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August 09, 2009


The Menu Dominic Armato

Napa is a special place for us. To this day I'm not sure why, but I know that once one of us had floated the idea that that's where we should be married (Me probably? Not even sure.), it seemed so perfect and so obvious that we never even gave it a second thought. Doubly surprising since neither of us had even been there. But it was perfect. We got married, had an incredible time, ate dinner at The French Laundry on our first full day as a married couple, and left anxious to return and do some real exploring. We... uh... still haven't had that chance. But spending four days in Sacramento, it was clear we'd at least make a side trip of it for dinner one night, which is exactly what we did, and some traditional French sounded absolutely perfect.

Thomas Keller has joked that he opened Bouchon because he wanted someplace to go have dinner after closing up The French Laundry for the night. It's unclear just how serious he was, but it's entirely plausible. Bouchon's small, cozy, a quick jaunt down the block, open late, and has a menu full of the kinds of dishes that Keller has often identified as his favorites -- which is to say, traditional French bistro fare. But the familiarity of the menu belies what -- quite famously -- sets Bouchon apart. Keller is a perfectionist. He's a man obsessed. So while The French Laundry looks forward, taking the cuisine in new and unexpected directions, Bouchon looks back, and Keller directs that laser-focus towards making every classic dish as perfect as it can possibly be. The result is a meal that's entirely familiar, and yet somehow still surprising.

Pâté de CampagneDominic Armato

It starts with the bread service, a stunning epi with crunch and tenderness and the incredible real bread flavor that you forget exists in between rare experiences with the genuine article. I could've had six helpings of bread and the beautiful butter and walked away content. It was hard to stop, but we resolved, reluctantly, to save our strength. My ladylove started simply with a pâté de campagne, exactly what you expect but perfectly done, carefully barded and served with toasted bread (more bread!), cornichons, sliced radish and a small dollop of mustard. We devoured the first half with the available toasts and... uh... requested more bread with which to finish it. By the book forcemeat, perfectly done and minimally presented.

Tête de PorcDominic Armato

My starter was the first real indication that we were operating on a different plane of precision. Tête de Porc -- exactly what it sounds like -- adorned the specials board, and there was no way I was passing on that. The tender morsels of pork were formed into a small round with a crisp cap, and served atop simple stewed lentils. But look at that mold, the color and crisp of the topping, the perfect brunoise of the vegetables in the lentils, the perfect little leaves of onion strewn about the edges... heck, the single parsley leaf on top. Yes, it was delicious -- simple, no-frills and perfectly evocative of the primary flavors. But I felt as though I'd mistakenly gotten the plate that was intended for the visiting Queen Mum. Obsessive attention to detail is something you expect at famous fine dining restaurants, but it's rare to see humbler food prepared with this level of precision.

Soupe à l OignonDominic Armato

After starters, we opted for a soup course. My ladylove had onion soup because she adores it. I had onion soup partly because I adore it, but mostly because Keller's treatise on onion soup was one of my first glimpses into the depths of his quest for perfection. In his Bouchon cookbook, Keller devotes a full four pages to the dish -- a two-page recipe kicked off with a two-page preamble, discussing how the onions must be sliced at just the right thickness, "uniform so that they caramelize evenly. You don't want noodles, you don't want a piece dripping down anyone's chin; you want the pieces to fit on a spoon, not too wide and not too long, but not so narrow or short that they disintegrate." Reading it is like staring into the soul of a beautiful madman, and the most remarkable thing about it is that you get the sense he could have easily filled twice as many pages if his co-writers didn't hold him back. And after all that preamble, what's to say? It was perfect. Warm and comforting and as noble a use of an onion as you'll find anywhere.

Croque MadameDominic Armato

Presented with such a robust bistro menu, I was a little taken aback by my ladylove's choice of entree. She went with a croque madame. I thought to myself, you're in Keller's bistro, and you're getting a sandwich for dinner? Shows what I know. It was completely entree-worthy, excellent ham and cheese between two geometrically proper slices of bread, and topped with pure awesome: a lightly cooked egg with a yolk that oozes everywhere once broken, and a velvety mornay sauce with just enough tang to cut through the egg's richness. It was a gooey mess and absolutely delicious, a simple sandwich elevated to entree status through impeccable execution -- and accompanied by some excellent frites, to boot.

