Friday, July 31, 2009

The French Laundry: Reservation Secured, Sir.

Yesterday, I made almost 400 phone calls to The French Laundry. That nearly impossible to get into restaurant in Northern California. I started at 10am West Coast time and called until 2:30pm West Coast time, off and on, with no luck. My thumbs are actually sore today. I've never had sore thumbs from using my phone, this is a first. I gave up because I had a meeting and the monotony was driving me crazy. I just couldn't handle that insane busy signal anymore. Luckily, I remembered that I had asked the Amex Platinum Concierge to call for me a few weeks back. So, I decided to let them take over the mind numbingly, tedious job of pressing redial. At 5:45pm I decided to call them to check on their progress. I had no hopes that they would have any more success than I had. In fact, I was sure they would just call the same number I was and keep redialing until the end of the day. When I would no doubt, get an email telling me of their failure. But that was not the case.

The Concierge told me that Holly (the Concierge that deals with The French Laundry) had managed to book me a reservation for three people on September 29th at 5:45pm. SUCCESS! It was really that simple. I gave them the times I could go and they did all the dirty work for me. The Concierge also told me that they dial different phone numbers than the one's listed on The French Laundry's website. So after an entire day wasted on the phone and researching blogs and articles about how to book a reservation, all it came down to was dialing the Amex Platinum Concierge. For this service, the high fees are more than justified.

My interest however, was now piqued and I wanted to try the other methods I had learned about throughout the day. I set my alarm to wake me up this morning at 2:50am East Coast time and before that I spent some time setting up Open Table on three different windows in Firefox. They were all set for October 1st (exactly 2 months from now) at 7:30pm for a party of four. Even though I didn't have four, I had three. I read that Open Table only has tables of four reserved for The French Laundry, so that's what I used.

At 2:50am sharp, my iPhone started playing Marimba and a slumped over my bed, picked up my laptop and waited until 2:56am to start rotating between the three browser windows, clicking the "Find a Table" button and then watching the little red and white circles rotate back and forth, while it searched for an Open Table. I did this several times before 3am and each time I was told that my dates were too far in advance. I knew this would happen and I expected to see this a few times until the clock hit 3am exactly. However, I was not prepared for that inexcusable sentence, which came up as 3am flashed brightly on my Mac, "There are no reservations currently available for the day you have requested." How is this possible? Were there hundreds of people doing the exact same thing as me? It appears so.

In any event, I have my reservation and I am a happy guy. Now it's time to stare at the menu online with longing and watch the inevitable drool as it slowly dribbles down my lips and slaps onto my keyboard. Oh, the life of a foodie. It's a silly existence, but I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world.

My professional photography website: Taylor Young Photography

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mission: Secure a Reservation at The French Laundry

The French Laundry
Today I spent 2 hours on the phone, pressing redial some 300+ times, trying to secure a reservation at The French Laundry in Yountville, California. The French Laundry is on my list of restaurants to dine at on my Cross-Country, Amtrak journey taking place in September. Along the way I want to eat the best Pizza in Chicago, dine at the best restaurant in San Fransisco (whatever that is) see some wineries in Napa and go to TFL. That's it. So what's the problem? The problem is simple, The French Laundry is one of the most sought after restaurant reservations on Earth. It makes getting a reservation at Per Se and The Fat Duck look like a lovely stroll in the park. Google; how to get a reservation at The French Laundry and you will see article upon article, blog upon blog of secrets, tips, tricks and insider information. I'm not 10 years old, I don't want to cheat at Zelda (best video game ever), I just want to make a restaurant reservation. I don't understand why it takes an army of insiders to tell me how to do this.

While doing my research I found several options: 1. Call, call, call and then call again. I started almost exactly at 10am, West Coast time and had no luck, with over 300 calls made. Each time I tried I just got the annoying sound of a phone line which is eternally busy. 2. Go to Open Table at 11:59:56pm and have 3 Internet browsers open at the same time, which are all looking for a reservation date 2 months in the future and for a party of four. Hit the find a table button on each browser, a second before midnight and you're supposed to be guaranteed a reservation seeing as Open Table holds 2 tables for The French Laundry and no one could have gotten there before you. 3. Have an Amex Platinum Card? Call the Concierge and have them do the dirty work for you. They will assign someone to sit and press redial until they get a hold of an actual person. And apparently they have some clout with The French Laundry, but who knows. 4. Befriend Puff Daddy, or whatever the hell he's calling himself these days and appeal to his softer side and have his PR gal get you in.

