Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Dish on Dining: Ad Hoc

Keller’s Family-Style Spot Is No Passing Fancy
6476 Washington St., Yountville
Napa Valley
Ph: 707.944.2487
Web site
Pre-fixe dinner Thursday to Monday (UPDATE 9/13/08: Ad Hoc now serves dinner nightly and Sunday brunch)
Reservations, major credit cards accepted

This week my nephew from college came to visit me for his spring break. While there weren’t a bevy of bikini babes around, we did our share of celebrating with a warm early spring weekend in Napa Valley.

When in Napa, you can’t go wrong with dinner at any of the fine establishments on Washington Street in Yountville. A couple of those establishments, of course, belongs to the renown Thomas Keller of The French Laundry and Bouchon. And now there’s a third option, the “temporary” casual family-style restaurant called Ad Hoc.

So the story goes that Keller opened Ad Hoc last November with the idea that it would be open for just six months as he develops his more permanent concept for a rustic burger joint. But like all things Keller touches, the restaurant has been another golden success and word has it that the restaurant will be open indefinitely.

Walking into the cozy room brightly painted in Napa colors, you get a sense that someone purposely tried to make the place seem temporary. It’s as if temporary was the design theme, starting with the “name tag” stickers as a look for the restaurant sign and the words “for temporary relief from hunger” throughout. By the bar, a wall hanging says simply “Restaurant” and the knives come from “Christofle Hotel” almost like it was bought in bulk at a restaurant consignment store.

But the temporary feel does not flow into the service and food. Like all Keller’s other restaurants, Ad Hoc runs like a well-oiled machine. Dinner seating and reservations are paced nicely so that people aren’t crowded at the door waiting and the servers (with the exception of one who greeted us at the door) were friendly and attentive.

Along with the casual setting (the receptionist responded, when asked about the dress code on the phone, “we wear jeans so you can too”), Ad Hoc offers the concept of family meals with a fixed four-course menu for dinner, similar to Chez Panisse. I like the idea of having the menu set by the chef, based on what’s fresh at the market that day, and that I won’t be overwhelmed by many choices. And it’s also a neat sense of camaraderie knowing that everyone else is eating the same thing. So there’s not a lot of peeking at other tables to see if others were smarter in their menu selection.

On the night I went with my nephew, the four courses included Roasted Beet & Chickpea Salad, Braised Snake River Farm’s Kurobuta Pork Short Ribs, Cana de Cabra (a cheese course) and a Warm Basque Cake for dessert.
Because it’s family style, the dishes are brought out on a single platter and diners serve themselves, passing the big plate around the table. Since it was just the two of us, it was easy to serve and the portions were very generous.
The salad was a beautiful boat of red and golden beets with julienned endives and many, many chickpeas. It was well done, but that’s because beet salad is not very complicated to make. (You can even see the recipe that I make on my own.) Still, it was a nice start to the dinner reflecting the season.
Our main entree of braised pork short ribs looked mouthwatering. I could just see the sea salt still crystalized on the top of the pork. It was a moist, soft adventure in eating. My educated guess is that the pork was prepared using the plastic bag technique where moisture is locked in but the meat is cooked in a plastic bag. I say this because the meat was sooo tender but the fat was not rendered off at all. The fatty portions of the pork was just as soft as the meat. For my personal taste, I’m no fan of fat (which is why I don’t eat foie gras), so having to maneuver around chunks of pork fat was not appealing.

What was amazing, however, was the bed of roasted Yukon gold potatoes and the apples that topped the pork. Both were cooked just right. In fact, my nephew and I loved the potatoes so much that I asked for another serving, which we ate with our next course, the cheese plate.
The cheese plate was an interesting grouping of a Spanish goat cheese, almonds and a quince paste. They all looked very appealing, but I didn’t understand how we were supposed to eat this dish easily. I basically grabbed a tiny almond, scooped up a bit of cheese and dipped it in the paste. It was a nice combination, but a lot of work. Our server thought we didn’t like the cheese because we only ate a quarter of the cheese despite using all the almond pieces. The cheese was excellent, but I asked the server how we were supposed to eat it (I really was looking for some crackers). He said some people just got their fork and dug right in. Just the thought of that made my arteries harden at the image.

Our final course was dessert and keeping with the Spanish theme, we were served an individual size Basque cake topped with dried fruit compote. I was looking forward to a warm cake, but after having a life-changing warm cake in Vietnam recently, my standards for warm cake is very high. The cake at Ad Hoc was tasty, but it was slightly dry and the exterior was a bit tough. The fruits selected for the toppings could have been more interesting, but it was uneventful dried fruits. It was an OK ending to what started off as a promising dinner.

A minor note: I had two glasses of wine (my nephew wasn’t drinking). I started with a white Riesling to pair with the beet salad and moved on to a Napa Valley Cabernet Franc to go with the pork. Both were marginal and quite forgettable, which is disappointing for a restaurant in the heart of wine country.

Despite some missteps in the dinner menu, the overall experience of Ad Hoc was relaxing and fun. The casual setting made it easy for one to relax and enjoy the food, and the food did provide a few highlights. It’ll be interesting to go back to Ad Hoc when it serves something other than short ribs (apparently the pork short ribs is a popular entree because I’ve heard of others being served this entree item on other nights).

Ad Hoc is also a nice price point to expose yourself to the Keller experience without getting a line of credit to dine at The French Laundry. Because of Keller’s reputation, the location on Washington Street, and what will probably be an increasing level of menu creations, I’m sure this temporary restaurant will be around for some time.

Single guy rating: 4 stars (perfect for families with an expense account)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner


Anonymous said...

In theory, I like the idea of a set menu but do you know if they offer other main course options -- say, if you don't eat meat or if you don't eat pork? Also, you failed to mention one of the best restaurants on Washington Street -- Redd. My wife and I went there for brunch last year and it was some of the best food I've ever had in the Wine Country. Also, Bistro Jeanty is an excellent French bistro. -- David

Single Guy Ben said...

Sorry, I don't know what they do for vegetarians or non-pork lovers. I eat everything! I bet they probably do have something as a backup. You could probably ask the reservationists if you call to reserve. They're all very friendly.

As for Redd, that sounds interesting. But I was just noting the Thomas Keller restaurants in Yountville. But like I mentioned, there are tons of dining options just on that stretch of road in Napa Valley.