When one scores dinner reservations for four only 2 days hence at one of the premier restaurants in the US, the feeling is as if you’ve hit the jackpot. That’s precisely what happened during our recent visit to the Sonoma Valley in California when we nabbed a table at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon restaurant in nearby Napa Valley’s Yountville.
The reservation was for 6:00 pm on a Friday evening. According to our GPS, it was to take 45 minutes to travel from Rohnert Park to Yountville. That amount of time might be accurate if one is traveling at 7:30 am on a Tuesday, but not 5:00 pm on a Friday. When traveling in the evening it takes a good hour and 20 minutes, unless of course Jon is the chauffeur. See, he’s had experience both on the back roads of Missouri and the switchbacks to Moustier, France. We went over the “mountain” between Rohnert Park and Yountville, not around it. If you’ve ever taken that route as the sun is setting and you are in a hurry, which I don’t recommend, you will know the use for the oh sh@t handles in a car such as a Crown Victoria.
We called ahead to let them know that we were running a bit late and wanted to arrive in one piece. Unfortunately, the response from the person on the phone was, “We’ll only keep the reservation for 15 minutes after your scheduled arrival.” I thought, “Really, even with a phone call?” So we pressed on; well Jon pressed on the gas pedal. We arrived with five minutes to spare, and all needing a serious cocktail.
Jon ordered a classic “Sidecar”, giving our delightful waiter the recipe of his preference – equal parts Hennessey, Grand Marnier, freshly squeezed lemon juice and simple syrup; shaken and served up with a sugared rim. Easy, enough right? Unfortunately, what was delivered fell far short of the intent. So much so, that it was sent back to the bar and Jon ended up drinking a Coke. Our remaining cocktails, an Eva Peron, Manhattan and Pont Neuf were all good but not stellar. However, I wasn’t about to send mine back. With nerve ends retracting, we perused the menu.
We were at Bouchon, the Bouchon so tasting several appetizers were in order. Since I have made Brandade de Morue, right off the bat I wanted to try Keller’s version of the Beinets de Brandade de Morue with tomato confit and fried sage. They were better than good; light but creamy and melt in your mouth with the confit as the perfect accompaniment.
The house made charcuterie platter was a delight for the taste buds with Jon and myself enjoying a short tower of oysters as well. But then again, I’ve never met an oyster that I didn’t like – well once in Ventura, CA, but that’s another story.
The plat du jour for one of my dinner companions was the Roasted Sole. To quote her, “I’ve cooked better plates in my Basics 101 culinary class”. Off the menu, another of the four at our table ordered the Poulet Rôti with whole grain mustard spaetzle, trumpet mushrooms, butternut squash with a sauce forestière. Jon decided on the Risotto aux Topinambours; a roasted sunchoke risotto with a brown butter sauce with a generous shaving of fresh black truffles for an extra $25. For myself the Lotte de Mer Rôtie; a pan-roasted monkfish, braised oxtail, French green lentils, matignon of root vegetables and kale with a sauce bordelaise seemed the best choice.
I won, I won! Not really, for I am sad to say that I was the only one that chose wisely! My three dinner companions were underwhelmed with their choices. My fish, however, was perfectly prepared; the French lentils tender and not overcooked as can easily happen. The sauce was divine, so much so that I still have the memory of its deliciousness. What did fall short was the glass of wine from Burgundy that our waiter paired with my plat. Much to my dismay not all French wines are created equal even at $15 -$16 a glass.
Hope springs eternal or should we cut our loses were my thoughts as we contemplated ordering desserts. Jon checked to see how late The Girl and the Fig  was opened that evening. Unfortunately, there’s no way we could make it back to Sonoma before they closed, so we took our chances and kept our fingers crossed.
We ordered the Marquise au Chocolat (dark chocolate mousse and caramelized orange cream), the Profiteroles with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce, and the Pomme au Four Meringuée (baked apple filled with poached prunes, walnut lady finger and toasted meringue). It’s hard to mess up chocolate mousse, right? Luckily they didn’t, but the caramelized orange cream was inedible. The cream puffs with ice cream and chocolate sauce were good, but Jon said he’d had better. The baked apple was so close to perfection, but even a small pool of crème anglaise would have set it on it’s deserved pedestal. As it was served, it came in second place.
We all had such high hopes and expectations for our dining experience and, I believe, rightly so. As I reflect on the experience, how was it even possible that we could get a 6:00 pm reservation at Bouchon in Yountville, California on a Friday night with just two days notice? Should that have been our first clue? Our first impression was made even before we arrived with a very unpleasant telephone conversation and then a cool reception when we arrived. I thought we looked presentable, maybe a little frazzled, but it wasn’t like we were wearing ripped jeans and Van Halen t-shirts! Nothing against Van Halen, but every attire has its place.
I’ve enjoyed cooking from Keller’s The French Laundry and Ad Hoc cookbooks so I know of his attention to detail and the superb quality for which he strives. It’s not that the evening was horrible, but very sad to say we were just underwhelmed. There were so many other places we could have dined in this part of California on that particular evening—and likely had a much better experience. Bouchon , 6534 Washington Street, Yountville, CA 94599