Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Thomas Keller's The Grill on Seabourn vs. Thomas Keller's Bouchon

After disembarking the Seabourn Encore's Inaugural Cruise last month and returned to my home in Lake Tahoe, California...only 3 hours from Yountville, California (fondly a/k/a ThomasKellerVille) I thought a side-by-side comparison of The Grill by Thomas Keller on Seabourn and Thomas Keller's land-based cuisine would be interesting; and deliciously fun.

First:  Perspective.  There is no way to deliver a full land-based Thomas Keller Per Se or French Laundry experience on the ocean so if you have any such preconceived ideas, please readjust your thoughts.

However, having been to Thomas Keller's American bistro experience at Bouchon in Yountville, California (in the heart of the Napa Valley, California) it is fair to compare with the American steakhouse experience on the Seabourn Encore and Seabourn Quest (and soon to be on the Seabourn Sojourn and Seabourn Odyssey).

Roast Chicken - The Grill by Thomas Keller
on the Seabourn Encore
Roast Chicken - Thomas Keller's Bouchon
Before I go any further, let me come clean:  I wanted an excuse to drive to Bouchon for lunch! I mean I had to order the chicken; a flavor that was burned into my culinary taste buds years ago when I first visited.  If you have seen me on either the Seabourn Quest or the Seabourn Encore you know I have told you to order the chicken and, to be sure, now you know I honestly mean it!

Pre-Meal Experience

While on the Seabourn Encore in January 2017 I would start my Thomas Keller experience at the Piano Bar and Lounge.  It is a fantastic lively venue and, to be sure, one of my favorite spaces on the ship.  It provides a great entree into the Thomas Keller experience with crafted cocktails, wonderful music, a truly beautiful bar and a comfortable lounge area.

The Bar at The Grill by Thomas Keller

Bouchon cannot compare in that regard, though there is a small bar and a courtyard with some tables. 

However, next to Bouchon is the Bouchon Bakery which has a line going out of the door from open to close.  And, yes, it is that good!  

Again, being honest, I did purchase some goodies before lunch including some of its world famous breads and desserts. 

Not sure if I liked the Bouchon Bakery's lemon tart, bread pudding
or rustic breads best.  Such trying decisions!
It is hard to decide which is venue is "better" as the experiences are so different.  Although  Bouchon Bakery is something special, it really isn't a pre-meal experience so I would have to give the edge to the Seabourn Encore.

Since we are jumping into desserts first, the lemon meringue tart
at The Grill by Thomas Keller is pretty darn good too! 
I would also be remiss if I did not acknowledge what the Seabourn Quest's pastry chefs created and presented at The Grill by Thomas Keller...though not TK recipes

A specially made by the Seabourn pastry chefs
Caramel upon Caramel upon Caramel Dessert

An Extraordinary Birthday Cake
also made by the Seabourn pastry chets

A Spun Sugar Dome that covered the Birthday Cake
Pretty tough decision on who makes better desserts:  Seabourn or Thomas Keller?  I cannot possibly choose.

OK, now back to the comparison!

The Dining Experience

When you are seated at The Grill by Thomas Keller on the Seabourn Encore you are greeted by chilled crudites with a Green Goddess dressing and warm rolls. 

However, at Bouchon I was greeted with wonderful spicy mustard deviled eggs and a potted salmon rillette (fresh and smoked salmon) that was absolutely delicious that you spread over crusty baguette. (I have to admit I was treated royally at Bouchon, so don't expect all this to just come flowing out of the kitchen for you!)

Deviled Eggs
Salmon Rillette

Letting the clarified butter top warm to
room temperature is a decadent spread
on toasted baguette 
For lunch itself, (by the way, it is the same menu for dinner so the comparison remains valid) I have to admit that I did over-order at Bouchon because there was so much I wanted to try.  I started with a gnocchi and mushroom special that was almost too pretty to eat.  (But I got over that!)

Gnocchi with Mushrooms
Next up was duck confit with sauerkraut and French onion soup, which is so rich that the broth is almost black.

