First photos from new camera

July 6, 2009 at 1:00 pm (photography)

Dried flower puffs

Dried flower puffs

Da laughing with her tongue sticking out

Da laughing with her tongue sticking out

I’m still learning and figuring things out, but so far, I’m finding that using my new toy is very liberating!

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The French Laundry Day: The Manifesto, Part II

July 12, 2008 at 2:09 pm (bread, dessert, food, ice cream, photography, restaurants, review)

… in which I discuss the food in more detail, as promised.

Part I

Because the different menus have their own flow through the different courses, I’m going to go through the different menus one at a time.  I’ll cover my own meal, Huei’s meal, and then Mark/Ben’s.  Christina’s was like a hybrid between mine and Huei’s, so that won’t get a designated recap.

First, my meal.  Here’s a photo of the whole Chef’s Tasting Menu.

Chef's Tasting Menu

Chef's Tasting Menu

puffs

puffs

These are little cheese puffs that are made with a pate au choux.  I know these are supposed to be single bites, but I cheated and made it into a few bites to extend the experience.  I probably enjoy smaller bites more than a typical person, so I think this is okay

beet cornette

beet cornette

Three of us had salmon cornettes (which I had heard about), but I was selected to eat a beet cornette.  The little scoop is actually made of hundreds – thousands? – of little minuscule cubes of beet.  I think all that added surface area really intensifies the flavor.  Also, the texture of the fine dice adds another textural layer.  The cone, unexpectedly full of flavor by itself, was filled with creme fraiche.  Do you see that little dot of green on top?  I think it’s chive?  It’s not just for show; it was actually the perfect addition – perfectly sized and a perfect bit of zing.

oyster and pearls

"OYSTERS AND PEARLS" - "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and White Sturgeon Caviar

If I were to start a food trend, I would have to make sure that balls were somehow involved.  The sabayon provided a deliciously magical* base for all the balls.  The caviar added intense pops, the tapioca added soft, chewy pops, and the green bits (more chive?) added crisp and bright pops.  The oyster, while having a good texture and flavor, had a slight off-ness that I associate with oyster poop and mussel poop.  I’m not sure if that taste is really from poop, I should actually look that up sometime, but that’s what I imagine in my head.  This taste wasn’t strong enough to make this dish unenjoyable, but it’s better to not be so poopy.  So lots of fun pops and, unfortunately, also a little poop.  I loved the pearl spoons.  So smooth on your tongue.  Why don’t we eat more things with pearl spoons?

*There are some really good flavors that I have a hard time describing or pinpointing or deconstructing.  So that’s when I start using terms like magic.

brioche

brioche

Our first bread course – The brioche (from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon) had a great crust – lightly crispy.  And the inside was rich and layered and airy.  Rich and airy at the same time!  And it was a beautiful piece of bread.  Because the bread was so buttery already, it was hard to fully taste the butter with the bread.  So I tried just the two types of butter by themselves.  (The sources of these butters is based on our collective memories, so take it with a grain of salt!)  The unsalted butter (from Andante Dairy) was so diaphanous.  Crazy, huh?  Diaphanous butter?!  You could barely taste it for the first few seconds.  And then the flavor of the butter swells, but only by a little bit.  It wasn’t sweet, it wasn’t rich.  The flavor was more of a texture – smooth and silky.  The salted butter (from Vermont, maybe Diane St. Claire) was much stronger – very good and buttery.  I wish I had another strong butter to compare it with though – I think that would have helped me to explain what it tasted like.

plum hearts of peach palm

SALAD OF HAWAIIAN HEARTS OF PEACH PALM - Green Almonds, Mizuna and Santa Rosa Plums

This dish was one of the less exciting ones.  The plums, very thinly sliced, were amazing and beautiful.  I would say that was the focus of the dish rather than the hearts of peach palm.  It was well-balanced and refreshing and appropriate.  But it didn’t get me to say “wow!” or “oh!”  It’s weird that the alternative choice for this course was the foie gras (you’ll have to wait for Huei’s menu), which is completely the opposite of this.  Even though the foie gras was tastier, I wouldn’t have wanted a whole course of foie gras and a bite of Huei’s was enough for me.

tartare

"TARTARE" OF PACIFIC KAHALA BELLY - Akita Komachi Rice, Compressed English Cucumber, Perilla, White Sesame Puree and Kanzuri

This was one of my favorite dishes.  Every component was perfect and enhanced the other components to be beyond perfect.  Good choice, Ranyee.

ciabatta

ciabatta

Bread course #2 – Really good ciabatta.  Godly ciabatta.  I bet Jesus’ bread of the fives loaves and two fishes miracle tasted just like this bread.

