Thomas Keller has a new restaurant. But not for long. Think of it as a shooting star, crossing the Napa Valley firmament, briefly. How briefly is yet to be decided.
The much lauded chef’s flagship, the French Laundry, is getting a new kitchen. In fact, by next week the old one will be torn down; the restaurant has been closed for renovations since Christmas. But in order to occupy his staff during the closure, Keller decided to open a pop-up this January hosted by the Silverado Resort and Spa, a short drive from his Yountville headquarters.
The resort, with its antebellum-influenced facade of tall white pillars and a dated interior (carpeting in the bar and folks in big cowboy hats watching ESPN), hardly seems like Keller territory. But his partner Laura Cunningham took the old Royal Oak in hand, albeit on a limited budget, and with some astute changes and new lighting, gave it an understated country club look.
To liven things up, Keller added a pounding soundtrack of American music — everything from Louis Armstrong to Al Green and Cannonball Adderley and classic rock — which gives the place sort of a speakeasy vibe.
Keller keeps telling the staff that, unlike the French Laundry, which is all about finesse, this restaurant is all about ELF — “exciting, loud and fun.” (That's actual Keller-speak.)
He gave the place a clever name, Ad Lib, and the motto “a good dinner," which makes it a kissing cousin to Ad Hoc, his other Yountville restaurant.
Ad Lib’s menu is strictly American, which is what drew me to the place on a recent trip to Napa Valley. Who doesn't love Keller’s buttermilk fried chicken at Ad Hoc — and on some Mondays at Bouchon in Beverly Hills? What would his take on American country club cuisine be like?
The menu is small by Keller standards. Among the eight starters is a classic Caesar salad prepared tableside. When Keller is in Napa, he often does the honors himself — but that night the chef was in Los Angeles, overseeing the food for the Vanity Fair Oscars party. It’s such fun watching the maitre d’ pull all the elements together in a big wooden salad bowl. And it truly was the classic, complete with anchovies, Lea & Perrins, crunchy lettuce and so forth.
Before the salad, came an amuse bouche: frilly deviled eggs, with a heavy dose of black truffles buried beneath the smooth pureed yolk. Three of these and some Champagne would be a swell dinner.
There was steak tartare — the raw beef hand-chopped, the dressing punchy, but not overly so, ready to spread on rafts of toast. Also Kumamoto oysters with a cucumber mignonette, garden vegetable crudités; a Carolina Creek shrimp cocktail; and, oddly enough, fruitwood smoked kielbasa with sauerkraut and whole grain mustard.
If you have a passing acquaintance with country club food of the ‘60s, it won’t come as a surprise that dishes are rich. If you want a real old-school experience, you might get the prime beef short rib “Wellington” for two, which arrives at the table as a neat brown bundle of pastry crust enclosing slow-braised short ribs and a layer of spinach mousse. Very retro.
We’d sat down to eat at 9 p.m., which meant, even on a Friday night in wine country, we were the last to file out of the dining room into the bar area where men sipped bourbon in front of the fire and those cowboys were still staring at the flatscreen television above the bar.
Ad Lib is open only Thursday through Monday. And only until Keller and company decide when to shut it down. They are in talks this week. The original plan was to close March 2, about the time the temporary kitchen Keller had built in four shipping containers becomes operational and a version of the French Laundry they’re calling “under renovation” opens sometimes this spring. (The dining rooms are untouched by the renovation.) Meanwhile the old French Laundry kitchen should go under the bulldozer next week and construction of the flagship restaurant’s new expanded kitchen will begin. The new kitchen should be ready sometime in the fall.
Ad Lib at the Royal Oak, Silverado Resort & Spa, 1600 Atlas Peak Road, Napa; (707) 754-4148; www.thomaskeller.com/ad-lib. Complimentary valet parking. Starters, $12 to $21; plates, $28 to $72; sides, $12; sweets, $10. Open Thursday to Monday.