of cheese to use?
Most recipes call for Parmesan here. So I found a block of Parmigiano Reggiano to use – I like the mildly salty and nutty flavors in this cheese. I’m not as picky about the whole cheese-seafood thing.

What type of chocolate to use?
Ideally, I wanted Valhrona. Jean-Georges recommended it, and Thomas Keller always uses it – so naturally, this was the choice. However, I couldn’t find any. However, I had seen on America’s Test Kitchen that Ghirardelli chocolate came in first in testing for baking chocolates, so I got a package of their bittersweet chocolate.

Making a risotto is actually rather simple. My recipe was to saute some onions and garlic, add Arborio rice, add white wine, and then continually add heated stock until the risotto is al dente. At that point, I would stir in some fresh parsley, the cheese, and the seafood (which i would pan sear separately).

The risotto, almost fully cooked.

The addition of the seafood to the risotto.

The seafood plated.

The chocolate cakes were next. My recipe involved melting the chocolate and butter in a double boiler, whisking eggs and sugar separately, and then whisking the egg mixture into the melted chocolate. Finally, flour was whisked in to create a batter, and this was poured into buttered ramekins and baked at 450 degrees.

The chocolate cake coming out of the oven.

Chocolate cake plated.

I guess I’d have to say I was satisfied with how the meal turned out. The risotto was delicious and was the most important part of the meal, and I thought it was cooked pretty well. The chocolate cakes, while not molten, were still tasty – next time I should be able to perfect it.

Ad Hoc – 11/28/09

Ad Hoc
6476 Washington St
Yountville, CA 94599

Ad Hoc is located down the street from The French Laundry and Bouchon in the Napa Valley town of Yountville. Whenever in the area, I stop by Bouchon Bakery to pick up some treats. One of my favorite bakeries, it was opened in 2003 to start serving fresh breads, tarts, cookies, and all sorts of goodies.

A look inside the bakery.

As it was around 5:30pm, a lot of the selection was depleted. However, there was still a variety of breads, cookies, tarts, and macarons available.

Their signature namesake item is a cork-shaped chocolate brownie called a ‘Bouchon.’ Notice the stack of them on the left in the picture below, and on top.  Calling them a brownie does not really do it justice, but it’s a closer, more delicious relative. These are a must-try here, and is also part of the signature dessert at Bouchon Bistro.

With my baked goods in hand, it was time to head down the street to Ad Hoc.

I’m not too sure what’s taken me so long to visit Ad Hoc. Opened in 2006, it was meant to be a temporary restaurant in the space, pending a new concept by Thomas Keller (a burger joint was widely rumored). The restaurant’s concept is fresh, comfortable food, served family-style. It is easily the most reasonable, accessible way to sample Chef Keller’s food. Because the restaurant became so popular, it became a permanent fixture in 2007.

The decor is comfortable and well-lit, with a bar area in front.

There is only one menu each day, posted that morning. I consider myself a pretty picky eater, so the idea of not knowing what the food will be until that day is a bit unsettling. Given this restaurant’s popularity and the fact that it’s a Thomas Keller restaurant – I had to give it a try. The menu rubric is typically as follows:

First course: Soup or salad
Second course: Main entree and sides
Third course: Cheese
Fourth course: Dessert

The only really predictable part of the menu is the famous fried chicken.  It’s served every other Monday night. On this Saturday evening, the menu was as follows.

First course – Broccolini Salad with prosciutto di san daniele, lola rossa, shaved crimini mushrooms, shaved red onions, kalamata olives, creamy fennel caper dressing

Second course – Prime Beef Ribeye with wild arugula, fingerling potatoes, meyer lemon vinaigrette, and a red bell pepper and winter squash gratin

Third course – Neal’s Yard Dairy’s Ardrahan melted on palladin toast, pickled carrots, marshall’s farm wildflower honey

Fourth course – Buttermilk Panna Cotta Trifle with pear compote, marinated blueberries and pistachio biscotti

Given that I’m a pretty big meat eater (especially beef), I was excited to see the ribeye on the menu and was wondering all day how it would be prepared.

The courses came out quickly, starting with the salad.

The broccolini was fresh and flavorful – I’ve lately become a pretty big fan of this vegetable. The prosciutto added a nice saltiness to go with the broccolini and lettuce. I rarely eat salads..I really don’t like them..but this was easy to eat, with clean, fresh flavors.

We decided to try a Modicum Meritage Red Blend to pair with the meat. Modicum wine is the house wine of The French Laundry, produced in limited quantities as a joint venture with an unnamed winery and the French Laundry.

Next came the main entree – the ribeye. I found it kind of amusing that they don’t ask how you’d like the meat prepared. It’s prepared medium rare – the way it should be. The loin of the ribeye (on the right) was grilled and then cooked sous-vide. The cap (3 chunks on the left) was grilled.  This is probably the first time I’ve had the loin and cap split apart with different preparations. The cap is definitely fattier and more tender, and the loin is more lean with a beefier flavor in my opinion. The meat was served with arugula and fingerling potatoes topped with a meyer lemon vinaigrette. Definitely tasty.