scallop

NEW BEDFORD SEA SCALLOP "POELEE" - Summer Squash, Toybox Tomatoes, Greek Basil and Spanish Saffron

Pretty classic flavors and combination of ingredients, but they were done really well.  The tomatoes were magic – they were either extra special tomatoes when they fruited, or they added something to bring the flavor beyond normal tomatoes.  The saffron sauce was SO intense!  Look at the color!  The flavor was at least as intense as that color.  Magic.

rabbit and bacon

DEVIL'S GULCH RANCH RABBIT SIRLOIN - Wrapped in Hobbs' Bacon, Baby Corn, Filet Beans and Black Truffles from Australia

Here’s when my enjoyment of the meal started dipping… Everything was good here, but nothing blew me away.  Even the black truffles from Australia.  Those crazy Australians, apparently not learning lessons from all the other species that they’ve brought in that have wreaked havoc on the whole island, have “inoculated” some trees with truffles.  Pretty good truffles, but I hope that this doesn’t screw up their ecosystems even more.

beef and potatos and morels

SNAKE RIVER FARMS "CALOTTE DE BOEUF GRILLEE" - Fingerling Potatoes, Romaine Lettuce, Morel Mushrooms and "Sauce Bordelaise"

This dish needed to be at most 1/5 of the size of this.  There was no way I was left wanting more.  The meat was really good – flavor and texture.  But I got bored after a bite or two.  I decided that I think that morels are best for making other things more magical but are not especially good by themselves.  Huei thought the potatoes tasted like ranch dressing.  She thinks they used Hidden Valley’s powder.  The wilted Romaine was pretty good, but I can’t dissociate wilted Romaine from the times when my mother cooked old lettuce to keep it from going to waste.

JUNIPER GROVE "TUMALO TOMME" - Panisse, Fennel Bulb Compote, Arugula and Nicoise Olives

The cheese course on the Tasting of Vegetables menu was better than this one.  The most interesting thing was the mind-blowing intensity of the olive sauce.  The cheese was subtle, but not in a particularly interesting way.  What’s a panisse – is that the patty thing that reminded us of quinoa and polenta?

CANTALOUPE SORBET - Compressed Melon and "Muscat de Beaumes de Venise en Gelee"

sorbet course, closer look

Sorbet course, a closer look

This was one of my favorite presentations.  The plate itself was nice.  And the glistening compressed melon pieces were so beautiful.  This course did its job, but I wish the flavors could have been more interesting.  I guess melon is seasonal.  But then again, there are so many varieties of melon.  Couldn’t they have used more exciting melons?

oolong tea, from Ben Shan in Fujian

Best thing about  the tea is the “strainers.”

dessert

"REGAL DE FRUITS ROUGES AU RAMARIN" - Rosemary-Scented Genoa Cake, "Creme Patisseriere" and Summer Berries

I thought rosemary and berries were an interesting combination.  The cake almost had a frangipane texture.  The pink sprinkles tasted like some sort of crumble/crumb thing.  It was more floury than sugary.  Notice the texture on the plate – I mean plate plate.  Christina, Huei, and I all got this same dish and we noticed that the berries were placed in the exact same arrangement on each plate and on each cake.  I get annoyed with a lot of desserts that have way too much cake and not enough berry.  This was not the case here.  It was arranged so that you could very easily take a perfectly balanced bite.  My only complaint was that the portion was too large.

coffee and donuts

"COFFEE AND DOUGHNUTS"

We got the doughnut and the hole!  The coffee is a coffee semifreddo – a very light semifreddo -that’s topped with a foam.  This is the first time I’ve had a semifreddo and actually felt like it was half frozen.  Other times, it’s either too frozen or not frozen enough.  So simple and so perfect.  I kept thinking “Holy S—” as I was eating this – it’s just a doughnut – but it’s so amazing!

pot au creme, shortbread

pot au creme, shortbread

Here are some more of the extra sweets that we got.  The pot au creme was mildly infused with star anise.  The top of the custard had a little bit of a skin – I didn’t like that.  The custard was very dense.  Very good, but a few bites were enough for me.  The cookie was a really short shortbread.  I was trying to explain to the others at the table what I meant by “short” – because I don’t mean crumby.  It’s the opposite of the chewiness that you get from the developed gluten in bread.  It’s tender and soft.

macadamia nuts, covered with chocolate-caramel

macadamia nuts, covered with chocolate-caramel

The nuts were good – very brittle, not too sweet.  But I loved the lidded pot more than what was inside.

shortbread, to bring the French Laundry experience home

shortbread, to bring the French Laundry experience home

Here’s another case where they are able to put extra flavor into something.  I had one of these shortbreads already.  Texture was very good.  The amazing thing was the strength of butter and vanilla flavors.  I don’t think they used vanilla extract here.  I think they were somehow able to infuse the dough with vanilla bean.  This was confirmed by the presence of vanilla beans in the cookies.  Maybe they infused milk or cream with vanilla beans and then that went into the dough?  I don’t know how they did, but I think I will eat one now.

