Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Dinner @ French Laundry in Yountville, CA

So I finally had a chance to check out the famed French Laundry.  Three Michelin Stars.  Once named the best restaurant in the world.  One of the most famous restaurants in the world period.

For those who aren't aware, French Laundry offers two tasting menus, one vegetarian and one non-vegetarian.  Supplements are available to upgrade individual courses, which can nearly double your bill if you get all of them.

I ended up getting the normal menu without any supplements.  Here's an overview of the meal.

1) Amuse-bouche - cheese gougère and salmon tartar cornet w/ creme fraiche

These are apparently two classic amuse bouche dishes served at The French Laundry, apparently served for years.  Basically it's a cheese puff and salmon tartar in an ice cream cone.  These were both delicious.

Then we go on to the actual tasting menu.

2) Oysters & Pearls - Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca w/ Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar

This is apparently another famous French Laundry dish, oysters & pearls.  I cannot describe this dish beyond the fact it was amazing.  I've never tasted anything like it before.  It was rich and creamy and salty w/ the caviar, just incredible.  By far my favorite course of the night.

3) Bread

This beehive butter is the fanciest butter I've ever seen.

4) French Laundry Garden Celery Salad - Celery Root "Bavarois", compressed Philo Gold Apples, Piedmont Hazelnuts, and Black Winter Truffle "Coulis"

I guess the somewhat gelatinous stuff underneath the celery was the compressed Philo Gold Apples.  Overall, this was a very tasty and interesting dish, I've never had something like this before.

5)  Charcoal Grilled Gulf Coast Copia, Roasted Ruby Beets, Romain Lettuce, and Brokaw Avocado Puree

The avocado puree with the fish was delicious.  The waitress said this fish (which I've never had before) was in between a white flaky fish and a meaty fish, and she was correct.  I normally dislike meatier kinds of fish, but this was really good.  Also, notice the little starred radishes (I assume radishes) in the picture.

6) Sweet Butter Poached Maine Lobster, Sunchoke "Ravioli", Black Mission Figs, Watercress and Marcona Almond Pudding

The lobster was very good, not overly tough like you normally find in most restaurants.  I thought it was interesting that they cooked it so the tail would curl up like that.  Normally restaurants want the lobster tail to be long for presentation.

7) All Day Braised Salmon Creek Farms Pork Breast - Caramelized Brussel Sprouts, Quince Puree, Garden Turnips, Toasted Pecan Jus

The pork was the softest pork I can recall ever tasting.  Guess that's what happens when you sous vide pork all day.

8) More Bread

Before the final meat course came some more bread.

There were several options but I chose the pretzel bread because I had never had it before.  It's not what one normally thinks of for bread for dinner, it was very different.  In hindsight, I think it was a poor choice because it is a heavier bread and I was going to get stuffed as the meal went on.  I think it would be wiser to just skip this second bread course (or minimally not eat all the bread).

9) Elysian Fields Farm Lamb "Rib Eye" Forest Mushroom "Pain Perdu", Royal Blenheim Apricots, Cauliflower and Swiss Chard Leaves

Another tasty dish.  I'd never had lamb rib eye before, my recollection is it wasn't as fatty as beef rib eye.  Those who know me know that I hate mushrooms, it's just a personal dislike of mine.  However, the mushrooms in this dish were ok.  I actually said the phrase, "It's edible", and my group said they would send that review back to the chefs in the kitchen.  But to me if someone can make mushrooms edible to me, they've already done quite good.

10) "Tomme De Savoie" K&J Orchards Plums, Young Fennel, and English Walnut "Tapenade"

I normally love cheese, but for some reason this wasn't the most memorable.  I do prefer softer cheeses so that might be part of it.  It's also possible I was stuffed at this point and my ability to judge taste was waning.  It was getting late so maybe I was also getting really sleepy, perhaps it was good and I just don't remember, hah.

