The drive up, during evening rush hour, took about two hours. Not too bad, and we had planned for that. They seated us early, in a small room with only three tables -- ours, another table of two, and a table of four. Our head waiter (table captain? front waiter? Not sure how best to describe the woman who took charge of the small army of servers who took care of us that night) walked us through the menu and took our selections, and then sent the sommelier over to discuss our options. Since T's not a drinker, I had a chat with the sommelier in which I explained my wine preferences (fairly light, neither too sweet nor too dry, not oakey), and we decided on two glasses to go with my meal: a white for the first courses and then a red to follow. The white was a Grüner Veltliner, a varietal from Austria, which I'd never had before. I liked it a lot -- not to aggressive, very good with the food. My red was a Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley in Oregon, also good although not as memorable.
So, how it works: the restaurant serves a 9-course tasting menu, plus amuse bouche (bite-size appetizers to start) and three rounds of bread. There are two menus: the chef's menu and the vegetable menu. T and I both chose the chef's menu. In some courses you have two options, in some you don't; however, TFL is famous for making substitutions upon request, and for having dozens of dishes that don't even appear on the menu if there's something on the tasting menu you just can't stand. Since I'm such a picky eater, you might assume that I took advantage of their flexibility, but when I go to restaurants of this caliber, I prefer to take my chances with ingredients I wouldn't usually like, give the chef a chance to surprise me. So for the most part, I went with the menu as presented. A nine-course menu sounds like a lot of food, and it is, but each plate is small, so you don't end up feeling too overstuffed. I walked away full, but pleasantly so.
The meal opened with gougeres (like a cream puff, but with gruyere cheese) and "Cornets with Wild Salmon Tartare", the signature amuse bouche of TFL. My resolve to eat everything they gave me was tested right off the bat with the latter dish, since I'm not fond of fish, raw or cooked, but I gave it a try and found it relatively palatable, mostly thanks to the bonus filling of creme fraiche. The gougeres, on the other hand, were delicious and I could probably have eaten an entire plateful. Then came the first real course: another signature dish, the "Oysters and Pearls":
A scoop of white sturgeon caviar, on a bed of pearl tapioca filled with poached oysters. This was my sole substitution of the night -- I'd never had real caviar, so I wasn't sure about it, and I didn't want to compound that with a known issue of raw oysters. So they brought my caviar on a bed of cauliflower panne cotta instead, which worked well for me; the mild, creamy cauliflower dish mellowed out the strong, salty caviar (it tastes like the ocean smells) and made it much better.
The next dish was the tomato salad:
"Toybox tomatoes" (like heirloom tomatoes, but small), which poached celery and horseradish creme fraiche. Spectacular. How can you say that about some tomatoes scattered on a plate? I don't know, but it's true. Usually I tell people that I love cooked tomatoes but don't much care for them raw. That's easier than saying that I only like tomatoes when they are incredibly fresh and sweet, which is rare in a tomato. These managed it.
Next, the fish course. This was a decision point on the menu. One option was scallops tartare-style with cucumbers and plums. T got this and liked it a lot, but I was pretty sure that, trusted chef or not, I wasn't going to be too crazy about raw scallops. So I decided to take my chances with the sturgeon with beets and melted leeks:
It was the right call. Sturgeon is a meaty fish, like shark or swordfish, and this was incredibly fresh. So although it had the flaky texture I associate with fish, the flavor wasn't fishy at all. Just rich and buttery. This was also my epiphany moment as far as food pairings were concerned. The sturgeon was delicious on its own; the leeks were tasty and well prepared. But when eaten together, in the same bite, the flavor was entirely different, and even better. (The beets... well, beets are pretty much beets, I'm afraid. Fortunately it was no problem to eat around them.) After that I made a point of making sure to try at least one bite of each dish that contained every ingredient provided, to see how the chef pulled the flavors together.
Next, the "caesar salad":
Lobster tail, caramelized hearts of romaine, a parmesan cracker, and cured fish flakes (for the "anchovy"). The lobster was perfect, buttery and tender, and went wonderfully with the lettuce. My white wine was largely chosen to go with this dish, and it was indeed a match.
