Sunday, March 14, 2010

First dates and restaurant weeks

Sometimes trying a new restaurant can be like going on a first date. I hadn't thought about this before, particularly since I haven't been on a first date in 14+ years. Yes, Hubby has been putting up with me for that long even though we've only been married for a little over five. But we ended up sitting next to a couple on a first date last Wednesday, when we visited Shaun's Restaurant in Inman Park for Restaurant week.

Before I go any further, allow me to answer the question, "What is a Restaurant Week?" I thought this was common knowledge, but I ended up explaining it to a bunch of people, so here's a quick definition. Restaurants in a certain area will agree to each offer a "Prix Fixe" menu of a number of courses, usually three, for around the price of an entree. Sometimes they do this for charity (Inman Park) or marketing purposes (Buckhead). It gives diners a chance to try a place out without spending as much as they would otherwise. There's usually three or four in a row in August, but last week, both Inman Park and Buckhead had them. I wonder if they realized it when they planned it, and if so, well, that wasn't very nice. Not that it affected us much -- we did both. Another good thing about restaurant weeks -- they make for a cheap first date without too much commitment. As I already mentioned, we tried Shaun's. We also visited Home Restaurant & Bar in Buckhead.

First Impressions

It's been said that first impressions are everything. We were already seated and working on our entrees when the first date couple sat beside us. He started with a very awkward, "So, what are your interests?" Was this a date or a job interview?

Shaun's is light, airy, and a spare with regard to decor. One thing that stood out for me very quickly was that, while we waited for our table at the bar, one young woman got a glass of wine from a bottle that had passed its prime. The bartender very graciously and without challenge replaced it. I had a cocktail comprised of lavendar, sparkling wine, and honey. Hubby had a Belgian beer. The cocktail wasn't bad, but I don't know that I'll be ordering it again. It was better aromatherapy than flavor.

Home Restaurant & Bar actually looks like a converted house. I don't know what the history of the building is, but it's very cozy. The one strange thing Hubby and I noticed right away was that the hostesses and server were all really perky. While I appreciate good energy, it reminds me of when I worked for a chiropractor, and he wanted us to start answering the phones, "It's a great day at ________! I can help you!" The server's demeanor never wavered, so maybe they all just really like their jobs.

Body Language

Nothing says, "You're so doomed!" like sitting back and crossing your arms, which is what the female of the first date couple did soon after they sat. He asked if she was cold. I don't think she was.

One of the things I didn't like about Shaun's is that the seating against the wall in the main room is very close together. So close, in fact, that I had no trouble overhearing the conversations at the next table. I didn't want to hear them, nor did I intend to eavesdrop. Plus, I felt the need to apologize when I went to the restroom because I had to squeeze between the tables, and I'm not overweight (yet -- give me a couple more weeks like the last one, and we'll see).

Home had the advantage here. I mentioned it was cozy, and yes, it did have a good number of tables, but it didn't feel crowded at all, and I couldn't overhear anything from the table next to me. Again, not that I was trying.

Range of Responses

Okay, I'll admit, this is where I talk about the menu choices, and I couldn't really come up with a good first-date correlate. Maybe it would be having an annoying phrase like "kinda" or "absolutely" that you keep repeating. I can't say that the first daters had anything like that.

Shaun's really impressed me here in that it was for charity, and the whole menu was part of the prix fixe package. I started with the pork belly salad, comprised of tender fried pork belly, winter greens, crispy egg, green apples, and tete de moine cheese, which disintegrated into yummy little cheesy bits when poked with a fork. I blame Jimmy at the Eat It Atlanta for piquing my curiosity about crispy egg, which is essentially and wonderfully deep-fried egg. It was good, but the winter "greens" were more radicchio, which ended up being overwhelmingly bitter in spite of the citrus dressing.

Hubby decided to be brave and got Shaun's Chopped Liver, "East Village Style." Chunks of liver with some sort of creamy dressing served over grilled bread. The bread was a bit too chewy instead of crisp, but the liver tasted amazing, e.g., not like liver, but more like really tender meat.