Then came out the desserts

11) Peach Melba

12) cookies & creams ice cream with cookie crumbles

13) rocky road w/ marshmallow & nuts

14) cappucino ice cream

They just kept on coming.  The cappucino ice cream was my favorite, unfortunately I was stuffed and couldn't finish it.  I shouldn't have finished the rocky road.  I'm not a big fan of marshmallow so I probably just shouldn't have bothered to try and finish that course.

15) mignardise

The macarons were delicious as was the donut.  The truffle candy was also very creamy and rich.

Finally, the restaurant gave us a few things to take home.

The shortbread cookies were really good.

Overall the experience was wonderful.  I got to try a lot of new interesting things and things that I know can't be had almost anywhere else.  I'm not 100% if I'll want to go back anytime soon, as I think I'd rather try some of the other nice restaurants in the bay area first to see what dishes they serve (Restaurant at Meadowood, Benu, Atelier Crenn, Baume, and Quince to name a few) before going back to compare.

People have asked me, "Was it your favorite meal ever?"  It's a hard question to answer.  I feel that tasting menus at some of the fanciest restaurants in the country are more of an experience.  It's about tasting different ingredients and textures and tasting something new.  Unlike a la carte menus, you can't pick ingredients for your meal.  You have to hope the restaurant does something you like.  Inevitably, your experience there is going to depend highly on your familiarity with an ingredient, your general like/dislike of an ingredient, or your flat out love/hate of an ingredient.  The feeling of something being delicious is much more related to your personal prior experiences and even memories of an ingredient in the past.

Earlier in the year I had the opportunity to eat at Saison, a two Michelin starred restaurant (update: now it's 3 star) in the city.  Some dishes were definitely out of my knowledge range and I didn't know what to make of them.  With more tasting experience I'll be able to judge better.  I've jokingly told friends I need to train at 1 star Michelin restaurants before going back to two or three star ones, haha.

As another example, the following is a dessert I had from Chez Panisse.

This was a "Wild blackberry and lemon verbena meringata".  Basically blackberry sorbet, lemon gelato, on top of meringue, with berry sauce, and a bunch of fresh berries around it.

This dessert is probably the greatest dessert I've ever had in my life.  I enjoyed it more than the desserts at French Laundry.  Does that mean that Chez Panisse and its chefs are better chefs?  Absolutely not.  Why?  The answer is Chez Panisse got lucky.

A) Berries are my favorite fruit.  I enjoy strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries over virtually any other fruit out there.  When I get frozen yogurt, I get blueberries and strawberries on top.  When I get a smoothie, it's berry based.  A freeze at a bubble tea shop?  Strawberry flavored.  Fruit to eat for breakfast with yogurt?  Guess.  You get the idea.

B) Berries were in season.

C) I like sorbet more than ice cream, I just prefer the tartness

D) I like gelato more than ice cream, I just prefer the "iciness"

E) My second favorite flavor of gelato?  Lemon

The stars aligned and Chez Panisse created about the greatest dessert I could ever enjoy.  They could easily make a horrible dessert for me the next time I'm there if the dessert contains a large amount of marshmallow.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

How to get reservations at French Laundry

Reservations for this famed Napa (well technically Yountville) restaurant are ridiculously difficult.  I was recently able to snag one via OpenTable and thought I'd write about what I learned.

After reading about things online, this is what I gathered are the best ways to get reservations at French Laundry.  Although I'm only speculating, I imagine the following probably applies to all high end restaurants.

1) Hotels

A number of hotels in the area have slots reserved for their guests at French Laundry.  I know of couples that have gotten reservations using this mechanism.  It's by far the easiest way.  (Note: I didn't do this.)

2) Concierge Services

A number of reservation slots appear to be reserved for concierge services such as through Visa or Amex.  This is your best attempt if you want to avoid paying for a hotel room nearby (especially true if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area).  However, it's not as easy as you are fighting with other concierge customers.  (Note: I didn't do this.)

3) Call

Reservations 2 months in advance open up at 10am everyday.  I know of atleast one person that was able to get reservations via this mechanism, painstakingly calling everyday until they were able to get through.  (Note: I didn't do this.)

