My Dinner at Ad Hoc

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.

14 thoughts on “My Dinner at Ad Hoc”

  1. Hey Craig, sorry I missed you during your visit to San Francisco. I think Ad Hoc is great but agree with you that there is one or two snippety servers. But the execution of the food is first-class. I couldn’t attend your meet-and-greet Sunday evening because I was at the Yankees game and felt depressed after they lost. :( Hope the rest of your trip was just as entertaining as your trip to Napa!

  2. hey! saw your request for scallops, and while i’ve never done them myself, i’ve watched our head chef about a trillion times. he takes U-10 divers scallops, and puts them in a pan where truffle oil has been heating, and essentially just pan sears them, and occassionally puts them in the oven for a bit to keep them warm. they’re also divine brushed with truffle oil and grilled!

    served with terragon and morel, oyster and portabella mushrooms make them even better!

  3. Okay, I’m totally convinced that I’ve been stupid for far too long in not driving up to Ad Hoc. Maybe we’ll go one night next week! Thanks for the inspiration.

  4. Adam,

    Make sure you eat at Swann’s Oyster Depot – it was the highlight of a trip my bfriend and I took to SF last year!

  5. Hi Adam,

    I’ve been reading through your account of your whole trip and this sounds like the best part. I hope it’s o.k. if I put my two cents in about the quail and scallops even though I’m not a chef. First, that crazy thing that people are always spouting off about is true: it’s about the ingredients. You cannot get a chicken to brown properly if it’s been wrapped up in plastic for days in a solution of salt water and who knows what else. Ditto for scallops, you need to get the dry packed kind. There’s a short and sweet explanation of that here. After that, the rest is easy. Pan searing and finishing in the oven as described above are the way to go and a little butter mixed in with the olive oil (or fancy pants truffle oil) will contribute to the caramelization because of the lactose (essentially a sugar) present in the butter among other things. I would go and find out what Harold McGee has to say about this, but I’m feeling too lazy.

  6. I love that you went to Ad Hoc by yourself. Though I do a lot on my own, I sometimes put off certain experiences in my imaginary “hope chest” for when I meet that special someone (

  7. sweetandsavory1

    Hey Adam,

    I love your blog. It constantly has me salivating. And to top it all off I leave NY for San Francisco, the place I once called home, next week. So thank you for getting me more excited than ever! I want a noon champagne picnic at the ferry building! How civilized indeed.

    Have you eaten at Blue Hill recently? I really think it may be the closest thing we have to a Yountville state of mind. I’m dying to go to the stone barn this summer.

    Thank you for always giving us something to chew on.

  8. Judith Stewart

    I thought the concept of Ad Hoc was good but I guess after reading all the glowing reviews I was expecting something more. Service was so-so, food was good. Hate the waiter’s uniforms.

  9. Didn’t you direct Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for the Ad Hoc group in college?

  10. I am so excited to find your blog. You had me laughing out loud and trying to explain to my husband why. I am going to Ad Hoc with a bridal group (can’t wait) although I don’t know if everyone will get it. Thanks for taking the drive, I feel much more comfortable taking them there.

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