Tuesday, February 16, 2010

L'amour... L'Albatros...

I've heard other foodies refer to the "Tour De Bruell" before. For the uninitiated, it involves going to each Zach Bruell restaurant (Parallax, Table 45, L'Albatros and now Chinato). If I am a participant of this tour, my mode of transportation seems to be stuck somehow - because I keep going back to L'Albatros.

Our first visit was on one of their first nights. The restaurant wasn't packed by any definition, and the walls were sterile and bright, save for a painting of a woman's eyes hanging on the back wall. Naturally the servers were still a little green on the menu, but ours handled everything wonderfully. I had the Hangar Steak and Frites, and Jeff had the Skate Wing. As I started to eat, I wondered if what I was experiencing was commonplace. Had I just not been to a restaurant of this caliber before, or was the food just that good? The steak was flavorful and done as a steak should be. The fries were perfectly salted, hot and crisp. As we left that night, I told Jeff that I really hoped that the place would do well, that other people would realize how great it is, and that we'd be able to come back and enjoy the same wonderful cuisine for years to come. So far, our wish has come true.

On each visit, I have ordered the very same entree and have relied on Jeff to order new things to sample. I think I became fixated on steak frites when I first heard Anthony Bourdain talk about it at his restaurant, Les Halles. At the time, I had only had steak with a baked potato. "Who in the heck eats french fries with a steak?" I asked myself. It didn't make sense to me, to my unenlightened self. I simply didn't go out to eat that often back then, and I certainly didn't go to anything that wasn't a chain. Now, Bruell's take on this "nonsensical" dish makes sense - and is all I can think about ordering when I go to L'Albatros.

We chose to go there a third time for a date which just so happened to take place right around this "holiday" called Valentine's Day. We, much like Cleveland Foodie do not buy so much into the commercial aspects or celebration of Valentine's Day. The restaurant was packed and yet, they seemed to try and accommodate even those who hadn't placed a reservation. We had a great table and decided to go all out and order whatever we wanted (truthfully, we had been given a gift card for Christmas). We started with a salad made with greens, shaved fennel, feta and I thought beets, but I do not recall seeing them in the salad. They split a single salad between us and it was delightful. There was a little too much black pepper in mine, perhaps - but that was completely my fault.

We opted for cheese for a second course, picking five wonderful cheeses to sample. We were also offered a sixth tasting of bleu cheese (because we said we weren't fond of it) that we were urged to try. Every single cheese was amazing - except for the bleu. I didn't spit it out and neither did Jeff (we were promised we would not be thought poorly of if we did so), but I did take a healthy swig of my Manhattan immediately thereafter. I described it as tasting like an old hymnal.

Aside from our final cheese sampling (which we still tried in earnest!), there was not a single thing we disliked our of the entire evening. Based on our previous experiences with L'Albatros, this was not surprising. Their staff is attentive, polite, and concerned with every single patron's enjoyment of their evening.

Halfway through dinner the candle on our table went out. Jokingly we whispered, "This is an outrage!" when truthfully, it didn't matter. The food was just as good and the night just as romantic. We thought nothing more of it. Minutes later, a new candle was placed at our table. This touch may have been minute, but the attentiveness to something so small was an inextinguishable mark of how every detail of the food, presentation and ambiance is important to Zach Bruell and his staff. Are you rolling your eyes at me now? Did she just write a whole paragraph about a candle? The voice in my head that once scoffed at "steak and french fries" wants to mock me for this.

It says, it's a candle. A CANDLE. Come on.

The candle was the cherry on top of the best sundae I've ever had, let's look at it that way. The evening was amazing, but the little nuances were what made it spectacular. We actually did end up with a brownie and ice cream (not quite a sundae) and the cherry was actually in my Manhattan... But you get my drift. Maybe that's what it is.

I'm drifting. I'm in a rowboat with only one oar, and I'm drifting blissfully - circling L'Albatros again and again. I simply must find my other oar and proceed onward to the next stop in the tour, though there is no question I will be making a round trip, coming back to one of the restaurants, certainly the favorite so far, that made me fall in love with Cleveland's cuisine.