Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Bouchon Review

“Have you guys ever been here before?” asked the older man, as his smaller wife looked on in silence.

“No, but I’m very much looking forward to it,” I said.

It was true. The anticipation was so great it must have been some kind of trigger for my lurking OCD, because I made the reservations six weeks in advance. I’ve only been to California twice in my life, and neither trip found me anywhere close to The French Laundry. In fact, I can admit (although not proudly) that at the time I didn’t have the slightest inkling what The French Laundry was, let alone have the sense to point myself in its direction.

Thanks to the constantly improving one-stop shop that is Las Vegas, our last night in town would bring me a step closer to rectifying such a missed opportunity. The rest of the elevator ride to Bouchon was spent discussing with the nice couple the various places we’d been during our trip; standard conversational fare for happy Vegas tourists who manage to avoid the dreaded financial hole people are trying to describe when they use the word “down.” As the doors opened, the man mentioned that they hadn’t made reservations. I thought perhaps that they were simply victims of their own short-sightedness, and feeling a sort of kinship with those that seek out something better than standard fare, I offered to check and see if it would be possible to get them added to our reservation and they could dine with us. The man looked genuinely surprised and pleased at the offer.

“No, thank you. We mostly just wanted to get a look around, sort of scouting for our next trip. But thanks so much for the offer, it was very generous of you.”

“No problem at all. I just wanted to make sure that no one misses out on a great meal,” I said as we stepped up to the hostess and quietly but amicably ended our brief acquaintance.

Looking around while Rachel sorts out reservation business with the hostess, I don’t feel badly saying things about the upcoming “great meal” as though I know all about it, even though I don’t. Such is my confidence, equal to that of my anticipation.


The restaurant was packed to the rafters, and I breathed a silent thanks to my OCD for making the reservations when I did. I had no real evidence that it would have made too much of a difference if I reserved only a week out, but the fact that it was our scheduled time and there would still be a small wait left me relieved at my over-preparedness. We were offered a seat at the bar until our table was ready and my internal pressure gauge slid a few bars to the left. A couple of cocktails before our meal would keep it sliding until it reached zero, just what the doctor (or hostess, in this case) ordered.

The Foreign Legion kept catching my eye as I scanned endlessly up and down the drink menu. It was an odd name for a drink, quite obviously the reason that I kept stopping on its description; Grey Goose, Tanqueray 10, Drambui, and Amaretto. As I kept going over the ingredients, I couldn’t stop recalling that movie that I liked, Legionnaire, with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Being a sucker for crappy action cinema makes me odd, I guess, and the odd drink with the odd mix of ingredients seemed a perfect match, plus I was happy that I managed to break my normal standard of the “very fucking dry” martini.

“The Foreign Legion is an odd drink. Are you sure that’s what you want?” asked the tiny bartender with short blonde hair.

“Define odd.”

“Well, it has Drambui and Amaretto. I mean, c’mon….that’s odd. And a lot of people don’t like it.”

“Sounds good. I’m gonna go for it. And I’ll have a French Margarita”

With a tiny shrug she was gone, leaving me wondering what this odd concoction would taste like. I was sure of one thing; the first sip was sure to leave me feeling either bold or extremely foolhardy. What made it “odd”, for god’s sake? I just hoped that it wasn’t anything near to its namesake, as any similarity in taste to that of a multinational group of soldiers would be understandably unwelcome.

I took my first sip as the bartender eagerly looked on. My face must have given away crucial intel, because she took on a distinct “I told you so” look. Odd was really the only word for this taste, coming in somewhere between leather and a spicy cologne, if either of those things had any ability to taste good. And make no mistake; it did taste good even though it was truly unlike any other drink I had ever consumed. But what’s this? Pickles? In my drink? I took a bit of the pickle, then another sip. My drink had completely changed, leaving me with the feeling that I was the unwitting victim of some devious switcharoo. The pickle was the key.

