This article was also published in the Financial Times.
It was to be a demanding if pleasurable finale to our trip: dinners booked on successive nights at The French Laundry in Yountville, currently America's most respected restaurant; Cyrus in Healdsburg 30 miles to the north, which many northern Californians rate just a notch below it; and finally, back in San Francisco, at Quince. As it turned out, our last meal was not only the best value but also the best.
A 6.30pm reservation at The French Laundry meant that it could not have got off to a better start as we were able to wait for our friends in the welcome shade of its garden and listen to the birdsong. The restaurant's interior is, by contrast, much darker and the alcove on the ground floor in which our table was located felt somewhat pokey even if the sloping floor, which dates back to the building's origin as a laundry, adds a touch of history.
We decided to put ourselves in the kitchen's hands not fully realising that when we agreed to this at 6.45pm we would be letting ourselves in for a fifteen-course marathon (at US$ 300 per person for the food alone) which would finally see us rise from the table at 11.15pm without indulging in coffee or petits fours. But by this stage I had come to the conclusion that it must have been a long time since Thomas Keller, the chef/proprietor, or his head chef (and I know that neither Keller nor his head pastry chef were cooking that night) had sat down and put themselves in their customer's shoes. Had he done so he might have left as disappointed as me.
Before anyone believes that I may have a personal grudge against Keller after my criticism of the poor meal I ate at Per Se in New York a few years ago, let me say that I love the sound of Keller's Ad Hoc in Yountville, and I felt the standard of cooking at the Laundry (as the locals call it) was much, much higher than in New York and that there were none of the unnecessary interruptions by the waiting staff to disrupt our conversation. Although the reverential nature of the service at the Laundry, in which every glass seemed to be laid down as though it were part of a religious ceremony, did begin to grate early on.
There were three other distinct areas in which this meal failed to justify its reputation. The first was in the service of two different sorbets, one at the beginning of the meal and the other as course 13, both of which seemed dated. The second was the serving of three different fish courses, sauteed blue fin tuna (slightly overcooked in my instance), an Australian rock lobster tail cooked in butter, and finally a New Bedford scallop. Were these really necessary other than to justify the price? Then there was the juxtaposition of a very rich stick of foie gras followed by another of some equally fatty Japanese kuroge beef. Each was exceptional in their own way but both together served only to emphasise the marathon nature of the experience. They certainly called for some freshness and acidity in the desserts but sadly none came. Instead we were served only their interpretation of vanilla doughnuts and chocolate with mint ice cream.
At this level, I believe, any customer is paying for careful editing as much as the precision of the execution of some of the best ingredients money can buy. But sadly this vital aspect of a meal where the kitchen is in complete charge of what is being served was conspicuously absent.
Our meal at Cyrus got off to a much jollier start with warm and enthusiastic staff in a room with a series of arched ceilings. With neither a birthday nor an anniversary to celebrate, we decided to pass on two of their trolleys, one full of champagne and the other of various tins of caviar, to concentrate instead on what the kitchen could demonstrate.
But although initially the amuses bouches which the kitchen sent out, and an appetizer of a chilled cucumber soup with a smear of soy based reduction, revealed that there is plenty of culinary skill lurking there, the menu had been written in a way that simply failed to excite me. Of the six main courses there was only one, a soft shell crab shipped from the East Coast, which I felt I could not easily have attempted at home. Loin of lamb with cranberry beans; a fillet of sea bass with sweetcorn; beef with gnocchi (at an extra US$17); and poussin with potato puree - all these seemed rather prosaic. And the presentation of the crab - on top of noodles around which a broth was poured thereby neutralising its crispness - seemed odd indeed.
I had hoped to put their pastry section to the test but it was not possible to choose something light or reflecting the abundant fruit currently available in California as the restaurant offers only compilation desserts under such headings as 'tart and tangy' (although this did include something with Guinness). Here and at The French Laundry expensively wrapped chocolates to take away appeared along with the bill.
Until the bill arrived at Quince, our meal had evinced only two small areas of disappointment: the lighting is too dim, as in so many of this city's restaurants, as though Prohibition has still not ended, and our waitress was a little less joyous than the food she served.
Quince belongs to Michael and Lindsay Tusk, who have created this atmospheric, romantic corner site from what was originally built as an apothecary, before subsequently being converted into a private home and, finally, into a distinctly non-flashy restaurant.
Michael Tusk has composed a menu that manages to be stimulating without sounding silly. It includes a number of ingredients that are just in season and describes them simply and accurately. He is fortunate to have found in Christie Dufault a knowledgeable and hard working wine director who has obviously toured the byways of California to seek out some of its smaller, up and coming wineries. We drank with great pleasure a Breggo Chardonnay and a Liocco Pinot Noir, both 2006s from the cool Anderson Valley, north of Sonoma.
Everything we ate was first class. A tartare of halibut incorporated local melon surprisingly well. Squash blossoms were stuffed with smoked mozzarella. Small, crisp patties of oxtail with chanterelle mushrooms were equally good. Then the pasta course, for which Tusk is renowned in the city, included reginette with squid, green beans and pesto, salt cod ravioli and cappelletti with summer truffles. And finally, the main courses combined creativity with great flavours: a squab baked in sea salt with peas and morels, a duck breast with white peaches and turnips and sockeye salmon with spinach, carrots and an orange-prosecco sauce. Tusk's desserts are good, too.
All this good food and wine had perhaps mellowed me too much because as soon as the bill, which came to US$580 for five including wines and service, arrived I suggested that rather than share it equally we play spoof (a harmless game involving coins, details available on request) for it with the loser paying the lot.
Predictably, as the person who introduced the game to the rest of the table, I was the one who lost.
The French Laundry, www.frenchlaundry.com,