I think I’ll post about one menu at a time.  So that I don’t get overwhelmed and I don’t overwhelm anyone else.  You’re probably either overwhelmed already or you’ve skimmed over a lot.

Huei’s menu will be next… (Updated with the link to Part III, and Part III.)

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The French Laundry Day: A Full Report, no, A Manifesto, actually, just Part I

July 11, 2008 at 11:04 pm (bread, dessert, food, photography, restaurants, review)

On Wednesday, I gave my exit talk and I’m that much closer to finishing the Ph.D.  Thursday evening, to celebrate, we had reservations at The French Laundry.  Of course, I have to report on that.  The dinner went from 6:45 pm on Thursday evening to 12:15 am on Friday.  Five and a half hours!  So given all that, this will be a long post.  Another factor contributing to the longness of this post is that I’m in thesis writing mode.  But this experience deserves a whole thesis!  And not just because it was expensive.  And don’t worry, I took a ton of photos, so I’ll intersperse those throughout the text to liven it up.

french laundry sisters

Sisters at the French Laundry

If you’re planning to go to the French Laundry and you would like to be surprised I’d suggest skipping the “Hardware” section, possibly the “Atmosphere and Service” section.  If you’d like to have a complete tabula rasa going in, I’d also suggest skipping the “Philosophical Issues” section.  If you’re interested in the nitty gritty, check out the “Details” section.  If you like pottery and ceramics and design, the “Hardware” section is for you.  If you think I go on for too long about things you don’t care about and you’re just interested in the food, I talk about the food in the last few sections.  (Update: You can get some info in the last section of this post, “Food Highlights.” But you’ll also have to wait for Part II to be written.) If you want to hear about every last detail, you know what to do!

Me and my dashing date

Me and my dashing, squatting, date

Overall Impressions

I was pretty distracted by other things leading up to our trip to the French Laundry.  So I didn’t have that much time to imagine about what it would be like or set up expectations.  So given the fuzzy expectations that I did have, I would say that they were exceeded.  Almost everything, down to the last detail, made this a very pleasurable meal.  I was so stimulated – my taste buds, my nose, my hands, and most of all, my head.  So it was definitely worth the very high cost and I have no regrets about shelling out the huge chunk of money.  However, there were some things that I thought could be improved and I’ll mention those throughout the post.  Actually I should be more clear – everything was excellent.  But there were many things that were excellent and surprising and well-timed and well-thought out.  So the things that I’m saying could be improved are those things that are “just” excellent.  And seeing which things could be improved was valuable for me – I think I have an improved sense of my food and eating philosophy.

French Washboard and French Detergent

French Washboard and French Detergent

Atmosphere and Service

I was worried that the atmosphere and service would be pretentious and/or stuffy, and that I would feel uncomfortable.  However, every single person on the staff was so friendly and unassuming and nonjudgmental, and we even shared a few laughs.  It really felt like we were visiting a friend’s home.  We were seated on the 2nd floor towards the back of the restaurant, near a lovely corner window.  Actually, we were there for so long (We took longer than most of the other people there!  According to wikipedia, the average meal takes 3.5 – 4 hours, while ours was 5.5 hours.  Getting our money’s worth!) that it probably felt like we were at home.  We had five people in our party and when we first sat down, with no food on the table, it felt too spacious.  But as the food started arriving at the table, and we started getting more comfortable, it was actually really nice.  It was a circular table and the spacing made it feel like I was equidistant from all four other people.

This is really The French Laundry

This is really The French Laundry

I need to learn how to sit down in a chair when someone is pushing it in for you.  My short legs make it extra difficult.  This leads to my next topic – their very attentive service.  The service was almost like magic.  I never even thought about the level of water in my cup – there was always enough.  They always refolded the napkins whenever you got up.  When they brought each course out, they served the ladies first.  And all of us ladies received our plates at the exact same time.  That’s really smart because I think it forces you to focus on your own food as it arrives rather than get distracted by what other people are getting.  After you appreciate your own dish, you can then look around.  Then, for the gentlemen, there was a similar sort of procedure.  You’ll notice that I said that the service was “almost” like magic.  The reason it wasn’t magic was because you could see the servers starting to swarm around the table like sharks and it made me a little nervous.  It felt like the time I was scuba diving and there were some sea lions circling around us.  I get nervous easily.  Not only did they swarm (the staff), they made all these sideways glances at each other.  I know it was so that they could synchronize when they put the plates down.  But sideways glances are just going to look suspicious, no matter what the intended goal.  Actually, as the meal progressed, I felt less nervous and focused more on the food being set down in front of me.  I hope I can eventually feel as calm about the sea lions behaving like sharks.