“How come you didn’t say the pickles were the trick to this?” I asked as the bartender came back our way.

“It’s more fun to see people figure it out.” she said matter-of-factly.

The tiny shrug again. I couldn’t argue though, it was more fun this way. The pickle discovery improved Rachel’s outlook on the drink, bringing her opinion from the depths of “not so much” back up to “not too bad, but I wouldn’t want more than a couple of sips.” She was happy with her margarita, itself a good choice with its ingredients of Grey Goose, Hornitos Reposado, Cranberry, and fresh lime and sour. If I was a margarita kind of guy, I imagine would have had about seven of them.

Finishing the drink and congratulating myself once again for breaking with my initial standard, I determined that further straying was in order. I decided on The Bouchon, the signature cocktail. The bartender’s face lit up a bit as she went off to mix the drink, and I wondered why. She came back with the drink and a bit of lemon and orange peel on the side.

“Check this out. Take a sip without the peel.”

I did. It was very good, like a kind of a sweeter martini.

“Now, taste what the natural oils from the peels do.”

Holy hell. As was the case with the Foreign Legion, this drink had also done a complete 180, though it’s hard to describe just how, exactly. It was as understated as the Foreign Legion was bold. Sweet, but not enough to make a person tire of it or lose sight of the fact that it was very much an adult drink. Citrus without being too much so. Everything it was supposed to be without being too much. I could keep going, but I still don’t think I would get it as right as I should.

Make it a point to order any or all of the above, you won’t be disappointed.


Shortly after receiving my second Bouchon we were seated. While I know that it is probably a bit disappointing to some, I enjoyed the fact that the menu was printed on simple, unpretentious paper wrapped around the napkin. We concentrated on the selection of appetizers while the waiter recited the featured items and asked us if there were any questions. We had none and decided on the Huitres (oysters) and Pate de Campagne (country style pate), and then fretted endlessly over our choice. We didn’t want to miss anything great, but these thoughts soon fled as the bread arrived, sans plate.

I asked Rachel, “Did they just serve the bread directly on the table? Is that right?”

She was too busy doing the “I’m so happy I can’t talk right now” seat dance, so I decided to let it go and join her (in eating, not dancing). I quickly found that, like her, one loses the ability to puzzle over such trivialities with a mouthful of perfect bread. If I had the ability to make bread like this for myself, I would be very fat and very happy for the rest of my days.

The arrival of our appetizers distracted us from the sure dismay that was creeping in as we finished the last of the bread. Both of us knew that tonight would take a certain manner of iron will; we would have to stave off the desire to consume one delicious item exclusively throughout the evening. Our gastronomic future was much too enticing to get cripplingly distracted at this point.

I started on the oysters and made an effort to concentrate, but my knife kept on like a divining rod, pointing itself insistently towards the pate. I should have known; as a resident of the restaurant, the knife obviously knew what it was doing. Any pate I ate previously in my life paled in comparison to this masterpiece. The temptation began asserting itself more forcefully. I wanted to keep ordering and consuming the pate until I burst, forsaking all other menu selections. I was now locked into my own mental happy dance.

As I returned to the oysters, I noticed that three of them (half of the order) were pure shite, not even large enough to be properly called “small”. This wasn’t too upsetting, as I wrote it off to what must have been a generally overwhelming crush experienced by the kitchen. We would just tell the waiter and he would correct it. Speaking of, where the hell is the damn waiter? My spidey-sense began tingling from the moment he initially appeared, but I had wrote it off which was obviously a mistake. I’ve spent enough time at the tables by now to know I should trust my reads. My water was nearly empty and my cocktail had hit bottom long ago. Rachel was getting low, as well, and I realized we hadn’t seen him in almost 20 minutes. As we waited, I tried to remind myself again that the place was crushingly busy.

