Unless you are living like Ted Kaczynski (or Dixon) you probably know about Thomas Keller’s Bouchon grand opening in Beverly Hills last week. It has easily been the most widely anticipated restaurant opening this year. I know that Dixon has always wanted to go to the French Laundry like I want to go to Chez Panisse. During the the past 8 months our only dining experience together has been a food truck so I did a little dancing and drummed up a coveted reservation for last Sunday night (I made it in the opening week!). Apparently Dixon was thrilled because he responded to my text announcing our reservation with, “I’m thrilled.”
Actually, dear readers, all jokes aside, I have a very special review for you here. The day we’ve all been waiting for is upon us. I’ve always been impressed with Dixon’s palate, his taste memory, his way of expressing himself with food and his writing. And today his silence is broken! I will have Dixon’s words and thoughts on Bouchon blended with my own. ‘Tis a great day, indeed.
For the big event I wore my special green, sexy dress (because I COULD), my deep brown Barbara Stanwyck heels, and smoky eyes. Dixon wore sneakers, jeans, a blazer and his Bubbleback Rolex, and we headed to Maison 140’s Bar Noir for martinis before dinner.
I knew we were going to be in Beverly Hills where everything is newer, bigger and shinier than necessary. When I’m there I always think of Steve Martin’s lines in L.A. Story, “Some of these buildings are over TWENTY YEARS old.” And, “You’re nobody in L.A. unless you have a really big door.”
As expected, consistent with the hood, Bouchon is ginormous. It shares a courtyard with the Montage Hotel and encompasses two levels, all designed by Adam Tihany. The smaller, Bar Bouchon (Keller's first and only), is on the ground floor and is scheduled to open the second week of December; Bouchon, the restaurant, is on the second floor. Bar Bouchon will serve small plates and offer an extensive wine list.
Each floor has its own bar and dining room plus patio/terrace for outdoor seating. Guests enter from ground level to check in with the reservationist and loiter in the waiting room, if necessary. From here you mount the stairs to reach the main dining space which lands you in the "Champagne lounge" (with very plush seating) and to the left is a long hall. This leads to the dining area which boasts Keller's signature nickel-plated bar. A smaller private dining room is also available and can seat up to 12. I quite liked the floor tiles.
Dixon: I've wisely learned to temper my excitement over new culinary experiences in LA and one rule I make it a point to apply is "the greater the expectation, the greater the let down". But I have trouble maintaining that stoicism when confronted with the promise of true culinary genius. Thomas Keller, arguably the most famous American chef, recently returned to LA filling a void palpably experienced by moneyed (if not entirely hungry) Angelinos, and I got to dine there this week with Ms. F You For Food. The [attempted] application of my cardinal rule proved neither a bulwark against mediocrity nor a doorway to epicurian bliss but instead guided me on long and interesting (if somewhat uneven) journey of what I might conclude is Keller's passion - thoughtful French "bistro" food.
Upon being seated Dixon immediately remarked, “It looks like a Hyatt”. Indeed, it was huge, airy, and had weird, 80’s style ceilings. I would say that only about 1/8 of the tables were filled. Considering the absolute to-do of merely securing a reservation that was at least 29 days out, this seemed peculiar. Also considering the place seats 200 it’s entirely possible they were keeping it lite for the first week to minimize new restaurant glitches. Let’s say that’s the case and move on.
Bouchon Beverly Hills boasts an impressive team of culinary superheroes. In the kitchen we’ve got chef de cuisine Rory Herrmann who has culinarily kissed the kitchens of Per Se, Alain Ducasse's Essex House restaurant in New York, Ducasse's Mix in NYC, and Dan Barber's Blue Hill - and Scott Wheatfill from Bouchon Las Vegas, manning the pastry department.
The front of the house is run by Grew Rowen from San Francisco’s Jardiniere, and Head Sommelier, Alex Weil, from our own Osteria Mozza (Nancy can’t be too pleased about that).
Alright. I know. THE FOOD.
As soon as we were seated pain de epi, or a baguette, some soft butter and warm pistachios were placed on our table. The server peeled back the little paper on top of the butter for us which was very helpful. Upon noshing on the absolutely brilliant bread we noticed the tables were covered with butcher paper and sadly, no crayons. Cruel, but probably wise, as Dixon has an anti-social compulsion to draw a particular inappropriate thing in public places. Again, the bread was sublime and the delicately salted butter was perfect.
Dixon and I started with a dozen mixed huitres (oysters) ($34), a glass of muscadet ($9) for me, and a sparkling rosé ($9) for Dixon. We followed with the Soup å l’Onion ($9.75) and the Terrine de Foie Gras de Canard, served with toasted baguette (5oz.) ($48.50).
Dixon: We began with the oysters (see the rest of this F You entry for the particular ethnicities of the oysters). Keller, of course, has the cash and clout to get good ones and they were - tasty, meaty and perfectly shucked. The underlying, strictly aesthetic bed of seaweed might have otherwise been unappetizing but it made me think of a young Darryl Hannah.
