The (partial) Keller experience...
Sorry if my cat posted this for me while I only had about a paragraph written...
I'm going to get right to the point, then elaborate.
Ad hoc, however, kicked ass.
We didn't go to the French Laundry, partially becuase I couldn't get a reservation, partially becuase we were staying 20 miles away and driving after a tasting menu with wine seemed inadvisable, but also partially because it wasn't the experience that we wanted for this trip, which was to celebrate our first anniversary. My wife hates pretentiousness in restaurants, and the other "high end" meals we've had have just not been something she's enjoyed for the most part so going to a very pretentious very high end restaurant wouldn't have been anything close to what she'd want. But we love french food and bistro type cooking, and I thought that Bouchon would be perfect. I figured it would be a little overdone and a little overpriced, and maybe a little bland, but also figured that the food would trump all. Maybe someday I'll go to the laundry or to per se on an occaison that's all about me like a birthday or something.
Anyway, that being said, on to the reviews.
I love the bouchon cookbook, although I usually mock it while cooking from it. "oh, 14 peppercorns, huh? Not 15, but 14. And 3/16" diamonds, you sure that isn't 11/64"?".
The best way to describe it is: Bouchon is like a Disneyland version of a Paris bistro. There's no there there. It has no soul, no terroir, no character. Almost everything seemed forced, very much a "concept" not a "place". The food itself was competent, but there was no character to it, and it was not at the level that I expected or that the price demands. To be honest, I've had bistro food in Kansas City for less than half the price that blew it away on every level imaginable. The prices at Bouchon go beyond "paying for the experience" into gouging territory. My wife's comment was "this place is geared towards efficiently separating you from your money". Maybe price is not fair to discuss when talking about a celebrity restaurant like this, but I just felt gouged.
We started with some oysters and a sparkling rose. The oysters were absolutely incredible, best oysters I've ever had. This was to be the high point of the meal. And the slope is pretty steep.
Next up was the pate campagne. I suspect that I liked this mostly to be due to how much fat was loaded into it. It was the richest pate I've ever eaten.
Next up, the entrees. Since my wife wanted the halibut, and since it's too summery still for braised anything, I skipped my first choice of entree which was the braised lamb shank special, in lieu of something a bit more summery that would go with our white (a table wine from the Loire if I recall, but I'm not certain. But it was not AOC), so I had the moules frites. The mussels were good, maybe the best mussels I've ever had, but the preparation was nothing special. The fries were good, but not as good as I'd hoped (and if you see my comments below on ad hoc...). I guess the simple preparation of the mussels is the point, but it was uninspired. There were some cherry tomatoes in the dish, and it felt like someone just said "uh, we have extra cherry tomatoes, why don't we throw 'em in here, eh?". They didn't work with the dish, and just seemed weird, and taking them away would have probably improved the dish. My wife's halibut was decently prepared, but a little on the "fishy" side, and it came with a big slice of heirloom tomato that had the texture of one of those plasticy tomatoes you get at the gorcery store in February. And the plating was way too cutesy for bistro food. That tomato more-or-less ruined the meal for us, because quality of ingredients was something we figured would be gospel. A single craptastic tomato punctured the fantasy. I'm not even certain that a perfectly ripe tomato would necessarily have gone with the dish. We also had a side of the corn, based on the review from Carol Blymire at her french laundry at home blog... The corn was indeed delicious. But it didn't really fit on the menu. It was more of a "this is delicious so let's put it on there". And it was, and I guess that's fine with me, but it sort of runs counter to what I understood Keller's philosophy to be.
So yeah. Add in the fact that we were practically sitting on top of the people to either side, that there were flies circling around, and the service that seemed pretty much uninterested, and we're both ready for the meal to be over. We decided to skip the cheese and just have the profiteroles with coffee. Which again, were quite good, but lacking some certain something. The ice cream was surprisingly light in texture, I was expecting butterfat overload. The servers were again, as always, careful to make sure that our plates were oriented perfectly, with the "Bouchon" logo being squared to the diner and legible. I think that was more important to them than the actual service, or the food, etc. etc.
So when it was all said and done, the damage was over $250. If the meal had blown me away as I expected it to, I wouldn't have minded that. But for what we got, and the quality of it and the the atmosphere and everything else, that was pretty much gouging. As I read what I've written, I guess I don't have a gripe with the food as much as the total concept. There were some definite hits on the food, but nothing except the oysters really rose beyond "competent". I think what I like about bistro food is that it's so simple that there is tons of room for individuality, and this food all seemed like it was a committee version of bistro cooking. If the restaurant were quadrupled in size, I would expect the food to be exactly the same, down to the detail. No personality would be lost in the expansion, because there really isnt 'any personality to start with... It probably didn't help that our lunch that day had been at cafe chez panisse, which was also fussy and pretentious, but it all worked in that case, and then some.
