Saturday, April 11, 2009

L'antibes, Columbus OH

While Columbus is indeed a great city, there are things it lacks...for instance, when it comes to Fine French dining the options are relatively limited - Handke's, The Refectory, and L'Antibes. Having already been to the former two, when asked where I wanted to go in celebration of my (long past) and aunt's (upcoming) birthday, the answer was a no brainer. While I certainly wasn't expecting The French Laundry, Gary Danko, or Alex I must admit that after browsing the website and reading of Chef Litzinger's culinary achievements I was quite excited to see what the young man had to offer - certainly it could and should be as great as Handke or the Refectory...perhaps even better. Contacting the restaurant to make reservations I was even more impressed when the chef himself graciously fielded the e-mail. Table of four at 6:30.

Arriving at the restaurant we opted to skip the valet and parked less than 100 feet from the door for free. Having seen the restaurant myriad times before when browsing Piece of Cake we approached the door where the young valet stood - he smiled but neglected to open the door for any of us. Entering we were greeted by a young female hostess who smiled, accepted our reservation, and led us to a small table with very plus leather seats in the rear of the main dining room. Small and cozy the ambiance reminded me somewhat of Keller's famed Yountville establishment, but the art on the walls provided an interesting contrast. Music played over the hidden speakers and was largely benign, but I must admit it grew quite loud at times which was quite unnecessary. Four small menus were left as the server walked away along with the wine list.

Opening the menus I could see a look of relative disappointment on my mother and aunt's faces - apparently the crab and lobster dishes, as well as the halibut listed online were no longer available (despite my e-mailing ahead of time to be sure the extremely limited menu would have options favorable to all.) Interestingly my sister's copy of the menu did indeed have the previously mentioned dishes - a gaff laughed off by the staff as a "oops, it must've snuck in there." What else did my sister have that none of us had? A big 'ol smudge of lipstick on her filmy water glass. It was at this point that we almost stood up and walked out....especially when our server laughed off the lipstick as another "oops." Returning with a new glass and new menu the server informed us of one addition to the menu - an interesting Halibut dish that turned out to be the only reason we opted to stay. After delivery of this information, despite there only being 8 total people in the restaurant, it took 11 minutes before our server returned again to take orders.

Orders placed we were shortly brought a basket of bread and salted room-temperature butter that was quite excellent. Two types of bread, a nutty wheat and a smooth and doughy white, were brought piping hot from the oven and both were quite wonderful with the white being slightly more impressive with its sweet high notes. The butter was smooth and mildly sweet and worked well. Polishing off the basket relatively quickly I must admit I was slightly annoyed when the server picked up the basket and butter without offering more - thus forcing us to ask for more to go with the mains.

For the amuse, a small and below average scallop was served. Pan fried and touched with cardamom the small mollusk sat on a bed of wonderful beet greens, but overall the dish lacked any "wow" factor because the scallop was essentially overcooked - not because of flawed technique, but because it was so small that it would be almost impossible to prepare without overcooking unless done sous vide.

After a short wait our two appetizers arrived and the service seemed to shape up a bit as the restaurant grew more busy. The first appetizer, ordered by my sister, was the Escargots in a Lemon-Tarragon Beurre Blanc and the dish was admittedly quite excellent. Perfectly prepared and only modestly seasoned beyond the butter and tarragon the small snails were shitake-mushroom like in texture without the briny-slime texture that plagues many Escargot preparations. Served shelled with crostini at only nine dollars I'd place this dish on the "must order" list and amongst the most unique appetizers in the city.

The second appetizer, Torchon of Foie Gras, Fig Jam, Balsamic Reduction, Brioche Toast was ordered by myself and somewhat of a hit-or-miss choice. While the Foie was certainly wonderful and possibly the best terrine/torchon preparation in the city now that BoMA is no longer serving their remarkable "PB+J" the fig jam and balsamic were under portioned for the amount of foie and the brioche was too chewy to provide adequate foil to the fatty/smooth liver. While I don't consider myself an "expert" I must admit I've had myriad preparations of this dish (including arguably the best in the world at TFL) and the dish would definitely benefit from a textural component - whether that be a nut or fibrous vegetable. At eighteen dollars the dish was slightly more expensive than better preps in other cities, but as I stated previously, the Foie itself was superb quality.

A short time passed (and my water glass sat empty for 10 minutes) between the appetizers and mains and it was at this point that we noted the loudness of the music - and they vastly more friendly waiter serving the table next to us - perhaps just bad luck on our part - offering to get the table more bread without their request. Service issues aside, the mains finally began to arrive with the first going to my mother - the nightly special of Almond Crusted Halibut with Shitake Mushrooms, Asparagus, and Smoky Bacon. Perfectly poached and mildly seasoned, the Halibut was a joy to taste and showed that when given an adequate piece of seafood Chef Litzinger is certainly quite capable. Flawless Shitakes with a hint of garlic, tender asparagus with a great soft-to-snap ratio, and a lovely white sauce with some sweetness but predominantly smoke and salt from the bacon - a GREAT dish all around.

