May 29, 2008
California Part 2: Ad hoc
Ad hoc: "For temporary relief from hunger."
Nothing could be further from the truth. By this I mean that Thomas Keller's little off-shoot, the casual establishment just down the street from that little place called The French Laundry in Yountville, CA purports to be something just for kicks, just to get you by, a little something for the community, to give back so to speak. And, although the place is understated and minimalist by design, the food is still marked by T.K.'s magic, simple yet beautiful, unpretentious yet expertly prepared and presented. So, although I didn't get to eat at The French Laundry this trip (maybe someday...) I did have a great time with my friends at the little place down the road.
There was no mistaking the garden in back, the focus on seasonal and local ingredients (many from as close as within a 5-mile radius) and the attention to the minimalist, ingredient-driven philosophy for anything other than what it was. In fact, the idea that this uber-famous chef who never appears on t.v. and owns arguably the best restaurant in the country could actually be in the kitchen every night cooking just down the block made it all somehow even more exciting.
I had the thought that maybe Ad hoc was T.K.'s 'test kitchen', or the place where TFL staff go to have a beer on their night off. And, although it seems that most celebrity chefs live in exotic locales far from the kitchens that made them famous, I actually saw Mr. Keller that afternoon walking down the street in his chef coat on the way to work!
The menu was the first hint that the modest restaurant was expertly intentioned and stylized: it came in a brown file folder with the daily changing four-course menu attached to one side, the wine and beer list to the other. I love the idea of not having to choose and we got pretty lucky with the menu that night. We also got lucky in that my friend's husband who works at Bouchon (the third T.K. restautant in this tiny town in Napa Valley) had called ahead and told them we were coming. Not that we got triple VIP treatment or anything, but they did offer us each a glass of Diebolt-Vallois "Blanc de Blancs" bubbly right as we sat down. And the blue jeans-clad staff was super friendly and laid back.
After snacking on the fresh bread made around the corner at Bouchon Bakery, our first course arrived: Chickpea and Spring onion soup (TFL garden spring onions, thumbellina carrots) with chicken liver mousse on baguette croutons.
It tasted like Spring in a bowl. I loved how everything was served family-style. They brought out a cast iron pot and set it on the table for us to serve ourselves and it somehow seemed even more delicious that way.
Next was the Elysian Fields farm roast leg of lamb, served with Iacoppi english peas, pea shoots and smoked ham, grilled romaine and roasted marble potatoes.
Again, the serving dish and utensils were set down before us and we served it up. The lamb was perfectly cooked and the veggies were all so fresh and green, the peas large and bursting with bright flavor. My only complaint was that it was a bit too much food for three people. To drink, our server recommended a Joseph Swan Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley. How thoughtful of her.
Next, the cheese course. I learned on this trip why wine and cheese go so well together. There was such good cheese everywhere. I was too busy eating it to take a picture of the Neil's Yard Dairy Stichelton cheese, Marshall's Farm honey and toasted walnuts on that particular occasion. But here's a nice photo of another pretty cheese plate from somewhere else...
And, being the sweet-tooth that I am, I especially loved the dessert: Mixed Berry Parfait with house granola. It was essentially a panna cotta, only creamier and softer, with the most perfect little berries and just a sprinkling of toasty granola. What a pefect way to end a very special meal. Oh, and there was more bubbly too...