Fresh Laundry Water

Fresh Laundry Water

My sister, Huei, is left handed.  We wondered whether they picked up on that and set her tea cup handle facing her left hand instead of her right hand.  They didn’t – she turned it herself.  We also wondered whether, when we received the folders with the evening’s menus (more about this in next section), whether the folders were customized to have that person’s selected menu on top.  They didn’t.  I’m not sharing these things to point out how their service was less than attentive.  I’m sharing these as evidence that our antennae were all up to notice and appreciate everything that they were doing.

Left-handed people can gesture with their right hand

Left-handed people can gesture with their right hand

Details about Meal (format, price)

They have a heavier, meatier “Chef’s Tasting Menu.”  And a lighter, more vegetably “Tasting of Vegetables.”  Each menu has 9 courses, and some of those courses have two options.  You pick a menu, and then for the courses with options, you pick one option.  Only the foie gras option – which Huei chose and savored – had an extra cost ($30).

A peek at the Chef's Tasting Menu

A peek at the Chef's Tasting Menu

Difficult decisions need to be made

Difficult decisions need to be made

You're only here once (probably), don't make the wrong choice!

You're only here once (probably), don't make the wrong choice!

During the meal, there were actually additional courses that weren’t listed in the menu.  The final tally, including all the “bread courses” (bread is key!) and all the various little treats (including what they gave us to take home), was 19 items per person.  Not including bread and not including little treats that were served along side other things, I think we ate 13 courses over those 5.5 hours.

There are various non-alcoholic beverages that are included (on the last page in the wine list).  I’ll talk about these beverages and the wine later on when I talk about the details of the food that we ate.

They come around several times with mini loaves of bread.  The first time, during the early courses, they gave us the same kind of bread.  For the middle, during the heaviest courses, they came out with a basket/tray of four different kinds of bread and we could each select one.  They came out a few times with this same selection.  And then for the cheese course, they came out with another selection of four different kinds of bread.

We asked to take a stroll during the middle of the meal.  We wound up taking it after the heaviest course and right before the cheese course.  That turned out to be a really good idea (See “Philosophical Issues”).

Time to back in!

Time to go back in!

After the cheese course, they offered us tea and coffee.  (No additional cost.)  They didn’t bring the tea/coffee menu out right away, and just asked us what we would like.  It was only after we showed some indecision that they brought out the menu.  They actually had a large and interesting selection of teas (no one was interested in coffee so we didn’t see the coffee menu), so it’s worth checking out the menu, even if they don’t bring it automatically.

Tea Menu - I don't think any of the teas we selected are in focus

Tea Menu - I don't think any of the teas we selected are in focus

We asked for copies of the menu (Chef’s Tasting and Tasting of Vegetables) and they provided that for us at the end of the meal.  They gave each of us a folder with both of the evening’s menus.

Don’t be afraid to ask the staff questions.  We asked about whether their famous donuts and coffee were available (we had heard rumors that they were discontinuing this dish and that we had to ask to receive).  We asked about getting copies of menus.  We asked about taking a stroll midway through the meal.  We also asked questions about various items on the menu that we were not familiar with.  I asked about various serving pieces and how they were made and what they were called (I’ll talk about these in the “Hardware” section).  And each time, I never felt like I shouldn’t have asked.  The questions were welcomed and answered fully.  I’m pretty critical about how people answer my questions (a lot of that is from going through the orals preparation process) and they all passed unconditionally.

The price is steep, but it includes gratuity.  It does not include tax.

Philosophical Issues

I noticed that I was really savoring each part of the experience – Every moment when food was on the table, I was either smelling deeply, tasting thoroughly, or thinking thoughtfully.  I’m sure that 1) knowing that I was to pay so much money and 2) expecting the food to be very special contributed to my wanting to appreciate every aspect of the meal.  And my heightened senses and awareness really enhanced the pleasure I got from the meal.  But I then realized that I can do this all the time – I don’t need a really expensive or really special meal to thoroughly sense and observe and think to improve my appreciation of a meal.  So this lesson was one of the biggest benefits that I got from this whole experience.  Maybe it’s obvious, but apparently I needed this experience last night to make me aware of these possibilities.

