Some cool flavors at Sona. A great combination of pureed cauliflower and escovitched fish. I'm normally not a fan of escovitched fish, even when I was in Jamaica, but the cauliflower toned down the sweetness of the sauce somehow and added some interest that is normally lacking.
Other winners included a European line-caught cod with red-wine shallots and morels, paired with a very jammy Syrah from Santa Barbara. I'm a huge sucker for morels. In this dish the cod played an almost purely textural role. It had very little flavor of its own and instead served as a backdrop for the morels, shallots and wine. Sautéed Liberty Farms duck with ramps and ramp foam was also very good.
Grapefruit/vanilla sorbet intermezzo was a wonderful transition. The desserts were enjoyable, but not amazing.
The service was attentive, but not overbearing. The only major downside was some Hollywood muckity muck talking at the top of his lungs for three hours. But I guess that's just LA.
Update: Apparently the loud fellow was Matt Groening, creater of The Simpsons.
Sitting upstairs in a 747-400 overwater, waiting for mechanics to repair a "broken nosewheel tire". But, I'm not scared because the Captain tells us its "nothing to worry about".
Going to LAX for a fairly sexy information security project that I can' t talk about. Dinner tonight at Sona.
Without further ado, the menu from my dinner at The French Laundry:
Looking back on the menu, I still have questions about what I ate. Yet, not once during the meal did a server offer up any unsolicited information about the food. I think this lack of excitement and exuberance (and perhaps shock and awe) are what left me feeling a little let down by the meal,
Carrie & David, my wonderful Berkeley hosts, took me here for lunch. It was the best meal I had while out on the West Coast. Vik's Chaat House offers a wide range of made-to-order Indian snack foods. It's located inside of a West Berkeley warehouse. One side of the warehouse is an Indian grocery, the other is Vik's.
The whole setup has a soup nazi-esque feel to it. You go up to the register, place your order (in my case, samosas with a spicy pea curry sauce, vegetable patties with a tomato and onion salsa and a mint raita and a mango kulfi) and then stand around waiting for the head name caller to call out your name on a booming PA system. When they call your name, you go up to collect your tasty Indian tidbits (one cup per person, $.10 for extras) and then go and sit down at one of the cafeteria-style tables scattered across the concrete floor.
When I sat down with my samosas and vegetable patties, I was ravenous. The samosas were perfect, golden and crispy, with a spicy potato filling that made my eyes water after the first few bites. I couldn't quite figure out what was in the vegetable patties, but they were equally tasty. The mango kulfi, an unchurned mango ice cream, was a perfect finish. The food was delicious and honest. The folks at Vik's were making food that they would eat themselves. And food that they probably couldn't find in Berkeley before they opened their shop. The topper? The whole lunch, for three people, was around $20.
More catch up to come...
I got up bright and early on the Wednesday, the 7th of May, jumped into my rental car and headed north towards San Francisco. I drove up the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) -- an absolutely stunning drive, even with a lane of traffic between me and the beautiful coastline.
Despite the lovely scenery, I had no time to stop and enjoy the view. My 7PM reservation at The French Laundry beckoned and I wasn't going to miss it because of an extended lunch stop.
I arrived in San Francisco feeling refreshed, despite the ten hours I had spent in the car. I stopped by my hotel, checked in, and freshened up. I dropped off my rental car and hopped in a cab to meet up with my dining companion, the unrelenting Erik Olsen.
I was so nervous about being late that we left SF around 4:15 to avoid imaginary traffic jams on the way to Yountville. Of course, there was no traffic to speak of, so we ended up arriving in Yountville very early, around 5:30. We walked down the main street, circled the restaurant once, me on tip toes to try and sneak a peak inside the kitchen. They seem to roll up the streets at 5PM in Yountville, so we had a drink at Bouchon and then wandered over to The Laundry at 6:30PM.
We walked into the restaurant and were seated at a two-top on the first floor. The room was a small offshoot of the main first floor dining room, with only four tables. Erik & I ordered the chef’s tasting menu, a nine course offering, and I asked the sommelier to pair matching wines from TFL’s half bottle and by-the-glass offerings.
The food was delicious. The ingredients were clearly top notch and the preparation was technically flawless. I will post a full menu later, but of the nine courses, only one, a fish course, didn’t work for me. When we left the restaurant over three hours later, however, I found that I was content, but not ecstatic about the meal I had just had. I have a few thoughts on why this may have been.
My largest issue with the meal was the lack of culinary innovation. When Keller reopened The French Laundry in 1994, he put Yountville on the map by pushing the envelope of American cuisine. Everything we ate at TFL was delicious, but with four dishes straight out of the 1996 Cookbook, I got the distinct feeling that the kitchen has decided to settle in and perform variations on a theme. This probably works for the majority of their clientele, special occasion diners, but disappointed me, since I expected to walk out of the dining room amazed at the creative flavor combinations. Instead, I left feeling like I had witnessed a very solid, but somewhat tired, performance.
