Getting back into cooking since 2009.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The French Laundry

Yountville is almost creepily scenic. Imagine Margaret River if it wasn't full of franchises. So, imagine Bridgetown, only without a highway down the middle. It also feels a bit like Disneyland, except instead of Mickey Mouse the central character that the town revolves around is Thomas Keller.

Keller has three restaurants in this small, one-street town. The Michelin one-star Bouchon, the casual family-style Ad Hoc, and the world-beating reason we'd driven an hour and a bit north of San Francisco, the French Laundry. He also has the spin-off Bouchon Bakery, a little shop front that started off purely to supply the restaurants, but is now open to the public. They still deliver bread down the street in a little branded delivery bicycle, a twee touch that would make me retch and wince in disbelief if it was in an Audrey Tatou movie.

Keller has a lot going on, but the focus is very much the French Laundry.

We wandered up the main street from the little converted train we were staying in, hoping to stumble across The Restaurant, when we came across a farm. Rows and rows of cabbages, herbs, lettuces of all kinds, a giant persimmon tree, a greenhouse.

Then we looked a bit closer and realised...

That's not just a farm, that's the farm, the French Laundry's kitchen garden. We turned around and there it was, the culinary mecca.

A few hours later, we were inside, and ready to eat.

I'd love to describe each dish we ate, but I'm afraid I'd bore you. The menu is a nine course degustation plus assorted canapes, with a choice between an omnivorous menu and a vegetarian menu. Each menu gives a choice between two alternatives on several courses, giving you the chance to taste even more than the allotted number of dishes if you're willing to share (we did, although sometimes reluctantly).

We ate the signature salmon cornets, a foie gras terrine with hazelnuts and brioche, a dumpling with tripe and black truffles, two different fish dishes. Tiny rolls from the Bouchon Bakery were served with a French butter and one from Vermont that comes from a dairy farm with four cows. Soda raved about her tiny rack and saddle of rabbit. We had incredible lamb from Elsyian Fields Farm, the saddle wrapped in its own fat and cooked sous vide, tasting much more strongly gamey than the lamb we eat at home and the more subtle roast we had a few nights earlier at Chez Panisse.

There was a composed cheese course, a pre-dessert that took its cues from the Dark and Stormy cocktail  featuring a ginger beer foam and ginger tuile, a bakewell tart and chocolate cake (that of course didn't look like bakewell tart and chocolate cake), some mignardises including a sublime salted caramel truffle.

You can see some fairly average photos of these incredible dishes on my Picasa, but I really need to rave about two courses in particular: Oysters and Pearls, and the "Caesar Salad".

I almost wish I hadn't eaten Oysters and Pearls, because now that I have there's no turning back. Oysters and Pearls set the bar so high, I'm not sure any other restaurant will be able clear it. This is a dish with aims so far beyond sustenance that it deserves its own category as a pleasure-delivery vehicle: to call it it "food" feels woefully inadequate.

Oysters and Pearls consists of lightly poached oysters, all briny and sweet, in a delicately chive-scented sabayon studded with tapioca pearls. On top goes a hunking great wodge of unspeakably good caviar. That's it. It builds and builds, subtle at first, but then the delicate, salty roe start to work their magic, popping in the mouth, the tapioca spheres a textural echo of the caviar. The oysters themselves tip it over the top into pure hedonism.

I have to eat this again someday. Perhaps, someday, Per Se. Until then, I'll just have to dream about it.

Oysters and Pearls, as you'll have gathered, was a very good way to begin a meal. Things got better from there.

I have no hesitation in naming the French Laundry's "Caesar Salad" as the greatest single dish I've ever had the pleasure of eating. The dish bears very little relation to any Caesar salad you or I have seen before, instead using classic Caesar dressing as a jumping off point for a dish that is based around Keller's famous butter-poached lobster tail.

On the base of the plate is a generous but inadequate mound of Caesar dressing (I would drink two litre cartons of "Caesar Chill" if it existed), with bottarga playing the role of anchovy. Bottarga is sun-dried mullet roe, and shares a similar salty, intense, umami-laden deliciousness with anchovies, one of my favourite foods. The bottarga gives the dressing a light orange hue, which mirrors the butter-poached lobster tail perched on top.

Sitting next the lobster is a rectangular piece of cos lettuce ('romaine', to the Americans), caramelised on the outside and giving an extra nod to the salad that gives this dish its name. Perched atop it all at a jaunty angle is a little garlic crisp, a delicate tuile with the muted taste of roasted garlic.

Over the top, a waiter shaves another few flakes of bottarga tableside. Wow. From the first forkful, I went into a glassy-eyed stupour, something S tends to refer to as my "polenta face" after first encountering it over a plate of crab and polenta at Icebergs in Sydney a few years ago. The lobster is tender and moist, tasting of the sea, its natural fattiness reinforced by the beurre monte (butter emulsified with water) in which it was poached.