The French Laundry’s philosophy (explained to us at the start of the meal) about food is that each course should leave you wanting more.  And the desire for more of a course becomes applied to the next course that arrives.  My understanding is that they do this to heighten the experience.  I didn’t get this feeling during my meal.  I should disclose that I tend to like really small portions of food, so my response to the menu that I had may not have been normal.  Also, the women in our group all chose the more meaty course that is probably chosen by more men, while the men in our group chose the more vegetably course that is probably chosen by more women.  I’m not judging, I’m just putting that info out there before I go on.  The first few items were meant to be bites.  If I were not expecting a multi-course meal, I probably would have wanted to have more.  But because I knew that there was a lot of food ahead of me, I enjoyed those first few bites and eagerly awaited the upcoming courses.  I guess that, technically, I was left wanting more, but I don’t think that’s exactly what they mean.  For the next few courses, I thought that the portions were just right.  I was not left wanting more and I was not left feeling that I had too much.  As the courses got heavier and richer, I felt like the portions became way too large and I was not left wanting more.  In fact, I felt like I had too much – like four to five times too much.  These courses included two meat courses and the cheese course.  The sorbet course was small and just right but I wasn’t left feeling like I wanted more.  The dessert course was too large.  So at no point did I feel anything like what they were trying to achieve with their menu.  Maybe I should have eaten less of each dish?  Maybe they can customize the portions for people given their different satiety needs?  Or, more simply, I would just make the heavy courses A LOT smaller.  One last point about the flow of the entire menu… most of the items on the Tasting of Vegetables were lighter than the lightest things on the Chef’s Tasting menu.  And most of the items on the Chef’s Tasting menu were heavier than anything on the Tasting of Vegetables.  I think that they need to have a wider and more dynamic range of lightness and heaviness within each menu.

I’m usually really obsessed with the proportions of different components in each bite I take.  When I’m serving myself, I know what ratios I like and I’ll plate my food according to those ratios.  As I eat, there might be some local fluctuations, when I might experiment with different combinations and subsets of components.  But at the end of the meal, there is no extra amount of anything.  And I get really upset if someone (Mark!) takes a bite (huge bites!) of my food and disrupts the ratios.  And when I eat at restaurants, I’ll often have to just eat with the ratios that I like and I take any remaining unbalanced components home to eat as an unbalanced lunch the next day.  I’m very consious of unbalanced food.  Okay, you can either think that I am really crazy or I take my food really seriously.  It doesn’t matter which one.  I’m sharing all this to illustrate how thoughtfully the food at the French Laundry was prepared.  For most of the courses, I didn’t have to think at all about the ratios on my plate.  That issue didn’t even cross my mind.  I just ate and enjoyed the food and at the end, everything was all gone at the same time.  I only realized this because I noticed that for multiple successive courses, I would finish eating that course with a bite that was as well balanced as the first bite that I took!  Even the amount of sauce was just the right amount!  Often, after you eat everything on your plate at a restaurant, there will be a big pond of sauce left.  Not here.  And if you think about how small the portions are and how much harder it would be to calibrate sauces for such small portions, it’s even more amazing!  So I said “most” of the courses.  The two meat courses and the cheese course were the only ones where I didn’t reach ratio nirvana.  I suspect that the cheese course was off balance because I was thrown off by the two meat courses prior to the cheese course.  Maybe this all means that I’m not really good at eating meat.  Not only did I find that the meat courses were too large, I also wound up with things out of whack as I was finishing up these plates.

Hardware

I told you!  I was really thinking about each part of the experience!  So I feel like I should share all of it.  The dishes were amazing.  I don’t mean the food dishes – I mean the dishes dishes.  As I was falling asleep last night, I wasn’t thinking about the food.  I was thinking about a plate.  The sorbet on the Tasting of Vegetables menu was served in this wide plate.  From the rim, the plate curved in slowly, then rose up more quickly to form a lip near the center.  And in the center was a small bowl-shaped area in which the sorbet and accompaniments were arranged.  However, the rim wasn’t constant all the way around – the rim was flattened in one direction.  If the bowl in the center were a lake in the center of a smooth volcanic crater, the indentation in the rim would be where the water would flow from the lake and down the mountain.  Except it wasn’t a mountain outside of the crater, it was another larger crater.  So everything was in equilibrium.  It was brilliant and amazing and beautiful.  The photo does not accurately capture the plate because photos are static and this plate is dynamic.

Mind blowing plate

Mind blowing plate

Other highlights among the serving pieces:

There were other large plates that had various indentations and waves and ridges and ledges in them.  All were beautiful.  You’ll have to pay attention when I get to talking in more detail about the food.

At the end of the meal, they served us macadamia nuts dipped in chocolate-caramel.  These were nothing like those ubiquitous Hawaiian chocolate-covered macadamia nuts.  I’ll get to more on the food later.  The lidded pot was so perfectly balanced and shaped.  I may have a lidded pot fetish.  The lid was so delicate, but at the same time, it felt like just the right shape and just the right weight as you lifted it.  I spent about 5 minutes just removing and replacing the lid.  I couldn’t figure out whether it was molded or whether it was thrown.  The lid has some figures in relief and the shape is really delicate, which makes me think that it was molded.  But you never know – there are people with Jenni fingers!  I asked and they didn’t know.  But they did elaborate on additional details about the pot.