I think the bottom line is, I'm not sure whom this restaurant is aimed at. Certainly not me. I'd consider going back for a light lunch or maybe some oysters and champagne at the bar or something, but for a full meal, it is just not worth the price and I don't think I could sit through another full meal there.
Anyway, on to part two: ad hoc.
After the Monday experience at Bouchon we almost cancelled our reservations for ad hoc on tuesday. They had been almost an afterthought anyway, but we decided after a full day of wine tasting, comfort food sounded like a winner, and people seemed much more excited by this place.
It started out on a sour note... I had assumed since it was a more casual concept than bouchon, it would be a more casual restaurant. I saw some jeans and shorts and polo shirts and such at Bouchon, so we went with jeans and polos and such for this meal, and there was definiltely a lot more "money" in the dining room here, mostly nice slacks and dress shirts and jackets with open collared shirts and such, the crowd seemed much more Napa than tourist. So we were sort of hustled into a corner, and I had to go flag down our waiter and ask him for one glass of champagne for my wife (who wasn't driving), which was then interpreted as 2 glasses... But they apologized for the error and gave us the 2nd glass on the house.
After that, I guess they realized that maybe there was a bigger check than they realized waiting for them at our table and the service was much improved. But that shouldn't be necessary and is part of what I hate about stereotypical california.
But anyway, after the initial hiccup of attitude, things picked up in a major way.
1st course: "salad of little gems"; lettuces from the French Laundry garden, roasted miniature pears, toasted walnuts, and pomegranate seeds with sherry vinaigrette. It had a beatuful casual elegance to it, and was simply fabulous. The pears were the weakest part, being a little bland and mealy, but the lettuce, the dressing, the walnuts... OMG. This is more like it. And the wine was fabulous, too...
The second course was a roasted tip of sirloin with a cabbage/mushroom accompaniment. It was served over slices of bread to soak up all the salty juicy goodness, with a side of the most ridonculously delicious fried potatoes I've ever had. Crispy, light, fluffy pillows of potatoness, but crispy, did I mention crispy? I'm a fan of the potatoes in duck fat I make on the grill sometimes, but I have been throroughly schooled in the art of frying a potato. And everything else was of the same caliber. And it also had that casual elegance to it. There was pretty much nothing pretentious about what was on our table (and only a hint of it in the restaurant, mostly that the music was a little too loud and calculated, and the whole bowling shirts / menu in a folder / ad hoc logo). We practically licked the plates here, and the portions were pretty generous to start with. The beef was the most amazingly salty delicious bleedingly rare beefy deliciousness... The cabbage and mushroom was deliciously salty and concentrated.
Next up: toasted marconi almonds, fig / caramel jam, with a cow's cheese I forget the name of. This too did not fail. The almond / jam combination was possibly the most amazing thing I've ever put in my mouth. At this point I tell the server something to the effect of "we ate at bouchon last night, and can't help but compare the two, and so far you guys are on top in every possible way".
Finally: "lemon bars", which was basically a rustic tart of lemon cream with italian meringue. It was delicious. And the server brought us a couple of glasses of some dessert wine with it "on the house". I didn't catch what it was because frankly, the day of wine tasting plus the wine with dinner, etc., was catching up with me and I was just enjoying the food. But it was delicious, and so was the tart, although I've made this exact dish before and I like my version a bit more :)
Bottom line: a bit too much attitude, but on the verge of perfection, food-wise. Restored my faith in the whole enterprise, and moved the French Laundry or per se back from "hell no, not after bouchon" to "maybe someday if I get a chance".
Your description of your experience sounds almost exactly like ours (me and my wife). In our case, though, I'd have to add the fact that several things we got were heavily over salted. Bouchon was an incredible disappointment for us, too.
In defense of the wait staff at Ad Hoc, though, I think that when someone on a wait staff makes a small error (bringing the second glass of champagne) it sort of flips a switch that says "hey, pay attention here" and the apparent upgrade in service level is really just a busy person remembering to try to do their best on each table. Or something like that, I'm still drinking my first cup of coffee this morning.
Really glad to hear your anniversary vacation picked up!