The oysters were a mixed bag of Beau Soleil from New Brunswick (my favorite), which were crisp with a strong brine; Island Creek from Massachusetts, which were strong and meaty and had a flavor that held its head high; Umami from Rhode Island, which were smaller and slightly sweet. I found them interesting in that they were mild at first but became a little bitter at the end. All of the oysters were super fresh and exceptional. I will say that the seaweed upon which they rested was an odd touch. While I obviously get it, it mostly looked like a sludgy sea monster.
The foie gras, served simply in a mason jar with toasted baguette, was prodigious. Transcendent. For me, this foie gras goes unsurpassed. It was rich, supple, urbane yet approachable. I actually took it, with its mason jar (for another $10), home with me. I now own the most expensive mason jar in the world.
Dixon: Ms. F You has already written about the foie gras so I'll be brief - what she says is true - it was such welcomed toothsome heaviness on the tongue that was, hyperbole aside, pornographic. The accompanying French onion soup was rich and comforting and the challenge of getting a spoonful of the gratin I actually found amusing. It was worth violent stabbing and attendant embarrassment.
We were both tremendously impressed with the soup. The onions had been caramelized for 5 hours, the bread was house-made, and that Comté cheese, oh the CHEESE. It also sang to my love of salt to the point at which I may have even taken a sip of water (rare when a glass of wine is before me).
Here’s where things take a turn.
I’m not a needy diner as regards service. I like to be left alone for the most part. I appreciate an overall understanding of the menu and the chef’s intention. I appreciate a confident knowledge of the inner workings of the establishment, the pace at which to order, etc. I also appreciate an eye being kept on the diminishing glasses of wine and prompt attention to remedy the horror of seeing the bottom of my glass. However, I do not need 5 people frantically scurrying about my table to peel paper off my butter and catch a breadcrumb before it sullies the table with its presence. I want to savor the meal and I usually find the omnipresent server to be quite distracting. Dixon made light of the ratio of staff pointing out that at full capacity they would need 500 servers.
The entrees. Dixon knew he wanted the Plat de Cotes de Boeuf ($34.50). This is red wine braised beef short ribs with caramelized Savoy cabbage, glazed sweet carrots, parsnips and jus de boeuf. I was craving something more along Dixon’s route, but in the spirit of trying as many different types of the food I ordered the Truite aux Amandes ($27.50). This is a pan-roasted trout with haricots verts, almonds and beurre noisette (also known as trout amandine).
Let’s do this.
Wine-wise Dixon started things off here with the Beaujolias Nouveau ’09 ($9) from the Selection du Sommelier. He wasn’t wild about it but it was a weak choice to pair with beef and odd for Dixon as he’s a big red drinker. He quickly jumped to my side of the fence with the Turley Old Vines Zinfandel ’07 ($17). We both thought this was a great glass of Zin that would work with any number of levels with our food and on its own.
The beef was fine. But I thought the vegetables were the stars of the dish. I'll let Dixon run with this one.
Dixon: Here's the rub: the entrees were just okay. The braised short rib had a country-side heartiness and provincial appeal but was missing a certain something - that unifying ingredient that ties the dish together while elevating it (a total more than the sum thing). This is my go to dish at similar restaurants and while it certainly was solid, I've had better from chefs of far less renown. F You's trout was indeed a disappointment - under-seasoned and underwhelming - it made even the vin taste flat and had us tearing more bread and double-dipping the foie gras.
While a stunning presentation, the trout was a fairly big disappointment for both of us. This was a beautiful fish--a whole fish--and its life should be celebrated and revered. Its death should not be in vain. This fish was cooked perfectly but under seasoned and wholly underwhelming. The haricots verts were nicely done with a smart snap that retained the integrity of the vegetable. I have read several reviews where Keller merely attributed it’s lack of excellence to the kitchen still learning the dishes. Yikes.
Well, and so...
Well, and so...
Dixon: The stumbling blocks I'm not sure can be attributed entirely to opening week kinks. A "bistro" is typically small and modest. With a 300 plus dollar price tag on our eats, modesty isn't the first adjective to come to mind. And Keller's celebrity is as pornographic as the goose liver, which makes me think that 50 dollars for a small jar of the delicacy might be more about the owner's name than the import tax. French onion soup isn't rocket science and throw in an abbreviated and slightly disappointing by-the-glass (I like to sample) wine selection as well as a way too obvious attempt at managing that we're-too-hot-to-get-a-reservation image and, overall, I was somewhat let down. At Keller's level, art and artist are inextricably married, and so the journey ends with confession. I couldn't avoid applying a higher standard when sampling the fare - a standard that ultimately wasn't met. Perhaps visit number two will be just Jameson's and those fries Bourdain loves so much. That ought to keep the bar low.
I actually enjoyed my evening with Dixon at Bouchon. But I guess I’m not able to wrap my head around the hype. I mean this is bistro food. It’s simple, quaint French fare. Give me something to make it stand out. Something special. Something to make me understand the difficulty in securing a reservation, the enormous accolades, and a $300 tab for two people.
I say, for those of you champing at the bit for a reservation, be relieved that by the time you get there Bouchon will have had ample time to comb out their tangles. Hopefully.
Why does Dixon think I'm F You For Food? I don't know but I thought it best to leave him, mostly, unedited. You gotta know the guy.