Wednesday, February 22, 2006

San Francisco Good Eats #3: Where's Thomas Keller? - Bouchon, Yountville, Napa Valley

To eat at Thomas Keller’s “French Laundry” requires a two-month reservation and an hour drive from San Francisco to the small town of Yountville. For $210, you’re entitled to a fabulous 9-course meal with complementary dishes from Chef Keller. Since my trip to San Francisco was planned with such short notice, I wasn’t able to reserve in time. But, I had to at least see what the place looked like since I was going up to Napa Valley anyway. As I drove up with DY and her friend Mei, I was anxious and excited. Fingers and feet tapping, I wondered if I’d be able to see Thomas Keller at his restaurant. After an hour, we reached the Yountville exit, and my anticipation grew from a slight finger-tapping on the steering wheel, to an accelerated heart-rate. I started to count down the address numbers…

6650… 6648… 6646… 6644… 6642…

and finally, 6640. I stopped the car, made a U-turn and parked the car along the roadside.

Me: “I’ll be right back.”
DY and Mei rolled their eyes.

I approached the complex slowly like a ninja. The gold-plated “French Laundry” sign was tucked neatly on the bottom of the building – quite easy to miss. Being careful not to be spotted as another tourist, itching for a peak into the French Laundry. I tried to take a peek inside the restaurant. Negative. The windows were blocked by shutters. Tightly. I then crept along the left side of the restaurant, and saw two cooks unloading goods. Probably $500 caviar and cases of foie gras fresh from France. Still no sign of my target. I went back around to the backyard of the restaurant. Keep in mind, before Chef Keller took over the house, it was a French Laundromat. I tippy-toed to look over the fence and I saw two young Asian cooks, probably stagiers (interns), chatting away. I wanted to go up the stairs to what I thought was the entrance, but people were guarding the door. And all of a sudden, I felt somewhat disappointed. My glimmer of hope had suddenly dissipated into oblivion and I walked back to my car. DY and Mei gave me puzzled looks.

DY: “Well did you see him?”
Me: “Naw.”
DY: “Who cares. Let’s go eat then.”

She didn’t understand how badly I wanted to meet him. But then again, what would I do if I did see him? Ask him to take a photo with me? Autograph his own cookbooks that I didn’t even own yet? Give me leftovers from last night’s $210 dinner? I then decided, one day before I die, I will forget that I’m Chinese, and actually give Thomas Keller my $210 without gripping onto the dollar bills.

By now, we were hungry from the long drive. I figured the next best thing to do was eat at Thomas Keller’s ‘cheaper’ restaurant, Bouchon, which is also located in the town of Yountville – three blocks away. I think the girls knew that I really wanted to eat at The French Laundry and agreed to eat an expensive lunch to make up for it.

Walking up to Bouchon, I didn’t see any large signs screaming its name. Instead, I found myself stepping on a large Willy-Wonka like rug on the ground that said “Bouchon”. Well not that big. I’m only exaggerating because I’m so fascinated with Thomas Keller. In a sense, it was like the Willy Wonka story. People flock to eat Thomas Keller's food, but do they really ever see him? Upon entering, I saw two cooks working behind the seafood bar. Bouchon was known for its many varieties of oysters and oceanic delicacies. I, of course, would try it some.

Seriously, Bouchon wasn’t as large and elegant as I imagined it to be. A few palm trees were placed inside. The floors wore a black & white checkered look. The walls painted with a French style. The patrons eating there? I think the average age was 103. After 10 minutes, we were brought menus, bread and water. Here’s what we had:

A. Oysters From the Bar
At $15 for 1/2 a dozen, these are quite pricey. Were they good? Yes. I couldn't remember the name of the oysters, but I know that the small and sweet, Kumamotos, were included along with three types of sauces.

B. Crab Salad with Watercress
I didn't get to try this, but the girls seemed to enjoy it. $9.75

C. French Onion Soup
This dish was very good, probably one of the better french onion soups i've tasted. The crust is actually not made of dough, it's ALL CHEESE, with maybe a few croutons in the soup itself. The soup had a balanced taste of sweetness and saltiness. $8.50

D. Roasted Leg of Lamb with Thyme Jus
This was my entree and I enjoyed every bit of it. Although a small portion, the lamb was cooked to a perfect medium doneness and al dente'd beans. I thought that they could use less Thyme Jus because my beans were drowning within. Very good though. $24.50

E. Croque Madame
This was basically a ham and cheese sandwich with a baked egg on top, served with fries. The girls split this and really enjoyed it. The egg cooked perfectly, and beautiful waterfalls of cheese oozing over the side of the sandwich. The fries sucked though - too salty and probably purchased from Sysco Foods.

Overall, I enjoyed the Bouchon, bistro-experience. I don't think I would come back though, because $45 for a lunch is a bit exorbitant. If you're gonna spy on the French Laundry like I have, you should just try this once. Or at least go to the Bouchon Bakery next door.

6534 Washington St.
Yountville, CA 94599
(707) 944-8037

After this, we spent the next 4 hours driving up and down the highway, stopping at a few of the 250 wineries in Napa Valley. I wish I can remember the good ones that we went to... but you can imagine after about 3 hours of drinking, it's quite tough.

