Once you actually secure a table, you'll find the paper menu folded around the napkin. It's surprisingly small, which would be a good thing if everything on the menu were terrific. That's not the case. And the cooking certainly isn't what you'd expect from a perfectionist like Keller. He's such a consummate talent, though, I'm confident he'll work out the kinks. But he can't be in the kitchen every minute. The former Bouley Bakery chef he hired to open the restaurant was gone after only a couple of months.
Whoever is in the kitchen now doesn't seem to understand bistro food. It's all concept, no soul. The oysters, of course, are splendid. Onion soup is nice, bubbling over the sides of the bowl, furnished with lots of melting, stringy cheese, a meal in itself. Codfish balls are bready, and bibb lettuce salad is drowned in vinaigrette. The best dish we had on my one meal there was a simple roast lamb, rosy pink at the center, served with good flageolet beans. But the roast chicken was flaccid, and the sauteed wild mushrooms oily. And it seems a misstep to serve rich boudin noir (blood sausage) with mashed potatoes that are every bit as rich as retired three-star Paris chef Joel Robuchon's fabled recipe that calls for as much butter as potatoes. It's entirely overkill. Even the tarte Tatin is nothing extraordinary. Profiteroles, however, are excellent, especially if you pour lots of the dark chocolate sauce over them.
Come fine weather, that terrace out front will be crowded with beautiful people in sunglasses. If Keller can just find someone with the right sensibility, Bouchon will fulfill its role as a place to park everyone who can't get into the French Laundry, and as a lively hangout for locals.
In September, Ken Frank left Fenix at the Argyle in West Hollywood, where he'd been cooking for the past couple of years, to fulfill a longtime dream of opening a restaurant in Napa Valley. La Toque (the same name as the French restaurant he had on the Sunset Strip for 14 years) debuted at Rutherford's Rancho Caymus Inn last fall.
The opening chef at Michael's in Santa Monica, Frank was a star at 21, had his own restaurant only a few years later and has never looked back since he fell in love with French cuisine as a teenager visiting France with his parents. "This is the restaurant I always dreamed of having," Frank says. "In the six months we've been open, I've only gotten a request for sauce on the side three times--in L.A. it happened every 30 minutes."
Wherever he's cooked, he's always prided himself on his tasting menus, devising special truffle, wild mushroom or game menus, as well as his "chef's fantasy menus." His idea here is to offer only a tasting menu--no a la carte at all--but with several choices in each of the courses. (Note: He's now offering a sampling of to-order dishes in La Toque's Wine Bar.) A meal here is meant to be savored over a couple of hours, so La Toque would not be the choice for a casual meal out on the spur of the moment.
When we arrived for a Sunday lunch, a smiling young sous-chef in his whites and clogs opened the door for us. We peeked into the bar with its comfy sofas before being seated in the dining room. It's a spare, simple room with lofty ceilings and a huge stone fireplace that opens onto the terrace outside where a handful of tables are set up in summer. Frank's menu is very much in the graceful, light style he's been cooking for years. The disappointment is that it doesn't offer much that's new for anyone already familiar with his cooking. A pleasant lunch in late March began with seared Sonoma foie gras with currants and sultana raisins, and sharp pickled onions in a balsamic and Port sauce, followed by Maine scallops in a silky pea curry sauce, or a fragile asparagus flan surrounded by musky morels and fava beans. My favorite course was the roasted squab, a beautiful red wine dish with a perfect reduction and wonderful parsnip puree. (For vegetarians, he offered a little tart of leeks and teleme cheese.) To finish your bottle of red, you can order a supplemental cheese course. And for dessert, there's La Toque's Gateau Concorde au chocolat, a towering construction of chocolate meringue and ganache.
The serenity of the setting, solicitousness of the staff (many of whom followed Frank up from L.A.) and pace of the menu make this a particularly relaxing meal.