The occasion for this banquet of luxuries was a celebratory dinner at La Folie for me, my parents, my beloved ex-piano teacher, Lois (who shares an April birthday with my mother), and Lois' husband, Ernst. Lois and Ernst were part of the party not only due to the natal coincidence, but also because they'd dined at La Folie before, which I hadn't, and could comment on the brand-new décor.
"It's so different I don't recognize it," Lois said after we tucked into a corner booth. Being so close to the opening of the kitchen resulted in a constant parade of the many servers fanning out into the big room, bearing their culinary burdens, a parade that sometimes became a bottleneck. "It seemed much more cramped before, and there were clown motifs, more expressive of folie ['madness']. It's so monotone now; I'm not sure if I like it." I liked it, although it did seem all one color (which I decided could be called oxblood, after discarding burgundy and rust), largely from the effect of the long draperies, on walls as well as windows, which also emphasized the height of the room. (The harlequin motif survives on some of the china.)
Our server was patient with us as we took our time perusing the lengthy, enticing menu. The left side offered two prix fixe options. The first was a vegetarian menu, the $60 Menu Jardinière, which included roasted butternut squash soup with orange-scented Swiss chard ravioli; a mille-feuille of roasted beets and goat cheese; and an eclectic trio of potato, leek, and wild mushroom cannelloni, squash, eggplant, polenta, and tomato lasagna, and roasted Vidalia onion with a curry couscous. The second was the five-course Menu L'Aventure, for $85, with such adventuresome ingredients as frog's legs, bone marrow, monkfish liver, pig's feet, and rabbit.
The right side offered five courses: soups and salads, appetizers, fish and shellfish, poultry and meat, and desserts and cheeses, each presenting between four (for fish and shellfish) and seven (soups and salads) choices. From these you can assemble your own three-course ($60), four-course ($75), or five-course menu ($85). It took a lot of horse-trading to pull together satisfactory meals for every one of us, with as little duplication as possible. In the meantime we ordered a modestly priced bottle of a Mendocino County wine, Londer Gewürztraminer, full of fruit though advertised as dry, which happily arrived and was poured, for once, before the amuse-bouche; also happily, it was perfect for the gift, a tray bearing a pickled oyster on the half-shell and a tiny cocktail glass containing a ginger-topped tartare of dorade atop a delicious Meyer lemon gelee. When my father indicated that he didn't want a fish course, it was whisked away and replaced with a thin but well-flavored potato and leek soup in an eggshell decorated with minced chives, accompanied by a tiny truffled manchego fritter that elicited appreciative moans from the two people who managed to share it with him. (He kept the even smaller potato chip the fritter was decorated with to himself.)
With the amuse, which dazzled me with its bright and complementary flavors, chef Roland Passot had announced both his labor-intensive style and his lofty ambitions. I felt we were in masterful hands. And I was very, very happy with my first course -- a ring of plump, juicy sautéed frog's legs set around a target of snowy garlic purée and bright-green parsley coulis -- the dish named for its inspiration, the late French chef Bernard Loiseau. Aside from my frog's legs, the table was awash in soup. A lovely, grassy-tasting parsley and garlic soup didn't seem to gain much from its ragout of snails and shiitake mushrooms, slipped under a slightly coy decoration made from a carefully poached and peeled tomato half, dotted with bits of vegetation to mimic a ladybug in a garden. The taste of the truffled day boat scallop ravioli didn't quite make sense to me in its pond of silky foie gras broth, which also bore a seductive, rare collop of foie gras, which did deepen its flavor. I was the lone dissenter about my father's butternut squash soup with a duck and sage ravioli, chosen at the last minute because the rest of us had opted for three savory courses: I found it too sweet, but others exclaimed over it with pleasure. The dramatic presentations of the soups (a server lifted the domed cover of each deep white bowl to reveal its individual garnish, then carefully poured the soup atop it, at table) reminded me that restaurant-as-theater can be literal as well as metaphoric.
A server also poured hot broth over one of the largest lobes of seared foie gras I've ever seen, well worth its $10 supplemental price (over and above the prix fixe), perched on a round of caramelized pineapple. The muscat broth was perfumed with star anise and vanilla. Again I found the combination a trifle too sweet, but the fruit and aromatics didn't obscure the exquisite velvety flesh and earthy flavor of the foie, and provided a counterpart to what otherwise would have been unrelieved richness. It was the simplest of our second courses, and my favorite among them. I did love the unexpected and original apple gelee under the towering Dungeness crab napoleon, wittily layered with crispy pineapple chips, which added a level of taste and texture and echoed the lemon gelee in the amuse. But the blood oranges, shiso leaves, scallions, carrots, and toasted almonds that turned the butter-poached lobster into a salad seemed conventional and a little ladies-who-lunch. The multilayered mille-feuille of roasted organic beets and goat cheese with toasted walnuts and a sherry vinaigrette was beautifully plated, but familiar in flavor and intent.