With the 20 minute mark a healthy distance in the rearview, our waiter finally reappeared, and as Rachel related our small problem with the oysters, along with the larger problem of the drink situation, the waiter got a look. The look. As lowly consumers, we were inconveniencing him. Taken aback, I noticed that it was the same look he adopted when we decided to stay on our already defined path of cocktails in lieu of a bottle of wine.

You pretentious little asshole.

Remaining calm, we ordered our entrées and waited to see how this would be handled, although his abrupt manner the entire time pointed to “not well.” A few minutes later, our water was again in good standing and our replacement oysters arrived—two of them. Contrary to what Meatloaf may have sang in days long past, two out of three in this case is bad, and making the problem worse, nearly another 15 minutes had passed without a cocktail resurgence. Our waiter, who looked like the product of a Cary Elwes/Charlie Sheen/Midget fusion, standing there with that damnable look on his face, finally sent me over the edge.

I headed to the bar to have a smoke while I tried to think of some way to accomplish what does not come naturally—complain without carpeting an undeserving recipient with f-bomb’s. Rachel, having worked in fine dining for some years and knowing my difficulties with diplomacy in such times, relieved me of the task. Our entrees arrived and on the way back to the table Rachel informed me that it things should be getting better shortly.

Thanks to Olivier, the assistant general manager, we didn’t see the waiter very much after that.


Rachel had the Gigot d’ Agneau (roasted leg of lamb) and I went with the Steak Frites. The simplicity of the presentation was the very reason that some may require a mental reset, as it was a sharp departure from the decorative “fusion” plates that permeate the modern restaurant scene. Mr. Keller doesn’t beg for attention with these dishes. He knows their value and seems content to leave it at that. Like many of the best things in life, you never see this food coming; there is wonder contained in the simplicity and elegance.

The lamb tasted as it would in a perfect world, and the steak was such that it commanded all of my attention and added blissful fuzz to my periphery. Then there were the fries, which were the evening’s biggest surprise. Through various periods of my life I have carried around as many erroneous assumptions as the next guy, including the assumption that there wasn’t much anyone could do with fries once they reached a certain height. As I took the first bite I found myself pleasurably shocked at the fact that my previous assumption couldn’t have been more wrong. The humble fry had indeed been elevated, and after another few bites the “how” of it all ceased to matter.

Throughout our entrée, a cadre of wait staff ensured that previous mistakes were rectified and then some, a testament to the management. They returned the service to expected levels and kept going, reaching a point that seemed far, far away from reality. It became service heroine. Imagine the best service you’ve ever had, double it, and you still wouldn’t be close. Their goal is to make sure you have the best dining experience possible. If it’s not you need only let them know; they will take care of the rest.


Dessert is something I don’t normally partake in, but asking me to leave Bouchon without dessert would be akin to asking that I leave my house without cigarettes. Such a thing should never happen, and yes, I am aware that I am a hopeless addict. However, in a departure from my thus far long-windedness, I will be sparing with my words about the tail end of the meal. After all, if I haven’t convinced you by now to make Bouchon your highest priority, you’re not going, no matter how much drivel I spew concerning their sweets.

While all of the desserts are wonderful (yes, I said all), if you’re only going with one item it must be the Fromage 3-piece tasting portion, and request that the sommelier pair you up with a dessert wine of his choosing. I promise you it will be worth every penny and every moment.

Thomas Keller and Bouchon are leather-bound classics in an MTV sodden world. If you’re tired of the gloss, bright colors, and superficiality of it all, come take refuge in this haven of the real.


Rereading these words, I can’t help but wonder if I’ve spewed forth too much gush. Whether I have or haven’t is pretty irrelevant at this point, I guess. I can’t help myself.

Going in, my anticipation was great, and my confidence matched it. It’s very possible that my expectations far exceeded what was appropriate. Leaving Bouchon, my satisfaction dwarfed them all.

With regards to our next meal there, I left the same way I entered.

“I’m very much looking forward to it.”