I have tried option number one vigorously without success. I will continue until I either get a hold of them, or my hands give up. I'm guessing my hands will give up before I reach a live person. However, I also have an Amex Platinum Concierge working for me as well and I hope to hear back from them soon. If those methods don't work, I am going to set my alarm for 2:45am Eastern Time and try the Open Table method. I'm really hoping one of the above methods work, because I think P-Diddy might be even harder than The French Laundry to get a hold of. If that's possible.

My professional photography website: Taylor Young Photography

Monday, July 27, 2009

Gordon Ramsay's Burger: Modified For Foodies

Gordon Ramsay,Passport Foodie
Gordon Ramsay,Passport Foodie
For the last few weeks I have been trying to find the perfect Hamburger recipe. Perfect for my taste buds anyway. This is not an easy feat to accomplish. With thousands of Burger Blogs and an equal amount of recipes out there, it has taken me quite some time. But I think I have it. I was watching an episode of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares one evening on BBC America and Gordon was trying to turn around a lovely restaurant, which sat adjacent to a golf course. There were 20,000 American's living in the town and it struck Gordon as odd that there wasn't a single Burger on the menu. He set out to create a gorgeous burger that would send the American's flocking into the joint and it worked a treat. When I saw that, I knew I had the recipe I needed.

I attempted to re-create what I saw on BBC America last week and had moderate, to decent success. Although the Burger was too small for the bun, it was still fiendishly delicious. This weekend was another matter. I created, what in my mind, is the perfect Hamburger.

The Best Burger Round One

Gordon Ramsay's exact recipe was not easily found and the measurements may have been a little off. For the above Burger I used the following ingredients and measurements:

1 Pound Mince (Ground Beef to you fellow Yanks)
1 Medium Egg Yolk
1/2 Organic Red Onion Diced
1 Tbsp Organic Ketchup
1 Tbsp Dijon
2 Tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
1 Tsp Salt
1 Tsp Pepper

This is all mixed together in a large bowl and the patties formed. On the grill I modified Gordon's recipe and I used melted Butter to baste each side of the Burger. About a minute before they were done I put a nice, thin slice of Swiss Cheese on top of the Burger, then toasted the lightly buttered, Kaiser Roll. When it looked done I placed some Iceberg lettuce on the bottom of the Roll, then a slice of Tomato, then the Burger and top Roll. And voila. With the first bite I found a rush of endorphins shooting up my spine to the back of my neck and up to my skull where my entire head started to tingle. This was a bloody good Burger. No need for condiments as they were all contained in the Burger itself. I made four Burgers from one pound of Mince and as a result I was left with some very small Burgers. Other than that, it was brilliant.

But it was lacking something. It was lacking the force and impact that a great French meal could generate as the flavors danced in the mouth and on the taste buds. I set out to solve this problem with a variation on Gordon's recipe.

Gordon Ramsay,Passport Foodie

The second time around yielded much better results. The Burger was larger and the giant flavors exploded in my mouth with every bite. For this recipe I used the following ingredients and measurements:

1 Pound Organic Mince
1 Medium Egg Yolk
1 Organic Red Onion Diced
3 Tbsp Organic Ketchup
2 Tbsp Dijon
3 Tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
6 Sun Dried Tomatoes in Oil Diced
1 Tsp Truffle Salt (That's right, Truffle Salt. Made from Italian Truffles)
1 Tsp Pepper

The same steps were taken on the grill except that instead of Swiss Cheese, I used Sharp Cheddar. I also bought baby Kaiser Rolls, which the woman in the Bakery lovingly called, "Short Hard." Hmm... I can't even think of any witty puns to use right now so I won't disgrace myself by trying. But they were a testament to the phrase, "all good things come in small packages." You got that right!

This Burger was a completely different animal than the first one. It was massive for one thing, about 1/2 pound, stuffed with all kinds of goodies. The Truffle Salt wasn't as intense as I thought it would be and in fact, added subtle nuances to the Burger that gave immense pleasure. If my taste buds could thank me, they would probably buy me a Ferrari. For, this was quite possibly the best Hamburger I have ever eaten in my life. And it was not made at The Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien hotel in New York, or at Joel Robuchon, it was made at my house, using the ingredients I deemed appropriate.

