On Sunday, I celebrated my birthday — along with Vincent Gallo, Joss Stone, and Ethel Kennedy. When I was a child, birthday fetes were pretty sloppy, far wilder than any of the parties I attended in high school or college. They went down at the zoo, parks, public pools, and pizza buffets, where sweaty kids, red-faced from exertion and sauce, bounced around and challenged each other to contests of consumption. There was always cake, homemade at mine. While sweets have never been my thing, leftover cake for breakfast — straight from the fridge, with hard cold frosting that peels right off — was an irresistible coda to the annual gathering, so appealing that, on several occasions, in a rare greedy moment, I actually asked my mom to bake and stow away a second cake — just in case my friends managed to vaporize the first.
I don’t remember specific birthday parties so well. Somewhere along the way, they stopped happening, probably when dessert-oriented affairs lost their luster — and I stopped caring about getting older in the first place. Years unfolded like symphonies then, long, meandering and dense, narratives stretching out, passing through movements, moods and phases. Now, they are proggy rock productions, half as long yet still intricate and hefty. Ten birthdays from Sunday, they will be pop songs, economical, straight to the point — verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, out.
My birthday was a big one, a landmark — or so I have been told. No one over 35 sympathizes when someone whines about turning 30. “Big deal” and “get over it” are common responses. At the corner store on Friday, I was buying some beer. “So, how old are you, bro?” the cashier suddenly asked — a now familiar casual alternative to actually requesting identification. I told him I was a few days away from turning 30, and he groaned. “Bro, 30 blows,” he sighed, shaking his head, dropping my six-pack into a paper bag. “My 20s were awesome, and then it went downhill.” I shrugged. “I’m don’t care,” I said. “But, you know — I’m 32, and you’re just 30,” he added helpfully — hopefully starting to feel like an idiot. “It won’t be too bad.”
The arrival of spring wasn’t always about green garlic, favas, fresh peas, asparagus, and the start of the N.B.A. playoffs. Beginning with my 25th — a silly excuse for a milestone, really — it revolved around anticipating and dreading my birthday — so much that I actually tried to keep the date a secret for a while. I have come a long way. Now, I realize though that my problem with birthdays isn’t so much an aversion to growing older as the idea of celebrating the passage of time so personally. I don’t want my friends to gather and toast me just because I’m a littler older. I don’t want to be the center of that kind of attention. Some people organize dinners for themselves, invite everyone they know to bars, and throw house parties. Me, I only want to get away.
This past weekend, instead of donning skins and venturing off into the woods alone to nibble rodents and pick berries, I faced the dawn of my fourth decade with calm and an appropriate aura of maturity. I went to Wine Country with my girlfriend, but we did not go to wineries, take hikes, or shop. Instead, we watched cooking shows and basketball from a bed at a Best Western smelling fairly strongly of cat, sweat and old coffee, napped, and left our dark little room only to eat — at Ad Hoc, Thomas Keller‘s two-and-a-half-year-old restaurant in Yountville.
Offering a single family-style menu on every night that it is open, Ad Hoc suits a birthday dinner. The four-course menu — a salad, an entree, a cheese, and a dessert — is announced via email every morning. Unless you have a dietary aversion to something, you eat what is offered. The relative inflexibility of a meal at Ad Hoc evokes the inevitable march of birthdays. You don’t get to choose how fast you get older; you just age. If you make a reservation three months in advance, and you find out veal will be served, and you happen not to like veal, you either stay home or give veal another chance.
Downtown Yountville didn’t impress me much. As we rolled through, the buildings seemed silly and new, as if part of a set. Even signs pointing out places of note rubbed me the wrong way. They were narrow wooden rectangles, the names printed or carved on in quirky fonts, reminiscent of signage at campsites and in tourist-heavy Gold Rush towns. As we crossed Washington St., ambling towards the restaurant, a middle-aged man in a two-tone North Face jacket — literally, a city slicker — walked past with his party. “I’m gonna retire here,” he said emphatically to the woman with an arm tucked under his. I would rather chug acid rain, I thought, as a few ominous drops splashed symbolically from the sky. Yet when we stepped into Ad Hoc, all gripes vanished. Warm, hungry, we sat down at our table, and just as I flung open the brown folder containing the wine list, the opening strains of Michael Jackson’s Beethoven-indebted “Will You Be There” wafted over from invisible stereo speakers like steam rolling off a roast. Despite its popcorn-spiritual lyrical heft, hearing it at that moment made me feel quite peaceful, comfortable with my impending birthday, and even more overjoyed than usual to be spending it with the person sitting across from me.
The salad and a flute of Cremant du Jura arrived before I could feel too weird about digging a song off the Free Willy soundtrack. The salad was the kind of California comfort food Californians should be proud of. Every ingredient was beautiful, presented artfully, and perfectly cooked. The beans were leprechaun-green, simultaneously snappy and slippery. There were sweet pale green apple slices, curling wafers of rose-colored radish, thicker potato coins, soft and creamy, melting flakes of salt, frisee and fried polenta cubes, crusty brown on the outside, still oozing within. It was actually exciting, a humble masterpiece. With lovely, harmonious flavors, the dish celebrated produce but without an dulling, dogmatic degree of simplicity and purity. An herb-crusted lamb sirloin followed, majestic pink hunks over pine nuts, golden raisins, buttered barley, and rainbow chard in a silver serving dish, and, after that, a raw milk “Vermont Ayr,” nutty and sour, perfect with roasted almonds, pistachios, and pecans, and drizzles of orange blossom honey. The dinner ended with a light, creamy bread pudding studded with croissant chunks, chocolate chips and bits of medjool date. The evening concluded with an episode of Iron Chef back at the hotel.
In the morning, we ate a free continental breakfast at the Marie Callender’s across from the inn. We drove home in a gale of rain, planning to stop at Berkeley Bowl for cheap sushi and groceries before heading into San Francisco.
I thought about Ad Hoc on the way home. In that it was originally conceived as a temporary establishment, the restaurant sort of evokes life itself. Life is, of course, very temporary. It starts, sometimes accidentally, often unsurely, and you don’t know when it will end. Hopefully, it keeps going, each birthday ticking off another little notch in time’s passing, ending only after you get to do most of the things you want to do. Ad Hoc has kept going, much longer than Keller anticipated it would. It turned out to be fun, a winning concept — unique, exciting, and relatively affordable — so it was not swiftly reconfigured as a burger joint or another Keller-ific experiment. It was allowed to simply continue, to breathe and evolve. I feel privileged to do the same.