new Things I Ate in Cambodia: Bouchon Bistro

Friday, July 25, 2008

Bouchon Bistro

Bouchon Bistro
6534 Washington St,
Yountville, CA 94599

Thomas Keller is America's reigning culinary deity - the creator of Yountville's French Laundry, widely hailed as the country's best restaurant. The mighty French Laundry itself isn't exactly accessible to the common man: prix fixe menus start at 210 dollars and reservations are only obtainable by, say, selling your soul. (Presumably to Keller.)

There is an option for the (relatively) poorer among us: Bouchon, Keller's casual Yountville bistro. Featuring classic French fare served in a noisy and laid back setting, it's Keller's kickback joint, the kind of place where rich people trying to Lay Low hang out in t-shirts over wine and oysters. This does not mean you will get a break on prices, mind you, but you will feel more like the kind of robust French countryman who just happens to be able to drop 32 bucks on a lunch entree. Because you are Earthy.

Bouchon's dining room has a nice, slightly ornate look to it, but the tables are very close together, creating a very present danger of elbowing the people next to you if you make any quick movements. As my mother commented, we live in America: we have the ability to build restaurants big enough to allow people to eat without invading each others personal space. If they're really going for authenticity, they need to pipe in some body odor, issue cigarettes to all customers, and install a bidet, and I don't see them doing any of that.

Our friendly server was able to seat us ahead of our reservation. Menus are rather cute and come wrapped around the silverware. Specials are listed on a big blackboard, and change every day dependent on what's fresh. (This is totally a rule in Northern California.)

The menu focuses on good French home cookin' - none of the super contemporary touches Keller plays with in his flagship restaurant, but lots of hearty, classic flavors. I am not well versed in French cuisine and was happy to get a chance to try the real deal.

We began with appetizers. I chose the Canard salee et Confit ($14.50), composed of cured duck breast and leg confit, on a bed of frisee, pickled turnips, poached cherries, and spiced honey vinaigrette. This really was a beautiful dish: the combination of meaty, rare duck breast, fatty and decadent confit, and tiny, salt fried duck skin strips was perfect, and I deeply enjoyed the wine-infused cherries that accompanied the meat. The honey vinaigrette was also masterfully subdued and lovely, not too sweet or cloying: I want the recipe. It is always nice to have a duck dish that does not overwhelm with fat and grease, and this is it: understated, sophisticated, good.

We are a family of leek aficionados, so my mom chose the Salade de Poirexau ($12.50), composed of grilled leeks, new potatoes, haricots verts, spring onions, and a lentil vinaigrette. This was also excellent: fresh leeks provided an earthy, garlicky juxtaposition to the brilliant green haricots verts and onions. The lentil vinaigrette was especially interesting: the lentils provided an interesting texture difference. It's a nice, fairly simple dish, and a refreshing way to begin a meal.

I decided to go all light on this business and went with the Salade de Carpaccio Fume ($13.50) - smoked beef carpaccio with tomtato confit, celery branch, and green olive bread spread with creamy horseradish. This was quite nice though not as substantial as I'd been hoping (and I wish there was more tomato confit.) Still, it was beautifully presented and the super-fresh beef had a nice meaty flavor.

I also ordered the Ratatouille ($6.50) as a side dish, and NOT BECAUSE I ENJOY MOVIES ABOUT ANIMATED RATS. This was very tasty - probably because there sure was a lot of oil in it. Now, it tasted delicious and I ate all of it, but I felt a bit queasy afterwards...not that I regretted it. They could tone down the oil, but then again, it might not taste so good. I hate these kind of tradeoffs.

There's a dessert menu, but most people head next door to the equally famous Bouchon Bakery - which is exactly what we did. It's a tiny little place full of European tourists, but it certainly turns out good and classic French pastries. I had a tasty, super fresh fruit tart - light and airy, with a nice buttery crust. We also tried a raspberry macaroon, which was really quite delish: intense raspberry flavored cream, squishy yet crunchy cookie - just the perfect sort of sandwich cookie. Keller also makes upmarket Oreos with chocolate sable cookies, sold at the bakery. Well, next time. (I maintain Oreos don't actually taste like anything so the only way to go is up.)

Special note: Presentation of dishes is just beautiful at Bouchon. Somehow the colors and shapes combine to create appetizing, rustic compositions that would be worthy of any food porn magazine. It's food that is pretty but not too pretty to eat, which I find to be a terribly important distinction.

Conclusion: Bouchon is turning out excellent, detailed, and lovingly created renditions of French bistro food. Is anything innovative going on here? No - this is not food that will blow you away or make you think. But it is simple and soul-sustaining food taken to a superlative level of quality and freshness, and that in and of itself is worthy of praise. Bouchon is an excellent choice for rustic French food - what you see is exactly what you get.

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