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Easy Does It

Chef Michael Degenhart brings a Zen-like clarity to Rue Cler's french cuisine.

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.

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