4) Opentable

Some, although very few, tables are available on Opentable.  If you're patient and look all the time, eventually things will open up.  This is especially true of short notice reservations, see below for more details.

5) Cancellation Wait List

French Laundry apparently maintains a cancellation wait list if you put your name down for a specific day.  You have to call the restaurant for this.  (Note: I didn't do this.)  I imagine this is a viable option only for those local to the San Francisco Bay Area or those vacationing in Napa.

What You Should Do

You should be flexible on the time you're willing to go and the group size.  Dinner for two at 6pm several months out on a Saturday?  That's probably the most romantic and desired reservation time.  If that's what you want, it's going to be tough.   I would bet that hotel and concierge service is the best bet to get these optimal times.

However, dinner for 4 at 9:15 pm on a Wednesday?  That's going to be easier.  Dinner for 6 at 9:15pm on a Monday?  Even easier.

So if you're willing to go on a weekday.  If you're willing to go at an non-optimal time.  If you're willing to gather a group (and can gather others), reservations can be done half easily.  Tables for 6 can be obtained on OpenTable far easier than tables for 4.  You won't notice the reservations available on Opentable all the time, but they pop up with half-regularity.  In fact, right now (as I write this) there are tons of reservations for 6 available for the next 2 months listed on OpenTable.  Seven of them are for 9:15pm and two are for 5:30pm.  One of the 9:15pm slots is even available on a Sunday.  Everything else is on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday.

In fact, if you're willing to go on semi-short notice, reservations are even easier.  While it's not something you see everyday, the reality is that cancellations do happen.  Although I'm only speculating, I imagine concierge slots/hotel slots do not always get filled (especially on weekdays).  So I semi-regularly see reservation slots open up on Opentable < 1 week in advance of a date.  At the end of the day French Laundry is a business, they gotta make money :P

Although I'm only speculating, I believe a lot of cancellations also happen because of foodies like me.  Someone sees a reservation slot for 4 or 6.  Knowing how hard it is to get reservations, they snag the reservation hoping to gather a group of people to go with them.  In the 1-2 weeks before the reservation, if they can't get a group together (because lets be realistic, finding 3-5 friends to shell out > $300 for dinner is hard), they give up the reservation.

Be aware that cancellations < 3 days in advance will likely incur a $100 per person cancellation fee, so that's part of the danger of going on short notice.  So you need to plan your group of friends/family before hand for going to this restaurant.

Hope that helps someone out there.

Blog post with details of the French Laundry dinner is here.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The start of Miguel Cabrera's decline?

Before the 2014 season Miguel Cabrera signed an 8 year extension for $240 Million.  Therefore, he was under contract for $284 Million for 10 years beginning in 2014.  Collectively, it's the biggest contract in MLB history.

When he signed this contract, all I could think is, "Didn't the Detroit Tigers see what happened with Ryan Howard, Alex Rodriguez, and Albert Pujols?  Why did they give him such an insane contract for that length of time?"

How did Miguel Cabrera do in 2014?  As of this writing, he's hitting:

.318/.379/.526, 23 HRs, 103 RBIs, 5.0 WAR

It's not horrible.  By any normal measure it's a good year, but certainly not what the Tigers were hoping on the beginning for the next 10 years.  It was actually far worse when I began writing this blog post, but an insane .469/.507/.844 September pumped up his season numbers.  His slash line from April to August were .299/.363/.468.

If I were the Tigers, I'd be concerned.  It's not looking good for the next 9 years.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Ode to Adam Dunn

Adam Dunn is one of my favorite baseball players of the last decade.  However, it's not for the reasons you'd expect.

  • He's slow
  • He's bad defensively ... even as a first baseman
  • He strikes out a ton
  • and in the rare case he pitches, he's certainly not good

So why do I love Adam Dunn?  The man they call the Big Donkey?  It's because of what he represents.  He's the epitome of "Moneyball".

