Wednesday, September 13, 2017

My Best Restaurant Meal EVER!


Jim and I recently celebrated our wedding anniversary with a dinner at The French Laundry, renowned chef Thomas Keller's restaurant in Yountville, California.

It's not the first time we've had dinner at the French Laundry.  In fact, we have been patrons of this special restaurant since sometime in the 1980's, long before Thomas Keller took over in 1994.

When we first discovered the French Laundry, Sally and Don Schmidt were the owners. Each day, they served a fixed price multi-course meal that featured fresh, seasonal ingredients.  In those days, your dinner reservation pretty much gave you a table for the evening at this small two-story restaurant in a stone cottage. Between courses, we were encouraged to walk around the grounds, wander through their gardens, and chat with the staff, many of whom were Schmidt family members.  When we ate here, we felt like family and, even after the Schmidts sold the restaurant, we remained in touch with them and regularly saw them at their Apple Farm in Philo, California. We still stop there to buy apples when we are driving to and from Mendocino and I took several cooking classes from Sally and her daughter Karen Bates.

When Thomas Keller took the helm at the French Laundry, we were among the first to dine there. Initially, we felt that the dining room had become pretentious and that we were rushed through our very expensive dinner so that another group could be seated at our table.  But, because, Keller's cuisine was creative and unique, we did go back for a few more times.

It has been about 20 years since the last time that we dined at The French Laundry. Since we vacation in Yountville for a week every year, we've watched the restaurant and its kitchen going through several remodels. It was time for a return visit....

Until this year, getting a reservation at the French Laundry was a challenge in and of itself.  But, this spring, they came up with an online reservation system that has a link from their website.  On the first day of each month, at 10 a.m. California time, reservations for three months ahead are made available.  Thinking dinner here would be a treat for this year's anniversary, I took on the reservation challenge and got online on May 1, promptly at 10 a.m., to reserve for August.  And, I got a reservation for the day of my choice!  To discourage no-shows at this ever-popular restaurant, it is necessary to prepay at the time of reserving ($310 per person for the basic nine-course meal).


And so, on a balmy August 2017 evening, we arrived for dinner at The French Laundry, and what I consider the best restaurant meal I've ever experienced.

From the time we arrived, we were made to feel welcome, comfortable, and very special. The service was impeccable and never felt pretentious.  As each course was served, our servers described the dish in detail and told us the origin of the main ingredients.  No ingredient is used more than once throughout the entire meal.

We never felt rushed.  We were encouraged to wander out on the balcony or on the grounds between courses. Our dinner lasted about three hours and was perfectly paced.


When I got a call a few days ahead to confirm my reservation, I was asked if we were celebrating anything special.  I told them it was our anniversary dinner.  Our menus were personalized for our occasion. And, once we were seated, they brought us each a glass of sparkling wine.

Interestingly, some of Chef Keller's signature dishes are still being served.

Before our first course, there was an Amuse Bouche (single-bite hors d'oeuvres) of two signature dishes,

Salmon Tartare Cornet

 and, Gougeres.

Here's the rest of our dinner, course by course:

First Course: "Oysters and Pearls," a "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar. This dish is another of Chef Keller's signature dishes. 

Second Course: Chilled Garden Carrot Soup

A warm Epi roll accompanied our earlier courses

Third Course: Slow Cooked Fillet of Gulf Coast Cobia

Fourth Course: Big Island Abalone "A La Plancha"

Fifth Course: "Bread and Butter," an Applewood Smoked Bacon and Onion Brioche served with Diane St. Clair's Animal Farm Butter.
(The bowl in which the Brioche is served is worthy of it's own photo, I think)


Sixth Course: Wolfe Ranch White Quail "Roti a la Broche"

Seventh Course : Herb Roasted Elysian Fields Farm Lamb

Eighth Course : The Cheese Course: "Cheesecake" (for our dinner, "Etude" cheese from Andante Dairy in Petaluma, California, was used)

Final Course: Assortment of Desserts, an overwhelming selection of Fruit, Ice Cream and Candies

The first photo that follows is a closeup of "Coffee" part of another of Chef Keller's Signature dessert dishes: "Coffee and Donuts."  The Coffee is a Cappuccino Semifreddo and the Donuts are Cinnamon-Sugar Donut holes.  All the other elements of the dessert course were new to me.


Here are detailed photos of the other desserts:

And, there was more.....

