"Let me have men about me that are fat; Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights: Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much: such men are dangerous."
These lines raced endlessly through my mind as I sat alone on the banquette. I had a companion; he sat three tables over, alone; they brought our courses out at the same time. Like me, he opted for the twelve course tasting menu with the wine pairing. And odd companion, true, but closer, perhaps, than many who sit directly across from us.
I decided to try L2O on a lark. At 7:30 pm, after sitting in the hotel for most of the day because of the rain, I called on the off chance that they, one of the few restaurants fitting my criteria open on Monday night, could accommodate a solo diner. They could. I left after the 10 minutes it took to put on trousers and sports coat.
The cab dropped me off at a hotel. I hadn't expected this and so I walked somewhat cautiously into the lobby, checking my phone to confirm the address. As I look to my right, I notice a closed, and therefore imposing, dark wood door with "L20" affixed in pewterish lettering. I open and enter. Immediately my umbrella was taken from me (unfortunately, not be given back) and I was shown to a comfortable banquette overlooking the entire room. I'd say about 8 tables were occupied and an equal number of waiters performed their minuets.
One has many options: a four course tasting, individual entrees and deserts, caviar appetizers, or the twelve course tasting with a wine pairing. I of course chose this latter option. No regrets.
My first piece of astonishment came early on as the bread service began. The butter had been hidden under what looked to be a flickering candle, only to be inverted when the bread was put down. "How did it stick," I asked. "Suction," the waiter replied. Very nice. They served the butter with pain aulait, bacon epi, and an anchovy bread. My favorite was the bacon epi, which was also coated with mustard seed. Delicious. Nevertheless, I try to avoid over-breading at these dinners. Seems almost a waste.
As with French Laundry I had two amuse-bouche. The first was steamed clam with sea bean and creme fraiche. The overwhelming sensation here was the sea. No doubt, one thinks, I am about to have an evening in the sea. And with one exception, one's thought proves correct. The next dish was kampachi (amberjack) with lime foam, sea bean, and ginger jelly. The overwhelming flavor of this dish was the incredibly astringent foam. Perhaps it's just me, but I find that kampachi is easily overwhelmed. I've noticed this at a variety of dinners with many different chefs, so I am convinced that it's not a flaw in execution. Rather, perhaps kampachi is better at playing second violin?
The first course: scallops with citrus and served with a Tokaji. I'd never heard of this wine before, but I'd compare it to a Viognier, which isn't a bad wine with which to begin. Because the scallops were cubed, there wasn't so much of that amazing sweetness one tastes with a perfectly sauteed scallop, but the citrus sauce was quite pungent and brought to the dish its essential flavor. Nothing mind blowing mind you, but as I've come to expect, big flavors come later in these meals.
The next course was an interesting presentation of tuna cubes in a matrix interspersed with ponzu and squid ink jellies and garnished with chives and olive oil. This dish was served with the Four Diamond unfiltered sake. I tried to like this dish quite a bit, but the overwhelming flavor was olive oil. One would expect that with a fatty fish like tuna, the need to add extra lipids would be minimal, and perhaps the quantity of olive oil was low and its quality was high, but that was the only real flavor I got from this dish.
Third: Sea bream, apricot oil, and edible flowers, served with a 1988 Richter Riesling. The true star of this dish, and the next, as I told the sommelier, was the riesling. I've never had one so old and it sang in perfect harmony with the understated flavors of this dish.
Yet, it remained true to itself in the fourth course, which was mackerel, with miso, soy salt, and baby radishes. Any wine that shines with these two wholly different dishes--mackerel being a very fatty fish and sea bream being quite light--deserves praise. Also, the mackerel was the first dish that I thought completely stood out. Something about the boldness of the fish made it the first truly memorable of the 12 courses.
Fifth: A 2004 Vouvray (CheninBlanc) paired with a jamon and butter poached halibut and a ginger and parsley "rice" crisp. This was the first of several dishes in which a smoky dimension was explored. So rich that I can only say, "mmmm."
Sixth: Seared flounder, poached in champagne in a champagne reduction sauce, with watercress emulsion and scallop mouse paired with a 2004 ArboisSauvignonBlanc. My flounder was a little dry, but the poaching liquid was exquisite and I easiliy would have prefered this scallop preparation to the one that began the menu. Unlike that dish, this dish made scallop the centerpiece, which makes it it all the more interesting to pair it with a protein that ostensibly is on center stage.
