Monday, August 24, 2009

Review: The French Laundry

The French Laundry has a tough job these days. Its reputation is so established, legion of fans so large, and margin for error so non-existent that it’s an easy target. Food is a deeply personal thing. A restaurant can be even more so. Chefs, like writers, put forward an intimate, creative side of themselves for public judgment. If that’s the case, then Thomas Keller is the cooking equivalent to Phil Jackson coaching in the NBA finals. He just doesn’t lose. He takes what he’s given, adapts to it, gets the absolute most out of it, and leaves you astonished.

The French Laundry is a restaurant that doesn’t let you down. It is the place that encompasses the evolution and ascendancy of restaurants in the United States over the past forty years. It harnesses the power of Alice Waters’ emphasis on fresh, seasonal, and local ingredients, couples it with the very best in formal service with an influence of American casualness, and incorporates an elegant dedication to classicism for the food and décor. In short, the French Laundry is the restaurant that tries — and succeeds — at pleasing everyone. Or at least coming close.

Two recent trips to the French Laundry confirm this is the best restaurant in the country. Period. But to bestow such a sweeping superlative on the place undermines the true pleasure of the experience. Make no mistake, though, a meal here is a pure luxury. At $240 (service included) for a nine-course tasting or nine-course vegetarian menu, you’ll be lucky to make it our for less than $500 per person once wine comes into play. But it is the meal, if you have deep-seated passion for food, you owe to yourself at least once. Give up your Starbucks or Chick-Fil-A habit for a year. You won’t regret it.

The first impression of the restaurant is how unassuming it is. You won’t notice it if you just drive down Washington Street in Yountville. Inside, the restored building is magnificent. Refined rusticity might have been invented here. The tables reflect the restaurant’s name: crisp, white linens; the napkin secured to white plates, shimmering from the soft light given off by wall sconces, with an old fashioned laundry pin.

For an establishment that attracts such zealous lovers of food, the atmosphere is so relaxed and unhurried, you can’t help but feel at ease. It’s a remarkable feat, really, considering the ratio of servers to diners. With room for about sixty customers, the two-story dining room also accommodates seemingly forty staff. The remarkable thing is you can’t really tell how many servers there are because they are simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible. To create a pleasant, quiet environment while lavishing each table with attention is a remarkable feat. The only potential issue in the dining can be temperature: in the summer it can be stuffy, compounded by the jacket requirement for men.

Really, though, it is wasteful to spend so much time on the “experience” of the French Laundry because the last thing it aspires to be is an “experience” place. Nothing distracts from the food. The dining room isn’t flashy. The service, while impeccable, takes a back seat. This is all about the food, but recognizing the unmatched efforts that come from everyone at the restaurant would detract from the marvelous, leisurely perfection of a meal at the French Laundry.

The starter rarely changes: two amuse bouche, the cheese gougeres and salmon tartare with red onion crème fraiche in a sesame tuile. This is an important first step. The gougeres show remarkable execution of the pastry, while allowing the gruyere to shine through clearly but not overwhelmingly. The salmon “ice cream cone” is legendary for good reason. It’s refined, playful, and delicious. The red onion crème fraiche provides a refreshing burst, and the tuile is so delicate you wonder how it can support the weight of the teaspoon of salmon. These are classic amuse, executed marvelously and betray that you are in for a treat.

The first course also usually is the same: “oysters and pearls.” It’s essentially decadent tapioca pudding, delicate and flavorful with no shortage of butter. Two lightly poached oysters sit on top, with a generous dollop of California caviar. With Champagne, this dish simultaneously transports you to the good life and makes a resounding case for simple cooking. And the domestic caviar is a testament to efforts in this country to develop top-quality ingredients.

Next up is foie gras, if you choose, or a salad. The salad is always interesting and generally made from fruits or vegetables grown in the French Laundry’s garden, which sits across the street. The foie gras is well worth the $30 supplement. A terrine of pillow-like softness and elegance is enhanced by a celery branch and tart rhubarb that cuts the richness. Toasted brioche — a warm piece traded out for a fresh warm piece a few minutes later — leaves you smiling, another classic executed perfectly. The theatrical replacement of the brioche partway through the course is handled so matter-of-factly that it diffuses any possibility of pretentiousness.

