I have wanted to try ad hoc‘s food since its opening in 2006. The newest of Thomas Keller’s Yountville restaurants, it was initially supposed to be a temporary restaurant based on a prix fixe family-style menu. Today, the menu still stands, but its short-lived status does not: In September 2007, due to popular demand, the restaurant became a permanent fixture.
Perhaps part of the reason for the restaurant’s popularity is its fried chicken, which has a cult following like none other. Fried chicken night is hard to catch (pun intended), as the chicken is made twice monthly and only on Monday nights. For those of us who have 9 to 5 jobs, the chicken is particularly elusive, but a few weeks ago, I finally bit the bullet and made the hour-and-a-half drive up to Yountville from San Francisco.
Despite arriving on time, we waited at the bar with a drink for at least 15 minutes. We were finally seated in a cozy corner table. We were handed menus (although we didn’t need to order) and house bread. The bread basket was filled with two different kinds of bread: a triple alliance loaf with spelt, rye and flour, and a pain de campagne. While the pain de campagne was a rustic country bread with a similarity to sourdough, the triple alliance bread had a true coarseness to it, and was what I would have imagined to be true peasant bread.
Our first course, a contemporary twist on Cobb salad, began with baby iceberg wedges, which were covered with a vinaigrette of olive oil, vinegar, mustard and Worcestershire, then topped with kalamata olives, ham, parsley, red onions and soft-boiled eggs. While it didn’t have many elements of a Cobb salad (bacon, avocados, Roquefort cheese), it was well-balanced and light, a perfect start for the rest of the courses to follow.
But it was really nothing compared to our second course of buttermilk fried chicken, which was about to change my life. It was everything I’ve ever wanted in fried chicken: crispy on the outside, with a substantial breading that put every other fried chicken crust to shame; moist, juicy and tender on the inside, yet cooked through and not greasy; meaty, with little to no bones; just seasoned and spicy enough so that no hot sauce was necessary.
Our waiter Nessim explained the many elements that contribute to the end result, starting with the ingredients. The chickens are local, organic, free-range young chickens, which explains how I was able to eat through an enormous thigh and have nothing to show for it save one small bone. The hens arrive fresh from Modesto, as the kitchen never freezes the poultry, and are brined for 12 hours and dredged in a coating of all-purpose flour, cayenne pepper, paprika and other spices, dipped into a bath of buttermilk and then dredged into the flour mixture for a second time, fried and topped with thyme.
Here’s where things start to get ambiguous: Fellow blogger Arnold posted Keller’s fried chicken recipe a while back when it was published in Food and Wine. The recipe is similar but doesn’t match up exactly: the breading doesn’t include cayenne, and more significantly, the chicken is breaded once, not twice.
Along with the generous portions of chicken, I enjoyed a glass of cava, a great wine to cut into the heaviness of a deep-fried chicken leg. The chicken was served with giblet gravy, which was good, but I’m not a fan of giblets. Collard greens and black-eyed peas were served alongside the chicken, and they were nearly just as delicious. The collard greens really stood up to the chicken and black-eyed peas; they weren’t overcooked and limp (common mistakes), and the leaves were kept whole rather than chopped into tiny pieces. The black-eyed peas were flavored with bacon (typical) and curry (atypical), and this added a great touch to the the traditional Southern meal.
Our third course was a cheese course, with two cow’s milk cheeses: Red Gold from Elk Creamery in the coastal Mendocino town of Elk, and Pug’s Leap from down the road in Healdsburg. They were accompanied by raw almonds and organic clover blossom honey, which was some of the most aromatic honey that I’ve ever had, with notes of apricot and vanilla.
Last (and least), Andy and I had a trio of cupcakes for dessert. We had a vanilla cupcake with chocolate frosting and chocolate ganache filling; a chocolate cupcake with white chocolate frosting and filling; and a “madeleine” cupcake with cream cheese frosting and lemon curd filling. Having tried many different kinds of cupcakes, I can say with confidence that these were not remarkable at all — the cake was dense and somewhat dry, and the frostings were all cloyingly sweet.
Given the exceptional fried chicken, however, anything else would have been (indulge me this one time) just icing on the cake. By the time we drove home from Yountville through the foggiest of driving conditions, it was nearly midnight, but I didn’t mind much. I was already dreaming of when we’d be going back.
ad hoc, 6476 Washington St., Yountville, Calif. 707.944.2487