When we heard that the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group (TKRG) was doing a short-lived pop-up restaurant at the Silverado Resort in Napa, we decided to grab reservations and go. TKRG’s flagship restaurant, the French Laundry, is temporarily closed for a kitchen and wine cellar upgrade. To give the staff something to do in the meantime, Ad Lib at the the Royal Oak restaurant was opened.
We can’t describe it better than their website, where TKRG states: “Ad Lib is a temporary restaurant concept offering a classic American menu of traditional recipes prepared with the same quality ingredients and execution our guests have come to expect. We chose Silverado’s Royal Oak because of its recognizable country club setting and Chef Keller’s longtime relationship with Hall of Fame golfer and Silverado Resort and Spa co-owner Johnny Miller.” Dinner is served from Thursday through Monday, with the last reservation at 9:00 pm. With Michelin-starred greatness and a formidable reputation, we saw this as a great opportunity to try a more casual format run by French Laundry staff.
Once we secured our reservation, we made a booking at the Silverado Resort so we wouldn’t have to worry about driving anywhere after what we expected would be a great dinner experience. On the evening of our dinner, we started with drinks at the resort’s cocktail lounge and had quite possibly the worst Manhattan we have ever imbibed. This made straight shots of Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon a much safer bet as our second drink, albeit at almost twice the cost as most San Francisco bars.
We made our way to Ad Lib and entered through a narrow doorway to a chic, but very dark, restaurant playing a 1930s through 1950s mix of music very loudly. It was a veritable oasis within the Silverado resort, evoking a very traditional steakhouse feel. We were handed large menus with categories of Starters, Sides, Plates and Sweets. There is also a changing Dailies section that is influenced by what is available from the French Laundry Garden. Some of the items are prepared or finished table side, such as the Caesar Salad and Beef Wellington for two — often times by the master himself, Thomas Keller, who was in Los Angeles the weekend we dined there serving Oscar-worthy fare.
Here’s a view from our table, which shows the smart steakhouse decor and just how dark the restaurant was lit (which explains some of the rather poor pictures in this post.) We did made stealthy use of our cell phones to read the menu and to take pics. We honestly didn’t mind the loud music, meant to evoke levity and fun, but can see how it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. The one thing we did notice was that all of the servers were wearing their sleek French Laundry suit and tie outfits.
The food is inspired with meticulous attention to detail. Smaller or “mini” portions seem to be the norm for the starters, which is a good thing as we were able to try more of their menu. The Fruitwood Smoked Kielbasa came with delicious sauerkraut, a soft pretzel bread and whole grain mustard. To give a sense of size, the snail sausage and its accouterments were cozily contained in a six inch gratin pan.
We also ordered the Shepherd’s Pie off the the Dailies menu as a starter. Very tender braised oxtail was buried under a buttery potato mash which in turn was covered by crisp cheese. It was an excellent comfort food dish that was perfect for the colder winter evening.
We know that TKRG know how to make an excellent fried chicken — the Ad Hoc version gets lots of well deserved accolades; so we had to try the Chicken Schnitzel from the Plates (mains) section. We are happy to report that it did not disappoint, although we would venture to guess that this was closer to a Chicken Milanese rather than a Schnitzel. Served with lemon, Spanish capers and brown butter, the thin fried chicken cutlet was super crispy and satisfying.
The second main dish we shared was the Black Angus Chop Steak, which is really just a fancy way of serving a burger. Our only disappointment was that it was served too well done; we had ordered it rare. But the Vidalia Onion Rings and the generous amount of mushroom gravy made it a very tasty dish.
Apologies for the extremely bad picture, but we wanted to show that we did order some vegetables to pair with our meal. This side dish, also available off the Dailies section, was Broccoli and Cheddar; any hope of this being a healthy dish was outdone by the ratio of cheese to vegetable, which we didn’t mind in the the least.
