Thursday, November 10, 2011

New 'Hood, New Food: A few offal meals at Bon Appetit Cafe

Tucked into a non-descript mall in the Wilton center, Bon Appetit Café is an authentic French bistro where fine ingredients and expert cooking technique rule the day. A few of the very few people we know around here told us the “little French place” near the Stop and Shop is surprisingly good. Armed with one of the few endorsements we’ve heard of any local restaurant, I figured I had to give it a try. We walked by on one of our first days in town and I remember thinking the menu looked expensive for the location, décor, and generally relaxed vibe. So I decided to give the place a whirl for lunch to test the waters for not as much money. Expecting to grab an easy sandwich (had my eye on the Pan Bagna which includes tuna, anchovies, tomato, green pepper, olives, eggs, mesclun greens, and mustard dressing), I ended up lured to the specials menu with its mention of three, count 'em, THREE offal dishes. Decisions, decisions. Choices were liver, kidneys, or tripe. I had a hunch the tripe might be the harder to find again of the bunch, so I jumped at it.
The dish was just perfect on a cold day. It was a bowl of piping hot, tomatoey broth with some actual peeled tomatoes, some perfectly white potato chunks, and a healthy serving of tripe. The broth had nice weight to it and had a deep, lasting spiciness. The tripe was so clean and cut down to bite-sized slivers. I did a little searching to learn tripe is characterized into three groups: the omasum (leaf tripe), the reticulum (the honeycomb tripe that is most visually memorable), and the rumen (the smooth and flat type). Best I could tell, the dish included all three types. Each ended up imparting its own particular texture. Most memorably, the reticulum’s texture was two-fold. The ridge piece was firm and dense, while the honeycomb part was light and soft and a little spongy (in a good way). The rumen was smooth and soft and evenly textured. The taste was uniquely tripe. It is difficult to really describe or pinpoint, but there was nothing foul or poopy about this tripe’s flavor. The baguette slices accompanying the meal were some of the best I’ve had. The crust was crunchy like it should be and the center was ideally dense and soft. Plenty of the bread allowed me to sop up all broth in the bowl. It was definitely a meal lacking in refreshing or light vegetables, but most offal dishes don’t really strive for balance between heavy and light. 

The vibe and atmosphere at the place is perfectly French. French television piping through the small TV in the corner. Occassional bickering among the staff (in an amusing, not off-putting, way). And the man in charge (definitely the chef, but I’m not sure if he is the owner) is a short French fellow with the ragged, raspy, throaty voice of a hardened cook. Ultimately friendly and cheerful, the chef was sure to check on me to make sure I liked the dish and added, “Zat eez naht so eezy to fahnd uhround ‘ere, no?”

And even though the dinner prices are a good bit high for bistro fare, SVR, NWW, and I did return a few days later for dinner. Again, everything was expertly prepared. The kitchen’s cooking technique really is flawless. For dinner, we ended up with pate de maison (homemade with many animal parts, but with liver the most pronounced flavor), a seared scallop dish (stunningly cooked scallops with a sauce that was savory and tart and fishy), and veal kidneys in mustard sauce (one of the offal dishes I passed up at lunch). My only complaint was about the pate’s texture. For spreading on bread, I prefer a pate that, well, spreads…like a paste (pate: French for ‘paste’). Bon Appetit Café’s pate was a little too crumbly to be manageable and nicely spreadable. A minor gripe. 

My main was the kidneys and these were, like the tripe, an amazing dish of non-standard meat parts. The mustard sauce was plentiful, silky, rich, and just a bit mustardy. It was another liquid ripe for sopping up with the wonderful bread. The dish was served with a small bouquet of nicely steamed vegetables (zucchini, haricot vert, carrots, and a breadcrumb stuffed tomato that was good enough to comprise the main part of a vegetarian plate), some parsnips, and a side of gratin potatoes. The gratin was, hands down, the richest food I’ve ever had in my life. Butter, cream, and cheese. They were all there in excess. Somehow, though, it wasn’t too much to handle. It was done right. So, while unbelievable decadent, the little soufflé dish of fat and potatoes succeeded. 

Wine was nothing mind-blowing…a red table wine called Chateau d’Oupia Minervois (2009). It was a solid bistro wine to accompany my heavier, meatier main and SVR’s somewhat lighter, but no less flavorful, shellfish dish. 

Crème brulee and coffees were very solid with a rightly crispy and caramelized crust on the crème. It still didn’t beat Red Bird’s, but at least little NWW got her first taste of real dessert. 

Start-to-finish, top-to-bottom, Bon Appetit Café is a total gem. We are glad to have it so nearby.

