Sunday, October 2, 2011

Going on a Date with Felice

The first day of Autumn may have been last week, but I watched the seasons change firsthand last night, at Felice Urban Cafe.

A server at the beloved Michangelo's was the one to suggest the restaurant a couple months back. We looked at the menu online and immediately knew we had to pay them a visit. It was one of the top choices for my birthday dinner, but we ended up doing Siam Cafe with friends, family-style. On that note, Li-Wah may have Cleveland's best dim sum, but nobody holds a candle to Siam Cafe's authentic Chinese offerings for dinner.

My husband and I both worked all day yesterday, and thought that the cold, blustery evening that followed was a perfect time to go on a date (read: not cook). We had selected Felice a few days prior, and had made a reservation for 7:30. I'm glad we did, because they were packed! When we drove up to the restaurant, which is situated in a large, brightly painted house on Larchmere - I was already impressed. There's an art installation on the corner made of vinyl siding, and the house itself was brightly lit with red lights in the patio windows. It felt like we were going to someone's house, in a way! The structure is impressive, and Felice makes wonderful use of the space. We were promptly greeted in the foyer and told that they had a very special table for us. "That's great!" I thought to myself, wondering if they said that to everyone who came in. It didn't seem possible for there to be a bad seat in the house. The host took us past every table and ventured into the kitchen area. My pulse started to quicken a bit. I wondered, were we going to be seated at the Chef's table? As we were guided into a booth nestled in the wall, decorated with a small chandelier I knew it was true - we were sitting at the Chef's table.

"Did you plan this?" I asked my husband, thinking he'd asked for the special table. He insisted that he didn't. I became slightly giddy, and still didn't fully believe him. If I weren't already married, I would have been expecting a ring box to appear from his pocket at some point in the evening!

The host returned with water and menus. Another surprise of the evening was an additional menu that you don't actually see on the website. It contained several other starters and entrees. Their wine, beer and cocktail list was extensive. I settled on a Summer Sangria, even though the wind outside almost seemed to intently proclaim that Winter was around the corner. It was a white sangria, with house-made cherry vodka, brandy, fresh grapefruit and a Sauvignon Blanc. It was amazing, and was enjoyed right down to the vodka-soaked cherry at the end. I ate nearly all of the ice cubes after the drink was gone, you could still taste the boozy goodness. A pitcher of this sangria would be great company for a table full of friends.

We ordered a mixed greens salad and some chorizo and potato empanadas to start, but were surprised with a treat from the kitchen before they arrived. Since we were at the Chef's Table, we each received a small plate with a potato pancake, grape jam, smoked salmon, chevre, preserved lemon and crispy sage. Getting everything on one forkful was a slight challenged, but the amuse was splendid. At first glance, I wondered where the jam was. I had thought that little cherry tomatoes had found their way to our plates until I tasted one. They were whole grapes! This isn't something you'll find in a store, believe me. You could genuinely taste every component in its purest form. Together, they were magical.

Our salad (shared) and empanadas arrived a little later. The salad was made of various greens, and decorated with button-like smoked almonds, granny smith apples, and Manchego cheese. I'm not sure what the dressing ingredients were, but there was a perfect amount coating the lettuces. Once again, the individual ingredients were allowed to shine through, but went well together. There were four empanadas on the plate, small enough for two or three bites each. If you had a lot of other things going on, it would be fine for a party of four. We each took two of the flaky, buttery pastries filled with chorizo and potato for ourselves, and dipped them in the (once again) house-made tomato jam. The jam was slightly spicy and had great flavor.

For dinner, I ordered the Steak Frites from their regular menu. My husband ordered a Duck entree from the special menu, with orange sauce, greens, and potato pancakes.

The steak was cooked medium-rare and was placed on a wonderfully peppery jus with melted onions and black pepper. There was a light and lemony aioli on top of the frites - and a small side of 4 or 5 asparagus spears. The meat was perfectly seared and crisp on the outside, but wonderfully (and truly, might I add) cooked medium-rare. I briefly thought about requesting the tomato jam for the frites, but that would have been a textbook example of 'gilding the lily' which I ended up doing later in the evening anyway. More on that later!

Jeff's duck came out a little overdone, but he was not the one to point it out. Our server was very up front, and said that she'd be glad to take it back if it was not cooked as he requested. She promised to come back in a moment to see how he felt. After a taste he did decide it was a little overdone, and requested it to be re-done. We were both immediately impressed that the issue (which quickly became a non-issue) was handled so professionally and honestly. The new dish with medium-rare duck came out quickly and perfectly. It was obvious that the cooks and staff at Felice really cared about their food, and that it meant a lot for the diners to enjoy as they intended. Our love for this restaurant was quickly growing. The duck breast was tender and seared beautifully, and the orange sauce was lovely. It had wondeful flavor but did not steal away any dynamic of the duck's natural flavor. We'd already had the potato pancakes at the start, but did not mind a re-visit of the crisp cakes, which did not have the salmon this time. (Gilding. Lily.)

Already completely enamored with the food, drinks, and the surroundings (seriously, sitting at the Chef's table was so great), we decided to get dessert. I had eyed the pumpkin bread pudding earlier in the evening, so I decided on that. We'd normally split a dessert, but my husband isn't normally a fan of pumpkin - so he opted for an apple cobbler with ice cream. His came with ice cream, and I became jealous. A new rule is that I will not have ice cream in the house, but can enjoy it while out to dinner, or traveling (Jeni's time!). They had no problem adding it to my bread pudding. This is where I gilded the lily. The bread pudding comes with whipped cream, which they put on the side (it would normally be on top) - the whipped cream was spiced with cinnamon and cardamom, at the very least. We noticed the cardamom immediately, as it was very prominent. A large scoop of vanilla bean ice cream sat awkwardly atop a generous square of bread pudding. With the whipped cream being as awesome as it was, there was absolutely no need for the ice cream. Though my husband isn't normally a pumpkin fan, he conceded that my dessert was really good. He remarked that it "tasted like Fall" and he was right - it tasted exactly like Fall. I'm considering a reasonable facsimile for our Thanksgiving dinner.

Our server suggested that we exit from the back, so that we could see their outdoor patio and bar. While it was too cold to sit out there last night, I can definitely see us going there in the summer. Before we left, we also looked at their happy hour menu. Several menu items are $6 or less. Felice also has a special on Wednesdays where you can get any appetizer, entree, and dessert for $22. We're very glad we went to Felice last night, but Wednesday might be a good time to experiment if you've never been!

Our date was a night we'll truly remember for years to come. If you're looking for a romantic spot for dinner, I would definitely suggest you give Felice a try. If you're down with the hustle and bustle of the kitchen (which was a living machine, let me tell you), you should ask to reserve the Chef's table. We were seated there at random, and felt extremely lucky. It made quite an impression on us both! Our only regret was not bringing a camera. If you want to see pictures of some great food and read another review of Felice, check out fellow Cleveland blogger Cleveland Food and Brews review!

Happy Autumn and happy eating!