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Bouchon

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It’s a rare meal when, at the end, I’m excited to have only paid $100, tip included. It’s even more rare when I am anxious to return, and nearly do so the very next day.

Loria and I visited The Venetian resort in Las Vegas last year specifically to enjoy Bouchon Bakery, a small stand outside of the Phantom of the Opera Theatre. The first visit made such an impression that our final stop on the way out of the town consisted of my parking illegally in the hotel’s covered entrance, leaving her to watch after the car, sprinting to drop a silly amount of money, and then running back with two bags full of baked goods.

While the eponymous bouchon, a dense, rich chocolate brownie bite, the lemon and raspberry macaron, and the eclairs were each delicious, it was the ham and cheese sandwich that really surprised me. It takes something this simple and elegant to really make the point that Thomas Keller is a genius, and clearly knows how to coax maximum flavor out of each ingredient. On a not entirely unrelated note, we repeated the exercise this year, nearly doubling last year’s expenditure. The prices are, in some cases, double that of a regular bakery. Food with the precision and thought like that served in a Keller restaurant is worth every penny. Which is my way of saying, visit the bakery, go prepared to spend some cash, and don’t look back.

Having enjoyed the baked goods last year, we decided to make the actual restaurant the central dining experience of the trip. Good call.

If you’ve ever read a Thomas Keller recipe, you’ll know that “precision” isn’t finely detailed enough a word to describe the man’s work. When somebody suggests that I cut up a chocolate bar for use in a chocolate chip cookie, and then use a sieve on the pieces of chocolate to make sure that the smaller shards don’t end up melted into the dough and change the pale color, you know that you’re dealing with somebody who really cares about the smallest details of his food. It shows and I’m grateful.

Bouchon Bistro is a recreation of Keller’s casual eatery in Yountville, California. It serves French bistro food, dressed up for a night on the town. Or, in some cases, dressed down and simplified in very elegant and flavorful ways.

The staff was beyond friendly. Our waiter bantered wittily when appropriate, and gave us plenty of space when we needed it. I love a server who pays attention, and this guy was very much on his game. His description of the specials indicated clearly that he’d sampled each of them, which seems to be a dying tradition in restaurants. His first recommendation put us in a quandary: the night’s special appetizer sounded amazing, but I’ve read a bit about the pate and have my heart set on it. In an evening filled with great choices, we decide to do both.

It consisted of pork shoulder, cooked low and slow for the entire day, pressed into the shape of a long, thin candy bar. The pork presse was topped with an apricot preserve and a salad of marble-sized heirloom tomato halves. These parts of the dish alone would have been worth the money. The genius bit, though, was a sprinkling of dried garlic flowers, so pungent and flavorful, with a bit of creme fraiche to combat the acid of the tomatoes. I would love to know what, exactly, had been done to those small flowers to make them so filled with garlic flavor. Whether they were soaked or treated in some manner before drying, or they came from The French Laundry’s garden, they were the extra bit that put an already remarkable dish over the top.

As for the pate, I honestly don’t remember the details. It had some bacon around the outside. It made me feel very happy for the lucky pig that gave its life for the dish. I remember feeling like it would have been a serious mistake had we passed it up. I will not visit Bouchon again without getting the pate before my meal.

For our entrees, we choose the Kurobuta pork loin and the croque madame. The pork was served with a mustard water and creme fraiche on a small bed of wilted swiss chard and lightly heated peaches. I will admit that, though I do dearly love pork, I have only rarely had a pork loin that I was really excited about. Given how the appetizers went, I was fairly confident that Bouchon’s take on it stood a decent chance of turning that around for me and I wasn’t disappointed. It was weet, tender, and very delicate. The pairing of stone fruit with pork, a traditional favorite in late-summer, was a nice compliment. I certainly enjoyed it and might even order it again.

The croque madame was, however, all kinds of amazing.

This one was my wife’s choice, though we shared both entrees. Here is the menu description:

toasted ham & cheese sandwich on brioche,
fried egg & mornay sauce
served with French fries

Reading that, I was underwhelmed. I was wrong.

The visual impression the sandwich gives is monumental: a tall, sharply squared block of what appears to be very crisp bread with a bit of ham visible from the outside, topped with a round and very flat egg, and a mountain of frites on the side. Cutting into it revealed the reality to be a bit different: the bread was ethereal and nearly disappeared under my knife. The egg, it turned out, was fried just to the point where the white appeared to be solid. It was not. Both it and the yolk ran immediately and coated the exposed bits of the sandwich, and the fries. The combination was a perfect bite of light, airy bread, a bit of protein, and runny sauce from the egg and mornay.

Eventually the server came over with a small container of house made ketchup for the frites. It was a nice touch, but it’s going to be hard from here on out to eat frites without lightly fried egg coating them, no matter how well they are cooked.

We skipped dessert in favor of another trip to the bakery. Our server’s recommendation turned out to be another favorite – half a croissant, smeared with raspberry preserves, topped with a brown sugar and butter crumb and baked. I wish this read more like a critique and that I had some suggestion for the restaurant. My only real complaint is that, since Keller seems willing to recreate the bistro and bakery pair, that there isn’t one closer to home. Maybe someday.

