Thursday, April 30, 2009

Manresa, Los Gatos CA

Due to his recent appearance on Iron Chef and Manresa’s recent appearance on the list of the 100 best restaurants in the world, David Kinch needs no introduction - a Californian chef from California with training that runs through some of the greatest kitchens in the world and a focus on organics, biodynamic farm fresh ingredients, and the use of sharp contrasts to highlight natural flavors – a must visit for any self respecting epicure. Having missed out on Manresa on my previous trip to San Francisco I decided to make the voyage south this time around to experience Kinch’s vision – to see why some consider Manresa to be better than Keller’s place up north.

Having communicated with manager Michael Keane prior to my arrival I was greeted by name by Mr. Keane at the door (after parking quite a distance away because my GPS couldn’t figure out how to navigate the one way Village Lane) and taken to a small booth in the main dining room – facing all the action. Browsing the room I admit I was visually pleased by the plush yet inviting vibe as well as the lighting, plentiful windows, and decorations – rustic, yet refined. Shortly after my arrival I was greeted by my first (of at least ten that I can remember) servers who stated “I understand the Chef will be taking care of you tonight and that you do not eat beef flesh?” Affirming this I asked to see the nightly menu out of curiosity and chuckled at the odd “folder” style – certainly not the pomp and circumstance of The Ritz, Alex, Trotter’s, or TFL with their embroidered leather menus – at Manresa only the wine phonebook gets such treatment. Curiosity satisfied it was time to sit back and enjoy the next 3 hours.

Prior to my first dish I was brought a large loaf of bread – a Housemade Levain served with an incredibly complex and grassy butter from a local farm and topped with salt. Opting first for an end piece – and subsequently for about 7 center pieces – the soft centered and smoky/crusty crusted was absolutely superb. While I prefer more than one bread choice, I must say that if I had to choose one bread, this one works well. The butter, additionally, was every bit as good as the salted butter at The French Laundry, though not quite as good as the unsalted TFL option.

Shortly following the bread I a female server brought the first amuse – Manresa’s signature savory roasted red pepper gelée and black olive madeleines. Dense and sweet, the gelees tasted precisely like a fresh red bell pepper while the madelines were absolutely sublime with a rich and crispy exterior surrounding a complex and chewy center – I could’ve handled many more.

Another amuse, another server – this time Crispy Kale and Parmesan Churro. Describing this dish cannot do it justice, but imagine the world’s best cheeto complimented with a crispy flavor of cabbage. The dish reminded me of something Italian and Hungarian at once and had a strong savory component with minimal pungency – just a rewarding dish to eat in all ways. The dish was collected by the guy who kept refilling my water which I found odd at first, but I guess there is something to be said for division of labor.

A third amuse, a third server – I was starting to wonder if each server simply memorized a single dish for presentation. This time, a shotglass was presented and announced to be Purple Mustard Granite with Carrot. “Huh?” That’s right, a frozen soup of icy mustard greens topped with creamy carrot essence - sounds weird and is. Not a fan of mustard I went into this dish expecting the worst and hoping for the best – and the best I received. While I can’t say this is something I’d order or request, it actually worked – the spicy bite of the mustard contrasting sharply with the sweetness of the carrots and the frozen/icy texture mingling playfully with the cream.

Next up,the same server as the one who presented (and collected the empty plate of) the third amuse brought me “Asparagus and Foie Gras Royale.” A fan, to say the least, of Foie Gras I must say I found this presentation quite excellent and reminiscent of the strawberry version from Daniel Humm at EMP in New York. Layered in effect, a warm whipped asparagus cream sat atop a creamy and aromatic foie preparation and – all told – the presentation just worked to excellent effect – while I’d have preferred a foie dish in the main meal, this did suffice.

