Dinner at the French Laundry II

Last night was dinner number two at The French Laundry. We had a wonderful meal, though it was a small notch below our first, out-of-this-world experience there in May. I'm already planning our next visit, but will be keeping two new lessons in mind.Lesson #1. I had feared as much, but now have definitive proof that my need to sleep trumps my desire to eat. 9:15 is just too late to embark on nine-plus course meal. The staff is already fully aware of this fact: the 9:15 seating is no longer offered for new reservations. (The vast majority of people are seated at 5:30, a few tables are available at 7:45, and a number open at 8:45.) When food is good, I can be a marathon eater. Though that's a somewhat embarrassing admission for a woman in this day and age, I have always been able to count on that "talent." On our first visit to the French Laundry, I finished Oren's last four courses when he got too full. This time, I arrived at dinner with a major-league appetite, but no matter what the occasion or setting, by about 10pm I just stop being hungry. When the sixth course arrived around eleven, my stomach and my brain were in an all-out war over the fate of the food on my plate. I had most of the seventh course for lunch today. 5:30 is sounding pretty good for next time.Lesson #2. The more you like the ingredients of the season, the better the odds of an orgasmic meal. Chef Keller is probably the world's best guide to the undiscovered glory of things like salsifi and brussels sprouts, but as delicious as he can make them, I would still prefer his magic touch applied to an ingredient I already love. It's just a matter of preference, and I'll take his fabled (and still elusive) truffled pasta over any salsifi preparation any day. However, though not exactly what I was hoping for, Chef Keller's treatment of some vegetables I usually skip was both educational and inspiring.The Menus. On this visit, the Tasting of Vegetables had grown to nine courses, putting it on par in length with the Chef's Tasting Menu. Though highly tempted by the latter, minus the meat dishes, I chose the former in the interest of sampling more things (little did I know about the pending showdown with my stomach). Since Chef Keller's seafood dishes have been my favorites so far, I plan on returning to the Chef's Menu next time.To start, complimentary glasses of Laurent Perrier Brut Rosé (perhaps because of the bit of a wait for our table, or because we were repeat customers, or just the late hour?). This is a subtle but delicious champagne with a rose pink hue, almost no nose, and strong bubbles.1. Warm Gruyere gougeres. Moist and eggy inside, better than last time. 2. The classic Salmon Cornet for Oren and a Roasted Tomato Confit with Eggplant Caviar Cornet for me. Mine looked so much like a small scoop of berry sorbet that I actually expected it to be frozen. The confit had a sweet, rich intensity and the cones of both were a dark brown (sort of a buckwheat color) with a strong flavor in their own right. As there were only two of us, we asked if they would be willing to do wine pairings by the glass, per a friend's suggestion. We were told they didn't do that but had a wonderful selection of half bottles and would be happy to do pairings with those, which we accepted, with an expressed preference for little to no oak, old-world wines, and especially Burgundies. The first was a 2003 Mersault Cuvee Speciale "Les Tablis"(?), a surprisingly oaky, flat, acid-free wine. Oren commented that for the pairings with the rest of the meal, we'd prefer even more old-world style wines. Before we knew it, the bottle had been replaced by a lovely 2000 Chablis Premier Cru "La Forest", which was quite laid back but with a good mineral note that we much preferred. We were surprised to be informed that neither would be on the final bill--truly top-notch service.3a. "Oysters and Pearls" -- "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Beau Soleil Oysters and Russian Sevruga Caviar. This "staple" was better than either of us remembered. 3b. "Puree" of Jacobsen's Farm Sunchoke Soup, "Salpicon de Topinambours" and Nicoise Olive Oil. The bowl arrived with a painterly stripe of nicoise olive paste across one side and a small pile of perfect 4mm cubes. The hot soup was then poured over the top. The slight tooth of the dice were a perfect contrast for the smooth, rich soup. Truly delicious.House-salted Vermont butter (bright yellow) and the paler Strauss butter with a selection of breads. We were disciplined enough to take only a bite--bread and butter are so good though!4a. Salad of Apple Farm Transparent Apples, Belgian Endive, Red Currants, Candied English Walnuts and Apple "Creme Fraiche". I'm not sure about the origins of the term "transparent," but just thinking about the tart, crispy apples and currants with the slight bitterness of the endive and sweet crunch of the walnuts is making my mouth water. The creme fraiche was subtle but helped bring the other elements together.4b. "Terrine" of Moulard Duck "Foie Gras", Apple Farm "Philo Gold" Apple Relish, Toasted "Brioche" and Crystallized "Apple Chip". This was unusually light despite the strong flavors of the components. The bread was, of course, replaced with a warm slice about two thirds of the way through. This was paired with a glass of 2002 Domaine Messmer Spatlese Gewurztraminer that had fantastic fruit and wasn't too sweet. This is a wine I'd like to have in my cellar. 