Crossing Paths

Black Cat

I made a lot of resolutions at the beginning of this year, chief among them my vow to see those resolutions through. I do that every year, but this time I made a list that I check off item by item as completed, with such everyday tasks as “paint apartment” (not done yet) and “new computer” (likewise) sharing space with more abstract goals such as “Own it!” I haven't owned it just yet, but I'm working on it. I still need to pick up a new chef's knife, a food processor, and a proper set of dishware, but can at least take comfort in my new wok, bamboo steamers, Japanese, Mexican, and Chinese cookbooks (among others), my pepper grinder, teapot, Chinese-style soup spoons, and gorgeous set of lacquered chopsticks. Another resolution was to read 30 books over the course of the year, which didn't seem like that many in January. But when I checked my list in mid-March, I found that I'd read, well, two.

Fortunately, I'm now back on track (10 books either finished or in progress) and ready to put my new knowledge to use. Since I wasn't too impressed with my most recent restaurant experience — Reed Hearon's newly revamped Black Cat — I'll liven up this review with a few of my reading highlights. I never managed to eat at the original Black Cat, which opened in 1998 as a sort of tribute to the legendary Montgomery Street gay/bohemian bar of the same name, with a menu that spanned a global range worthy of The Best American Travel Writing 2000. Call it bad luck, but the first time I walked in I smelled a fishy smell and left. I tried again a year later, but Black Cat was then working out some sort of zoning issue that prohibited drinking wine at the outdoor tables. We crossed the street to the outdoor patio at Enrico's, where I've enjoyed at least a dozen satisfying meals over the years. The food at Enrico's isn't always breathtaking, but it's dependable — a quality that should mean everything in the restaurant business but was entirely lacking at Black Cat.

Since I find it hard to believe that Black Cat's kitchen staff is inept, the explanation for our surprisingly disappointing dinner might be good old-fashioned sloppiness. Either that, or Black Cat and I are destined to upset one another. (And if this review upsets anyone at Black Cat, he or she should know the meal I suffered through upset me quite profoundly.) It was as if there were two squads of chefs in the kitchen, each working at opposite ends of the spectrum. Some dishes couldn't have been finer, while others thudded so hard my friend Vincenzo and I figured a high school gym class could have done better with proper instruction.

We'll get to the food, but first a few words on the new décor. The place closed earlier this year for an extensive makeover, and the new layout is entirely sumptuous in a French brasserie kind of way. Rows of liquor bottles behind the bar bathe in warm, golden light, a gorgeous backdrop for the black-and-white tiled floor, dark wood columns set with mirrors and glowing gold panels, and raw seafood bar laden with glistening ice. Lilting French tunes and soft jazz added a soothing, sophisticated aura, and the hard-working front-of-the-house staff appeared ready to fulfill any desire we could have named. The new theme (“Bistro des Poètes”) didn't exactly jibe with the dressed-to-the-nines Tuesday night crowd, which seemed more inclined to fret about the restaurant of the moment than about the intricacies of Baudelaire and Rimbaud. But then, I must admit the black evening dress worn by the woman a few tables down was pure, undeniable poetry.

As the late, great food writer James Beard once opined, a moderate amount of any spirit will not harm one's ability to enjoy wine during dinner. In tribute, we started with a pair of tipples that ended up foreshadowing the rest of our meal. Vincenzo sipped an exquisite Sidecar, while I received a Mojito that combined a pinch of mint so ragged it appeared to have been muddled in a blender with a cloying overdose of simple syrup. I've had worse Mojitos, but always sent them back; in this case, I managed to finish the drink before we moved on to a carafe of velvety smooth Vacqueyras grenache from the well-chosen, largely French wine list.

Black Cat's new menu is also largely French, and it seemed promising when things began with good, chewy-crusted bread and a bowl of almonds and olives. The small fruits de mer platter might have provided a bit more bulk for $28, but looked like it would make up for its small helpings with variety. Eight sparkling, fresh oysters were served with three tiny dabs of tartare over scallop shells. The first choice — tuna with artichoke and Meyer lemon, drenched in rich, fruity olive oil — proved entirely seductive. But avocado and Meyer lemon did little for the pasty sweet shrimp in the second, while crushed hazelnuts so overwhelmed the delicate scallop in the third that we were glad the portion was small.

Then came the finest taste of the night — octopus en daube — immensely tender tentacles braised in cognac and wine, served with a thick, rich, garlicky aioli and plump English peas. Sadly, that was followed by a dish that made me think of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, a highly recommendable piece of investigative journalism that reveals, among other things, that the flavors in many processed foods are manufactured by chemists in New Jersey. Though fabricated tastes are an abomination against everything good and true, I might have welcomed some artificial flavor in our asparagus-mushroom soup. Asparagus is in season, yet the soup tasted more like bitter, astringent stalks than delicate tips, while the “crimmi” (cremini?) mushrooms hit the palate as gracefully as a Baltimore Ravens linebacker. Had anyone tasted the soup before sending it out? On second thought, I hope not.

Our third appetizer evoked Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, a fascinating, behind-the-scenes account of life in big-city kitchens. Lord knows I'd never be able to run such an operation: Not only must one prepare dish after dish while maintaining the highest possible standards, but the entire process has to be synchronized so that everything arrives in correct order and in a timely fashion. It seems impossible, but most kitchens pull it off — which made the 20 minutes we waited for our skillet-roasted mussels all the more frustrating. Then, as the mussels arrived, our waitress told us our entrees were ready. Would we like them now?

Since the other option was to leave them in the kitchen, we told her we would. First we tried the mussels, which were plump and juicy but entirely unexciting when dipped in a side of melted butter that left our mouths coated with fat. Vincenzo's entree may have been a boring choice — a juicy, grilled New York steak dabbed with black olive butter, served with decent frites and sautéed spinach — but at least it succeeded. Poached petrale sole in crab broth looked good on paper, but seemed less so when I added the adjectives “bland” and “overcooked” after tasting it. It came topped with a blisteringly fiery, one-dimensional rouille. To add insult to injury, the fish arrived tepid, as if the kitchen had prepared the sole, remembered our mussels, and then left my entree on the counter instead of firing a fresh plate while they tried to rectify the situation.

But in the end, it was OK. As the incomparable Tao Te Ching states, one simply lets go of this and chooses that. On a brighter note, two desserts put an end to the horrors: A sharp, bright, pink grapefruit sorbet cleansed away the buttery mouth feel left by the mussels and set the stage for an agreeably textured flourless chocolate cake with fresh whipped cream, served over a crisp meringue crust. Both were a nice way to end, but by that point no dessert could have been nice enough.

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