By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
If this all sounds far-fetched, consider that the French Room recently replicated the final meal (at $175 a head) served on the Titanic in first class, complete with authentic music, recipes, and in many cases, period costumes. It even had dinner guests assuming the roles of famous passengers--such as John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim--with a historian navigating among the guests providing mini-bios.
This got me to thinking what a swell restaurant concept this would make--creating menus composed entirely of famous last meals. You could have Nixon's last meal in the White House, Barry Switzer's final chow as a Cowboy, even the last meals of famous ex-Death Row inmates. The problem is that the food would be all gimmick--a Happy Meal for the macabre. Yet while a replica of the Titanic's last meal is thoroughly stewed in gimmickry, albeit for the moneyed class, dining at the French Room for a normal formal feeding is anything but.
There's a joke floating around these days that if Willie Jeff Clinton collided with an iceberg on the North Atlantic, the iceberg would sink. A collision between an iceberg and an entree from the French Room would no doubt yield the same result. This stuff is grander than any inverted snow cone bobbing on the high seas.
Grand, of course, is a word that scares those of us who don't wear ascots to our shih tzu's psychotherapy appointments. So the French Room should be approached with caution. Just don't let it blind you to the upper-class glory of the place.
The French Room is slathered in elegant, baroque decor, with green marble floors, simply swagged window coverings, high arched ceilings painted with pudgy cherubs, sparkling Italian chandeliers, stately columns, and split-leaf palms on elaborate pale green pedestals. The room drips with shades of ivory, salmon, and blue trimmed in gold.
Created by Executive Chef Brent Wuest, the menu is firmly grounded in French bedrock. Yet it's lively and agile, shedding the weight of traditional French sauces while Asian and other global touches delicately elbow their way into the void. A native of Santa Barbara, California, Wuest, who has been at the Adolphus for six years and in his current position for about 18 months, says his menu has been virtually purged of cream.
One exception to this claim is the French asparagus-and-leek soup with Jonah crab. Rendered from pureed asparagus and leek, this vibrantly green, slightly sweet pottage is lightly creamed and holds three asparagus stalks, fried leeks, and crabmeat. The soup itself is short on pronounced flavor, a deliberate attempt to frame the core ingredients without tangling them in "ain't we genius?" flavor clots. But the soup is so skimpy on asparagus, fried leeks, and, most notably, crab, the restraint seems to have little purpose.
Another wavering item is the organically grown escargot sauteed in truffle oil. Which raises the question: What's an inorganic snail? A slug raised on Lexus oil-change sludge?
Wuest says his organic Pennsylvania snails spent the better part of their lives munching on dandelion greens. He sautes these delicately flavored snails in truffle oil with fresh mushrooms, onion, garlic, and wine. They're then plopped in a flower fashioned from fleur de brik, a light, nutty French pastry, before being plunked in a brown sauce rendered rich in flavor and light in texture via repeated reductions cut with shots of chicken stock.
The result is a sauce that is light in texture and so intensely flavored--if overly salted--holding juicy mushrooms, tomato preserves, and basil, that it can't decide if it wants to pummel those snails or glorify them.
But this is where any menu problems--slight or otherwise--end. Smoked Georgian quail filled with forest mushrooms and dotted with golden raisins offered multi-layered, rich flavors coupled with sweet succulence. A petite salad of alternating layers of red oak and curly endive was splashed with a potent, nutty sour mango nectar vinaigrette composed of red and rice wine vinegars, grapeseed oil, shallots, lemongrass, and pickled ginger.
Sauteed yellowtail snapper showed its brilliance through simplicity. The flesh was simply salted, peppered, and sauteed on high heat before an oven-bake finish, creating a paper-thin crunchy crust flush with delicate sea-flavor overtones shrouding a flaky, buttery fish core. It was charged with sprightly plum tomato rice wine vinaigrette dotted with tender morels that added an elegant, deep earthen nuttiness. An accompaniment of sugar-cured diced butternut squash folded with caramelized onions, however, struck with a gust of concentrated sweetness that was a bit jarring.
One of Wuest's most interesting and successful creations is venison chops with cracked pepper and rosemary. Amazingly, instead of using a rich demi-glace, he couples the meat with a cherry jus--a completely stockless sauce created by simmering cranberries, tart cherries, shallots, garlic, cinnamon, and nutmeg in cranberry, orange, and pineapple juices. The savory, full-flavored result is stunning. But the meat is even more surprising: dense, sweet, and earthy, with a velvety texture that integrates beautifully with this light touch of a sauce. A side of risotto lightly glanced with butter and a spinach-basil puree flavored with Romano cheese and applewood bacon, had fluffy, articulated grains and a light richness that made it tough to leave alone.