Photography by Peden + Munk for Angeleno magazine..
The debut of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon has been trumpeted as one of the greatest foodie events of the decade—but can anyone live up to that much hype?
Thomas Keller enjoys a reputation as one of America’s most esteemed chefs. And clearly the idea of being able to eat duck confit, terrine of foie gras or sous vide short ribs from such a famous chef on a regular basis has rightfully whipped everyone in Los Angeles into a frenzy.
Keller launched the original Bouchon in Yountville, just down the street from his legendary fine dining flagship, The French Laundry. The original is a quaint, bustling bistro with a standing-room-only bar and elbow-to-elbow seating. And when Las Vegas called, he built a grander, brasserie-style version at The Venetian. The Beverly Hills locale, also grand, makes three.
It’s situated across the grassy lawn from The Montage on the second floor of a Spanish-style arcade that matches the hotel so perfectly, the two appear to be a matching set…
As expected from a restaurant with two years of buzz preceding it and a grand opening party presided over by the mayor and enough A-list celebrities to fill the Mann Chinese, this has become the toughest reservation in town. On my first try, I manage a 5pm seating for two. On three follow-up attempts, I’m given 9:30pm or 11:30am (on days that aren’t my first choice). When I arrive at 5pm, the place is empty but for two other guests. But by 5:30, the dining hall comes to life.
There’s a crowd forming at the bar. More than two dozen bussers and waiters spill out of the kitchen and prowl the room wearing tablecloths tied around their waists for aprons. The perfectly rotund belly of one reminds me of a caricature from a Guy Buffet painting. Even though it’s only 5:30pm and not yet dark, I’m having a hard time reading the menu because it’s printed on thin brown paper with writing so small even Clark Kent would be squinting. I grab a candle and drag it closer to my menu, and out of the corner of my eye, I notice a busboy watching me. I see him whisper something to one of the servers. The server glances my way, then darts over to my table, pulling a miniature flashlight from her pocket.
“This might help,” she says, as if she has a pocket full of lights at the ready. I’m repeatedly impressed by the service. There’s one occasion when my guest flings a profiterole into his lap, and we laugh about it quietly, believing that no one has witnessed the chocolaty incident. Then, out of nowhere, a manager arrives with a glass of soda water and an extra napkin. The staff is eerily observant, and it makes me wonder whether they might actually have spy cams trained on every table. I’ve since scoured the room (although I must admit to doing so after drinking a bottle of Beaujolais), and I haven’t been able to locate any.
It’s while I’m examining the room for cameras that I begin to take note of Adam Tihany’s décor. A polished pewter bar encircles a raw seafood station where several types of oysters are being shucked and crab legs cracked. Faux antique mirrors line most of the walls. Palm trees arc toward the high ceiling. French doors swing open to the terrace. White butcher paper has been layered atop the tablecloths. An island in the center of the room is stacked with dozens of wine glasses, every one sparkling. It’s all quite a spectacle, and yet it still feels unfinished. It evokes Las Vegas or Downtown Disney more convincingly than it channels Lyon or Yountville. Bouchon’s got nothing on Anisette when it comes to this sort of design.
I keep my eyes peeled, hoping to see Thomas Keller. But after four visits in four weeks, I never once see the master make an appearance in the dining room. And perhaps that explains why I’ve never experienced a single truly great meal here. Oh, sure, I have found myself reveling in the freshness of Bagaduce and Kumamoto oysters. And that highly anticipated beef short rib proves to be excellent. Better still, my biggest delight comes when I take my first bite of frisee au lardons—a classic tangle of greens topped with a soft-poached egg and thick chunks of bacon. It is eggy and porky and decadent, the best one in town. The salt-cod beignets, a perfect marriage of crispy and creamy, make me smile. The roasted chicken is also a dish that I can heartily recommend. I know people who cringe at the word “moist,” but I cannot think of a more appropriate word to describe this delicious bird. It’s so tender and moist that the breasts taste like thighs, and I’m not sure how that’s possible. Another good choice, if you’re not very hungry, might be the trout: pan-roasted in classic French style with almonds and butter and skinny green beans. But I make the mistake of ordering this at 10pm when I’m starving—famished enough to eat a whale—and I’d forgotten just how small a trout can be. After giving away two very small bites, I’m left with only four small forkfuls. That’s just about where I stop being impressed.
On several occasions, my profound disappointment stems from the kitchen staff’s utter inability to taste how much salt they’ve dumped into a dish. When I take a bite of duck confit, salt is the only taste that registers. Ditto the mashed potatoes served alongside the boudin noir (blood sausage). And when I sample the warm potato and leek soup, it’s so salty that it numbs my tongue. I send it back.
re many moments when I just scratch my head. For example, a salad of cold leeks, grated egg yolk and piquillo peppers—besides triggering my gag reflex—makes me wonder, “Who could possibly think this combination tastes delicious?” And when I sink my teeth into the flat-iron steak, I’m reminded of… liver. It’s just not a very good steak. And it’s a shame about the fries served with it, too, which are cardboardy and unseasoned. I can’t recall a single time before this when everyone at my table refused to eat the french fries.
I’ve found only one sweet note worth ending on: a truly wonderful crème caramel. Beyond that, the desserts (and the coffee) are completely humdrum. The profiteroles taste waxy and dull, and the ice cream tastes like someone forgot to add the vanilla beans to the custard. The signature chocolate bouchons are cork-shaped, not-very-special brownies that leave me wondering if they might taste better shaped like actual brownies. The crust of a lemon tart is the opposite of flaky—which reminds me to check my refrigerator when I get home to see if I’ve forgotten anything in there. Worse, the tart is just plopped unceremoniously onto a bare white plate with no garnish or finesse whatsoever. And this is the product of America’s most acclaimed chef? Really?
OK, just so I’m not misunderstood: This is not a bad restaurant. It’s good, probably above average. But I’m incredibly disappointed because this was supposed to be the bistro to trump all bistros. Instead, it feels like an upscale chain that belongs in a mall. There are already a half dozen bistros that easily eclipse this one.
Enough already with the absentee celebrity chefs.
Note to all out-of-town chefs thinking of opening a restaurant in L.A.: Either bring it, and bring it big—or just don’t bother.
235 N. Cañon Dr., Beverly Hills, 310.271.9910, bouchonbistro.com
HOURS Daily, lunch, 11:30am–2:30pm; dinner, 5pm–11pm
WHO’S THERE Chefs, Montage hotel guests, Lionel Richie, Star Jones, camera-toting bloggers and Spago regulars
WHERE TO SIT The best action is all inside, but unless you have a lot of built-in back padding, the wooden chairs are not very comfortable. The rattan chairs on the terrace are much cushier.
ABOUT RESERVATIONS It’s nearly impossible to score a reservation, but it’s been surprisingly easy to just walk in without one and nab a table on the terrace. ABOUT THE BAR While the restaurant does have a cocktail bar (suitable for dining) adjacent to the raw seafood counter, another bar (and sidewalk terrace) specializing in California wines has just opened on the ground floor.
WHAT IT COSTS The menus and prices at lunch and dinner are exactly the same. Appetizers, $9.75–$48.50; raw bar, $2–$135; sandwiches, about $18; entrées, $26.50–$36.50; sides, $7; desserts, $5.50–$9.50; corkage, $25; valet parking, $8.
What the stars mean:
0 = Poor, unacceptable
* = Fair, some noteworthy qualities
** = Good, above average
*** = Very good, well above norm
**** = Excellent, among the area’s best
***** = Extraordinary in every detail
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.