Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ad Hoc: Family Style

As part of our family get together in the Napa Valley, Michael's cousin Kirsten arranged for the 8 of us to have dinner together at Ad Hoc, a new venture by Thomas Keller in Yountville (just down the street from the French Laundry).

We had a wonderful dinner there. Of course a lot of it was the company and probably the 6 bottles of wine take some credit also.

Ad Hoc is a very unusual restaurant which serves only one four course meal nightly. Kind of like going to a friend's house and eating what they decided to make. For that reason, there isn't a whole lot of point in an exhaustive review of the menu since it changes every day. We had tempura fried vegetables, lamb with potatoes au gratin, a green salad, and a dessert that escapes me now (must have been the wine). All of the dishes were very well prepared; the lamb in particular was outstanding.

The restaurant is bright and comfortable and, not surprisingly, pretty informal in the California wine country manner. Service was excellent, friendly and attentive. Of course the servers' job is made easier by the fact that everything is prepared and served family style so they don't have to take orders and only bring one (in our case two) platters of each dish.

The stated price of dinner is $49 per person which seems quite reasonable for a four course meal of such high quality. On the other hand, somehow it had expanded to $75 per person by the time we left, not counting an additional tip. I'm not sure where the extra $ came from, since we brought our own wine -- either corkage was steep or there were some add-ons there. Still not outrageous but realistically one is looking at $200 per couple with wine for a place where you don't get to choose what you eat, so check the menu carefully (it's posted every day at 2 pm) before you go.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

French Laundry: Pilgrimage to Yountville

After literally years of trying, on and off, to score a reservation here, we finally managed it with the help of some family connections who are close to the Napa restaurant scene. We did only manage to get lunch reservations, not dinner but there are some advantages in doing the big meal in the middle of the day, I think.

Anyhow, it was a grey, chilly day in Napa as we drove up to the restaurant. It is quite unpretentious and casual, at least from the outside. No valet parking...just find a space across the street. It's not even obvious where the front door is. Once we found it, we were greeted with courtesy if not excessive warmth and shown to a table in a small side room off the main dining room. This must have been the "gay room" since there were two other tables there, another deuce and a four top, both occupied by gay men. Presumably there were some "family" members in the main dining room as well.

The room was pleasant but not exactly what we might have pictured. On a dark, rather gloomy day the atmosphere was dark and a bit subdued. Michael noted that the chairs were rather dated and also, I noticed, rather scuffed up -- not exactly what one might expect from a place touted as the best restaurant in America. However, the chairs were comfortable enough and we quickly settled in and started reading the menu.

There are two fixed-price menus at FL, both $240. One is vegetarian and one is not. We were each tempted by the vegetarian menu (and if we ever go back, I would lean that way) but ultimately decided on the main menu to get the full experience. This consisted of nine course of which four were choices (of 2) and the other five were fixed. We decided to split our choices to have the widest number of possible tastes.

A couple of interesting but not memorable amuse bouches appeared...I think one was sort of a southern ham biscuit which was, frankly, a little dry, but my memory may be blurred by what came afterward.

Before getting down to serious eating, we of course needed to turn our attention to the wine list. The French Laundry has a serious list, as you can imagine, about 100 pages worth. It is also seriously expensive. By that I don't mean just that they have expensive wine (which, of course, they do) but that most of the wine is expensive, and that even relatively modest bottles are more expensive than they are at other restaurants. As an example, a bottle of Kongsgaard Chardonnay that we ordered at Snake River Grill in Jackson Hole for $125 (a very good price, by the way -- retail is $75) was $230 at FL. OK, maybe SRG isn't a great comparison being much less formal and in a small town. But the Dirler Grand Cru Kessler Pinot Gris that we had at FL for $150 (and outstanding, by the way) is on the list at Charleston in Baltimore, a pretty good restaurant in its own right, for $90.

It is not totally clear to me why expensive restaurants generally have expensive lists. It suggests that even at $240 a head they're not making enough money and that the wine subsidizes the food. Or maybe it's just because there is so much demand for tables that they can charge whatever they want for the wine. In any case I find it just a tad offputting.

Nonetheless, we were there for the experience and I was determined not to think too hard about the bottom line. We decided that we would start with half a bottle of champagne and ordered one recommended by the charming and helpful sommelier. I don't remember the name (and the posted wine list is not up to date so I can't recreate it). I do remember that it was a blanc de noirs and intended to be creamy and rich. Both Michael and I found it to be off. It actually tasted oxidized to me with the sort of spoiled flavors that we have found, surprisingly often, in "corked" wines. Michael and I both expressed our concern and as I usually do, I asked the sommelier to taste it himself. To his credit, he refused, saying that our opinion was the only one that mattered. He disappeared with the offending bottle and in due course reappeared with another one, a Taittinger I think, that he thought would be more to our liking. It was.

