Bouchon is Tres Bon

I spent the last week in Napa Valley taking a course, a Culinary Programme at The French Laundry Restaurant in Yountville, California. I’ll have lots to share about my experiences at Chef Thomas Keller’s inspirational, Michelin-starred fine dining Mecca soon enough I assure you, after I spend a short while reflecting on my time there. Lots and lots of blog-fodder there for sure!

I was at the Laundry for most of the daylight hours, but I had enough free time to check out the Yountville dining scene. I ate two meals at Chef Keller’s Bouchon, his superb mini-chain of high-end bistros. I’d eaten there last in 2003 and while my recollection of it was positive, it certainly didn’t resonate with me then as it did this past week. I had two very enjoyable meals.

The decor is light-hearted, a refreshing homage to the bistro without any irony.

So much has already been said about Keller’s attention to detail and the manner in which he strives for perfection, that I feel I can add little. I met the man at The French Laundry and he was personally quite welcoming. I found the man himself to be pleasant, focused, and professional; he wasn’t much in the kitchen, but he was certainly on the scene, his presence and influence felt everywhere like a pulse in the ether. Would that I had an opportunity to pick his brain a bit, not about the inner workings of his restaurant, but about food itself! And not about his rigorous technique, but his inspirations and how they shape his cuisine. Perhaps in the future!
Bouchon is Keller’s recreation of French Bistro fare, and his impeccable taste and culinary refinement are again on display. The food is casual but artfully created, the atmosphere is sociable and nearly clangorous when busy, and the decor recalls that classic “bistro” look without any hokum or deliberate irony. It’s a comfortable, inviting place to eat. Service was friendly and professional. And the food was all delectable and mostly superb! If you’re in Yountville, just go! Or visit the sister Bouchons in Vegas or Beverly Hills.

This is not really a review, but a few photos with comments. I recommend Bouchon with only a few quibbles.

The menus are printed on folded wax paper and make a cute keepsake.

The waiter started me with some of the delicious epi baguette made just forty feet away at Bouchon Bakery (a whole blogpost in and off itself!). Shaped like wheat buds, the teardrops of crunchy and yeasty bread was just hot enough to melt the delightful house butter sourced from a small dairy in Petaluma. A great way to begin. I ordered a glass of Sancerre and it arrived quickly — cool, refreshing, and oh-so-French.

Epi baguettes were freakin’ delicious! Warm, crunchy, great flavor.
Terrine de foie gras de canard. Unbelievably delicious.
Succulent terrine.

To begin I ordered some standard bistro stuff — pate and foie gras terrine. Both the Pate de Campagne and the Terrine de Foie Gras de Canard were excellent versions of classic starters. The Pate de Campagne is country-style pork and bacon pate, served with bread & cornichon. Although it appears coarsely chopped and formed, the texture of the pate is smooth, and yet it has a meaty heft at the same time. And it tastes just fantastic — rich, peppery, salty, appealing in every way. It’s perfect spread on bread with a bit of shaved radish of top and a dab of the fabulous house dijon mustard by Edmund Fallot.

Although delicious, the pate almost completely pales compared to the smooth, totally decadent Terrine de Foie Gras. Silken, fatty, rich, insanely seductive. Served in a small glass pot with a hinged lid, the terrine is firm to begin with but within five minutes it softens at room temperature to a point where it virtually melts on your tongue. Spread on little spears of baguette toasted with duck fat, the foie is fabulous.

Pate de Campange is country-style pork pate at its finest.
 A slice of radish cuts back on the fatty nature of the pate. A little mustard helps too!

Salade de Cresson et d’Endives is crisp and refreshing.
Salade de Byaldi is like a cool ratatouille. Tender, sweet squash and eggplant.

It tried a couple of salads too. The Salade of Cresson et d’Endives is crisp and utterly appealing. The red and yellow endive petals are crunchy and refreshing. The Roquefort cheese is creamy, funky, and salty. The perfect walnuts are mild, sweet, not remotely bitter. And tying it all together is a masterfully nuanced vinaigrette bound with a touch of walnut oil. A great counterpoint to the rich spreads.

The Salad de Byaldi was like a cool ratatouille. Just-cooked yellow squash, eggplant, and zucchini are tossed in a simple dressing with gem lettuces. The vegetables are artfully placed atop tomato marmalade and the plate is adorned with a bright yellow zucchini blossom pistou. Oh, and a tiny fried zucchini blossom perches over the little veggie hill. The salad is good if not revelatory.

Although perhaps a bit oversalted, the soft-shell crab was great. 
Great flatiron steak, marred by a thick blanket of caramelized shallots. I still ate everything.

Croque Madame was divine. The pommes frites were not.

The three larger dishes I tried were very good, but not stunning. All were just shy of perfection. The Crabe a Carapace Molle, crisp-sauteed soft-shell crab with wild mushrooms and sauce grenobloise.  The crab itself was perfectly cooked and served over oyster and beech mushrooms sauteed with tiny croutons, bits of meyer lemon, and capers. A tuft of mache (lamb’s lettuce) garnishes the plate. A very nice dish, but a bit heavy-handed on the salt content.

I like the flavor of a flat-iron steak, and this flat-iron Steak Frites was delicious and perfectly cooked to medium-rare. It’s a chewier sort of steak and very beefy. I loved it but the meat was blanketed with a disk of herb butter (which I liked) and a thin layer of caramelized shallots (which I didn’t). The shallots were simply too much and detracted from the steak; it seemed like they should have left it well enough alone. I eschewed fries and got garlicky wilted spinach instead. The spinach was good but only just.

The Croque Madame, that classic sandwich of a grilled ham and cheese doused in mornay sauce (pretty much a bechamel) and topped with a sunny-side-up egg was perfect, the brioche crisp, the egg gooey, and the mornay mild and moist. Totally delightful. But the accompanying French fries were underwhelming. Very little potato flavor, not very warm or crisp.

Anyway, these are minor complaints for a couple of visits that were otherwise very enjoyable. I would not hesitate to recommend Bouchon to anyone.

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2 thoughts on “Bouchon is Tres Bon

  1. I'm with you on this. I prefer charcuterie and brunch fare at bouchon rather than dinner. Maybe it's the relative location where my expectations are just a bit higher for their entrees. I've been lukewarm with their steak frittes as well as their roasted chicken (which is technically perfect but for some reason lacked soul for me) – two things that should be absolutely perfected at a bistro of this caliber. Again, I need to disclaim that I have bad lick with chicken at restaurants outside of the divey ethnic realm.

  2. I rarely order chicken in a restaurant, and unless I know it's absolutely fresh off the rotisserie, never roasted chicken. Home results trump restaurant results any day for whole chickens; and it's easy and, yes, soulful at home when you cook one or two, not dozens like they would at, say, Bouchon. But anyway I've never been wild about "classic" French oven-roasting chicken, because I think trussing is a waste of time unless they're spitted. I prefer skillet-roasting a la Zuni or beer-can "upright" roasting using smaller broilers.

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