I was a little perplexed by the second dish, which I'd chosen from the Menu L'Aventure: It was described as a warm terrine of pig's feet, sweetbreads, and lobster, but what I got was a nicely crusted patty, the shredded meat loosely formed around a single knot of lobster that didn't quite seem to know what it was doing in the midst of such fattiness, the whole set on a heartily flavored mirepoix of lentils, carrots, and bacon, under a topknot of greens in a hazelnut vinaigrette. So much labor and thought had gone into this presentation that I felt guilty that I didn't enjoy it as much as I would have enjoyed a chunk of pork belly.
But I ate enough of it and the previous courses to be full, so I was a little dismayed when my assiette de boeuf arrived, a trio of Painted Hills beef tenderloin on wilted Swiss chard with a truffled Madeira sauce, braised short rib of beef on a strip of roasted carrot, and a doll-sized burger Rossini, the Rossini referencing, yes, foie gras worked into the tiny patty, whose miniature bun also enclosed a slice of cherry tomato and a shred of lettuce. I blamed myself: I'd made the same mistake years ago in Paris at both the Tour d'Argent and Chez Garin, dismissing the servers' suggestions for a simple dish such as sautéed peaches for a more labor-intensive and rich one such as a peach soufflé with crème anglaise -- and ruing the day. My father, who'd had the squash soup and the beet salad, was in good shape to tackle his enormous lobe of veal sweetbread, somewhat wackily perched on a circle of upright logs of salsify and topped with strips of celery heart, a construction that begged to be toppled. And Ernst ate every morsel of his crispy-skinned black bass with truffled gnocchi, wild mushrooms, and a slightly sticky jus de poulet, from a bird that must have been cooked expressly for this dish (the menu daringly offers neither chicken nor salmon), after his parsley-garlic soup and refreshing, crunchy crab napoleon. Lois had also chosen the sweetbreads, because we feared that the four of us, who all love the innards, would have descended on my father's plate and left little for him, but there would have been plenty to go around with just one plate. My favorite dish was the beautiful rôti of quail and squab chosen by my mother, the quail sided by a little truffled pancake capped with a sunny-side-up quail egg (an adorable fillip that we could have eaten several more of), the squab sliced to display its layers: crisp circlets of potatoes, lacquerlike skin, chocolaty and faintly gamy meat, both light and dark, around a mushroom stuffing. Delicious. The celebratory bottle of 1988 Louis Latour Chambolle-Musigny that my father had brought slipped down our throats like silk. (Corkage is $35.)
The entremet, a gift of vanilla-scented champagne sorbet in silver-footed blue glass goblets, that followed seemed superfluous, but did allow us to catch our breaths. We'd booked early, but neither the staff nor we were troubled that we'd staked out our table for the entire night, as the clock ticked past the third hour.
My mother loved her "le coco et la passion" dessert, coconut tapioca with passion fruit sorbet, a basil infusion, and a coconut tuile cookie, but it paled against my memory of the first time I tasted a similar dish, created by Claudia Fleming at the Gramercy Tavern in New York City. My own choice, called the egg variation, included three desserts; it scored with two of them, a white chocolate mousse accented with orange and served in an eggshell and a miniature ring of coconut panna cotta topped with a minuscule dome of mango jelly, but the third, a chewy square of "floating island" (normally a light meringue on custard), missed the airy point of its namesake, and its teaspoon-sized trickle of eggnog was too scant to add much flavor. Lois' choice -- a fat, warm roasted apple stuffed with crème brûlée and served with a couple of spicy, gingerbready cookies -- was the simplest and most satisfying sweet. My tastes were exactly suited to the brave all-French, all-pungent cheese course, which included Livarot and a triple-crème.
We could do little more than sample the assortment of friandises, a plate of little treats, that arrived: pâte de fruits, madeleines, tiny wedges of jam layer cake, and chocolates.
The next day we got news not only about the new food pyramid and the weight study, but also about a London magazine that had revealed its annual list of the 50 best restaurants in the world (suspiciously Anglocentric, although it insists that its 600-member panel is international in scope). On the list the experimental cuisine of Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck, in Bray, England, had toppled the French Laundry from its two-year perch at the top. Blumenthal, described as the guru of molecular gastronomy, creates dishes such as sardine on toast sorbet, bacon and egg ice cream, and snail porridge. I logged onto the Fat Duck Web site, and as I read it, I felt a familiar sensation creep over me. Despite the previous night's debauch, I was hungry again. I went into the kitchen and tore into the remnants of my beef three ways. It was so good.