Happy Bastille Day! July 14 is French National Day, or La Fête Nationale, commemorating the beginnings of modern day France. To honor the country, we are going all-out French today. It required a drive to San Francisco, but traffic wasn’t bad and the weather was beautiful. Our two destinations of a restaurant and a bakery were across the street from each other, so we enjoyed a leisurely brunch/lunch without the pressure of driving across the city. Chez Maman West of Hayes Valley, the youngest member of the Chez Maman family including Chez Papa and Papito, has a broad menu almost entirely French-inspired, save a section of fresh Mexican dishes. The basics of French cuisine are, well, to follow the basics; simple ingredients, cooked with exemplary technique by a knowledgeable chef. Today we were enamored by the food from Chef Russell Cab’s kitchen.
We split an appetizer of baked Camembert as evenly as we could, but it was difficult because we both liked it a lot. The extremely creamy and gooey cheese was baked with some of the rind, so there was an earthiness and musk to the flavor. It was balanced by the subtle sweetness of the buttery roasted garlic and mixed greens with a light vinaigrette. The toast points for scooping up the cheese were crispy but not rock-hard, thankfully, or else the effort of eating would have overcome the balance of textures.
Oeuf cocotte, or “egg in a pot,” is a poached egg dish with cream, and August wanted to try Chez Maman’s version with meaty smoked salmon and goat cheese. Neither salmon nor goat cheese are pleasing to Zach, but he had to admit that the smokiness here drew him in. That which helped his palate further was the mildness of the goat cheese; more pungent, and it would have overtaken the plate. The rich yolk melded with the cream to enhance the smooth, creamy flavor of the tender egg, which was complemented so well by the salmon and goat cheese. Balance is a prominent theme in French cooking – some ingredients work together only when combined in the right amounts.
If you are a truffle fan, you cannot pass up the mac and cheese. Likewise, if you’re a mac and cheese fan looking for something different, this will hit the spot For the price, you’ll be amazed at the quantity of truffle oil and thick truffle shavings mixed with al dente noodles and Gruyere cheese. Gooey, creamy, savory, and earthy, it was not a pretty looking plate but it was “pretty for your mouth,” as per Zach. The truffle flavor was strong, but the dash of nutmeg did not go unnoticed as it balanced the intense truffle.
The savoyarde crepe had Swiss and Raclette cheese, fingerling potatoes, prosciutto, and cornichons; a sharp salad with tomato tapenade offered contrasting green flavor. Zach enjoyed the mildly tangy cheeses, particularly the Raclette which to him was like an extremely mild blue cheese. The term Raclette originates in the French racler, “to scrape”; this cheese is used for melting, and traditionally one would scrape the melted cheese off of a wedge after it had been heated by an open fire. The potatoes were slightly sweet and tender in this crepe, while the thick prosciutto provided texture, something to chew, and a salty element to work with the potatoes and cheese. Made with a buckwheat crepe, this plate is both gluten-free and delicious.
We didn’t think we were going to get two desserts when we first came into the restaurant, but hey, it’s Bastille Day! The cinnamon pain perdu, a favorite here, was served with marinated raspberries and strawberries, apple syrup, and chantilly. The base of the dessert was essentially French toast, with a thin crispy crust that resulted from grilling the bread. The apple syrup gave a teensy bit of tart, while the mild sweetness of the chantilly smoothed out the bright fruits. The crème brûlée had a rich, velvety texture and vanilla flavor with visible vanilla bean scrapings under the candy crunch top. It was not overly sweet, and August thought it tasted close to homemade vanilla marshmallows.
What makes certain dining experiences more memorable are the chance encounters with charismatic others, be they restaurant staff or fellow patrons, and today we had the pleasure of meeting two of each. Manager David was conversational and generous in his kindness. Server Sophia is young but waits like a seasoned professional, so to find out that it was only her second day on the floor was surprising! At the table next to us were Roger and Jordan, who told us about Check, Please! Bay Area. Coincidentally, we got home just in time to catch an episode of it on PBS! So we owe a big merci to all who had a part in memorializing our meal, not just for the food but for the connections made as well.
We admire Chef Hubert Keller for his creativity, prowess, and charm, and all three of those attributes shine in his culinary creations. Fleur de Lys, one of Les Grandes Tables du Monde, is a landmark in San Francisco, known for the highest quality in food and service. We had a five-course dinner last night at Fleur de Lys, and with multiple elements of each course plus a few bonus dishes courtesy of the staff, it was like a condensed Grand Tasting of Vegas Uncork’d just for us!
