Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Celebrating the Bliss!

To celebrate two years of blissful legal union, SVR and I extracted ourselves from our comfort zone and tried two, that's right, TWO new dinner spots in one, that's right, ONE weekend.

Last October, we traveled to visit friends in the Hague and Belgium. It was a spectacular trip on so many fronts and, not surprisingly, food and drink were always front and center. With 'cross season just around the corner (this is supposed to be a cycling and food blog, yes?) and last fall's vacation on the mind, we decided to try Et Voila! (they deliberately add the '!,' just like Yahoo! and Jeopardy!), a Belgian bistro, for our anniversary celebration proper.

The restaurant is easy to miss, as it's tucked in among a barber shop (probably a salon, but I'm kinda old fashioned and prefer the imagery 'barber shop' provokes), a pet food store, and an antique shop. Et Voila! isn't in much of a 'destination' spot in DC. The space is long and narrow. Up front, the bar seats four and doesn't offer an ideal spot to linger while waiting for a table, but thankfully our table was ready and waiting when we arrived. Something about the interior design, the spacial layout, the lighting, the clientele, the staff, and the smells and sounds struck me and SVR as distinctly 'Euro.' It all came together in a certain je ne sais quoi kinda way to offer a near perfect transport back to some of the mid-range Belgian spots we tried in Bruges. Wanna get away? Screw Southwest. Try Et Voila!

With Belgian spots, and their corresponding beers, pretty much all the rage these days, I was eager to see how the beer list stacked up against some of the others around town. Disappointingly, there are no taps at Et Voila!, so all options are from the bottle. Though the list ran upwards of 25-30 choices, I've tried most of what I saw and thought I'd start a special occasion with special occasion libations. A $9 glass of Crémant De Bourgogne, Laurent Tripoz champagne was good stuff. And organic. Sparkling. Tasty. Light. Balanced.

For food, I started with a beef tartare paired with greens and SVR had a roasted beet salad. Both were pretty amazing. Conventional bistro items, but executed so well. My beef was uniformly chopped and mixed with the requisite savories. I tasted some mustard and shallot and capers. Much to my delight, I also caught a sliver of sweetness from, I think, some cornichons. No toast points. Just the well-dressed arugula and other spring greens. Though the lettuce was pretty heavily doused, I didn't mind at all. The dressing was tart and sour and spicy. The champagne worked well with that dish. SVR's beets disappeared quickly, but I did snag one bite. I can't say anything was particularly unusual about the preparation, but can say the flavors were nice and stout and the beets were cooked perfectly. Just a super solid rendition of a beet salad with some goat cheese and nuts. Supposedly the beets were heirloom beets, but I can't say that mattered much to the taste.

Mains were also basic fare. Despite the hot weather, SVR had the Flemish stew. A classic rendition, it was rich and meaty. Stewed in beer, there wasn't much specific beer flavor, but I'm sure some of the subtle fruit in the sauce was leftover from whatever Belgian ale the chef used. SVR handed over the accompanying crouton garnish. It was toasted bread with a horseradish or mustard spread. I thought that spice bomb was great on its own and would've been good balance to the rich and slightly sweet stew. Her loss. My gain. The dish came with some fries. They were phenomenal. Plenty hot, really crispy, mediumly thin, and rightly salted, I had to battle to get my hands on more than just one. Entering her third trimester, SVR has been branching back out to the rare glass of wine. For this special occasion, she had a glass of Malbec and judged it, "Good and certainly good with the beef stew."

I opted for a chicken dish. Again, basic. Seared breast advertised as 'herb crusted' and accompanied by spinach, potato croquette, and red wine sauce. I'm back to challenging restaurants to cook chicken well. In skilled hands, chicken can be so frickin' good. For a while, I think chicken just played second fiddle. Often prepared safely and without much flare, I think chefs were getting away with serving dry, over cooked fowl. But spots like Palena treat their chicken with care. Firefly also does a killer roasted chicken. Those places offer hope and I'm kinda on a mission to test restaurants by seeing how they handle the lowly chicken. Et Voila! passed the test. The 'herb crusted' turns out to be 'herb topped.' A slug-like (I know, not an appetizing image) herb swath ran the length of the seared breast. I don't know what the base ingredient was, but the blob held together firmly and was packed with herbes de provence type flavors and some other, brighter, green flavors. My first cut into the breast left me wondering if I erred with my chicken choice. But a few cuts into the thicker piece of meat left me super happy with my decision. The chicken was moist and flavorful. The potato croquette were awesome. Consistently golden in color, they were crispity crunchity on the outside and positively fluffy on the inside. Spinach was not watery and peppered with noticeable diced garlic. The real highlight was the glassy, rich, deep, tart, luscious red wine sauce. I coulda had a bowl of this stuff for soup. The spinach provided the perfect vehicle for mopping up and absorbing all remaining sauce. Card carrying member of the clean plate club. Right here. I paired this dish with a Mardesous Brune, knowing the deep, slightly fruity, 8% brown ale would stand up to the savory herbs and the rich wine sauce.

All-in-all, they savory part of the meal was a smashing success.

I'm not a huge fan of chocolate desserts, particularly mousse. My advanced research promised this spot's chocolate mousse would be off the hook. We ordered one. Solid choice. It was not painfully sweet. It is made with a pretty deep and dark chocolate, so it had a bit more complexity than a Hershey's milk chocolate bar. Best of all, there was a little crunchy texture added by way of some cocoa nibs on top.

I rounded it all out with an espresso (a much appreciated heavy crema on that one) and judged the spot a near perfect semi-casual spot to celebrate a joyous day.

I shouldn't ignore the service. It was decidedly fine. The waiter wasn't exactly warm, but that doesn't bug me. We received everything we asked for, had ample opportunity to provide feedback, and didn't feel intruded on. Can't complain about any of that.

It's also good to know Et Voila! offers enough stuff on the menu, including the expected mussels and fries, to make it appropriate for a non-special occasion. It ain't cheap, but I suspect you could get in and out for $35 a head (shared starter, two orders of mussels or burgers, a shared dessert, and two drinks). We'll be back.

Clearly, I went all 'NOT TODAY' on this post, so I'll have to save thoughts about Estadio, the other new try, for another day.

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