Finding a good restaurant in the Napa/Sonoma wine region is not difficult. But what happens if you forgot to call French Laundry three or four months in advance to make a reservation?
For me the answer is one of Thomas Kellerís other restaurants, Ad Hoc, which combines fine dining with a relaxed casual atmosphere. Like the better known French Laundry, the philosophy of Ad Hoc is to use the freshest, highest quality ingredients, often grown in Yountville at Kellerís own property. These are combined in unique ways to provide the diner with a meal befitting the ingredients and the chef. There is a catch, however, and itís one that made me a little nervous at first; they have only one menu each night Ė a four course meal that is served to all diners. While this may sound a little off putting, remember we are talking about Thomas Keller, not Dennyís. The first time I went to Ad Hoc, two of the four dishes were items that didn't necessarily rank high on my list of favorites and certainly were things I would not have ordered if I were able to choose. In the end both items were delicious and opened new horizons for me.
The staff at Ad Hoc also deserves mention. With the world famous Culinary Institute of America at Greystone just a few miles away to draw from, the staff at the restaurant is well trained in all aspects of fine dining. Often times your server is a chef in training at the Culinary Institute, something Iím guessing you wonít find at many other restaurants. On one visit I learned quite a bit about the ďsous videĒ method of cooking from our waitress/chef in training. She explained sous vide is French for under vacuum. In the sous vide method you vacuum seal the meat, fish or poultry in a plastic pouch and cook it in a specific and low temperature for a much longer period of time. i.e. Instead of cooking a steak 500 or more degrees in a broiler for a few minutes, you set the temperature of the water bath for the desired temperature of the meat, perhaps 131 degrees, and cook it in the bath for hours. The meat is cooked slowly and evenly, and because it is vacuum sealed the flavors and juices canít escape during the cooking process.
Sometimes itís good to take the decisions out of play by letting someone else make the choices for you. This is particularly true when it comes to food and the person making the choices is Thomas Keller.