Turning 32 on the West Coast with Thomas Keller
The actual day of my birthday, October 27, found me driving up to Napa Valley/Sonoma – wine country! – to spend the day eating my way through Thomas Keller’s local restaurants. SFG did all the driving, for which I will be eternally grateful – the drive from Sonoma to Napa after dark was harrowing and nervewracking, and I probably would have driven about 20mph slower than he did… given that there are no freakin’ lights on the roads… and they are super twisty… but y’know, I’m still alive, so, okay.
The first order of business: visiting addendum, ad hoc’s lunch takeout spot. Originally, I had reservations for brunch on Sunday at ad hoc, but the ONLY THING I wanted to eat was the fried chicken, so when I realized I could get that at addendum… well, the choice was easy. (The menu changes daily at ad hoc, and there was no guarantee that I would be able to order fried chicken for brunch.)
addendum is super casual – located behind ad hoc, it’s basically a bunch of picnic tables and this little shack where you order from a smiling cashier. It was, happily, a particularly warm day – somewhere in the 70s, though much warmer in the sun – so we ordered after a short wait and snagged a table under some trees. (Yes, I ate under trees. Those of you who know me, shut it. They weren’t shedding.)
The menu is pretty simple – fried chicken lunch or BBQ. We decided one each, so we could try both… the sides are the same for each. At $16.50, I thought the prices were pretty reasonable… even with his root beer and my sweet tea, lunch was around $40.
We were given this sign; on one side was the above and the other bore his name, given at the time of ordering (and spelled wrong). Interestingly, though we were asked if this was to stay or to go, we noticed EVERYONE’s order came out in brown paper take out bags. If you’re really that keen on composting and saving the environment, y’know, maybe you should use trays for orders to stay – washing and reusing them, in my mind, would probably save a lot of brown paper bags, yeah?
However, I will say that all over the Bay Area during my trip, I noticed the trash receptacles were all divided into three, which was super confusing for me. Trash, compost, and recyclable, I think. Sometimes I just stood there staring at the sign, trying to figure out which category my garbage would fit. I think I’ll get the hang of it.. eventually…
After about a 15-20 minute wait, our food came out. Surprisingly, though I’d assumed everything was fried to order, our food wasn’t very hot. The ribs were dry rubbed – a little sauce would have been nice – and the pulled pork was just odd as it was chunky and tasted just like the rib meat had been pulled off the bone, as opposed to falling apart tender as pulled pork tends to be. I thought the ribs had a really nice flavor to them, and the meat was tender, but could have used just a touch more moisture. Sauce on the side would have been really helpful.
As for the fried chicken – well, I mentioned that our food wasn’t very hot. In my experience, fried chicken is often served so hot that I have to wait a few minutes before I can easily eat it without burning my mouth on the hot oil. This was not the case here. Forgive me, but I was told this fried chicken would change my life: that simply isn’t the case. Am I a fried chicken snob? No, but I do know what amazing fried chicken is, and this wasn’t it. It was delicious – crispy exterior, fried properly, with a great texture and juicy chicken underneath. But life changing? The best I’ve ever had? Not by a long shot. The failing here is the same failing I find at many, many places; they know how to fry properly, but the chicken itself isn’t seasoned well enough. I know they brine their chicken, but it just didn’t have enough flavor for me.
So, while the chicken was one of the better ones I’ve had – simply by virtue of crispiness alone, and that many other places have the same issue – it isn’t the best. The best I’ve had remains Peaches Hothouse (followed closely by The Dutch). Unfortunately, I’ve found places that have very flavorful chicken but can’t fry properly – the skin is not crisp enough – so Peaches stands out far and away above the rest since they manage both… so good. (I’ve been twice this year already, and a third visit is forming in my mind…)
As for the sides – well, the honey cornbread was in the boxes with our proteins, and it was very good. A little on the dry side, but the flavor was very pronounced, with the honey coming through clearly. I ate a lot of it, which says a lot; I don’t tend towards cornbread. And while our menu in the picture says “corn succotash” (which I would have liked; I love succotash!), it was an old one, and we received Swiss chard instead… which was incredibly boring. The potato salad, however, was a simple one – just potatoes, cooked properly and tossed with house-made mayo… a very, very good mayo indeed! – and I was allowed to first take the larger portion, and then given extra. SFG knows about my affinity towards potatoes, and I happily indulged. It’s the simple things in life! like potatoes coated in homemade mayo. YUM.
After our meal, I wanted to walk a little. Yountville is very bustling, for a small wine town, but it was the end of harvest and there were plenty of tourists and locals wandering the main street. We walked down towards Bouchon Bakery where I picked up…
a caramel apple pot de creme, which was really light and fluffy and tasted like a caramel apple but BETTER. I’m positive this is a seasonal dessert, so it may not be available all the time, but the little crunchy bits of apple along with the caramel custard… so good! We also got a Bouchon (a small chocolate cake) for me, and a Better Nutter Butter (I think that’s the name) for him… which I didn’t try, as you all know my feelings on nutter butters. (I’m embarrassed to link to that, but it’s out there on the internet and I might as well embrace my silliness as opposed to trying to hide from it.)
