House specialties exist for good reason; good diners order based on a restaurant’s strengths. Caesar salads are rarely excellent at brewpubs, which is why I always go for the wings or the burger. I don’t order fish at steakhouses, as a general rule, and I save my tortellini for true Italian restaurants.
A really good restaurant, on the other hand, only puts its strengths on the menu.
Last night we ate at Cremant, a French bistro in Madrona. Cremant qualifies as a really good restaurant–both because the menu encapsulates exactly what is so alluring about French cuisine without trying to change it (unlike another French-ish place across the street), and because the food, ambiance, and service were, in a word, flawless. And although the grey- and white-patterned wallpaper, warehousey cement floors, and butter yellow accents sort of made me feel like I was eating inside some French kid’s dollhouse project, I can’t really think of anything I’d change.
The food was perfect. I started with sparkling Normand apple cider, which reminded me of the kind my Parisian host family made on their farm in Normandy, and by the time my traditional French onion soup hit the table, I wasn’t sure where I was. The gruyere bubbled up and over the sides of the white ceramic bowl (yes, the kind with the lion heads on each side), forming a golden crust that I broke through to find just the kind of deeply beefy, onion-rich soup that makes me order French onion soup literally every time I see it on a menu (usually, this is a mistake–see above). As our waiter fluttered around us effortlessly, my husband and I found ourselves, quite unintentionally, on a true date. I gazed at him, he gazed at me . . .he forgot about work and I forgot about my day’s frustrations; we forgot life and got life back.
Then my lamb shank arrived. I think a lesser carnivore might call it an oversized portion, but realistically, lambs are decent-sized animals, and no one should be surprised when a shank arrives on a 14-inch platter. It was braised perfectly; the muscle fibers had the smooth, soft coating that meat gets when the connective tissue has reached ultimate meltability (think of the oysters on a perfectly roasted chicken). I savored the lamb and my husband’s seared hangar steak, alternating between my seared roasted potato and his crispy, salty frites, dipping all that I could into the accompanying aioli. We worked hard until we could eat no more. I think I broke a sweat.
The problem with being a really critical person is that when things go well, and I mean really almost perfectly, I don’t have much to say. If I were less focused on pointing out restaurants’ flaws, I’d write about the way the host treated us so goshdarn nicely, flatter the server for his excellent wine choices, and gush about how Cremant got all the silverware and place settings just right and so French.
But I’m critical, right? I wish I hadn’t worn my tall black boots, because my left calf cramped up driving my stick shift up and over Capitol Hill. I wish I’d ordered the creamed spinach and brussels sprouts, because I should have known a real French bistro would never put actual vegetables on the same plate as a lamb shank. And I wish that I’d remembered the remains of my lamb shank in its perfect little take-out box, instead of leaving it at the restaurant for someone else’s dog to enjoy.
But more than anything, I wish I could give the person who gave me the gift certificate to Cremant a giant hug. No matter how perfect the restaurant, it is rare that dinner turns into the proverbial night to remember, and rarer still that such a night comes when we need it most. Thank you.