Friday, October 23, 2009

The French Laundry: Xanadu For Foodies

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As I sit here thinking about all the various ways I can communicate the brilliance of The French Laundry, there is literally an eruption of harps, violins and piano keys creating furious and robust music in my mind. I feel like Beethoven composing his beautiful Fifth Symphony. However, I am not Beethoven. I am a humble Foodie, serving his peers. I hope my review of The French Laundry conveys to you, my reader, what pure Foodie heaven tastes like.

The French Laundry in Yountville, CA appears, from the outside, to be a modest establishment, tucked away in the corner of a residential area. If one were not up to date on all things food, they would easily miss it driving through Napa Valley. Many probably have. I had a reservation that was booked two months prior. I was well fasted, having been on a diet for two weeks and ready to expand my waistline. And I was ready to dine in what many call the best restaurant in the U.S. if not the world. As I pulled up to The French Laundry I noticed a piece of land directly opposite the restaurant. There were little signs which looked like they had the name of the restaurant printed onto them. Upon further inspection I realized that this plot of land was where The French Laundry grew all of their vegetables. The same vegetables that were going to grace my plate tonight, were probably basking in the sun, taking in their last few moments of fresh air before being picked, chopped and put into something I would graciously devour later.

This was a good start. Never have I been to a restaurant where the food was grown right outside. It gives new meaning to the phrase, "Eat Local." Once seated, our waitress Shannon handed us the menus and explained both sides of it to us. One side was the Chefs Tasting Menu... and well, the other side was also the Chefs Tasting Menu. However, the right side was dedicated to an all Vegetable Menu. While Shannon delivered her 15 minute, in depth description of both sides, I was almost tempted to order the Vegetable Tasting Menu and then my carnivorous, cave-dwelling ancestors popped into my head and that was the end of that. All three of us had the Chefs Tasting Menu, accompanied by a bottle of 2007 Crozes Hermitage La Guiraude. A powerful wine, with a huge mouth and a giant finish of blackberry and current. Lovely.

A few minutes later we were brought a bit of bread and butter, followed by three small, rolled Puff Balls with a Cheese filling. This was followed by Salmon Tartare with Salmon Mousse and Cream Cheese in a Cone. Which was incredibly flavorful. For starters I had "Oysters and Pearls" with Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar. It was served with a mother of pearl spoon and at this moment I realized where I was and why The French Laundry had received so much attention, for so long. This was followed nicely by a "Tarte Byaldi Du Jardin" with Petit Lettuces, Parmesan Cream and Aged Balsamic Vinegar. Next was a "Soft Shell Crab En Feuille De Bric" with Sunchokes, Celery Branch and Black Truffle. That was followed by a "Sweet Butter Poached Maine Lobster Mitts" with French Laundry Garden Beets, English Cucumbers, Pearl Onions, Horseradish Creme Fraiche and Beet Essence. Without a doubt, this was a defining moment in my life. Never had I tasted Crab Meat this good. Not in Maine and not in any other restaurant. I would have been happy to end the meal here. But it continued...

As an in between course we were treated to a specialty that Chef Thomas Keller created for the movie, Ratatouille. It was of course, Ratatouille, with small pieces of Lettuce and Aged Balsamic Vinegar. I felt like Ego, the evil food critic in the film and wanted to run around my rural village in France, dancing and playing. Anyone who hasn't seen the film should probably go see it. That sentence will make much more sense to you.

After our Ratatouille we had the "All Day Braised Salmon Creek Pork Jowl" with Three Bean Salad, Toy Box Tomatoes and Sherry Vinaigrette. How can Chef Keller possibly take these ingredients and merge them into a seamless thing of beauty? Well, he does. And he did it again with a "Snake River Farms Calotte De Boeuf Grillee" with Pommes Darphin, Bluefoot Mushrooms, Savoy Spinach and Sauce Colbert. I feel like a schoolboy saying this again, but Chef Keller had now produced the best steak I have ever eaten. It was tender, juicy and had a flavor that would make a preacher commit the worst kinds of sin in order to indulge in this sensual meat.

Dessert started off with a bang. The "Andante Dairy Cavatina" with Jacobsen's Farm Figs, Marcona Almonds, Arugula and Pimenton Essence was so good, that I wanted to write to Mr. Fig Newton and tell him he should be ashamed and urge him to close his factory. Next was the "Moonglow Pear Sorbet" with Chai Tea Sable and Jacobsen's Farm Roasted Pears. But it didn't stop there. This was just getting us ready for the next course. A "Gateau Saint Nazier Au Manjari" with Mango-Chili Relish, Mast Brothers Cocoa Nibs, Lime Foam and Coconut Milk Sorbet. After dessert I ordered a Double Espresso, which was perfectly prepared and as good as anything I've had in Italy, or France. It was paired with not one, but two courses of Petit Fours.

