04 February, 2010
I used to think the stereotype about the French having invented and/or perfected everything was completely false. But this idea is somewhat true in a few respects:
1) The Age of Enlightenment began in Europe, and many argue it began in France, so they helped invent part of our Western society's body of political and economic philosophy.
2) They have perfected champagne.
3) They perfected Thomas Keller's French cooking style (well, one Frenchman specifically, Roland Henin), as evidenced by his new outpost, Bouchon, in Beverly Hills.
Set in one of the most intimidating culinary areas in the city, literally across the street from Mastro's Steakhouse and around the corner from Spago, Bouchon is definitely surrounded by some big fish in the pond. But little did I know that it would prove to be quite the Grouper and hold its own.
It's very easy to miss the restaurant's entrance, as it is towards the rear of the Beverly Hills Garden building it calls home. Just keep an eye out for a valet booth, and he will be sure to direct you to the entrance, like he graciously did with me. I passed the small downstairs Bouchon bar, which immediately made my heart go pitter-patter. 'Obviously too small to be the restaurant,' I thought, like a Pavlov dog, I involuntarily began salivating, giddy about what was to come.
Upon entering the restaurant, you may feel as though you have the wrong address, but you don't. The concierge will greet you and show you up a large staircase to the real entrance of the bar and restaurant. And once you arrive, you will feel like you've gone returned to visit home with warm and welcoming friends and family. That is, if "home" for you is a two story 17,000 square foot modern mansion. Don't fret - this will be home for the night.
A long hallway leads you to another small bar at the edge of the dining room, and a view of the fresh oyster bar will not-so-subtly hint for you to order a few as a starter. I was seated and joined my girlfriend, and like a kid in a candy store, I couldn't help gawking. Here I was, just an everyday food geek, who sadly has not (YET) had the pleasure of experiencing Napa's culinary treasure chest or the restaurant where the legendary Chef Keller made his name and stamped the world with his fame for French cuisine. I had a piece of Yountville here in my own backyard. I wanted to cry tears of joy.
The menu was a charming folded piece of paper wrapped around the napkin and utensils. I quickly ran my eyes all over, catching sparkling shining words everywhere, like "Paté de Campagne" and "Oeufs du" dis' and dat, and of course, my personal favorite, "Confit de Canard." All French words meaning the same thing: DELICIOUSNESS. Synonyms, if you will.
My girlfriend F and I dove right in, making demands from the menu to our waiter with probably the most atrocious French pronunciations ever, but we didn't care. He wasn't French, so nobody was judging. We started with the Poireaux en Vinaigrette et Oeufs Mimosa, a leek salad topped with light as air whipped eggs. They seemed to have been 'deviled' first, and their creamy texture went perfectly with the mild leeks. Of course, having been tempted by them early in the evening, we washed down the salad with some fresh oysters. I could have stopped there, and gone home happy with the few awesome and memorable Keller courses, but why would I do such a thing?
Our next plate was the Paté de Campagne, a classic dish that can be incredible in the right hands, or terribly wrong in the wrong hands... We were confident that the paté was definitely in the right hands here. And it was. Buttery and nutty, it was light and giving, ready at the whim of your knife on the crispy toast. We were definitely down 'le' trou lapin Francoise!!!'
Next came our main courses, mine the Plat de Côtes de Boeuf (red wine braised short ribs), served over a bed of lightly sauteed cabbage, crunchy parsnips and sweet carrots. The beef was so tender, I cut through it with my fork alone. The sweet glaze and tangy red wine flavor slowed my bites so as to savor the dish as much as possible. My homemade slow cooked braised short ribs have never come out like this... I guess that's why this is Thomas Keller's Bouchon, and not The Moonlighting Fooditor's Bouchon.
My friend F ordered the Thon Confit à la Niçoise, or Tuna Confit over fingerling potatoes, bibb lettuce and topped with a hard boiled egg (that's where the Niçoise comes into play). As delicious as it was beautiful in presentation, this dish was a harmonious combination of the sweet and delicate flavors of the fresh seared tuna, the buttery and smooth texture of the seasonal potatoes and the earthiness of the egg. It definitely beat that Niçoise salad you had for lunch in your office building's first floor deli...
ALMOST, but not quite, too full to fit in dessert, we were easily swayed to complete our experience with a sweet ending. I opted for the Hazelnut Pot de Crème, while my friend chose the fresh Mango Sorbet. The dish of smooth hazelnut cream instantly brought memories of Europe and the decadent Nutella-filled desserts you normally only allow yourself to have while on vacation. I made the exception this night, and didn't regret it one bit. The hazelnut custard was accompanied by two of the butteriest and best butter cookies I have ever had, and I couldn't help but think, "I'll never look at another butter cookie tin tray the same..." F's fresh mango sorbet was as fresh and sweet and smooth as a Caribbean mango picked right off the tree and flash frozen. We never wanted the dinner to end. And then, it didn't.
On my way into the dining room, I made a comment to the maître d’ about the length of the hallway compared to the rest of the bistro. She explained that the restaurant is made up with 60% kitchen and 40% dining room. I immediately asked her if they allow tours of the kitchen, to which she replied yes, and suggested I ask my waiter about a tour. Having forgotten to ask the waiter about the tour, the maître d’ remembered on my behalf, and as my friend and I were preparing to leave, our waiter reminded me of my question and said the hostess could take us to see the kitchen. It was a small dream come true.
As we entered the kitchen, I noticed it was relatively quiet, and we subtly stood and watched the militaristic organization of the Bouchon kitchen. The chef du cuisine worked closely with all of the sous chefs, while the line cooks quickly moved around the space, prepping and assisting various people. We immediately noticed a large flat screen television on the opposite wall with a small camera above it. I asked the hostess what the television was for, and she explained it showed Keller's other restaurant kitchens simultaneously (Per Se in NY, Bouchon in Yountville, and Bouchon in Las Vegas). I was fascinated and inspired, and just like that, Thomas Keller left his mark on my culinary storybook forever.
And I didn't have to drive to Napa to experience it. Thanks, Mr. Keller. And welcome to L.A.