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May 26, 2010 03:43 PM


I thought you might be interested in my husband's and my experience at Bouchon Bistro.

A. took me to dinner at Bouchon Bistro a few weekends ago.

Good news, right? How exciting to finally check out Thomas Keller's Los Angeles venture! S. Irene Virbila of the L.A. Times was all raves.

No doubt I am a huge Thomas Keller fan -- the French Laundry blew my mind back in '99. And I know that Bouchon is not supposed be a French Laundry or a Per Se. But still, I had high hopes.

When I think of Keller, I think excellence. I have read the books about him. And I have read the books by him. He is a perfectionist. So sure, I had high hopes.

So. Well. Hmm...

Not so great.

To begin with the small stuff, the entrance is difficult to find. We needed the kitchen staff to point us in the right direction. The entry is not inviting. There is a lobby with no one in it. And it is not obvious that you are in the right place at all. Where is everyone?

Once you make your way up the stairs, there is a smidgen of life, but it still isn't clear that you have arrived anywhere in particular. The cookbooks on the table are a clue, but when the lady behind the counter has your reservation, frankly you feel relieved.

This is it!

We sat and waited a bit. Then a little bit more. I mentioned to A. that if I didn't have so much confidence in Keller, I would be having reservations myself about the start to our evening.

We were escorted to our seats. Right off the bat, we have the high point of the evening! We were seated at the corner table next to our former governor, Gray Davis. Thin man, looking every bit like a network anchor, but more, well, gray. Now folks, let's face it... that is a rather low high point, indeed.

We were still filled with nervous jitters and anticipation. All the excitement was still ahead of us! The potential to be delighted was all there, and we were ready to be delighted.

So we order cocktails, and when they are slow to come, our lovely server crouches discreetly into the table, says that Bouchon does not operate like this and conveys that they are very sorry. The drinks are on the house.

How thoughtful. She's sweet. And the drinks are fine, though not the stuff of memory, and unfortunately the rest of the evening proceeds in the same vein.

We start with brandade fritters, salmon rillettes, and the special octopus salad.

The fritters are tasty, but sit strangely upon an oven-dried tomato. It's not clear what the relationship between the two is. Compared to the scrumptious and light brandade fritters that we have had twice recently at Lazy Ox, these are bulky and too dense. Perhaps something bright to dip them in or a little herb salad with an acid kick would help.

The salmon rillettes tucked in a little mason jar are delicious. Recalling the evening, this was the standout dish. Using both smoked and fresh salmon is a nice touch. Very rich, but so very good on the crisp toasts.

Appetizer number three, the octopus salad, is forgettable. The octopus is prepared sous-vide. I guess this is innovation, but if so, so what? I find the octopus appetizers at both Osteria Mozza and Lazy Ox to be far superior and the octopus is simply grilled in both. Again, a little more acid would have helped perk up the bean salad. The flavors are too basic, even after running the octopus through the rouille.

What really kills the night though is the interminable wait for the entrees. At least forty-five minutes passes before we catch a glimpse of my duck breast and A.'s leg of lamb.

The server completely forgets that A. has ordered wine. So he starts to eat without the benefit of something to wash down the mealy, almost leathery leg. So disappointing. He makes a crack about Cormac McCarthy's The Road and eating pressed meats out of tins. This lamb really is not good! We would have liked to mention this to our server, but she has vanished. And remains so for a long time.

The duck breast on the other hand is very good. It's cooked to a perfect medium rare, the skin crisp and salty. The tangy citrus and crunchy fennel and radish are a terrific counterpoint to the soft fatty meat.

But we still can't get past the lamb. Or our server's disappearance. By the time she reappears carrying dessert menus -- well after our plates have been cleared, our sighs have been aired, and our email has been checked, several times over -- we just don't care anymore.

Nope, we didn't want dessert. We wanted to leave.

We paid and walked out. No one even noticed us leaving. No good-byes. No thank yous. It was as if we had stopped respirating in this high-ceilinged hotspot at some point mid-appetizers.

A. and I were depressed. The whole drive across town was spent mourning the loss of our evening, our money, and our time. We were shocked. How could Thomas Keller have let us down so badly? How could it have gone so wrong? A. was practicing his curses.

I woke up the next morning in a funk. I could not shake the feelings of regret and disappointment.