So you may have seen me throwing a lot of superlatives around, and I'm not done yet, but the next dish was without question my favorite of the evening:
White quail, with figs, baby corn, arugula, and "Piment d'Espelette", a basque chili pepper (which I think was in the sauce). (By the way, I'm not remembering all this off the top of my head. They gave us a copy of the menu to take home.) Quail was another dish new to me, and I loved it. Richer than most poultry but not heavy like duck -- T compared it to pork chops -- it went so well with the figs especially, and the sauce was wonderful. Of every dish that I had, this was the one that left me wanting more, more so than any other. Yum, yum. Now I will be on the lookout for restaurants that serve quail.
T had the other option at this course: hearts of veal, served with Yukon Gold potatoes and artichokes. Good, another unusual dish and unusual preparation, but not as exceptional as some other dishes.
And now, five courses in, we reach the "main dish":
This is the tip of a ribeye steak, seared, served with sunchoke puree and bordelaise sauce as well as chanterelle mushrooms and "haricorts verts" (aka green beans). The ribeye is my favorite cut of beef, and bordelaise is one of my favorite sauces for it, so it would have been hard for this one not to be a winner. The steak was well prepared and seasoned just right.
All this time, I should mention, we were being attended to by a legion of staff. There was our head waiter, of course, and the sommelier appeared literally seconds after I finished my first glass of wine to present my second. We also had one server to tended to our water glasses, cleared our finished plates and brought us new silverware, and also came around with bread service at the appropriate times. I counted at least three different people who brought out our dishes as well. It was the perfect level of service, attentive without being overbearing. They never once asked us how we were doing, but that's not an oversight. They didn't need to ask, because they knew.
Anyway, after the beef came the cheese course:
The cheese was Winnimere, a variety I hadn't heard of before. It was pungent (fancy cheese speak for "stinky"), but the flavor was not as strong as the smell, and it went well with the caramelized onions and mustard "pain perdue" (fancy cooking speak for "French toast"). Still, I was ready for a palate cleanser, and it came in the form of a sorbet:
Blueberry sorbet, to be exact, and it was just right. Hardly sweetened at all; it was like eating frozen, pureed blueberries. It was right what I needed at that point in the meal. Often, when you're eating a large tasting menu like this, people will take a break to digest a little and give their palates a break; however, given the hour (we were served our beef course around 10pm) and the fact that I had to be at work early the next day, I had asked to move straight through. So this dish gave us a bit of a break without having to stop. The sorbet was the first of three dessert courses, and here is the second:
Easily the best presentation of the night. Layers of white, dark, and milk chocolate, topped by chocolate chip ice cream and covered in swirls of fresh mint syrup. I thought about getting a dessert wine at this point, but I decided that it would be hard to find one I liked that would work with mint, so I skipped it in favor of the coffee. This was tasty, but I'd be hard-pressed to describe it as special; it's not hard to get a mint chocolate dessert right. Still, it was worth eating, and given how much food I'd had by that point, that's saying something.
And we still weren't done: the truffles were still to come.
I didn't quite catch whether these were homemade or purchased, but either way, they were awesome. I had three: the praline (which was yummy but nothing special), the berry (exceptional!), and the peanut butter (amazing -- not ganache or peanut butter candy or anything like that, but actual peanut butter, enrobed in chocolate. When I was making my selections, our head waiter asked me if I liked peanut butter or coconut. "Peanut butter," I said. "You must," she replied. And she was right). They also brought us chocolate covered macadamia nuts and the "Tower of Sweets". We had a nibble or two, and then they wrapped the rest up for us to take home, along with some shortbread:
Finally, about four hours after we sat down, we rolled out of our chairs, admired the grounds at night, and left for home. I wish we'd had a little more time -- a walk through the garden between courses would have been perfect, and freed up enough room for another truffle or two -- but it was still an amazing experience. I wouldn't go again any time soon (unless someone else was footing the bill), but it's definitely the kind of thing worth doing once. So I'm so glad we lucked into the reservation, and am eternally grateful to T for making it happen.