There is one aspect of this meal that I have yet to touch on. After our Steak, Shannon came over and said there would be a little pause in between courses. And that if we'd like, she would show us down to the kitchen. A look of astonishment and bewilderment quickly fell over all the diners. Myself included. As we blindly followed her down the stairs, blank, dumbfounded expressions tattooed on our faces, we entered the kitchen of one of the best restaurants in the world. I looked around in awe and then something amazing happened. I was tapped on the shoulder by one of my fellow diners and just as I was about to turn around to give them a verbal thrashing for interrupting my moment, a face appeared. It was that of Chef Thomas Keller. A large grin adorned his face and he shook my hand with odd familiarity. Like we were long lost friends. "What the hell is going on?" I thought to myself. Celebrity Chefs are supposed to be mean, cursing, English bastards... well, at least one of them is. Sorry Gordon. Chef Keller is none of those.

He showed us around the kitchen, signed some menus and The French Laundry cookbook and then showed me something truly spectacular. A 42 inch LCD TV in the kitchen. It was not the TV that impressed me, it was the images on the screen. Dozens of hands and fingers working feverishly. Chef Keller turned to me and said, "that's my other restaurant, Per Se in New York. I monitor them at all times." After a few more handshakes I closed my mouth, wiped the drool from my chin and collected my things. Shannon brought us back to the table and after about 15 minutes of smiling I returned to the task at hand. Having the best meal of my life, with two of my favorite people, my wife and my best friend. Who later told me he had emailed The French Laundry and arranged for us to meet Chef Keller. This entry is dedicated to you old friend. I wish everyone on Earth could be as blessed as I am. Dinner at The French Laundry would certainly be a start. So get on the phone and start dialing. You will not be disappointed.

My professional photography website: Taylor Young Photography

French Laundry on Urbanspoon

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Amtrak Empire Builder: Amazing Train Ride, Terrible Food

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We live in a society which values time a great deal. Everything has to be on time, or it gets publicly denounced. We are all in a hurry to get absolutely nowhere. Planes are the number one form of transportation for many of us and the thought of an eight hour plane ride from one country to another is abhorrent to most of us. Unfortunately, we also live in a time when anyone can get a hold of anyone else. This is done through one of the many forms of communication now available: email, cell phone, home phone, text message, instant messaging, Twitter, Facebook, pager, fax, two aluminum cans and a string. These two truths combine to make traveling a terrible experience. Since reading the voluminous and marvelous works of Paul Theroux, it has been my dream to disconnect from these various forms of communication and see the world without distraction. Theroux is often mistaken as a misanthropic old goat. I disagree. Theroux believes in travel, pure and simple. The art of travel is something he's mastered. Most of the time he takes trains. Why? Because Theroux believes that the journey to get to your destination is as important, if not more important than actually arriving.

It is his footsteps I now follow in. And it is he who inspired my recent cross-country train trip. I started in Philadelphia and four days later I arrived in Portland, Oregon on Amtrak's Empire Builder. I then drove to San Francisco and from there set up a base to travel to Napa and then to Yosemite. What a trip it was. I wanted to specifically illustrate the food on the train. I often wondered how good food can taste when it's cooked in a space the size of my closet. Anyone who has tasted airplane food can understand my question. This post should pretty much give you, the reader, a better understanding of what train food in the U.S. is like. But don't let it stop you from going on a similar journey. It was an absolutely magical experience that I will never forget.

Having missed both dinner my first night on the train and breakfast the next morning, I was violently hungry and counted down the minutes until dinner on the second day of the trip. The menu wasn't bad actually. There was Chicken, Beef, Lamb, Pasta and all the usual suspects. I was oddly optimistic. However, when my beaten down, broken and utterly defeated Side Salad graced my table my hopes and dreams of Gastronomic delight retreated as quickly as it came. The Salad tasted exactly how I just described it. It was a sad little thing. Next was my Steak with accompanying Veggies and Potato. This wasn't bad actually. I mean, I wouldn't spend $22 on this in a none-moving restaurant, but it did the job. Each bite was followed by a glass of revolting Cabernet, but in my sleepy haze I got through the bottle. With a little help. I then had a piece of Peanut Butter Pie that tasted almost exactly like a stale Reeses Pieces Peanut Butter Cup. Two bites and I was unconscious.