Surprisingly we still had room for dessert, so we ordered a decadently good Dark Chocolate Layer Cake to end our evening (shown right below). We have related so far that the food is really excellent and totally worthy of a visit, but what did we have to drink besides the disastrous Manhattan? Their wine list is primarily American, paying homage to the Napa wine region the restaurant is set in. It was disappointing for us since we’re not big Napa Cabernet Sauvignon fans, but we did manage to find a lone southern French bottle of Domaine Les Aphillanthes 2012 Côtes du Rhône (dimly shown to the left below) which would have been fine, except that it arrived at the table with a temperature of 73F. We asked them to chill it down, but they neglected to add ice to the bucket, which was obvious on the next pour. It was finally at a drinkable temperature the time third around, but at that point the bottle was mostly done.
Red wine served too warm is one of our biggest complaints about eating out. We have no qualms asking for a bottle of red wine to be chilled down, but we would expect that with the French Laundry pedigree, Ad Lib’s wines would be served at the proper temperature. When we discussed this with our server post-dinner, he admitted that since it’s a pop-up they don’t have access to their normal cellar, and the wines are stored in the kitchen next to the heat. Lucky for us, we ordered one of their modestly priced wines. However, their wine list is dominated by wines in the triple digits, and it is ludicrous to serve high-end red wine at such a high temperature. Our server noted that complaints of this nature were rare, as Cabs tend to have much higher alcohol content which somehow makes it tolerable. In either case, we have come to the conclusion that on our next visit (which is coming up), we will just pay the $50 corkage and bring our own bottle — at the proper temp.
As far as our stay at the Silverado Resort, it was very convenient that it was stumbling distance. The bar is very old school — cocktails were not as good as what we’re used to and fairly expensive; but that is the what we should expect from a country club. Unless you like being surrounded by large groups of bridal parties and revelers that tend to hold noisy room gatherings, we can’t say it was an ideal stay with their thin walls.
It’s unclear when Ad Lib plans to close, but they have extended the pop-up through March 16. So it’s still possible to eat there, but make reservations now through Opentable or call them directly. Check their status on twitter to see if they might possibly extend it beyond that. We’ve already made plans for a return visit, turning this into a twice in a lifetime event.
March 5, 2015 Update
Great news! TKRG just announced that they are extending Ad Lib through October, 2015. However, the French Laundry staff will be returning to the mother ship later this spring as new staff come on board to handle Ad Lib duties.
With our overnight stay in Napa, we decided to make it a complete TKRG weekend and have brunch at Bouchon in Yountville before heading back to the City. There were humongous lines for Bouchon Bakery next door, but there was plenty of room (and no wait) to dine at Bouchon itself.
The French-brasserie decor had plenty of light shining in through the daytime — quite a bit different from the atmosphere of our previous evening’s dinner. The food, and thankfully the wine list, is much more French than its American counterpart Ad Lib. We perched ourselves at the bar and contemplated ordering a cocktail like the Pont Neuf, but decided to go with a bottle of an Alsatian Domaine Dirler 2012 Cade Edelzwicker Reserve. It was perfectly dry with a nice acidity that paired well with our brunch items. They also brought over butter and freshly warm pan epi, which was probably made at the bakery next door.
To make up for our lack of healthy choices from the previous evening, we decided to commence with the Salade Maraîchère au Chèvre Chaud. The mixed green salad, perfectly dressed with a light red wine vinaigrette and herbes de Provence, came with a delicious puck of warm goat cheese.
Once our health concerns were taken care of, we immediately resorted back to our normal selves and got the excellent Assiette de Charcuterie platter served with pickled vegetables, Dijon mustard and a petite baguette. The platter contained very tasty versions of Mortadella, dry-cured Saussicon Sec, Ventreche (French pancetta) and Duck rillette (our favorite item on the platter). The beautifully arranged pickled vegetables helped to cut down the richness of the platter.
Cutting into the sandwich showed that it was made with a very thick buttery brioche bread that barely contained it’s melted cheese contents. Oh, and yes, the fries that accompanied the sandwich were also excellent, especially with their garlicky aioli dip.
Thus ended our quick trip to wine country. We’re probably the only wine drinkers on earth who come to Napa for the food and not the wine. It’s good to have options.