Then we drove to our hotel in Sonoma – which was a bad choice, I really should have planned better and tried to book Saturday night at Vintage Inn – just because it was so far away. (The hotel was relevant to an event we were attending on Sunday.) After a bit of rest, we got ready for dinner at…
The French Laundry.
If you clicked on the Vintage Inn link, you’ll notice that I mention TFL (and erroneously allude to it being a $300 dinner – yeah, a PERSON). If you search my site, you may find more mentions of it. If you searched my heart, you’d know that I’ve longed to go to TFL for years and years – since the very first time I heard of it. It’s been my strong desire for a very long time; while Per Se (in NYC) is my mountain, the place I promised I’d take myself when I get a book deal – The French Laundry (and the Inn at Little Washington) are both lauded as the best restaurants in the country. There’s this notion that I MUST DINE THERE.
You might think that a reservation to The French Laundry is hard to achieve; in actuality, if you follow the rules and call exactly two months to the day you want to dine, you likely won’t find much issue. Its location deters people from visiting as often as they could, I suppose; it’s at least an hour outside of a major city. However, several times a year, certain events transpire that make a reservation near impossible; harvest season – peak tourist time for Napa – is one of those events. My birthday occurs towards the end of harvest (during “crush” time), which meant a reservation would be quite difficult to procure.
Fortunately – and unfortunately (more on that later) – SFG happens to know someone.
I’ve set the table for my epic meal to come. Are you ready? Are you dying to see photos? Let’s go.
After we were seated, a server came over to greet us and ask if we’d like a glass of Krug – compliments of the house. Yes… yes we would! Surprisingly – or at least a surprise to me – the bottle was kept nearby, and our glass was refreshed more than once.
Gougeres, one of my favorite things in the world to eat, were warm and filled with an oozy, melty cheese. Not quite classic, but delicious nonetheless.
The famed salmon tartare coronet: just the right sized bite to start the meal.
At this point, I’d like to note that we were not given menus to peruse. Possibly my first disappointment of the night, but not the last… our server informed us that the kitchen had chosen a menu to cook for us. I’ve learned in the past that this is usually a good sign of what’s to come, so I didn’t protest.
First: sunchoke veloute: honey poached cranberries, Meyer lemon, walnuts, Mizuna and creme fraiche croquette.
Second: “oysters and pearls”: sabayon of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar.
Third: fluke sashimi with shaved black olives
Fourth: egg custard with a chive potato crisp
Bread service. Sad the beehive shaped butter wasn’t honey-butter, but I’ll live.
Fifth: salad course; figs, …
Sixth: grilled Atlantic swordfish: chanterelle mushrooms a la Grecque, garden radish, haricot verts and frisee
Blurry pretzel bread!
Seventh: Georges Bank sea scallop; red wine braised salsify, butternut squash, chestnuts, mache and brown butter emulsion
Eighth: risotto topped with the first truffles of the season.
Background: the first plate is mine. As is customary, as the lady, I was served first, but the truffle shaver kept jamming. When we’d both been served, SFG looked at my plate and then his and said I should take a photo of his, as mine was uglier. So I did; I think they’re both about the same, just no way to make this type of presentation look nice… though his are spread more evenly over the dish.
Additional background: at the beginning of the meal, when our server mentioned the truffles to us – I believe it was $100 or $150 supplemental dish? – we declined, as I don’t particularly care for truffles. I have had bad truffles almost all my life, and while TFL is certainly the place to correct that experience, I didn’t see the point in going out of my way to try them. However, we were brought this course regardless, and I will say that these truffles blew any I’ve ever had in the past way out of the water. None of that dirt taste I dislike, nor did the fragrance assault my senses and render me stupefied… it just added a really nice, mild taste to the risotto, and accented the creaminess of the perfectly cooked risotto. I won’t say that truffles are my new favorite thing, as I’m well aware that even still, good ones are hard to come by, but these were far and away the best I’ve ever had. I’ve been told before that I only like expensive things; well, when I was told how much these truffles generally run, it confirmed that theory.
Even more background: I dined at Corton with my friend Hungry a few months ago, and one of the courses included truffles shaved at the table. I watched, mute, while the server just cascaded black truffle over my dish, before Hungry finally blurted out, “Say WHEN, Yvo!!!” – it hadn’t occurred to me that I could tell him when to stop. I thought he’d just stop on his own. Remembering this, after a few good shaves into my dish at TFL, I politely said, “I think that should be fine,” but the server barely flinched and continued on, telling me that I could use a bit more. He added a LOT more before he was satisfied, actually, and I was amused by this. When I told SFG about my meal at Corton with Hungry, and why I’d tried to stop the server from continuing, he informed me that I shouldn’t tell the server to stop (oops!), and then explained that when people pay that much for a supplemental course, a good amount should be served. I suppose that’s true.