How do you follow Foie Gras in Mike’s perfect world? Egg. In this case, an Arpege Farm Egg with Maple and Vinegar. Another nod to Passard from another chef – and another winner. Topped with sherry vinegar and maple syrup the layers and nuances just kept coming with each bite – first cool and creamy, then sweet and savory, then fatty and textural, then salty and sweet at once. While it didn’t top the incredible versions at TFL, Providence, Trotter, or La Folie I’d still eat this egg daily if I could. Brimming with praise I commented to the guy who collected my plate (bread guy from earlier?) that the dish was amazing and got a muffled “okay” before he walked off to the kitchen.

As you can see from my commentary so far, I take a bit of an issue with the “tag team” service at Manresa – while everyone was ‘professional’ and adequate, I found the lack of continuity annoying in that compliments went unnoted, no one ever asked how I liked a dish, and in general I felt like I was being fed off a conveyor belt without personality. While most high end restaurants have multiple servers, they universally also have a captain who “heads” the team and stops by from time to time – Manresa did not have this and after my greeting at the door I additionally never saw Michael Kean again – aside from when he was noted multiple times schmoozing with the party of 4 that was ordering a lot of wine two tables down. Without belaboring anymore, Chef Kinch’s food is brilliant and he deserves a staff that compliments it for all guests – not just the ones with a $2000 bill.

Beginning the Chef’s menu I was first presented with “Shellfish in Crab Broth with Unripe Strawberries,” a worthy start to an incredible journey. Briny with accents of pine, soy, and sesame – creamy razor clams and textural Konpachi – plus unripe strawberries that had a unique and almost bitter-melon taste. A truly unique experience in flavors and textures – I found it odd after only one dish that anyone has ever referred to Kinch’s cuisine as lacking creativity.

Dish two, “Delta Asparagus with Bonito Butter and Toasted Seeds,” caught my attention from the first utterance of the title. Loving asparagus as I do, it wasn’t until Manresa that I finally had the chance to experience true Delta Asparagus – the sweetest and rarest of all asparagus varieties. Cut into thin ribbons and perfectly tender while maintaining a strong degree of texture the vegetable was wonderfully sweet – almost a fruit as opposed to vegetable. To compliment this, shaved flax and sunflower seeds that added further texture and a smooth and frothy butter with the fain essence of tuna and brine. An amazing dish prepared with amazing ingredients and flawless technique.

The next dish, a Kinch signature, was “Into the Vegetable Garden,” and – well, this dish is to salad what Patek Philippe is to watches – the standard by which all others should be judged. As beautiful on the palate as to the eye, the most striking aspect of this dish to myself was the fact that it had almost no smell aside from the of flowers, yet each bite unraveled and entirely different taste, texture, and –dare I say- ‘emotional’ experience. From the chicory “dirt” to the boiled fingerling to the spinach, raddish, and buttery foam – this dish alone warrants a visit to Manresa.

The next choice, “Spring Tidal Pool with Abalone, Octopus, Uni,” is another Manresa seasonal dish and another absolute winner in taste, texture, and sensation. Served warm, but with cool and nearly raw fishes, the shabu shabu style broth lent a buttery (almost foie gras-esque) yet earthy tone to the incredible fresh and succulent fish. While individual flavors of enoki, cabbage, and wonderful seafood all peaked through in resounding form, the overall effect of the dish was truly like the essence of the ocean.

After the previous two dishes, the follow up “Bluenose Bass with Chervil and Sweet Onion Marrow Broth,” didn’t really stand a chance of wowing, yet every aspect of it was well thought out, formulaic, and perfect. Sous-vide prepped, this was my first experience with true Bluenose and I found the fish much sweeter than the “average” Chilean Sea Bass – heavier and meatier, as well. The chervil added a wonderfully aromatic component moreso than taste, while the marrow/onion broth was thankfully quite mild with regard to the marrow (the marrow flan at Alex was a rare dish I couldn’t stomach) and pungent without being overwhelming.