This might dovetail with my second major complaint: the service was somewhat perfunctory. The French Laundry menu descriptions regularly run to four lines and typically include a menagerie of quotation and question marks. These are dishes that cry out for additional explanation when they are served. Instead, we got the tersest descriptions possible: “lobster with pea shoots”, “oysters and caviar with tapioca”. When I had a question about a powder sprayed across one of the dishes, the server did not know what it was.
In addition, I know, from both my reading about TFL and because Trio and the Laundry share a number of food suppliers, that many of the ingredients in these dishes have very interesting back-stories. One of the butters served at The French Laundry, for example, comes with a handwritten note from the dairy farmer with a description of where the cows were and what they ate before they were milked for that particular batch. This lack of enthusiasm for the food by the service staff greatly influenced our own excitement about the meal.
Other, more nitpicky, concerns included a waiter who smoked in his work uniform, then tried to cover the smell with some sort of mint spray. Every time this guy walked by our table, we got a big whiff of stale cigarette smoke, with an overtone of artificial mint. Another odor disaster occurred during our intermezzo, when a European couple was sat down next to us. The woman was absolutely drenched in Tressor, a perfume I happen to be quite fond of, but while I am trying to enjoy dinner. The stench was so strong that I was able to smell this woman’s perfume from the second floor of the restaurant. We were served what I assume was a wonderful 25 year-old Port with our chocolate dessert, but I could barely even taste it through the overwhelming odor. Is this something that the restaurant could have prevented? Probably not. But for me, it was a disappointing end to the meal.
Grant Achatz, chef of Trio, has won the James Beard award for best "rising star chef". Well deserved.
OK, so I got a little behind on the blog in my travels. I'm in San Francisco right now and have some dead time, so let's play catch up:
Taiko in Irvine with the stunning Mayu as my guest.
Taiko is apparently an Irvine institution. Would-be diners line up outside the small restaurant for hours for the chance to chow down on generous cuts of pristine fish. We got to the restaurant at 5:15 and there was already a line about 10 people deep, despite the fact that the restaurant didn't open until 5:30.
We sat with Suzuki-san, apparently the head chef, at the counter. I asked Suzuki-san to prepare whatever was best that day (omakase), but it quickly became clear that I was never going to eat if I let him choose. Slammed by the influx of diners, Suzuki-san quickly forgot about little 'ole me.
The meal was delicious. It wasn't the best sushi I've ever had, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was all very fresh and the cuts were exceedingly generous.
I think I managed to horrify one fellow diner, however. He was tucking into a dish made with mushrooms, onions and, as he described to the woman who asked him, "some part of the scallop -- I don't know what part." When I told him it was scallop sperm, he choked a little bit, turned red and stuttered away for a good thirty seconds before he regained his composure. Oh well, another lesson learned.
It was an odd meal. We were, admittedly, an odd-looking bunch ourselves. I was in a pair of jeans, button down shirt and a cashmere sweater. Barry was wearing jeans and a short sleeved shirt that did nothing to hide the huge honking tattoos all up and down his right arm.
Despite our scruffy looks, they sat us. The restaurant was, at most, a quarter full, leading me to wonder why the reservationist offered Barry 7:45 or 8:15 when he called for an 8PM reservation.
We both ordered five course tasting menus, with matching wine flights. I ordered the "ocean" menu, Barry got the "market" menu. The food started out good and worked its way down to OK. The really weird thing, though, was the service. The runner would bring our food, some of which clearly needed some explanation, then we would wait, sometimes for minutes, before someone from the waitstaff could come over and give us some detail. Even more baffling, on two occasions the server poured the wine, then disappeared with "I'll be right back!" only to reappear five or ten minutes later to tell us what we were eating and drinking.
Tonight, Taiko in Irvine with my sister-in-law.
Todd & Holland, an amazing tea store in Oak Park, and the Indian Tea Board hosted an Indian tea cupping yesterday at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park.
We tasted ten teas, in total: Three teas from Darjeeling, three from Nilgiris and three from Assam and my personal favorite, Wonder Tea (an delicious Darjeeling that we've gone through a half-pound of in two months).
All of the teas were amazing, although they were brewed for only four minutes, a little too short for my taste. The highlight of the event was definately James Norwood Pratt. An older, very stately Southern gentleman, he was full of all sorts of fascinating tea trivia.
Amazingly, this whole event, with its ten delicious teas, some of them so rare that they aren't even available for purchase at Todd & Holland, was free. Janet, Bill Todd's wife, even passed out little sample bags of one of the teas at the end. Very classy, but I wonder if it was a missed marketing opportunity.