Friday, December 15, 2006

Our trip to Bouchon

Jonathan says: In celebration of many things, including our own recent engagement, our friend's impending wedding, and the general gloriousness of early fall in Napa Valley, we decided to head for lunch to Thomas Keller's bistro Bouchon, located just down the street in Yountville from his more famous French Laundry. The Michelin Guide to Northern California had just awarded Bouchon a star despite being rather parsimonious in its distribution of awards to other San Francisco-area restaurants, and so we were especially eager to see what at Bouchon had warranted this treatment.

Seeb says: Up until the night before, I had thought of our lunch as a special advance celebration of Jonathan's birthday. Apparently, he had a larger plan in mind the whole time.

J: The restaurant itself is gorgeous, and decorated in classic French brasserie style: brass rails, mirrors on the walls, tiled floors, nouveau French paintings on the walls, and even a large potted plant in the middle. All told, very authentic. From the moment we sat down, the food was superb to match. The mini-baguette placed on our table was delicious, and the butter that accompanied it was superbly creamy and just a little bit sweet.

S: Loved the huge floor-to-ceiling potted plant in the middle of the seating area. I don't remember the tile exactly, but I get the feeling I didn't like it. The seat (velour or velvet, I think. red?) was comfortable, but the tables were lined up pretty close so that sliding in and out of the seat was tricky. And I was not the only woman who found this a challenge.

J: After much haggling, we initially decided to order a half carafe of a pinot grigio from a nearby (!) winery. When the waiter arrived, however, he strongly recommended the 2004 Domaine Vacheron Sancerre from the Loire Valley, and since I had been considering the Sancerre in the first place I fairly quickly agreed. Seebany, however, protested, arguing (quite correctly, as I readily admitted) that it was somewhat ridiculous to be ordering French wines while *sitting in Napa.* Nonetheless, in the end we opted for the Sancerre and were very happy that we did. The wine was light and crisp with hints of fruit and a finish reminiscent of black pepper, and it was delicious by itself and a wonderful complement to the seafood dishes that we decided to order.

S: To be precise, we were haggling over the amount of wine, not over the type. One of us would have to drive us back, after all.

My first course was not seafood, though. It would have come as a surprise to nearly anyone who knows me. I'm not the biggest fan of eggs, and I don't know much about the various types of cheese. But if there's anyone who could convert me with a quiche, it'd be Thomas Keller. The mushroom and roquefort quiche was just the right savory start. Not sulfury in smell or taste, but earthy from the mushrooms and the pungent cheese. But it was really the texture that made it different from just about any other quiche I've tried. Served in a small ramekin, the quiche was extremely custard-like. Fantastic, and all that *without* an overbearing egg taste. [Sadly, I don't remember the crust exactly, although I know it was not a typical flaky pie crust.] The richness actually made me wish for an instant for colder weather (!) that would do this warm comfort food justice. In fact it brought to mind exactly another dining moment in which French food was the ultimate comfort food - the coq au vin in the chocolately thick sauce we had last winter at Fringale. There's something about discovering comfort foods even though you never ate them as a child.

J: I ordered the rillettes aux deux saumons, essentially a spread of smoked and raw salmon preserved in a glass jar and covered with a layer of clarified butter (which the waiters skillfully removed). It was delicious in all of the ways that good salmon usually is, and moreover there was quite a bit of it. Seeb and I were both able to eat our fill before it had disappeared. The only minor slip-up in the service was that we were required to ask more than once before the waiters brought more bread for the rillettes. All told, not somehow as spectacular as Seeb’s quiche, but still very good.

As a main course I ordered the dish I had been eyeing (on the internet) for months, the moules au safran—basically moules frites (mussels and French fries) in a saffron and mustard sauce with hints of black and red pepper. The mussels were perfectly done, the sauce was deliciously spicy and more than a bit tangy, and the powerful aroma of saffron was a perfect complement to the mussels’ natural flavor. The pot in which the mussels were served was also impressively conceived; one corner of the pot was literally fenced off from the remainder in order to provide a space for dipping the mussels (and the fries) that wasn’t crowded by shells. And what fries—probably the best French fries I have ever eaten, better even than the duck fat fries at Hot Doug’s in Chicago (which are a favorite of many of this site’s bloggers). Perfectly salty, incredibly crispy, and not even terribly oily or greasy. The problem was that despite being the best fries I have ever tasted they were the least interesting thing on the table to eat, so we didn’t finish them.

S: So, here it is December 15th, and wouldn’t you know, I’ve taken so long to write now that I had to ask Jonathan to remind me what my main course was. Scallops with parsnip puree. Of course, once he said it I instantly remembered the texture of the parsnips and the scallops. The dish was very mild flavored, the scallops just a little buttery sweet and the parsnips as I imagine parsnips must usually be, (not having them often), a nice background flavor, really meant to let the scallops be the stars.

And then on to the dessert. Jonathan and I shared a lemon tart. Normally I would prefer something richer and, except in summertime, less fruity. But with the weather and the heft of the rest of the meal (lunch, i.e. lighter) it was a good choice. Chris had told Jonathan that Keller considered this lemon tart to be the apotheosis of this dessert; he believed that he had perfected the recipe and would never change it. This may well be, but I don’t think that we’re huge fans of lemon tart. Or perhaps we were just too stuffed from previous courses.

But one thing worth mentioning that is not about Bouchon, per se, ;) is that after lunch we walked a little ways up the road back to where we’d passed by the French Laundry. Took a look around at their little patio area and the iconic blue door, of course. Across the street was a small garden of three sets of four rows of vegetables (all labeled) that they grow and use at the restaurants. To view them all you have to step off the sidewalk and into the dirt, so don’t wear your absolute best pair of shoes to French Laundry or Bouchon.

I hadn’t heard of such specific varieties and strains. The garden certainly wasn’t large enough to supply the restaurant night after night, so I don’t know if it was a showcase garden, or if they only use these items as garnish. There were some really beautiful little “jingle bell peppers” ripe on the stalks that were very picturesque. I imagine a little goes a long way with those. All in all, a fun way to spend the afternoon.

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