Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Noshing in Napa: Ad Hoc

Most people go to Napa to celebrate with Bacchus.


I, however, hear "Napa" and can't think of anything but food.  After all, Napa is the home of Thomas Keller, the genius behind my trusty Ad Hoc at Home cookbook.  Given how glorious the cookbook's recipes for potato paveleek bread puddingroast chicken, and crispy braised chicken thighs with fennel and lemon are, we knew we had to go straight to the source.  

That's how we found ourselves on Friday evening cruising the main drag -- probably the only drag -- of Yountville, me all googly-eyed and star-struck as we drove past the French Laundry, Bouchon, and Michael Chiarello's Bottega.

We arrived for our 9 pm reservation and were handed the day's menu.  Ad Hoc, as you probably already know, is an experiment in prix fixe eating.  Every night, they serve a different four-course, family-style menu.  Diners have no discretion over what to order, except for the wine and beverages (though I know they will accommodate vegetarians and other folks with dietary restrictions).

The menu looked pretty good.  But since we'd been disappointed once already today by our earlier visit to the Zuni Cafe, we didn't want to get our hopes up too high.

All skepticism vanished when the first course arrived.  (Sorry for the bad photography; it was pitch black in the restaurant.)  We started with a salad of baby mixed greens, with d'avignon radishes (from the French Laundry's garden), flavor flav plumcots, assorted cucumbers, and a honey yogurt dressing.

It was brilliant.  The ingredients were so fresh and worked gorgeously together. The honey yogurt dressing was tangy and sweet, without being overpowering.

This sounds weird, but we couldn't get over how well the salad was physically assembled: although everything was tossed together, you could taste the flavor and texture of each individual element.  Ad Hoc at Home has very specific instructions for how to toss a salad.  I used to think it was pedantic, but now that I've experienced an Ad Hoc salad, I understand the method behind Keller's madness.

Next came our main course, which was a grilled beef hanger steak with tomato-onion vinaigrette.  According to our very knowledgeable server, the steak was first dry-rubbed with paprika, cayenne, and espelette (a Basque pepper) then grilled.  The meat was tender, flavorful, and without doubt the best steak preparation we've every tasted.  But what really elevated it was the tomato-onion vinaigrette.  The miniature cherry and sungold tomatoes bursted with a brightness and sweetness that was just out of this world.

Accompanying the steak was pearl barley, made extra tasty and savory with fatted calf bacon, braised leeks, chioggia beets, and tokyo turnips.  The veggies, while braised, still retained a fresh, almost crisp mouthfeel.  And the bacon bits . . . oh, the bacon bits.  We took advantage of the darkness of the restaurant to lick the bowl.  

Then, like good Chews, we felt guilty.  Very very guilty.

Our server told us that the third course is always a cheese course.  Tonight's featured Landaff, a Vermont cheese, paired with cranberry relish, "living arugula" (as opposed to dead arugula, I suppose?), and toasted pecans.  The cheese was fine, but the relish was fabulous.  This was probably not a course anyone would set out to recreate, but it was a good palate cleanser and a serviceable warm-up act for the star of the night, the dessert course.

When I first saw the dessert option, I wasn't that excited.  Lemon poundcake seemed a bit of a snore, and while the buttermilk sorbet, candied pinenuts, and raspberry sauce seemed intriguing, the combo didn't make my heart go pitter patter.

But pitter patter my heart did when I took a bite.  The poundcake was a revelation.  Seriously.  It had a crispy, sugary, caramelized top and a luscious, melt-in-your mouth interior.  And the buttermilk sorbet was un-freaking-believable.  Tart and creamy, it paired so well with the poundcake and was heavenly when put together with the candied pinenuts.

My husband declared this among the top two desserts he ever ate (the other contender being the "bananas three-way" at Ibiza in New Haven).  I might have declared it the best dessert I ever ate, but I was too busy stuffing the generously sized poundcake into my mouth to declare anything.

Thomas Keller, we are so not worthy.


Cathleya August 3, 2010 at 2:49 PM  

How fun! We recently went to Ad Hoc too. I wasn't as thrilled with our dinner there, but I still hope to go again and try it out! I know a lot of it was my own fault; a main part of the dinner featured a lot of fennel, probably my least favorite flavor in the world :( But I can't wait to go again!

Mrs. Hot Cocoa August 3, 2010 at 10:24 PM  

@ Cathleya: Ooh, did they serve the chicken with fennel? (It's in Ad Hoc's cookbook.) I'm not a huge fan of fennel either, but when braised, it's quite mild and nice. I'm so jealous that you're relatively close by and can go often.

BigAppleNosh August 4, 2010 at 2:16 AM  

Oh, so cool! I got a signed copy of the Ad Hoc book at my bridal shower, it was one of my favorite gifts! Looks yummy :)

Try Anything Once Terri August 4, 2010 at 9:00 AM  

SOOOO JEALOUS!! Husband and I went to Napa late November 2008, and we are dying to go back. Ad Hoc looks really good. I have to admit something. We went to French Laundry and thought it was fine, but not spectacular (at least for the price). I am going to have a hard time convincing him to try Per Se.:( I will definitely put Ad Hoc on the list when we make our next plans for Napa.

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