Next time I will make it with Triple Cooked French Fries, but I need a day where I can lay around for 8 hours and digest. This is not a light meal.

My professional photography website: Taylor Young Photography

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

2005 Chateau Branon: Overrated By Both Parker and Vaynerchuk

Chateau Branon
The title of this post might suggest to some that I didn't like the 2005 Chateau Branon. That is not the case. In fact, I liked it quite a bit. However, I think it was rated way too high by both Robert Parker and Gary Vaynerchuk. Wow, using both of their names in the same sentence is kind of strange. Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of Gary, I shop more at Wine Library than at any other store in the country, but it's still weird. Parker rated this wine 96 points and Gary on one of his shows rated the barrel sample at 94-98 points. Hmm... I don't see it.

The nose was a little closed off, but showed nice hints of Cherry Reduction, Cassis and Rich Soil. I really had to get into the glass in order to pick up anything else though. Some of this I can attribute to the fact that I only decanted it for an hour and a half and it is after all, a 2005 Bordeaux. Not exactly the most drinkable wines when young. The mouth is extremely tart and dry. I liked it a lot more than most of the young tannin filled wines out there, but I needed it to calm down. It finally did around the 3rd hour of airing in the decanter, but by that time I was nearly done with my meal and could only enjoy the last couple of sips with it being perfectly ripe. The finish is massive, with lots of big juicy, mouth puckering tannins.

There are only 500 cases of the 2005 Chateau Branon to go around, which is okay with me because for $75 (Futures Price) there are a lot of wines I'd prefer over this. Maybe in 5-10 years it will calm down and open up more, but right now it's totally unapproachable. I am not alone in my thinking, Wine Spectator rated the 2005 Chateau Branon 91 points, which is much closer to where I'd rate it. I have one more bottle and in 5 years I'll come back to it. Perhaps Gary and Parker are right, maybe it's a dynamite wine and my immature palate and lack of wine knowledge were my downfall on this particular occasion. Normally I am right on track with both of those critics, Parker especially. But not this time. I think this is a case of a great wine being overshadowed by so many other great wines at this price point. The fact that it got such a high score is really shocking to me. I did notice that Gary helped to choose the final blend in the 2006 Chateau Branon. Is this a coincidence? I hope not.

My professional photography website: Taylor Young Photography

Thursday, July 16, 2009

2004 Bodegas Lan Special Edition: Modern Day Rioja

Bodegas Lan Special Edition 2004 Rioja
There seems to be a changing of the guard in the wine world. In the 70's there was only one main wine region on Earth, France of course. This continued well into the 80's. And with the 1982 Bordeaux First Growths is it any wonder why France stayed on top for so long? In the late 90's California ruled the vines with such names as Harlan and Screaming Eagle commanding huge amounts of attention and a price to match. And then with the 2000 Bordeaux vintage, the tide turned again and France once again took over the top spot, if not in volume, than on quality and auction prices.

Now, there are 10-15 wine regions on Earth which are all volleying back and forth, no one is a clear winner these days. Some argue that France is still the greatest, some say Argentina is coming up and produces the best value, some like those huge Aussie wines and California is still a major player. In fact, California has some of the best boutique wines I have ever tasted. Wines like Buoncristiani's OPC and Lodi Vineyards' Petite Petit are always on my shopping list.

There is, however, a region which has been producing great wines for as long, if not longer than all the other major players. That is the Rioja region in Spain. The Spanish wine scene in the US is still quite small when compared to France, California, Washington and Australia. But it is gaining a great deal of attention. One of the reasons it's gaining so much attention is that it's producing profound wines, like the 2004 Bodegas LAN Special Edition.

Right off the bat, this wine is impressive. It has a huge, heavy bottle, with the name Bodegas LAN protruding from bottom. It is a very dark wine, almost creosote and boasts giant tannins, which stick to the decanter and then slide down gracefully. This is different for Spain, it is definitely a New World wine. But it's still very complex. The nose is huge. There is a gorgeous mineral complexity on the nose, which I really liked. It's not timid, there is an instant rush of cassis and herbs on the nose. It shows a lot of blueberries and blackberries on the palate. It also has a simple cherry component on the midpalate. Very nice. The finish is long and demands another sip.

