Friday, August 31, 2007

Napa Getaway: Lunch at Bouchon

So we decided to start the Labor Day festivities early by heading up north to Napa on Thursday.

I know, I know. Ordinarily we wouldn't be caught dead in the middle of what will be tourist central this weekend. By heading up well before the weekend though, we were pleased to note that there was almost no traffic (by Napa standards).

Plus, we could also hit a few non-wine-related targets: the fabulously quirky art collection of Rene diRosa's DiRosa Art Preserve, a glimpse of the new foodie destination, the Oxbow Public Market and lunch at Thomas Keller's relaxed bistro, Bouchon.

Frankly it was a good thing that we'd made reservations (the only way you can see the diRosa collection) for 10 am. We saw bumper-to-bumper commute traffic going the other direction early in the morning, and saw bumper-to-bumper traffic headed for wine country on our way back, but for our part had relatively smooth sailing up to the DiRosa.

When you're tired of trying to cram up to the bar in tasting rooms all over the Wine Country, the DiRosa is a terrific oasis where you can see an enormous, eccentric collection of art by Northern California artists-- Robert Arneson, David Best, Roy DeForest, Enrique Chagoya, Joan Brown, William Wiley, Viola Frey-- all of whom DiRosa was personal friends with. Until recently it wasn't possible to see the collection unless Mr. DiRosa invited you up to his house himself. It's a fabulous look at some rarely seen art and well worth a detour.

Call before you go to reserve a tour of the preserve. DiRosa has idiosyncratically scattered artwork large and small across the extensive property, where he himself lived up until the beginning of 2007. We took the extended "Discovery Tour" which enables you to get a little more viewing time within each of the areas where the art is displayed and is definitely worth a little extra money and time.

I should mention too that all the galleries are nicely air conditioned, a point that received not a small amount of consideration as temperatures hovered in the smothering 90s all day. Every time we went outside, it felt as though someone had thrown a pre-warmed wool blanket over us. I'm usually all about the picnic, but for once, I was glad that we had decided to eschew the outdoor picnic.

We did make a brief detour to take a peek at the new Oxbow Market in Napa, which is right next to the COPIA Wine Center. From the looks of it, it is meant to house markets and shops, a la Ferry Plaza Market or Borough Market. Will it be as popular? It's hard to say, but apparently the COPIA center hasn't drawn as much traffic as the planners had hoped.

Still, it looks like it's set to open fairly soon in the fall of 2007, and has an impressive list of shops signed up for the space, including Fatted Calf.

From there we went on up to Yountville, for lunch at Bouchon. We were nearly half an hour early, and I was absolutely starving. But with the kind of pleasantly accommodating and warm service that we've come to expect from a Thomas Keller place, they fit us in ahead of time, despite a full up dining room.

It seems silly, but the whole relaxed, genuine approach of everyone on staff, from the maitre d, to the servers, to the guy sitting outside folding napkins, was just perfect. In my mind I was thinking to myself "Why doesn't every restaurant train their staff to be exactly like this?" It was --for lack of a better way of putting it -- so NORMAL. They were normal, nice people: not conceited and self-important just because you're Dining in A Thomas Keller Establishment, not being extra-obsequious, not ignoring us -- just really normal and friendly.

I was trying not to gobble down the bread which they put on the table, because I knew better things were afoot, but I was so hungry I probably could have eaten a palm tree, and it didn't help that the noisy boisterous group of people at the next table rushed off during dessert and left about a half a dozen half-eaten lemon tarts JUST LYING THERE on the table.

"I could grab you one," suggests my Omnivore as he catches me eying the tarts for the fifth time.

I weigh the options and decide that I might be coming back here -- I should try to look like I'm not a complete savage.

I ordered the steak frites, which, when it arrived, certainly looked like it was quite sufficient to assuage even my hunger. A lovely luscious hunk of steak topped with minutely chopped caramelized onions, and a pat of tarragon butter, plus a mound of fries the size of Mount Diablo on the plate.

The server joked, "They're running out of french fries in the kitchen."

"That's because they're all on my plate!" I reply, mouth watering at the sight of it all.

The steak was definitely on the "rare" side of medium rare, which was fine with me -- a tender piece of meat, with a fine sear on the outside. The onions were umami-packed, the fries (double fried, I'm sure) were perfect with a wonderful salt that adds a bright metallic glint to each bite.

"You're going to have to help me with this," I inform my Omnivore.

For his part, he's ordered the housemade Boudin Blanc, a bit lighter than the Boudin Noir, our server informs us. It comes with the creamiest mashed potatoes ( cooked, mashed, run through a food-mill, passed through a tamis and then a chinois is my guess -- they were that smooth....) topped with prunes. The server suggested a nice wine to pair with it, which, as is par for a Keller place, matched everything perfectly.

The boudin is totally out of this world, sort of a cross between a feathery pate, and a delicate mousse, but wrapped up sausage style. Somehow I don't think this is that same kind of boudin that Southerners suck down in the parking lots.

Add to this a Pimms cocktail and a Lillet Blanc, and you have two exceptionally happy diners. It was so satisfying that, despite coming in starving, I still couldn't finish the steak or the frites. We had to bypass dessert and (horrors!) skip the cheese plate, even though it had two cheeses I didn't recognize on it, which I consider to be the sign of an excellent cheese selection.

All in all, the whole bill came to around $80, and considering the level of satisfaction that it generated, we elevated Bouchon to four star in our minds. If this place was in the city, we'd be there all the time. Fantastic food, unpretentious, and great bang-for-your-buck.

We love you, Thomas Keller.

Send me off now to Siesta Way.

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