Thomas Keller, thought by many to be America’s best chef, leads the French Laundry’s restaurant team in Napa Valley. The people responsible for lists of the world’s leading restaurants often include some subset of Keller’s restaurants — the list of Keller’s restaurants includes the very successful Per Se located in New York City; and as the song says “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” To get a bead on Keller, you need only to read through the French Laundry cookbook with its incredible descriptions enumerating the many steps he takes in the preparation of food to ensure both great taste and artful presentation.
And so it was with great expectation that local restaurant buffs awaited the opening of his first restaurant in Beverly Hills (he was a chef at the Checkers Hotel in the 1990s): Bouchon. So we went there with my famous sister and brother in law.
In the heart of Beverly Hills, en route from the car to Bouchon, we walked through a lovely park with gardens and a fountain alongside the Montage Hotel and Bouchon. The scene is very reminiscent of Santa Barbara. The restaurant’s elegant entry hall opens to a winding staircase that leads to the reception area (the elevator is pretty well hidden). Once the hostess signaled that the table was ready we were escorted down a longish hallway. With each step the noise level rose until we reached the restaurant itself which is also elegant and beautiful, with colorful tiles, high ceilings, and French brasserie-type fixtures, including a raw seafood zinc bar.
It’s not just the décor — the cooking is supposed to be brasserie style food, too. In some ways it is: at one meal I had a boudin noir sausage, with buttery mashed potatoes and glazed cubes of apple, and it was in fact just like a dish typically served in Paris. The popular steak frites is — well, steak frites. Bonnie’s quiche was light as only a perfectionist can make it. The frisee salad was light and fresh — simple and direct as brasserie food should be.
The décor, the service, the menu, the wine list — all as good as it gets. Alex, the very capable wine steward, found us a delicious-tasting 2005 Bordeaux for the bargain price of $68. Our waiter, Noah, grew up in Minnesota, then migrated to New York City to become an actor, and recently moved to Los Angeles where, between acting auditions he worked at the wonderful BLT restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, where he was trained by Doug Johnson. Several of the staff migrated away from the Peninsula Hotel, and — perhaps by coincidence, the former manager of the Peninsula was there for dinner (visiting his old staff?) and stopped by our table to say hello.
The crowd seemed mainly to be the local Beverly Hills group. I don’t think that money was any object for them, and at the prices at Bouchon that’s fortunate. Haim Saban stopped at our table to say hello, and he can certainly afford to eat anywhere.
On the other hand, as perfect as it seems, there is something about it that would keep me from driving there very often. And I think I know what it is. When I go to a French brasserie I expect French brasserie preparation. But many of these dishes are really Keller’s remake of the dish. I’m not going to go into great detail about what I find missing in the dishes except to give one example to make my point: when I think of the famous dessert, iles flottantes (and I sometimes do dream about it), I think about the beautiful ones I have eaten in France. A fluffy ball of soft meringue floating on a bed of yellow crème anglaise, with drizzles of caramel streaking over the top. At Bouchon I was served a small, condensed, extremely sweet disc of meringue in a pale crème anglaise, with an overly watery caramel sauce poured over the top. Some people might well prefer this dessert to the real thing, but this dessert didn’t meet my expectations. Nor did the mussels, nor the preparation of the steak, etc.
For me, this restaurant reminds me of a great ballerina who is reduced to teaching dancing to school children. Yes Keller can do this, and he does it well. But he could do so much more. At these prices, in its beautiful setting, with well trained staff and with its well appointed kitchen we could be offered the kind of dishes that only a few chefs aside from Keller can do. Where are the dishes pictured in his cook books?
You have to go there and try it, even though for some of us it means driving east of the 405 freeway. Go when you can get a reservation, which might be a while. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just not what I expected and not what it could have been.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.