Wine Spectator rated it 96 points. I think this is a little high for this wine, but it is very close. I'd rate it 94 points. If I rated wine, which I don't. It was also featured in Wine Spectator's Top 100 wines of 2007. It scored higher than any other Spanish Wine on the list. Very respectable. All in all, I think the 2004 Bodegas LAN Special Edition deserves the praise it has been getting. It's a fabulous testament to the new style of Spanish wines, big, bold and beautiful. I look forward to trying their Culmen Reserva, which I have a bottle of in the cellar. If it's anything like the Special Edition, I'm in for a treat.

My professional photography website: Taylor Young Photography

Monday, July 6, 2009

Adour Alain Ducasse: A Gastronomic 4th of July

St Regis
Inside Alain Ducasse
Fish Sticks
Fois Gras
Cheese Plate
Coffee and Petite Fours
What better way to spend the 4th of July, America's Independence Day, than by going to a French restaurant? After all, France was a major reason why the Americans were able to win their independence from Britain. So, on Saturday I went to Alain Ducasse' New York restaurant, Adour.

Finding a parking space right outside the restaurant on 55th and 5th was a great start. The Bentley parked out front made me pause for a second and rethink my choice of restaurants. I decided to throw caution to the wind and take a chance. I opened the regal, black and gold doors for my fellow diners and we were graced with a marble entryway.

On the inside, Adour doesn't seem like much. I took a cursory glance around and besides the hundreds of bottles of wine sitting behind glass cabinets, there wasn't really much to look at. That is, until I noticed that the walls surrounding the dining room are all glass and etched with vines. It was clear that Ducasse had created a restaurant for wine lovers. Next the Maitre d' handed me the wine menu. I was extremely impressed. Not with the size of the menu, or the fact that there were bottles that only a few restaurants in the world would be able to get, wines like the elusive Beaucastel Hommage Jacques Perrin, but there were also fabulous bargains hidden inside the menu. I chose a 2006 Coudoulet de Beaucastel.

The food menu is equally impressive and prices fair for what it is. We ordered and within a few minutes they brought out bread and butter for the table. The butter was laced with truffles, but was rock hard and I had to move the knife through it very carefully so I didn't make a huge chink noise on the plate below and embarrass both myself and the other diners. The butter, of course, warmed up and I calmed myself. The Maitre d' brought out 3 small plates of Fish Sticks and Tartar Sauce and told us it was compliments of the chef. This was a completely foreign concept to me. Fish Sticks are not usually found on the menu of Michelin Starred restaurants, but what do I know. They turned out delicious. The Tartar Sauce was the best I've ever eaten. And believe me, I've eaten my fair share of Tartar Sauce.

Next were our appetizers. I had Sauteed Duck Foie Gras with Rhubarb Marmalade, Hearts of Peach Palm and Duck Jus. The Marmalade was the perfect accompaniment to the Foie Gras. The acid in the Marmalade evened out the intense, savory flavor in the Foie Gras and when I finished I felt like I could eat a dozen more. For my Main Course I had Roasted Rack of Elysian Field Lamb with Tender Young Vegetables and Navarin Jus. The meat was done to perfection. It was very flavorful, but could have used a little Reduction Sauce to give it that added layer of flavor. I couldn't help but think that Ducasse was catering to the US taste buds, which are inherently much more unimaginative and undereducated than the French. The Vegetables were, like Kate Moss, slim, gorgeous and out of control. For such tiny veggies they packed a punch.

Dessert was a tough choice, but I settled on the Cheese Plate as I often do. And I hoped the other diners would be kind enough to let me share theirs. My Cheese Plate was accompanied by a selection of Winter Condiments including Raisins and Salsa. The Cheeses were perfect. The Condiments were a nice added touch, which ultimately made the meal more enjoyable. The other desserts were equally good, if not better. The Sicilian Pistachio Souffle with Cherry/Griotte and Vanilla Ice Cream was downright brilliant. To finish we had Organic Coffee in individual French Presses and Petit Fours.

When the bill came I was elated. For three people it was $340 without tip and that includes the wine. A bargain considering last week the three of us ate a mediocre meal in Philadelphia, which cost about $100 more. Obviously, this is not an everyday, family restaurant where three people can eat for $60. No, this is a 2 Michelin Starred, Alain Ducasse restaurant and to get out of there for less than $500 was stunning.

