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".
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.
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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.