Ad Hoc – Thomas Keller’s restaurant in California Wine Country
When your ship finally comes in you go to eat at French Laundry or Per Se. But until then, Thomas Keller has you covered with some less pricey options – Bouchon (Yountville and Las Vegas), and Ad Hoc (Yountville). Bouchon pretends to be a French bistro several thousand miles away from any real French bistro. Ad Hoc is a modern Californa bistro with its white walls, dark linear furniture, and servers dressed in retro gas-station attendant uniforms rather than the classic black and white. Ad Hoc also declares – pretentiously if you are hungry, cutely if you are not – ‘for temporary relief from hunger’.
I find it easy to excuse Ad Hoc’s and Bouchon’s pretentiousness because I admire Keller’s stated philosophy of food – respect for ingredients, intense focus on producing the best food, and incredible attention to detail. If the guy wants his restaurants to be a little twee I feel that he has earned it. Naturally, the philosophy works as an excuse only as long as the food is top notch. Alas, our last experience at Ad Hoc was inexcusably poor.
We were served the first course, hearts of lettuce salad, in a wooden bowl which had absorbed the odor of rancid oil in its time in the kitchen. But mistakes can happen even at AdHoc. I pointed the mistake out to the server, who came back with – ‘the chef thinks that the salad is fine’. I had to insist on another bowl – not another salad, just the bowl – before they condescended to give us a replacement.
Salad dressing, which arrived in a little ramekin of its own, was like the essence of olives. We sopped up any remaining dressing with excellent Bouchon bakery bread.
Main course was Maine-style barbecue with barbecued ribs, bacon wrapped scallops, and a hash of vegetables with Portuguese style sausage. All right-thinking people agree that barbecued ribs achieve perfection only if the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender and there are absolutely no streaks of unrendered fat. We had to fight to get the meat to let go of the bone for five out of six ribs. Each one of the ribs had white streaks of unrendered unpleasant fat. The ribs did show a smoke ring, or it would have been hard to believe that they were even barbecued.
Bacon wrapped scallops were, well, bacon wrapped scallops. Nothing Keller-ish about them. Well executed but uninteresting.
Vegetable hash with Portuguese sausages was not bad if one ignored the couple of pieces of partially cooked potatoes. It was served in an oval steel dish, which, unlike a ceramic dish, got cold pretty rapidly. Eating cold vegetables after an exhausting bout with the ribs was just depressing.
When we reserved our table we had asked the restaurant if they could accommodate our lactose-intolerant guts. And they had cheerfully agreed – “Oh, many of our guests are lactose intolerant, sir”. I was expecting reluctance and a bit of sighing at the other end, but their readiness left me eager to sample the replacement for our cheese course.
The dairy-free replacement turned out to be bacon wrapped figs. Not thin-cut prosciutto contrasting saltily with sweet figs, but thick chewy bacon defending enwrapped figs to its last breath. The accompaniment was a sweet and salty chutney with overtones of curry and pieces of crisped flatbread. I just did not get how all of that was supposed to complement bacon and figs.
Our dessert course was a chocolate brownie with pear sorbet and strawberry sauce. Nice, but I don’t expect Keller to do nice. I expect him to range from pretty fucking good to stunning.
Our bellies were certainly full by the time we left, but we were not satiated. I had a strong urge to swing by Vik’s Chaat Corner as we passed Berkeley on the way back, but, sadly, good sense prevailed.
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