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Monday, March 19, 2012

Is Ad Hoc in Napa the "French Laundry" for the Common Man?

Last week I found myself in Napa looking for a place to eat dinner.  With so many great places to eat, it's hard to pick just one.  After a disappointing meal at Paon in Carlsbad last week, I decided to play it safe and go to a Thomas Keller restaurant.  You know this guy, the man behind The French Laundry, one of the top rated restaurants in the world.  But The French Laundry costs $250 per person and it's not hard to spend a thousand bucks for two.  So as much as I wanted to eat there, we went downscale a bit and ended up at Ad Hoc, priced at a much more reasonable $52 per person.

Now here's the deal with Ad Hoc - there's only one meal they serve each night.  Everyone gets the same thing and the food is served "family style", meaning one plate put in the middle of the table.  But this is no Coco's, trust me. 

The restaurant is casual and bustling like a bistro, casual enough for jeans but with a nice upscale vibe to it.  Look, there's even a screaming baby ("more pork belly!").  I was so hungry that I could have eaten that baby.  Thankfully, we were seated on the other side of the restaurant. 

Since everyone gets the same thing there are no decisions to make!  I like that.  I hate ordering and then seeing the other plates come out and wishing I had ordered something else.  Tonight's dinner started with a perfectly dressed endive, watercress and pea shoot salad.  Now I know, salads are sometimes not all that exciting but this one was delicious, fresh and just perfect.   Sniff, sniff, what's that I smell?

Pork Belly!  Whoo Hoo!  Some of you out there might be thinking that this is gross or weird, but remember that bacon is made from pork belly.  Feel better?  And also note that when you cook pork belly low and slow the fat renders out and all you are left with is the most moist and succulent meat ever with a melt in your mouth consistency topped with a crispy skin.  I would eat this all the time if it wouldn't kill me.

The main course, the pork short ribs.  A pork short rib is the meaty section of the first 3 ribs closest to the shoulder.  Thomas cooked this simply but perfectly and then sliced it off the bone.  This isn't like a spare rib, it's more like a pork shoulder texture and packed with savory flavors.  Good?  Great!  And to go with it, some of the best mashed potatoes I've ever had.

By now I was stuffed, so full, and pretty satisfied.  But wait, there's more!


So darn good.  Going back a bit, when we first decided to dine here the hostess went over the menu and said that the only thing she thought was just OK was the dessert.  That's OK with me as I am not a huge dessert guy.  But ready or not, here it comes.

It's Panna Cotta and it was so good that I wished I had a long tongue like my dog so I could have licked the entire bowl clean!  Yes, it was that good.  But didn't I say I was stuffed?  Yes, and now I was very stuffed.  So stuffed that I asked to have my cookie wrapped to take home.  That's it?  One cookie?  Yes, don't embarrass me.

At the end, I could barely walk back to my car.  I don't normally eat like a pig but this food was so good that I couldn't help myself.  In fact, this meal has to go down as one of the best meals I have ever had in my life.  It wasn't cheap -  $180 was the final tab for two after adding drinks - but unlike Paon in Carlsbad where I left thinking I could have cooked it better, when I left Ad Hoc I knew that Thomas Keller deserves all the praise he has been given.

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