Last Saturday, my one free night during the Worlds of Healthy Flavor conference, I had dinner at Thomas Keller’s new place, Ad Hoc. He named it that because he got the space and temporarily turned it into a restaurant before he really knew what he was going to do with it. But what he turned it into is doing so well that he has decided to leave it as it is: a single prix-fixe menu with a modest wine list.
I ate alone and didn’t bring any reading materials (it would have been too dark to read anyway). Often in situations like that it’s a lot of fun to eavesdrop on the conversations at other tables, but they were not interesting, so instead I kept the menu and analyzed the list of wines by the glass.
I used my juice to get my reservation, so they knew who I was and that I was coming, and I left it up to them to pair wines with my main course and cheese (I would have had them pair wine with each course, but I was driving).
So, after a salad of frisée and roasted beets with shaved fennel, radishes, herbs and raspberry vinaigrette, I was to have Liberty Farms Duck Breast over dried Turkish apricots, figs, cranberries, sultanas and mixed nuts, with a side of farro and arugula.
That was to be followed by Emmi’s Swiss-aged Gruyère with Marshall Farm’s orange blossom honey and Granny Smith apples.
I decided that how they chose the wine to go with my duck would say less about their ability to pair wines with food than it would about their opinion of me. Really good service, after all, is assessing the desires of the guests and fulfilling them before they even know they want them (I learned that at Azar’s Big Boy in Denver).
And the wine one chooses can speak volumes.
Fogdog Pinot Noir from Sonoma — To be ordered by someone who was captivated by Sideways; one of the most expensive choices, but probably a bad one for duck, so let’s move on.
The Shiraz from Western Australia would be big, loud and ordered by someone trying to be trendy but three years behind.
The Argentine Malbec would be selected for someone who wants to go off the beaten path, but doesn’t really know how to.
The Spanish Rioja — trendy but tasteful
The Napa Cabernet Franc — the choice of the effete intellectual (and what I would have ordered)
The Oberon Cabernet Sauvignon — bigger, louder and stupider than the Shiraz.
For me, they chose the Oberon Cab (Ooh snap!).
Of course, that shows what I know, because it went perfectly with the duck. All of the others would have been too light, even the Shiraz which, my server explained, being from Western Australia would have been a bit too soft for my fruity duck.
So he picked the biggest red for my duck. Where then, do you go for the cheese?
Would you believe a 2005 Alpha Domus Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand (no, not Marlborough; Hawke’s Bay)? The choice was between that or a Tawny Port, my server said. The cheese brought out the wine’s sweetness, and the wine in turn cleaned off the palate between bites.
Dessert was a warm chocolate brownie with caramel sauce and whipped cream, and my server talked me into letting him give me a bit of late harvest Zinfandel from Sonoma with it. I nonetheless made it from Yountville back to St. Helena safe and sound.