Lapping up luxury while dining at Calif. restaurant

March 22, 2006|By ROB KASPER

Like a lot of folks, I behave differently when I get out of town. At home I shop for sale items, always carry the grocery-store discount card, and generally pinch pennies.

Once I have flown the coop, however, I loosen up. Recently, while visiting California's Napa Valley, I treated myself and my wife to a nine-course, 3 1/2 -hour evening of gastronomic pleasure at the French Laundry in Yountville.

The nation's dining cognoscenti rate this spot and chef Thomas Keller's New York establishment, Per Se, as among America's top-drawer restaurants. No quarrel here. From the opening dish, a frothy, blissful union of tapioca, oysters and caviar, to the finale - a caramel mousse wrapped in butterscotch - the evening was a marvel of dazzling dishes and clean flavors.

It was also expensive: $210 per person, without wine and taxes. That comes out to about $23 per dish. I did the math early in the evening, when I was trying to justify the outlay. I kept reminding myself that this meal was a combination birthday and 35th wedding anniversary present, as well as an early celebration of St. Patrick's Day and a belated acknowledgment of Defenders' Day. My tightwad roots remain strong.

By later in the evening, once I had loosened up and smelled the zinfandel - a 2004 Ridge Lytton Springs - I had stopped counting and was simply enjoying.

The night, filled with high expectations, began poorly. The restaurant fills a two-story house, and we were seated in a small, upstairs room that was already occupied by a foursome.

This foursome was presided over by an older woman who was giving a loud and graphic description of her hospital stays. After listening to her medical history for 15 minutes, I asked to be moved.

I had endured the difficult process of getting a reservation - phoning two months in advance, confirming a few days before the meal. Because there are only about 16 tables in the restaurant, I thought moving might present a problem.

But the staff handled the change in tables with aplomb, never asking why, simply accommodating me. Within minutes, we had a table in the main dining room. From that point on, the evening took flight.

Courses arrived in a smooth, well-paced procession. While the portions were small, the flavors were large. Roasted hearts of Hawaiian peach palm were dressed in a delicate vinaigrette made with vanilla beans.

Crisp St. Peter's fish perched on fava beans bathed in a Meyer-lemon emulsion. Tenderloin of rabbit displayed surprisingly sweet notes of smoked applewood. A serving of luscious lamb, as red as a glass of wine, split in two at the simple tension of a fork. Tripe Provencale, a first-time venture for me, proved to be tender and laced with tomatoes.

Throughout the meal, staff members appeared at the right moments, gently offering wine advice - glasses of Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs to start, followed by a glass of Huet Vouvray Clos du Bourg Demi-Sec 2002, then the half-bottle of the Ridge zinfandel, a chef Keller favorite, to finish the meal. We felt taken care of.

The wait staff also knew what went on in the kitchen. How, I wanted to know, did the flecks of nicoise olives in the white verjus granite (a fancy relative of sherbet) end up tasting sweet? Without a moment's hesitation, a waiter told me the olives are dehydrated, then sweetened. But of course.

My wife and I left the French Laundry feeling not just full, but uplifted. We couldn't afford to eat this way often - say, just once every 35 years. But it was the stuff that memories (and credit-card debt) are made of.

The meal was inspiring, too. I wanted to cook like that. So when I got back to Baltimore, I tried to re-create the fish course, sorta.

I cracked open Bouchon, one of two door-stopping-size cookbooks written by Keller. I found a recipe for pan-seared sole, which somewhat resembled the fillet of St. Peter's fish (also known as John Dory) served to us at the French Laundry. The idea behind both dishes is to give a piece of fish a delicate crust by searing it in a skillet. Then the fish is finished in the oven.

I made a few adjustments. Keller, for instance, called for Dover sole in his recipe, but said flounder was an acceptable substitute. Not only did I use the cheaper flounder; I also bought fillets instead of the whole fish he recommended.

My sear came up short. My flounder did not have the sharp crunch that the St. Peter's fish did. Yet the flounder did deliver pristine flavor. Moreover, the potatoes served with it - boiled in flavored water, then browned in butter - were terrific.

I would make the dish again, but next time I would use less oil and more heat. Which proves, I guess, that the journey to the crusty mountaintop of cuisine is paved with a thousand so-so sears.

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Pan-Seared Flounder With Potatoes and Parsley-Lemon Butter

Serves 2 to 4

6 redskin potatoes (about 3 1/2 to 4 inches long)

1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns

2 thyme sprigs

1 bay leaf

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