Next, clever - “Root Vegetable Risotto without Rice, Mushrooms,” – yet another dish that makes me question why some call Kinch straight-forward. Featuring at least three varieties of mushrooms prepared in three different ways –dehydrated, fried, raw- over top of peas and a finely chopped (not shredded) “pseudo-risotto” of potato, turnip, and perhaps parsnips. Oddly the dish reminded me a bit more of couscous than risotto, but regardless each flavor was well complimented and expressed itself adequately – I imagine chef Kinch could prepare one heck of a vegan feast if he were so inclined.

Heading into the heavier dishes, I was next presented with “Roast Squab, Parsnips, Beets with Poorman Orange.” Having had a great squab the night before at La Folie, I must admit I found this dish to be relatively uninspiring in terms of the meat, yet once again mindblowing with regard to the vegetables. Admittedly I’d never heard of Poorman orange prior to this, but on my first taste I thought more “grapefruit” than orange – turns out from a little research that I was right. Mildly acidic yet quite complementary to the earthy beets and parsnips, I thought the flavors of the fruit/vegetable admixture simply overwhelmed the extremely mild squab. Not a miss, but not as great as the rest of the meal.

The final dish savory, completing the spring theme, was “Spring Lamb, Season's First Ramps with Peas,” and it was easily the best lamb I’ve ever tasted. Much more mild than the standard lamb with a mild layer of fat, the texture was almost pork-like without any gaminess whatsoever. Perfectly seared ramps, sweet peas, and croquettes that tasted almost like a sweetened hushpuppy – a wonderful dish yet quite heavy for my already-full self.

As a segue to dessert I was next presented with “Exotic Citrus with Honey and Spice, Spearmint Ice Cream,” a dish that, for myself, was not really a hit. While I appreciated the myriad variety of citrus (tangerine and meyer lemon, for sure, plus yuzu I believe) tastes, the honey and spice were far too heavy and the spearmint icecream gave the whole dish a somewhat “off” taste. As I admittedly do not like Spearmint, this could have been part of the problem, but all told it was simply too ‘strong.’

Having seen the cheese cart pass a couple of times and having seen multiple reviews of Manresa presenting three desserts I have to admit I was a tad disappointed when my server presented “your final dish” - A Taste of New Orleans with Powdered Beignets, Chicory Ice Cream, Burnt Bourbon Bananas – at least until I tasted it. While I admit the beignets were quite ordinary (and actually not as good as those at Brenda’s) the rest of the dish was incredible. Caramelized Bourbon Bananas that tasted like the very best Banana’s Foster, Chicory Ice Cream that reminded me of a strong cup of coffee, and an airy chocolate foam that pulled it all together – yet another sensation in a meal that had already included the tastes of Spain, France, Italy, Japan – another display of Kinch’s undeniable talent.

To finish the meal I was brought full-circle and presented with gelees and madelines again, this time a Strawberry Gelee and Chocolate Madeline. Like the first pairing, the gelee tasted precisely like it’s constituent ingredients while the madeline’s flawlessly prepared outside gave way to a sublime and soft – nearly soufflé-like- center. When my server (I think I’d seen this one before) asked if there was anything else I would like I requested a view of the kitchen if possible and a copy of the menu. Despite the late hour I was told that the kitchen was “too crowded,” but that if I waited he could prepare me a menu. Approximately 10 minutes passed and I was presented with the menu and the bill.

On my way out the door I was met, again, by another new face who held a jar full of candies – “a lime caramel or two for the road?” Of course I obliged and must admit that these were amongst the best caramels I’ve ever tasted – though not quite as delicious and nuanced as those at Providence.

All told I went into Manresa with very high expectations – why wouldn’t I since many have stated it is better than The French Laundry? While Kinch’s incredible skills wowed me time and time again, I must admit that the overall experience just lacked that “feel” of a truly superb restaurant. The multiple servers made things feel discontinuous and the single dessert with only two mignardises, while good, seemed out of place when compared to other 2-3 starred restaurants. While the food alone is absolutely worth the trip and the price, the service could use a pointer or two from The French Laundry, Providence, La Folie, Danko, The Dining Room – you get the picture.