Third is the fish course. On the March visit, sous chef Corey Lee’s influence showed in a brilliant Japanese big fin squid dish, with pasta, green garlic, chorizo, sweet peppers, Spanish capers, and Swiss chard. You know the French Laundry can cook any piece of fish, and one of the choices will showcase that, but this squid showed such imagination, with the earthy kick of capers and chard to complement the fresh (and not tough) squid and slight spice of the chorizo. A dish ordered out of a desire to sample everything on the menu became a memorable standout.

The first half of the meal rounds out with the lobster course. Normally you get mitts or tail poached in butter. Occasionally, they’ll be poached in olive oil. There is an inherent risk of lobster being slightly chewy, even at the best restaurants, and that was the case on one visit. But the complements in the spring — avocado, radish, fresh fennel, and niçoise olive — came with a cool citrus broth that allowed the lobster mitts to be a vehicle for a refreshing, invigorating dish.

The meat courses rotate frequently. Chicken, pork, duck, beef, veal, and lamb all make appearances, in various cuts and preparations. Duck is a particular treat. This March, a duck breast served with English peas, turnips, mache, and intense black truffles made for a dream pairing with red Burgundy. As with each course, the individual ingredients shine through beautifully and complement one another; there isn’t interference. These flavors work together and aren’t shouting over one another, competing for the spotlight.

It’s at this point in the meal that you wish the French Laundry offered wine pairings. The rationale for only offering the wine list is that the menu changes daily, so keeping up with pairings would be arduous. The reality is that, while the menu will change daily, there is a spectrum of dishes the kitchen works with. Flavors change, but the core of the menu is constant enough to allow a course-by-course pairing. It is the one way the meal could be taken to greater heights, not that the wine list lacks in selection that’s perfect for the food.

The beef course on both visits was the cap of the ribeye, roasted to medium rare. Deeply flavorful and with the fat melted in, it’s a delicious canvas for bluefoot mushrooms and a San Marzano tomato compote that, after you finish relishing the intensely pure flavor, you realize is essentially the best ketchup you’ve ever encountered.

The cheese course always is a simple affair, showcasing a single cheese that is worthy of solo attention. It is followed up with a sorbet or sherbet. After the richness of the middle section of the meal, a buttermilk or fruit sorbet is just the ticket, like the acidic backbone of a wine keeping your palate refreshed. Buttermilk sherbet with sour cherries and a black tea foam — showing you foam may be passé but not necessarily boring or uninteresting when properly prepared and used — emphasizes how the menu plays with sweet and savory, refreshing and rich, and the earthy side of food.

Dessert tends to walk the classical line, with chocolate mousse that reminds you why classics are just that, or lemon parfait that hits tart and sweet notes with equal force. So skillfully executed, it makes you feel like a kid again, bringing back memories of timeless favorites.

There's also a secret at the end of the meal. Ask if they have any "coffee and doughnuts." They do. But you have to ask. If they're available still, you will get the most delightful cinnamon sugar doughnut and espresso semifreddo.

The French Laundry isn’t a meal that reads well. It’s something you must experience to realize the sheer perfection and enjoyment of it. Nothing is out of place. There are no missteps. Needs are anticipated; requests are met immediately. When a restaurant approaches every day with impossible expectations, it’s remarkable enough for it to meet them. At the French Laundry, Thomas Keller has assembled a brigade that routinely blows those expectations out of the water. There is no better restaurant in the country. Few even come close.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Amuse Bouche: Guilty pleasure

Canned nacho cheese at the Astros' game. 7-Eleven spicy bite hot dogs. Hostess cupcakes. Fried turkey legs at a county fair. Chex Mix. Soft Batch cookies. Jimmy Dean sausage biscuits, fresh from the microwave. Taco Bell Meximelts. Everyone has his delicious-yet-embarrassing food secret. Is it some connection to childhood that does it? Some crack added during the process that creates trans fat? Whatever it is, perhaps a connection of some kind to childhood (well, maybe not for the Double Whopper), these guilty pleasures exist, just like reality television on VH1. Anyone want to top my inexplicable cravings for lukewarm Chick-Fil-A nuggets off of their catering trays?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

In re Lankford Grocery

Before the Burger Court of Houston, Texas
Docket No. 2
HEARD JULY 14, 2009

Before GUTTING, BRINKMANN, LAHAD. for the court filed by GUTTING, J, in which JJ. LAHAD and BRINKMANN join.

GUTTING, J. Before the court is the submission of Lankford Grocery and Market of Houston, Texas (“Lankford”). A long-time leader in the Texas burger culture and recently recognized by Texas Monthly magazine as the 39th best burger in the state, a recent circuit split has emerged regarding Lankford. To resolve this dispute in extremely important area of burger law, we granted certiorari.

