Prix fixe is a good thing! As I stated so emphatically in my last post I firmly believe in this day of "I can barely afford take-out pizza!" if we want to save our favorite restaurants from closing (which seems to be a tendency regardless of the economic weather) they really should think about establishing a regular, fixed menu at least one night per week.
L'étoile does this already. Every Tuesday they serve a 3-course, prix fixe menu for $27. That means for $27, you can choose one appetizer, one main, and one dessert from the selections offered (usually 2 or 3 in each category). As part of Cville's first-ever Restaurant Week, this is exactly what Hubby and I did on the next to last day of the event - the ONLY reservation we could get. For the special event price of $25/person, we had a very nice meal indeed. Not without some flaws, but very nice nevertheless. So nice that we tucked the little reminder card about the $27 Tuesday night away for a later day - definitely to be done at some point when we just don't feel like cooking and need a pick-me-up.
We arrived right when they opened. Two couples were ahead of us, so we were left waiting a few minutes. No problem, but how about offering this thirsty couple a drink? Upsell dude! Instead we sat in the loveseat near the bar and flipped through old copies of Garden and Guns. Yep. You heard right. MAGAZINES. Is this a doctor's office? Maybe it's just me, but I thought it was kinda weird.
After we were seated upstairs we perused the wine list, choosing a nice red Sancerre from the Loire valley. Rather, I chose a Sancerre (it's one of my favorite white wines) and when the waiter pointed out this was in fact RED I felt like a complete ignoramus. But figured, what the hell, it would still go with what we were eating, right?* I got not only a wine lesson from a very nice waiter (red Sancerre is similar to Pinot) but a lovely wine.
Prior to our first course we were served an amuse bouche of duck confit with pickled grape and lava salt. LOVELY. And very lovely with the wine. The earthy meat mixed nicely with the sweet/sour taste of the grape. The salty finish was delightful, and inventive. Those damn creative kids. And we didn't even have to pay $10 extra!**
Hubby and I purposely order something different so we can taste as many choices as possible. What follows is a play-by-play synopsis:
Sweetbreads with bacon and local Lion's Mane mushrooms - Let me say from the start I am a sweetbreads FANATIC. The first time I had these delicious little offal at Petrus in London (now Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley) I loved them. Now, every time I see them on a menu I order. Hubby and I actually fought over who would get to order them at l'étoile (he's a fanatic too). Since I've got a blog, I won. L'étoile's sweetbreads were everything I could've asked for - nutty, buttery, a little gamey with a hint of smokiness on the back end. Great with the wine which had opened up nicely by now. Had never had Lion's Mane mushrooms before - they resemble shiitakes but lack the depth of umami flavor that shiitakes have for me.
Shrimp & grits with petit mirepoix & roasted tomato, house-cured bacon - these were good. The grits were especially good, but I admit the critic part of me wondered if they were good because of the roasted tomatoes and mirepoix, or just because a huge amount of heavy cream was used to cook the grits. I don't know this for a fact, but they were like ICE CREAM-type creamy. A GOOD thing, mind you, but just sayin' anything tastes good with enough heavy cream. The shrimp were simply much too salty. Cooked perfectly, but salty.
Pan-roasted chicken breast*** with stone-ground grits and early Summer ragu of smoked tomatoes, local greens, squash, and pearl onion - Okay, this guy can WORK a smoker people. At our last meal here, we had smoked scallop which was to DIE for, and these smoked tomatoes were equally delightful. Roasted tomatoes to me are little gems of deep and sweet essence of tomato-eyness, like tomato candy. But SMOKED? Mmmm.... With the grits and vegetable ragu it was to die for. Definitely swoon worthy.
Pity then that the chicken on top was dry as dust. Ever had overcooked chicken at a wedding? At a country club? Kinda like that. Completely flavorless and dry, dry, dry. I ate around it. Part of the reason I ordered chicken is that while simple, it can often be the most difficult thing to cook well. Unfortunately, they proved me right.
Trout with Virginia ham, English peas and turnips, sage & brown butter vinaigrette
Turnips? In July? Okay....not my choice, but we'll go with it. The trout is pretty good, not anything to swoon over, but serviceable. Is it too salty like the shrimp? First bite, yes, but it gets better with each bite. Gets even tastier when Hubby takes his fork, dips it in the olive oil we got with our bread (which was REALLY good btw) and sprinkles the fish with it. Peas and mashed turnips are fine, but hey hey, what's this? A sauce *UNDER* the fish and accompaniments? It's the sage and brown butter which is SWOON-worthy. Buttery but with a nice tang at the end. The acid this fish sorely needs. If it had been poured lightly over the trout it would've been perfect.
Peach panna cotta - FINALLY. At our last l'étoile meal I ordered something that called itself panna cotta, but was anything but. Completely inedible more like it (and it ain't "inedible cville" people). THIS panna cotta jiggled like a young nubile's bosom**** and was creamy like a custard. And tasted of vanilla. Not peach, but vanilla. But it was a nice light end to our meal, so I'll take it without any complaints.
Chocolate fondant - a completely acceptable chocolate confection resembling a flourless chocolate cake. Chocolatey and smooth, but not swoon-worthy. It went unfinished, but I blame the fact I had just made Hubby a chocolate cheesecake for his birthday. We were kind of "up to here" with chocolate desserts. They had a coconut cake option, but Hubby thinks coconut is the devil's spawn, and I was determined to give l'étoile another panna cotta chance. A nice wee pair of chocolate truffles ended our meal - and we didn't even have to PAY for them Fossett's!**
Our meal was nice, perfectly acceptable. Still, I was left with questions. Why weren't we offered coffee before dessert? Why are the appetizers at l'étoile always better than the mains? Why wasn't the patio open? Why weren't we seated downstairs since our reservation was at 5:30 and the place was empty? Not sure - would've saved that poor waiter running up and down the stairs though. And my biggest question - what is missing here ambiance-wise? The upstairs atmosphere in l'étoile is so STIFF. Like a mix of country club meets your Aunt Ida's parlor. And I'm not the only one who thinks so - almost everyone I spoke with in the days after said the same thing. They like the food at l'étoile, but there's something missing in ambiance.
When we go back I'm going to request a downstairs table and see if it's any different...heck, at least there you can get a better "people watch" view of the bar. And we will go back. Twenty-seven dollars for a 3-course meal in a fine dining establishment is a steal. And that Sancerre and those sweetbreads were so very lovely together...
*I live by the philosophy that if you LIKE the wine, then it automatically goes with what you are eating. Hey, never said I was a wine columnist, so there ;P
**Just read in The Hook that Fossett's is expanding their prix fixe menu by $10, but to compensate they offer you an amuse bouche. Okay.........whatev. Seems a lot of money for one bite, Bud.
***The menu just said, "Chicken," so I asked the waiter how it was prepared.
****Ever watch Top Chef Masters? That twerp from Saveur, James Oseland, once said this to Kelly Choi, the hostess. I thought she was going to smack him with a lawsuit.