I’m sure many of you have heard of the famed Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Yountville, and more recently the $300,000 worth of wine that was stolen from the prized cellar, and recovered in North Carolina shortly after. This happened on Christmas Day, days after Keller closed The French Laundry for four months for renovations. During the closure Keller opened a pop-up in Silverado Resort called Ad Lib, which was recently extended through October (and possibly beyond). Initially it was hard to get a reservation, but things have since settled down and you can usually get in on a Monday or Thursday without too much advance planning (or you can be like me and book a reservation six weeks in advance). I finally had my long-awaited first Thomas Keller dining experience last week and it was everything I hoped it would be and more.
I was worried that Ad Lib might be stuffy and too fancy (à la The French Laundry) but it certainly had its own character, which was far from stuffy. Maybe it’s the young, flirty staff or the retro menu, but it has a very fun, laid back vibe to it that really puts the diners at ease. It also helped that my dining companions were three fabulously entertaining foodie fems: Miriam, Space Cadet, and MaeMae.
While the wine list at Ad Lib is quite impressive, we preferred to bring our own bottles and pay the $50 corkage fee (which was still far below any bottle we would have purchased). MaeMae brought a 2005 Mumm DVX Cuvée, which was the perfect start to the evening. And Miriam brought a Pine Ridge Epitome Cabernet Sauvignon, which she had previously used a Coravin on about a year ago, so we were taking a bit of a gamble with it. It was obvious some wine had been removed from the bottle so we told the sommelier that we had used the Coravin on the wine before we left – you know, to make sure that it was drinkable. I don’t know why we felt the need to lie, but in the words of Space Cadet, “our credibility came down to our cork. If it turned out to be corked, we would not only be caught in a lie but we would lose our credibility as badass industry bitches.” Thankfully, the wine was perfect.
We wanted to try as much food as possible without overdoing it, so I suggested ordering family style. We easily agreed on two orders of Caesar salad, a side of mac-n-cheese, a side of wilted greens, filet of salmon, chicken schnitzel, and beef wellington (serves two). The Caesar salad is prepared and served table side – sometimes by Keller himself if he’s around. Our salad artist for the evening was a lovely young lady named Erica, a newbie to Napa who is slated to work at The French Laundry once her stint at Ad Lib is up. She started by seasoning the salad bowl with peeled garlic, then she prepared the dressing using anchovy paste, an egg, olive oil, and red wine vinegar. Space Cadet actually filmed it, which I encourage you to watch until you get bored (you might want to mute the sound unless you want to be subjected to our our snarky banter).
We had requested the sides to come out separately, before the entrées, but they began to bring out the beef wellington after they cleared our salad plates. There was some whispering and they quickly slid the cart away, but we all caught a glimpse of the drama. Apparently our silly server, Louie “made a mistake”. Clearly it worked out in his favor (and the rest of the kitchen staff) because they had an extra beef wellington to chow down on. In any case, they quickly corrected their error and brought out our mac-n-cheese and wilted greens. The mac was so yummy and surprisingly light, and the greens were perfectly seasoned. It made for a nice middle course before our much-anticipated main courses.
The beef wellington was beautiful. They prepared it with a mushroom paté between the beef and the pastry, instead of the traditional foie gras. This made the dish lighter but also gave it an earthy quality, and the moisture from the mushrooms made the beef even more tender. It was outstanding. I was also a big fan of the salmon filet, which was cooked to perfection with a crisp exterior and coated in a delicious lemon-dill burre blanc. The schnitzel was pretty yummy, but a little too salty if you ask me.
As we were finishing our entrées we noticed the waitstaff carrying what looked like a torch to a nearby table, and we realized it was someone’s birthday. Space Cadet spoke up and mentioned that her birthday was a few weeks ago, and that she would appreciate a sparkling surprise. Well, the staff must have been thoroughly entertained by us because they indeed brought us a slice of seven layer coconut cake with a sparkler in it, in addition to banoffee trifle and Tahitian vanilla bean crème brûlée – all of which they graciously comped. It was the perfect finish to a glorious evening of fine dining – with a little bit of ad lib, indeed.