BOUCHON BEVERLY HILLS: A TOUCH OF THE TERENCE
It wasn’t until the bill arrived that I finally realised what that nagging sense of recognition was that had been bugging me all the way through my Sunday lunch at Bouchon, Beverly Hills.
Our total came to a not inconsiderable $180 including tip. For that rather whacking amount, we received in return a meal that was pleasant enough, if untouched by culinary brilliance, served by attentive, friendly and efficient staff in a lovely room. That was it, I realised, we had both just had a definite touch of the Terence Conran’s.
As far as I am aware, the legendary British septuagenarian has no association with the latest branch of Mr Keller’s three strong chain of faux Lyonnaise restaurants. But, the feeling as we paid up and walked out onto North Canon Drive felt remarkably similar to the my experiences every time I have eaten at one of TC’s London restaurants. It had been decent enough for us not to put our head in our hands and weep, but certainly not interesting enough for me to ever contemplate planning a return.
The room at Bouchon is certainly lovely and was beginning to fill as we arrived for our 12.30pm reservation. We took the opportunity to snaffle one of the tables out on a slightly cramped terrace, which hopefully explains why some of the images on this post are a little washed out.
The menu came neatly wrapped around our napkins and, as we argued over who should have what, we broke chunks from a crusty loaf and nodded as our lovely server chanted out the daily specials in rapid fashion. The menu is filled with typical bouchon/bistro staples. There are oysters, plenty of piggy based meat dishes, a bit of offal for the more adventurous American diners and, of course, that benchmark of all such restaurants, Steak Frites. There are wines by the glass, carafe and bottle and desserts that, if the restaurant has done its job, you really shouldn’t possibly be able to contemplate ordering or, if you do, finishing.
Bouchon’s menu pushes all the right buttons and we ordered hoping that the added element of a Keller group kitchen might raise the bar a little. We were already half way through our second loaf of bread when our starters appeared. Sybil, good pinay that she is, had zeroed in on the “Poitrine of Pork” that classic dish of pork belly or breast that is cured then roasted. The Bouchon version came with a light version of a cassoulet using string pole beans and a mustard vinaigrette.
The cooking of the pork was spot on. Sybil pulled it apart into meaty shreds and only expressed disappointment when she realised it lacked the advertised crunch. The Cassoulet was undistinguished, but the sauce was perfectly balanced and sharp enough to cut through the fattiness of the belly pork. At my suggestion, she washed out the small, metal serving dish with a drop of red wine and we cleaned it thoroughly with a few pieces of bread.
My own starter is that other great benchmark, snails cooked in garlic butter. I had experienced a truly noxious version of this dish at L.A. hotspot, Comme Ca on my first visit to see Sybil. That time, the snails came to the table in a pool of green slurry that I was convinced was just about to develop consciousness. I was pleased to see that the Bouchon version looked the part and that each of the six snails came swimming in their own private pool of bubbling butter, topped with a puff pastry lid. $18 is a lot to pay for a Anne Boleyn handful of snails and I suspect that they had sat under the pass for just a little too long. The butter had begun to settle as it was placed in front of me and the pastry lids had begun to toughen. The snails themselves were good, meaty examples, but the butter required a bigger hit of parsley to cut through the richness. We used the last of the bread to clean out the dish, just in time before our main courses arrived.
Sybil had previously visited the Yountville branch of Bouchon and had enjoyed her main course of Croque Madame enough for her to plump for the same again. It came served with a stupid amount of frites and, as it should, with a fried egg sitting on top of the ham and Gruyere sandwich. Brioche had been used for the bread, giving a soft, yielding texture and the egg had been cooked perfectly with a solid white surround to a liquid yellow centre. Again, a well executed enough example of the dish, but one had to keep reminding oneself that, at $17.95 + tax, it bloody well should have been.
I felt much the same about my Steak Frites. Bouchon uses the current beef cut de jour for US restaurants, the Flat Iron steak. It was cooked as requested and had obviously been allowed to rest properly, giving it a perfectly distributed pink colour, but it lacked the gutsy the flavour of onglet and, its $35 price tag was not made easier to swallow by an equally stupid amount of frites. These were not bad, however, and I may never say these words again, there are only so many fried potatoes one can eat in a sitting and our plates still contained more than half the served amount when they were cleared. Silly.
We shared a dessert of the house brownies with ice cream. They were dry enough for us to leave most of them on the plate. When I told our server, she took them off the bill. With a shared carafe of something red from their long and appealing list, that brought the bill to the point where it topped the $150 level. We added 20% for our server who had been attentive, engaging and efficient through the meal. I am not sure how much of that actually goes to the person who looked after us, all of it, I hope.
Sir Terence may not approve of that, as I believe his restaurants have been very fond of keeping their share of the TRONC, but he would definitely give two thumbs up to the rest of the operation. Bouchon is perfectly OK, but way over priced.
Let’s just call it The Conran Principle.