Bouchon (Venetian) on Urbanspoon

What I Ate in San Francisco – A Confession, final

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April 2 – Day Four

Out the Door – Shredded Chicken Salad, Steamed BBQ Pork Bun, Caramelized Chicken

Tucked in the far corner from the Bloomingdale’s entrance we frequented, Out the Door has both a very busy takeout counter and a sizable dine-in area – especially for a mall. Though I have to admit that there is nothing about this place that says mall food to me. The first meal I ate there, my poor digestive system was feeling a bit abused from days of donuts and ice cream, so I figured I would go light and get a salad and steamed BBQ pork bun. The prices, on first glance, seemed a bit steep, but no other salad options were speaking to me, so I took the plunge.

I’m so glad I did.

The cabbage-based salad had a light, crisp mix of vegetables very delicately dressed in a lime and ginger dressing. Simple and delicious. The chicken on top of it seemed a bit skimpy, but then I’m used to eating large homemade salads with 1/3 of a chicken on top of it. The salad ended up being very filling despite looking small. I topped it off with a steamed BBQ pork bun. Costco, of all places, used to sell these and I loved them. I mourn the loss of them. The Out the Door version had a filling that was less of the paste of meat and aromatics I’m used to having. Instead, it was filled with a complex mixture of still-crisp vegetables, cubes of pork, and enough sauce to cover them.

My second meal there the next day, I went for broke and got the caramelized chicken. Suffice it to say that, even though I tend to view rice as a carb that I can easily cut to a minimum (in favor of dessert), I ate nearly all the rice served with this dish in an effort to soak up all of that unctuous, complex sauce.
Out the Door on Urbanspoon

April 3 – Day Five

It’s our final full day in San Francisco, so I decide to start it off in style. Although neither of the girls are interested in them, I get up very early and go to Dynamo. They are just finishing frying off the hot cross donuts and it becomes clear to me that I either miss the panel with Max Brooks or finally get to taste the cherry cornmeal donuts. Already planning to return next April for the convention, I choose the panel and promise myself the donut on return. Besides, I’ve already eaten five, maybe more…my poor, poor diet.

After the panel, I’m hungry again. So I slog through the rain to the Ferry Terminal to Boccalone for another meat cone, then around the corner to

Yank Sing – Deem Sum Platter and many other tasty Deem Sum treats

I’d read about the baked BBQ pork buns here, so I wanted to give this place a shot. I’d also read that it was fairly expensive for dim sum, which I didn’t find to be the case at all. Maybe a bit more than the $15 for two we’d paid in Chinatown, but the quality of this food was amazing.

Seafood was front and center for most of the dumplings in the dim sum platter. Loaded with scallop and shrimp meat, they were tender and tasty. I’m also a bit amazed that it was all packed so well that it was hot even after my long walk from the restaurant to the Moscone Center. The baked BBQ pork buns were as advertised – simply a step above. I especially liked the onion flavor prevalent in the filling, something missing from other incarnations I’d had before.

I regret both that I decided to hit this one late in the trip, as it would have been worth revisiting, and that I was doing takeout: I’ve never actually had dim sum with the rolling carts piled with bamboo steamers, and they do this at Yank Sing. Next time!

Yank Sing on Urbanspoon

Convention ends, we tear things down, and head back to the hotel with the intention of dropping off the bags and heading to the food court. I have been eyeing Out the Door’s Coconut Pork Riblets. I can nearly taste them in anticipation.

We get ready, head out, and get to the doors of the mall later than hoped to find them locked. I nearly pull a “Khaaaaan” here. Instead, I pout silently as we head to

Mel’s Drive-In – Broiled Chicken Breast Dinner

This place looks horrendous from the outside, so while the girls get seated, I run up the street to look at the menu for Green Papaya in the hope that it’s prices are comparable. It’s more pricey, so I trudge back and face the music.

While the girls work a convention, the business picks up the cost of their food. So when our weary server wanders over, I start by saying “Mine will be on a separate check.”

“Nope, sorry, all one check.”

Um…ok. Eventually Janelle overhears him talking to somebody – he’s finishing up a 13 hour shift. I guess that’ll explain the surly attitude.

I’m too upset at having been deprived of my last visit with Out the Door to argue. The food eventually comes. The girls seem to be ok with theirs. Mine is terrible – dry chicken, gravy that tastes like something mom would have turned in her apron permanently had she made it. The server chides us for not ordering dessert. We pay and leave defeated.

Mel's Drive-in on Urbanspoon

April 4 – Day Six
Our flight is early, so no real breakfast. I wake up around 4am, though, and cannot sleep. So eventually I shower and head to Dottie’s around 7am. I find myself first in line, grab the pastries to go, and return to find the girls getting ready.

My to-do list for the next trip to SF: Sotto Mare, Yank Sing, those Out the Door riblets, as much Dynamo as my pancreas can handle, and some other places we didn’t make:

Mission Street Food
Restaurant Jeanne D’Arc

In my perfect world, we’ll have time the resources to go early and visit Yountville, too. I’ll let you guess why.

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