Every family has its culinary quirks, and mine is no exception. We all like the fruit that fills our apple pies and other pastries to be soft and melty. If we want crisp fruit, we eat it raw. But baked, it should be just the opposite. Otherwise why bother cooking it?
So obsessed are my family members with the texture of baked apples, in particular, that we've been known to interrogate waiters before ordering dessert, and to send back dishes if the results are unsatisfactory. My husband likes to recall the time during the holidays when my sister-in-law, in a bid for approval right after she'd married my brother, baked us a pie. Everyone took one bite, murmured, "Delicious," and didn't touch another morsel.
I don't bring this up to illustrate my family's hard-heartedness, but rather to introduce the two-month-old Le Bouchon du Grove, a vibrant eatery whose velvety tarte tatin -- slices of tangy, oven-dark apple over supple, buttery pastry ($4.50) -- would have rendered my whole picky family speechless with profound appreciation. Never mind that the dish was a special that evening; the clan undoubtedly would adore regular menu offerings such as pear mille-feuilles, layered with vanilla ice cream and set on a caramel sauce, and bananas Foster, a slick, sophisticated banana split drizzled with caramel.
Best of all, chefs de cuisines Georges Eric Farge (who also shares ownership of the restaurant with partner Gregoire Verge) and Keith Becton show off their skill just as well with Le Bouchon du Grove's starters and entrees. The restaurant owes its Paris street-corner feel both to a quietly classic menu (about ten listed entrees and ten appetizers, plus nightly specials), and to the chefs' inventive talents.
A main course of snapper in a potato crust was both delicate and hearty, flaky white fish wrapped in thin, browned crisps ($14). A startlingly purple sauce of heavy cream and cabernet was the plate's only flaw, a little too raw and winey to complement the fish. The vegetable du jour, a scoop of tangy ratatouille, added a pleasant home-and-garden note.
Along with a wonderfully creamy potato side dish, the same eggplant-tomato mixture accompanied an entree of steak au poivre ($14.50), a last-minute substitution for boeuf bourguignon (the kitchen had run out). The tender, medium-rare strip steak was impressive in itself, but the sauce of light cream and fragrant green peppercorns was superb. Simple, but filling.
Salmon en papillote, a blackboard-listed special, was actually salmon papier d'etain. The use of aluminum foil instead of parchment paper worked fine, if less elegantly: Sealed in its metal jacket like a baked potato, the fish was moist, juicy, and delicious. A touch of butter and a handful of thinly sliced, translucent onions, celery, squash, and eggplant were all the extras the salmon needed.
A starter of homemade potstickers, stuffed with pink bay shrimp and minced vegetables, was a beautifully executed reinvention of the Asian delicacy, despite an over-reliance on celery as a filling. At first glance, the price ($9.40) seemed steep, but the serving was large -- three fist-size dumplings overflowing with shrimp. The wrappers, more reminiscent of pastry than pasta, were flaky and light, with a soy dipping sauce and a marinated cucumber salad contributing salty and sweet flavors.
In contrast to the dumplings, grilled fresh tuna salad with a raspberry dressing was a notable bargain on the bill. For only $5.50, the kitchen supplies a plateful of meaty sliced tuna over baby oak lettuce, radicchio, romaine, and arugula A a dish that easily could be ordered as a light entree. The raspberry-perfumed vinaigrette glazed the greens but didn't overwhelm them.
If Farge and Becton have a way with a vinaigrette, they know their pate, too. Nicely larded, coarsely ground duck pate with black peppercorns was presented with a handful of mixed greens, vinegary cornichons, and black olives ($5.50). A basket of hunks of crusty, chewy baguette is served on the side, perfect to cut the richness of the pate. Better still, wash it down with a glass of the house drink, kir royale (cassis-spiked champagne).
Much like the fare, Le Bouchon du Grove's decor is a combination of Parisian chic and country charm. Painted a lusty goldenrod, the walls are covered with posters, advertisements, even a license plate or two from France and Louisiana, reflecting the heritages of Farge and Becton, respectively. A wooden credenza that serves as a wait station adds a homey touch; floor-to-ceiling French doors open to the street, showcasing the front tables and creating an extremely pleasant dining atmosphere -- sidewalk dining minus the distraction of noisy foot traffic.
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And to think -- all this homey elegance in the middle of Coconut Grove, just down the street from where CocoWalk reigns supreme. Loosely interpreted, a bouchon is a fancier bistro with better, fresher food, according to Farge. But judging by the appreciative neighborhood crowd that already clogs the place for three meals a day, I find the direct translation of bouchon -- a cork -- to be far more apropos. Certainly the fare is a champagne-popping celebration.
I've found that bookstores define or illuminate a city's character almost as much as its restaurants do. Boston, for instance, is rife with bookshops that echo the area's multifaceted personality. Like the Grolier --- the only store in America that sells strictly poetry. And the Harvard Bookstore Cafe, a noted prototype for the now-ubiquitous restaurant-bookstore combination.
On a recent trip to the West Coast, where food is a perennial fascination, I found something of particular interest in San Diego, and damn, did it make me envious. In a district called Hillcrest (nicknamed "Restaurant Row," probably by the same phrasemongers who dubbed South Beach "SoBe"), The Cook's Bookshop hawks everything from Onions, Onions, Onions (by Linda and Fred Griffith) to Almost Vegetarian (by Diana Shaw) to Favorite Fruitcakes (by Moira Hodgson) to Sacramental Magic in a Small-Town Cafe (by Br. Peter Reinhart). Indeed, this store stocks only cookbooks. Business, to say the least, is brisk.
Best of all is the used-book shelf, where on a recent visit I picked up a copy of the Saturday Evening Post Family Cookbook. In exchange for a mere 50 cents, I am now the proud possessor of recipes such as "I Remember Mama's Turnips," "Marinated Mushrooms for a Camp Trip," "Perch Piquant," and "Thoroughly Modern Chicken Livers." Until someone in this town turns on the burners and cooks up an idea like this for our own city, you can write or phone the Cook's Bookshop (3854 Fifth Ave., San Diego, CA, 92103; 619-296-3636). Also, at least two companies specialize in cookbooking through the mail: Jessica's Biscuit (Box 301, Newtonville, MA 02160; 800-878-4264) and Books for Cooks, Inc. (231 W. 256th St., Riverdale, NY 10471; 800-355-2433). They deliver.