I've eaten (and posted) about how awful it is to sit at the tables at Bouchon. I always, always sit at the bar, and the bar is wonderful. I've never had the moules served with tomatoes, and I've probably had that dish 30 times. I LOVE that dish. I've also never had any tomatoes or any other gratuitous weird accents on dishes like you had. I love the steak, and the roasted chicken, the pate de campagne if I have the right wine, but I always sit at the bar because the tables *are* on top of one another, and the acoustics in the dining room are beyond awful. At the bar, all that wonderful raw bar goodness, plus my menu favorites, that great wine list, and the wonderful barkeeps there.
And if it's any comfort, the lamb shanks at Bouchon are relatively lackluster -- they're not at all that gutsy Provencal version of lamb shanks. And the cheese plate is such an awful attempt at a cheese course, well, it's good you didn't order those things because that may have pushed you over the edge.
I'm so sorry. I mean, I don't feel personally responsible, but god bless it, you're on vacation, dropped some serious dollars, and the experience was awful.
BTW, Bistro Jeanty may do an even better Moules. I've had very good meals there lately, and excellent service. More bistro, less brasserie.
Steve G: Is it me? I've never ever noticed waiter "imports' or even a hint of snobbery. I've noticed theatrics at FL, but that's part of the show. I detest that kind of behavior, and my questions to the server usually indicate I have some food and wine knowledge (I'm not saying yours don't -- you're obviously an infomed eater) but maybe I give off some vibe that says you really don't want to try that uppity stuff with me.
re: maria lorraine
What's funny is now that it's a few days out, and I've vented, I'm starting to think that I'd like to try some of the other dishes. How sad is that :)
My real ire was almost completely centered around bouchon the place. The food was definitely missing a spark and really didn't seem like anyone was invested in it, but honestly I think that in a dining room that wasn't so intolerable with better service, my review would have been more about how things didn't quite live up to maybe unrealistic expectations but were mostly solid, not a multi-paragraph rant about how miserable my meal was.
re: maria lorraine
>>> I've never ever noticed waiter "imports' or even a hint of snobbery.<<<
Can't speak to the waiter imports, but as a local you wouldn't notice it. As to Bouchon since you seem to be a regular, you wouldn't notice it there. Maybe the vibe you are giving off is 'local'.
Truly I am NOT intimidated by restaurants. I am paying my good money and while I don't expect to be fawned over, I do require the respect that comes with being a customer. That doesn't happen in Napa/Sonoma.
There are at least a half dozen restaurants that have 'locals' nights. Even Oxbow has a 'locals' night. I've been taking notes about eating inexpensively in Wine Country. It is surprising how many discounts you can get flashing a drivers licence proving you live in the area.
My own theory is despite the mega-businesses, Wine Country is a bunch of small towns. There is a small town mentality that is no different from any other town. Not much different that a place like Pinole. While heads don't snap in restaurants like in Pinole when someone outside the herd walks in, there is still the recognition.
Some of this is reinforced by a friend who also went to Napa High and worked in the wine industry there. The stories he does tell.
A metropolitan area like SF, has more people and can absorb visitors so there is less of that ... except in areas geared to visitors like Fishermans Wharf where visitors get that same treatment.
<<Bouchon since you seem to be a regular, you wouldn't notice it there.>>
I'd admit that I might be recognized at Bouchon as having dined there before, because there are only 3 or 4 barkeeps.
But I dine at many restaurants and most of the time I've never before laid eyes on the server and he/she has no idea that I'm a local. I do ask questions about the food, though, as I'm sure you do.
<<Can't speak to the waiter imports, but as a local you wouldn't notice it>>
I think I'd notice it more, because the behavior would stick out.
I simply haven't experienced snobbery, nor do I agree that 'someone outside the herd" causes ripples. This valley is packed with non-locals every day of the year.
<Even Oxbow has a 'locals' night>>
They've been doing this to drum up biz among the locals, who haven't taken
readily to the place but seem to be warming slowly to the place.
Yes, Napa Valley is a series of small towns. But it operates as one community. It's rural, but a sophisticated rural.
While you may have had experiences in which you were not treated with respect, and your friend who went to a local high school may have stories, I can't say that these prove snobbery is in any way the norm or pervasive. In any case, it's too bad you didn't get the respect you deserved. SteveG has the advantage of having lived here and left, and he can see the changes in the valley more distinctly since he has a memory to compare against.
I will say this: even if a person moves here and has a bit of snobbery or pretense, over time that dissipates. Sooner or later, it dawns on that person that this is an agricultural community, earthbound by nature, and that the owner of that $30 million vineyard is more likely to have dirt under his nails and wearing jeans than he is to be wearing nice clothes. Class distinctions fade for the most part, except for those feeling insecure and needing some sort of ego boost.
There is one major problem: the Hispanic vineyard workers are sometimes not given the same respect as others, but again, this is done by those who don't realize that these workers are the engine of the wine industry.
