Ad hoc, take 2: The letdown of the season
image: ad hoc website
Last month I tried ad hoc for the first time and enjoyed it so much I practically ran home to rave about it. Naturally, when I had an opportunity to return last weekend, I jumped at the chance to go back.
I wish I hadn’t.
Before I describe every disappointment in detail, let me back up for a moment. A month and a half ago, I finally made the drive up to Napa Valley on a Monday night to try the incredibly overhyped fried chicken, which was so good it still managed to exceed my expectations. Shortly thereafter, my friend Jaime pointed out Frank Bruni’s article, which listed ad hoc as a top 15 restaurant of the year (and described it as “some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had in my life”). After reading my review, my friend Victoria insisted we go up to wine country, so we could enjoy some wine and she could get a taste of ad hoc herself.
When we sat down at ad hoc, only one of us was handed a menu. This act alone may have been been able to portend the troubling experience to come. Yes, the meal is prix fixe and written in chalk on the blackboard above the bar, but did this mean we were expected to share the menu and take turns reviewing it? Apparently so.
The waiter who greeted us with one lone menu was the same server I’d had last time I was at ad hoc. During my visit last month, he spent a lot of time at the table, busting impromptu dance moves, divulging his favorite hole-in-the-wall burrito places, and swapping notes on top San Francisco restaurants. Although I mentioned this to him, his face displayed zero recognition of me. Had the rapport between us been sheer imagination?
The bread basket is served before ad hoc’s first course, and stays the same every time. Or so I thought. That was, until our server described the three-grain bread to the table next to us, and I realized it was missing from our basket. After I inquired about the discrepancy, the aforementioned bread was promptly added.
Salad of iceberg rounds
We began with a salad of iceberg rounds, with bacon bits, radish slices, celery and walnuts, sitting atop a pool of ranch dressing. While the presentation was pleasant, I would have appreciated the ranch dressing on top of the wedges, as we were forced to reconcile lettuce with plate simply to dress our salads.
Bailey-Long roasted pork loin topped with tomato vinaigrette on a bed of green lentils
Our waiter described that night’s pork as fatty and highly marbled. While the pork chop was tasty, I have had a better-marbled pork chop, and certainly a more tender one. Nonetheless, the tomato vinaigrette which topped the pork was delicious, and I could have used more of it. The chops sat in a bed of green lentils, which added absolutely nothing to the dish in the way of taste.
But the worst part of the night was yet to come. We would soon find out that it was the broccoli rabe, which accompanied the pork loin as the main course of the meal. The greens were stringy (I wondered if this was because they were over the hill), limp and overcooked. They were also completely flavorless, lacking the slightly sweet, slightly bitter taste that I’ve come to appreciate in broccoli rabe. Even on an off-day, I could have made a better dish.
Almost immediately, Victoria found a hair in her broccoli. It seemed like eons that we sat, not eating, waiting to flag someone down. Finally, my friend approached our waiter herself. He said he would be over immediately, but then proceeded to ignore us completely. Surely Thomas Keller would consider this unacceptable! I thought to myself. The situation wasn’t addressed until someone else came over to check up on us several minutes later. When we explained the situation to him, he asked us what we would like to do. Obviously, we told him, we wanted to have the dish removed from our sight. Both of our plates were promptly removed and replaced with a new serving of pork loin.
Three Sisters Serena cheese, marcona almonds and Marshall’s Farm honey
I’ve never met a cheese I didn’t like, but the goat’s milk cheese on our plate was the closest that I’ve ever gotten, as it was exceptionally rank in a bad way. I wasn’t able to eat it without thinking obscene thoughts. The last time I’d been at ad hoc, each dish was described to us in detail, including the cheese plate. This time around, there was no mention of where in California the cheese was from, what type of cheese it was, or even a general description of taste.
Brownies with vanilla cream and caramel sauce
It wasn’t until our chocolate brownie dessert came around that the exact same waiter seemed utterly concerned about our experience at the restaurant. Victoria and I had been engaged in a discussion about how the dessert was more cake than brownie, and was so close being a molten chocolate cake (which would have been delightful), yet so far away.
“Is everything OK?” our waiter asked.
He was suddenly, inexplicably able to identify that the situation wasn’t handled correctly, yet he wasn’t sophisticated enough to rectify it. When we told him the dessert didn’t quite do it for us, he repeatedly offered us fruit, nuts and cheese instead. At that point, however, we simply wanted him to leave us alone.
Ultimately, the kitchen had the good sense to comp Victoria’s meal, as well as our coffee and tea. But by then we were ready to make a dash for the exit, as we felt as though the eyes of the kitchen were upon us, and we’d been labeled the “trouble table.”
We left feeling underwhelmed (by the food), crestfallen (by the high hopes), and irritated and guilty (by the service). As I like to say, when diners aren’t satisfied, everybody loses.
“I will probably never go back there again,” Victoria said to me as we got in the car. I felt disappointed by the inconsistency, and ashamed for having recommended the place.
This entry was posted on March 5, 2008 at 5:17 am and is filed under Restaurants, Reviews with tags ad hoc, Thomas Keller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.