Wednesday, June 15, 2005

French Laundry: 4th Time, Less Charm

It wasn't bad enough that the French voted down their own constitution, and that they are the butt of surrender jokes (I'm opening a French Army Store where the pocket knives only have cork screws, no blades and the maniquens all have their arms in the air), but now namesake, French Laundry has to endure the Foodster wrath.

I have had 3 of the 10 best meals of my life at The French Laundry in Yountville, California. In fact, those experiences have defined the 5/5 rating in my mind. Amazing, creative food, formal yet not off-putting service and decor, and wonderful knowledgeble folks from the busgirl to the Solmmelier. Just the BEST.

My fourth visit to this culinary mecca in 4 years engendered some surprises, but the biggest one is that there weren't any culinary surprises, like those we have experienced in the past. Keller's Salmon Tartare cones and the Oysters and Pearls (sabayon of pearl tapioaca with beau soleil oysters) were as delectable as always. And the Sturgeon (with smoked steelhead trout roe) was unexpected and spectacular. The lobster "cuites sous vide", tartare of Australian "Wagyu", and Elysian "cote d'agneau" were what you would expect from any very high-end accomplished chef and a great kitchen. But the French Laundry is not any great kitchen, and Thomas Keller is not "any" accomplished chef.

So the food was wonderful 4/5 but not as edgy as we had come to expect. The service, on the otherhand, was neglectful and uninformed 3/5. Especially uninformed. I asked several questions about various menu items and beverages, which were incompletely or incorrectly resolved, and the staff did not exhibit the energy, passion, pride and humor we had exerienced in earlier visits.

And the cost!!!! Two of us spent an embarrassing $800, more than 4 Club Seat Rolling Stones Tickets at SBC Park, and more than what a party of four cost us at TFL 2 years ago. $175 per person, tax, a mandatory 19% service charge (when the service was declining in quality). Drinks? A great Sake, a half bottle of something very nice but not notable and I think my wife had a cocktail. No First Growths. No Screaming Eagles.

Pheeew! Got that out of my system. Since I will not likely get another TFL reservation in my lifetime, I will have to resort to Freedom Fries and the occassional trip to LA (can't believe I am admitting that) to get a Bastide fix--at least until I can make it to el Bulli in 2006.

Eating Las Vegas

Short summary:
Nobu 2.5/5
Picasso 2.5/5
Red Square 2/5
Knob Hill 3/5
Seablue 1/5
Mesa Grill 3/5

OK, so you think I shouldn't be eating Sushi in the desert. Granted, but Las Vegas is getting its food pretty quickly from the coast these days. Still I tried a nobel experiment (Nobu experiement). I ate there like I would eat at my favorite sushi place back home. I ordered only the most interesting and exotic sashimi, with a rice bowl chaser at the end. It was fine. It was fresh, It was clean, It was nothing special. I have eaten at several of Nobu's Restaurants in the past. My 4 visits to Matsuhisa's in Beverly Hills, his first endeavor, have all been 4 or 5/5 visits--the best tempura I have ever had (despite living in Japan)--plus I saw Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford on separate occassions. My view of celebrities is generally "just live your own life". But I have to say, Cindy definitely captured my attention. If the magazine editors make her look beautiful via Photo Shop. She must have had a Photo Shop pro at the ready before she went out that night. Stunning. Oh yeah, the food was spectacular. Black Cod with Miso. My two visits to Nobu London were both 5/5 in food and service and great people watching events. Matsuhisa's in Aspen was merely a 2/5. It felt like more of the downstairs overflow room at a Popeye's in Washington D.C.

Red Square. I was looking forward to the stroganoff. It was odd, and I think my taste buds were failing me. But still 2/5, tasty and great 1950s Soviet ambiance, without the six hour wait in a bread line.

Picasso, in the Bellagio was the real disappointment because expectations were extremely high. Wonderful ambiance, killer service, but the food--nothing that said "can't get this anywhere else". 2.5/5.

I have enjoyed Pices (Bulringame) and Aqua (Las Vegas, since changed to Michael Mina) so much in the past, that I was really looking forward to Michael Mina's restaurants in Las Vegas' MGM Grand. Knob Hill did not disappoint. I ate lucious Lobster Pot Pie at the bar, while getting to know a Washington D.C. foodie who happened onto the stool next to mine. Solid 3/5. Just wish some one had been there with me so I could have tried more things and judge consistency across selections better. Unfortunately, Seablue was not as satisfying. It looked good. I mean live anchovies swimming round the big tank outside certainly suggested good fresh fish. But this 1/5 restaurant was overpriced, the service made me long for the days when a freckled kid would ask me "you wanna supersize it". At Seablue I felt lonely from inattention, miffed from the large number of menu items that were unavailable at 6 p.m. in the evening--what, did they have a mad rush of early-bird halibut eaters or something.

Now Mesa Grill--talk about exceeding expectations. Went once with Susan (wife), then went back the following week when I in LV on business. I watched the TV show about how Bobby Flay built the restaurant. Reality Construction of the soft rock sort. So I expected just another absentee celebrity chef locale, with an uninteresting but consistent menu of easy to chow down Southwest fare. What I got was two very different selections on two trips--so much variety that I missed not ordering my favorites twice. I also got spectacular rabbitt cooked multiple ways--no doubt borrowed from his buddy, Mario Batali's, Rabbit 3-Ways dish at fabulous Babbo in NY. Wonderful tamale. One co-worker ordered a fabulous steak, while the other said his lamb was a bit dry--lucky I didn't try any. Sauces were different, not overwhelming. Drinks were creative--go crazy with the margarita selection! Mesa Grill at Caeser's gets a 3.5/5.

Where should I go next in LV folks? Likely to have to be there again soon.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Taste Buds and Asahi Super Dry

First, my taste buds. Went through a bout of sinus infection about a month ago and dragged the whole family along with me. For 2 weeks I could not taste anything--nothing. Dr. thinks I had a blocked olafactory nerve or something. It was weird. But it is over now. Nevertheless, my tasting has not completely returned to normal. I can taste high notes and sour things very well. Savory things are less nuanced than in the past. It is like I am dropping packets (to put it in Internet terms). Probably a trip to the saw bones is in order. Anyone have any suggestions?

Second, Asahi Super Dry--my favorite bev at a fantastic 10-year old Sushi depot in Burlingame called Sakae. Not a cheap place, this little dive. I can easily spend $50, all-in, on miso soup, excellent sashimi, a beer and a bowl of rice chaser, tax and tip. But the quality makes this a 4/5. I am never disappointed and rarely wish I had spent less for dinner. Of course when I bring Max, I have to tip more as retribution for the carnage that is his culinary aftermath. But he loves the vegetable tempura--this along with Amici's penne pesto is about all the veggies he will eat. For me it is the sweet scallop sashimi with lemon slices and the white tuna or fresh anchovies that satisfy. Went to Nobu in LV two weeks ago and Sakae compared favorably in quality with this world famous sushi brand, especially when ordering straight forward Sashimi (as oppposed to Nobu Matsuhisa's sauce-inspired concoctions). A must try--fish I can apparently still taste.