The lobster, in a nice fusion of the classic and modern techniques, is poached in a vat controlled by an immersion circulator, but isn't vacuum sealed first, so it's halfway between a sous-vide poach and a traditional poach. A nice summation of where the kitchen sits on the modern-traditional spectrum, I think.

We even got invited to view the kitchen and meet the Chef de Cuisine, Tim Hollingsworth, a man who represented America at the last Bocuse d'Or culinary Olympics. The kitchen is shockingly small, with six stations managing to turn out food of such precision and quality, with two menus that are really more like four given the choices available, plus canapes, every night. Oh and the menu changes every day. These are cooks at the top of their game, at the top of the world, and I'm incredibly glad I got to eat their food.

French Laundry on Urbanspoon
The French Laundry
 6640 Washington St
Yountville, CA 94599

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Bazaar by Jose Andres (Restaurant - Los Angeles)


Jose Andres is possibly the best known and most accomplished Spanish chef in America. He introduced the US to the whole small plates thing in the '90s and has been at the forefront of introducing molecular/techno-emotional/modern/whatever cooking to America, too. He apprenticed under Ferran Adria in the late-'80s, he's a TV star in Spain, has an English-language show on PBS called Made in Spain and is a certified Friend of Bourdain. He also owns a restaurant called Oyamel in Washington DC that opened my eyes to how brilliant Mexican food can be. What a guy.

The Bazaar in Los Angeles brings together the traditional and modern sides of Andres' cooking, with the menu split down the middle between traditional tapas and inventive small plates that are mostly in the key of Spanish.

It's a massive restaurant, with a huge bar, two tapas sections (Rojo and Blanca) that serve the same menu with different decor, and a "patisserie" that serves dessert to restaurant customers and others wandering in. The restaurant has a  fun, Alice in Wonderland atmosphere, although the indifference of some of our fellow diners astounded me. The table next to us was filed with two jaded early-40s power couples who had apparently been to the restaurant before, yet seemed not to care for the food. They played with their BlackBerries the whole time, and seemed to be disinterested in the food and each other. Why would you bother?

Anyway, other than some questionable customers, the Bazaar is an incredible restaurant. I'm not usually a fan of long blog posts that walk you through a meal dish by dish, but... here's a long blog post that walks you through a meal dish by dish. Sorry about that.

Olives: Modern

"Olives, modern and traditional" is a kind of thesis statement for the restaurant, uniting the "modern" and "traditional" halves of the tapas-based menu. The modern olive is Ferran Adria's spherified olive, pure olive liquid bound in itself with sodium alginate and calcium chloride like a raviolo without the pasta. If you've got a few olives and a stash of chemicals, you could make them at home!

The modern "olives" are ladled from a jar and set next to a tin of more orthodox green olives, stuffed with orange zest, piquillo pepper and superlative anchovy. You're instructed to eat the traditional olive first to get a sense of the texture and then to try the modern version.

Olives: Traditional

The spherified olive must be one of the most famous and defining dishes of this decade. I thought I was prepared for them, but they still shocked me. They flood your mouth with olive juice with a bang, and it's so completely strange that it forces you to focus on the flavour of olive, something that you're so accustomed to that it usually wouldn't be remarked upon. That's what's great about these modern techniques, cliched though spherification has become. This isn't flashy manipulation for its own sake, it's just a modern technique used to draw attention to a fantastic ingredient.

Shrimp cocktail

"Just a shrimp cocktail (yeah right)" is 3 large prawns, each skewered on a plastic syringe of sorts. You bite the prawn and squeeze the end of the skewer to fill your mouth with the shrimp cocktail "sauce", a spicy tomato water. Yes, it's actually called "Just a shrimp cocktail (yeah right)", but I can forgive that kind of tweeness when the result is this tasty and surprising.

On the 'traditional tapas' side, "papas canarias" was a surprisingly humble revelation. It's a simple dish of potatoes served in the salt they were cooked in. They're roasted 'til wrinkled and served with a Mexican mojo verde as a dipping sauce. The tangy sauce is somewhat reminiscent of an Italian salsa verde, all acidic zing and herbs. The potatoes themselves were incredible, with a concentrated, almost sweet earthiness, and somehow the salt dusting and the acidic salsa completely balanced one another. We're planning to start growing some potatoes just so that we can try and recreate this incredible dish. One of the very best dishes we ate in the US, and so basic!

