By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
Degenhart's food certainly deserves our full attention. The menu is still in transition -- Degenhart expects to revamp it seasonally -- and he's playing like a very competent kid in a candy store, rediscovering flavors that he was unable to fully explore at the French-themed Tante Louise. Consider the complexities of his cornmeal-crusted oysters ($8.95), with the bivalves dripping sea juices inside crackly, chile-powered cornmeal shells that came drizzled with sweet-and-sour balsamic syrup and mustard-tinged wilted spinach. Another starter, the grilled gulf shrimp ($8.95), brought lightly charred crustaceans deeply -- and inexplicably, but pleasantly -- permeated with the anise taste of fresh basil, lounging on a bed of lemon-tart, mascarpone-enriched risotto. Basil also played an important role in the Caesar-style salad ($5.96), with the fresh herb adding a sweet element to the salty anchovy vinaigrette that coated the crunchy romaine hearts. A scattering of garlic-kissed bread crumbles and plenty of fresh parmesan made this one of the best variations on a Caesar that I've tasted. Thankfully, there wasn't a shred of grilled chicken in sight.
Until we got to the entrees, that is, and Mary Clark's chicken Asiago ($15.95). The recipe was created by Clark, now co-owner of the Bluepoint Bakery, but head chef at Tante Louise when Degenhart came on board; it calls for strips of moist bird to be coated with Asiago -- a sharply flavored grana cheese -- before being sautéed, then combined with fettuccine tossed in a rich, musky sauce made from portabellos. More star-quality sauce came on the semolina-crusted rainbow trout ($15.95). The moist fish had been pan-roasted and draped with an intense, not-too-rich rosemary-flecked Gorgonzola sauce that added an earthy element to the grilled corn, leek and shiitake hash that came on the side.
A second visit found us oohing and aahing over two appetizers that sounded richer than they turned out to be: succulent sea scallops wrapped in smoked salmon ($8.95) and crispy-edged veal sweetbreads ($8.95). The two scallops had been pan-seared, then enlivened by a warm relish of tomatoes and capers; the sweetbread medallions were fricasseed with portabellos and made more decadent with black-truffle oil. But while deep, buttery flavors were evident in both dishes, the straightforward preparations let the main components speak for themselves.
The monkfish ($17.95) arrived wrapped in prosciutto and braised in vermouth; a slightly wilted (on purpose) salad of frisee, fennel and frico -- fun, fun, fun! -- gave the dish extra oomph. The only flaw was the monkfish itself: This simply wasn't a very good piece of the often-great, oily, supple-textured fish. But the evening's special, beef tenderloin ($20.95), was superb. The fat slab of well-grilled, supple-textured meat came with a side of textbook-perfect garlic mashed potatoes and fresh grilled asparagus hardly thicker than strands of yarn; the combination was simple and striking.
Degenhart's display of Zen and the art of caloric maintenance continued through dessert. Some of these confections ($5.50 each) are made by Gerald Shorey, who owns a bakery on Gaylord Street (see Mouthing Off), and some are made in-house, but all of them were delicious and uncluttered, with no useless fruit goo gluing up the plates. The apple pie with vanilla gelato was a marvelous twist on an American standby; the crème brûlée had the perfect amount of vanilla and an ideal custard consistency; and the lemon meringue tart was enough to make lemon lovers weep with joy.
Does the food in a restaurant reflect the temperament of the chef? Rue Cler is proof positive -- very positive, I'd say, after two almost flawless meals there. In fact, zis is some of ze best food I've tested in my lahf.