Monday, May 24, 2010

Bistro Blues Pt. 2: BOOOO-chon

A. took me to dinner at Bouchon Bistro a few weekends ago.

Good news, right? How exciting to finally check out Thomas Keller's Los Angeles venture! S. Irene Virbila of the L.A. Times was all raves.

No doubt I am a huge Thomas Keller fan -- the French Laundry blew my mind back in '99. And I know that Bouchon is not supposed be a French Laundry or a Per Se. But still, I had high hopes.

When I think of Keller, I think excellence. I have read the books about him. And I have read the books by him. He is a perfectionist. So sure, I had high hopes.

So. Well. Hmm...

Not so great.

To begin with the small stuff, the entrance is difficult to find. We needed the kitchen staff to point us in the right direction. The entry is not inviting. There is a lobby with no one in it. And it is not obvious that you are in the right place at all. Where is everyone?

Once you make your way up the stairs, there is a smidgen of life, but it still isn't clear that you have arrived anywhere in particular. The cookbooks on the table are a clue, but when the lady behind the counter has your reservation, frankly you feel relieved.

This is it!

We sat and waited a bit. Then a little bit more. I mentioned to A. that if I didn't have so much confidence in Keller, I would be having reservations myself about the start to our evening.

We were escorted to our seats. Right off the bat, we have the high point of the evening! We were seated at the corner table next to our former governor, Gray Davis. Thin man, looking every bit like a network anchor, but more, well, gray. Now folks, let's face it... that is a rather low high point, indeed.

We were still filled with nervous jitters and anticipation. All the excitement was still ahead of us! The potential to be delighted was all there, and we were ready to be delighted.

So we order cocktails, and when they are slow to come, our lovely server crouches discreetly into the table, says that Bouchon does not operate like this and conveys that they are very sorry. The drinks are on the house.

How thoughtful. She's sweet. And the drinks are fine, though not the stuff of memory, and unfortunately the rest of the evening proceeds in the same vein.

We start with brandade fritters, salmon rillettes, and the special octopus salad.

The fritters are tasty, but sit strangely upon an oven-dried tomato. It's not clear what the relationship between the two is. Compared to the scrumptious and light brandade fritters that we have had twice recently at Lazy Ox, these are bulky and too dense. Perhaps something bright to dip them in or a little herb salad with an acid kick would help.

The salmon rillettes tucked in a little mason jar are delicious. Recalling the evening, this was the standout dish. Using both smoked and fresh salmon is a nice touch. Very rich, but so very good on the crisp toasts.

Appetizer number three, the octopus salad, is forgettable. The octopus is prepared sous-vide. I guess this is innovation, but if so, so what? I find the octopus appetizers at both Osteria Mozza and Lazy Ox to be far superior and the octopus is simply grilled in both. Again, a little more acid would have helped perk up the bean salad. The flavors are too basic, even after running the octopus through the rouille.

What really kills the night though is the interminable wait for the entrees. At least forty-five minutes passes before we catch a glimpse of my duck breast and A.'s leg of lamb.

The server completely forgets that A. has ordered wine. So he starts to eat without the benefit of something to wash down the mealy, almost leathery leg. So disappointing. He makes a crack about Cormac McCarthy's The Road and eating pressed meats out of tins. This lamb really is not good! We would have liked to mention this to our server, but she has vanished. And remains so for a long time.

The duck breast on the other hand is very good. It's cooked to a perfect medium rare, the skin crisp and salty. The tangy citrus and crunchy fennel and radish are a terrific counterpoint to the soft fatty meat.

But we still can't get past the lamb. Or our server's disappearance. By the time she reappears carrying dessert menus -- well after our plates have been cleared, our sighs have been aired, and our email has been checked, several times over -- we just don't care anymore.

Nope, we didn't want dessert. We wanted to leave.

We paid and walked out. No one even noticed us leaving. No good-byes. No thank yous. It was as if we had stopped respirating in this high-ceilinged hotspot at some point mid-appetizers.

A. and I were depressed. The whole drive across town was spent mourning the loss of our evening, our money, and our time. We were shocked. How could Thomas Keller have let us down so badly? How could it have gone so wrong? A. was practicing his curses.

I woke up the next morning in a funk. I could not shake the feelings of regret and disappointment.

I did feel determined to do something. Thomas Keller would want to know about this failure! The good perfectionist would insist on knowing how terribly wrong our evening had gone. I was resolved to tell someone.

I called Bouchon a few days later and attempted to speak to Greg Rowen, the general manager. Away from his desk, I was given his email address. Fool's errand or not, I spent Fe's whole three hour nap one afternoon composing my email to Rowen. And sent it.

That was two weeks ago, and I've heard absolutely nothing from Rowen or Bouchon. Maybe it's the vain expectation of the sort of person who writes letters to the editor -- like a Greenberg writing to Starbucks or something. I had hoped for some kind of acknowledgement or apology. I just assume a certain level of professionalism in a good restaurant. Any level of concern would have been better than to be completely ignored.

Three days ago, I forwarded the email to what I guessed might be Thomas Keller's address at Bouchon. It has not bounced back, but I cannot be sure that Keller will receive it.

Am I crazy? Ah well, there it is.

Please don't rush to Bouchon, just because it might be your hero's restaurant. You may feel gipped. And horribly discouraged.

Bouchon Bistro
235 N. Canon Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90210


Shirinyan said...

We had a nice time at the one in Vegas. Lilit's ham and cheese was a revelation. My brother had the trout though and it was amateurish, oily and flavorless. They need to realize that armed with a blog J deserves to be apologized to like three week ago.

pierre said...

Great piece. Very well written. Totally fascinating. Will not set foot at Bouchon Bistro. PMF

Kress said...

I was curious what people were saying about it on Yelp...apparently, you're not the only one:

I hope you hear back from Thomas Keller (and he offers to make it up to you with a meal at French Laundry!).