Saturday, March 15, 2008

Oenophile at large (restaurant review three-fer)

Greetings, fellow Oenophiles!

Apologies for the slow blogging this week -- it's been busy, and then my computer decided to crash out on me. Thanks to tech support (i.e., computer genius husband), it's working again.

Last Saturday, we had the pleasant surprise of a visit from my parents. They got stuck in Atlanta thanks to the crazy weather, so they stayed the night with us, and to say thanks, they took us out to Cafe Alsace. This started the theme for the week: really good meals that I didn't have to pay for, and so I have three restaurant reviews. Three price ranges, three types of cuisine, and three different areas of town.

Visitors often want to know where the locals go, and Cafe Alsace is where residents of Decatur and the surrounding areas seek out a leisurely French meal. Emphasis on "leisurely:" on a weekend night, plan to spend a couple of hours. It's a tiny restaurant with a packed dining room and a small kitchen, which you have to walk through to go to the bathroom. The bathroom is worth it for the comics and cartoons that the staff and owner have put up, which shows that, contrary to the normal image of the French, there is nothing stuffy or snooty about this place. The food is consistently good, and everything on the short wine list is excellent. On this visit, I had the cassoulet, which I've had before. Hubby and Mom had the special crepe, which was essentially chicken cassoulet filling in a thin pancake, and Dad had the stuffed trout. Everyone enjoyed their meal. Save room for the chocolate mousse.

We split a bottle of the red wine special, the 2005 Abbaye de Tholomies from Minervoirs, France ("Languedoc terroir"). This wine, which is 60% Syrah, 30% Grenache, and 10% Mourvedre, is produced by a French rugby player turned doctor turned wine maker. Beautifully colored, it has some spice to it and a fig and dark fruit flavors: a perfect quaff for a cold evening.

Score card:
Atmosphere: Very nice
Food: Excellent
Wine list: Small, but everything is very good
Wait staff: Excellent
Desserts: Excellent
Vegetarian friendly? Probably not
Kid friendly? No kid's menu
Would I go back? Yes, it's a favorite

My day job comes with the perk of getting treated to lunches and dinners by large companies vying to have my colleagues use their products. Was that vague enough for you? This perk allowed me to experience my next two culinary adventures.

My first adventure took me way Outside the Perimeter (or OTP, as we say) to Discover Mills and Athens Kouzzina, which has very reasonably priced Greek food. I had the Mousaka, which is eggplant, ground beef cooked with peppers and onions, bechamel sauce, and potatoes covered in a lightly cinnamon-flavored tomato sauce. It sounds a little weird, but the end result of all the flavors is fantastic. I had enough to take for lunch the next day. The house Merlot from Sycamore Lane is also quite good, medium-bodied and fruity, as one would expect, but also very smooth. The only complaint is that the tiramisu, which is actually a tiramisu cake, doesn't even begin to compare to the one from Southern Sweets. I should have gotten the baklava, which got rave reviews from others at the table.

Score card:
Atmosphere: it's a sit-down mall restaurant with the accompanying neon signage, etc. The private dining room was nicely decorated.
Food: Very Good
Wine list: Fair, has Greek selections
Wait staff: Unsure -- we were in a private dining room, and our waiter was excellent
Desserts: Good
Vegetarian friendly? Fairly so with a decent number of veggie options
Kid friendly? Yes, if your kids are adventurous
Would I go back? Yes, if in the area

My final adventure took me into town to Restaurant Eugene. This place has been featured in Gourmet, and I had high expectations, which were all met. Again, I was the guest of a certain company with commercial interests, and we had a tasting menu with wine pairings. Yes, I was very excited. I'll go ahead and say that the pairings all worked really well.

Amuse: She Crab soup paired with the Gruet Blanc de Noirs from New Mexico. The creaminess of the crab soup went very well with the sparkling wine, which is one of my favorites.

First: "Seared Maine Diver Scallop with Jerusalem Artichoke Puree and Pickled Jerusalem Artichokes with Benton's Bacon"
This dish was a fun combination of flavors and textures. The wine, Burgans' 2006 Albarino from Galicia, Spain, had a citrus flower nose and floral, fruity flavors with a mineral finish, also fun. As one of the novice wine drinkers at the table noted, the bouquet actually smelled like a bouquet.

Second: "Grilled Florida Pompano with Carneroli Risotto, Green Garlic, and Baby Shiitakes, Tempura Razor Clams, and Sake-Shellfish Broth"
Pairing: 2005 Rijckaert "Recolte" Chardonnay Macon Village, France
The wine was fruity with a lot of mineral and acid and had a nice, creamy finish. It was well-balanced with the fish.

Third: "Painted Hills Beef Two Ways: Grilled Ribeye and Braised Short Rib with Rutabega Puree, Bok Choy, Baby Carrots, Hakurei Turnips, and Veal Jus"
Pairing: 2005 Carr Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
This wine, a true big-ass red, made me very happy. It had a cedar/oak nose with a hint of caramel and was very smooth on the palate with a lot of dark fruit and some leather. The beef was cooked perfectly, and the whole dish was savory. Vegetables were done crisp-tender.

Fourth: Fleur de la Terre cheese on toasted ciabatta
Paired with a Zinfandel, the 2006 from Seghesio Family Vineyards in Sonoma County, the cheese course could have more than amply finished the meal. The cheese itself was like a sharp Italian white and contrasted with the aged balsamic vinegar that was drizzled over it. I found the zin to be a little disappointing, but my palate may have been burned by the cab.

Dessert: "Valrhona Chocolate Bar with Wild Hibiscus Flower, Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, and Pistachio"
Pairing: Kopke 10 Year Tawny Port
The dessert was a chocolate-gasm, a small, creamy rectangle of chocolate served with a melon-ball sized scoop of vanilla ice cream. The salty pistachios complemented it beautifully. The wine, however, was a bit too alcohol-forward for my taste, and I usually like port. I don't think anyone at the table finished it. Yes, the hibiscus flower is edible, but just as functional as a garnish.

Score card:
Atmosphere: Formal
Food: Excellent
Wine list: Unknown
Wait staff: Excellent, but again, were in a private room
Desserts: Excellent
Vegetarian friendly? Unknown; would likely accommodate
Kid friendly? Don't even think about it
Would I go back? Yes, even if I had to pay the check

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