(Note: this review was for when Chef David Cruz was heading up the Ad Hoc kitchen.)
I’d bet, that on the bucket lists of at least 50% of Americans, there exists one listing regardless of what number it is on the list: :# __: eat at French Laundry”. If I should terminate tomorrow, I’d die a bit happier knowing that I already did that. A few times, in fact.
Of course, I’d be willing to go again, still; you don’t have to ask ME twice! But having been there, let me share with you a secret. Down the street from French Laundry is another gem that is truly worthy of being on a bucket list, but you need not wait that long or spend that much. That gem is the other Thomas Keller restaurant — Ad Hoc.
How Ad Hoc Became My Favorite Restaurant in Wine Country
Now there is no comparison between French Laundry and Ad Hoc except that Thomas Keller created and owns both. No matter what new restaurant comes along, French Laundry forever holds a spot on the proverbial bucket list. But Ad Hoc offers something different.
Ad Hoc is a restaurant that was originally supposed to be Chef Keller’s “Burger Bar” concept. The story goes that when he decided to serve up “family style casual cooking” until the restaurant was completed, people willingly tried the food, but the idea was so phenomenal and the food so incredibly good that it just sort of stuck.
Fortunately for us, it remains stuck and from the looks of it, it’s here to stay — hopefully forever, or at least until I’m in dentures. Now I have visited Ad Hoc around ten times now in the last several years. On many winery visits, I’ll always schedule a group dinner or date at Ad Hoc before heading back down to San Francisco. Each time, while the menu has varied, it has always been a fantastic meal. There was one time when I felt that the first and second course were both a bit salty — but even so, the quality of the ingredients and the mastery in cooking was indisputable.
This time, however, I’d be opting for the wine pairing.
This took a regularly priced dinner of $49 per person into a $89 per person meal, but something told me it might be worth it. On my previous visits, we chose wines that would most likely go with the majority of the meal but it was impossible to try and choose one wine that would be ideal with all four courses.
Speaking of the courses – Ad Hoc always serves up four courses: the starter, the entree, the cheese dish, and a dessert. This being a pretty casual and laid-back restaurant, nothing about the courses are fancy; all I can guarantee is that all four courses are absolutely delicious. These four courses are offered for $49 per person, and served family style.
Family-style dining is always fun with good company — and the portions are quite generous. From what I understand, anyone is actually allowed to ask for more (as one might in a family setting), though even with my appetite, I have not had cause to do so as of yet. (I keep telling myself I will ask for more but by the time I get through the course, I’m full!)
On this night, however, they had something I had never seen before at Ad Hoc, while this is always available at The French Laundry — an additional “course” or upgrade to the meal for an additional fee — which we opted for, of course.
Before getting into the food, let me touch on one thing that really catapults Ad Hoc into a topnotch dining experience — the relaxed and friendly service! On this evening, Nathan was our server. Keep in mind that he has no idea I write for San Francisco Food and while it’s possible that he may have seen me eating at Ad Hoc on my previous visits (he says I looked familiar), he had actually never been our server.
Mr K, my dining companion for the evening, and I were otherwise complete strangers to him. From the moment we sat down, however, it felt like we were right at home and it was Nathan that made us feel that way. Never did we want for anything, and he came by just enough to make us feel like he actually cared what we thought of the food.
When we requested the wine pairing, he informed us that a few of the wines off the normal pairing menu were no longer available (it was 9:00 P.M. when we were seated), but that he’d be happy to select other wines to pair. I was hesitant for a second but decided I’d see what Nathan could pair up for dinner. Not to pat myself on the back, but I sure do know who to trust because the four pairings that soon followed were absolutely phenomenal.
So, off the bat, since I always say that good service makes or breaks the meal — thank you, Nathan, for a truly pleasant and memorable dinner.
Now, let’s talk about the food.
