OK - I'm solidly in the Cyrus >>> French Laundry camp.
Every once in a while, I have a meal that’s not just a great meal, but also an education. This was one of those meals. I never text during meals, but I actually texted a few friends in the middle of this one: “Cyrus kicking TFL’s ass”.
I had initially planned on ordering just a few courses – a number of expensive meals in the Bay Area left me disappointed (Gary Danko and Michael Minna were extremely disappointing; Quince and French Laundry were somewhat disappointing) and I was wary of dropping a lot of money again. The excellent canapés immediately put my fears to rest – there were five of them, and all were excellent, although I can only remember three (panisse with tapenade, goat cheese; mushroom shiu mai; grapefruit and Campari gelee. The other two were fairly complicated and involved spoons). Each was intensely flavorful, self-contained, and well balanced, both internally, and relative to the other canapés. By the time I finished the canapés, I had all but committed to the Chef’s menu – when our server described the dishes for the evening, I was sold.
One of the things that really impressed me was the attention paid to acidity and balance, especially with the progression of courses. As opposed to the classic fish => poultry => meat progression, this menu reminded me of the one at Alinea in Chicago, where lighter courses alternated with richer ones, thus preventing palate fatigue (palate fatigue was one of my issues with French Laundry, where the progression was rich => richer => richest).
I consider myself a relative novice when it comes to wine, so I really enjoyed playing with pairings during this meal, and I felt like I learned alot while doing so. I chose four wines by the glass, based on my friend’s and my general preferences for wine (low alcohol, high acidity, fragrant, food-friendly):
Riesling Kabinett, Schmitt-Wagner “Longuicher Maximiner Herrenberg”, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany, 2005
Gruner Vetlinger, Hirsch “Heiligenstein”, Kamptal, Austria 2005
Gattinara, Antoniolo, Piedmont, Italy 2001
Chateauneuf-du-Pape – not sure which one – they printed the wrong one on my souvenir menu.
I really liked having all four glasses out and experimenting – in the foie gras and wagyu duos, different wines were clearly better matched to one side vs. the other.
The amuse bouche was a small seaweed salad dressed with a goji berry puree and a demitasse of miso soup. The soup was elevated by a perfectly calibrated acidity and a subtle spiciness – this was incredible with Gruner Vetliner! With the wine, tasting the soup was like watching a blurry picture come into focus – the flavors of the soup became sharper and more intense, and the floral quality of the wine became more apparent.
Nantucket Bay Scallop Ceviche with Pickled Daikon and Sweet Potato puree – the sweetest, tenderest scallops, balanced by the sweet, buttery puree and the tart, sharply flavored shreds of daikon - this was also amazing with Gruner Vetliner. This was finished with a dusting of “soy salt” (freeze-dried soy sauce) – the only molecular touch of the evening, as far as I could tell.
Foie Gras Two Ways – terrine en croute (with Smithfield ham mousse in the middle, wrapped in compressed genoise). Tasting this with the Riesling was one of those revelatory experiences for me. Without the Riesling, the foie gras component dominated. With the Riesling, the flavor of the ham mousse emerged – the transition of flavor from foie gras to ham in the span of a sip of wine was remarkable. The second preparation was seared foie gras with frisee aux “lardons” (tiny dice of Smithfield ham), on toast with quail egg. This preparation was very rich and became cloying with the Riesling – the Gruner Vetliner cut through the fat like a knife. Perfect.
The similar ingredients, but prepared in totally different ways that resulted in revelations of taste and texture – this is what I’d been hoping for from Michael Minna! Whereas at MM, where my heart sank with each component of each course from the sameness of it all, this foie gras course made me (and my friend) laugh hysterically at its ridiculous deliciousness. I think I ate most of it with my eyes closed, so as not to allow any other external stimuli detract from the experience.
Ikejime Tai, smoked soba noodles and crab, oolong tea broth – this was gorgeous. There was a strong scent of coconut and vanilla from the oolong and acidity from Meyer lemon – I’ve never tasted anything like this (and when I spend this much money on a meal, I want to taste something new).
“Chicken and Dumplings” – poulard roulade stuffed with grits and truffles; the "dumplings" were seared potato gnocchi. I forgot to ask how the chicken was cooked – it was really tender, but without the weird sponginess that often results from sous-vide cooking. In a menu less well-designed than this one, this dish would have gotten lost, but because it followed a course featuring bright, sharp, exotic flavors, I really appreciated the mellow, comforting flavors of this dish.
Palate cleanser – a “lollipop” of citrus sorbet.
Wagyu two ways: seared strip with cauliflower puree, single seared cauliflower floret. This was my first time tasting Wagyu, and it was unreal. After all these years of hearing people describe it, I still was stunned by the foie-gras like texture. This was absolutely amazing with Gattinara (a nebbiolo) – on its own, the Gattinara was fairly austere, but the cherry and leather flavors really blossomed against the beef. The second part was Wagyu beef cheek with five spice glaze and cauliflower risotto – this was better with Chateauneuf du Pape and brought out a nicoise-olive and paperwhite narcissus quality to the wine.
By the time we got to the cheese course, we were down to a few sips of gruner vetliner and a few sips of nebbiolo. I told the cheese cart server this, and she helped us choose cheeses that complemented our remaining wine. I can’t remember most of the names – I asked her to email them to me – but I’ll record what I remember. I don’t know if she intentionally placed the accompaniments (dates, Della Fattoria bread, spiced nuts, ginger-poached apples, house-made panforte) with the cheeses they paired with the best, but that’s how I ate them, and everything was fantastic.
-Goat cheese wrapped in fig leaves – this tasted like remarkably like milk chocolate! A first for me.
-Brillat-Savarin – I usually try not to order cheeses I’ve had before when I’m faced with a cheese cart with so many choices, but a perfectly ripened Brillat-Savarin isn’t that easy to find… this was delicious, of course.
-A really delicious, nutty tasting hard cheese from Vermont… can’t remember the name.
-Vacherin – on its own, it was mild, almost reticent, but it was amazing with nebbiolo – the cheese and the wine amplified each other’s funkiness, and together, it tasted like Epoisse
-A cow milk dusted with grape must from Andante
-Washed rind goat milk blue –this surprised me – usually, tannic red + blue cheese = disaster, but this was incredible with nebbiolo – the cheese tasted really nutty, and the wine became really perfume-y.
Green cardamom ice cream with pineapple yuzu granite, ginger, honey moscato – enough light, bright flavors and textures to prep us for the final stretch through dessert.
Blood orange soufflé with champagne anglaise, chocolate torte – delicious (how could it not be?)
Mignardises – white chocolate lavender truffle, chocolate truffle, peach lollipop, Turkish delight, nougat, mint chocolate meltaway, vanilla marshmallow, “Tootsie roll”. And a brownie in a cleverly designed box, for the mignardises we couldn't finish.
Service was warm and friendly but professional. Our servers were clearly enthusiastic about the food, which always enhances a meal for me. Total cost, with one cocktail (oh, I never even got into the cocktails… the mandarin orange blossom one with lemongrass and five-spice honey is one of the best things I’ve ever tasted), two glasses of wine, coffee, tax and 20% tip was $220 per person, and worth every single penny. I can’t wait to go back.