I consider myself fortunate to have eaten at Thomas Keller’s per se restaurant in New York, yet I knew that until I made the pilgrimage to Yountville, California I wouldn’t get to eat at his other restaurants, Ad Hoc and Bouchon. Someday, I thought, I’ll sic She Who Must Be Obeyed on the Keller Group’s reservations team and have her book the trifecta. (Might as well add the French Laundry if you’re making the trip.) Little did I know that my pipe dream would be partially realized as the result of a phone call.
I routinely get calls from friends in need of cooking advice, but they are rarely as urgent as the call I received from my online buddy Colman. He was making Soupe à l’Oignon from Keller’s Bouchon cookbook recipe, and was wondering “just how long to cook the goddamned onions, I’ve been at it for hours already.”
I’ve cooked other recipes from the book, and know that the most important ingredients are care, precision, and patience. I advised him to keep cooking, resist the temptation to raise the heat, and eventually he’d wind up with perfectly browned onions. The next day he told me the soup had turned out well, in fact, it was the best he’d ever made. I was happy to have provided the advice, and promptly forgot about it.
Colman, however, did not forget. When he heard that my family would be traveling to Los Angeles for He Who Will Not Be Ignored’s spring vacation, he asked us to set aside some time to join him for lunch. At Bouchon. I knew we wouldn’t be traveling to Napa or Vegas, so it took a few minutes online for me to realize that Keller had opened in a restaurant in Los Angeles. Aww yeah, lunch at Bouchon — in Beverly Hills.
Without further ado, our lunch:
Moules au Safran: Maine bouchot mussels steamed with white wine, mustard & saffron served with French fries
The mussels were impossibly plump, which had me thinking Why can’t I get these, when I live so much closer to Maine? We decimated two loaves of bread (just visible at the top of the photo) to sop up the liquid at the bottom of the pot.
Soupe à l’Oignon
Colman asked “Should I have the soup?” I wasn’t sure: “It’s going to be so much better that you may never want to make it yourself again.” He replied “But maybe not.”
I don’t need to tell you it was better, I need to tell you how much better that little bowl of soup was. He had a spoonful, then told me to try it. “Taste how deep and rich that broth is. How does he do that?” “To begin with, he has a team in the kitchen that does nothing but make beef stock, and another that does nothing but slice and cook down onions.” I’d kill for another cup of that soup, but I’ll keep trying to get it right on my own.
Saumon Poêlé: sauteed Scottish salmon with a ragoût of mushrooms, fava beans & piquillo peppers with a sauce ravigote
The way salmon was meant to be cooked: crisp on top, moist underneath, served with a bright, acidic sauce and a few perfectly cooked vegetables.
Steak Frites: pan-seared flatiron served with maître d’hôtel butter & French fries
There’s not too much to say about a flavorful block of steak (a cut not usually found at your local market) topped with shallot-herb butter, but the fries deserve a special mention. People freaked when they learned that the Bouchon frites were cooked from frozen pre-cut potatoes. I wasn’t that surprised. Keller favors consistency, which you get from frozen over hand-cut fries. Given how many orders the kitchen turns out daily, he’d need an entire brigade just to churn out a hand-cut version. The fries were good: crispy outside, soft inside, with just the right amount of salt.
Tartine of Beef: sliced beef on toasted bread with bleu cheese sauce
She Who Must Be Obeyed described it as “the world’s best steak and cheese sandwich.” It was so good, she didn’t offer me any.
Croque Madame: grilled ham & cheese sandwich on brioche, fried egg & mornay sauce, served with French fries
I sold this to He Who Will Not Be Ignored as “a really good grilled ham & cheese, topped with cheese sauce and a fried egg.” He bought it, and ate the entire thing – high praise from a notoriously picky eater.
Magret de Canard: herb roasted duck breast with fennel bulb, citrus confit, red radish, mizuna & duck jus
You can see just from the photo that the duck is cooked perfectly, medium rare with crispy skin. The peppery radishes and sweet fennel balanced the acidity of the blood orange confit (a play on the traditional orange sauce accompaniment for roast duck). I saved the last chunk of bread to soak up the rich jus.
Ile Flottante: meringue with vanilla crème anglaise, almond & caramel
We were too full to contemplate dessert, but couldn’t leave without trying at least one, so we chose the lightest on the menu. The golden caramel was poured on at tableside so it would stay warm as long as possible. The meringue was whipped but not cooked, so it melted in the mouth. We fought over the last few spoonfuls of the crème.
As she had done once before at per se, She Who Must Be Obeyed requested a tour of the kitchen for us, where we saw the typical Team Keller setup: television feeds to the other Bouchon kitchens, a station dedicated to making nothing but the frites, a bakery that turns out loaves for two services daily, and, as I had guessed, an area in the back kitchen that did nothing but cook and reduce meat stocks. While there were no raised voices, there was a greater sense of urgency than in the per se kitchen, due, no doubt, to the much larger number of tables that would be served.
It’s a good thing I don’t live in Los Angeles; I’ve never come closer to asking for a job application.