The first plate that came out to us was one we did not order. No mistakes were made, though, it was complimentary. A small vessel with spinach cheese gratin was creamy and rich in flavor, yet for how creamy it was, it was surprisingly light. The texture was more from the spinach than from adding excess cream, as some might do in an attempt to achieve the same amazing mouthfeel. A mild, pleasant spinach with medium Gruyere cheese were simple flavors, but impressively handled. To pair with the gratin, a truffled corn madeleine helped mop up the leftovers. Its texture was in between a typical madeleine and a cornbread muffin with the slightest crunch from the cornmeal. The balsamic oil swirl with extra virgin olive oil and a pesto oil were bright flavors to enhance the gratin and the madeleine.
We came prepared to order two five-course meals, but realized upon viewing the menu that the fourth course was a plate of cheeses. Tasty as they may be, we didn’t need two cheese plates to share, so we swapped one fourth-course item to get a third first-course. This, the first of the three appetizers that we ordered, was not one on which we vacillated. Described as “toasted duck ham & mozzarella ‘slider,’ French potato salad with white anchovy, ‘faux gras’ mousse, and piquillo gazpacho,” this reminded August of sampling dinner menus for the most luxurious of wedding receptions. The “faux gras” tasted exactly like froie gras but with an extremely light and airy mousse texture. It complemented the black olive bread particularly well. The piquillo gazpacho had a traditional base with an herbed crème fraîche layer on top. It was very well balanced with tangy refreshing tomatoes and the cucumbers, which can be an offending taste to some, were mild (if even there, it was that mild). Zach was particularly taken with the duck ham slider and the potato salad. On a mini bun with smooth cheese, the lean, tender, and smoky duck was bolstered in flavor and texture. The bun was light in texture but still had some give, and the black sesame seeds added a toasted nuttiness as well as visual appeal. The herbed smooth potato salad tasted earthy yet tangy with the addition of white anchovy. Not on the menu’s description but mysteriously appearing on the plate were the tips of a few asparagus spears. Still crisp but far from raw, they were topped with a zesty, herby, green foam and what we think were toasted mushrooms. Delicious.
Our second appetizer that we shared was a Dungeness crab salad with a few extras. The sharp greens were freshly drizzled by our server with a lobster infused vinaigrette, which helped to balance the strong earthiness of the greens. If we found the same dressing in the store, we’d buy stock. The mound of salad hid whole, shelled, succulent crab claws, and lots of them. We could tell they were very fresh, because they still had that nice salty brine. Artfully placed cubes of sweet beets rested in dollops of pungent goat cheese, perfectly balanced in flavor as well as marking the plate between the salad and the spoon of lobster fondant. The fondant tasted just like lobster, but with the texture of a light mousse that melts in your mouth like butter. Add caviar, and it’s a bite of joy.
Baekeoffe refers to a type of meat stew from the Alsace region of France along the German border. As a part of Alsatian cooking and culture, it is said that the casseroles were made by the women of the households, sealed with pastry around the lid and dropped off to be baked at the village bakery on laundry day, when the women were too busy to cook and wash. This one consisted of escargot, carrots, mushrooms, and leeks, served with a parsley salad and the cutest, tenderest of snail-shaped rolls. The pastry around the edge of the casserole was flaky and buttery, but not the star of the show. A rout of large snails swam in a garlic and basil broth, that did wonders for the pastry. It was rich and slightly earthy from the abundance of escargot. As a pastry chef, Zach described the snail roll as an exceptionally flaky and savory version of a danish, not completely soft with just a bit of crunch. Instead of brown sugar like a cinnamon roll, the spread that held the “snail” together was mushroom-based.
August’s first entree from the seafood selection was the salmon with cabbage three ways, buttered rye toast, radishes, pickled mustard seed, and caraway jus. She has always liked salmon, but it’s touchy for Zach so he is a better judge of quality. He tried a bite, and was amazed at the light flavor. We both loved the buttery thick flakes, moist and ideally cooked with an excellent crust. The sweet mustard seeds went well with every part of the dish, particularly the rye toast bites. The three styles of cabbage were Brussels sprout leafs – some raw, some shredded and steamed for a bed under the salmon, one fried to garnish, and all pleasing.
Zach’s first entree of seafood was the scallop with black beluga lentils, pork belly, pickled shallots, and harissa. Bacon is a very strong flavor, but it did not overpower the sweetness of the large marshmallow-like scallop that was buttery, tender, and perfectly cooked. It perched on a piece of superbly rendered pork belly. Salty and lightly smoky, it was placed on a portion of tender lentils that balanced the hearty flavor of the pork belly. The two balls of mystery, once we worked up to trying them, were shaved Brussels sprouts, intriguing and enjoyable.
