Well, it's been almost two weeks since the dinner I cooked for my better half's birthday, and I have to say, I think it was pretty successful. Twelve courses, most of them from the French Laundry Cookbook, and three palate cleansers of my own design, took me six hours to cook and serve them to Karen and her 5 guests. The planning started about 4 months before the dinner, and I started to cook for it 3 months prior to the evening in question. Before I begin to break down all the steps that were involved in the making of each dish, I would like to start out with some photos of the final results. The photos are not bad, but as I was taking them during "service", so to speak, I did not take any time to tweak the lighting or take many photos, period. As such, I think they're good enough to give you a general idea of the dishes I made and how successfully they turned out.
First, grant me a moment to talk about the table setting. Inspired by the cover of the French Laundry Cookbook, I knew I wanted to do something clean, simple, and white. Here's the cover of the cookbook:
Here's what my place settings looked like (Click on any photo in this post for a larger version):
I found old school style clothespins, and used rub-on transfers to decorate them with the names of each guest. I also found I needed to sand the interior "slot" of the clothespins, as they were unfinished and I found that as a result they caught on the napkin when pulled off, and left a yellowish residue. The napkins were exactly what I was looking for, 100% cotton, plain white, but they actually took me a long time to find. After several weeks of searching, I finally found them at Homesense. I gave them a wash, then, after drying them, found I needed to iron them, as they had become considerably wrinkly. Okay, enough about the damn napkins! I ordered an all-white floral arrangement for the center of the table, from a local florist that I discovered online. Magda Smolinska is the lovely lady who runs the shop, and I think she did a fantastic job. Regarding the wooden glass holders in front of each place setting, I knew I wanted something to keep the many glasses that would be on the table organized, but in a visually appealing way. My first thought was to fashion colour-coded coasters that would sit in front of each guest, and with this in mind, I gathered a large number of paint colour samples from Home Depot; dark burgundies for the red wine, varying shades of cream and beige for the white and sparkling wines, and multiple blues for the water glasses. However, when I was in Ikea, I saw these bases for holding candles, and I thought they'd be perfect for what I had in mind, if I cut them into three pieces, and limited the number of glasses in front of each guest at any one time to three. After cutting them to size on my circular saw, and sanding them down, I tested them on the table. Perfect! Here's the final result:
Now, the table was set, and as 6 pm approached, the guests started to arrive. They sat down, and I offered them water (tap or sparkling), and I cracked open a bottle of Veuve in honour of the birthday girl. They admired their clothespins, attached them to various objects near to them (their clothes, the floral arrangement), and I removed their plates to reveal their food and wine menus (click for a more legible version):
I returned to the kitchen to start the first course, the White Truffle Oil-Infused Custard with Black Truffle Ragout:
I kept one dish of each course for myself in the kitchen to enjoy while the others took their time in the dining room (yes, I did not sit down at the table), and about this dish, all I can say is: wow. What a great way to start a meal! It was lusciously rich and decadent and yet light and delicate at the same time. The truffle flavour was not overwhelming, but absolutely perfect (I had purchased a very nice white truffle oil to infuse the custard with - I'm sure that didn't hurt). This is my very idea of what an amuse should be - something to tantalize your taste buds, and excite them with anticipation of what is to come. Unfortunately, I was not able to procure a fresh black truffle for this dish, as it was certainly not truffle season, and besides, it was apparently snowing in Italy the week before this dinner. I used a jar of very nice "black truffle carpaccio" instead, as well as some excellent French Laundry veal stock (which I had made previously), for the black truffle ragout. It provided a rich savoury contrast to the creaminess of the custard.
In between bites of the custard, I plated the next course, the Black Truffle Soup Élysée, a famous dish created by the great chef Paul Bocuse for the Élysée Palace on the occasion of Chef Bocuse receiving the Legion of Honour from President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing on February 25, 1975:
This is a soup that I've enjoyed in the past, having made it before, albeit a larger version. These were small ramekins filled with a sauté of finely chopped mushrooms, shallots, and carrots, slices of poached chicken thighs (the recipe calls for chicken breast, but I much prefer dark meat), shavings of black truffles, cubes of foie gras, and a fine rich broth of veal stock and chicken stock reductions, and white vermouth. This is a great, really savoury soup made even better with the buttery puff pastry that you have to pierce through to get to the soup. When you break through the crust, the aroma of the delicious interior hits you full in the face. It's quite an experience. If you've never had it before, I suggest you make it. It's actually quite easy, providing you either have some good homemade chicken and veal stock on hand, or you know where to get some. I rammed spoonfuls of it into my mouth as I prepared the next course, the first palate cleanser of the evening: the Cucumber Sorbet with Shiso and Umeboshi Purée:
This dish was entirely my own recipe, and took literally months of tweaking before reaching this final preparation. Unfortunately, as I had only 6 molds for the cucumber sorbet, I wasn't able to taste the completed dish myself. I did, however, get to try everything else on the plate, and I was quite pleased with the combination of flavours. It was definitely a refreshing dish that cleansed one's palate successfully, and I enjoyed it as I plated my absolutely favourite treatment of this most decadent of ingredients: the French Laundry's Poached Duck Foie Gras au Torchon, with Pickled Strawberries and Figs (I was unable to find fresh cherries, of course, it being March, and all):