Friday, October 14, 2011

New 'Hood, New Food: bodega taco bar

I aim to make this the first in a series of quick and dirty reviews…trying to keep pace with exploring new eating spots in an entirely new state (for us).

bodega taco bar is the taco bar alter-ego to the awesome, dingy, value-oriented Valencia Luncheria in Norwalk. That breakfast, lunch, and dinner spot is small, cramped, always seemingly bustling, and has a rambling menu of 'Venezuelan beach food.' Where Valencia is a bit rough around the edges, bodega taco bar is polished, seemingly gleaming, and dialed. Though small, there are a variety of seating choices. They include a bunch of bar stools, a handful of hightop tables along the restaurant’s perimeter, and about twenty seats at proper tables towards the front of the restaurant. Where Valencia doesn’t serve any wine, beer, or spirits (though I do think it is a BYO spot), bodega has a prominently displayed bar with all sorts of rums and tequilas and beer and wine. For my lunchtime visit, I sat at the bar and had a friendly interaction with a bartender who seemed genuinely proud of the food and drink on offer.

The menu offers a pretty broad range of meal sizes, from ‘little cravings’ to ‘principal plates.’ The specials board showed off some apparently seasonal and creative offerings. For my one lunch visit, I order a couple items off the specials menu and one item off the regular menu.

--Roasted Corn and Chorizo Chowder ($6): This dish was a special and was a very solid soup. The base/broth was super, super silky, rich, and lush. Seriously, it was like velvet in the mouth. I did see nice char on the corn, but didn’t really taste any smokiness from that roasting. The corn was, however, sweet…even this late in the season. The chorizo was not particularly spicy. Also, it was not the crumbly style of chorizo. It was more of a tightly packed sausage…like a kielbasa. Usually one to shy away from salt, I was looking for a bit more saltiness in the soup and a bit more spiciness from the chorizo. Fresh cilantro on top of the soup was an excellent touch and lent a bright note to an otherwise very deeply flavored chowder. Carrots and celery chunks were of the right size and texture to give this a real chunky chowder mouth feel. The serving was generous for the price and included a substantial amount of chorizo.

--Baja Taco ($4): This taco is on the regular menu and is described as ‘panko crusted mahi mahi, pico de gallo, lemon aioli.’ All tacos are served on soft corn tortillas “nixtamal.” The taco was very small. From a value standpoint, I was a bit surprised by the serving size. While $4 is not a lot of cash, the portion size struck me as much more of a $3 item. Ignoring that, the taco was quite good. The tortilla was pliable and did not fall apart and actually contributed a corn flavor to the dish (unlike some not-quite-there flour tortillas). The fish was fried expertly. The panko was crispy and crunchy and the fish inside was flaky and piping hot. Hard to know if it was actual mahi mahi, as the piece was pretty small. Generally, this was a refreshing morsel. The salsa was very simple and traditional pico de gallo. The lemon aioli did not overwhelm the dish and the extra squeeze of lemon I gave the taco definitely brightened it up. Two extra salsas provided in squeeze bottles (a la Valencia) were not really needed in this case. Next to the taco on the plate, a pickled jalapeno was very tasty. The bartender explained the peppers are soaked in a vinegar and sugar brine. For me, those ingredients mellowed out any sharp jalapeno spiciness and turned the pepper into a very edible condiment, not unlike a good pickle at your neighborhood Jewish deli.

--Lamb Meatloaf Arepa ($8): This item was also on the specials menu. For starters, the arepa cake was a bit smaller than those at Valencia. Hand formed, this could also just be a factor of the day’s arepa preparer. This small sandwich was basic. Slabs of meat tucked into the arepa cake. But the flavor was really full and bold. The arepa cake was crispy fried outside and dense, sweet, and slightly crumbly inside. The thin-ishly sliced meatloaf was firm and dense. Piping hot, I think it was finished on the grill to heat it up. Before I ordered it, I asked the bartender if it was dressed with any extras. The bartender punted to a colleague and that guy (manager or cook?) explained the loaf had peppers and onions baked in and the sandwich included some caramelized onions and a sauce. It was as described. The onions were a solid addition for some textural variety and the sauce was pretty close to ketchup, but with some spicier notes (the bartender claimed the flavor was chipotle, but I don’t think that was the added ingredient). The meatloaf clearly tasted of lamb, with some good gaminess. Also, the meatloaf edges were a bit burned/charred and I appreciated the crispiness and smoke flavor that overcooking added to the dish. I can imagine some won't like that crispy, burnt edge. Though very straightforward (meat plus ‘bread’), this sandwich was satisfying and flavorful.

I washed all the food down with a pineapple Jarritos soda ($2.50). For $21.80 (pre-tip), lunch at bodega taco bar was filling, flavorful, and worth the trip to Fairfield.