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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Ad Hoc

July 27, 2011

Pop-up restaurants are hot these days. Chefs find underutilized spaces and open up temporary foodservice operations under minimalist conditions. Most have lines out the door for a few months and then they close shop under their own terms.

Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc in Yountville is not a pop-up restaurant, though it did start out as a temporary one-off concept.

Just down the meticulously manicured street from his two other Yountville restaurants— The French Laundry and Bouchon— Keller bought a former restaurant property that had been vacant for a couple of years with the idea of opening an upscale burger and wine joint, “burgers and half bottles.”

The idea was to temporarily open for six months and serve a set menu of simple food, family-style, five nights a week while they worked on the burger concept. At the end of the six-month period, Ad Hoc would close and the burger joint would open. Something wonderful happened on the way to the prom— customers fell in love with the little sister.

There is something beautiful in the process of Ad Hoc and how it was started. Nothing in the building was changed. In a former life the building was a wine bar. I think I might have eaten breakfast in the same building over a decade ago while it was another concept.

Keller and his team kept the tables, chairs, and layout the same. Of course the original plan was to re-concept after six months. That is the other beautiful thing about Ad Hoc. In a way, it’s a customer-driven restaurant. The customers demanded that it stay, and it did.

I have written often of The French Laundry, Per Se, and Bouchon— excellent restaurants, my first trip to the Laundry being the best restaurant meal I have ever enjoyed. Food there exists on an entirely different culinary plane.

The food at Ad Hoc exists on a level that familiar to most. The four-course, fixed-price menu is served family-style and changes daily. My dining companions loved that the “choice” was taken from them and the only decisions they would be making that evening were involved on the wine list.

I had no fear because it was Keller and his team were the ones making the “choice.” We were definitely in good hands.

I had heard raves about the fried chicken and had heard that it is served on Monday nights. We were booked for a Monday night, so I was golden. Unfortunately, we learned after our arrival that fried chicken is only served every other Monday. The menu on our particular Monday was for a “Hill Country BBQ.”

I was a little disappointed, but I was ready to see what Thomas Keller bbq is like in Napa Valley. The meal started with a salad of mixed baby greens with compressed red and yellow watermelon, house-made pickles, onion, roasted prosciutto, and the lightest-ever tomato vinaigrette. Beautiful.

Upon further investigation, I learned that the vinaigrette was nothing more than fresh tomato juice, a little extra virgin olive oil, and a hint of champagne vinegar. The prosciutto was paper-thin and had been lightly roasted turning it into a very delicate wafer. The pickles were sweet and made from micro cucumbers. Ultimately, the salad was one of the best salads I’ve eaten since a light, frisee masterpiece at Gotham in New York.

The “Hill Country BBQ” consisted of house-made andouille sausage, beef brisket, and fried chicken. In typical Keller-service fashion, someone had noticed my disappointment when I learned that we had booked on a off Monday for chicken and prepped it for us, even though it wasn’t available that evening.

The andouille was good, but not as good as Chef Jeremy Noffke’s.

The fried chicken was pretty close to perfection as far as I am concerned. For 30 years in the restaurant business I have heard citizens of New Orleans— when talking about food— make the statement, “You know she’s from New Orleans so she knows food,” as if paying city taxes within the city limits of New Orleans made her an authority on flavor and taste. Maybe, maybe not. I will say, however, I am from the South. I know fried chicken, and Keller’s is almost as good as my grandmother’s.

Amazingly enough, the chicken— as good as it was— took back stage to the brisket. Yep, brisket. Who knew? Beef brisket has always been the forgotten step-child in my bbq repitoire. This, however, was perfection. Unbelievable. They smoked it, cooked it sous vide for 48 hours, and then broiled a spicy crust on top of it just before serving. I am not sure if I would trade my brisket for any one food item down the street at the French Laundry. It was that good.

The meal wound down with rainbow trout, a cheese course, and cookies and ice cream— all of which were good, but I didn’t pay much attention as I kept going back to the brisket.

Thanks to the Keller crew for operating such a fun and flavorsome restaurant, but most of all, thank-you to the customers who demanded it stay.

Grilled Radicchio

2 heads Radicchio, cut into 4 wedges each
1/4 cup No-Stick Grilling Marinade for Vegetables
2 tsp Kosher Salt
1 tsp Black Pepper, freshly ground

1/4 cup Olive Oil
1 Tbl Balsamic Vinegar
2 Tbl Orange Juice
1 tsp Creole Mustard
1 tsp Shallot, minced
1 tsp Fresh Thyme, chopped

Place a toothpick through the center of each radicchio wedge to prevent the leaves from falling off. Brush radicchio with the marinade and sprinkle with salt and pepper.Prepare the grill Cook radicchio directly over medium heat for 5-6 minutes, turning once.

Meanwhile, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, orange juice, mustard, shallot and fresh thyme.

Remove the radicchio from the grill and drizzle the olive oil mixture over the radicchio. Serve immediately.

Yields: 6-8 servings

No-Stick Grilling Marinade for Vegetables

4 Egg Yolks
1 Tbl Yellow Mustard
1/4 cup Balsamic Vinegar
1 cup Canola Oil
1 cup Light Olive Oil
Warm water as needed
2 Tbl Lawry’s Season Salt
2 Tbl Garlic Powder
2 Tbl Onion Powder
1 Tbl Lemon Pepper Seasoning
1 Tbl Celery Salt
1/2 tsp Black Pepper, freshly ground

Place the egg yolks, mustard, and vinegar in a food processor. Blend on medium speed for 1-2 minutes.

Slowly drizzle oils into the mixture, one tablespoon at a time. If the marinade becomes too thick, add 1-2 tablespoons of warm water. Once all of the oil has been incorporated, add seasoned salt, garlic powder, onion powder, lemon pepper, celery salt, and black pepper until incorporated.

Store covered in the refrigerator until needed.

2 1/2 cups

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