August couldn’t pass up the lamb for her second entree, the meat course. Three types of lamb preparation were served together, each with their own accents. The merguez-style “meatball” was a piquant piece of delicious lamb on its own, but its sweet tomato and mustard seed sauce helped to enhanced the North African-inspired flavor of the meat. The other two types of lamb were stacked, with loin on top of shank. The loin was as rare as it could be, just how August prefers it, and she never before thought that hazelnut would pair so beautifully with lamb. A half of a hazelnut was the simple addition to the loin, while the shank, fork tender and braised just right, nestled in a spoonful of hazelnut puree which was in turn surrounded by a red wine sauce. This is the kind of recipe she’ll be dropping hints about for her birthday dinner a few months away.
Zach’s third course meat choice was the filet mignon. Like August’s shank, the filet was fork tender and cooked to his desired temperature, resulting in a juicy and succulent example of proper cooking techniques. Its deep sauce was extremely indulgent with notes of red wine amidst the rich beef flavor. The bed of mushrooms benefited from the intense sauce, as well, while adding their own delightful texture to the course. Topped with a whole lobster claw medallion, this was “the best take I’ve had on surf and turf ever,” says Zach. The lobster truffled mac & cheese would have made all diners’ eyes roll back if it were served at January’s Napa Truffle Festival, with little bits of lobster and a strong truffle flavor throughout. The brioche was formed like a miniature cauldron, all the way down to tiny feet and a lid, with the creamiest of mac & cheese waiting inside. No one would judge if you wanted to pick up the cauldron and devour the whole thing.
Our fourth course included a few cheeses that we had never tasted before. Top right on the tray was petite basque, shaved thinly into a flower and very creamy. To the left of that was a dry jack, mild in flavor, just like its aged goat cheese neighbor in the top left. The jar of honeyed raisins, almonds, and pistachios were delicate but did little to help balance the most intensely flavored and textured blue cheese ever, caveman blue cheese (bottom left), nor the egg-tasting cheese of Normandy in the bottom right. A triple cream cheese from Burgundy got its own little bowl. It was like brie but salty and peppery, an excellent spread on a slice of apricot almond bread with a bit of apple.
A souffle requires extra preparation time, so it is requested that any be ordered at the beginning of the meal. Chocolate is divine and typical, but amaretto is something different, so August chose the latter. Dusted with powdered sugar to form a negative of a fleur de lis, it collapsed in the center when our server added a fine almond-thyme anglaise. Light, spongy, and creamy, this was one of the best souffles we’ve tried. With a bar of apricot ice cream true to the natural flavor, August surprised herself at thoroughly enjoying (and demolishing!) a non-chocolate dessert.
Zach typically doesn’t choose chocolate, but this dessert was distinct with marshmallow, coconut, pink grapefruit terrine, and baconed ice cream (yes indeed!). The crisp and light tart crust held layers of marshmallow and chocolate with pistachios scattered in. The chocolate was almost fudge-like, dense but soft. The marshmallow was so creamy, it turned out like mousse. Coconut, like the cucumber in gazpacho, has the potential to be overpowering, but here it was not; hats off to the pastry chef for achieving such balance. The ice cream was smooth and creamy with a milk chocolate base and mild bacon essence. Trust us, the flavor combination works and if you haven’t seen it yet in your area, look out because it’s gaining popularity.
Surprised and delighted we were, of course, with an additional bonus plate. We tasted fine miniature pastries like raspberry tart and chocolate caramel tart petit fours, and the tiniest of sweet, delicate madeleines with a chocolate dip on the side. August’s favorite was a ball of ganache rolled in crushed nuts (at some single-digit age, she had declared her favorite food to be ganache).
The most popular dessert that we saw being served around the establishment was the “fleurburger,” and one somehow made its way to our table! If you like miniatures, and if you like food representing other foods, this is one of the most chimerical “burgers” you’ll ever find. The bun was a donut-like beignet coated in fine sugar, the patty was made from spiced dark chocolate, and strawberry slices replaced the tomato. The “fries” were actually sticks of fennel ice cream. Like a classic burger combo, it came with a shake – clearly miniature, but banana flavored to go with all the other fruits used on this plate.