Being half-Belgian, I couldn't resist the Moules Frites served in a white wine, cream, and parsley broth and with fries. The mussels had been cooked perfectly, tender and not at all rubbery or fishy. The fries seemed a little more like potato bits than true fries, but they floated and soaked in the broth no matter what shape they were, so it didn't matter. Hubby got the Georgia Shrimp and Grits, which was served with pork belly, poached egg, and finished with Creole sauce. I didn't try it, but I didn't hear any complaints from the other side of the table. The couple who had sat next to us before the first date couple arrived had shared with us that they really enjoyed the salmon and the flat iron steak.

At Home, each course had three choices. Hubby got the wild mushroom risotto for starter. It was creamy and well-balanced in flavor. I got a spinach salad, which was a spinach salad. We both got the short ribs with baby root vegetables and potato puree (sometimes he's not so cooperative when it comes to being married to a food reviewer). The baby root vegetables, carrots and Hakurei turnips, tasted like they had been roasted to be caramelized on the outside, tender on the inside. The potatoes were not quite as orgasmic as the ones at Oceanaire, but they soaked up the savory, meaty broth from the spare ribs, also cooked perfectly.

Timing Is Everything

Back to our first date couple. Very eager male dater was already trying to get female dater to commit to a weekend at the lake with him before they even got to the appetizers.

Statistically, our restaurant week places nailed this one. The service at Shaun's was somewhat slow and not as attentive as we would've liked. Yes, I realize they were very busy, and the kitchen may have gotten behind, so we did the wine bottle experiment. Our wine bottle was in a bucket of ice on the floor (no room on the table), so when our glasses had sat empty for a while, we put the bottle on the table to see if the server would notice. Nope. We gave her plenty of time, and she even walked by twice, but no luck.

On the other hand, the service at Home was great, but the pacing was a little fast. The entrees came out just as we were finishing our appetizers and before the wine, which we had asked to have with the entrees. Yep, drinking cocktails again. I admire the kitchen's efficiency, and I certainly wanted the food to be fresh, but it felt rushed. We asked for time to finish our wine before the desserts arrived.

It's the little things...

When we left Shaun's, male first dater was leaning across the table, both of his hands wrapped around the one that female first dater would give him. Remember what I said about body language? I don't know how their date ended up, but I'm hoping she was nicer to him than I was in this post and gave him a second chance. He was probably just really nervous. First dates and restaurant weeks generate a lot of performance pressure.

You know by now that two of my favorite things are wine and dessert, so I'll finish up with those.

At Shaun's:

2008 Summers La Nude Chardonnay (Monterey County, California). Sweet citrus nose, melon, and stone fruit with a long mineral finish. Excellent with seafood. Yes, a Chard I liked!

Belgian white and dark chocolate mousse served in layers and topped with banana sorbet and an almond crumble for dessert. Oh, my, yes! I love chocolate mousse, but I could've done without the banana sorbet. Then again, I don't typically like my chocolate messed up with fruit. Ohyeah, and Hubby had the fried sweet potato pie and honey ice cream.

At Home (yes, I know that looks and sounds funny):

2008 Ridge California Sonoma County Three Valleys (Seriously, it's in the name): A juicy red blend of 74% Zinfandel, 11% Petit Syrah, 5% Carignan, 4% Mataro, 3% Syrah, and 3% Grenache

The nose is strangely watery, but it has great fruit (currant/berry) and an oaky finish. Great with red meat.

For Dessert: Yeah, chocolate again. Molten Chocolate Cake served with something or other. Yeah, they had my attention at Molten, and it got stuck at Chocolate. It was, indeed, gooey liquid in the middle and crispy on the outside. Hubby had the bread pudding.

Score Cards:

Score card:
Atmosphere: Bright, a little noisy, crowded
Food: Very Good to Excellent
Wine list: Good
Wait staff: Good
Desserts: Very Good
Vegetarian friendly? Probably not
Kid friendly? No
Deserving of a second date? Yes, I'd like to try again when it's not restaurant week.

Score card:
Atmosphere: Romantic
Food: Excellent
Wine list: Very Good
Wait staff: Very Good
Desserts: Molten, er, Excellent
Vegetarian friendly? There are a few choices, but not a lot
Kid friendly? Don't even think about it
Deserving of a second date? Definitely. Again, would like to try during a regular week. But hey, the first impression was great.

Dear FTC, I didn't get any free or discounted stuff for this review article. Please don't make my curfew earlier!

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