When I awoke it was time for breakfast and I managed not to be late this time. I ordered the Cheese and Veggie Omelet, which had far too much Garlic and made me want to throw myself onto the tracks. The Hash Browns and week old Croissant didn't help matters and I left with a small tummy ache. Maybe lunch would be better. Well it certainly wasn't. Not feeling at my physical best, I ordered the Side Salad and Chowder. I knew what to expect with the Salad, but the Chowder was a total shock I am still trying to get over. It tasted like someone's used underwear. To make matters worse, my fellow train partners pointed out a lovely friend perched on the side of my fork. Is it a hair? Is it a piece of a wire cleaning product? Whatever it was, it didn't belong on my fork. After nearly throwing up I placed my fork, hair intact, onto my plastic bowl and decided to go back to my room and not eat the Cheesecake that was sitting in front of me. Well, I had a bite. I am a Foodie after all and need to try all foods placed in front of me. It was decent. Obviously frozen, then served after several hours of sitting in a hot train car.

All in all, these weren't the worst meals I've ever eaten. Just the worst meals I can remember eating. However, this minor setback won't stop me from traveling by train in the future. After this I am totally hooked. It was a welcome departure from the normal trips I've done where I rush to the airport, almost missing my plane, the scene from Home Alone racing through my mind as I run threw the terminal, only to be stuffed into a chair for eight hours with someone who uses my body as a pillow and when I arrive at my destination I then have to wait for my baggage, take a cab and arrive at my destination tired and not liking mankind very much. No, this was relaxing, safe and most of all, it was absolutely stunning. I hope the U.S. train system stays around for many years.

My professional photography website: Taylor Young Photography

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Spacca Napoli Pizzeria: Trianon, in the U.S.A

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For anyone who has been to Naples and eaten at Pizzeria Trianon, you can understand why no other Pizza comes close. In the U.S. anyway. Although I haven't been to Trianon in five years I remember it like it was yesterday. The hustle and bustle of large, hairy Italian men throwing around the dough that would become my Pizza. Lovingly rolling it with those thick Neapolitan hands. Painstakingly placing ingredient, upon ingredient onto my Pizza until it resembled a crowded L.A. freeway. Lines and lines of various Meats, Veggies and Cheeses. It is simply the best Pizza this Foodie has ever tasted.

However, thanks to a loyal Passport Foodie reader, I recently discovered a Pizza joint in the U.S. that comes very, very close to Trianon perfection. That is, Spacca Napoli, in Chicago. It's a little off the beaten path, about a 20 minute cab ride from the city center, but well worth it. When I entered the restaurant the first thing that struck me was the huge photo depicting a line of Italians waiting for Pizza at, guess where? Pizzeria Trianon in Naples. Man, do they set the bar high right from the get go. That's like naming your first born "Greatness," or "Awesome," or "Thor." I was hoping they lived up to the Trianon expectations that were building inside of me. On top of that, the name Spacca Napoli comes from the Old Naples Quarter famed as the birthplace of Pizza. Yikes, this place means business.

Fortunately, they do have a tremendous product. We ordered four Pizzas to try a full range and also because we were on a train from New York City to Chicago for 17 hours and needed some good food to remind us we were human. The four Pizzas were: 1. Margherita with Tomatoes, Fior Di Latte Mozzarella, Basil, Olive Oil 2. Funghi with Tomatoes, Fior Di Latte Mozzarella, Basil, Mushrooms, Olive Oil 3. Bufalina with Tomatoes, Basil, Mozzarella Di Bufala, Olive Oil and 4. Pizza Bianca with Mozzarella Di Bufala, Arugula, Basil, Olive Oil. All of the ingredients from Spacca Napoli tasted like they were fresh off the boat. There wasn't a bad flavor in the whole bunch.

My favorite out of these four was without question the Funghi. The mushrooms were beautifully prepared and exploded on the palate. It had a gorgeous, clean finish, which for a Mushroom Pizza is rare. However, every Pizza we had that day was nearly equal in quality and taste. The dough was slightly rounded, and puffy on the edges, the Cheese scattered throughout and there was char where there should be char. And it wasn't that hard, crispy char like I was served at Osteria a few months back. No, this was delicate char that added to the overall complexity of the Pizzas.

After the meal we sat back and all marveled at the first "real" Neapolitan Pizza we've had in the U.S. We drank our very well made Cafe Americano and ate our Gelato in quiet amazement. I would like to thank the reader who told me about this restaurant and I urge everyone who either lives in Chicago, or is visiting too seek out Spacca Napoli. Unless of course, you're looking for authentic Chicago Deep Dish. And in that case, I wish you good luck and advise you eat lots of fiber afterward.

My professional photography website: Taylor Young Photography

Spacca Napoli on Urbanspoon