By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
At the bar, drinkers are packed three deep. Guys with day-old beards and wearing ball caps and zippered jackets muscle to the bar. Once they've scored, they drift to spots richer in space. But they don't fist beers. They sip wine, sloshing their drinks as they gesture. Two tall, thin women with short hair embrace at the corner of the bar. One wears tight jeans and a lacy white blouse with most of the buttons undone in a casually erotic rift. The other is a pub frump. They fire up cigarettes, sharing a flame. Lots of cigarettes smolder here, but not much smoke rolls over the tables.
Pub clutter is everywhere: beer and ale mirrors, shelved bottles, photos, a painting of The Cock & Bull owner Noel Graham. In one corner sits a cardboard cutout of man slung with a leather jacket. Christmas lights are strewn over the wooden wine racks behind the bar. After several minutes, a burly waitress plows through the bustle, steps up to the elevated dining spot and hands us long, slender ivory menus with script lettering: quail salad with savory liver toast; Muscovy duck with potato cheese gratin; green pea and mint soup. Below the last dessert, a chocolate cloud cake with softly whipped cream, is the credit: "chef Lisa Balliet."
"It's my whole gig," says the onetime AquaKnox executive chef, who's had stints at Dallas' Cafe Pacific and Masa in San Francisco. "You get a lot of people from Lakewood who come here that have a lot of money but aren't pretentious, and they dig it because it's kind of a hole in the wall."
That it is, except for the food, which is miles beyond bar grub, but for a few missteps. Ravioli stuffed with butternut squash and roasted chestnut was a clumsy bit of crafting with gummy pasta pockets crisscrossed with threads of reduced balsamic vinegar that was intrusively fierce. Balliet says she applied the stuff as a foil to the creamy richness of the sauce, but its intensity pummeled nutty notes brought out by toasted shallots, garlic, and mushrooms peeking through the sauce.
Roasted quartered chicken in Tuscany white bean ragout stalled even further. The plate was carpeted with a blend of beans and roasted peppers marinated in a lemon vinaigrette that hit with emphatic bursts of bumptious acidity, sharply distracting from the simple, well-seasoned bird.
But these shortcomings struck when the dining room was tranquil. Now, the robust crowd is thick, the service is slow, and the food seems marooned in the pub's tiny kitchen. Just before the dinner rush, Balliet's oven went kaput. So she had to make due with burners and a flat top. "It's just me on the line," she says, "and I get my ass kicked all the time."
From this posterior sting Balliet draws enormous inspiration. At least it seems that way. When the food is finally expelled from the kitchen through the knots of bodies clogging the pub, it crackles with the current of work in "the zone."
Shrimp skewers impale four firm, dense shellfish tossed over a tangle of spring greens. Tangerine and roasted garlic puree spiked with jalapeno and rice-wine vinegar formed a delicate dressing with a restrained, almost floral raciness. Rich hints of sweetness coupled inconspicuously with the succulent shrimp.
But a long stretch of time buffers the appetizer from the entrees. The tall woman with the disconnected blouse buttons moves on to a potbellied man in a white shirt and suspenders. Her frumpy friend is buried in the blather of a balding wine sipper who remembered to shave but forgot the ball cap.
Behind me, a woman pesters her companion about his upcoming trip to Florida. "What really worries me is that what you're going to do is look for a job. And that you won't come back," she says through a worried smile, fondling his wrist.
Our plates landed between the flatware just as he was assuring her his intentions were solely recreational.
Muscovy duck slammed into high notes with moist, well-seasoned flesh. A wad of smoothly sweet carrot puree and a carefully assembled gratin with thin potato slices and a restrained application of cheese added a hearty boost.
Acidity wasn't a problem with the lemon-cured halibut resting on a small heap of saffron rice settled in a puddle of smooth, gravy-like caper sauce. Crowned with a clump of faultless sauteed spinach with crunchy edges, the fish flesh was firm, flaky, and tender.
The only thing that betrayed trouble in the kitchen was the sirloin steak. Ordered medium rare, the thick slab was served military gray with just a hint of ruddiness in the center. Plus, the thing was jaw-achingly tough. Yet it retained juiciness and richness. A galette of cured apples and Yukon potatoes was moist and delicate with a hint of sweetness that added complexity without being cloying.