Thanks for reading.


lrg said...

While I recognize your passion for food and undeniable admiration for Mr. Keller, don't you think it a bit disrespectful to assume that the fries at Bouchon came from the unholy Noble Sysco? I have enjoyably read many of your entries and found them to be full of insight and I am suprised at this claim. Surely someone you put on such a high pedestal, as he most definitely merits, should not be accused of such an unthinkable atrocity. Can't you chalk it up to an off day at the fry station?

Regardless, keep up the great work. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to share one's musings on a culinary life.

eatdrinknbmerry said...

LRG, I agree with your perspective on my contradictory statements on Chef Keller and, his Bouchon fries. As disrespectful as I may have sounded, it was simply sarcasm.

And if Chef Keller DID use Sysco fries, would it make him less of a world-renowned chef? Certainly not. I've worked at a restaurant and know others too that are in the industry - and it's not a surprise that places will use Sysco fries because:

(1) It is a hassle to make fries from scratch. The prepping of potatoes alone would eat up the majority of prep time.

(2) Fries would have to be flash-frozen (which requires another expensive machine in the kitchen) or cut to order. We all know what happens when potatoes aren't kept in water - they turn black.

I might give Bouchon a call to actually find out if they make their own fries haha.

But LRG, I appreciate you stopping by to read my thoughts and provide feedback. Thanks.

BoLA said...

Great post as always! Gotta get MS to take me to the French Laundry and Napa one of these days! ;)

Kirk said...

Hey EDBM - Stalking Mr Keller, huh? That's really funny. A Ninja, approaching Mecca.....

eatdrinknbmerry said...

Bola, i'll start reminding ms to take you up to Napa. You reading this MS? Man, you two will have such a good time up there. The food is good, and the wine never stops pouring. I miss it already.

Kirk, stalking is a harsh word to use haha. I don't wanna be issued a restraining order now.

Kirk said...

Can you imagine finding a portal into the mind of Thomas Keller - ala Being John how much could you charge for admission to that?????

yoony said...

damn, i want to goto french laundry! do you have the book? it's awesome.

eatdrinknbmerry said...

Kirk, I would pay to see that. Hopefully I don't get ejected onto some grassy knoll by the freeway. That's the funniest part of the movie - when ppl get ejected.

Yoony, F.Laundry and Bouchon are on my Amazon wishlist. I think i'm leaning more towards getting the Sauce Bible and Culinary Artistry at the moment. I could be spending some dollars just for a Thomas Keller dish.

Passionate Eater said...

Your picture and description of the croque madame is literally going to make me keel over and "croak!" I never knew that that is what a croque madame is though. It essentially seems like a croque monsieur plus a egg cooked over easy.

Also, about your comment about the Sysco-brand fries. HILARIOUS! Hey, I wouldn't be surprised if they did! Even pricey food joints cut corners sometimes and do as Rachael Ray says, "Take help where [they] can get it!" You'd be amazed at the restaurants that use canned or jarred vegetable items, when the patrons swore they were homemade.

eatdrinknbmerry said...

PE, you don't like eggs??? This sandwich was so good! There is nothing wrong with cutting corners... well not as much as Sandra Lee the Semi-Hoe does.

Passionate Eater said...

Whoops, I meant "croak" in a good way.

Steve Wasser said...

Cool writeup!

I actually yanked my post about it, because I didn't want to make a deal out of it, but we secured reservations at the French Laundry in a couple of months. It took two days and four people, but we did it! As for Bouchon, don't know if you ever read my post, but that was the one in Vegas. I'm going to spark a debate on the next podcast about the authenticity of Vegas outlets.

eatdrinknbmerry said...

Zteve, i'll be looking forward to your posting on the French Laundry. I hope you take as many pics of the place as you did with Robuchon. Take photos of the bathroom too haha. You're a lucky bastard.

Sylvie said...

Enjoyed the post. You share my desire to dine at the French Laundry. that just seems like the ultimate dining experience to me.

Steve Wasser said...

I'll take pictures of Keller's nose hair if I get my way. I pushed myself into the Inn at Little Washington's kitchen, I have every intention of taking advantage of this opportunity and give myself the grand tour. Dry cellar, freezer, garden...

eatdrinknbmerry said...

Sylvie, thanks for dropping by. I can't wait to go up to Napa Valley again. Regardless of FL, the food up there is generally good.

Zteve, check this out. My catering boss went up to the FL and told the waiter she was a chef... guess what she got to do? Got to go in the kitchen and watch the cooks at work. How awesome is that.

Steve Wasser said...

I'll probably do that, even though all I do is help out at garde mange and do a lot of prep in my buddy's kitchen once in a while. They'll just have to wonder how a prep cook can afford it as I pay them in cash with sequentially numbered bills.

eatdrinknbmerry said...

Haha, you got like 200 one-dollar bills and a piggy bank from when you were 11.

Thomas Keller: "Mr. Wasser, I'm afraid we cannot accept this many one dollar bills. Don't you have two 100 dollar bills on you?"

Looking forward to your FL posting. You should do a countdown thing b/c i'll definitely be waiting for your write up

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