Duck Confit with Sauerkraut
The Richest French Onion Soup
Meanwhile on the Seabourn Encore, The Grill by Thomas Keller takes a slightly different and simpler approach to starters; however I should note that I did skip any sort of salad at Bouchon

Thomas Keller preparing a Caesar Salad on the Seabourn Encore

Chilled Artichoke

Crab Cake

Super-Chilled Iceberg Lettuce with Bacon
By the way Onion Soup is an option, as are a number of other dishes, but I either did not sample or order them during my dining experiences at The Grill.

Similarly, if you dine at Bouchon there is a very impressive fresh seafood menu and a number of other options that simply cannot be replicated on a ship, so I have not included them in this comparison.

So my conclusion at to starters:  It really depends on what sort of starters you want.  Clearly Bouchon offers more and of a variety that cannot be duplicated, so it wins on starters.  But if you wanted Thomas Keller to personally prepare your Caesar Salad...that probably would only occur on a Seabourn Inaugural Cruise.

Now, with starters completed, the main course is ready for comparison.  Most important for me:  The Chicken.  (Trust me:  Order the Chicken!!!)

I have to say that I was stunned.  I was totally prepared for Bouchon's chicken to be better, but it was not.  In a bit of an homage to Thomas Keller I would say that if they are not identical they are extremely close (though I am not so sure the same breed of chicken is used).  

Surprisingly:  I give the win to the The Grill by Thomas Keller because of its presentation.  On Seabourn the whole roasted chicken is beautifully presented...and then plated identically to Bouchon. (Note:  At Bouchon the chicken is presented with baby brussel sprouts with bacon lardons and chestnuts.  More on this later.)

What did not surprise me is that the meat dishes were unequivocally a draw.  The quality of the meats, be it rib eye, veal T-bone, lamb shank, etc. are simply of the highest possible quality and prepared to perfection by Thomas Keller trained chefs.

There is, however, one significant difference between Seabourn's The Grill by Thomas Keller and Bouchon when it comes to vegetable accompaniments:  At The Grill they tend to be served family style (as would normally be done in an American steakhouse) rather than integrated into the dish, as the meat dishes above show.

The Grill's Spinach, Mashed Potatoes, and Mushrooms

Bouchon's Truffle Fries
(Seabourn:  Get these on the ships!)
The Grills Mac 'n Cheese
(Order this!)

The Grill by Thomas Keller on the Seabourn Encore and Seabourn Quest does an amazing job of bringing Thomas Keller's American Bistro-Style cuisine to the seven seas (Yes, you can actually dine on Thomas Keller's cuisine on all seven seas...which is pretty cool in and of itself.)  And the TK Chefs onboard the Seabourn ships have the talent, facilities and ingredients to provide you with a truly incredible dining experience that is very close to some of that which is available at Bouchon.

Bouchon, however, is a very special restaurant that can do so many things so well...and I really just touched on some of the dishes.  In fact, as I conclude this article I must say I am feeling compelled to return to Bouchon and enjoy some of the many dishes that I did not sample this time.

Having engaged in this exercised I can honestly say it is amazing to me how Seabourn and Thomas Keller teamed up to produce such a high quality and diverse dining experience; one that actually does "hold a candle" to Bouchon!

By the way, if you would like to read more about The Grill at Thomas Keller, please read:  Seabourn Encore: The Inaugural Cruise - Part X (The Grill by Thomas Keller: Order the Chicken!)

A closing note:  The cuisine is unabashedly American so it is not going to be immediately accepted by some expecting the ordinary.  Just as someone dining in a French or Japanese restaurant, flavors, textures and presentations may be different than you are used to.  My suggestion is to embrace the differences and if the portions are, well, too American in size it's all right to not finish it.  (Remember when you wouldn't eat raw fish, but now love sushi?)  By the way, the Seabourn Encore offers that too:  Seabourn Encore: The Inaugural Cruise - Part VII (Sushi)

Interested in culinary experiences at sea? Give Goldring Travel a call or drop me an email

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