We hold that Lankford provides an exceptional burger, worthy of special effort to seek out and enjoy, and merits an A rating. The opinion of the Texas Burger Guy is affirmed; Alison Cook's Burger Friday review is overturned and cited as erroneous precedent.

Lankford is a shack in a strange corner of mid-town, surrounded by new townhouses that should only be so lucky to reach the age of the Lankford building in any shape at all. Inside, you always get the feeling Lankford might come falling down on you at any moment, leaving you to find the most convenient escape route that also will allow you to emerge with a burger in hand.

There's no lack of local color about the place, and the burgers reflect a simplicity that is so easily forgotten in this day of American kobe burgers and sliders. You can go single or double. Maybe some chili. Perhaps the Soldier burger with its fried egg on top. Nothing fancy. Everything delicious.

The Court reviewed three burgers: (1) a double with cheese; (2) a double without cheese; and (3) a Soldier burger.

The Hamburger
These burgers were glossy, sexy pieces of ground beef. The moment they arrived, fresh off the griddle and projecting steam, you could feel as if something magical might be happening this day. An initial sample of the patty alone heightened expectations and senses even more: juicy, rich, an archetype of what a burger should be. Not too much salt. Not too much seasoning. Just the purity of beef that is too often lost by purveyors who don't have the courage to stand on the quality of their ingredients alone.

The patties are hand-formed and roughly a half pound. The double was a candidate to give diners lockjaw due to its height, which was enhanced by a stack of lettuce, tomato, and chopped onion. On the cheeseburger, American slices oozed nicely, but the hamburger also seemed as juicy overall. The Soldier burger achieves a mayonnaise-like quality to its toppings with the over-easy egg. There were plenty of pickles on each patty, a welcome thing with such pure beef flavor. Mayonnaise was appropriate, and the mustard -- too often prone to taking over and dominating the flavor -- used judiciously. Too many burgers suffer from excessive mustard. This is a hamburger, not a musburger.

The burgers came out a barely medium-well, with plenty of retained juice and no signs of dryness-inducing griddle-pressing that lesser establishments insist upon to speed cooking. A solid crust formed on the outside of the patties. These were burgers that begged to be eaten. This was ground beef in excelsis, enhanced by light salt and pepper.

The bun isn't artisan or fancy. This is the style of bun that is meant to create a neutral canvas for a burger, and it can be used to excellent effect in a case such as this, where the meat needs no supporting cast. Bun integrity was strong on the double burgers. Perhaps they are a touch airy for some, but this was not a detriment in the opinion of the Court.

On this day, the Court declined to hear evidence on side dishes. We deemed the Circuit split to be of such high importance that all efforts must be concentrated on strict scrutiny of the burgers themselves. In accordance with our prior precedent, see In re Mel's Country Cafe, supra, we decide the case of Lankford Grocery on the merits without consideration of side dishes. The Court does take judicial notice that Lankford's fries are generally average to slightly above average, while their onion rings are above average.

The Court would like to make special mention of the cherry cobbler ordered this day. While the issue of cobbler need not be reached in order for the Court to render judgment, this cobbler cannot go without discussion. The Court expressly notes its willingness to dismiss with prejudice any claims of merit advanced by the Lankford Grocery cherry cobbler, which contained precisely one cherry in an entire bowl that more resembled a Hostess fried pie crumbled up and put in the microwave. This abomination is unworthy of an establishment of Lankford's stature.

Lankford Grocery produces a burger that is worthy of Best In Houston consideration. It will be difficult for any restaurant to top the merits of this burger. As a result, we award Lankford an A grade. The opinion of the Texas Burger Guy is AFFIRMED. The opinion of Alison Cook is OVERRULED and the case remanded to her for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


LAHAD, J. concurring. I concur in the holding announced today but write separately to admonish Lankford Grocery's appalling cherry cobbler. While none of the parties in the case at bar moved to sanction Lankford, and my brethren on this Court persuaded me that it would be unnecessary judicial activism to act sua sponte, the cherry cobbler offered by Lankford would warrant hefty sanctions and possibly a contempt order. As an officer of this Court, Lankford has a duty to provide accompaniments that meet both gustatory and ethical standards. This alleged "dessert" fails to meet either; Lankford's cherry cobbler is, simply put, the pits.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Review: Textile

Textile opened in Houston last fall to much fanfare. Scott Tycer has garnered an ardent following here, and Textile is intended to be his crowning achievement. This was to be the restaurant at the top of the city's fine dining scene; a legitimate destination at the high end, something Houston sorely lacks. Is it? The answer is full of qualifiers: Maybe yes, but, if yes, then only in one respect. It will take some doing to explicate that answer, and perhaps the lack of a simple answer should indicate the true answer itself. But there is one area in which Textile succeeds in throwing Tycer's hat into the highest echelon of chefs: price.

