Monday, May 21, 2012

Group Dinner @ Fleur De Lys

For a team bonding event at work, I organized a group dinner at Fleur de Lys, Hubert Keller's flagship Michelin starred restaurant in San Francisco.  I had never been before, but one of my dining companions has often told me that it is his favorite restaurant in the city, and when I found that they could fall within our budget, I was immediately sold.  The menu consisted of 3 courses, for $80 (normally $72 if not doing a group event).  They also offer 4 or 5 course options, for $82 and $95, respectively.  Given the two amuse bouches and generous mignardises, this is a fairly good price.

With any group event, you certainly don't get the same experience as dining in the restaurant as a smaller party, but Fleur de Lys did a good job at the group experience.  The staff were really easy to work with to arrange the event.

We had 24 people, and a single main server.  She was pretty busy throughout the evening, but was attentive enough. There were additional servers who helped bring out the food, kept our water glasses filled, and brought out the bread.  The dishes were presented with very minimal explanation, which, given the number of components on the plates, was a little annoying.  I wanted to know more details, and when I asked for them, was still only given partial explanations.  The staff also didn't seem interested in telling me these things.  I think they were just very busy and flustered.

I had to set a fixed menu in advance, with only two appetizer choices, a few entree choices, and no dessert choices.  However, I was able to have considerable input into the menu options, and although my very top choices weren't available for the group, my second tier of choices all were.  They also offerred a vegetarian menu, and were able to handle assorted allergies, substituting out dishes as necessary.

We worked with the sommelier in advance to come up with wine pairings, which were fabulous.  They have some very nice wines to offer!  I also really appreciated their respect of our budget.  We needed to spend about half of what they normally charge for a regular wine pairing, and thus we opted to just purchase some bottles to go with each course.  As we approached our limit, they let me know, and asked for guidance on how to proceed.  They also saw that we were consuming a lot of wine at the start while we were waiting for our first dishes, and stopped refilling glasses quite as quickly to pace us, so we didn't hit our budget before the mains arrived.

The meal started off very slowly.  I was actually surprised at how long it took for any food to arrive, not even bread or an amuse bouche.  Once it started arriving, pacing was good, fairly fast actually, and things moved right along.  I'm not really sure why it took so long to get started, perhaps they are used to groups ordering cocktails and not wanting to start eating right away?

For several in our party, this was one of very few fine dining experiences.  It was cute to see their confusion when the amuse bouches arrived, as they didn't understand why dishes they didn't order were appearing before them :)

Overall, the food was all very good, but not particularly memorable other than the downright adorable plating and whimsy to the dishes.  I probably wouldn't order any of these dishes again, but, they also weren't my first choices to begin with.  That said, the execution level was very impressive for group dining, with the food arriving fairly simultaneously, and all the correct temperatures.  Certainly one of the better large group dining experiences that I've had.  If they can do a group this well, I'm pretty confident that their regular service must be great, and I plan to return before July 1, so I can try out the foie gras dishes that they are known for!
Amuse Bouche #1: quinoa salad and cappuccino.
The first amuse bouche was described as a "cappuccino", paired with a bite sized salad, both cold dishes.

The cappuccino was made from a piquillo pepper gazpacho, topped with parsley mousse.  It was served with a straw.  I did not enjoy my first few sips of it through the straw, as only the gazpacho came through.  The gazpacho, although light and refreshing, had a very strong pepper flavor, that was just too much on its own.   However, the mousse complimented it very well, and mixing some into the gazpacho mellowed out the flavor quite a bit.  The mousse itself was really creamy and delicious.  I really enjoyed the experience of consuming this, alternating between drinking through the straw and using the straw to just scoop some of the mousse into my mouth, like I would with a milkshake topped with whipped cream.  In fact, this was much more milkshake like than cappuccino, I'm not really sure why they called it a cappuccino, as the mousse was far to thick to simulate frothed milk, and more closely resembled whipped cream.

The quinoa salad was topped with smoked chorizo and a dot of aji amarillo.  It had a decent earthyness to it, but it really was just a generic bite of quinoa salad that could come from just about anywhere.  The most boring dish we'd see all night, by far.

Both components were plated in vessels perched upon cucumber slices.  I don't think we were intended to eat them, but it seemed strange to have edible garnish that we wouldn't eat.  Sort of the opposite of the more common problem of having inedible garnish.

This amuse was a good foreshadower of the meal to come: it would be filled with multi-component dishes, cute plating, and some whimsy.
Baguette, fruit and nut bread.
The bread service was a little strange.  Rather than being asked what we wanted, 4 slices of bread were just put on our plates, 2 each of baguette and a bread filled with fruit and nuts.  I would have asked for only one slice and skipped the baguette.  This seemed pretty wasteful.