Marcus, the sommelier and manager, was affable, knowledgeable, and so easy to relate to. An excellent manager knows how to make the guests feel like family. We and our neighboring table enjoyed small talk with him about this restaurant and others, but it’s hard to compare to what Chef Keller has masterminded here. We hope to come back again sooner than later – if Zach doesn’t get together the lamb and hazelnut recipe for August by her birthday, you know where we will be then!
For four days in May, Las Vegas buzzes with food excitement more so than it already does through the rest of the year. Vegas Uncork’d is a series of events put on by Las Vegas’s finest chefs and restaurants and hosted by Bon Appetit, with the goal of showcasing top food, wine, and spirits. We came into town this afternoon for the first of three individual events that we’ll attend between now and Saturday. Caesar’s Palace was the natural choice for the location of tonight’s dinner, since the five-course meal was put on by François Payard in his own restaurant inside the resort casino.
Being our first time at Vegas Uncork’d, we didn’t know that schwag would be part of the meal. We were excited to find these boxes of chocolates from the master himself awaiting us at our table settings.
A quenelle is essentially a meat cake. It can be made with creamed fish, chicken, or red meat, combined with egg binding and sometimes breadcrumbs. Tonight we each had a pike quenelle in truffled lobster bisque. The quenelle had a smooth and velvety texture, slightly buttery in flavor and not overwhelmingly fishy; strong fish flavor is the result of losing freshness, so we appreciate that landlocked Las Vegas serves seafood of the caliber of coastal areas, indicating its quality. What August liked about the bisque was that it was true to the unadulterated lobster flavor – not overcompensatingly sweet, and not so maritime briny, either. The truffle provided a pleasant aftertaste, as well.
The sole was flaky and moist, drizzled with a caper herb butter sauce which was balanced enough to allow the fish to still be the main feature of the plate. It was served with saffron potatoes, thick yet fork-tender, dense while al dente. We just wish there were a couple more pieces because they were so simple, but delectable. The orange streak was a mousse of carrot and ginger. There was a mild spicy bite from the ginger, blending with the sweet earthiness of the carrot. It was a palate cleanser for those who were more adverse to the fish flavor, but that’s not us. We love fish, and found that the mousse enhanced the sole when eaten in the same bite.
Thank you, Chef Payard, for having domestic lamb! It makes a big difference for August, morally and flavor-wise, since her Basque great-grandfather and grandfather were sheepherders and therefore through her family she recognizes quality lamb. It was extremely tender and buttery, a wonderful texture for rare meat, with the added bonus of a pistachio crust. The seasonal vegetables under and around the lamb included white asparagus, fava beans, scallions, and yellow carrots plus a bit of summer truffle. The white asparagus was crunchy, unlike the jarred and marinated kind that August is used to. The mint jus pool was very robust and enjoyable, when usually she refuses mint with lamb.
“Hot coconut rum foam & pineapple-mango-passion fruit syrup” delighted us, and got all the tables talking to one another. August has always hated coconut and loved pineapple, mango, and passion fruit but this time she liked the coconut, too! Sipping this was like taking our palate on a tiny trip to French Polynesia.
Roasting a pear caramelizes the natural fruit sugars, which mellows the tartness yet brings out more of the true pear flavor. It sat on a moist almond dacquoise, which in turn was atop a super flaky bescuit base. A dollop of Mexican vanilla bean ice cream perched on its own mini dacquoise. Caramelized pecans sat amidst a warm maple syrup. Delicious throughout, and not at all heavy.
We can’t forget that this was also a wine pairing dinner. From left to right, pre-dinner started with a nice prosecco. With the quenelles we had Copain, Viognier, Tous Ensemble, Mendocino County 2009. The sole was served with Domaine Philippe Plantevin, Côtes du Rhône Blanc, 2009. Red wine is a must for lamb, and the Domaine Santa Duc, Gigondas, Rhone Valley 2009 was excellent. For dessert we got Presidential, Tawny 20 Year Old Port.
We thought that the chocolates were a wonderful surprise, but we had no idea that we also got signed cookbooks from Chef Payard, Chocolate Epiphany and Simply Sensational Desserts. We are so happy to have these in our collection, and Zach can’t wait to start going through the recipes!
The staff at Payard was extremely accommodating and knowledgeable. We appreciated the attention and information from Sam Berkley and Michele Re. Chef Payard came out with each course to chat with all the diners, and we all had an enlightening time talking with him, for he is very passionate, thoughtful, and articulate. Quality in detail, ingredients, and presentation usually is found at a high price, but Chef Payard is realistic and his main goal is for his guests’ palates, appetites, pocketbooks, and hearts to all be beyond satisfied.