We tried a few other traditional tapas, including rich, gelatinous braised beef cheeks and a rustic salad of egg, tuna belly, carrot and peas with pristine olive oil called "The Ultimate Spanish Tapa". They were fantastic, but it's the more inventive end of things that really sticks in the memory.

"Philly Cheesesteak"

"Philly cheesesteak" is a re-constructed ode to a low-brow American classic. Andres' version consists of wagyu carpaccio atop cruncy, hollow "air bread", filled with warm cheese foam. Delicious and fun, although the strong cheese slightly overshadowed the thin wagyu slices. If I'm paying for wagyu, I want to taste wagyu.

"Miso linguine"

This linguine isn't linguine at all. Instead, it's "miso linguine", made by pouring a shallow miso broth gelled with agar agar and then cutting the set jelly into ribbons. The strands of "linguine" melt in your mouth and reform the broth. It's served with smoke trout roe.

Cotton candy foie gras

This dish, cotton candy foie gras, plays off the tradition of serving foie gras with sweet accompaniments (or at least a sweet wine) to cut the fattiness. Here the cube of liver is seasoned and then wrapped in cotton candy that has been lightly accented with vanilla. I love the idea of presenting one of the ultimate fine dining ingredients in a way that is more reminiscent of a circus. I suppose that sums up the Bazaar, in a way.

The important point is that almost all of these dishes are extremely satisfying. All the whimsy and fancy technique just enhances the experience, it isn't a crutch or a smokescreen to disguise substandard food.

After our tapas feast, we moved through to the patisserie for dessert. It was a nice change of pace and a cunning strategy to turn tables faster for the restaurant. I'm fine with that when it's done this well.

We wandered around looking at the cases of mignardises, the open pastry kitchen, the massive stacks of candles that look like macarons, the art and arty objects. All for sale, all a fun multicoloured jumble.

Dessert itself was ever-so-slightly disappointing. My "nitro floating island" was flash frozen meringue atop caramelized bananas and vanilla. Very tasty and inventive, but featuring too much meringue perched on top of not enough sauce. A minor quibble with a great meal.

The Bazaar is surprisingly cheap for those of us from Perth who are used to cowering in fear at the sight of a tapas menu. I think (from memory) we spent around $125 per head for food, and we ate a lot of food (as you can see) and took a few things home from the patisserie.

A good start to our trip.

The Bazaar By Jose Andres on Urbanspoon
The Bazaar by Jose Andres
465 S La Cienaga Boulevard
Los Angeles CA USA

Coming up: The French Laundry!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Fruit and vegetables in Perth

We have a lot of good quality produce in WA. Fantastic lamb, great seafood, even our own rapidly developing truffle industry.

Eating my way around California, though, has opened my eyes to the sheer range of ingredients we can't buy.

There's the range of fruit and vegetables used in Central and South American cuisine: jicama, hominy, fresh tomatillos. Limes are perplexingly expensive, despite our citrus-friendly climate and large South-East Asian migrant population. There's a whole bunch of ingredients starting with 'p' that you'll struggle to find: plantains, persimmons, pomegranate.

We've got a temperate, Mediterranean climate in Perth and the south-west of WA that can support everything from citrus to wine, and the interest in food is rapidly growing, but our choices are still fairly constrained.

I don't think I realised the limits we face until I visited San Francisco, in particular the farmers' market at the Ferry Building. The Ferry Building is a bit of a food mecca, and every Saturday it's surrounded by a massive market. There are dozens upon dozens of vegetable and fruit stalls, with so much specialisation. There's the berry guy, the potato guy. There's a mushroom shop with all kinds of fungi, including fresh porcini and chanterelles, as well as domestic and imported truffles. I saw a leek farmer advising a customer as to which of his leek varieties would be best suited for various modes of preparation. Have you ever seen any kind of leek in Perth other than... leeks?

What stunned me, though, is that it's not an isolated thing. Another market, a few miles away, had probably the second biggest range of produce I've ever seen (after the Ferry Building market, of course). Even corner grocery stores had a staggering range.

There's just a lot more choice. In Perth we can usually buy maybe three different kinds of chilli (long red, long green, and short 'Thai' varieties), with the occasional habanero if you're lucky. The array of chillis and capsicums (all "peppers" in the confusing American nomenclature) contained every degree of heat, colour and size you can imagine.

Why do we have relatively few fruit and veg choices? Is it a quarantine thing? Is there really not enough Perth food enthusiasts to support small producers? Is Perth too far from agricultural regions now that the city market garden is more or less a thing of the past? Do we just have lower expectations, or less competition?

I don't want to overstate things. As I said at the top of this rant, we have a lot of good quality produce in WA. I just wish we had more of it.

COMING UP: Photos and breathlessly enthusiastic praise for the French Laundry, the Bazaar, and other restaurants I can't stop thinking about!