Before we left I filled out the comment card and I stated one complaint, the food is fabulous, but it lacks the intensity of the Michelin Starred, French Restaurants in Europe. Maybe we Americans really can't handle the complex flavors of Reduction Sauce, or maybe we watch our weight too much to enjoy rich, creamy cheeses. Whatever the reason, I hope that Alain Ducasse sees my comments and makes his Sauces more intense and more powerful. If he does that I truly believe he's on his way to another 3 Michelin Stars with Adour.

My professional photography website: Taylor Young Photography

Adour (St. Regis Hotel) on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 3, 2009

James on 8th: Roller Coaster Meal in the Dark

Olives on Bread
Chateauneuf du Papes
Tortelli with Chick Peas
Veal Loin
Cheese Plate
James on 8th was recommended to me by a waiter at Per Se, when I ate there last year. Needless to say, it had a lot to live up to. After driving around for 20 minutes to find parking and nearly missing the restaurant altogether we arrived unharmed and ready to feast. The decor is very modern. There is a lot of dark wood all around. Brown leather backed chairs grace the dining room, the bar towards the entrance is a statement of modernity and youth, fitted with stainless bar taps.

The menu at James is very impressive, both in price and substance. The cheapest thing on the menu at $12 is the sweetbreads. The most expensive at $38 is the Dover Sole. I thought this was a bit high so using my phone I checked the menu at Per Se to see what a comparable fish would cost at one of the best restaurants in the world. The Tuna is $36, a whole $2 cheaper than James. Yikes, not a good start.

My Herbed Sweetbreads with Wilted Lettuce, Pickled Radish and Spring Garlic Jus came out very quickly. The Jus was brimming with diced Garlic, I could see thousands of tiny pieces floating in my bowl and I got really excited. The Sweetbreads were delightfully pungent, with flavors of gym towels and toe crust, but boy do I love it. There's no polite veneer in that dish. You know what it is, it's staring you in the face and when done right, it's wonderful. Nothing can match its distinctive flavor. It was delicious.

The second dish was split between me and the two other diners' who were with me. I regretted that later, because we concentrated on one dish and left the other two alone. We had the Hand Cut Tagliatelle with Duck Ragu, Shaved Chocolate and Orange. For $16 this is not only a bargain, but may be one of the best reasons to visit James on 8th. A truly remarkable combination of flavors. And although the Tagliatelle was slightly overdone, could have used a minute less, it was still gorgeous. Our other dishes did get eaten, but with reservation.

My Stinging Nettle Tortelli with Bagna Cauda and Spicy Chick Peas was a great idea, but failed to deliver. The Chick Peas were crunchy and I loved it, but the Tortelli was also slightly crunchy, no doubt from being left under a heat lamp for too long. A minor point, but when you're paying $15 for 8 pieces of Tortelli I would expect better. I tried the other diners' dishes and they were also completely unremarkable. The Chilled Cucumber and Avocado Soup with Olive Oil, Poached Rock Shrimp and Chili Oil was lukewarm and tasted watered down. The Local Asparagus with Spring Onion, Smoke Coho Caviar and Sauce Béarnaise had a slight edge over the soup and I was actually happy to put it in my mouth. The Caviar was especially tasty. And even though it was Salmon Caviar, I enjoyed it all the same.

For the Main Course I had Grass Fed Veal Loin with Fava Beans, Morels au Naturel and Watercress Leaves. The meat was exquisite. It was the other ingredients, which left me feeling like I was giving away $29 of my hard earned money for nothing. The Sauce was shy and barely drizzled on and I had to ask for more, which the Maître d' was very quick to get. But the dish felt incomplete. I felt it needed more of everything except meat, of which there was plenty. More Beans, more Sauce, more excitement.

That was the sentiment last night. We needed more flavor. In fact, the most flavorful part of our meal was the 2006 Cuvee de la Serriene Chateauneuf du Pape and my cheese plate. Which was magical. The total bill with tip was $504. It's inexcusable for a restaurant to charge so much for its food and not deliver the goods. On top of that, it was quite possibly the darkest restaurant I've ever been to in my life. For all you fellow camera geeks, I had to use an ISO of 3200 at f1.8 to achieve the crap photos above. It was more like a nightclub then a restaurant. No, the waiter at Per Se had obviously never eaten the food at James, because if he had, he wouldn't have recommended it to us.

My professional photography website: Taylor Young Photography

James on Urbanspoon