Meanwhile, the parade of food had begun. I don't have the energy, and I doubt any readers of this post have the interest, to engage in an exhaustive blow by blow description of each ingredient in each of nine courses. So I hope all will understand that I am condensing and abbreviating.

The first course was a cauliflower panna cotta which was far and away the best cauliflower I have ever had. That is not saying much since I can't stand cauliflower but this was really fantastic with just a hint of cauliflower flavor. The oyster glaze and caviar garnish didn't hurt a bit.

The second course was more problematic. I had the "foie gras en terrine" with a $30 upcharge, which ticked Michael off. He is militant on the subject of upcharges and one could argue that a $240 menu should allow for that. On the other hand it doesn't reach to the absurd levels of a meal last year at Komi in DC when practically every dish had an upcharge. Anyhow, the foie gras was delicious (and when is it not?. Michael opted for a beet salad and was very disappointed when it appeared with what appeared to be one small beet sliced into three or four pieces. Admittedly, it was an excellent beet, but not a big one. His first impression was that this was the kind of "cuisine" that non-foodies make fun of. As Michael said, "would it have killed them to put a second beet on the plate?"

Next Michael had a fillet of Japanese suzuki, which I always thought was a brand of motorcycle but turns out to be a kind of sea bass. He loved it. I had tartare of bluefin tuna which was unlike any tuna I have ever eaten, much more intense in its flavor. It made me think about why you hear about those bluefin tunas going for $10,000 in Japan. It was simply much more robust and flavorful than any sushi I have ever had, even in Japan.

Next we both had a butter poached lobster tail. I thought this fell a little flat. Sure, it was delicious. Lobster is always delicious. Especially with bacon on the side. It just seemed unexceptional. I ate a lot of lobster living in New England and sailing in Maine and I am of the "it doesn't need anything but itself school" so I wasn't looking for a lot to be done to it. But I would have thought that one of the world's great chefs could have done more with this. I am remembering the lobster with morels at Auberge de l'Ill.

Following the lobster, we were presented with a beautiful rabbit dish...a chunk of loin, a tiny little rack of chops, and some miscellaneous bits. More on that in a moment. I sensed a bit of potential trouble here as Michael is not a fan of rabbit on psychological (not moral) grounds. However, he dug in like a man. We both loved the sirloin and I was pleased to see him knawing on the miniature chops (around the size of your thumb) with relish. As part of the garnish of this dish (including baby turnips, a bit of roasted lettuce, and a prune), there was a pinkish object around the size and shape of a lima bean. I quietly put this in my mouth before Michael noticed it and chewing confirmed that it was a rabbit kidney. As far as I know I have not eaten a kidney before so I don't have anything to compare it to. This was quite pink (like medium rare liver) and around the same consistency. Michael figured out what it was and not surprisingly passed it up, so I ate his as well, wanting to give the kidney thing a fair shot. It was...OK. It did not make me want to rush out and eat any more.

The next course was a choice but since the saddle of lamb was made for two, and Michael wanted it, that was what we both had. (The other choice was beef). I remember the lamb being very tasty but I don't remember that much else about it. I had a glass of Martinelli Zinfandel with the lamb which was so good that even Michael took a couple of swigs from it.

Following the lamb, there was a modest (one selection) cheese course of a Tomme de l'Ariege which was very nice. An intermezzo of a buttermilk sherbet followed. It was, depending on your view, either fascinatingly subtle or essentially bland. I actually found it a bit of both. At first taste (it was not a tiny portion) it seemed to taste basically of milk, but on subsequent bites the very haunting taste of buttermilk came through in a very refreshing way.

Finally we arrived at dessert. The gents to our right were about 2 courses ahead of us so I knew what to expect. First was the listed dessert. I had chocolate, naturally...a "Jivara-caramel roulade". I had no idea what Jivara was and later found out it is a special Valrhona label. It was great. Michael had a cream yogurt bavarois with huckleberries. OK if you don't like chocolate, but I wasn't going to trade. This was followed by a delicious selection of mignardises and truffles.