The First Course at Ad Hoc
The starter for the evening was Brandade Croquettes. With one bite, if you don’t know what brandade is, you would absolutely swear that you just bit into the most delectable and richest potato croquette ever, perfectly fried. Except, you would notice a taste that you can’t put your finger on….
Brandade is actually a salted cod that is basically pureed with olive oil and garlic until it achieves a mashed potato texture. Look at the texture!
At Ad Hoc, they fried it perfectly to a light crisp on the outside, and piping hot goodness on the inside. I felt really lucky to have visited on an evening they were offering this. This was the ultimate comfort food, shaped like poppers, but offering a protein source with the texture and feel of full carboyhdrates. Plated with English cucumbers and radishes, along with a frisee salad in the middle, it was simply delightful. Nathan paired this with a 2008 Pieropan Soave. This white wine was light on the nose, but medium-bodied. But paired with the brandade, it worked unusually nicely matching the crisp of the croquette with the fresh crispness in the wine. Despite not being an overly aromatic wine, it held up quite nicely to the croquettes.
Second Course at Ad Hoc
“Shrimp and Scallops” were the add-on option of the evening. For $10, it seemed a bargain, so we had opted to include it.
The shrimp was cooked to perfection, and the scallops were a tad bit overcooked for my taste. The dressing was a very light lime-based dressing, and one taste of it made me decide not to drink the wine that Nathan had chosen for us – a Syrah – more suitable to the actual entree (coming up next) than this course. On its own, it was just delicate enough, paired with a jicama salad, to kick the seafood’s flavor into high gear.
Third Course at Ad Hoc
Next up was the entree. Just smelling and look at this entree made me happy in anticipation of the explosion of taste that was to come.
The menu read, “Prime beef, Colorado lamb, and Grilled Chicken Skewers” — how does one go wrong with that? The skewered meat was piled atop a bed of herbed rice with some broccolini that was grilled to perfection.
I expected the beef to be great, and it was — but I didn’t expect the lamb to be so good that I couldn’t tell which was the beef and which was the lamb. I actually had to sit there and do a taste test to be able to get the slight and subtle differences between the two meats. The chicken was grilled to perfection also, and simply out of this world!
This course was paired with a Copain Syrah, “Tous Ensemble”. Despite the name, it originates from Mendocino. I was truly impressed with this pairing as it simply danced with the meat. Be it the lamb or beef, it enhanced the taste of both, and while very big and bold, it didn’t kill the delicious chicken. We devoured all of it, the entree AND the additional course!
Third Course at Ad Hoc–Cheese Course
Next up was the cheese course. On this evening, it would be Oma cheese with toasted brioche, olive tapenade and – get this – wild mushroom conserva.
Of all my visits to Ad Hoc, I have to say that the cheese course on this evening was the least impressive. Oma was a good cheese, safe and meaty, but nothing really that distinct about it. That said, the addition of the mushroom conserva was interesting but I’m not entirely sure that it enhanced the course in anyway, though it was tasty on its own.
I am normally not a big fan of olive tapenade; addition of olive tapenade to anything almost turned me off instantly, but Ad Hoc’s tapenade was actually quite delicious. It wasn’t as overpowering and dominant as other tapenades I have had , and with the brioche and cheese, it worked nicely to bring a slight kick to the otherwise rather bland Oma cheese. Adventurous cheese eaters, I think, would have been dismayed by this course on this evening. I, on the other hand, enjoyed it a lot, especially paired with the champagne shown below.
The Cremant de Jura was a true first for me. I tend not to like champagne too much — but this particular one tasted much like a Prosecco, if you will. Light, but not tart – it added a much needed sparkle to this course that was otherwise a little bit mum. Delicious!
The Final Course at Ad Hoc: Dessert
For the final course, we decided to take the wine pairing, but also order coffee to finish the meal. Having had Ad Hoc’s French press coffee on each visit, this time would be no different. I was also excited for Mr. K to try this amazing coffee. But first, we’d have to get through the dessert. On this evening, it was the Vanilla Panna Cotta. Never have I been let down with any dessert here, and I expected much of the same. What I did not expect was just HOW amazing this creation would be!
