Arriving in San Francisco for a second round of interviews I was fortunate to have a knowledge of the area that I lacked on my previous visit - specifically the fact that the city is incredibly walkable for the fit and healthy - and that many of the best restaurants are located within a mile or so of North Van Ness Ave. Still opting for a car so that I could travel to Los Gatos and Yountville I made my hotel selection and plane reservations for one - traveling solo this time there would be no "I don't like the menu" to be heard - left to my own devices it would be a foodie experience like no other.
Coming off a busy in-patient month my schedule allowed me to fly out around noon on a Wednesday and with a quick layover that meant checking into the hotel and reservations at 7:30 at the venerable La Folie, approximately 3/4 mile from my hotel. Arriving on time I got checked in without issue, changed into shirt and tie, and made the walk up Van Ness where I nearly walked by the small restaurant - small places like this garner so much attention in central Ohio. Entering the doors I was immediately greeted by the dimly lit dining room and a warm hello from the hostess. A "we've been expecting you" later I was seated at a prime table in the middle of the dining room with a full view of the bar and other tables. Moments later I was greeted by my server and handed a richly colored menu with a tasting option on one side and 3-4-5 course options on the other. Talking with my server I was informed that dishes from the tasting menu could be mixed/matched with the main menu and that one could order options from any section of the menu as course 1 through 5 - flexibility, nice! Wowed by more than 2/3 of the menu I must admit my selections were difficult, but wanting to truly experience Chef Passot's full range I opted for one appetizer, one "salad", one fish, one meat, and one dessert.
Shortly after my order was taken I was delivered my first (of many) piece of glorious French Bread with a creamy yet sweet and grassy butter - each roll was served warm and while more than one option would have been nice I would've probably eaten twice as much – and let’s just say that the portion sizes at La Folie don’t necessitate filling up on bread. While slowly indulging in the flaky bread the sommelier stopped by to say hello and was quickly followed by Chef Passot himself who welcomed myself and the neighboring table to his restaurant and promised us a memorable evening.
Soon after the chef walked away I was brought the first of three amuses bouche - Salmon Lollipops with Creme Fraiche and Pickled Vegetables. Presented simply and whimsically the salmon was noted to be line-caught steelhead and was excellent in taste and texture while the chive accented crème fraiche lent an appropriate creaminess to the smooth fish. The pickled vegetables consisted of carrots and beets, both of which were heavily accented by a strong vinegar, yet textural and pleasant.
The second amuse, Foie Mousse with Duck Gelee and apple tarragon vinegar was absolutely superb and a mere hint at what was to come. Creamy goose-liver whipped with truffled whipping cream was coated with a salty duck gel and offset flawlessly with the heady yet sweet accents of a creamy tarragon infused vinegar while micro-greens and grilled bread provided texture – wonderful and nearly appetizer size as opposed to amuse.
As good as amuse two was, amuse three put it to shame and may qualify as the best amuse I’ve yet had in the Bay Area - Poached Hen Egg with Rum Cream, Potato Chip, and Brioche. Creamy and savory yet sweet and textural the egg was flawlessly prepared while the potato chip was buttery and impossibly thin. I must admit a personal satisfaction with being able to use the brioche to sop up the runny yolk – like the dipping eggs of my childhood “all grown up.”
Already impressed by the trio of amuses and the service I was further wowed as my first dish emerged from the kitchen – Hudson Valley Foie Gras Torchon with Pineapple BBQ Squab, Kumquat Gastrique, Brioche, and Peanut Butter. Too describe the myriad tastes, textures, and nuances of the dish would be nearly impossible, but suffice it to say that the picture is worth a thousand words. The torchon, creamy and perfect – resting atop a crunchy peanut butter pate. The squab, sweet and succulent and nestled in a bed of fresh pineapple accented greens. The gastrique, nearly a warm compote and heavy with sweetness and citrus without being overpowering. The brioche, buttery and slightly sweetened. Mixed and matched the dish was nearly “playing with your food” as different combinations brought out different peaks and base-notes, all in all the best Foie preparation I’ve had outside of Yountville.