The baguette was just a generic, standard baguette.

The non-baguette bread was hearty, soft, with a nice chew to it.  Mine had some full chunks of nut, I think macadamia, and some dried fruit, I think apricot.  This bread varied substantially from person to person however.  I'm not sure if they were actually serving different bread, or if the ingredients were just not well distributed, as some of us had a lot of fruit and nuts, and others didn't.  It also seemed like there were different fruits and nuts in different slices.  Anyway, I liked this bread, but it wasn't spectacular.
Butter, salt on the side.
The butter plates were placed on the table in front of us, and I inquired about what type of butter it was.  The server looked at me like I had 10 heads and didn't say anything.  I asked again, "Is this cow's milk butter? Are they both the same?"  And he again just stared at me, finally saying, "It is butter.  For the bread".  Was it that strange to ask about this?  Often when there are two butters provided, they are different!

Anyway, it was good quality butter, and the salt on the side was really flavorful.  I appreciated it done this way, rather than the little vat of salt that places sometimes bring and you wonder if others have dipped their fingers into it before ...
Amuse Bouche #2: Spinach and parmesan gratin.
A second amuse bouche arrived, a warm gratin.

The cheesy spinach layer was topped with an additional cheesy layer and toasted pumpkin seeds.  The spinach was really mushy and somewhat off putting, almost a puree, although I don't think it was supposed to be.  It seemed very overcooked.  The cheese layer was creamy and was just too much additional cheese.  I didn't like this at all.

The tiny little gratin dish was adorable.  I really enjoyed all of the miniature serving dishes they used throughout the meal!
SYMPHONY OF: Petite caesar salad, foie gras lollipop, smoked duck crostini, parmesan mousse, and tuna fondant with caviar.
I LOVED the sound of this appetizer.  So many amazing components, on one plate!

The caesar salad was nothing notable.  The romain lettuce was crisp and fresh enough, but it was just lettuce.  The dressing was fairly standard caesar dressing, somewhat lacking in anchovy flavor.  It was topped with fried spaetzle, again showing the chef's creative and playful side.  They were crunchy, tasty little bits, and far more interesting than standard croutons.  But overall, just a standard caesar salad.

The foie gras lollipop was the element of the meal I was most looking forward to, given my love of foie.  It was indeed the highlight of the appetizers.  Creamy, with a good foie flavor.  Topped with a tiny bit of grainy mustard and served on top of red cabbage.  I didn't understand the cabbage at all.

I'm not sure what the smear of orange sauce was, apricot perhaps?

The smoked duck crostini was a small slice of bread, topped with the smoked duck, topped with mozzarella, and apricot.  The duck had a really good smoked flavor, but was very chewy, and just really not my thing.

The next component was one not mentioned in the menu description, a parmesan mousse.  It was very creamy, very intensely parmesan flavored.  It was really strange to eat on its own, kinda just too much parmesan.  I realize in retrospect that perhaps it should have been combined with the caesar salad, as caesar salad normally has parmesan, and was lacking that entirely, and this item wasn't listed on the menu.  Hmmm.  I wish I'd thought of combining this at the time!  Or perhaps spreading it on some bread?  I didn't enjoy it much as it was, but I think there was potential here.

The tuna fondant was really fluffy and had a nice tuna flavor.  The caviar on top added a good saltiness and of couse some texture.    My second favorite dish on the plate.  I wonder how it would have also combined with the caesar, perhaps bringing in a fishy flavor that seemed missing.

Overall, this was cute, playful, full of different textures, and I enjoyed getting to have so many assorted bites, but besides the foie gras, nothing here was that fantastic.  I think I may have just missed the potential in combining things in winning ways however.

Both appetizer choices were paired with a really lovely Riesling.  It was sweet, but nicely balanced.  I really, really liked this wine.
CHILLED DUNGENESS CRAB SALAD: With shavings of young vegetables, lobster infused vinaigrette, and lobster fondant with caviar.
This was my neighbor's dish, and he graciously let me try some of it.

Yes, this was a crab salad.  What, you can't see the crab?  It was hiding under the bed of frisee and assorted shaved vegetables.  It came with a little dressing on it, but a cup of additional vinaigrette was provided to allow the diner to add as much as he or she wanted.  It was a very light and refreshing salad.  The frisee almost seemed too bitter to pair with the delicate, sweet crab however, as it was all you tasted.

There were also some slices of beet, perched atop goat cheese.