5a. "Salsifi Pané à l'Anglaise, Compote de Tomate, Salade d'Epinards et Sauce Rémoulade". The salsifi came as a four inch by half inch log, panko crusted and lightly fried. Although salsifi is often called "oyster root" because of the supposed flavor resemblance, I found this more akin to a parsnip. Unfortunately for me, I don't much care for oysters or parsnips. 5b. Crispy Skin Fillet of Gulf Coast Red Snapper, Sauteed Green Onions, Pea Tendrils, Garden Carrots, Bean Sprouts and Vidalia Onion "Syrup". The standout of the evening.6a. "Fricassee" of "Musquee de Provence" Pumpkin, Brussels Sprouts, Perigord Truffle and Pomegranate Seeds with "Beurre Noisette". Another truly exceptional dish with what looked like gnocchi of pumpkin. Finally, some truffles! With so much already going on, the flavor of the dime-sized rounds was a bit lost, though they must have contributed to the excellence of the whole. I had actually looked forward to more truffles on the menu, but apparently there was a hiccup in the supply this week.6b. "Caesar Salad" Maine Lobster Tail "Pochee Sous Vide" with Caramelized Heart of Romaine, Sweet Garlic-Parmesan "Crouton" and "Bottarga" Emulsion. Neither of us thought this quite measured up to the lobster course last time, but it was still delicious.For red wine, we had a half bottle of 2001 Morey St. Denis Huert Ligneer that was right on the mark.7a. K & J Orchard Roasted Chestnuts, Celery Branch "Batons", Celeriac "Puree", Shaved Chestnuts, Tupelo Honey Glazed Cranberries and Cutting Celery Greens. A very good dish that I couldn't fully appreciate at that point in the meal.7b. All Day Braised Hobb's Shore Pork Belly, Glazed Tokyo Turnips, Brussels Sprouts and "Sauce Perigordine."8a. "Hachis Parmentier" "Ragout" of Forest Mushrooms and "Pommes de Terre Duchesse". This is where I lost the battle of trying to eat anything savory and rich, but this was so good! Completely unwilling to miss out and having seen several other people leave with pretty little boxes in bags, I asked with some embarrassment if I could take it with me. Our waiter happily suggested that it would be delicious for breakfast with an egg. It was in fact extraordinary for lunch today.8b. Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Rib-Eye "en Mousse aux Herbes de Provence", Roasted Globe Artichokes, San Marzano Tomato "Fondue", "Barigoule Bread Pudding" and Nicoise Olive Sauce. Excellent.9a. "Andante Dairy Acapella," Slow Baked Baby Beets, French Laundry Garden Lolla Rossa Lettuce and Vidalia Onion "Vinaigrette". Andante Dairy in Santa Rosa is a Bay Area restaurant favorite, also served at The Farm House Inn. Though I've had the Acapella blue before, it struck me as a little too strong this time, though that could have had more to do with my growing fatigue than the cheese.9b. "Pleasant Ridge," New Crop Potato Salad, Dijon Mustard Vinaigrette and Frisee Lettuce. 10a. Napa Valley White "Verjus Mirror", Red "Verjus" Emulsion, Raisin "Coulis" and Domaine Messmer Gewurztraminer Jelly. This layered dessert was light, only slightly sweet, a bit tannic, and wonderfully refreshing, though a bit odd. It took me a few bites to realize I needed to go below the frozen disk on the top and the foam beneath it to the coulis and jelly. The presentation mirrored the composition: it came in a bowl over three plates.10b. Oregon Wild Huckleberry Sorbet, Sweet Semolina Cake and "Compote" of Oregon Huckleberries. A bit sweet.11a. Hosui Pear "Pochee au Vin Doux", "Frangipane", Valrhona Chocolate Pudding and Red Wine-Bartlett Pear Sorbet. The red wine ice cream over pear sorbet and the swirls of poached pear were my favorite parts of this dish.11b. Valrhona Chocolate "Financier", "Gianduja" Custard, Spiced Caramel Ice Cream, Spanish Peanut Crunch and Cocoa Nib "Coulis". An excellent finish with the elements here all coming together beautifully.12. "Migniardises". We had clearly faded (it was 12:30am) and, without asking, these were graciously packed to go.One interesting thing I had not noticed before but that became obvious when we were the second to last table to leave: there was no music playing. For those who have wondered what you're competing for in the race against the busy signal: on this visit there were eight tables in the main dining room, three in the annex reconfigured for a private party, and six more tables upstairs, including the private room. We were surprised to find two tables open on our arrival and a third free by our fourth course. All in all, an excellent meal and still the only place I've been that really warrants its four star status. Everyone on staff was incredibly gracious and the setting was lovely as always. Although this didn't quite match the other-worldly experience of our first visit, it came close and between the time, the season, and it not being quite so new, I'm neither surprised nor the slightest bit disappointed in anything other than the stubbornness of my own internal clock.