The meal was beautifully timed and the service was extremely professional, very friendly and accommodating and balancing perfectly between stuffy and overly familiar. It turned out to be just the right amount of food as we left being very satisfied but not bloated. (We did not have any trouble eating dinner that night). The whole meal took 3 1/2 hours so it is pretty much of an all day experience.

The major downside, of course, was the cost. Except for the upcharge for the foie gras, the menu cost included all of the incidentals (bottled water, coffee -- which we didn't have -- and tip) so it is not quite as much as it seems. Still, with the wine, the total bill came to about $830.

I have to say that my conclusion is that it was not worth it. Obviously that is a very personal view and does not reflect anything about the care and professionalism of the restaurant and its staff. Maybe it is more of a reflection of the times that we find ourselves in and the state of the economy that I somehow feel uneasy about spending that much money on a single meal. This was the third over-$700 meal in four months for us (the other two being Alinea and Citronelle) and something in me says "enough". At least for a while.

But I think also my conclusion is not just about the absolute level of the cost but the value. Certainly the food was delicious and enjoyable. The service was flawless. The surroundings were pleasant (although I did not like the small side room we were in). But, with the exception of a couple of dishes -- the cauliflower panna cotta, the tuna, and the rabbit sirloin -- the taste of the dishes has not stuck with me. In contrast, with the best meal we have ever had -- dinner at Auberge de l'Ill -- I can still remember the look and taste of each of the five courses. I can also still remember the excitement and wonder of our first meal at Alinea even though I can't, of course, remember all 24 courses.

I guess in car terms I would characterize FL as kind of like a Lexus. Perfectly put together, refined, reliable, flawless...all of those adjectives fit. Exciting, not so much.

The French Laundry was a great and memorable experience and I am very glad that we had the chance to go. I will, perhaps, go again some day in better economic times, but for now, I am not in a hurry to return.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cure Bar & Bistro: A Pleasant Surprise

Back in DC, we were on our way downtown to see a movie at E Street Cinema on Saturday night (a big night out for us). Passing up the usual suspects like Rasika and Jaleo in the service of this blog, I remembered hearing some favorable reports on a place called Cure, and made a reservation. We checked out the menu on line: smoked meats, cheese, small plates...what could be bad? Sounded like a perfect place to graze lightly before a movie.

Since it was snowing lightly and we didn't want to worry about parking, we hopped on Metro, which was a bit more involved than we had guessed what with track work and all...given the delays, it probably would have been faster to drive around downtown looking for a parking space! But we eventually emerged from Metro Center and found our way to the restaurant.

Let's get the bad stuff out of the way right up front. Cure is in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt. Not only that, but it looks like it is in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt. The place is divided into three areas on three levels...first a conventional looking bar area with couches and other casual seating, then an area down a flight of steps with small bar-like tables, and finally an area down yet more steps with more conventional dining-sized tables. It was this last area to which we were ushered -- I inferred from a comment by the hostess that this area was reserved for folks that were there to dine, as opposed to just drinking and grazing.

Unfortunately, this is the least attractive part of the facility and you definitely feel like you are sitting in a hotel lobby, complete with an escalator going by about 5 feet away, the rather garish lighting scheme (fine for a lobby, not so good for dining) and all that. While there is no doubt something the Hyatt could do to make this area somewhat less lobby-like, they have not done it yet, so for the time being I would suggest asking to be seated in one of the other two areas.

Happily, although Cure gets a "D" for ambiance, it gets an "A" for food. And wine. We each ordered a quartino of wine from the very intelligent and reasonably priced list...Michael had the St Supery Sauvignon Blanc that he favors and I had a South African Cabernet that I had not encountered before -- like trying new restaurants, I always like to try new wines when it doesn't involve a major commitment. Along with that, we started off with a couple of cheeses - a Bonne Bouche and a "constant bliss" cow's milk cheese (if only constant bliss could just be ordered off a menu). Both were creamy and delicious, especially the Bonne Bouche. The portions were small but at $4 each, what do you expect. They were served with some sort of jam, which frankly didn't do much for us, excellent bread, and roasted nuts.

Just after the cheese arrived, our extremely professional server, Ken (more about this later) brought over another basket of bread, along with some unsalted butter and a small plate containing no less than four different salts...two white ones that I didn't pay much attention to (Michael reported that one of them was "extremely salty", which I suppose is to be expected), a pink Hawaiian salt, and a brown smoked salt from Maine. We looked at each other with surprise, as this restaurant was turning out to be a lot more serious than we had expected. Four kinds of salt? Loving all sorts of smoked stuff, I fell in love with the smoked salt and even Michael, who does not usually love smoked foods, found it delicious.