Delicate lidded pot

Delicate lidded pot

The textures on many of the plates was so beautiful.  Sometimes, they were thin rings.  Sometimes, there would be a small grid pattern.  The lines were all very thin, and if you weren’t looking carefully, the plates would seem smooth and flat.  Many of the plates were quite large and portions were very small and sitting in the middle.  I think that accentuates the lightness of a course.  In fact, there was a general trend – the lighter the course, the larger the plate.  So I think the fine and delicate textures help to keep the large plates from feeling too empty.  Pay attention when we get to the courses.  Don’t worry, I’ll get to it!

The butter dishes were nice as well, especially the ceramic butter dish.  They were both quite heavy and substantial.  It felt really good to hold them and lift them.  The ceramic one had a small indentation where the egg yolk sized mound of butter sat.  Then it curved up and out from that indentation.  The key feature was the thickness.  Imagine a small plate for butter, but then make it 1 inch thick.  So your fingers fit nicely around it so it’s more comfortable to hold.  The heaviness gives it substance.  And the curves are so visually pleasing.  I forgot to take pictures of the butter dishes individually, so you’re now getting a preview of some of the food.  You big cheaters!

Metal butter dish is in top right

Metal butter dish is in top right

Focus on the ceramic dish in the top middle

Focus on the ceramic dish in the top middle

Some of us had pot du cremes (pots du creme?).  They were served in these small cups with two small rings on either side near the lip so that you could hold the cup with your thumb and forefinger in each ring.  The rings helped to give more texture to what your hand feels as it holds the cup.  And it also makes it more secure and balanced in your hand.

Pay attention to the pot, not the du creme!

Pay attention to the pot, not the du creme!

They have these tea strainers that look like little mini skillets with a mini bucket/sieve hanging over it.  The bucket swings.  So you swing the skillet to the side while you pour tea through the bucket to catch the extra leaves.  And when you’re done pouring, you swing the skillet back underneath the bucket to catch the drips.  Awesome!  I asked one of the tea pourers what this device was called.  “Strainer.”

"Tea Strainer"

"Strainer"

Other fun table items:

The bill!  Shaped like a laundromat ticket/claim check.  I fuzzed out the amounts.  It felt weird to leave it in focus.  I’m such a prude.

I'd like to pick up my laundry

I'd like to pick up my laundry

The pen was amazing.  Piecing together bits from different people’s memories (got to Waterford M-something-oui-something) and finishing with some online sleuthing, it determined that it was a Waterford Marquis.  I think it made signing the bill a lot more pleasant.  See, they’re so thoughtful, down to literally the last detail of the experience.

Items that could be improved:

I love teapots.  There are some really amazingly mindblowing teapots.  The ones that held our tea weren’t very exciting.  Metal.  Fairly standardly typical shape.

The chairs curved in so that some of our shoulders didn’t fit when we leaned back.  Instead, some of us had to drape one arm over the back of the chair in order to lean back.  My shoulders barely fit and it was uncomfortably tight.  So I didn’t lean back at any time during the whole meal.  But it actually didn’t wind up being too tiring or difficult or uncomfortable.  Maybe because of the seats of the chairs?  So, really, yay for the chairs?

Food Highlights

The sauces were all super flavorful.  I have no idea how they can intensify the flavor without changing the flavor profile (like making it something taste more caramelized or burned or less bright).  There was one sauce made from nicoise olives where one drop was more intense than a couple of olives together.   My mind is blown.

They get many of their vegetables from their garden.  So they’re seasonal and amazingly flavorful.  And many of them are miniature!  So cute.  And perfect for the portion sizes.  You can get a whole carrot or a whole snap pea without disrupting the balance of a dish.

I was blown away by what they can do with their knives.  There were a number of dishes that included a really finely diced component – vegetables or salmon.  They were so small, maybe only a little more than a millimeter.  But they were all exact cubes.  And they were all exactly the same sized exact cubes.  Not only could you see that, but you really felt the precise and uniform shapes on your tongue.  And they were firm, while being smaller than caviar!  Rather than improve his knife skills, Mark thinks it’s a better idea to use some sort of funnel/colander contraption.  I think you’d wind up with a big mush.

Custom-made French Laundry Chopping Machine

Custom-made French Laundry Chopping Machine

Tonight was the first time I had a foam.  I found it to be like mini and light and less salty caviar.  I wonder whether that was was the original foamers were going for.  Anyway, it was Fun!