Each cup of Panna Cotta had a small fruit salad on top, with pineapples, pomegranate seeds and kiwi — as simple as it gets. The creaminess of the Panna Cotta, paired with the simple sweetness of the fruit salad was simply divine.
I spend a considerable amount of time taking snapshots of the food before I dig in, and once I was done with the whole presentation, Mr. K started eating his. I continued taking a couple more shot of the single cup that would be my own Panna Cotta in a few moments. I took a bite and looked up, only to find that he had completely devoured his. I took one bite of mine — took mental notes in my head and told him he could have mine. “No, no…. are you sure?” he kindly asked.
“Oh yes… go for it.” And then bam – that was gone, too.
I mentioned to Nathan when he brought us our coffee how much Mr. K enjoyed it – and that he ate both. Immediately, Nathan brought me another. (Awesome, I told you!)
I ate about half of that before I offered it to Mr. K who promptly swallowed that whole, too.
Wow. Cookie Monster ain’t got nothin’ on this guy.
This was paired with a 2009 Moscato d’Asti by Saracco, out of the Piedmont area of Italy. Now I am a huge fan of Moscato, and this was just as amazing as I had hoped it would be. Just the right amount of sweetness cleansed your palate and acted as the perfect ending to an amazing meal.
The coffee (was it really $22?) arrived, and we shared a cup each. Mr. K agreed that it was one fine cup of coffee. If you get to Ad Hoc, do not skip this part, though looking at the receipt, I am not so sure it was worth $11 a cup, now to think of it. But it is good.
Now of all of my visits, this was without a doubt the most expensive Ad Hoc meal I had ever had, coming to a whopping $227.29 before tip. Keep in mind, though, that we opted for the wine pairing, the additional course, AND apparently drank $22 worth of coffee.
Did it feel like wasted money?
Not at all.
Just the night before, on the first day of 2011, we had eaten at the amazing and more formal Sante for about the same price. That meal was heavenly, but the service left so much to be desired. On the next night, eating at Ad Hoc, the food was awesome as usual, but the service was phenomenal. All of it put together, no, it wasn’t wasteful — we had an experience worth at least that.
If cost is a consideration, I suggest you just order a glass or bottle of wine, and hope for the best. The additional course? Well, for an additional $10 per person, I’d do that part again.
While we all tend to credit Chef Keller with the creations at Ad Hoc, it should be noted that to my understanding, his involvement in the operations of Ad Hoc are minimal and more on an overseeing level. Much credit is due to the talents of the head chef, David Cruz. Chef Cruz was the head chef at Bouchon (Chef Keller’s other restaurant), and once Ad Hoc started, he was brought over to this location to head this restaurant. It’s actually Cruz’s creations that we get to enjoy every single night so allow me to give credit where credit is due.
(Update: In February 2013, Chef Cruz has left to begin his own venture. I’ll be on the lookout!)
All in all, 2011 started with a bang as far as meals went. Ad Hoc does not disappoint — and I am already looking on my calendar trying to squeeze in a trip for Fried Chicken night. Now I must go myself to figure out what all the hype is about. I mean — fried chicken is fried chicken, no? (I’m told that is simply not the case; we shall see!)
Ad Hoc is located at 6476 Washington Ave in Yountville. They are opened every night except Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. They also do a Sunday brunch, which I’m told is worth trying. You can check their website everyday to see their new menu for the evening. On some days, I’ve made same-day reservations to go because the menu sounded amazing.
Service: 9.3/10 Ambiance: 8.5/10 Food: 9/10 Addictive Factor: 9.5/10 Overall Rating: 9.25/10
UPDATE: I’ve visited once since Chef Cruz departed, and something….something integral to the cooking….is missing. I’ll try once more in the future before I change my rating for this restaurant.
Here are some photos from that visit: