Please forgive the length of this post. It reflects a lengthy meal!
After a few days to mentally digest this dinner, I feel ready to report. To sum up: Am I glad I did it? Yes. It was a once-in-a-lifetime food experience. Would I do it again? No way. I wouldnt mind shelling out $162 (price for one 8-course meal with 1 glass of wine, tax, and 20% tip) for meal of consistently exquisite taste, but in this meal there too many not-really-exquisite tastes to justify such a bill.
When I arrived at 7:15 on a Thursday night I was surprised to see only a few other tables occupied. As the evening progressed, only 18 diners appeared. Maybe people were saving up for the 10th anniversary blowout scheduled for the following 2 days. I opted for the 8-course menu (110$)
As has been noted elsewhere, the service was flawless, warm, tinged with humor, and eminently knowledgeable, though I did tire of hearing the same scripts echoing from different parts of the room as the plates were presented. They dont improvise in their descriptions, that's for sure. Although when the first course is sea urchin roe, parsnip milk, frozen bananas and puffed rice, what else is there to say?
The amuse Cheez ncracker was a tasty hollow lozenge of crisp pastry filled with melted sharp cheddar. A single crunch brought a grin of pleasure to my face. This was presented on the end of a long thin marble slab.
The sea urchin came next. Im not quite sure what parsnip milk is, and the server couldnt explain it, but it tasted neither of parsnip nor milk, prviding instead a neutral taste and temperature. The sea urchin roe was fresh and gorgeous but if theres one thing I now know about sea urchin roe its this: It should never go near a frozen banana or a rice krispie. This dish provided the first glimpse of a taste combo that defined the meal: salt over sweet. And not in the pleasing way of milk chocolate over salted nuts, or prosciutto over melon. In the very weird way of, say, salted jell-o.
The next dish was a new fall offering: puree of chestnuts (poached with juniper) with bacon consommé, potato crisps, and celery leaf. So far so good. The hot chestnut puree and velvety bacon consommé are the worlds most luxurious baby food: utterly smooth, utterly rich, unctuos, salty and sweet (in the good way), with the crisps and celery leaf adding just the right contrasts of crunch and light herbaceousness. So what about the potato ice cream topping it all off? Well, in a word yuk. The coldness and sugary sweet of it did nothing to enhance this dish and IMHO, really detracted from it in flavor and mouthfeel. I was very happy once I scraped it all off though, and concentrated on the puree alone.
Dungeness crab with coconut milk and 10 bridging garnishes came next. This is an eye-popping dish and I have NO idea how they did it. In the center of the plate is a golf-ball-sized sphere of coconut milk. The containing wall of the sphere, a gelatinous layer of coconut (think thick pudding skin) contains the rich warm liquid within. Surrounding the sphere were bits of Dungeness crab; they were also scattered along the rim of the plate, interspersed with the 10 tasty bits: avocado and Thai chili sliver, ginger, tomato marmalade and fennel, fenugreek and curry powder, a shred of coconut topped with as peck of vanilla bean, candied lime zest, and a whole cashew with powdered cashew. I wasnt sure how to east this, but ended up poking the jiggly sphere to release its treasure, and then eating a bit of crab with each of the garnishes. This was pretty successful, as it provided a number of startlingly good tastes (the ginger and tomato were especially good) but I think the pure coconut milk, without any other flavor to lighten it, really overpowered the delicate flavor of the crab.
A palate cleanser followed: a lozenge of chantrelle mushroom sorbet topped with a layer of mint sorbet. The salt over sweet thing again. The mushroom layer tasted mostly just of salt but the mint layer was quite nice.
Next came a puffed lobster cracker (similar to a Japanese shrimp cracker) with scrambled lobster coral, a tiny taste of fresh grapefruit and a leaf of wood sorrel. This was presented in an egg cup. Simultaneously refreshing and rich.
The poached Eleysian Field lamb with floral infusion followed. This really highlighted both the best and worst of the night. It was really gorgeous: The lamb was paried with a deconstructed floral infusion scattered across the plate: marigold petals, lemon balm leaf, tarragon, thyme, and orange zest. The lamb rested on a citrus puree, which had the texture of hollandaise and a mild orange flavor. This was topped with a grating of Thai long peppercorn and was just marvelous. Lovely to look at, delightful to taste, velvety lamb, a sauce that was rich yet light. But the accompanying lamb consommé was a disaster. I had really been looking forward to this as it has previously been described as a shot glass of hot intensely flavored lamb consommé. For some unknowable reason, however, this was served cold, as a gelee, topped with congealed artichoke puree. I admit the taste was nice: essence of lamb. But I couldnt get past the texture - the gelatininous goo that forms on refrigerated braised lamb shanks. Its like opening up your chilled lamb leftovers and taking a big spoonful of cold gravy. I left most of it uneaten.
The truffle explosion was presented next and I would gladly pay $162 for a meal of these guys. The hot truffle broth inside the ravioli, enriched with lardon, broccoli puree, and a tiny shave of parmigiano-reggiano I groan to think how delicious it was a soup dumpling elevated to gastronomic heaven.
