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Dinner at Ad Hoc

February 24, 2010

As part of an ongoing gastronomic adventure, I was delighted to have a late dinner a few weeks ago at Ad Hoc. For those who don’t know, Ad Hoc is located in Yountville, Ca. and is the casual style restaurant owned by renowned Chef Thomas Keller.

This restaurant was the one Keller composed with the temporary intention of serving family style food, prepared in a highly skilled way, while using fresh local ingredients.

In the Ad Hoc cookbook there is a section about the history of the space and how it came about. It partially began with an email/ memo of his idea that was sent to all the staff. The concept of  the staff meal served family style was the  inspiration for creating this restaurant.

Working in restaurants over the years, I’ve seen my share of the staff meal, a meal created for the restaurant staff by the sous chef (or appointed person in charge of staff meal). Usually using leftover ingredients of  bits of this and that, to create something delicious, edible, and fuel induced to get everyone through the night.

In the restaurants I worked the kitchen staff rarely had the free and leisurely time to sit down with the front of the house to have a quick meal, (like you might see in some movies) and as is done in many restaurants. I usually grabbed a plate, ate it quickly while I had a chance, in between removing baked  items from the oven, doing last-minute prep, refilling the ice and salt levels on the old school ice cream maker, and convincing one of the busboys to make another espresso for me (thank you Marco).

Many  times we had a staff meal for breakfast (when we were open for lunch). The guys would send a waiter to the store for tortillas to be fried up as chips, they’d make super hot fiery roasted green salsa,  chiliquiles with refried beans, and fried eggs to go on top. I’d usually celebrate this occasion with a sprite on crushed ice, and another espresso. This usually got us through lunch service and some of dinner, and  after dinner, J. would usually make something special using leftovers, sometimes pasta with lamb, or sometimes fried fish with homemade tartar sauce and mango salad. I’d put out cake scraps, with fruit and creme,  and donate the previous day’s ice cream to the cause of the staff meal.

I like the concept of serving food family style on the table, because it allows for the cross contamination of sharing for the diners, an alternative to specific portions ordered on each individual plate. I don’t think all restaurants need to serve food in this style, but it works for some, and that’s what gives it the charm.

At Ad Hoc the menu changes daily, it is 4 courses, and the price is about 50$ not including wine. My only gripe is that it is quite a drive from the city. Especially at night, as I’d love if  Ad Hoc was down the street, then I could eat  there on Monday’s for fried chicken night and bring my own bottle of Jeriko (I didn’t fall in love with their wine by the glass, maybe we need to order a bottle of something next time).

Started with an amazing salad of local green beans, frisee,  poached egg, romesco sauce, shaved cippolini onions, and sunchokes.

This salad was absolutely incredible. Beautifully and naturally arranged,  the romesco sauce generously smeared across the side of the plate, green beans perfectly cooked, the right amount of  slightly bitter and acidic spice from the onions. Bursting into the poached egg, gave way for the yolk to run into the tomato and olive oil, and it was simply wonderful. The sunchokes had been roasted, they were slightly chewy and meaty, a nice replacement to the ubiquitous bacon (nothing against bacon).

If I had to call a salad perfect, it would be this one. If I had to call it simple , it would also be  this one. This salad just reaffirms ideas about  cooking minimally, seasonal food, and its  preparation. Looking at the picture brings back the memory of that taste, how flavorful and good  it was, and uncomplicated it doesn’t have to be. It makes me also think we should have had white wine with this, and I fought my dining partner to the last string of bean.

Next was the main course

(I apologize for the blurry image, I think I was wrestling my dining companion for the metal bowl).

Skirt steak, blue cheese compound butter, wilted greens and roasted squash.

I have had  steak in restaurants with blue cheese compound butter before, heck I’ve even made blue cheese compound butter for steak at home. So what is so great about this dish you ask? Well nothing really, it’s just steak, blue cheese, squash, wilted greens, but as my dining companion would say “it’s bloody good.”

Ad Hoc isn’t a restaurant that asks the diner “How would you like your steak cooked?” No they just bring it how and serve it to you the way the Chef has intended it to be eaten. In this case medium rare. The outside had a nice seared salty and charred crust, the inside was still moist delicious, and slightly rare. Great steak.

So what’s the big deal, you might be thinking? Well this past weekend I was fortunate enough to be eating at a highly recommended eatery (on the JBA semifinal list) on Mission street. I had really  great wine by the glass, the restaurant had a lovely urban interior with exposed brick walls, the place was completely packed at 8:30 p.m. on a Saturday night, and I was  served  a lukewarm and largely mediocre 30$ steak.

I appreciate a good steak when I get one, and though Ad Hoc was serving skirt steak and restaurant X was serving me Prime, meat is still meat (in my humble opinion), and preparation of said meat is what makes it cooked, cooked well, and “bloody good” if I might kindly add.

A cheese course came next. ..(look! it’s a picture of California cheese!) the name of the cheese I have forgotten, such a shame I know, I should know. I’m admitting the absence of my memory (and it wasn’t from the wine) as well as the components of the delicious compote it was served with.

Dessert was a triple chocolate Bavarian with almond biscotti.

Not much you can do with the presentation here, though for some reason I’d serve it in a different glass. Though I do appreciate the fluted parfait glasses for their vintage feel (and because mason jars with hinges are so over done for pudding). Who am I, to argue with Mr. Thomas Keller, and his talented staff?

Ad Hoc served up a great simple meal, fun space, and really great front of the house staff. It is a bit of a drive to get to, but I have a feeling I will make my way back, hopefully on a Monday night for fried chicken.

The Ad Hoc cookbook is also a wonderful read, with fun well detailed pictures. As a Chef who is known as being a highly OCD  character and extremely serious, the cookbook captures him in a very playful (Keller with finger to mouth, shushing that the ‘lamb is resting’) and relaxed manner. The recipes are very approachable though I’ve heard mixed views on this for the home cook. The book is very inspiring for me, now that I am surrounded by such a bounty of seasonal local produce at the markets here. And making Keller’s chicken pot pie is at the top of the list right now, I’ll let you know how it goes.

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