Friday, May 1, 2009

Ad Hoc, Yountville CA

I’ll just go ahead and admit it – I’m a Thomas Keller fan-boy – his concepts, his service, his attitude, his ability to claim the limelight without actively stepping into it and being on every goofy TV cooking show – they all impress me; and that isn’t even to mention his food. The best breakfast of my life? Bouchon in Vegas. The Best meal of my life? The French Laundry. Best Cupcake? Bouchon Bakery in Vegas. Best Cookie – that freakin Nutter Butter, both on the east coast and on the west – a cookie so good that despite being stuffed to the gills after Bistro Jeanty I had to swing by Bouchon Bistro to pick one up for later just so they wouldn’t sell out as they did on my previous trip to Yountville. All that stated, it only seemed logical that after meals at TFL and Bouchon on my previous visit that this trip would ideally include Ad Hoc.

We all know the story of the name, how the restaurant was meant to be temporary, the set 4-course menu, etc – essentially, Thomas and his chefs prep the comfort food and you sit back and enjoy – easy enough, right? Kinda. Kinda in that I don’t eat beef flesh and the restaurant is only open 4 days a week – only two on my previous visit and both days serving beef. Having made reservations twice in the past and cancelling each when the menu appeared at noon I had made alternative plans this time (Ubuntu) but thankfully when I called my aunt for an online update she informed me that not only was there no beef to be found, but that the dessert was my very favorite – bread pudding. Having already eaten a lot that day I knew I’d likely be leaving food on the table, but I still felt the admission price would be worth it.

Arriving for my 7:30pm reservation after wandering the Oxbow Market (trying to walk off some of the earlier indulgences) the weather was still awful and rainy – I was thankful for the readily available parking across the street from Ad Hoc and jogged across the street. Greeted by a friendly hostess I was led to a small table with a great view of the restaurant to the right and Washington Street to the left. Moments after sitting down my neighboring table received a large vat of the bread pudding and I started to drool – this was going to be good. After about 2 minutes my server, Rachel, appeared with a copy of the nightly menu and an incredible knowledge of the history, cuisine, and wines – being (I’d guess) approximately 22 years old I was amazed throughout the meal by her professionalism and definitely feel she wouldn’t have been out of step at the French Laundry – amazing service even at the “comfort food” restaurant – yep, typical Keller.

After approximately 10 minutes of sipping water and browsing the humble interior with multiple tables relatively close together, “center” tables for preparation and presentation, and minimal décor (a few piggies here and there) I was brought my bread basket – something I knew I’d have to be very careful with given the amazing bread at Bouchon and the Laundry. Sure enough, two varieties – whole wheat and sourdough – were presented and both were superb with the whole wheat being vastly better (my neighbors, who clearly hadn’t already consumed 5000+ calories that day, actually went through three baskets and requested only whole wheat after the first.) I limited myself to one sourdough and two whole wheat during the meal – great restraint for my bread basket loving self.

Around 7:45 my first dish arrived and on a trip that involved some amazing salads this one was number two to only Kinch’s “Into the Garden.” Simply titled TFL Garden Vegetable Salad with fava beans, leeks, onion scapes, haricot verts, sweet carrots, mixed greens, and lemon-chive vinaigrette – that is precisely what the dish was. Having never tasted scapes before I found them to be pleasantly “onion-y” yet refined, almost like green onions but sweeter and more aromatic. The vinaigrette was minimally lemony and more chive based with good acidity. A great balance of contrasting textures and wonderful flavors. Again, not wanting to fill up I ate approximately 3/4 of the salad and the rest was boxed up for me (more on this later.) As someone who consumes 3-4 salads a day in “real life” – IE, not on vacation – this salad once again made me feel bad about the quality of vegetables in Ohio during ~3/4 of the year…it is incredible what high end ingredients do to the simplest dishes.

Dish two, essentially the “main course” was Marinated Pork Tenderloin with d'anjou pears, caramelized cabbage, melted onions, carolina rice with pardina lentils and it was absolutely sublime – but vastly too much food. While the pork was perfectly tender and well seasoned with aromatic and sweet components, the true standout of the dish was absolutely the caramelized cabbage, especially when combined with the starchy rice/lentil mixture. Toothsome and delicious, the rice provided a good “soft” component to the crisp and – dare I say – candy coated flavor of the cabbage while the onions simply peaked the flavor of each component on the palate.

Dish three, the cheese course, was hit and miss. Bellwether Farms Carmondy with Marshall's Farm Wildflower Honey and Spiced Mixed Nuts. The firm cows-milk cheese from New Jersey was actually quite excellent on its own and even more impressive when combined with the wonderfully fragrant Honey from Marshall’s Farm (I think I consumed about 1/2 cup of their products the next day at the Farmer’s Market and the only flavor I fancied moreso than the Wildflower was the almond honey.) Unique in its texture, the dominant sense from the cheese was actually that of butter and perhaps cinnamon or caramel. The miss on the dish was the spiced nuts. Speaking to Rachel it appears the nuts were made in house and prepared with hints of cayenne, paprika, and cloves but all I could taste was heat – and a lot of it. Consuming only one walnut and cashew I had these packed with my remaining pork and salad, just in case.

The final dish, and the one I’d been waiting for all night, was described as “Bread & Butter Pudding with California Strawberries, Whipped Vanilla Cream” but it was so much more. While I will admit that the surprise was ruined as another very impressive young server had told the secret to the table next to me, the dish was even more complex than billed in that the flawlessly buttery brioche, fresh strawberries and ice-cream-like cream were served atop pitted black cherries and cocoa nibs. Served in large crocks to tables of 2-4 I was THANKFULLY only given a small crock. I say thankfully because the flavor was so amazing that I’d have eaten whatever was presented and likely ruptured the gastric fundus – and died with a smile on my face. The best fruit based bread pudding I’ve ever tasted by a long shot and potentially better than the chocolate version at Extraordinary Dessert. Wonderfully complex and layered with great aplomb I was informed that this recipe was actually Claire Clark’s from her time at TFL and it was available in her “Indulge” recipe book – a book on my “to buy” list, for sure.

Walking (okay, hobbling due to the food filling my hollow leg) out of the restaurant I was bid farewell by multiple servers and smiling faces and additionally given a copy of the menu with my “doggie bag” – a doggy bag that was given to a particularly interesting homeless man who had been hanging out in front of my hotel the whole vacation wearing a Los Angeles Kings jacket and never asked for money, only food – I’d say this beat the McDonalds I saw him with earlier in the day.

Driving back home and listening to the Silversun Pickups I reflected on my day and must admit that it may have been the most I’ve ever eaten on single day of a trip – but it was entirely worth it. While I can’t say I’d go to Ad Hoc as often as TFL or Bouchon given the way the menu works, I imagine that any time a non-beef item is on the menu it is a safe bet for a superb meal with flawless service. Calling my mother the next day she asked how it was and I said “It was like eating at your best friend’s house – if your best friend had access to the best ingredients in Northern California and had any degree of culinary training.” It was simple, it was casual, it was fantastic.

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