Still basking in the memories of the foie approximately 20 minutes passed and I talked with the neighboring table for a bit before course two arrived – and arrive it did. An item from the night’s tasting menu, the Zuckerman Farm Asparagus and Duck Egg Tempura with Nueske Bacon, Wild Mushrooms, and Truffle Vinaigrette was without a doubt the most impressive egg dish I’ve had in San Francisco and quite possibly better than the famous truffle egg at The French Laundry or the mesmerizing Duck Egg I had at Charlie Trotter at New Years. Flawlessly poached, the buttered asparagus was simple and undeniably wonderful while the egg was…::cue Homer Simpson drooling sound:: First poached, then flashed in a tempura batter and served alongside an earthy concoction of crispy and salty bacon with smooth and buttery mushrooms – like Bacon and Eggs yet exponentially more complex and intricate. Crispy yet smooth, salty yet refined and earthy – probably the highlight of the meal and possibly the trip.
Dish three, a must order given my experience at TFL with the requested “Peas and Carrots”, was Chef Passot’s Butter Poached Lobster on English Sweet Pea Ravioli with Carrot and Almond Salad and Carrot Ginger Broth. As you may have noted, there have been myriad comparisons to Keller’s landmark in this review and this dish warrants yet another. While not as refined or texturally complex as the sous vide option at The Laundry, the lobster itself was wonderful and balanced very well by the spicy ginger and carrot broth while the sweet pea ravioli was a single large entity that roused memories of Batali’s sweet pea flan. When a dish this good is the “lowlight” of the evening, you know you’re eating well.
By dish four I was glad that I’d only had some celery and a protein shake on the plane because I was starting to feel a little full – at least until I took a bite and threw caution to the wind – with food this good I’d consider eating till I popped. A signature dish of La Folie, the Roti of Quail and Squab Stuffed with Mushrooms, Wrapped in Crispy Potato Strings, Natural Jus with Truffles and Quail Egg was as good as the reviews. Cooked to medium rare each of the birds maintained their signature taste well without the slightest hint of “gaminess” while the potato strings added both taste and texture and the combination of jus and vegetables worked well. Additionally attractive and tasty was the small quail egg served in a “potato basket” which the chef stated was intended to create a “Easter like” spring feel.
Finishing up the savories and moving on to a much anticipated dessert I was once again visited by the chef who personally brought a palate cleanser to the table – a cleanser of parmesan crème gelato with hibiscus and pomegranate. Sweet and smooth cream, tangy and tart pomegranate, plus the scent/palate sensation of flowers – very nice.
For dessert the decision was tough – quite frankly there wasn’t a bad choice on the menu. Finally settling on one I opted for the Strawberry Baked Alaska with Yuzu cake, Strawberry and Basil Icecream, Petite Millefeuille, and Basil Juice – a great choice, without a doubt. Having experienced Basil/Strawberry/Yuzu in ice-cream form once prior at Eleven Madison Park in New York (Former Campton Place chef Daniel Humm) I had an idea of what to expect, but the version served at La Folie simply upped the stakes in every regard. From the crunchy meringue shell to the airy and light strawberry and basil ice creams to the dense yuzu cake everything worked beautifully together and was additionally complimented by indelibly sweet strawberries accented with basil foam and a streak of strawberry gelee. A great ending to a great meal.
Along with the modest bill (especially for the quality and portion of the food) I was finally served a plate of paired mignardises – Custard Canelles, Raspberry Gels, Peanut Butter and Chocolate Gnache, and bitter cherry Madelines all of which wowed the tastebuds – especially the Gnache and the Madelines.
After the meal Chef Passot once again appeared tableside and presented me with a signed and personalized copy of the menu – and a personal tour of the kitchen. Talking quite liberally about his time in the business and how he feels a small kitchen of trusted workers is the “ideal” to running a great restaurant he additionally spoke of his upcoming trip to New York for the Beard Awards and how he’d recommend it as a “gastronomic trip of a lifefime.” He finally wished me good luck in getting the job and personally escorted me to the door.
While not as “innovative” as others, I put the experience on par with any 5 star restaurant and found the cooking to be on par with that of even the famed French Laundry in many regards. Dollar for dollar I would say that the experience was an absolute bargain and that the servers at Michelin 2-starred Alex, Manresa and Aqua could stand to learn from Chef Passot’s approach and crew. Amongst the 5 best meals of my life when taking into account all aspects from food to setting to service to price. All told I cannot say enough about my experience at La Folie and I would never hesitate to recommend it to anyone as a GREAT meal at a fair price with superior service.