Many of the fruits and vegetables (cucumbers, melons) were “compressed.”  I wound up asking what that meant.  They put the fruits and vegetables in sous-vide bags and then compress them by sucking air out. They explained that this was discovered by accident when they sucked too much air out when they were packing some fruits and/or vegetables.  They arrived at the table looking like jewels or like a gelee – translucent and shiny.  Their flavors were very intense, but I don’t know if that’s from the compression or from being made from really intensely flavored fruit.  The textures were the most interesting part.  They were at the same time crispier and more, for the lack of a better word, mushy than what the uncompressed version tasted like.  Maybe the compression was breaking down the cells, but at the same time or afterwards, the “global” structure gets reset or made more rigid from the pressure of the bag?

Okay, this post is getting way too long.  This needs to be broken down into Part I and Part II.  We’ll see how Part II goes… there may be a need for a Part III.  I will describe the menus and dishes in more detail in Part II.  Really.  We had to wait for 5.5 hours to finish the meal.  You can wait to hear about the whole meal.

Or, when I update this post, you can just click to link to Part II. Update: There’s also a Part III.  Wow, I’m crazy – there’s also a Part IV.

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Mystery photo of the day

April 12, 2008 at 6:51 pm (photography)

A prize goes to whoever can guess what this photo is of. (If you will be using one of these yourself soon, you do not qualify for this contest. I know who you are!)

what is this?

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How I picked a digital SLR body and lens

March 13, 2008 at 11:16 am (photography)

I’ve collected a bunch of advice from different sources and I think I’ve narrowed the choices down enough to make a decision about a digital SLR body and initial lens to purchase. Here’s a summary of the most influential information that I collected in case it helps anyone making a similar decision.

Nikon and Canon have the most lenses available for their cameras. And I learned that you can rent very good lenses for a small fraction of the cost of buying one. So that’s very good for lenses that I’d only use occasionally or lenses that I wanted to try before buying. This makes the decision to switch to a dSLR much more palatable. But based on the availability of lenses, the field gets narrowed to only Nikon and Canon.

One person told me that he decided on Nikon because he knew a lot of people who already have Nikon cameras and lenses and he could borrow lenses from them. I’m not in the same situation. Another person told me that she went with Canon because their products tend to be cheaper and she couldn’t tell any difference in quality. That’s probably the boat that I’m in.

The most to-the-point advice I got online was from David Sifry. He suggested the Canon Digital Rebel XT 350D camera body (why do they have to have so many different parts to the name?) and a Canon 50 mm / f1.4 USM lens – good starting equipment that would still allow me to have very high image quality. The most compelling reason to get this setup is that it works well in low light situations and would allow me to get away from washing out my subjects with flash (camera has low noise at high ISO settings and lens has large maximum aperture).

Canon 55 mm / f1.4 USM lensI also learned that many people use this lens for the large majority of their photos. So that reassures me that I’d get a lot of use out of this single lens. Another appealing feature of this lens is that it has autofocus, but I can also manually tweak the focus myself without switching entirely out of autofocus (full-time manual focusing). This lens is a prime lens (no zoom), which would give me a higher quality lens for less money. To get the same quality in a zoom lens, I’d have to pay a lot more money. So I’d rather zoom with my feet (it’s free!) than pay more money to be lazy. There will probably be situations where I can’t move my feet (cliffs, wedding ceremonies), but I can always crop photos later if I want. And I can also invest in additional lenses later (I’m guessing that my priorities would be wide-angle for landscapes and macro or lens extenders for macro shots, but we’ll see).

I decided to look into the more recent version of the Canon Rebel XT, the XTi. Just to see if I thought that any of their features would be worthwhile (XTi is currently about $100 – $150 more expensive). Here are some links: Good evaluation of XT. Good evaluation of XTi. Good and thorough review of XTi that includes comparisons with XT, and also includes a nice table of the main differences.

The most appealing improvements in the XTi:

  • Multi-pronged approach to fighting dust. This would make it easier to take good care of the camera and it would be really good for being able to change lenses with less worry while hiking or traveling.
  • Larger LCD
  • Better interface. I’m pretty good at getting used to interfaces, even when they’re not good. But I do enjoy a good interface. And if it makes taking pictures more efficient, sign me up!
  • Eye sensor to turn LCD off when you look through viewfinder. So you can setup your shots without the light from the LCD getting in the way! Clever!
  • (10 Mpixel resolution vs 8 Mpixel. The pros and cons of this improvement probably cancel each other out. It’ll help to be able to crop photos and still have enough resolution left. But it’ll make it more of a pain to upload and download them.)