Textile is spendy, and it's worth taking some time to discuss that. By virtue of price -- $85 (plus $55 for wine) for a five-course tasting and $115 (plus $75 for wine) for seven courses -- Textile is playing in the big leagues. Prices for non-paired wines, though mostly well-selected, are exorbitant. (The list at Gravitas always seems to have a couple $10 bottles for $45+, implying wine-as-profit-center is a Tycer tradition.) That means big league expectations and razor-thin margins of error. You can go to Tru in Chicago, for example, and have their eleven-course Chef's Collection for $135. The $125 to $175 price range is fairly standard for degustation menus at the top restaurants in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. So $115 in Houston, with our lower cost of living, is a bold move. It's a price that allows no room for disappointment or average or lapses in execution when it comes to food or service.

The space at Textile is lovely. There is a calm, cool feel about the room, and the kitchen and service areas are removed, keeping even the usual bustle from reaching the dining room. It's a pleasant atmosphere and is a key contributor to the experience at Textile feeling more enjoyable than just the sum of its parts. It’s relaxed, not stuffy or aloof.

At a restaurant like this, however, ambiance and service must be a given. It cannot get by on anything but the strength of its food. And this is where Textile falls down, excepting the dessert discussion below. Purely in terms of food, this isn't one of the top five places in Houston. It might not even be in the top ten, but that may be a result of sticker shock. The creativity is interesting at times in Tycer's food. The execution is maddeningly inconsistent, reminiscent of the same struggles Robert Gadsby has at Bedford.

The meal started with a solid dish of pickled white asparagus with dilled kefir. It was a crisp, tart, and refreshing opening, paired beautifully with the citrus-tinged and creamy Nicolas Feuillatte Blanc de Blancs NV. But here began the rollercoaster ride.

The second course was unforgivable: bay scallops and wheat pasta in a celery broth. The scallops were not fresh, with an intensely fishy flavor that screamed of being a couple days' old at least. This sin was amplified by the neutral celery. The pasta was al dente but had an odd, soft, almost slimy feel on the outside, as if it had been cooked short and left to sit and never properly reheated. Whatever happened with this dish was a mistake. Mistakes can happen. They can be corrected. But at a restaurant with Textile's aspirations? A plate like this never should have reached a customer. It indicates a failure of execution in the kitchen and quality control. There was, at least, a surprising and superb Meroi Pinot Grigio 2007 to sip until the waiters cleared the plate.

From that low, the meal reached its apex, an inspired smoked kielbasa with pork belly and goat’s eye bean. The sausage was excellent, meaty and flavorful, complemented by the succulent richness of the pork belly. It was easily the best dish of the night, and it had the best wine of the night, as well, Bergstrom “Dr. Bergstrom” Riesling 2006 from Oregon. It was a real surprise and made this inspired course a great domestic representation of food with such a German feel.

Then the inconsistency resurfaced for the next two dishes. First, quail stuffed with sage bread pudding with porcini and summer truffles. The stuffing was light and airy, but its quantity overwhelmed the subtle quail meat, and the sage neutralized any hint of truffle. The flavors didn’t coalesce. Not even the tasty Faiveley Bourgogne 2006 could bring out any hint of truffle in the dish. Second, a roast leg of duck with forbidden rice had a lovely, crisp skin, but it was overcooked and dry. The forbidden rice was mushy, with a texture like refried beans and with none of the nutty flavor it should have had.

A refreshing cherry and gianduja float preceded the dessert, honeydew and melon soup with goat cheese and brioche. It would have been a refreshing cap to a quite rich string of dishes, but the soup came out room temperature, not chilled. The flavors fell a bit flat.

The dessert, which must have sat too long waiting to come out of the kitchen, underscored the deep problems with service at Textile, an all-too-common problem in Houston. The waiters were awkward and seemed uncomfortable and hot. Each course delivered to the table -- a five-course and a seven-course -- was flip-flopped. Even after being brought to the attention of the maitre d', it continued through the meal's conclusion, reaching the point of being laughable. Wine service from sommelier Frank Moore, though, was superb. He is a knowledgeable, passionate wine steward whose pairings generally are smart and appropriate. His trips to explain each pour were a highlight of the evening.