Humphry Slocombe, San Francisco CA

After an unfortunate miss on Dynamo Donuts but a lucky find on La Panaderia I next made my way to Humphry Slocombe in the Mission – significantly praised by ChowHounds and Yelpers alike I felt it my duty to experience Slocombe and compare it to some of the offerings in Columbus Ohio, a place many call “the ice cream capital of the world.” Walking up to the small shop there were notably three young ladies standing outside enjoying small cones – and a small dog enjoying one as well. I asked what the dog liked and the one girl said “the olive oil – its good for his coat.” -- yes, she said that, I couldn’t make something so insipid up.

Walking into the small shop I was struck by the relatively drab appearance – no flourishes, just a bar, a white board, and 12 types of ice cream – excellent. A smiling staff of two offered me a taste (on cool metal spoons no less) and I gladly endulged – first on Balsamic caramel (best. Ice cream. Ever.), then Blue Bottle Vietnamese coffee (not as good as Jeni’s Black Coffee, but good) , then Andante chevre-strawberry jam (Good, but Jeni’s fig and goat cheese is better,) and finally McEvoy olive oil (Better than Batali’s – I could feel my coat getting stronger immediately.)

Having heard rumor of the Secret Breakfast from any number of sources I took a taste and immediately ordered a scoop in addition to a scoop of the balsamic caramel – no cone, just a cup – awesome. Sitting down at the long bar I dug in and slowly enjoyed the wonderful caramel peaks with the heavy nuance of a quality balsamic underneath. While Jeni’s back home makes a superb Salty Caramel, this simply raises the bar a couple notches. In addition to the flavor, what struck me most was the incredible creaminess of the ice cream – almost a velvety texture on the tongue that didn’t even seem ‘cold’ because it was so smooth.

My second flavor, the Secret Breakfast, was not only cleverly named – but incredibly well flavored. Consisting of candied cornflakes with bourbon-flavored ice cream it reminded me of the standard “butter pecan” except without pecans and with a substantial “kick.” While others have not mentioned it, I distinctly caught the flavor, texture, and appearance of raisin in the scoop which makes me wonder if this was indeed a candied raisin-bran as opposed to corn flakes. Once again, the ice cream was like velvet and absolutely superb.

While I wish some of the more exotic flavors (Foie Gras, Government Cheese, etc) had been available and that they’d taken Credit Cards (see, again, the retarded $fine$ for not having cash on the way to Napa) I must say what I tasted was excellent and in the realm of designer ice cream I’d rank them on-par or better than our famous Jeni’s at home – I’d come back for Balsamic Caramel in a heartbeat and next time aim to get the Blue Bottle and mix it with Valrhona fudgesicle. Great service and good for your pets, too!

Panaderia La Mexican Bakery, San Francisco CA

Portion three of my interview day entailed a bus-ride from the VA to San Francisco General – conveniently located in The Mission area of San Francisco – home of Dynamo Donuts. Having heard wonderful things of the bacon-laden option I finished my interview at 4:00, bid my farewells, and changed back into my jogging shoes. Rushing through the streets of The Mission past any number of unique Hispanic, Korean, and Chinese options I finally saw the sign for Dynamo – and the metal awning closing before my very eyes. Stopping the clerk I was informed that they’d been sold out of donuts since “about 2:00” and that he’d merely been selling coffee. He invited me to come back the next morning, but alas my schedule didn’t allow for such – there is always next time.

As I was walking away I was somewhat disappointed but plenty excited to proceed to my next stop (Humphry Slocombe) until I was stopped by a well-dressed couple who stated “Don’t worry, their donuts aren’t that good – if you want to try something awesome there is this little Mexican pastry shop up the street called Panaderia – go there and get whatever the clerk recommends as fresh baked.” Having already passed a Mexican Bakery and being admittedly impressed by the display I figured “Why not?” and continued along until I found the small shop exactly where they said it would be.

