Monday, November 8, 2010

Food Field Trip Napa: Ad Hoc

Ad Hoc Menu: Monday, October 25, 2010
We were fortunate to have not one but two Thomas Keller dining experiences while in Napa.  Our experience at The French Laundry was no doubt the highlight of all highlights, but Keller's more causal neighborhood eatery down the street Ad Hoc also won me over.  While the respective purpose--and atmosphere--among the two could not have been more different, it was clear that Ad Hoc shared the same focus on quality ingredients, preparation, and attention to detail.  It's not quite as daunting as the process as scoring a French Laundry reservation (chronicled here in a previous review), but Ad Hoc does fill up quickly; reservations --just as with its big sister restaurant down the street--are available two months to the calendar date.

Ad Hoc is actually a restaurant that was never meant to be.  Thomas Keller and his staff, as the story goes, began serving up seasonal fixed family-style dinners as a temporary endeavor while he planned for the opening of a gourmet burger joint for the space.  But the popularity and attention of this concept caused him to jettison these plans and his ad hoc concept stuck.  Dinner, served Thursday-Monday, consists of a seasonally rotating $49 four course pre fix.

When we arrived for our 7:15pm reservation the small street-front dining room was packed, and reservations were a bit backed up.  The staff was harried, and getting a drink at the bar was not easy; the bartender was busy tending to the folks eating at the bar (where according to insiders you can order a family style meal for one--if that makes any sense--and share the plentiful portions between two people).  It took a good ten minutes before we were acknowledged, but once seated, the experience was soon forgotten, as we were in for a fabulous meal.

Our waiter, a chubby, beer-loving Thomas Keller disciple, was a bit awkward at first, but really knew his stuff. After ensuring we did not have any allergies or alternative food preferences, he knowledgeably helped us select our wine, and later in the meal showed us where in the Encyclopedia-sized Ad Hoc cookbook it details how to make the finest caramel I've ever tasted.

Each of the generously portioned four courses was sublime.

Ad Hoc: Salad of Little Gems lettuce, cucumbers, olives, poached carrots, and Point Reyes blue cheese dressing
Fresh, crunchy, and sweet best describes this simple salad.  I loved how the saltiness of the olives was showcased and at the same time offset by the tang of the blue cheese dressing.  The lightly poached baby carrots added great color and flavor.

Ad Hoc: Pigfest with porchetta, pork loin, jalapeno corn bread, salad of fried sunchokes, watermelon radishes, rapini, and BBQ spaghetti
Mondays are barbecue night at Ad Hoc, and this course was one where the portion size and sheer variety was a challenge, but we persevered!  The pork loin was fork tender, succulent, and juicy, the porchetta, while a fattier cut benefited from the rich seasoning. The cornbread had a nice heat and a whole lot of butter.  Even the BBQ spaghetti, which I originally thought sounded like a slightly disgusting combination, had a great tangy/hot flavor which when tossed with the al dente spaghetti was quickly devoured (we were later told this dish can often be found at BBQ places in Memphis).  And despite the competition of ingredients on this plate, it was the vegetables that were our favorite.  The lightly fried sunchokes (the root of a sunflower) from the French Laundry garden were earthy, crunchy, and reached perfection with the punch of sea salt.  And the vibrant watermelon radishes made the whole plate pop.

Ad Hoc: Vermont Ayr atop fried potato cakes with pepper jelly
I am a huge fan of cheese courses.  But when tangy cheese is paired with fried potatoes, I have discovered that I am a fanatic. This was like cheese fries on steroids and according to my ears and eyes consistently drew raves from all diners within ear- and eye-shot.

Ad Hoc: Apple fritters with caramel sauce
Though we reached the last course already beyond full, dessert was so fantastic, that my stomach somehow made room for the crispy apple fritters, coated with cinnamon and sugar and complimented by the finger-licking, and apparently famous, caramel sauce.

For the value, I think Ad Hoc is the best casual dining bet in Napa I've yet to find.  As long as you are willing to go with the flow, and experience whatever the night's menu holds, you are in for a real treat.

Ad Hoc on Urbanspoon

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