After eating heavenly amuses, appetizers, and fish courses, we were only halfway through our meal, which continued with the meat courses.
“BLT”: Salmon Creek Farms’ All Day Braised Pork Belly, “Pain de Campagne” Melba, Violet Artichokes, San Marzano Tomato Marmalade and Watercress Puree with “Sauce Perigourdine”
Francesco Rinaldi, “Le Brunnate,” Barolo 2004
I’ve eaten a lot of braised pork belly, but this was the best by far. Crispy on the outside, meltingly tender within, with just the right amount of saltiness. The triangle leaning in on the right is a slice of “toast” – more like a papadum in texture – and it’s covering a tomato marmalade. It took a bit of cutlery juggling, but I managed to get a bit of pork, tomato, lettuce, and toast all in one bite, and wouldn’t you know it, it tasted just like a BLT. A BLT infused with rainbows and crack, to be precise.
When our waiter asked if we liked the dish, I praised the pork belly. I figured his reply of “I’ll be sure to tell the chef” was him being being polite. Little did I know…
As our plates were being cleared I overheard Mr. Programmer at the next table say “Too much food. Could we swap the rest of the menu with another bowl of the risotto?” A little more than halfway through and he was bowing out, but not without trying to scam seconds of the most expensive dish on the menu. I wanted to tell him “Pack the rest up for your dog (see here for the dog story), I’ll bet he’ll enjoy it more than you,” but civility held my tongue. I merely muttered “lightweight” under my breath.
Elysian Fields Farm’s “Selle d’Agneau Rôtie Entière”: Black Trumpet Mushroms, Eclat Onions, Melted Savoy Cabbage and Parsley Root Cream with Lamb Jus
I had to dig into my menu French to translate the name as “whole roast saddle of lamb.” The lamb was cooked sous vide and then briefly seared on the outside to brown it, a technique that produces meat that is the same perfect medium rare all the way to the edges. This was lamb with all the traditional fall vegetable accompaniments, refined to express each taste perfectly.
While I was away from the table, She Who Must Be Obeyed took a photo of the dish and was texting when our waiter came by. She apologized for being rude, but explained that she was sending the photo to a chef friend. On hearing that, he asked if we’d like to see the kitchen after our meal. It’s a good thing the meal was starting to wind down, because by this point I was about to jump out of my skin.
Consider Bardwell Farm’s “Manchester”: Espelette “Pain Perdu,” Persian Cucumbers and Bowtie Arugula with White Wine Poached Flowering Quince
The cheese course: two slices of nutty farmhouse cheddar draped over a peppery slab of sauce-infused brioche (I think, it was the only thing I ate that I couldn’t fully identify). A lovely transition from the savory courses to the sweets to come.
Mandarin Orange Sorbet: Wild Peppercorn “Sablé” and Orange Tuile with Nyons Extra Virgin Olive Oil Emulsion.
A nice palate cleanser that continued the trend of contrasting sweet with pepper. I’ve never tasted a silkier sorbet.
Although we both made the same choice at the top of the menu, we chose different desserts to end our meal.
Pumpkin-Chocolate: Mast Brothers’ Chocolate “Marquise,” Pumpkin “Bavaois” and Hazelnut Marshmallow with Spiced Ice Cream
The top left corner is brighter, that’s where my birthday candle was set. I had somehow managed to get through an entire Thanksgiving day without having pumpkin pie with ice cream and whipped cream. This dessert was the distilled essence of that holiday excess.
Pear and Caramel: Madagascar Vanilla-Poached Bartlet Pear, Caramel Mousse and Pear “Pâte de Fruit” with “Glace au Beurre Noisette”
A perfectly poached pear, a pear jelly, and browned butter ice cream. Taken together they evoked a rustic pear tart.
Our meal wasn’t quite over. We were offered a selection of hand-dipped chocolates, of which the pink peppercorn in white chocolate was the best and most surprising taste. That was followed by a selection of and-made caramels, pistachio nougat, and pulled sugar candy. By the time the check arrived with a plate of truffles, we couldn’t eat another bite.
But we couldn’t leave yet. Our water escorted us through a entrance behind our table that led to the kitchen. I was troo gobsmacked to take a photo, but I found this one:
Imagine this room filled with cooks, at least one at each station. Our waiter explained that the progression of courses was prepared in a clockwise direction, starting with the appetizers on the left and ending with desserts at the far right. All dishes were brought to the pass in the center, where they were checked and garnished before being sent to the tables.
Fifteen cooks, waiters drifting in and out, and I didn’t have to raise my voice to be heard. This was the most intense, precise cooking operation I’ve seen. Actually, it was one of two: mounted on a wall to one side was a flat-panel screen with a live satellite feed of the kitchen at The French Laundry. It was a mirror image of the one I stood in, all the way down to the five stars on the ventilation hood and the definition of “finesse” etched over the entrance.
While it might seem that I’ve used the word “perfect” to describe many of the dishes we ate, I am confident that it is appropriate. The amount of thought and care that went into each dish was unlike anything I had experienced before. Thomas Keller sums it up best:
When you acknowledge as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear; to make people happy. That’s what cooking is all about.
Best. Birthday Present. Ever.