Walking in the door I was instantly struck by the wonderful smell of apples and cinnamon – and the fact that I couldn’t read a single word on the wall, menu, or pastry cases! Taking the advice of the couple I asked the clerk “What’s good?” only to get the response “What you like?” Stating I wasn’t sure didn’t seem to get me anywhere as I once again received “What you like?” as a response. Not wanting to drag this on for too long I responded “Something fresh, with fruit” and the man smiled and led me to the case where he stated “Get this, and this.” Asking what they were (and having it written down so I could remember) I was told a Mexican Wedding Cookie with Guava and an Empanada de Calabaza (pumpkin.) $2.20 cents later I emerged with my prizes and dug in.

First opting for the Empanada I must admit I was somewhat skeptical due to its plain appearance – a skepticism that resolved the moment I bit through the flaky crust and tasted the burst of pumpkin-pie-esque flavor. With hints of cinnamon and vanilla the dainty pastry worked excellently and was almost like a hostess fruit pie yet far more tasty. Not too sweet, not too heavy – I probably could’ve eaten 2-3 if I weren’t planning on ice cream and a subsequent dinner.

My second choice, the Mexican Wedding Cookie, was another wonderful surprise and reminded me of a better version of the Russian Tea Balls my aunt makes each year at Christmas – but with chunks of almond and walnut plus a wonderfully tart compote that tasted of strawberry and cherry at once. Eating as carefully as I could I still managed to end up with about a teaspoon of powdered sugar on my black suit (a fact noted by myself and chuckled at by the cashier at Humphry Slocombe – who additionally noted her love for Panaderia when I attempted to explain myself) but it was absolutely worth it – and the dry cleaning bill!

Arizmendi Bakery, San Francisco CA

The interview day was half over at 11:15 and the tram to the VA was scheduled to leave at 12:05 – plenty of time to run the three blocks (this time in dress shoes) to Arizmendi Bakery - having missed The Cheeseboard on my trip to Berkeley and reading about the small worker-owned co-op with their amazing pizzas, morning pastries, and artisan breads I knew that the experience would be worth the walk. Walking past the small building I had to chuckle at the neighborhood and at first I actually walked past Arizmendi despite its rather obvious sign. Entering the doors I was instantly greeted by the smells of yeast, sugar, and garlic and wondered how I managed to walk past given the large crowd waiting inside.

Browsing the myriad selections I must admit that everything looked good, but knowing my foodie agenda for the day was to be pretty gluttonous I promised to reserve myself to one savory and one sweet. Watching the numerous bakers toss pizza crusts in the back while others rolled out dough and brought out warm baked goods from the back to reload the quickly diminishing supply the first item that caught my eye was the fresh/piping hot Forcaccia with Roasted Garlic Sauce and Cheese. Charged on a “per pound” basis, the single slice cost $4.40 and weighed in at a hefty 11oz – an 11oz that I greedily inhaled on my walk back to the bus. Creamy Mozzarella, wonderfully ripe tomatoes, and whole cloves of whole roasted garlic – Amazing and filling…and thank goodness I had a pack of Orbit Sweet Mint with me since I had more interviews to go!

For my sweet, the brioche knots and Wolverines originally caught my eye but my love of cornbread quickly won out when I saw the words cornbread and scone in the same sentence…along with the word cherry. Cherry Cornbread Scone – done deal! Sweet yet hearty, soft yet with that characteristic cornbread texture, a bright balance of the lightness of a scone with the density of a cornbread – all enhanced with wonderfully tart black cherries. Hands down the best “designer” cornbread I’ve ever tasted – and a better “dessert cornbread” than the pseudo-famous Cornbread dessert at Symon’s Lola.