Snobbery comes from insecurity and ignorance. If I had experienced it, I'd be much more likely to blame the individual person than I would a region.
re: maria lorraine
Yeaaahh ... that's not my friend's take and he worked in the valley for over 30 years in various professional capacities. Maybe after this year of working in the area, I am now overly sensative but it just kept happening time, after time, after time to the point where I now go up there with some armor to deal with it. I just dismiss it as silly small town stuff... and a place has to be really, really ... really great for me to patronize it if I get attitude.
re: maria lorraine
On waiter imports: yes, many are definitely from outside Northern California or even the nation. Sometimes when they launch into a patronizing shtick about the local produce or lifestyle I try to short circuit it by mentioning that I grew up there and just look like a city boy now; they usually respond by telling me something along the lines of, "oh, I just moved here from X." Sometimes we end up having a great rapport where they communicate appropriate information about the food without evangelizing and distracting from the meal, sometimes not.
Maybe it's an age thing. I get service that falls into three categories in the valley, if the wait staff is my age (young):
1) I went to grammar or high school with one of them, they recognize me, and they just do their job without any snide commentary
2) they're professional, and they just do their job without any snide commentary
3) they're unprofessional, assume they should recognize people their own age if they're local, and since they don't recognize me or my group of other young people, treat us in a terribly patronizing way.
If the wait staff is older, they tend to be more professional, since as you said they understand after a time that they can't recognize everyone, and the proverbial slouch in the corner with dirty fingernails is probably a kick-butt farmer.
The reason it sticks out so much for me is that it seems to be a phenomenon limited to Napa Valley--when I go to a similar range of Sonoma county restaurants, I've found service to be consistently authentic.
Then skip Deuce in Sonoma. As much as I liked it, toward the end The General's Daughter was starting to cozy up too much to locals ... though you can't blame them in a sense for trying to court repeat business. The were still pleasant though to visitors, just treated locals slightly better. Never could figure out if the off service at the girl and the fig is a local thing or just them. I think it is just them. They seem to treat everyone equally in an offstanding manner ... not horrid though. However, it does happen more in Napa than Sonoma for some reason.
"Sometimes when they launch into a patronizing shtick about the local produce or lifestyle I try to short circuit it by mentioning that I grew up there and just look like a city boy now; they usually respond by telling me something along the lines of, "oh, I just moved here from X."
Oh, that's funny. And the "I just moved here from X" explains everything.
There are two things wrong with a "partronizing schtick": the patronizing and the schtick. First, *anything* patronizing sucks. Then, it's a schtick, an act -- not authentic and not real.
I don't look at all like a local, if locals can be said to have any prototypical look. I'm older, look older, but not old (or so I think!). You say you're a city boy now (how can they keep them down on the farm when they've seen gay Paree?) -- I can relate. I live here in this rural valley, but I look rather urban. I usually have a fairly mod haircut, try to dress nicely even if it's casual, and I make at least a passing attempt to have good manners and treat my server right.
If any patronizing schtick begins (it never has) I'd cut that off fairly quickly too. Perhaps not with the speed I'm changing the channel if Sandra Lee is on, but you get my drift. I'm not sure how I'd do it -- I probably say I live here, but I'd be tempted to say, "Oh brother, cut the canned speech, " and thinking all the while this server is an idiot for launching into something without getting a feel for the diner first. I would also be tempted -- oh, evil me, in response to anything patronizing -- to ask the server to elaborate, thereby giving him enough rope to hang himself. (See below.) But I'm guessing that my specific food questions from the get-go kind of indicate I'm a "foodie," and so obviate the need for any spiel, which for some reason I want to pronounce "schpeal" like "schtick." Maybe the Yiddish I learned as a teenager in our Jewish neighborhood is coming out...it was rather unusual to be the only Gentile family.
OK, here's a story from real life. I was dining with a nationally famous wine writer -- really, someone with name recognition, known everywhere and you've probably read his stuff -- and the server launched into some romantic schpeal about several Napa Valley wines while being horribly inaccurate, even about basic stuff.. It was a schpeal/schtick given to impress unknowing tourists, and it was sheer entertainment to watch the expressions on the wine writer's face (really, I would have paid money to watch this -- it was like a great comedy skit), as they varied from the "no, you're all wrong" scrunching of the forehead, to the raised eyebrows of incredulousness, to the tight-lipped annoyed look, and then to the fire in the eyes as he sized up his prey and responded. The wine writer asked questions and simply allowed the server to hang himself with his BS. The questions were delivered in a nice tone, but were pointed. Finally, he said something along the lines of you're incorrect here, with this, this and this, and I've enjoyed the [fill in esoteric wine here] but thought they did a better job with the '05 than the '04 when I tasted through their line on my last tasting trip through that appellation. Something about that year's harvest, and the special creaminess from the sur lie aging -- and by the way, it's not a malolactic fermentation but I understand how you might think so -- that gives it a special appeal. So, you get the idea. He simply KO'd the guy with his information, and revealed the BS for what it was. (He also quietly told the manager on the way out that the server was giving out very inaccurate info about the wines.)
