So I have this car I rented, here in San Francisco, and on Saturday–after the farmer’s market–I wanted to put it to use. I never realized that the Napa Valley was so close to the City by the Bay and after the storm let up, and as I considered my options, I decided that I would venture out to Napa to eat at Thomas Keller’s newest (and arguably, coolest) restaurant: Ad Hoc.
Do you ever make a flash decision like that and then, as you live it out, you enjoy it so much that you keep patting yourself on the back and saying out loud, “I’m so glad I did this!” Well that’s what happened to me. As I journeyed to Yountville, there were several things I found great pleasure in:
(1) Driving. I haven’t driven a car since I moved to New York, and that was about three years ago. I thought I’d forget everything, but not only did it all come back–I forgot out how fun it could be. Driving up to Napa was a soul-cleansing experience, certainly enhanced by…
(2) Music. Since I have my laptop with me, I was able to burn three CDs before I left. The terrifically fun Mika CD “Life in Cartoon Motion,” Jenny Lewis’s “Rabbit Fur Coat” (which Craig gave me and which I highly recommend), and then, the astoundingly perfect new Lucinda Williams CD “West.”
“West” went into my CD player just as I exited to Yountville, and I dare you to construct a better soundtrack for the following scenery:
(Notice the bird in that shot? Do you think it’s a hawk?)
Ok, so I arrived in Yountville around 4 pm. The woman at Ad Hoc, on the phone, suggested I get there no later than 5:15 if I wanted a seat at the bar because it would fill up super quickly. So I had an hour and fifteen minutes to kill and I decided to spend that hour and fifteen minutes tracking down The French Laundry, which was, allegedly, in the same area.
You have to understand how funny this is. Yountville is basically Thomas Keller town. There’s a wooden shopping mall with lame art stores, some kind of winery, and then there’s Bouchon, the Bouchon Bakery, Ad Hoc and–somewhere on this same road–the French Laundry.
Pim called me around this time and we made plans for later in the week and I told her my situation: I was in Yountville and killing time and I was trying to find the French Laundry. Where was it?
“Keep the freeway to your left,” she said, “and you’ll see it–it’s an ivy covered house on the right.”
So we hung up and I drove down the same strip 80 times. Then I turned off on to side roads, secret twisty roads that led to signs that said, “No trespassing! Beware of dog!” Luckily, these roads were beautiful and some of the pictures you see above I took while trying to track down the French Laundry.
As 5 o’clock approached, I turned back on to the main strip where Ad Hoc was, and as I gave up on my quest, I noticed an ivy covered house on my left:
I parked the car and got out and sure enough:
There it was. I couldn’t believe it. It’s so unassuming, you’d never know. I decided to sneak around a bit, to peek into the kitchen. This was easy to do: the entrance to the restaurant is an open courtyard, and it was there that I found an open bathroom which I used.
Now there was a nagging voice in my head: “Pssst,” said the nagging voice. “Why don’t you go into the restaurant and ask if they have any cancellations or anything for a party of one?”
This voice was persistent but I killed the voice with a giant fork. I decided that my first time at the French Laundry wouldn’t be now, it would be a special occasion down the road (hopefully with Craig—awwwwww).
(Interestingly, Sam and Catherine and a few people told me at my meet-up that the French Laundry is very gracious to parties of one who just show up, that they may very well have sat me. What was I thinking!)
(Fascinatingly: the good people behind Bunrab, who came to my meet-up, were eating there that very night! What a small world.)
Anyway, I turned my back on the French Laundry and went to Ad Hoc. Remember Ad Hoc? That’s what this post is about, after all. Back to the sign:
Ad Hoc is a brilliant idea for a restaurant. For $45, you get four courses of Thomas Keller food. How could that be bad?
Every night the menu changes. Can you see this picture of that night’s menu?
It’s a little blurry but I bet you can make out some of it.
I sat at the bar and it was the coziest bar setting I’ve ever experienced. The space each person gets is enormous and I felt entirely comfortable there, more comfortable than anywhere else I’ve eaten alone.
This is what the restaurant looks like from the perspective of the bar:
It’s a warm space, almost like a house, and though it started out as a temporary idea, it feels like it could be more permanent. (I overheard a waiter say that it was first intended to be a burger place, but now, it’s been so successful, they may let it remain what it is.)
I had two servers serving me. The first was a man and he was a bit snippety and not very helpful or interested. The second was a woman and I loved her.
She helped me choose a glass of wine that’d go best with the tricky meal (quail and scallops?? white or red)? That wine was a local Pinot Noir called Fog Dog. Isn’t that a great name? Here it is, in a stemless glass:
What could be more fun than drinking a glass of wine in the Napa Valley? I felt like Paul Giamatti, only less angry and more gay.
Here’s a blurry picture of that night’s menu on a chalkboard:
And here’s the first course: “Grilled Tolenas Farm Quail over bloomsdale spinach, toasted pine nuts, dried currants and crispy pancetta.”
I can hear your taste buds moisten. Isn’t that a great picture? I got lucky with the natural light.
The quail was phenomenal. I wanted to beat my way to the kitchen to ask the chef how, exactly, you get the outside so crispy and flavorful and the inside so moist. And then the spinach was miraculously green: they must have shocked it, but then did they reheat it? And the pine nuts and currants gave it a Zuni flair without being copy cat at all.
The next course was “Main Diver Scallops with glazed young carrots, sugar snap peas, and roasted sunchokes.”
This dish perfectly embodies what Ad Hoc is about. Peas and carrots are cafeteria food, frozen TV dinner food, defrostable comfort food for the masses. Here they’re done to perfection and, like the quail, the scallops are cooked with such genius that I must beg anyone who reads this who knows the secret cooking technique to write me an explicit detailed account of how I can achieve this at home.
And now for the sunchokes:
These you CAN make at home and you totally have to because they were my favorite part of the whole meal. My guess: you just buy sunchokes, douse them in oil, sprinkle in salt and pepper and roast in a hot oven. You won’t believe how good they are. I’m craving a plate of them right now.
Oh this is a good time to tell you that Ad Hoc is normally a family style restaurant: the dishes you see above, if served to a larger group, are placed on giant plates and everyone takes for themselves. And if you’re still hungry, they’ll bring you as much as you want. Sort of like the Sizzler, except more sophisticated.
And now for cheese: Cypress Grove Chevres Humboldt Fog, anomaly vineyard’s kumquat marmalade.
Like Rogers and Astaire, Rosie and Barbara, this was a perfect pair. The kumquat was zesty and tart and sweet and the cheese was creamy and tangy and subtle. I loved it.
And then the restaurant tried to kill me. They put this Apple Cranberry Crisp in front of me and the person next to me said, “You have to finish that whole thing.”
Not on your life. I took a few bites and I was done. I had the waiter wrap it up (and he put the ice cream in with the cobbler—I had to ask him to take it out, because I’d be driving an hour.)
I got the bill and couldn’t believe how cheap it was: $67, with wine and tax and tip for a four-course Thomas Keller meal. Please, Mr. Keller, won’t you open up in New York?
The drive back was equally lovely. Look at this picture I shot as I returned to San Francisco:
I came back refreshed, replenished, and totally glad that I rented a car. I gave Raife the rest of my cobbler and headed off to dreamland–a land that looked a lot like Yountville.