Friendly (and clever) servers poked fun at my photo taking, but not in an obnoxious way – one even offered to take a picture of me with my pizza (I should have accepted) and prices were a bargain for the quality. While I will admit that the cash only policy ended up costing me $30 the next day when I didn’t have cash to pay the “toll” to Napa (What an asinine rule that is – who carries cash??) I certainly can’t fault Arizmendi for that – I only wish I could’ve spent that $30 on some more of their baked goods!

La Boulange de Cole, San Francisco CA

Looking at my interview schedule I was a little bit sad – 8:00am until 4:30pm with three hospitals involved and scheduled trams/busses between each…a day in San Francisco and I wouldn’t be able to indulge my gastronomic desires for breakfast or dinner…or would I? Like a good foodie I quickly consulted the hitlist – egullet, chowhound, yelp, gayot, zagats, and the online version of the local newspaper – and within moments my distress was resolved because a virtual smorgasbord of unique options just so happened to lie on all sides of my path. Getting up at a healthy 4:30am I made my way to the hotel gym for some weights and cardio, showered, shaved, and tossed on the Versace suit…and a pair of Nike’s because walking 3.1 miles to UCSF in dress-shoes did not sound too pleasant. The morning was beautiful and the walk through Hayes Valley was great – albeit mostly uphill – and by 7:00 I found myself at my first destination – La Boulange de Cole.

Having had a relatively poor experience at Boulangerie on my previous trip I was somewhat hesistant to give the Boulange group another try, but at the same time the fact that this one had seats and good reviews made me take the risk – that and the fact that Pork Store didn’t look too appealing and Zazie didn’t open until 8. Walking up to La Boulange I was greeted by the familiar orange awning and a line of 2-3 people in front of me. Unlike my experience at Boulangerie I was also greeted with smiles and friendly service.

Checking out the samples on the counter while browsing the selections I was quite impressed by the density of the chocolate brownie and the wonderfully refined sweetness of the cassis and crème tarte. I was also impressed by the petite French Toast, but was told this would take ~20 minutes to prepare. After a short debate my decision was made and my order placed - $7.75 cents and 3 minutes later I was seated at my table with my options.

Choice one, after a superb almond croissant on my Boulangerie visit, was a Ham and Gruyere croissant that the server volunteered to warm up for me (something they told me they couldn’t do with my croque at Boulangerie.) While not quite as sublime as the version at Tartine, I will admit I was quite content with the buttery texture of the soft pastry and the substantial portion of salty ham within. Particularly attractive was the smoothness of the Gruyere which complemented the dish well without overwhelming or becoming lost in the butter or salt. A great savory.

Choice two was one of the excellent demi-baguettes. Not normally a fan of simply ordering “bread” I noticed that every single person preceding me ordered a baguette and once I saw the condiment selection I decided to try it for myself. Served piping hot from the oven the wonderfully crusty baguette had a refined and soft interior with hints of butter and perhaps even vanilla. When paired with Nutella, Strawberry and Apricot Preserves, two forms of salt, and Lavender Honey the bread was certainly a great choice and something I’d order again.

My final selection was at the advice of my server and certainly the best item I’ve yet tasted at either Boulange. Simply titled “fresh pear and cranberry tart” I was served a large slice of the buttery pastry with wonderfully sweet pears and tart/bitter cranberries that almost seemed to melt together and form a flavor that was neither pear nor cranberry but moreso like a Prickly Pear – whether this effect was intended or not I cannot be sure, but I would definitely order this again and actually wrote to the Boulange after my return to ask for the recipe – a request to which a friendly lady responded to within 24 hours and stated they would try to get the recipe for that dish (apparently not frequently on the menu at any of the Boluange restaurants) and send it my way.

All told I much preferred every aspect of my experience at La Boulange de Cole as compared to Boulangerie and would definitely make La Boulange a frequent quick-breakfast if I end up living in the San Francisco area.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

La Folie, San Francisco CA

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.