Since we were on a bit of a deadline to make our movie, we had ordered a number of other dishes which soon started arriving. The first to arrive was a duck leg confit style on a bed of arugula. It was one of the best duck dishes we have had in a long time. In fact it landed in front of Michael (the table was, at this point, getting rather crowded) and I thought I was going to have to armwrestle him for it as he was very reluctant to give it up. It was a generous portion. The duck was succulent and tasty and the lightly dressed arugula provided a nice foil for the richness.

We also had a plate of mixed smoked meats (prosciutto, Jamon-style ham, regular ham, and smoked garlic sausage) which was an extremely generous portion for $12. Probably as hefty as the charcuterie plate at Central which if I remember right is about twice the price. All of the hams were extremely tasty. We also, at Ken's recommendation, had the Maryland Blue Crab pie. It was, as Michael pointed out, more of a gratin than a pie...a rather shallow little skillet full of crab nuggets with corn and under a cracker crust. It is hard to make a bad dish containing blue crab and this was a good one. It was so rich that the modest size of the dish, compared to some of the other offerings, turned out to be just right.

In the interest of making our movie, and staying awake through it, we called it quits at that point. Since the room was only half full, we had the chance to chat a little bit with Ken, who has come over from another restaurant in town and appears to be in charge of Cure. He has put together the wine list and as noted earlier, has done an extremely good job of getting some interesting names that you don't see every day (along with some more familiar ones for those who aren't feeling adventurous). He clearly takes pride in what has been accomplished at Cure and he has every right to do so. It was one of the nicest surprises we have encountered on the Washington dining scene for quite some time. Our bill, at about $100 before tax and tip, was very reasonable given the amount of food we had -- and a screaming bargain given the quality of the offerings.

The next time we're headed downtown, we will definitely make a beeline for Cure...but next time we'll try to sit in the bar!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The French Pastry Shop-Santa Fe 11-27-2008

We had arrived in Santa Fe the rather late the night before after a long flight and an hours drive from Albuquerque so we would have to put aside our appetites until the next morning.

The early Thanksgiving morning greeted us with gray, and rain filled clouds and a clean, cold crispness in the air. None of which deterred from walking into town to seek out our first food adventure in Santa Fe. Seeing that it was Thanksgiving Day we knew that our choices would be limited but we were optimistic that we would find something that would satisfy us.

We headed down to the plaza, which was an easy ten-minute walk from our little casita. For weeks our excitement grew for experiencing true southwestern food in Santa Fe and French food was one of the last things we had planned on eating while we were there. Well being the French foodies that we are I must admit our joy when we stumbled upon the “French Pastry Shop” near the heart of Santa Fe’s historic plaza. The plaza was a virtual ghost town since it was a holiday so we were thrilled to find that it was open.

Like many places it Santa Fe the interiors had a quirky, rustic patina, which added to its charm. But hey we were there to satisfy our never failing craving for French pastries and not for the ambience. Fortunately it was not too crowded and we quickly sat ourselves down to a small table. The restaurant was a comfortable mix of locals (always a good sign) and some obvious tourists like us. They are open for breakfast and lunch.
A very friendly and perky young lady immediately greeted us and we promptly order café au lait. There was a dizzying selection of traditional pastries to choose from and on top of that a variety of sweet crepes.

I decided to have a cheese Danish, which was not the most traditional of French pastries and David ordered his favorite pain au chocolat. Our pastries were accompanied by our café au lait’s, which were oddly served in coffee mugs. Not my favorite way to drink my au lait but after one sip of the perfect frothy milk and the strong coffee I happily put aside my preference for a traditional bowl.

Breakfast for me always poses a particular dilemma. Do I want savory or sweet? Sometimes I crave both so we decided to also have a chorizo and egg crepe. What a perfect way to satisfy our cravings for southwestern food with a French influence. There was no fussiness to the crepe; it was simply served by itself with no garnishes, which was fine by me. The pancake was perfectly cooked, slightly crisped on the outside and a soft slightly dough like quality inside. The chorizo was everything I like it for. It was mildly spicy, the color of dark paprika, and a little oil, which is so good. I barely detected the eggs but the cheese, undoubtedly Swiss added a nice flavor and held it all together.

If you find yourself in Santa Fe craving something French and something casual make sure you head straight down to the French Pastry Shop for breakfast. It’s friendly service and delicious food will certainly please. If I were a local you would surely find me there many mornings of the week enjoying my au lait and pastry. Besides there are always the remains of the day for Southwestern food!