So, that's kind of an extreme example, but I think it simply shows a server who didn't get a read on his customer, and who launched into a romantic, albeit inaccurate, description of the wines, which could instead be about the region's produce or lifestyle, thinking that would go over well. But in any case, it was server error (of a different kind that we have here on Chowhound!), and not the error of the region. Heck, that kind of thing could happen anywhere where tourists frequent. Or anywhere, period.
And god bless it, when I've supervised servers, I've simply told them that their information was slightly inaccurate -- that Syrah is not part of a Meritage blend, and given them tips on how to describe a wine or actually sat down with them and tasted it together.
OK, apologies for the rambling, but I hope you get the idea of where I'm coming from. Always nice to talk to a local, even former local, and those -- baroo and gatto baroo and rw -- whose experience has been different from mine, so I have a wider perspective and aren't guilty of thinking my experience is what every person experiences.
The flies were a problem for us at our Ad Hoc brunch. I wish Thomas Keller could design a really innovative, yet fully functional, fly trap.
I don't think the waiters looked down on you because of your dress. I've been 3 times, dressed casually (not sloppy) all times, and never had a problem with the service.
Glad to see this was just a technical malfunction. Nice report.
I suspect from your report you might be underwhelmed by French Lanudry. I was and needed to eat dinner elsewhere that night to have food with some passion and soul in it. Fl is technically perfect. For me it just didn't make me yearn to go back.
>>> After that, I guess they realized that maybe there was a bigger check than they realized waiting for them at our table and the service was much improved. But that shouldn't be necessary and is part of what I hate about stereotypical california.<<<
Don't know how much you eat here, but I don't find that a lot. I usually eat alone which means they aren't getting as big a tip based on tab. Yet no matter how little or much I order, I rarely get that. When I do it is usually at a place that is heavily traffiicked by visitors. I will admit I get that more in Wine Country than in San Francisco or the East Bay. To me, Wine Country has this thing going about locals and outsiders. I've been places where the staff was warm with regulars and anyone they deemed a one-time vistor they don't bother and give the cold shoulder.
6476 Washington St., Yountville, CA 94599
So true about the insiders vs. outsiders. Most of the servers are imports who moved recently for the food and wine lifestyle and high tips, but after a few years they develop a revolting holier than thou attitude about who's local and who isn't. I moved away after high school, and every time I go back and get hit by the stupid assumptions about locals vs. tourists, I have to work really hard to not let it ruin my meal.
As for Bouchon and Ad Hoc, my visit to Bouchon gave me no reason to ever return, and my visit to Ad Hoc showed promise but not enough consistency to go out of my way for it. My Ad Hoc menu from late spring was essentially the same as the OP's, but instead of nice rare beef, ours was medium-well and the server seemed constitutionally incapable of believing me--maybe he was colorblind to red.
The potato cubes, thrice fried, were indeed absolute perfection. The cubes were all identically sized, which seems to have allowed them to optimize their three stages of frying to achieve a cooked and moist interior and the most perfect golden brown crispy exterior. With all the raves about the fried chicken, I guess someone in that kitchen must understand how to put a fryer through its paces.
baroo, looks like you didn't get to finish your post. Please do tell us more about what happened at Bouchon.
I can understand your disappointment having traveled far to be there. Personally, when I've had meetings at Villagio in Yountville, I'm not even willing to walk across the street to eat at Bouchon. It's had too many ups and downs over the years, and I've always seemed to hit it at its low points. They're too frequent to avoid, but one can hope that after the remodel, Keller will pay some attention to it for once.
re: Scott M
Never, never trust your cat with your chowhound password. ;-). Joking aside, very nice report. I'm sorry to hear about your bad experience at Bouchon. It's been years since I've been, although I've been to the one in Las Vegas recently and very much enjoyed it, so, had I not seen this report of yours, I might not have noticed all of the downhill reports that Robert mentioned you can access from the places entry. What a complete bummer. On the other hand, you are lucky, indeed, you didn't cancel your Ad Hoc reservation. It's a good reminder that the reputation of a chef alone can't ensure a great experience.