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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The French Laundry Burger


Burgers? Say it ain't so, Tom ...
Thomas Keller, the chef behind Per Se, takes a distinctly American turn. Blame In-N-Out.

THERE were plenty of surprises in Thomas Keller's announcement last week that he would be opening a new restaurant in Yountville serving traditional American food. The man behind the French Laundry and Manhattan's Per Se, as well as the jewel-box bistros called Bouchon, serving fried chicken? The guy who has been called the best French chef in America dishing up beef stroganoff?

And what really got the food world buzzing was the temporary nature of the place — plenty of new restaurants close within six months of opening day, but how many owners plan their closing in advance? What in the world is Keller up to?

Well, it turns out he has an even bigger surprise in store. The new restaurant is merely something to occupy the space until he's ready to unveil his real purpose in buying the building — opening a burger barn.

"It's something I've always wanted to do," he says. "It'll be my version of In-N-Out. I'm an American; I grew up eating hamburgers just like everybody else. As I grew older, I didn't stop eating hamburgers, I just started searching for a better hamburger."

A fascination for burgers seems to come and go for high-end chefs. Daniel Boulud kicked off a virtual arms race when he unveiled his foie gras-spiked $50 burger at DB Bistro in New York City in 2001.

Things quieted down for a while, but once again, chefs are into burgers.

The Kobe beef burger seems to be almost everywhere, including at somewhat unexpected places such as Stonehill Tavern at the St. Regis Resort Monarch Beach in Dana Point, where it's served with truffle cheese, pickled onions and watercress. One will also be on the menu at Cut, Wolfgang Puck's steakhouse that opened this week at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

Tim Goodell has opened a hamburger-and-hot dog bar in the Hollywood Roosevelt called 25 Degrees (that is supposedly the temperature difference between a medium-rare and well-done burger).

But Thomas Keller? Blame it on In-N-Out, he says.

"I respect In-N-Out so much; they focus on just one thing and do the best they can at it," Keller says. "They haven't diversified to try to please everybody. You want hamburgers? That's what we do. You don't like hamburgers? Go someplace else."

There probably won't be milkshakes at this burger joint, but there will be bottles of wine — in fact, Keller says that's the planned name: Burgers and Bottles.

Fleeting existence

THE concept came out of lunches with his friend David Lieberman — the Southern California artists' representative, not the Food Network chef. Lieberman would bring a bottle of wine and they'd make an In-N-Out run. "That was in 1991," Keller says. "It's been in the back of my head since then."

The new restaurant will be on the site of the old Wine Garden restaurant, just down the street from the French Laundry. Keller bought it with the idea of opening the burger place, but the design for it wasn't quite ready. So, since he was already making payments on the place, he thought he might as well have some fun.

The temporary venue, which will open in six weeks, will be called Ad Hoc in honor of its fleeting existence. Keller says he flirted with the idea of Brigadoon, but "since we've already got that Latin thing started with Per Se, decided on this." Jeff Cerciello, executive chef at the Bouchon restaurants, will oversee the food; Michel Darmon, formerly manager at Per Se, will be the general manager.

There'll be a set menu, probably with a choice of a couple of main courses, all of it traditional fare such as beef stroganoff and fried chicken, along with a salad to start and cheese and dessert, for about $45 a person.

"We'll do dinner four nights a week and a Sunday supper from 3 to 7," Keller says.

Keller is not giving up the high-end market, of course. On July 6 he'll get his final hearing in front of the Yountville town council for his long-planned luxury inn. Based on the French tradition of attaching country inns to great restaurants (almost required to get three stars these days), this will be a 20-room complex on a 3-acre site across the street from the French Laundry.

The project has been planned for years, but has been slow coming together, with all the necessary permits and approvals. "It's just process," Keller says. "This is a small town and things move slower than they might in Manhattan." If the project is approved, he expects the inn to open in two years.

Designed by the renowned architect Antoine Predock, it will fulfill Keller's long-held dream of controlling every aspect of a French Laundry customer's experience, from the moment they arrive in Yountville.

"I want dinner to be just part of the overall experience," Keller told The Times in 2002 (when the place was supposed to be open by 2005). "I don't just want to satisfy your hunger. I want to influence your experience here, from beginning to end."

Soon, presumably, that will include preparing the burger you pack for your flight home.

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