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Thursday, November 20, 2003

Cortez and dancing on a school night

I've gone to Pascal Rico's new place, Cortez, twice in the last week, somewhat inadvertently. The first time was with Lynn and Anke, on our girl's night out Saturday night. The second time was last night with the indomitable Serge, who refused to go to First Crush, my first choice for the evening, for fear of running into une des ses belles “diversions”.

I like the ambiance at Cortez quite a bit. The room felt warm but with a good exciting vibe. It is also long, allowing for a lot more tables along the wall, which are conducive to people watching. And there were definitely beautiful people to be watched. It feels almost more like a very cool bar than a place anyone would go for serious eating. The tiny portion size happens to agree with that assessment.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I didn't like to food. I did, quite a bit, what I am saying is that the food is better if you are in a pecking mood than when seriously hungry. And I am not usually one to complain about portion size (just the opposite in fact.) A case in point is our order of roasted Branzino, oven-dried tomatoes, melted leeks in lemon caper brown butter. The very thin strips of Branzino were about 2 inches long each, and there were four of them, yes, four, on the plate. The single mouthful that I had a chance to taste was quite good, but I think I've got insufficient evidence to pronounce a verdict on the dish.

The salad of arugula, Muscat grapes, jambon Serrano, manchego cheese and toasted Spanish almonds tasted crisp and fresh, with a nice blend of texture and flavor. The rendition of the obligatory tuna tartare is here paired with shaved fennel, herb and shallot oil, served with two pieces of hot crostini with garlic parsley butter. It was good and fresh, but not great, and I'm not entirely sure that the greenish bits hiding under the fish were fennel. Those bits looked more leafy than shaved fennel to my eyes, and didn't have a licorice flavor I expected in a fennel. The sautéed broccolini (with chilli, garlic olive oil and toasted pine nuts) was nice, but was cold by the time it arrived.

I loved the slow baked salmon served with roasted pear stuffed endive, with a drizzle of hazelnut balsamic vinaigrette. The plate we ordered on Saturday was divine. The salmon was barely cooked on one edge, the rest was sushi quality, sweet, buttery mouthfuls that simply melted before you had a chance to even think of chewing. Fabulous! But then I should have known better than to try to go home again, as the plate Serge and I shared last night was good, but no where near the revelation of the one on Saturday.

I also liked the Moroccan wine braised short ribs with celeriac puree and natural jus. The meat was perfectly tender and deeply and deliciously flavored. The meat itself was a pretty good size, but we only got about a quarter size dot of the puree on the plate. I must have had a tiny taste but I am drawing a complete blank on how it actually tasted.

And of course, this being one of Rico's places, I had to order the frites. We had two orders on Saturday and one last night. I'm happy to report that his frites are as good as ever. I even liked the harissa spiced mayonnaises.

The dish I didn't particularly enjoy was the house-made butternut squash ravioli with vinegar and sage sauce and shaved parmesan. The ravioli were cold by the time they got to our table, turning the sauce unpleasantly sticky and gooey. The fact that the sauce was grey in color didn't help stop my brain from thinking it was in fact glue. The ravioli themselves were a bit too sweet, and the dough just a tad too thick. The slow cooked chicken breast with fresh herbs, mushroom ragout and creamed scallions was ok, a tad too mild in my opinion. The chicken pieces were perfectly tender but just a little too under-seasoned for my taste.

I tried three desserts. One is butter poached pear and mascarpone napoleon, phyllo honey crisps and pear sorbet. This was my favorite, but then again I am a sucker for good sorbets. This pear sorbet didn't disappoint, luckily. The napoleon was nice as well, a very good contrast of texture between the poached pear and the crispy phyllo. We also had the sugar and spice beignets with Valhrona chocolate fondue, which despite the name was in fact a chocolate sauce served in a little cup. The beignets tasted like well-made donuts, and the Valhrona chocolate sauce was a great compliment. The last dessert was the chocolate peanut butter truffle cake, with caramel ice cream and peanut praline. I have still yet to develop the American inclination for all things peanut buttered. That said, I must say the cake was a lovely little cylindrical concoction that exploded into a molten lava when you cut into the cake. It tasted fine, but I couldn't do more than two bites of the very strong peanut buttery flavor. We also ordered a shot of house made vanilla-milk liqueur, which happily restored all things into balance for me.

We drank a bottle of Anjou-Villages Brissac from 2001 on Saturday. It was inoffensive, light little red that drank well with the food. At $28 I really couldn't complain much. Last night Serge and I each had a glass of Rose (Domaine Sorin, province, 2002) which was crisp and dry. I preferred it to the red. The checks were about 45 and 30 per person (sans tips) respectively. The service was charming on both nights, but much more efficient even with the full house Saturday night. I think the bottom line is we got what we paid for. I will definitely go again, though not when I am famished.

Afterwards Serge insisted that we go meet some of his friends and dance at Minna Gallery. Going dancing on a school night is so unpim, you may say. But I actually had a great time, more people watching than dancing though, there were some seriously dubious characters about last night at Minna. What fun!


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