The next dish was perhaps my favorite. Sauteed salmon that had been smoked in wood chips from old whiskey barrels paired with spinach emulsion (which looked like the watercress emulsion but obviously tasted incredibly different), corn pudding (very sweet, very southern), potato puree, and salmon roe, all topped with a chorizo bouillon. My notes to this dish are thus: "the emulsion tastes like a boyhood trip with mom to an organic market"; the salmon tastes "like Christmas"; the whole dish is "incredibly evocative" of memory, taste, experience. A true high point. And while the wine pairings were overwhelmingly winning, this one, a 2005 Schoffitpinotblanc from Alsace, could not hope to stand up to what the food itself summoned. Nothing could.
The next thing that strikes me is the scene. Younger couples sitting around the perimeter in banquettes all gazing on the older, perhaps elderly patrons in the center. Interesting.
We then moved to a skate wing with garlic, rice wine vinegar, asparagus, and bordelais sauce. A touch salty, but on the whole very good. The wine was my least favorite pairing: a 2005 Norellaajiaofjla ( I couldn't get the name, but it was the first red of the evening).
The first and only non-fish protein came next and was served with a 2004 Adilles Cabernet Sauvignon. The lamp loin rested above a square of carrot puree and was topped with daikon, mint, and an almond/cumin jus. My second favorite dish. "Me forget my wine? I did with this dish." I had to be reminded that that my glass sat 3/4 full after devouring this course.
The last savory course is one the sommelier said has been on the menu from the beginning: butterfish with two dipping sauces. The first is a cold ponzu sauce. The second is a hot bouillon. This dish was served with a sparkling wine from Germany. My preference, after much trial and error was to dip the fish in the cold sauce, and the vegetables in the hot sauce. Seemed to work best.
The first desert course was another amuse bouche: chocolate ganache with soy salt. What's there negative to say about chocolate ganache and soy salt is just dastardly enough to work. Another non-menu item? Yes, a palate cleansing cantaloupe shaved ice with maple syrup. Incredibly light and refreshing. I could eat this daily without regret and without feeling even the twinge of excess in my soul.
The first official desert course was peaches with white chocolate, huckleberry sauce and whiskey jelly. My god, the whiskey jelly. I want to serve that at a party. I'm looking for the recipe now. This was served with a moscadoclassique from the Piedmont. It worked perfectly because anything too sweet would have fought with the desert.
The last of the twelve official courses was an orange Grand Marnier souffle with orange marmalade and paired with a Lang Berenausele (sp?). I don't often like orange marmalade, but then again, I've never had it homemade. I'd like to put this souffle on pieces of croissant every morning, and send it to every school child in America in an effort in multiculturalism.
But the food did not stop. After 16 different dishes, there were two more to try, a passion fruit marshmallow and a pistachio macaroon. You marshmallow. Why can't you all be so good. It was perfectly dusted and just chewy enough without in any way reminding one of those "marshmallows" often found floating in packeted hot chocolate. The macaroon too was good. But that marshmallow.
So what do I think of this place? The opening quote describes it well enough. This is by far the newest restaurant on my list as it stands and it has lots to prove. It is well on its way to doing so. At this point, one would be hard pressed to equate the service here and at French Laundry, but the comparison does not redound to the ill repute of L2O. It is an edgier place, and over eagerness would not be welcome.
After dinner, and before my town car exit, I was given a wax sealed menu and took a tour of the kitchen and the private dining room. I need a guest for the latter. Who'd like to join?
I spent about an hour in a Berkeley beer garden drafting this post before being drawn back to more immediate concerns, but enough with the preamble.
I can think of no better way to begin this trip than with my dad on his birthday at one of the most expertly executed dinners I've ever experienced. If you've never been, get to Babylon! If you have--when would you like to go again? But I digress. To description!
At the suggestion of the wine guy at Silenus, before dinner we decided to avoid a wine pairing, though one was never offered nor did I see one. I chose a Schramsberg blanc de blanc from just up 101 to begin our meal as I thought it would complement the first two or so courses especially well, but on account of the wines we tasted earlier, that bottle lasted clear through our whole meal. Oh well; at least I chose well!
