Our reservation was at 7, so we walked over (our hotel was a couple of blocks away), all looking quite snazzy. Unfortunately, we didn't do pictures (though dr_memory has pictures of most of the food), so you'll have to trust me when I say that everyone looked fantastic, and, of course, we were feeling all festive. The French Laundry is a cute little two story building, stone downstairs, wood upstairs, with a cute garden across the street. The garden is mostly for show, though someone did see one of the cooks harvesting a handful of herbs from it on Saturday.
After taking our coats and umbrellas, they took us upstairs to our private room, which was almost completely taken up with a 10 person table. Since we were such a big party, I was envisioning the typical long, narrow table, but delightfully, what we had instead was a circular table, which made it possible for us to have full-table conversations, rather than little table-section conversations that you get with a long rectangle. That was a nice touch, the first of several.
We started with champagne (Pierre Gimonnet, Champagne, MV) and a welcoming toast by trom. They gave us plenty of time to enjoy the champagne before bringing the first amuse bouche, an upscale cheesy puff. A cheesy pouf, if you will. It was just a simple mouthful, a sort of cream puff with gruyere rather than cream. Very tasty. The second amuse, Shannon (Shannon was one of our primary servers. She and Dennis, the other, became our best friends, and we were sorry we couldn't take them home with us.) informed us, was inspired by a visit to Baskin Robins by Thomas Keller. She came out with a little triangular tray with holes in it, ice cream cone holder style, with little miniature cones wrapped in napkins, much like tiny ice cream cones. They were salmon tartar and a mildly peppery cheese sauce in a crispy pastry cone. Deeeelicious! Also, an obvious glimpse of Keller's sense of humor.
We drank more champagne they were quite generous with it, and, as you would imagine, very attentive with regards to keeping our glasses full. I have this problem at multi-course meals like this, where I intellectually know that there will be plenty of food and drink, but, of course, at the beginning, I'm hungry, and an intellectual understanding of plenty only moderately impacts my behavior. So, even knowing that there would be lots of wine, I had ... well, I don't know how many glasses of champagne, because, of course, they kept refilling, so it was hard to keep track. It was, however, extraordinarily good champagne.
The first course was the classic Oysters and Pearls, which is, apparently, in the cookbook (which I may now have to go buy). This is pearl tapioca with oysters and sevruga caviar. It was to die for. This was my first of my (several) favorite courses. Each element was mouthwateringly scrumptious, but together, it was out of this world. The tapioca... the oysters... the caviar. Oh, man. (Remember the part where I said I can't do it justice with words?) I'd seen this dish described elsewhere, and let's just say that words are not sufficient. I refrained myself from picking up the plate to lick it, but I will admit to using my fingers to get every last bit.
Now is a good time to note that since we were a large party, whenever a course was brought in, the room filled with a troop of servers, each carrying two plates, ringing the table. We took to commenting, "Incoming!" as each course was served, and an expectant hush would take over the room, at least until we'd all had several glasses of wine, at which point Dennis or Shannon would have to beg us to shut up so they could tell us about what we were about to eat. We were quite unruly. The servers did this classy thing where they would all put down one plate, synchronized, and then step to the side and, again in synchronized fashion, the next plate. Or that was the idea, anyway. They were all very cute, mouthing, "One, two, three!" to each other, and mostly getting it right. Rather than being seamless and invisible, therefore, it was classy, clumsy and entertaining, and I just loved that it wasn't perfect. They were all so earnest; it was great.
The second course (I think; this one didn't show up on the printed menu they gave us, and I kind of lost track of what came when) was a rich black truffle custard, served in an egg shell. This was my next favorite course (these are not ranked, by the way, just signalled temporally): smooth, eggy, truffly and mouth-watering. I was lucky enough to get an extra half of one of these, as dr_memory passed his to missionista, and she gave me half of it. Mmm. For this one, I didn't have to use my fingers to lick the dish, since the dish was conveniently breakable, so I could, with relative delicacy, break little pieces off to lick directly.
Either with that, or with the next course (I told you I lost track), we moved to the next wine, Gini, "Salvarenza Vineyard" Soave, Veneto, 2002. I'm not usually all about the white wines, but this was a perky, fresh little thing that was just yummy and easy to like.
The third course was a salad: hearts of peach palm, oranges, radishes cheese and a bitter orange sauce. Best. Salad. Ever. The bitter orange coulis was outstanding, the radishes were shaved so thin that they were transparent.
The fourth course was poached fillet of St. Peter's Fish with a tomato compote, ragout of fennel bulb and Spanish capers. This was flavorful and lovely. St Peter's Fish is a white fish with a texture between cod and salmon. The tomato compote was just the tiniest bit spicy and bright tasting, and the fennel bulb added a great bit of crunch.