Canon Digital Rebel XTi 400D

These are all features that I would take advantage of so I eventually decided to go with the XTi aka 400D. The extra cost may even payoff in the long run (dust control). Cannon has announced that there will be an even newer version – XSi aka 450D. (The main addition to this version is having a live view on the LCD. I don’t mind looking through the viewfinder so I don’t need this feature. ) But hopefully the release of this new model will cause the prices of the XTi aka 400D to go down soon. I was planning to wait a few months before purchasing everything, so the timing should be perfect.

That’s the decision process that I went through, but if your situation is different from mine or you want more information, the Digital SLR Guide was very useful for guiding people through the camera selection process based on their photography personalities needs. It also has very good explanations of camera terminology.

Hopefully, future posts will include photos from this new camera setup!  I’m so excited!

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Pinnacles has started a photography fire in me

March 10, 2008 at 10:19 pm (hiking, photography)

There are a number of great hikes in the Bay Area, but I think a lot of them start to look the same after you’ve been on a few of them and covered the range of landscapes. So I thought that I had exhausted the geography and flora that the Bay Area has to offer. I was wrong! I went to Pinnacles National Monument near Hollister and had an awesome day of hiking! I went with a group of 8 people, all of them happy and funny and wonderful. We had such a great time that we all applauded after we emerged from our hike. The landscape is a little like parts of Arches National Park, but it’s got Californian vegetation. And they have caves, though they are actually more like crevices between rocks that have been filled with other rocks. The light filtered in between the rocks and it was a really beautiful and cool experience to walk through the caves a.k.a. crevices between rocks that have been filled with other rocks.


Swedish Fish took this photo of
(The Group – Swedish Fish + Some woman going down the hill):
group

Speaking of light, I’ve been thinking more and more about investing in a digital SLR. There are a lot of photos that I would like to take, but I know they won’t come out because of the limitations of my camera – difficulties w/ low light, slow response time, etc.. I can control the aperture and exposure time, but that’s difficult to navigate through the menus. And the range that I can cover and the lens are still limiting – I can never get the depth of field that I’d like to get. A bunch of the happy, funny, wonderful people had digital SLRs and they seemed to be happily snapping away, and I kept wondering how much more I could do if I had different camera equipment. I found this website that has a buying guide for beginner digital SLR users… I wonder if it’s sound advice. It all seems reasonable, but the monetary investment would be so huge that I don’t want to make a decision lightly. I’ve determined that the camera body is not so important and the lens(es) that you use matter much more, but I have no idea what sort of lens(es) I’d need to cover the photography situations that I will encounter. Any words of wisdom out there for me?

Here are some of the photos that I was able to take with my camera. I wish I could show you all the other photos that I was imagining. The theme of these photos is “Optical Illusions.”


These are actually large rocks and a regularly sized tree. It would have been pretty disappointing to see a puny pile of rocks:high peaks


Don’t they look like they’re really high up? They did do a good job getting up, but the height at which they appear to be in the photo is mostly from the camera angle:climbers


This is a photo (taken by Swedish Fish) of me and Laughing Ophthalmologist, who does not usually tower over me like this. Also, notice how she has a huge smile on her face. Maybe it’s because her digital SLR gives the illusion of a huge smile. Actually, the smile is not an illusion, she actually is like this in person!:
two people


For anyone interested in going on this hike, we started at the Bear Gulch Visitor Center.

We started on the Condor Gulch Trail (across the road from the Visitor Center and the trail starts at the little bridge), which has a constant but moderate uphill climb and a good view of High Peaks. (1.7 mi)

When we hit the T-intersection with High Peaks Trail, we took a left. This part of the trail went up and down through the High Peaks. Very good views of the hills and valleys surrounding the peaks. Since it’s March, the hills were really green. I would imagine that it wouldn’t be as nice of a view in the summer or fall. (0.6 mi)

We then stayed on the High Peaks Trail for the Steep and Narrow section. This is a decent description of this section, but it’s not more strenuous than other parts of the route. There’s a bathroom at the end of this section. (0.7 mi)

Taking the “left” option at the bathroom, we continued on the High Peaks Trail (1.5 mi).

We took a small detour loop (go left) on the Rim Trail which takes you to the lovely surprise Bear Gulch Reservoir. (0.4 mi)

You can then take the Bear Gulch Cave Trail through the previously described “caves” or you can take the high road and bypass the caves on a parallel route. Sleepy Weasel and Runs With Head Down say that you can hear everything that is said in the cave very clearly. Watch what you say. (0.7 mi)

We merged back with the Moses Spring Trail… (0.2 mi)

That takes us back to the Bear Gulch Trail on which we walked along the road back to where we had parked our cars at the Bear Gulch Visitor Center. (0.3 mi)

The whole route was 6.1 mi and it took us about 4 hours. I wasn’t actually really keeping track of time so the this is a huge estimate.

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