Saturday, February 10, 2007


I won my poker game this week, which meant we could eat at a fancy restaurant on Friday night. We chose Vermont for a number of reasons, the primary one being that it's a two minute walk from our apartment. I pass it whenever I go to the bank, and everybody in there always looks happy, so I figured it must be pretty good. Since it's so close, we were bound to try it eventually. We made reservations for 7:30, and prepared to eat some "contemporary American cuisine."

A big frosted tree sits smack in the center of a dining room loaded with exposed brick and soft white lighting. The room fills with just enough ambient noise to remind you you're out, but not enough to force you into someone else's discussion. It's surprisingly elegant for a place located next to a crowded bus stop. We had a table in the back of the restaurant, near the kitchen.

Our server was definitely more concerned about whether he got the callback for "NCIS" than he was about our meal. I can't blame him, though, as poor service seemed to be the norm at Vermont. They gave us bread before our meal (my olive bread was burnt to a charred crisp), which was fine, except that we later realized that everyone else got some sort of pesto dipping sauce. Also, we weren't given water, and no one asked if we wanted any. Even in France they ask if you want water ("Gaz ou non?"). Not, apparently, at Vermont.

The menus at Vermont could use a little work. I don't mean the selection of food, I mean the actual physical menus. Twelve point Times New Roman on multi-purpose computer paper? Slipped into one of those restaurant supply store plastic sleeves (you know, the ones with the brass corner reinforcers)? Really? Come on, Vermont. I'm going to spend 50-70 bucks a person and this is what you give me to read? Even at Elf Cafe, a tiny, newly-opened hole in the wall, the menus are multi-color ink on craft paper card stock with an artfully torn edge. At least hire a graphic designer. When your only design concept is to put the prices in bold, you need help. I've seen better menus at a Knights of Columbus pancake breakfast.

What the menu did have, which I thought was a nice touch, were little descriptions of what each wine tasted like. Now, they weren't the most well-written descriptions, mind you, but at least there was effort. For a relatively ignorant wine guy like myself, I found it helpful to know what I was getting (Of course, at other restaurants the servers might be able to tell you what each wine is like, so maybe Vermont is just covering for its wait staff?).

We ordered wine by the glass, thinking we'd each try something different. I got a 2004 Cote du Rhone, and Edan asked the waiter to choose a Syrah for her, which he did. Of course, when he brought it, he didn't tell her what it was. That's not a huge deal, but it would've been nice to know (I looked on the bill when it came: a McManis, of some sort). I guess he thought that since she couldn't choose, she wouldn't care to know what she was getting.

We got tuna tartar to start (We wanted to get the seared foie gras, but they were out of it. Sigh). It was cleanly presented -- chopped and formed into a little disk, and crowned with a dollop of wasabi mayonnaise. It was tuna tartar. It was fine. The best part of the dish was the wasabi mayo. Usually whenever wasabi is cut into something else, like mayonnaise, it loses its edge. Not this time. It had that great, nasal-clearing hotness that wasabi should have.

For a main course, Edan got the braised lamb shank served on a bed of beets and pearl pasta, and I got the fennel-encrusted breast of duck (because you know how I feel about fennel). I thought the duck was decent, although not as good as the duck I've had a few miles down Hollywood Blvd, at Sanamaluang. Served nice and rare, just like I asked, it came with a really delicious puree of potatoes and celery root. The puree had a sneaky extra flavor lurking under the potato, very subtle. Edan said it was the best part of either dish. She didn't like the lamb. I thought it was tasty, but nowhere near tender enough. All in all, I agree with her that I've had better lamb in about a dozen places. After looking over the dessert menu and finishing our glasses of wine, we decided to skip dessert. Nothing looked all that great to us, and when you haven't been pleased with your meal, do you really want to linger over dessert?

We left feeling underwhelmed. When you spend $117 dollars on a meal (that's tax and tip included), you want something special. Even if it's only one thing, you want to be able to say, "OK, that was really good. There's no way I could've pulled that off at home." There wasn't a single thing like that in our meal. Nothing rose about the level of "not bad." Sorry, Vermont, that's not good.

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