Right before the very grand dessert, we were each presented with a housemade white chocolate kiss (a la Hershey's style), wrapped in gold foil and with a paper tag that says "Happy Anniversary."

We got to tour the kitchen.

And, to take home, we were presented with a folder with copies of our menus, a booklet about many of the purveyors who provide the French Laundry with the ingredients used its meals, a tiny tin containing four shortbread cookies, and a miniature chest of chocolate truffles, one of each flavor.

The French Laundry serves dinner each day and lunch on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  For some of the courses on the daily nine-course tasting menu, there are other choices for which there is a supplementary charge.  An optional nine-course vegetable tasting menu is also offered for the same basic cost.  Wine and spirits are offered from a very extensive list, priced accordingly.  Guests are welcome to bring bottles of wine that are not represented on the restaurant's wine list for a fee of $150 per 750ml bottle.

Will I return soon to The French Laundry?  Most certainly.  It is a restaurant for a special occasion and I can't wait for my next celebration there.


Thursday, June 29, 2017

A WEEK IN NEW YORK CITY


The last time I was in New York City, the Twin Towers were still standing...It's been close to 20 years since my last visit.

So, when I decided to spend the first week in June in New York, I had a long list of things to do and people to see.

Coincidentally, the Sunday before I headed to New York, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Carl Nolte, wrote about his recent visit to New York City and noted that San Francisco should not be fretting about becoming "Manhattanized," as many San Francisco locals have been lamenting.  Mr. Nolte observed that New York today is, in many respects, cleaner and more welcoming than San Francisco is these days. I agree with him.

Right from the moment I arrived at JFK airport, I was pleasantly surprised. Rather than taking an Airporter Bus or the Subway into Manhattan, I decided to take a taxi.  I'd been advised to only take a Yellow Cab and to avoid "gypsy" cabs, good advice in most cities.  Given that traffic is worse around New York than it is in San Francisco, I had concerns of the taxi meter running up a huge charge, but, not to worry; Yellow Cab fares between JFK airport and anywhere in Manhattan are fixed at $52 plus tolls!  So, my hour and a half ride into Manhattan when I arrived at rush hour and my 35 minute ride back to the airport when I left mid morning, both cost exactly the same amount of money.  I like that!!!  And, just for fun, I checked Uber fares for the same rides and they were pretty much the same. I think taxi drivers know the shortcuts that casual drivers don't know, thus limiting the chance of being stuck in traffic unnecessarily.

So, for 6 whole days, I was a tourist in New York.

I stayed at the Roger Smith Hotel, a small hotel in midtown Manhattan at Lexington and 47th, a perfect location for much of what I wanted to do and see. As with most Manhattan neighborhoods, there were many varied restaurants within a block of my hotel.

Right after arriving, I walked over to Fifth Avenue to refamiliarize myself with "my neighborhood."



The 45' "Seated Ballerina" in Rockefeller Center is an inflatable nylon sculpture by artist Jeff Koons.  It will be on display here until July 5, 2017, but will be deflated in wet or windy weather.

Saint Patrick's Cathedral

and, not to be missed because the entire block is barricaded and has Police substations on each corner, Trump Tower.

I stopped for dinner at Dig Inn, a nearby fresh-food, fast-casual restaurant with several locations in New York City. Most of my fellow diners were young professionals, grabbing a quick dinner after a day of work.  Eavesdropping on their conversations brought me back to when I was in my 20s working my first job at IBM in this very neighborhood...while technology has brought us lots of change, people don't change that much.

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Tourist that I was, I was up early my first day, and headed over to watch the Today Show at NBC's studios at Rockefeller Plaza.  I joined the crowds that gather there each day and got my look at the hosts of the show and guest chef Bobby Flay doing a cooking demo in the outside courtyard. There are no tickets to the Today Show, you just have to show up early and hope the security guards will find room for you to stand inside the barricades.  I got there towards the end of the second hour of the show, and was able to walk through the crowds as they were starting to leave...still a thrill.

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I spent a day in West Chelsea walking the High Line, a ten-block, 1.45-mile long, above-ground park built on the railroad freight line that served, from 1934 until 1980, to take some of the traffic off the streets of the busy industrial and meat packing that flourished down below.  Today, this area is changing into a bustling shopping, dining, and residential area. The Whitney Museum has moved here from it's longtime location on the Upper East Side.