Ninth: Wolfe Ranch white quail breast; lentilles de puy, nantes carrots and petite onions
Tenth: Blackmore Ranch wagyu beef rib eye; celery root, pomegranates and sauce perigueux
Twelfth: strawberries and cream
Thirteenth: grape soda
Fifteenth: chocolate souffle
Cocoa dusted macadamia nuts.
The sole chocolate I could squeeze in after this much food: salted caramel.
You may have noticed that I didn’t bother trying to describe my thoughts on most courses, and that the descriptions often look lifted directly from a menu, while others bear hardly any description at all. Maybe you could feel my anger growing as I wrote this (but I doubt it; that’s me projecting). The overwhelming emotion I felt with my meal at The French Laundry is, sadly, disappointment.
With regard to service… I absolutely loved how friendly the servers were. They were professional and courteous, but not cold and distant as at some three Michelin star restaurants, where they remain detached and simply serve you, then disappear, only reappearing when you need something or when it’s time for your next course. No, at TFL, they chatted with the diners, cracked jokes, and were all around awesome. I saw them do this with other tables, so it wasn’t just us. Our service was impeccable, relaxed, and casual – but not so casual that I was annoyed. Because SFG is in the industry, a number of the staff came by the table to either say hello or introduce themselves, out of professional courtesy and respect. This did not interrupt the flow of our meal.
With regard to food… nothing particularly stood out. There were dishes I enjoyed a lot, and there were dishes that didn’t appeal to my tastes. Some dishes were too big – I mean, look at that cheese course. After eating ten courses prior to that, how could I eat that much cheese? (I didn’t.) Other courses just felt out of place. The regular menu is nine courses, and we were served far beyond that. While many of you may think I’m crazy for complaining or considering this a negative, I don’t like receiving special treatment in such a case because… well, part of me feels that I’m writing this for you, dear reader, and when you go, it’s unlikely you will receive the same special treatment that I did. I don’t think that’s fair. But it goes beyond that… I don’t feel that I experienced TFL for what it is, and, strange as it may sound, I find it harder to enjoy that.
I look back over the food, and I can barely remember some of the courses. An issue that would surely be fixed by my asking for a menu at the end of the night, right? No…
I’m struggling here to explain exactly what the issue was. While I am decrying the special treatment we received – having a special menu cooked for us, not paying for certain items, what I really wanted was for my birthday to be special. SFG made a point of making the note on our reservation that it was my birthday, but that somehow got overlooked. Knowing friends who have visited TK’s establishments in the past, a menu printed out with “Happy birthday, Yvo!” at the top would have made my night. And while I joked that it would have been absolutely amazing to have Thomas Keller himself come out and sing happy birthday to me, the simple act of having a menu with my name on it to take home and save would have meant the world to me. As it is, at the end of the night, I had to ask for a menu so I’d remember the dishes we did have… and discovered that half the items we had aren’t even on the menu, so I’m not sure what they were. (And, quite brattily, I add that I noticed a dish we weren’t served that I would have considered choosing – a sea urchin dish, and I do so love sea urchin.)
I suppose the issue was simply wanting the night to be special for me, because of me, and not because of SFG and who he is. Some people may laugh or mock me for that, but birthdays are incredibly special to me – celebrating them is the only way I keep myself from being sad about getting older – and this one just didn’t feel that way.
As we left, we were handed a bag of goodies (and I asked for a copy of the menu). Inside were four small chocolate bars bearing The French Laundry’s signature – the laundry pin – that tasted like Krackel. (According to the Wiki page, they no longer make the full size bars, but let me describe – it’s a thin chocolate bar with rice krispies inside, slightly soft and melts easily to the touch. Comparatively, Nestle Crunch, which is made with the same ingredients, tends to be thicker, harder, and much crunchier. As a kid, I liked both, but preferred one or the other depending on my mood.) While I enjoyed my bar, I can tell you that it didn’t taste like very good chocolate. Also inside were two small tins – with the laundry pin pressed into the top – containing shortbread cookies. Perfectly acceptable cookies.
Which sums up how I felt about the entire meal – it was perfectly acceptable, but not mind blowing, not particularly creative, nothing stood out. Did I expect too much? Considering The French Laundry is often ranked the top restaurant in the country, I don’t believe I did. It was solidly good, but … that’s it.
Overall, the food I had on my actual birthday was very good – some of it was even excellent – but nothing I feel particularly driven to repeat. The closest would be the items from Bouchon Bakery, which is here in NYC as well and I eat there fairly frequently. Unfortunate, but that’s how I’d sum up the food from my birthday.
A huge, huge thank you to SFG for spending my entire birthday with me and helping make it as happy as it was.