Ad Hoc (Yountville, CA) – Thomas Keller Blinks

The middle tier of dining does not often come with culinary value. At the high end, the meals might cost upwards of $400/person but revelatory potential has no price. In the middle, you’re often stuck with restaurants trying to make up the overhead from their marketing and architectural expenditures. The food can be tasty, and even good, but it’s usually over-priced for what it is. You’re paying for the cool factor, the gathering space, and the stories (re: PR and advertising) that make it happen. Obviously, high-end restaurants are not immune to the same problems but it hurts so much less when they actually deliver.

Ad Hoc

The Thomas Keller solution for… something? Thomas Keller is a great chef but he’s a better marketer – the Alain Ducasse of America. It’s a tried-and-true formula – Michelin star chef + downscale restaurant = a license to print money. People that might eschew the haute temples will flock to the cheaper restaurants and eat the cuisine at affordable prices; never mind that it’s always watered down and/or bares little resemblance to the flagships. Get the right PR people involved and the media will fawn over the concept – the tail wagging the dog.

What did I expect? Much like Fork & Bottle, I expected “middle-of-the-road style dinner with almost perfect attention-to-detail.” I knew this was comfort food but I still expected the signature meticulous Keller attention to detail. If Ad Hoc could deliver on this expectation, it would be the best comfort food in the Bay area. Blue Plate reigns supreme in this niche but a Keller take on this concept is his for the taking.

I heard that Monday night was supposed to be fried chicken night. Refined Palate, a friend who has several lifetimes of dining experience, called it the best fried chicken ever. (She’s also somewhat Keller-biased – she’s eaten at The French Laundry more than 100 times. If you don’t think The French Laundry can get creative – read this post.) Nonetheless, there’s no doubt Keller has the potential to make the best fried chicken ever if the restaurant took its time to do it right. Unfortunately, we were misinformed – this particular Monday was beef brisket night.

1. Romaine Hearts with purple onions – The onions were incredibly sweet and tasty but the romaine hearts were nothing better than what’s available at the farmer’s market. Arguably, the portion size was silly; the whole dish became a bit redundant. It immediately became clear the philosophy here would not follow the “less is more” Keller model.

2. Beef Brisket w/ Baked Beans, Corn & Fava Bean Succotash – And then we jumped right into the main course. Although a touch dry, the beef did pack a nice smoky flavor. The beans and succotash also packed more flavor than your typical picnic-variety. The food tasted good but its presentation was sloppy – everything was thrown into a large cast iron pan. It was not haute cuisine but it cheapened the experience.

3. Blue Cheese – One gigantic slab of very cold blue cheese with honey. This was barely appetizing; surely, better efforts could be taken to serve the cheese at something closer to the correct temperature. And, again, portion size was silly; it’s as if they want to distract you from the quality with the quantity. And why not serve a small cheese plate with a variety of cheeses?

4. Banana Upside Down Cake – A dry piece of cake.

We came for the fried chicken but were defeated yet again by the price of this simple meal – $120 with no alcohol. The meal was simply over-priced. To better justify the price, and provide for a better experience, I think they should add an appetizer and a proper cheese plate. If costs were a concern, decrease the portion sizes of the salad and entree dishes. It would still be over-priced but Keller has to pay those interest payments somehow. If you’re in the area, there are better picks.

Here are some other reviews, many positive:

ChuckEats has had some unfortunate culinary luck lately but there should be a reprieve in the near future. Quince and The French Laundry (a proper Keller meal) are scheduled soon; a lunch at Pilar is in the calendar; I will make it to Plumpjack Cafe (whose chef has cooked at Manresa, Can Roca, El Bulli, Fat Duck, and others); and that trip down to LA will materialize (for repeat meals at Bin 8945 and Providence.)

Stay tuned.

- chuck

  • Ryan

    Hey Chuck, interesting review. That’s $120 — for how many people? Per head? And does that include tip and tax?

  • ChuckEats

    2 people, includes tax, and probably tip. I will still try to hit fried chicken night but I’m not in a hurry to spend $120 on fried chicken.

  • C

    Does Chuckeats like Burma Superstar? Methinks the middle of the road stuff is what’s bad – that the super-cheap stuff might actually be the best foil to your ultra-high-end experiences . . .

    And honestly, does presentation really make that much of a difference in the soul/cheap food arena? One could argue that arranging baked beans artfully would, for heaven’s sake, be ridiculous . . .

  • ChuckEats

    Burma is on the to-do list and, yes, the super-cheap (ala Shalimar) provides a good deal (and makes me happy.) They could have skinned the beans for me :) Seriously though, you’re paying at a Thomas Keller price-point. The beans don’t have to be artfully presented but the pros should do it with a bit more care than I would at a drunken South Bay BBQ.

  • Robert

    Chuck, Not sure if you know but the Plumpjack Cafe chef is moving on very soon. But fear not because he is going back to Manresa as chef de cuisine

  • ChuckEats

    Yep, i saw that on Tuesday. I will have to take Plumpjack off the to-do list and add “Ubuntu.” I was sent this in an email – I don’t know the source:
    Jeremy Fox worked at Rubicon and Charles Nob Hill before heading to Manresa to “wash the wok and make staff meals” in 2003. Two years later, he was made chef de cuisine by chef-owner David Kinch.

    Ubuntu will be a “vegetable restaurant,” says Fox, using produce from Lawrence’s biodynamic winery garden as well as eggs, dairy and cheese, but forgoing meat and seafood.

    Fox’s menu planning at this stage includes small plates such as porcini pot pie.

    Deanie Fox, a 2002 California Culinary Academy graduate, has been turning out desserts at Manresa for the last four years, including the signature olive madeleines.