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Restaurants & Bars 11

A Day in Napa - Bouchon Report

Morton the Mousse | Oct 18, 200504:42 PM

Bouchon was our raison d’etre for the Napa trip. It did not disappoint, rather, I was blown away. The food approached perfection, the entire evening was a pleasure. If this is Keller’s version of a Bistro, I can’t wait to try TFL next year.

For starters they brought out a bowl of freshly roasted pistachios (still warm) along with the requisite bread, nice touch. They were the best pistachios I’ve had, fresh, crunchy, lightly salted, even surpassing those at the Farmer’s Market. Those perfect pistachios set the theme for the rest of the meal.

We started with the Foie Gras Terrine. I was a bit reluctant to order it because I’ve always preferred seared foie to cold, but the $50 price tag, and our server’s strong endorsement, piqued my curiosity, so we splurged. Boy, am I glad I did. Bar none, the best preparation of foie gras I’ve ever had. Presentation was amusingly simple: a mason jar, a plate of warm toast spears and a bowl of salt crystals. We peeled back a thick seal of fat and there it was: bright pink, beautiful foie. I was in heaven with the first bite. What amazed me was the purity of flavor. Zero metallic aftertaste. There was no need to pair it with fruit to balance out the metallic. There was no need for bitter greens to cleanse the palate. All it needed was a little salt to bring out the sweetness of the foie (honestly, it didn’t even need that). Every bite was a pleasure, yet my palate was never overwhelmed. It was a generous, six ounce portion and we opted to save half for lunch the next day so that we could eat the rest of our meals. I am now officially converted to the church of cold foie.

Next came the autumn vegetable gnocchi. These were perfect gnocchi, bite sized puffs that evaporated in your mouth with a burst of flavor. I’m always amazed by the mystery of the perfect gnocchi: how is something so light, yet so rich, so unobtrusive on the palate yet so flavorful? The gnocchi were paired with brussel sprouts and mushrooms, and it was the first time I’ve used the word exquisite to describe a brusell sprout. The course was dressed with a brown butter sauce which was interesting as I usually see gnocchi in a cream sauce. It was a welcome change, the brown butter did not distract from the flavors and textures of the gnocchi in the way cream so often does. Now I’m going to want all of my gnocchi with brown butter.

The quiche of the day was a Florentine: spinach and mushroom. At the risk of sounding redundant, this was the best quiche I’ve ever had. Have I used the word perfect enough? I must use it once more to describe the custard. The custard was smooth and rich with a texture that held its substance and stood up a few inches, yet still gave way to the tongue effortlessly. The crust was light and flakey, the top had a brown crisp (though not in the least bit burnt). It was divine.

Last came the roasted leg of lamb with crispy polenta. I love lamb but the leg is often not the best cut, it can be gamey and tough. Not so with this lamb. The flavor was wonderful, without a hint of gaminess. Lamb is one of those meats where quality and freshness is extremely apparent, almost like fish, and I could tell that this lamb was as fresh and high quality as it gets. Served nice and rare with a tender, juicy texture that went beautifully with the polenta and gravy. It is among the best preparations of lamb I’ve had, although I’ll still give that distinction to Boulevard.

Despite our rich and decadent meal, there is always room for dessert. I was thrilled that both the ice cream and sorbet of the day were my respective favorites, cinnamon and coconut, so we ordered a scoop of each. The cinnamon was as good as the ice cream at Sketch, which is the highest compliment I can pay a scoop. The coconut was good, but a little too sweet and not as good as the sorbet at Sketch. We also shared the day’s pot de crème, mint. There’s a funny story to go along with the dessert. As we were eating our apps, a (very drunk and loud) table near us sent back the pot de crème. They said it was disgusting and inedible, they were expecting something “tasting like mint ice cream” whereas this “just tasted like herbs.” We were amused enough with their ignorance to order the pot, and it was divine. It tasted like peppermint, exactly as it should, creamy and herby and wonderful. We had a good chuckle with our server about how people should know what they’re ordering and not be disappointed when they get what they ask for.

The atmosphere in Bouchon is hilarious; like something out of a satirical cartoon. The tables are inches apart, you must literally squeeze between them to get to the booth. It is impossible to not eavesdrop on the table next to us, or even a few down. I couldn’t help but hear our neighbors making fun of me under their breath for ordering beer (an incredible draft pilsner from France, BTW, mad the perfect aperitif, they didn’t know what they were missing). I couldn’t lean back without servers brushing against me. Our server was there to take our orders and deliver the food, and that was pretty much all we saw of him.

Don’t misunderstand me, this is not a criticism of the atmosphere or the service. This is a bistro, and when I’m getting premium quality food with the Keller brand yet without breaking the bank I don’t expect an army of waiters fawning over me and wiping my mouth. I enjoyed the bustle, the noise, the eavesdropping, and as I got drunker the atmosphere became more lively and fun. This is a bistro, and if you go with a bistro mentality, you’re sure to have a good time.

Total for the meal was a hair under $200, but we splurged: roughly half of that was on drinks and foie and we tipped our server 25%. I think a more prudent couple could easily do dinner for under $100, lunch for under $50. The food was amazing, we had a wonderful time and I can’t wait to return.

Link: http://www.frenchlaundry.com

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