The lobster fondant was similar to the tuna fondant in my dish.  It was a surprisingly light mousse, with a really strong lobster flavor.  It was also topped with caviar, which again provided a fun pop and saltiness.

Another well designed dish, but it wasn't as interesting as it sounded.  I preferred my appetizer.
LOCAL PETRALE SOLE: Dungeness crab, sea urchin and caviar, olive oil potato purée, toasted bacon brioche.
This was my main dish.  This is normally an appetizer on the menu, but I really wanted this as an option, and for group dining they couldn't have it as an appetizer, but offered to scale it up and do it as an entree instead.  I'm guessing that it normally just has half of this plate.  But a chance to have even more crab and urchin?  Sounds good to me!

There was a lot going on here.  The bottom layer was the olive oil potato puree, then the sole, then a chunk of crab, then a chunk of sea urchin, then some caviar.  It was surrounded by a lobster and uni bisque that was poured on tableside.  Also on the plate were some chunks of mushroom and a pepper sauce.  And it came with a bacon brioche.  Wowzer.  And I thought the "Symphony" was made up of power house ingredients, how often do you get a few of my favorite things, crab, urchin, caviar, lobster, and a nice fish, all in one dish?

The sole was nicely cooked, flaky, moist, with a good texture.  It had a decent flavor.  Nothing particularly exciting, but a well done piece of white fish.

The crab on top was fine, but not particularly memorable.  It was cold, which I think was by design.

The urchin was creamy, with a good briny flavor.  It wasn't quite on par with some uni I've had lately at sushi restaurants, but it was good enough.

The caviar was more of the same caviar we'd had in the appetizers, again, providing saltiness and pop.

This tower of components was all good, but it didn't really sum up to be greater than its parts, which I had hoped for.  It was also a little hard to cut everything up into small enough pieces that you could get a bite that contained all of the elements - sole, crab, urchin, and caviar.

The mushrooms seemed totally and completely unnecessary.  They were just chunks of mushroom and didn't pair particularly well with anything.

The dots of pepper sauce were good.  It was spicy, and I enjoyed dipping the crab into it.

The lobster and urchin bisque was creamy and pretty delicious.  It made for an awesome sauce on the potato puree.

Speaking of that potato puree - it was the highlight of the dish for me.  Yup, a dish made out of insane ingredients that I love, and the POTOTO is the thing I rave about?  It was just awesome.  Smooth, creamy, delicious.  So flavorful from the olive oil.  My tasting notes just say AWESOME in all caps here :)  I could have eaten a whole bowl of this, particularly with the bisque on top.  YUM.

I'm not entirely sure why this came with bacon brioche.  The bread wasn't particularly noteworthy, just some brioche with a subtle bacon flavor.  I'm glad it existed however, because it allowed me to soak up every last drop of the potato puree and the bisque.

Overall, this dish was a bit of a disappointment, because I expected great things given the killer ingredient list.  It was all good, but the only thing I'll really remember is the potato puree.  Which may possibly even beat out the foie gras as the highlight of the meal ...

This was paired with a white wine that I didn't catch the name of.  It was really interesting, served in a large burgundy glass, and it did remind me of a red wine, even though it was white.  Sorry I don't have more details on what it was ...
HAWAIIAN SWORDFISH,  SEED CRUST, POTATO MARBLES & SPECK: Basquaise & pinot sauce with a side of saffron soup.
This was my neighbor's dish.  Again, he nicely let me try some of it.

The swordfish was a fairly thin, small piece.  This dish was substantially smaller than any of the other entrees, I'm not sure why.  The portion of fish alone was smaller than the sole dish, which then had the crab, uni, and bread to go with it, and the other choices included large portions of buffalo, filet mignon, or a trio of lamb.  The swordfish, like the sole, was good, quality fish, cooked well, but not particularly memorable.  Topped with a nice enough caper and pepper sauce.

The potato was very thinly sliced, cooked well so that it wasn't too mushy nor to crisp, but at the end of the day, just potato slices.  Nothing compared to my puree!

We couldn't find any speck in the dish.  Perhaps it was forgotten?  It seems like it would have paired well with the swordfish.

The sauce however, was amazing.  Oh, the french and their sauces.  I couldn't get enough of it.  Once I ran out of potato puree on my plate to lap up, I moved on to soaking up all of this remaining sauce with my bacon brioche.  And then when the brioche ran out, and there was still some sauce, with my baguette that I never thought I'd bother eating.  Had I discovered this sauce earlier in the meal, I would have tried to combine it with my potato puree.  Now THAT would have been amazing.

I did not try the saffron soup, but it was described as being very intensely saffron flavored.

