HAUTE SPOTS

We called the sommelier over to talk about the wines. He was hardly the sinister snob of our nightmares--he affably admitted, as he massacred the French names of the wines, that he couldn't speak a word of the language. (The menu has several errors in French, too.) But he obviously enjoys wine, and he lovingly described what we'd be sampling. The wine list itself, with more than 700 offerings, is extraordinary in range and depth. The fat volume actually has a table of contents. While grazing on a gratis plate of house-smoked salmon and cräme fraĆche on toast, a goat-cheese puff pastry and a Lilliputian skewer of beef on a toothpick, we scoped out the other diners. A distinguished, gray-haired gent with a perpetual scowl had little to say to his young blond trophy wife. A couple of prombound teenagers--outfitted with corsage, blue suit and daddy's credit card--held hands. A handsome African American couple were proudly entertained by their twentysomething son, who looked as if he'd just been accepted by a top Wall Street firm. And the usual assortment of businesspeople was dining at taxpayer and shareholder expense.

But just as moral cynicism and class envy threatened to overwhelm me, the food began arriving. Our first course, an asparagus salad with lightly dressed greens, was just a warm-up for the heavy hitters to follow.

Lightly sautāed sea bass, seasoned with chives and basil, was tender and juicy. It sat on a nest of cooked, grated turnips--a choice that was just as tasty as it sounds unappetizing.

Our third course melted all my critical faculties. It's one of the best things I've tasted, ever. Foie gras (duck, not goose) arrived not as a pÉtā, but as liver itself. It sat on top of a corn cràpe a bit thicker than a tortilla, accompanied by outstanding crispy, shredded carrots. The foie gras was so rich that the few bites we got were just enough. The sommelier also held up his end with a well-chosen Trimbach GewĀrztraminer.

Our main dish was no slouch, either. Six small lamb medallions came wrapped in pancetta, an unsmoked Italian bacon. The sauce was good enough to eat with a spoon. We asked for a brief respite to recharge our sated and wine-soaked batteries. Fifteen minutes later the cheese course came out.

Besides generous chunks of Brie and Port Salut, there was a delicious, paper-thin fan of cheese that our waiter identified as tàte de moine (monk's head). If you place some on your doorstep, it's strong enough to keep all but the most determined visitors away. Again the sommelier's choice was superb, a heavy-duty red Chateau Haut-Serre from Cahors. Before the desserts, we were given some palate-clearing sorbet--three small scoops intensely flavored with strawberry, raspberry and champagne. By now, we were pretty much ready to call it a night.

But the menu-prestige desserts began arriving with the inexorability of the tides. Somehow I mistakenly assumed that we were to choose one of the four desserts listed on the menu. Quelle erreur! We were entitled to all four. The border separating gourmet from gourmand had fast receded; now we were approaching the frontiers of gluttony. These weren't bite-size desserts, either.

First came tuiles aux amandes, two thin, cookielike crisps made from almonds, sandwiching strawberries and cream.

Too stupefied to speak, we next found before us an incredible concoction called chocolate hot and cold. On a base of cool, dense chocolate mousse sat warm chocolate cake drenched in hot chocolate sauce. It was chocoholic heaven and could easily have starred alone in the dessert category.

In fact, at this point, I was no longer capable of eating one for the Gipper. We waved off our last two desserts and called for some coffee. Heading home, we ruminated on the architectural dictum, "Less is more." It's not a bad philosophy for menu builders, either.

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DISAPPEARING ACTS IF SLICK WILLY WON'T ... v6-03-92

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