Yountville, California, with its population of less than 3,000, boasts some of the finest restaurants in northern California, three of them owned by famed restaurateur Thomas Keller (French Laundry, Ad Hoc and Bouchon). With its adjacent bakery, Bouchon is a place to celebrate French food.
Bouchon's cookbook is on my shelf, but I make my first visit on a dreary March Friday of pouring-down rain. The L-shaped counter is adjacent to the oyster bar, taking up about a quarter of the space in the room; for all its fame, this is a small restaurant. Bartender Chris presents the brown paper menu wrapped around a cloth napkin. The counter is a busy place at 12:30, and I suspect whenever the restaurant is open. A group of three young women sits to my left, and soon two couples are to my right. No single guys, but cozy!
The menu offers many dishes I would like to try--onion soup, Croque Madame (fried ham and cheese sandwich to soothe the soul), mussels, steak frites, pâté, escargots--all so very French; how does one choose? Trying to keep it simple so there's room for dessert, I select the Salade de Betteraves as a first course, followed by Truite Amandine. And my signature Sauvignon Blanc--from Napa Valley. Bouchon is known for its baguettes shaped like stalks of wheat and served with delicious sweet butter.
I taste the salad and study all of its fascinating parts. Small red beets (betteraves), pieces of poached rhubarb, leaves of roasted lettuce from Bouchon's garden, a sweet white cheese called Tomme Dolce and roasted hazelnuts. Sprinkled on top are some tiny yellow flowers that look a bit like the wallflowers I just planted in my front yard. With a light vinaigrette, this salad is an edible work of art. I'm thinking the diet is safe so far.
I ask the young woman to my left if she and her friends are visiting and learn that although she has spent the last year in Boston, Clemente is from Paris. All right! An expert at the table. I tell her plans for my upcoming trip to Europe and she gives me the name of a Paris bakery to visit for Macarons. I suggest she try Bouchon's amazing cookies of the same name. Clemente judges her quiche as not the same as a quiche in France, but good nevertheless. Her friends aren't able to finish their Croque Madames slathered in mornay sauce and accompanied by mounds of French fries. Before they depart for wine tasting, we chat about local wineries.
The couple on my right has finished their steak tartare and saffron mussels. I have no interest in raw beef, but find the mussels are plentiful and look yummy--maybe next time. My trout arrives as the seats to my right refill. I meet two more young women--one is from the Bay Area and her visitor is from North Dakota. The trout is served butterflied, head still attached. The "body" is covered with beautiful buttery haricots verts (in English--green beans) and slivered, toasted almonds. Quite tasty, and except for the butter, I'm still in diet territory.
A little chocolate seems to be in order and I go for the Marquise au Chocolat, a thick, dark slice of chocolate mousse, with a dab of whipped cream and some burnt orange cream on the plate for contrast, and a couple of pralines for crunch. A true chocolate transfusion--heavenly! Yeah, forget the diet.
Bouchon has daily specials, so one could have a nice meal for under $50 with wine. Today's dessert special is "bouchons," their special cork-shaped chocolate brownies, which are also available in the bakery. Once "uncorked," the French cuisine at Bouchon is to be enjoyed again and again, certainly by moi!