Saturday, 15 October 2011

The French Laundry Pop-up

The name Thomas Keller is probably better known amongst the chef community in this country than to the wider populace. He has never made a programme encouraging parents to feed their kids fruit, dragged reluctant vegetarians to an abattoir or screamed F words at a hapless celebrity for cocking up a Coq au Vin, in fact until recently I had never seen him on TV. He is however one of the most innovative and influential chefs of the last decade, best known for his, almost legendary, restaurant The French Laundry. One of only 4 restaurants globally to have claimed the title of the best in the world in the ’50 best’ list (along with El Bulli, Noma and The Fat Duck), awarded 3 coveted Michelin Stars and based in the Napa Valley in California it has always seemed out of reach to someone like me. That was until the announcement that Chef Keller would be bringing TFL over for a 10 day pop-up restaurant based in Harrods, fixtures, fittings, staff, crockery all included.

10 days, 70 covers and massive demand, I was extremely lucky to get a booking for this once in a lifetime event and that is exactly what it was. I make no pretence that I will attempt in any way a balanced and objective review, I simply intend to give you some of my thoughts on what passed my way during a blissful couple of hours.

Suffice to say it was an extraordinary meal. 11 courses, fantastic ingredients (huge spoonfuls of white sturgeon caviar, truffles, oysters, frozen foie gras grated over the food at the table, vegetables from The French Laundry’s own gardens, Black Mission figs, Noble Maple Syrup and much more) , amazing technique, beautiful presentation and impeccable service from knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff. In the 2 or so years since turning my slightly weird, obsessive passion for food and cooking into my career I have learned a huge amount and this has been another stage in my development. I have come away from the experience inspired by what can be achieved at the top of my profession. Topped off with an invitation into the kitchen to meet Chef Keller himself as he was at the pass sending meals to other tables, it was truly an extraordinary day for a curious and hungry food geek like me.

The French Laundry - my view

There is no denying just how weird it is to walk through the colourful and noisy toy department of Harrods to emerge in front of the facade of The French Laundry, placed incongruously within the formal confines of the Georgian Restaurant. An astroturf lawn with picnic tables and chairs, champagne bar and TFL concession stand complete the surreal scene. In all honesty the artifice is never really forgotten, the curtains that surround the dining area lend the whole affair a slightly theatrical feel. A glass of champagne helps along the willing suspension of disbelief though and we are soon seated and browsing the wine list (after careful consideration of a bottle priced at £9,900 we opt for something much more modestly priced). After checking that we are free of restrictive dietary requirements, our menus are taken from us with a promise that they will be returned in our goody bag at the end of the meal.

The first canapés arrive - a smoked salmon and red onion tartare coronet and a gruyère gougere, apparently the start to pretty much every meal at both TFL and it's sister restaurant Per Se. These are followed by the 'seated canapés'. We are advised to eat from left to right, beginning with a freeze dried tomato with olive oil gel and basil powder, my favourite part of this course. The tomato has the consistency almost, of a Wotsit (I know, I'm like well cultured and stuff), but explodes with a sweet tomato flavour, the combination of all components giving the full flavour of the originating salad for a just a fleeting moment. The olive oil, it is explained to us is unique in terms of the amount of 'phenols' and I could have eaten the gel by the bowlful. This is followed by a crab beignet which is lovely, then Keller's take on an 'English Tea and biscuits'. A shortbread base with foie gras topped with a tea jelly was interesting but I'm not sure I really 'got' the tea and biscuits thing. Finally a 'BLT' (pork belly, lettuce and truffle in this case), which is rich, fatty, crispy, earthy and everything you want it to be (except 6 foot square).

Next up is the famous 'Oysters and Pearls', a signature dish from the original restaurant. A tapioca sabayon topped with a Maldon Oyster, White Sturgeon Caviar and chive butter. I had high hopes of this dish, particularly as there was a good chance of getting two helpings as my girlfriend and co-diner Jen, normally has an aversion to oysters because of their texture. Sadly I was to be disappointed on this count only, the oysters had been trimmed down to just their meaty heart and the whole was silky smooth. This is the only disappointment though, the dish is rich, buttery, ozoney(?), sweet, the shock of contrast between the cold (generously portioned) caviar and the warm butter, oyster and tapioca ensures that each spoonful reignites the flavours and stops it from becoming simply comforting. An incredible dish that suffers only from being half the amount I had hoped for!

A 'salad' of Hawaiian Palm Hearts is, we are informed 'the healthiest thing we will eat today'. 
It is delivered with plenty of information about the origins of the vegetables in the French Laundry's own gardens. It is a very pretty dish, the highlight of which are the crunchy Pili nut.

A deconstructed 'chowder' follows featuring a delicately smoked sturgeon, lightly cooked with a razor clam foam. Tiny cubes of potato and a sweetcorn powder complete the flavour profile of a classic chowder. The fish is exquisite, perfectly cooked and the foam packed full of flavour.