I did feel determined to do something. Thomas Keller would want to know about this failure! The good perfectionist would insist on knowing how terribly wrong our evening had gone. I was resolved to tell someone.

I called Bouchon a few days later and attempted to speak to Greg Rowen, the general manager. Away from his desk, I was given his email address. Fool's errand or not, I spent Fe's whole three hour nap one afternoon composing my email to Rowen. And sent it.

That was two weeks ago, and I've heard absolutely nothing from Rowen or Bouchon. Maybe it's the vain expectation of the sort of person who writes letters to the editor -- like a Greenberg writing to Starbucks or something. I had hoped for some kind of acknowledgement or apology. I just assume a certain level of professionalism in a good restaurant. Any level of concern would have been better than to be completely ignored.

Three days ago, I forwarded the email to what I guessed might be Thomas Keller's address at Bouchon. It has not bounced back, but I cannot be sure that Keller will receive it.

Am I crazy? Ah well, there it is.

Please don't rush to Bouchon, just because it might be your hero's restaurant. You may feel gipped. And horribly discouraged.

Jacqueline F.

Bouchon Bistro
235 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210

Osteria Mozza
6602 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036

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    1. I feel there is a bit of over exaggeration in your part. They screwed up on my order in the past and I was comped the entire bill and they kept sending us copious amounts of unwanted food. What seems to me like a case of bad service has made your entire meal suffer.

      The food however does suffer from lack of attention. I have been to every Bouchon location and this one seems to be lacking in the food department.

      5 Replies
      1. re: A5 KOBE

        It seems like you two are completely agreeing that both the service and food are bad. Seems like you may have just gotten comparably lucky with some comped food, where the original poster did not.

        When one is paying hundreds of dollars for a single meal like one does at Bouchon, I'm not sure it's possible to exaggerate bad service or uninspired food. I had the same experience. While the digs are very nice, in a labored sort of way, my own lamb was more art than flavor, and it was a textural disaster.

        1. re: oopsiateitagain

          I absolutely disagree that Bouchon/Bar Bouchon has poor food and terrible service. We are often in Beverly Hills on a Saturday around 3:30 and as Bar Bouchon is open continuously from lunch through dinner, we often have a late lunch - early dinner there. We tend to order our favorites and you can't go wrong with the raw oysters, the tuna tartare, the escargot, the quiche, the steak tartare and the boudin noir. It is a lovely place to sit outside on the patio, sip wine and eat scrumptious food.

          Pics here from various meals:

          1. re: lizziee

            Comparing Bar Bouchon to Bouchon is like comparing Mozza to Go or ad hoc grilled cheese orders at the mozzarella bar to a nice romantic dinner for two at a table in Osteria Mozza.

            Of course if you go on off-hours, avoid the entrees, nibble the bar food, and keep away from the main event, you will have a different experience. Much cheaper, more casual, with completely different expectations. But let's not confuse things -- these are apples and oranges.

            Osteria Mozza
            6602 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036

            1. re: oopsiateitagain

              We didn't nibble bar food. In fact, I think our check probably exceeded that of many dining at Bouchon, including a lovely bottle of white wine from their list. The country pate, the terrine de foie gras, the rillettes aux deux saumon, the quiche, the oysters, the cheese and the Boudin Noir are all on the dinner menu. They allow us to order the boudin as we are there after 5:30 when Bouchon opens. The kitchen for Bar Bouchon and Bouchon is the same with the chef "cooking."

          2. re: oopsiateitagain

            Where did I state the food was bad??

            I simply stated that the food is not on par with any of his other locations. The food is still good and I would make a return visit with a question.

            I totally disagree with you in that when you get bad service, the food suffers and people tend to nitpick and every little thing. They start critiquing things that they normally would not do just because. It is only human nature. C'mon, the OP even stating his/her opinion on the hallway to Bouchon. What does that have to do with anything?

            I am merely stating that the OP seems to be an overreaction to a bad experience. I am guilty of this type of behavior in the past.

        2. I wonder how much of this was the result of raised expectations. The lamb sound inexcusable, and the service poor, but would you walked away with a different impression if it did not have Keller's imprint on it. I've been to Bouchon in Vegas, and I don't expect Keller's touch there. I expect good food and good service, but not something from the hand of the master. For that, I need a return trip to French Laundry, maybe later in the decade...