I met friends Silky and Rhoda for lunch at Bubby's, a lively restaurant right across from the Gansevoort Street High Line entrance and the Whitney Museum.
Silky and I walked most of the High Line, enjoying its meandering landscape, public art, and the striking architecture of the buildings that overlook and surround it.  Remnants from the railroad days of the High Line are incorporated into the landscape of the park.

After walking the High Line, I next headed to the nearby Chelsea Market, an enormous food hall filled with more than 50 restaurants, shops, and food vendors.


Visiting places like Chelsea Market makes me wish I could buy some fresh fish and produce and head home to prepare a delicious meal. The array of fish at the Lobster Place Seafood Market reminded me of the bustling Sydney Fish Market in Australia. You can buy fresh fish at the market and you can dine here on a freshly broiled lobster, raw oysters, and more.  Chelsea Market occupies one square block. The building was originally National Biscuit Company's (Nabisco) factory, built in the 19th century. Nabisco chose this location to take advantage of the easy availability of butcher's lard in the nearby Meatpacking District. It is said that the Oreo cookie was invented and produced at this factory.

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I spent most of a day at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum (9/11 Memorial and Museum).

Tickets to guided tours of the memorial and admission to the museum, with or without a guided tour, can be purchased online up to 6 months in advance. It's a good idea to buy tickets ahead as they sell out quickly, particularly if you want a guided tour and/or want to visit at a particular time of day.  I purchased a combination ticket for a guided memorial tour and expedited admission to the museum.  While the memorial is open to the public at no charge, I highly recommend the 45-minute small-group tour.

 



My guide gave our group insights into the building and layout of the Memorial and to how the names of the edges of the two pools are organized.
She told us about the Survivor Tree and about the lives of several people who perished here on 9/11.

The white roses on names on the rims of the pools are placed there each day to remember those people's birthdays.


I spent almost 3 hours inside the museum on my own. The museum is extremely comprehensive. Visitors relive the events of 9/11 in great detail, an overwhelming emotional experience.





Even in 3 hours, I did not cover everything in the museum.

After my visit to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, I stopped for a quick late lunch at a deli near the Subway entrance.  Lunch at the Stage Door Deli was a typical "I Love New York" experience: delis and sandwich shops are everywhere you look.  This one, right in the midst of the busy tourist area of the 9/11 Memorial was packed and very very good...and a Tuna on Rye, served with chips, a pickle, lettuce, and tomato, was just $8 (Couldn't find this quality and price in downtown San Francisco or even in my nearby suburb home town.)  The Stage Door Deli is open every day for breakfast, lunch, and early dinner, a great option for a true New York City meal when visiting the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.


The one thing I didn't get to do at the 9/11 site was to go to the top of One World Trade Center to the One World Observatory. One World Trade Center is the main office building of the rebuilt World Trade Center complex. At this time, it is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, 104 stories; 1,776 feet tall. Tickets to the Observatory are available for purchase online up to 6 months in advance. There is no admission charge for 9/11 family members and the rescue and recovery workers who responded on 9/11 and in the months after.

I also didn't spend any time in The Oculus, a transportation hub and retail complex at the World Trade Center. It would have been another place for me to have lunch, but I was happier with my less-touristy choice of the Stage Door Deli.

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I saved one day for shopping, mostly at Bloomingdales and Saks Fifth Avenue. While many major American cities have branches of these stores, there is nothing like visiting their flagship stores in New York.

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Like every good tourist, I saw a Broadway show, "Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812."  I'd totally forgotten how small New York theaters are. I love the intimacy of these theaters and there are really no bad seats; buy the tickets you can afford.  If "Natasha, Pierre...." starts touring, do see it; it's a lively and entertaining musical based on 70 pages of "War and Peace" and it's staged so creatively, with no real stage...actors singing and dancing all over the theater, in a Cirque du Soleil fashion.

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On another day, I met friends Adele, Bobby, and "The Kid," Aaron, at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

The Museum is housed at 97 Orchard Street, an apartment building built in 1863 which, over the years, was home to over 7000 working class immigrants.  It is necessary to take a guided tour (reserve ahead) to see the inside of the building. We did the "Shop Life" tour which took us through the recreated apartment and German saloon of immigrants John and Caroline Schneider.  Our guide took us into the lives of the Schneiders, their joys and their woes as they made a life for themselves in America. Most of the tours last between one and two hours. Many of the museum's other tours are of the neighborhood; other tenement buildings, the foods, and the daily lifestyle of the Lower East Side, America's iconic immigrant neighborhood in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