So far, it is hard to reconcile all this with the "maybe yes" answer above. Isn’t Textile just overrated and overpriced? Well, yes. But it also has Plinio Sandalio, the pastry chef. What is clear about Textile is that it is the best restaurant in Houston -- for dessert. And it does have the best chef in town -- Sandalio.

The dessert tasting at Textile, offered Tuesdays and Wednesdays, is the thing to get to find value and inspired creativity. It is a glimpse at special and rare talent over eight courses.

To start one recent evening, out came two crisp matchstick French fries, with a dollop of potato chip-crusted mayonnaise that was deep fried. It showed that, in this frying-crazed era, there are still interesting things to be discovered.

The tasting itself was split into savory and sweet halves. The savory began with the much-ballyhooed “corndog”: a slightly sweet corn fritter, mustard ice cream, and ketchup with ground hot dog into it. Each element was tasty, but the flavors melded together in impressive harmony that worked in conveying the best of sweet-salty-savory interplay. Less successful was the okra ice cream and andouille caramel that followed. The ice cream was delicious, something like creamed okra, but the andouille caramel didn’t quite gel.

The savory segment closed on another high, a lemon tart with candied olives. The olives, the harshness of their flavor eviscerated, made an interesting pairing with a superlative lemon tart. This showed Sandalio at his greatest skill and gave a glimpse at a possible weakness. The tart shell was exquisite, light and crisp. The lemon filling was perfectly executed and avoided the pitfall of so many lemon desserts, which become too sweet and mask the lemon flavor. Not here. It was piquant and captured a juicy lemon’s refreshment. Sandalio’s fundamental skills are without doubt; he ensures that you can see all the classical techniques he has mastered, giving him more leeway to be creative. With this dish, however, the olives seemed superfluous and unnecessary. They were interesting, but you can’t help but wonder if one fewer element would have given the overall dish a greater stature. With his skill, however, you are likely to write it off as minor.

Between the savory and sweet halves came a watermelon and feta “intermezzo.” The compressed watermelon was crisp and ripe. A small feta cheesecake opened your mind to new dimensions of the line between savory and sweet.

The sweet segment showcased Sandalio’s creativity within more a more traditional realm. The coconut cake was delicious and perfectly executed, although the accompanying avocado ice cream, while nice texturally appealing, brought out an odd side to avocado’s earthy flavor. The peach sorbet was the essence of a favorite Texas summer ingredient, and the white chocolate mousse maintained elegance. This dish actually seemed somewhat out of place it was so traditional, though perfectly executed.

The last course was a substantial bittersweet chocolate torchon, filled with cherry and complemented by “pop rocks.” As a cherry cordial, it didn’t quite work, and it was rather heavy, but the chocolate was beautiful. There’s no denying the skill that went into the dish.

The final touch, a series of mignardises, left a lingering impression of Sandalio’s impeccable skill in the kitchen: a perfect hazelnut tart, sumptuously rich brownie, and shortbread that will make you spontaneously renounce all others. And that, in essence, is the contrast between Textile at dinner and at dessert. The main courses suffer from lapses in execution and occasionally questionable choices, such as the superfluous black truffles on the quail. At dessert, it’s a bit like watching Jimmy Page play the guitar. All the fundamentals are there, and you’re constantly aware of that basic skill, but you’re always teetering on the edge of disaster in a flurry of creativity and experimentation. It makes the food fun, but it only works because Sandalio hits more than he misses.

As a result, the lingering impression of Textile is mixed. You want to like the place more than you intuitively should. The atmosphere is pleasant. The wine pairings are thoughtful and appropriate. For every miss of a course, you’re reassured by the atmosphere. And you get the wonderful memory of the desserts. So the bottom line requires sober reflection. At easily more than $200 a person for the seven-course tasting with wine, $140 for the five-course with wine, and limited a la carte selections, liking the place doesn’t make up for relatively uneven food. Overall, it’s a welcome addition to the Houston dining scene because it’s serious. But the prices need to reflect the reality of the food (and, perhaps, the economy) or sloppy execution and service must be stamped out permanently. In the meantime, take less risk and go on a weeknight for the a la carte selection or go ahead and have dessert for dinner.