Rabbit Rillettes and BoudinDominic Armato

My entree was another special, a two-way rabbit dish that dressed rabbit rillettes and rabbit boudin with a splash of jus, soft napa cabbage and cippolini onions, and a scattering of plucky little stewed cranberries. The rillettes were similar to my tête de porc, formed into a soft, moist patty with a wonderfully crisp topping. The boudin was remarkable in its texture, a sausage so light and fluffy that if you were to submerge it in water, I suspect it would float. The vegetables rounded it out, the jus added depth, the cranberries added tartness and a little sweetness. It was a wonderfully conceived little dish, made extra wonderful by the manner in which every ingredient spoke with a clear voice, asserting its nature while still happily mingling with the rest. Another excellent dish.

Reading back, I almost worry that I've oversold Bouchon. Let me be clear, these are -- with a couple of exceptions -- textbook bistro dishes. What you've had before is exactly what you can expect here, and as good as it was, it isn't as though I walked out of Bouchon thinking that it would end up being one of my best meals of the year. What I marvel at is the process: the degree to which Keller has embraced that traditional essence and refined it as much as he possibly can. The curse of eating out a lot, as any food nerd will tell you, is the inability to turn off the "yes, this is good, but--" reflex. You're always musing about what could have made the dish better. At Bouchon, I'm at a loss. These dishes aren't strokes of genius. They're old classics that have survived the test of time and been cooked by countless chefs long before Keller was on the scene. But when I taste and ask myself what the kitchen could have done to make it better, I find myself thinking... nothing. This dish they've chosen to make, they've made it as well as they possibly can, they've achieved exactly what they set out to achieve, and the only thing they need to do is try to ensure they make it just like this every single time. It's like these dishes are the benchmark, the model, the gold standard for what they are. If you want to improve upon this, you're going to have to do something different with it because the ceiling has been set. There's nowhere to go. That's how it appears to me. That's how I imagine it appears to just about everybody who walks through Bouchon's doors. You know who still finds room for improvement? Keller. And that's why it's so good.

6534 Washington Street
Yountville, CA 94599
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in all this time writing about top chef/top chef masters, i've never mentioned how much i like reading your restaurant reviews. this entry was maybe the best so far, for me. i so want to eat at french laundry and bouchon, my soul is on fire. (that's an exaggeration, but not much.)

Ditto, what aaalex said. Ironically, even though I've eaten at FL about half a dozen times (a benefit of a decade living in NorCal), I never made it to Bouchon. Several months ago, on a whim, I bought the Bouchon cookbook, and as I cook various recipes (with uncommon- for-me dogged precision to the original), I wish I had eaten there for the reasons you articulate above. The man is a treasure. The leek and Roquefort quiche is unreal.

I'm actually looking forward to the Ad Hoc book in the fall (ate there exactly once). My only concern for it will be whether the precision that makes the first restaurants and their cookbooks so amazing will make a book that claims to have "family dinner recipes" unusable for that purpose. In other words, while we all love to cook, I think most of us are going to pass on a 2 hour preperation of fried chicken (if that is what it takes) on a week night. We'll see.

The Bouchon cookbook is one of my favorites, and I often re-read it it just for the essays that Keller puts in there like the one you quote on Onion Soup. I envy you having eaten there. Someday my wife and I hope to be out on the west coast and have chance to eat at both Bouchon and French Laundry (ok, and about 20-25 other restaurants I want to try in CA :) ). Great review Dom.

I stumbled on to your website a couple years ago enjoying the Top Chef enthusiasm and commentary. I now really enjoy your reviews too. As a Chicagoan, I appreciate your love of your home city! Keep up the writing and reviewing. You have good insight and that is an observation independent of the fact that I agree with you quite often.

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