Along with my mother's Halibut she also opted for the Grits and Gruyere side - served in its own attractive copper pan. Small in portion yet hefty in weight the grits were wonderfully cooked (albeit not quite as excellent as the grits at Banana Bean earlier in the day) while the gruyere was actually quite mild. While tasty and 'cheap' I can't say I'd rave the grits and they likely would've benefited from a savory component or protein vs. fibrous addition.

For my sister who orders salmon almost everywhere we go, the Poached Bay of Fundy Salmon, Fennel Puree, Buttered Carrots, Potato Nest, Vin Blanc Sauce was another knockout and reminded me that although so many places are making generic salmon due to its purported health benefits nowadays - it truly can be remarkable when done well. Perfectly poached and on par with sous vide fishes I've had prepared elsewhere the fish was surprisingly mild and oily with an aromatic fennel puree gracing the side of the dish and contrasting starkly with the sweet white wine sauce. For texture, the potato nest served as a beautiful and tasty crunch while the carrots were akin to the asparagus in their perfect preparation.

The next option, my Aunt's 8oz Filet of Beef with Brown Butter Brussels Sprouts, whipped potatoes, demi glace was marked a winner by her, but as I do not enjoy beef flesh I refrained. Excellent brussel sprouts with a nearly caramelized texture were an absolute rave amongst all who tasted them, however, myself included while the potatoes were relatively bland.

My selection and the primary reason I'd opted for L'antibes in the first place, Crispy Sweetbreads, Baby Spinach Risotto, Cured Bacon Lardons, Roasted Veal Broth was heavenly. Flawless and creamy Risotto with superb texture, crispy/salty bacon lardons, and an extremely mild (and non-beefy) broth with aromatic hints of what I believe were cardamom contrasted beautifully with the sweet and succulent thymus that was only mildly pan seared. Hefty in portion the meal was nearly "comfort food" in nature, yet refined at a level deserving of the best kitchens. Better than preparations at Le Cirque, Lola, and the Refectory and on par with what Stratta is doing at Alex at the Wynn.

Having loved the food thus far, dessert was certainly on the docket and the short menu of five items plus a cheese course presented many unique choices. Skipping the Vanilla Crème Brule we each decided to sample a different dessert - mine and my aunt's each brought with candles in celebration of our birthdays.

For my sister, L'Antibe's 'signature' dessert was selected - the Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse served in a Honey Tulip with Coffee sauce. Rich, creamy, slightly bitter but mostly airy decadence the mousse was an absolute hit while the crispy honey cup provided an interestingly complex and crispy foil of pure fructose sweetness. Small in portion but adequate given its richness I must say I appreciated the textures and feel of this dish and my sister absolutely loved the presentation. While I did not taste the coffee sauce, my sister stated it was quite good.

For my mother, a fan lemon desserts both here and afar, the Lemon Curd Tartlette served with Raspberry Puree was the order of the day and once again impressed. House made lemon curd with minimal acidity yet adequate tartness and plenty of sweetness worked well with the smooth and buttery crust while the raspberry puree decoration added an additional degree of complexity. Not too heavy, not too light - just right.

For my aunt, the Crème Caramel described as a baked Vanilla Custard with Caramel Sauce was selected and in my opinion was the only dessert that failed to impress. Relatively flavorless, the custard was simply marred in the significantly bitter (almost alcoholic) and thin broth. A single bite was more than enough for me and no one else at the table aside from my aunt seemed to gather where the dish was going.

My choice, the Poached Pear in Gewurztraminer, Honey, and Cardamom, Grand Marnier, Yogurt Sauce, Almond Tuile while poached in alcohol and served with alcohol was VASTLY more appealing than the Caramel and truly showed off what one can do by simply combining contrasting flavors and textures in unique ways. Perfectly poached and soft with hints of white wine the pear proved a great match to the pungent cardamom whose ginger-esque notes were well balanced by the smooth and tangy yogurt and sweet honey. The Almond tuile, also honey accented, added a necessary crunch and pulled everything together very well - a must order, for certain.

All told, L'Antibes features fantastic French cuisine in a fairly authentic feeling atmosphere at a fair price for the quality - approximately $55 per person after tax and tip. With that said, while there is no doubt that Chef Litzinger is a talented man - but certain dishes could certainly be better with a couple extra flourishes and the menu could certainly use an expansion. I do find it interesting that the day after my meal the Chef personally e-mailed me to apologize for a less-than-stellar experience as it was something I certainly didn't mention to anyone at the restaurant - if the staff was aware of their missteps I do wonder why they weren't corrected while we were present. Another interesting note - after the meal we were presented with a hand-printed menu of the courses ordered - a nice touch for sure - if only the bland staff could match the chef's wonderful cuisine there is no doubt I'd return soon.

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