“What’s a papillote?” Sam asked. Alex, our paragon of a waitress, had arrived at our table, and she fielded the question, explaining that it’s a wrap of parchment paper. When you bake fish and vegetables inside it, the fish comes out moist and aromatic. The papillote du jour contained local rockfish and summer squash. Sam somehow mentally envisioned a pastry case instead of a paper wrap (no, hon, that’s a coulibiac) and wanted to try it. The dish disappointed us: Rockfish are on the bland side, and so are summer squashes. No big thrills there. (Best fish en papillote I’ve ever eaten was a hunk of Copper River salmon with fresh morel cream sauce — two vibrant flavors with cream to mediate between them.)
“What’s a tian?” asked Inta, looking at the list of side dishes. I was starting to feel like Yojimbo, the grumpy title samurai in Kurosawa’s film, with a gaggle of student wannabes asking him too many questions. “It’s named for the cooking vessel, an unlidded earthenware baking dish, and it consists of layers of sliced vegetables baked together.” The tian on the menu was of summer squash, a veg that we were already having with the fish, so we didn’t order it. Fries-freak Lynne wanted to try the side of pommes frites, of course, which turned out to be skinny, salty, and perfect. I wanted to try the mac ’n’ cheese, more formally called Orecchiette and Humboldt Fog Gratin. It was interesting — thick pasta and lean, tangy goat cheese. Sam, lactose-intolerant, particularly took to it. (Goat cheese has no lactose.)
Sorry to say, our party got the last bottle of a fabulous white wine (unless the restaurant can buy some more): Qupe’s “Bien Nacido” Cuvée chardonnay-viognier 2007. Big, chewy, slightly sweet with bright acidity, it was ideal for our first courses, easily able to handle the vinaigrette on the asparagus and a spectacular match for the salty-earthy albacore garnishes. For a second round, our waitress suggested the Saint-Bris sauvignon blanc from France. It, too, was full-bodied and rewarding, opening up to a generous, fruity, oakless finish. To go with the pork and duck entrées, we ordered a couple of glasses (neatly divided by our waitress) of the Magnet pinot noir, a thoroughly food-friendly bottling, firm and rich, again with up-front fruit. Of course, I hated to pass on the Batard Montrachet ($395) from the whites selection, and, alas, the 2000 Châteauneuf du Pape ($2950) is a three-liter bottle. That was more than we needed, so for that reason alone we didn’t order it. It’s a fine wine list — our delicious wines were all from its lowest-price end — and our waitress guided us expertly.
Having to try desserts after all this food was near tragic. We were full halfway through our entrées. Making matters worse, the espresso machine had just blown up in a fit of Italian pique, so my standard with-dessert drink was unavailable. The regular coffee was made from a good Italian dark roast and tasted fine, but George was so apologetic that he insisted on comping us to two extra desserts (groan!).
(Actually, we were pretty sure that we got “made” as a reviewing party, just by being so ultra foodie. We’d asked too many questions. Passed plates around too expertly, with the practiced choreography of a Marx Brothers skit. Kept a menu to consult as we ate, so we’d know what we were tasting. All these tactics add up to more fun in restaurant eating, and if you-all would adopt them, too, you’d enjoy your meals even more and also give me a little extra cover. You might even get comped for dessert sometime. Anyway, halfway through dinner, Lynne spotted the waitress talking to George behind a pillar, surreptitiously glancing at us. Didn’t really matter, though, because by then we were well into the meal; nothing about the cooking could be changed to impress us, service was already fine, and George had been hospitable from the very start — and cute from birth.)
Hazelnut brown butter cake (in French it’s called financier) comes with Bing cherries in red-wine sauce, topped with mascarpone gelato. “It’s the sleeper on our dessert menu,” George told us. It was our favorite. Light, nutty cake with a distinct butter undertone, loose chopped nuts all around, and accompaniments to sweeten it without weighing it down — pure, homey satisfaction.
“Chocolate and blackberries” consists of chocolate cake, chocolate mousse, and blackberry sorbet. It’s dark and, oh my, it’s chocolatey. The tart sorbet keeps it from edging past decadence. And bittersweet chocolate pot de crème is simply the French classic, the Gallic form of chocolate pudding, accompanied by a crackly little rectangular cookie of dark chocolate and nuts.
Lemon chiffon parfait tasted to Inta like “Key lime pie without the crust.” It was a rich but weightless whip of tangy cream with fresh citrus sections at the bottom, topped with raspberries and companioned by a tasty lavender shortbread cookie to bring it back to earth. (Can they make me up a bathtub full of this stuff to soak in?) The menu said the dessert included “citrus suprèmes.” “What are suprèmes?” asked Sam. “Baby love, oh baby love, I need you, oh, I need your love,” I sang out in a fake-soprano as acidic as the lemon. No more questions. And this time, I didn’t know the answer.
ABOUT THE CHEF
“I’ve always worked in restaurants,” says Amy DiBiase, who just turned 30. “I grew up in an Italian family, so food was always around. My grandfather owned a little clam shack in Maine, and my mom and my aunts were all general managers at restaurants. So I was a little restaurant rat…. I was in the back of the kitchen hanging out with my mom. I’d get stuck doing little jobs, like, I’d be over with the guys portioning meats or bagging things for them or doing silverware or helping my mom with her paperwork. It was a really good background in the reality of restaurant work.… A lot of people come out of culinary school, never working in a restaurant, and they’re just — sometimes they’ve spent all that money on school, and when they start working, they just can’t handle it.”