That was served with the next wine, Louis Carillon, "Les Combettes," 1ER, Puligny Montrachet, 2003. It was good, but it didn't leap out for me, so I don't remember particulars.
The fifth course was Beets and Leeks, another dish that's featured in the cookbook. This was my next favorite, and holy moly. It's a butter poached lobster tail with melted leeks and red beet essence. These are three of my favorite ingredients, and they came together amazingly well. The lobster was buttery and lobstery, the leeks were melty and the beets were beety. So, so very tasty. As kcatalyst pointed out, this dish was tricky because the beet stained the dish, so you thought there was more for licking, but you were wrong.
Somewhere between the third course and now, they brought us delicious little buttery rolls, accompanied by a choice of butters. One was a sweet butter, and the other salted, delivered to the Laundry sweet and hand churned with fleur de sel. I believe it was the salted one that came from Animal Farm in Orwell, VT. I kid you not. I'll just say that those cows are more equal than most, because it was a darn tasty butter.
The sixth course brought us to our first meat course, pastrami of pekin duck breast over caramelized cabbage, caraway melba and dressing. This was disconcertingly like pastrami and cabbage, and was another example of Keller's sense of humor. It was delicious, but I have to admit that I'm enough of a fan of duck that, given a choice, I'd choose ducky tasting duck over pastramiy duck most days of the week. Sunday, though, the pastrami duck was out of this world.
That was served with our first red wine, a Favia Pino Noir, "La Josephina" from Russian River Valley, 2004. This was, I believe, the one wine that trom had specifically mentioned in talking to the somellier the week before, only to be told that they were out. Kindly, they special ordered a case for us, and it was smoothly complex and beautiful. So very, very good.
The seventh course was lamb ribeye with pimenton mousse, garlic, artichokes, peppers and sauce. Normally, I'm a huge lamb fan, but this was my least favorite plate. Now, keeping this in perspective, of course, that means that this dish was merely outstanding, not sublime.
That was served with a syrah (one of my favorite varietals) big enough to beat you over the head. It was a Scholium Project Syrah, "Iseult-Hudson Vineyard" Carneros 2003. I love a pushy red, and this was it, and it paired delightfully with the lamb, each standing up well to the other. It also had a nifty vaguely mathematical label (it might have been real math, but, well, it was late by then, and I'd been drinking) and the bottle was surmised to be leaded glass, as it was unusually heavy.
The eighth course, the cheese course, was Tomme de loubieres with poached apricots, candied hazelnuts and lettuce. I loved every element of this dish except that this turned out to be one of the cheeses that makes my tongue itch. (Emmenthaler is the other that I've found so far.)
After the cheese course, we moved to dessert. The ninth course was a sprightly rhubarb sorbet over a sweet merengue with cardamom syrup. This was sublime. Wow. Noises were made about plans for baitcon.
The tenth course was straight up yummy dessert: feuillentine au caramel, butterscotch, caramel mousse and chocolate praline. It was richly, but not overwhelmingly, chocolatey, with gooey caramel and a crispy base. By this time, of course, I was quite full, but I still had to scrape the plate to get every bit (but did not resort to fingers).
That was served with the dessert wine, an Olivares Monastrell-Dulce, Jumilla 2001. I loved this, but some people at the table weren't dessert wine types, so Pat traded hers away for the last of missionista's pinot and syrah.
The eleventh course was vanilla creme brulee for every other person, and cinnamon panna cotta for the rest. I got the panna cotta, and though I got a taste of the creme brulee, and it was knee-knockingly good, I was glad to have the panna cotta. It was sweet, creamy, smooth, and delicious.
Finally, we closed with some small sweets: macadamia nuts rolled in caramel, then chocolate, then powdered sugar. Some people had port or other drinks (mr_privacy, what was that?) and then, just in case we weren't all over the top, these amazing chocolates, in five flavors: (someone correct me if I'm remembering these wrong) mocha, caramel, peanut butter, licorice and vanilla. I had a vanilla and a caramel, and they were OMG good, but this put me over the top and if I'd been at home, I would have started groaning at this point. Instead, I had some mint tea. That helped.
We then staggered downstairs, collected our coats and umbrellas, and tottered back to the hotel. It was, fortunately, not raining, so I was able to use my umbrella as a cane, which was utterly essential. I'm convinced I would not have made it all two blocks on my feet without it.
We were back at the hotel by midnight, completely buoyant and jazzed and dizzy with delight.
Later, or tomorrow, I'll talk more about the service and other nice touches. Now, I'm having foodgasmic aftershocks in memory and can't type anymore.
And I seriously need a food icon.