This is my favourite foie preparation, ever. But is foie ever bad, really? I didn't take photos of it, but I also served brioche toasts with this course, cut from specially ordered rectangular brioche loaves, from Bonjour Brioche. They were excellent - buttery, crisp and light. As my guests munched away on the foie and brioche, I went to work on the next dish up: Butter Poached Lobster, Creamy Lobster Broth and Mascarpone-Enriched Orzo:
This dish is unbelievably, decadently, delicious. I made this last time I did an extravagant birthday dinner for my sweetie (as well as the foie), and it was so enjoyed by all that I felt it was only right that I do it again. This is one of my favourite dishes of all time, and the very best treatment for lobster that I know of. You'll hear more about it in posts to come. I shoveled it into my mouth as I worked on the next course: Sweet Potato Agnolotti, Sage Cream, Brown Butter, and Prosciutto:
I was expecting this dish to be one of the highlights of the meal, because the combination of ingredients just sounds so incredible, but, because of a couple of reasons, I think this dish was the least successful of the night. I had prepared a huge number of agnolotti, but most of them fell apart when boiling them for service. I managed to salvage enough so that each person could have four of them, but I think that even those were flawed, as the pasta dough was not the best consistency. It was either soft and falling-apart, or dense and chewy. I screwed up on the pasta dough, obviously. This is one dish I'm going to have to make again. Oh well, the flavours were still amazing, and I reassured myself that the dish wasn't a complete failure, as I prepared the second palate cleanser of the night: Watermelon Sorbet, Port Wine Reduction, Prosciutto Chip:
This was the second dish of the meal that was entirely my recipe, and once again, I didn't have the pleasure of enjoying it in its entirety, as I only had enough molds to form the watermelon sorbets for my six guests. Still, I thought it was very successful - I was happy with how the flavours worked together (it was my play on the classic combination of melon and prosciutto), and the presentation, which was mostly improvised, I thought to be excellent. Pleased with myself after the hiccup that was the agnlotti course, I prepared the next dish: Pan-Roasted Striped Bass, Artichoke Ravioli, Barigoule Vinaigrette:
This dish was easily the most labour-intensive of the evening, at least in terms of the final preparation and plating of the dish. The flavours were fantastic, and the plating was beautiful, but there was one flaw: the skin wasn't as crispy as I had wanted it to be. I had tested out Keller's method for crisping up fish skin, so I knew how to do it, but my test had involved crisping the skin on only one piece of fish. When I slid seven pieces of fish into the hot oil in one pan, the temperature of the pan dropped dramatically, and by the time the pan returned to a heat that would have been high enough to crisp the skin, the fish was already cooked. The edges were crispy, thankfully, but the rest of the skin was not. Next time I'll be sure to use a heavier-gauge, higher-quality pan. Oh well, everyone seemed to be enjoying it, if the sounds from the dining room were any indication, and I forged ahead with the next dish: Braised Stuffed Pig's Head, Sauce Gribiche:
I thought this dish was fantastic! I thought the end results were more than worth the very labour-intensive preparation. Rich, savoury pig's head torchon, with a bright, tantalizing sauce to cut the richness of the pork. A beautiful, simple presentation, as well. On to the next course: Roasted Cornish Hen en Crepinette de Byaldi, Pan Jus:
The plating presentation of this dish was the least successful, I think - it's one of the few dishes in the French Laundry Cookbook that doesn't have an accompanying photo of the final dish. I did follow Thomas Keller's instructions to the tee, though, and that's just how it looked. The less than stellar presentation, combined with the fact that we were over five hours into the meal, resulted in, for the first time of the evening, plates coming back into the kitchen with food still on them. I think the "porkiness" of the caul fat surrounding the cornish hen/byaldi bundles was a little off-putting to some, as well. I enjoyed the dish, but was particulary disappointed to see so much of the sauce left on the plates. This sauce took a long time to make! However, I only have myself to blame, as it had already been a long meal, and I'm sure my guests were getting quite full and tired. I know I was beginning to tire, myself, and I wonder if this resulted in my preparation of this dish in particular becoming somewhat sloppy and hurried. No more than 10 courses next time, I promise! Time to cleanse our palates with: Pickled Lotus Root, Shiso, and Sour Plum:
Another of my recipes, inspired by a review of Masa, in New York City, by famous blogger Chuckeats, where he comments on the finishing palate cleanser. Wow, what a way to refresh one's palate! An amazing combination of flavours, whose perfume-like qualities reminded of that popular Indian breath freshener, paan. In the little cup underneath it, a premium Japanese sake. This was a great way to energize our palates and refresh them before the dessert course: Strawberry Sorbet Shortcake, Créme Fraîche Sauce:
A fabulous dessert, and a perfect end to a very long and ambitious meal! You can see the birthday girl's candle sticking out of one of the shortcakes in the first photo - it was a very cute little birthday cake, I think... So, that's the meal. Overall, a real success. But, at the end of the day, I have to say that there were too many courses. The next time it'll be no more than ten courses, I promise!!!
I'll discuss the wine pairings shortly, as well as give a complete breakdown of all the prep work that went into each dish, but this is all I have the energy for now. Thanks for watching!