Taking a Breather

Five years in, Thomas Keller's experiment in casual dining, Ad Hoc, unbuttons all expectations

Where does world-renowned chef Thomas Keller go to relax from a hard day at French Laundry? Perhaps just down the street at his equally fantastic casual joint, Ad Hoc.

Five years after its grand opening, Keller’s Ad Hoc is still considered casual dining in the Michelin-star-heavy town of Yountville. The restaurant is outstanding and comfortable, yet decidedly button-down and undeservingly star-free.

The price—$52 for a prix fixe meal, not including wine—doesn’t say casual in many places. But the atmosphere, with adult contemporary hits mixed with oldies on the stereo, blue-collar-dressed servers, an open seating plan and family-style dishes, would make even Bruce Springsteen nod in approval.

The dinner on a recent October evening was impeccable. The menu began with “salad of little gems,” which, like all dishes at Ad Hoc, is served family-style. Spears of lettuce hearts and halved cherry tomatoes were adorned with sparkles of bacon lardon and sunflower seeds, polished with a perfectly light vinaigrette.

A stainless-steel saucepan held the next treasure, a hanger steak with barley, black kale, cauliflower and bell peppers. We opted for the side of crispy pork belly with a fried egg.

Hanger steak is a wonderful piece of meat that is often destroyed in restaurants. This was not the case at Ad Hoc. Topped with a light mustard sauce, the juicy, rich flavor of beef was laying perfectly on the palate supported by the rest of the dish.

The steak was marinated, grilled briefly, then held in an oven. Our server clarified it was not cooked sous-vide, which would have been an easy mistake for the casual diner to make.

The kale was the other highlight of the dish, rinsed thoroughly and cooked al dente, bursting with natural flavor. It should go without saying that the pork belly was flawless. Topped with a fried egg and cabbage, it would make a perfect breakfast.

The cheese plate on this night wasn’t spectacular, and truth be told, at this restaurant it could be eliminated without being missed much. It brings a touch of snootiness to the otherwise laid-back atmosphere.

But Ad Hoc’s dessert is more than welcome. This night featured an apple crumble with vanilla ice cream, a dish so simple that it’s tough to hide any flaws. It turned out to be the climax of the meal, as dessert should be, and with a Madeira wine evoked a taste of caramel-dipped apple.

Ad Hoc translates from Latin as “for this,” meaning a fix to a specific problem. Indeed, the restaurant’s slogan is “For Temporary Relief of Hunger,” but it may be a permanent solution to the stuffiness of fine dining.

The menu changes nightly, but look for gourmet comfort-food staples like (The Finest) Fried Chicken (You’ve Ever Had) popping up every other Monday, alternating with barbecue Mondays. Thursdays are “steakhouse nights.”