The major decision one has at French Laundry is the choice between the Chef's Tasting Menu or the Tasting of Vegetables. As neither of us are vegetarians, the choice was relatively easy, especially out of deference to my ancestor's--and ours--omnivorous, hunter-gatherer past. The "Chef" label didn't hurt either.
The Chef's tasting is a nine course prix fixe dedicated to humility in the presence of pristine ingredients. Before that testament commanded my obedience, however, we were presented with two amuse-bouche in quick succession: a pastry filled with sauce mornay and the famous French Laundry Cookbook opening salvo, the salmon tartare cornette. As to the first, sauce mornay certainly lives up to this blog's theme and raison d'etre. I can't say it was a life changing experiences, but one cannot expect each bite to change. And the tartare was good; the best fish tartare I've had (see the Bistro Jeanty entry for the best yet), but I get the feeling that perhaps this course is more for continuity's sake than because it represents the represents the direction of the restaurant right now. The dish is now more than an amuse bouche and is perhaps coterminous with the restaurant's public identity (but only its public identity, and that's a good thing, even though I thought the dish was quite delicious). My major issue with the dish is that the creme fraiche is a little overpowering; the tartare needs to be eaten on its own to be appreciate.
On the recommendation of the guy at Silenus Vintners, I decided to try Bistro Jeanty instead of the more famous Bouchon--I still go before I head out today. A great decision.
My dad had the tomato soup in puff pastry and the daube au boef, both apparently delicious. I tried the the Quenelles with Pike in a Lobster sauce. To describe: imagine a great cup of gefilte fish, but take away the preservative jelly and whatnot and replace with creamy essence of lobster. Voila. I happen to be a huge fan of gefilte fish, but I know this description may not make the dish sound as delicious it was. Quand meme.
Next up was steak tartare. Those who know me know how much I enjoy this dish. To take a raw ingredient and make it palatable is a miracle that requires the freshest of ingredients. And my North Star, to refer to an unfortunate oral argument, is that served at Bistro Max and Julie in Houston. Theirs has a wonderful unctuousness from the raw egg that mixes very well with the brininess of the capers, all resting upon the well seasoned and fresh beef. But, Jeanty is my new North Star. All of the above qualities were present, but the beef had a sweetness I've never experienced before. It was a though Elsie herself and procured my cut. Thank you, Elsie.
All the while I had a nice glass of pastis in a really cool Ricard glass, though I'm a Pernod man.
If there was a downside it was that neither the bread nor the butter had anything on Vegas' Bouchon, but I got some of that at dinner, at the French Laundry . . .
Fifteen wines later, I'd say this trip is off to a good start. Today my dad and I visited two wineries on our way to the hotel. The first was Laird Family Estate, which is moderately available in Houston at our beloved Spec's--the upshot of which is that I felt little pressure to actually purchase what I enjoyed. I tried seven wines there: the 2007 Pinot Grigio, the 2006 Carneros Chardonnay, the 2005 Cold Creek Ranch Chardonnay, the 2003 Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2005 Jillian's Blend Red Wine (named after the owner's three year old granddaughter), the 2004 Dyer Ranch Syrah, and the 2005 Mast Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon. As is my want, I enjoyed the reds most thoroughly. In particular, the Red Blend and the Diamond Mountain were two wines I could very easily see drinking regularly. My dad and I were guided through the process by an affable older Napa native who lived walking distance from the vines, and from what I could tell his whole job was leading tastings. (I think I've found my retirement career).
Next we drove a little up the way to Silenus Vintners. Rather, it was a place where individual growers could produce their own wines--Silenus only provides the metal vats. Because it was mi padre's birthday they gave us a few extras, for a grand total of eight wines. We tried a Sauvignon Blanc; a white blend consisting, a Rose, a Grenache and a few Cab blends. My favorite was the Illsey "Seis Primas," which is a red blend consisting of 55% Malbec and 45% Cab. The grapes used in that wine are also used in the famous Shafer Cab; our guide informed us that 90% of the grapes from this grower go to Shafer and they retain the remainder and make their own wines. Brilliant stuff!