My favorite dish was next: a trio of pork combined with truffle, figs and fennel: Truffle slice on pancetta, pork rillete of shoulder, and a melting tenderloin. The pancetta topped with truffle was a wonderful meddling of earth and salt. The rillete of shredded shoulder meat was moist and rich on the inside, crisply sautéed on the outside and at its stellar best combined with a bite of the roast fig and a swirl of the truffle sauce. Beside these two delights, the very delicately flavored tenderloin was a bit lost, alas.
The pizza on a pin arrived next. A postage stamp sized tab of potato starch topped with tomato concentrate and oregano. Presented on the end of a straight pin embedded in wax in a small covered casserole dish. Cute, quirky, tasty.
Another new fall dish followed: pheasant poached en souvide with autumn fragrance. A take on the famous lobster with rosemary vapor, the bowl containing the pheasant is served in larger bowl filled with sweet timothy hay, slices of pumpkin and of Granny Smith apples. Hot water is poured over these elements to release a fragrance the complements the food. I think this probably worked better with the rosemary and, in a later dish, with evergreen and rabbit. I did get a whiff of the hay as the first steam rose, and I found that pleasant, but the apple and pumpkin didnt contribute much except a pleasing visual element. The pheasant itself was delightful with its foamy tart apple cider sauce, nuggets of apple, Brussels spouts and green beans.
En souvide I take it, is cooking in a vacuum-sealed bag.
The frozen salad followed. I actually enjoyed this quite a bit once I got used to the mind game of the whole thing. We expect a granitee to be sweet, but then this one explodes with salt and tangy vinegar over the vegetal flavor of the frozen leaves. Its very refreshing.
Desserts followed: Huckleberry soda with five gelees, rosewater bubble tea shooter, and mustard seed cake with caramel, milk chocolate, and mustard seed sauce.
The very sweet and somewhat thick huckleberry soda was quite good and I would have been happy with that alone. The accompanying geleee was a five-inch-long rectangle of five one-inch cubes of various flavors: sweet corn, sage, smoked cream, milk chocolate, and pine nut. I think they just should serve five cubes of the milk chocolate, as this was the most intensely flavored, rich, and seductive one presented. The flavor of the sweet corn was just a mild sweetness, the sage flavor was difficult to perceive, although the crystal-clear cube was intriguing, the smoked cream (topped with sea salt) tasted like salted cream that had been stored in a chimney, and the pine nut was good, but overwhelmed by the chocolate which was eaten just before.
The rosewater bubble tea shooter was just a delight. Served with a fragrant pink rose and a raspberry, which the diner is instructed to alternately sniff, observing the similarities between the fragrances. The shooter is served in a long glass tube lying horizontally next to the rose and its meant to be sucked down in one big slurp. Its quite pretty, with alternating layers of raspberry gelee, rosewater gelee, and cream, with the tapioca pearls at the end. I love rosewater and raspberries and cream and chewy little spheres so this was a big hit for me.
The cake was less so, but it could be because I was stuffed and fatigued by this time, 2.5 hours into the evening. The mustard seeds gave the pound cake a pleasant nutty crun-chewiness, like poppy seed, but with a little more body. The cube was enrobed with a thick, gooey layer of caramel (yum) and overlaid with ganache. A few micro-mustard greens set off the presentation beautifully but I was really too full to enjoy a dessert of this richness.
The mignardise that ended the meal was referred to as alien invasion. A spherical ice pop of sweetened hibiscus tea appeared like a single red eyeball perched on three skinny metal skewer legs a collapsible popsicle stick. I was really anticipating this as a sweet-tart refresher, but alas, it was sweet, tart, and salted. I left it melting on my plate, as did the other diners after a few curious licks. It wouldve been lovely without the salt, however. I just dont get that.
After the meal, the staff invited me to the kitchen to meet Chef Grant Achatz, who was cracking coconuts and looking about 14 years old. Obviously a super-talented guy with a huge sense of humor and a very engaging smile. And the owner, Henry Adinaya, was just as engaging and really wanted to know what I thought. Its tremendous that hes willing to take such big culinary risks in the land of meat n patatahs.
All in all, an intellectual extravaganza that left me thinking for a couple of days, so in that sense I believe the money and time were well-spent. But a couple seated near me offered the best interpretation of the meal: They had eaten at the French Laundry, where ingredients are also combined in unusual and unexpected ways, and where Chef Grant Achatz had trained. But, said the woman, that was the best meal of my life. Every taste was unexpected and different, but every taste was incredible. Here, there are some incredible tastes, and some that just plain dont work.
My sentiments, exactly.
One more curious thing. When the bill came, $22 of it was comped. I asked about this and was told that they charge for all of the little tastes: the pizza on a pin, mushroom-mint sorbet, truffle explosion, etc. and then take it off so that you can see what they would really cost. This felt a little presumptuous and yes even rude to me, like a stingy uncle who finally gives you a very nice birthday gift but then complains for a year about how expensive it was.
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