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Ad Hoc by Thomas Keller has long been one of my favorite Napa Valley haunts.
The casual eatery was originally designed as a temporary pop-up while Keller prepared a new casual concept but proved to be so popular that it has become a Yountville mainstay serving rotating family-style dinners five nights a week. In the decade they have operated, Sunday brunch has been added as well as a box lunch takeaway stand called Addendum (the latter focusing on picnic style lunch boxes with Ad Hoc favorites such as fried chicken).
One of the key differentiators for the Ad Hoc experience is the farm-to-table menu which changes daily. Guests pay a fixed price and receive four courses served family style – salad, entrée/sides, cheese, and dessert. Often there is also an optional supplement to the menu available for an upcharge. The nightly menu is posted each morning and reservations often are made speculatively before the night’s offerings are announced.
Recently Keller formed a partnership with luxury cruise line Seabourn to create a new Thomas Keller concept at sea. While the restaurant will roll out gradually across the line beginning with Quest next month, continuing with the new build of Encore sailing this fall, and concluding with retrofits on Odyssey and Sojourn, Seabourn stalwarts have been introduced to Thomas Keller’s styling with several special menus passengers onboard the current ships.
One of those menus has been an introduction of his Ad Hoc menus at sea. Beginning with holiday cruises, passengers have been able to choose from Ad Hoc themed nights in the Colonnade, Seabourn’s bistro-style restaurant. This introduction has been met with some trepidation from Seabourn regulars. Many guests have expressed dismay at the family style servings while others have questioned the downscale nature of the offerings (while dishes are given the Keller treatment, inspiration for them hails from Keller’s childhood family dinners).
I decided a revisit to the Yountville original was in order before I set sail on the Quest spring transatlantic so I could offer an objective comparison of the two.
The restaurant is very casually styled so there is no mistaking it with its French Laundry sister. The entrance gives way to an open space with simple architecture, casually dressed waiters, and a bit of a hipster aesthetic. Daily menus are printed and presented on a wooden clipboard.
I had made a reservation prior to my arrival (and also prior to reviewing the day’s menu) but opted to sit at the bar instead, freeing my table up for a last minute walk in. The bar at Ad Hoc allows for a la carte ordering, unlike the tables, so it is possible to pop in just for a salad or cheese if one so desires.
My first course, Endive & Watercress Salad was deceptively simple – shaved fennel tossed with an apple cider vinaigrette and dressed with crumbles of buttermilk blue cheese and sliced Fuji apples. The juxtaposition of the ingredients – tangy, tart, sharp, and sweet – proved Keller’s mastery of taking high quality ingredients and creating amazing dishes with few items.
The second course, Roasted Chicken, sounded no different than what I might pick up from the supermarket rotisserie. It was accompanied by caramelized cauliflower and red bliss mashed potatoes. I’m not, typically, a roasted chicken fan. Its something I rarely order in a restaurant and something I think of as a base ingredient for other dishes. Keller’s brining method (a technique he also uses for his fried chicken) changed that for me. The chicken had crispy skin and was moist and tender underneath. I managed to pick the bones clean, not my normal approach to chicken. The accompanying cauliflower was crispy. Only the mashed potatoes disappointed – they lacked any real flavor or substance.
I opted for the supplemental course, Hot Dog Mac & Cheese, for $10 extra. This would be my favorite of the night. A small casserole arrived with a familiar sight from my childhood – orange-ish macaroni and cheese topped by sliced hot dogs. But this would not be the Kraft Easy Mac I had eaten too many times. No, this was tender macaroni with a creamy cheese sauce topped by sliced premium sausage. I could have just eaten a couple of portions of this and felt gratified by the comfort level of the dish.
My cheese course consisted of Cypress Grove’s Bermuda Triangle served with orange marmalade and thyme flatbread. The cheese listed on the morning’s original menu posting was Humboldt Fog, so I was initially disappointed at the substitution. But the Bermuda Triangle proved to be a fine cheese and was complimented by the fresh thyme flatbreads and tangy orange marmalade.
Dessert was a Bouchon OH-OH, Thomas Keller’s reengineering of a Ho-Ho pastry – chocolate cake, cream filling, chocolate glaze, and chocolate pearls. The pastry that arrived reminded me of the Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls I snacked on in college. But presentation is deceiving. This version was made with high quality pastry crème and a rich dark chocolate ganache. It felt like a dessert worthy of the Keller brand and something I might expect to find in a different form at French Laundry or Per Se.
Dinner set me back $52 plus the $10 supplement course. I also opted for two glasses of reasonably priced local wine.
I discovered as I was halfway through my supplemental course that everyone else seated at the bar had received a basket of freshly baked bread which smelled divine. I asked the bartender why I hadn’t received it and she replied that I hadn’t asked. (Apparently it is automatically served at the tables but not at the bar.) That was a major disappointment to me and something I consider a service failure on her part. Perhaps not coincidentally, my level of service went down markedly after this conversation, another minus in my book.
Overall, service was spotty throughout. As a frequent solo diner, I know bartenders serving at the bar walk a fine line between over attentive and dismissive but this service erred toward the latter – my glass went empty more than once and plates sat longer than necessary. I’ve had better service at the Ad Hoc bar in the past so my hope that this was a one-off.
I’ll definitely be revisiting the land-based Ad Hoc on future trips to Napa. The comfortable foods are great after a long day (whether it be with a client or spent wine tasting) and the casual ambiance provides a relaxing experience among the fancier destinations in Napa County.
Next up, I’ll be reviewing the Ad Hoc experience on Seabourn Quest. Will Ad Hoc be seaworthy?