Clever and delicate but somehow still as much a comfort food as the original soup, again it is gone all too quickly.

Butter poached Maine lobster with a tasting of beetroot ups the ante though. Before being presented with the plates our waiter tells us that he thinks this is going to be one of the highlights of the meal for us. He is not wrong. A sheet of potato glass is impressive and adds much in terms of presentation. Though I may be somewhat biased here, I find it difficult to remember much about this dish except for the flavour of the lobster. It is incredible, barely cooked (in Jen's opinion undercooked which gets me a bonus mouthful at the end - win!) and tasting fully and completely of itself. If you have been a very, very good lobster in life, perhaps the Mother Teresa of the lobster world this must be where you go when you die.

 The garnish is lovely and looks great (just look at that glorious swipe of bright red beetroot in the photo above), it's just that it formed part of my plate that wasn't lobster and so faded a little into the background.
 We stride undaunted into the meat courses next, beginning with Poularde in Brioche with truffle, apple and turnip. As the dish is placed in front of us a waiter follows with a massive torchon of frozen foie gras which he proceeds to grate over the plate.

An almost crystallised piece of apple and perfect baby turnip add crunch and freshness to counterpoint the main part which is rich and delicious beyond belief.

Prime Midwestern 'Calotte de Boeuf' follows, combining braised brisket with water-bathed and seared cap of rib. The rib is extraordinary with a real 'char' flavour to the seared outside, salty and smoky and contrasting well with the melt in the mouth rare meat inside. A duxelle made from Trompette de Mort mushrooms bursts with mushroomy goodness (I know, I know but I've given up at this point, I just don't know that many synonyms for 'delicious flavour') and must have taken a stack of mushrooms to produce.

It must be said that we have been finding trompettes a little hard to get hold of for the restaurant of late and I think I have now found the reason. Given how many of them must have been needed to make enough duxelle for every diner the truth is out - Keller got them all!

A cheese course follows and is a play on a cheese and ham sandwich featuring Iberico ham and Noble Maple syrup. By far the stand out feature though are the figs which are simply beautiful. A huge part of the French laundry ethos is about using the best possible ingredients without compromise and the simple fig with the breathtaking flavour is a stunning example of just why this can work.

Into the desserts then and quite definitely into the US of A, we kick off with a Huckleberry sorbet with Verbena foam and Huckleberry muffin. Huckleberries are a new one on me and very much an American ingredient, this is my first taste of them and what a taste it is. Sweet, sharp, heady and perfumed the best way I can think to describe the flavour as being almost a cross between blackberry and lavender. The muffin at the base feels superfluous but the dish fills the senses and cleans the palate beautifully.

On then to classic American desserts part 2. 'S'mores' are a traditional campfire treat for American kids, presumably something they eat 'at camp' where their parents send them to spend the summer holidays. While there is no real British universal tradition in the same vein, an equivalent would be toasted marshmallows on a stick. Americans, being Americans though have taken the humble toasted marshmallow and said "hmm... yes, that's nice but really it should be supersized" and then added Graham crackers. And popcorn. And caramel. And peanut butter. And chocolate. Obviously...

While missing the sense of nostalgia that would truly elevate this dish to the sublime, it is easy to see why Keller wanted to revisit the flavours of this dish. It is a complex, overwhelming dessert, nutty, sugary, toasted, crispy, soft, pretty and as subtle as a caramel coated chocolate filled peanut brittle sledgehammer to the forehead. I break out in sugar sweats by the end. It may be angelic in appearance but this is truly a demonic, filthy and beautiful finish to the meal.

We end with petit fours and coffee, the truffles themed as 'A Night at the Movies'. At this point we are informed that it may be possible to go through to the kitchen to meet Chef before being given our last course which is an Angel Cake in our goody bags.

Indeed we are taken through to the kitchens to meet the man himself who is on the pass inspecting and directing dishes as we enter. He is calm and softly spoken throughout, everything has the appearance of running very smoothly indeed and everyone is listening in to him and taking his direction. At a break between tables we are introduced and have our picture taken (on my phone and posted on my twitter and facebook in no time at all!). I would love to tell you that I engaged him in a sparkling debate about the restaurant scene in the UK and the merits of particular cooking techniques but I was stuffed full, in awe of the best restaurant meal I have ever eaten and simply mumbled about it being really good or something, thank you very much sir, it's a pleasure etc. etc. I think I may even have tugged my forelock and curtsied at one point. Obviously I know it was a great honour for him and all that but he hid it well behind a charming and friendly façade.

Before I know it I am stood outside, blinking in the sunlight, goody bag in hand (menu, purveyors booklet, Per Se magazine, angel cake and jam), unsure what to make of it all. In many ways it is daunting, a level of technique and finesse that it is hard to imagine my ever being able to achieve. However it is a display of what can be done and above all a hymn to the value of great ingredients handled with care and respect and in as much it is hard not to be inspired.