Now, was it better than what I could get at a good steakhouse? It was definitely different. A steakhouse is definitely not going to sous-vide my beef – typically it’s a sear and broil or just grill.  In the end, I’m not sure the work put into this preparation was better than a steakhouse ribeye, but it was still a tasty piece of meat – and T. Keller is not going to put a simple steak on the table.

On the side was the red bell pepper and winter squash gratin. This was also a good dish, showcasing the in-season squash and peppers with a nice breadcrumb crust on top.

Next was the cheese course.

I’m really never a fan of the cheese course and always try to substitute it out for a different course, but in certain occasions (like this one), it’s unavoidable.  This was a cow milk cheese served with toast, pickled carrots and honey. It was mildly pungent, and not really spreadable on the toast. The honey was delicious, and I thought it went well with the cheese. However, it did not convert me to being a fan of the cheese course.

Next up was the buttermilk panna cotta trifle. I’ve had a number of Thomas Keller’s panna cottas before at other restaurants and have been a fan. However, this one was on a yogurt-like consistency with a hint of sourness. Not being a fan of yogurt, I didn’t really care much for this dessert. The pears and blueberries inside did have good flavor, however.

The panna cotta trifle came with pistachio biscotti, which I found to be very good, especially when dipped.

In all, this was a pleasant meal. As a fairly picky eater, the menu did not totally go my way. However, I was quite pleased with the first two courses, especially being able to try the ribeye.  Did it live up to expectations? Sorta. Maybe not really. Nothing was really remarkably delicious, but I appreciated the freshness of the ingredients, and the food was executed very well.

The restaurant is deserving of another trip, and I know just the occasion – fried chicken night.

Thanksgiving 2009 – 11/26/09

There are a number of traditions my family has every year. One that is shared amongst most families in America is that there is always a ton of food. As has been the case the past several years, we go to my mom’s sister’s for lunch, and to my dad’s mom’s for dinner – effectively having two Thanksgiving meals. It’s a great compromise I think. The food is pretty American with some Chinese dishes and influences. Turkey has never really been the centerpiece, but it’s always been included for ‘tradition sake.’

LUNCH

Lunch is served buffet-style, and is largely a potluck from a number of families, led by my aunt.

Some of the finger foods include deviled eggs, shrimp on toast, egg rolls, and taquitos.

On the other side of the room are the entrees and sides.

Shown above are country fried potatoes, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, a chicken pot pie and fruit salad.

Here we have fried wontons, Caesar salad, carved turkey and pork ribs. The turkey was beautifully carved and presented (see below for a close-up). The pork ribs are cooked low and slow over charcoal for a couple of hours to ensure they are moist and tender to the point that they are just about falling off the bone.

Two of the main recurring sides each year are chinese sticky rice and chow mein. These both are made in huge quantities and pre-packed to aid in the leftovers process.

A close-up of the carved turkey is below.

Close-up of the ribs.

There were an array of homemade desserts, including an apple-cranberry-nut tart below (there was another fancier tart-like word, but I don’t remember what that was).

Also, there were a couple of pies made by Elizabeth Faulkner herself (of Citizen Cake, and Iron Chef America and Top Chef Masters fame).  My cousin’s cousin’s husband works for her, and she gave them as a holiday gift. Naturally, I had to try these. There was a pecan pie

and a pumpkin pie.

I was expecting a lot from these pies given Faulkner’s resume. The pecan was first. The filling broke apart so easily that the first slices did not resemble a pie, rather clumps of filling over some crust. I found the crust to be a little underbaked, and the filling was kind of unremarkable. Now, I’m not a huge pecan pie person anyways, but the flavors of pecan, chocolate and whiskey didn’t do it for me.

Next was the pumpkin pie, which was a lot better. The filling was smooth and pumpkin-cinnamon tasting, and the crust was nice and flaky here. Definitely closer to what I was expecting the pies to be.

DINNER

Dinner is a more traditional family-around-the-dinner table affair. Most everything is prepared by my grandmother. The centerpiece, as has been for as long as I can remember, is a roast of beef – in this case, a New York strip loan roast.

The roast being carved.

The other meat option this year was, of course, turkey, white meat shown carved.

My grandmother also made a soup to start with with a chicken broth base, including pork, dates and dried tofu.

The sides included traditional stuffing,

Chinese sticky rice,

mashed potatoes, gravy, and a mixed vegetable dish.

To finish off the meal, as if we needed anything else, was a cake from Sweet Stop – layers of vanilla and chocolate cake with custard in between.

Sweet Stop’s cakes are consistently moist and tasty, and this one was not an exception. We come to them for cakes for pretty much every special occasion.

Two days later, I still feel full recounting all this food. Though, I’m already anticipating what will be cooked up for Christmas this year!