  • He doesn't hit for a high batting average
  • He strikes out a ton
  • But he hits a ton of home runs
  • and he takes a lot of walks

By most traditional measures, he'd be considered a pretty awful player and may not have made it to the major leagues.  A modern Dave Kingman by some measures.  But modern day statistics show that while he isn't an incredible player, he's still a good and productive one.

Teams will suffer all his strikeouts and his poor defensive value, as long as he balances it with a lot of home runs and walks.

And walk and hit home runs he did.  He was one of the most consistent players doing it for quite a number of years.

Assuming Dunn retires after this year, he'll finish his career with a .237/.365/.491 slash line.  Nothing particularly special.  However, during his peak, check out this consistency:

2004 - 46 HRs, 102 RBIs, 108 BB, .956 OPS
2005 - 40 HRs, 101 RBIs, 114 BB, .927 OPS
2006 - 40 HRs, 92 RBIs,  112 BB, .855 OPS
2007 - 40 HRs, 106 RBIs, 101 BB, .940 OPS
2008 - 40 HRs, 100 RBIs, 122 BB, .898 OPS
2009 - 38 HRs, 105 RBIs, 116 BB, .928 OPS
2010 - 38 HRs, 103 RBIs, 77 BB, .892 OPS

I love the fact that he hit exactly 40 home runs 4 years in a row, then exactly 38 two more times.  He was regularly amongst the league leaders in walks until an uncharacteristic 2010.

Now checkout his strikeout totals in those years.

2004 - 195
2005 - 168
2006 - 194
2007 - 165
2008 - 164
2009 - 177
2010 - 199

I love how he flirted with 200 strikeouts in a year so many times but just couldn't quite make it, until he decided he was no longer scared of it and had a career high of 222 in 2012.

Of the 20 worst strike out seasons in major league history, Dunn own's five of them.

he had one of the worst seasons in recent memory in 2011

2011 - 11 HRs, 42 RBIs, 75 BB, .569 OPS

but rebounded with more typical Dunn seasons in 2012 and 2013, with some apparent age decline coming into play.

2012 - 41 HRs, 96 RBIs, 105 BB, .800 OPS
2013 - 34 HRs, 86 RBIs, 76 BB, .762 OPS

Rumors are that he'll retire after the 2014 season. (Update: This is confirmed, he did retire.)

As of this writing, he'll finish his career with an overall WAR of 16.9.  Not too shabby.

He has a WAR of 34.4 on offense

He has a WAR of -29.5 on defense.  OUCH!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Best Ramen in the San Francisco Bay Area

I've been scouring the bay area for the best ramen for quite some time, my current list of my top places:

  1. Halu Ramen, San Jose
  2. Ramen Dojo, San Mateo
  3. Dohatsuten, Palo Alto
  4. Santa Ramen, San Mateo
  5. Orenchi Ramen, Santa Clara
  6. Ramen Shop, Oakland
  7. Ramen Parlor, San Mateo
  8. Ryowa, Mountain View
  9. Shalala, Mountain View
  10. Men Oh Tokushima Ramen, San Francisco
  11. Maru Ichi, Milpitas
  12. Ramen Bar, San Francisco
Most people in the San Francisco bay area tend to agree that Ramen Dojo and Orenchi Ramen are the best ones around.  For whatever reason, I just love Halu Ramen a bit more.  I can't explain why.  You know what they sometimes, if something is hyped up it can affect your perception of a restaurant.

Ramen Shop is pretty famous because several alumni of Chez Panisse run the restaurant, but I thought it was a notch below the others.

Take the ordering with a grain of salt, it's more about general feel that "these few are near the top of the list, these are in the middle, and these are at the bottom".  To be very honest, the only places I was sure about with the ranks were Halu Ramen being #1 and Ramen Bar being last.

Places not yet listed, but I haven't yet gotten to include

Ramen Underground, San Francisco
Katana-Ya, San Francisco
Kotetsu, Santa Clara