I preferred my dish, but this sauce was pretty spectacular.

This was paired with a pinot, that was pretty complex, with very subtle tanin.

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COFFEE RUBBED BUFFALO STEAK, WITH PICKLED FIGS: Caramelized leeks, espresso and fig red wine sauce, cornbread madeleine.

I didn't get a photo of it, but I also enjoyed some of my other neighbor's dish, the buffalo.  It was tender, nicely cooked, lean buffalo, served already in slices.  The coffee rub and espresso and fig red wine sauce had a really fantastic coffee flavor, mellow yet pronounced at the same time, really quite refined.  Another phenomenal sauce.
FLEURBURGER: Lightly spiced dark chocolate ganache, home-made beignet, banana flavored milk shake & frozen fennel ice cream “Pommes Frites”.
This is their signature dessert.  I didn't actually have very high expectations for this, even given all the rave reviews, as it seemed pretty gimmicky.  I had to admit that it was adorable and pretty amazing looking, but I seriously doubted it would be that good.  For the most part, I was wrong.

The burger had beignets as buns.  The beignet was cold, coated in sugar, and not that great.  I was also still coming down from my amazing donut experience at Cyrus a few days prior, and I think pretty much no donut-like element was possibly going to impress me.  It would have been much better had it been warm and fresh however.

The patty was the chocolate ganache, coated with even more chocolate sauce.  The ganache was creamy, intensely chocolatey, and really quite good.  It was topped with a slice of "cheese", made from passionfruit gelee.

It was fun to pick this up and eat it as a burger, but given that I wasn't loving the beignets, I preferred to just take the ganache out and eat it alone with a fork.

Of course, every burger needs some lettuce, tomato, and onion, so we were provided with a mint leaf, and slices of kumquat and apple to top the burger.  And of course, a kiwi pickle on the side.  These were just standard chunks of fruit, but totally adorable.

The plate also had some dots of strawberry "ketchup".

The cuteness continued with the fennel ice cream french fries, served in an container made from chocolate.  The chocolate was pretty standrad, but I loved the idea of the edible vessel.  The fries were intensely fennel flavored, but I didn't particularly like them.  These components definitely fell more on the gimmicky rather than good side of the spectrum.  I also wasn't sure how I was supposed to eat them.  I picked up the first fry, but it wasn't structurally sound enough to withstand being held like that, and subsequent ones were certainly too melted.

And then there was the banana shake.  It had chocolate and caramel sauce swirled in.  Topped with whipped cream.  And more banana slices.  Oh my gosh this was good.  I never expected to have the best shake of my life at a fancy french restaurant!  (although, this seems to be a trend - a few days earlier I had the best donut of my life at two Michelin starred Cyrus).  I wish you could just order this shake.  It kinda makes me want to check out Burger Bar again, as they have a large menu of shakes (and several dessert burgers too).

Anyway, this dessert was a surprise delight.  The shake was just incredible and the ganache really quite good, although the beignets, fries, and other components were rather mediocre.  But seriously, how ridiculously adorable was it?
Mignardises: madelines with chocolate dipping sauce, fruit tart, hazelnut chocolate truffle, meringue, caramel tart, gingerbread mousse on banana bread.
Each section of table was given a little tray of mignardises.  We had four people sharing this tray, but one doesn't like sweets, and one was full and not really wanting more dessert, so two of us basically got this entire tray.  I'm not complaining :)

The madelines were served warm, rolled in powdered sugar.  They were moist and fine, but I don't really like madelines much.  The chocolate dipping sauce was pretty generic.

I didn't have the fruit tart.

The truffle was good.  Creamy, delicious, smooth chocolate, rolled in hazelnuts.  It tasted like Nutella, but with more texture from the chopped nuts.  Best of the mignardises.

The meringue was a crispy style, filled with chocolate.  It was very sweet and nice enough.  It would have gone well with some coffee or tea.

The caramel tart was a salted caramel.  Gooey, creamy, sweet caramel, nice level of saltiness.  Pretty tasty, and my second favorite of the mignardises.

Finally, there was a gingerbread mousse on a banana bread.  The bread was moist, the mousse had a good ginger flavor, but this was pretty forgettable.
The private dining alcove.
One of our two tables in the semi-private alcove.  The area was at the back of the restaurant, but not separated with hard walls.  A full private room would have been nicer, but this felt fairly secluded, and I actually liked being able to see the rest of the restaurant in action.  We had the maximum number of people (24, 12 at each table), and it was fairly cramped, particularly on the ends.  Our custom menus were printed out and came with a gold Fleur de Lys seal.  So fancy!
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