We continued our visit over Sunday Brunch at Jane Restaurant, a popular American bistro between Greenwich Village and Soho.  The Kid chose the restaurant because it took reservations and is very popular.  But, it's a 30-minute brisk walk from the Museum, so I'd suggest somewhere else closer to the museum like the very popular Russ and Daughters Cafe, an appetizing store and cafe just down the block on Orchard Street, where, I'm told, they serve the "best-ever smoked salmon."  Russ and Daughters dates back to 1907 when Joel Russ immigrated from Poland and started selling schmaltz herring from a barrel to Eastern European Jews on the Lower East Side.  By 1920, he had a store on Orchard Street and then on East Houston Street. His three daughters worked with him. Today, the Russ and Daughters tradition is carried on by fourth generation Russ family members.

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I made time on my last day in New York to make a pilgrimage to another iconic (to me) retail store: B and H, the most comprehensive store for professional photography, video, computer, audio, and more such gear that I know.  Their latest thick catalog is always stored in a convenient spot in my house.  Over the years, I've purchased most of my cameras, computer accessories, and all things electronic. Their prices are often discounted and shipping is free on all purchases of over $49. The actual store fills two stories of most of a city block. I spent a very happy hour at B and H.

Walking back toward Fifth Avenue from B and H, I stopped at Macy's on Herald Square, that same Macy's where the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, that kicks off the holiday season, ends.

My one special meal was with my best friend from kindergarten, Andrea.  We met at The Modern, Chef Abram Bissell's 2-Michelin-starred restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). The dining room overlooks the MOMA's Sculpture Garden. The Modern is expensive and only offers fixed priced menus.  For lunch, one decides between three or six courses. Dinner is four or eight courses.

We had the three-course meal. Every dish was exquisite.

Our dining adventure started with an Amuse Bouche of Fresh Pea Soup.

Then, it was on to our three course lunch.


For our first courses, Andrea had the Green Salad, a beautiful creation of greens, avocado-fromage blanc purée, and basil crumbs,and I chose the White Asparagus  with a poached hen egg and trout roe .



Andrea's main course was Loup de Mer with Shelling Beans and a Minestrone Broth.
My choice was Roasted Scallop Potage, Marinated New Potatoes, and Crispy Nettles.


We both chose the same dessert: Green Pea Crémeux, Passion Fruit Curd, and Matcha Ice Cream, a true work of art as well as a treat for our palate.

We lingered at The Modern for nearly 3 hours, enjoying a special meal and catching up on the many years since we've last been together.

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New York City miscellaneous:

When I worked for IBM, world headquarters was in this building at 590 Madison Avenue at 57th Street. IBM still has offices here but headquarters moved to Armonk, New York, even when I was working for the company.


My branch office was down the block at 555 Madison Avenue.

Avocado Toast is as popular in New York City as it is in California, maybe more so.

The Fifth Avenue Apple Store, which was so revolutionary for its glass-box below ground architecture when it was first opened in 2006, is currently being rebuilt and expanded. Temporarily, it has relocated just a few steps behind its original location to the former FAO Schwartz space. The building of the temporary location is ordinary, by Apple Store standards, but, for me, worth a visit. It still is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.

The new Apple Store at this site will be 77,000 square feet large, more than twice the size of building it is replacing.

Iconic older buildings are abundant in New York City, but never cease to be thrilling to see. Below are the Beaux-Arts style Helmsley Building, built in1929,  and the New York Public Library main branch, also a Beaux-Arts design, which opened in 1911.

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And, a few final New York City observations:

New York Subway system runs most everywhere within Manhattan and to New York City's other boroughs. I've always used the Subway to get around and did so this visit as well, with no problems. The per-ride fare is just $3, lower with a high value ticket which can purchased at Subway stations. The Subway cars, stations, escalators, and stairways are clean. Most train seating is on long benches on either side of the trains, leaving a wide aisle in the middle. There is plenty of room for standees to pack themselves in and plenty of straps and poles to hold on to when standing.

Sidewalks are clean.

I saw very few homeless people and, when I did, they were not blocking sidewalks, streets, and parks. I was never panhandled, despite being on the streets and public transit at all hours of day and night.

The only place I was nervous was in the crowds in Times Square. There seem to be throngs of people there night and day.  It looks the way it does on TV on New Years all the time! I walked through there on my way to and from the play; my small group of friends held tightly onto one another to avoid being separated in crowds surrounding us everywhere. I'd avoid the area.

To sum up: there is nothing like New York City and it's even nicer than I remember it from years past.