These are informal times, and our restaurants reflect it. Chandeliered dining rooms with tuxedoed waiters carving duck l'orange at a gueridon are gone — and with them a certain sense of elegance and sophistication. On the plus side: Heavy, overwrought Continental cuisine disappeared along with the pomp, as did a pompous elitism that could turn even the best meal into an uncomfortable one. The Villa by Barton G. harks back to those more formal days, but with acknowledgments to the present: The staff is cheery and pleasant (except the snooty person who takes reservations); the Continental cuisine is contemporary and clean. Heck, liquid oxygen even figures into some menu items. Throwback or not, this is Barton G. we're talking about.
The Villa is located in Casa Casuarina, better known to most as the Versace mansion. It's all stunningly gorgeous — the opulent lobby; the dramatically lit, thousand-mosaic-tile pool (an outdoor dining terrace overlooks it); and the main dining room, with walls made entirely of small pebbles arranged into a series of mesmerizing mosaics. Tables are draped in silky royal-blue cloth, 30 chairs are upholstered in the same material, and show plates are Versace-designed Rosenthal china. Waiters don't wear tuxedoes, but they do don jackets and ties. It's all quite romantic.
The menu arrives in a wax-sealed envelope, which upon opening made me feel like an awards presenter about to discern the winner. Classical music, and then opera, soothingly played in the background; later at night, rock music was anachronistically piped through the speaker — at low volume but still noticeable enough to muffle the mood.
The wine list is an awkward affair. A podium about four feet tall gets wheeled tableside, with a hefty book lying on top like a Bible. This necessitates the diner turning his or her chair away from the table and lifting an arm above shoulder height to turn the pages — then you have to look up, not down, to read it. You might want to spare yourself discomfort and have sommelier Hakan Balkuvvar help you choose from the 100-plus labels. Balkuvvar is a pro, as are Villa's waiters, who work in tandem to ensure that guests' requests are promptly taken care of. The staff's attitude bespeaks an awareness of being there to serve and even pamper.
We visited the Villa to have dinner for two: a five-course journey from soup to nuts — or amuse-bouche to petits fours, as the case may be. The bouche arrived first: a petite tasting of tuna tartare teenily diced with mint and cucumber, a cube of chile-soy gelatin leaning alongside — clean, stimulating flavors.
Executive chef Justin Albertson's menu, presented after the amuse plates were cleared, is a concise and appealing compilation of two soups, two salads, three appetizers, and eight entrées; chilled seafood combos and luxe caviars are verbally recited as nightly specials. Chef Albertson impressed the heck out of us in a number of ways; unfortunately, we were among the last to enjoy the fruits of his tenure here.
A gentleman holding a basket of breads came by swiftly after we placed our orders: Diners choose between a plain mini-baguette, one with truffle and sea salt or one topped with Gouda cheese. All come straight from the oven — hot, fresh, and accompanied by softened butter.
Wild mushroom soup starts with a knob of sumptuously braised oxtail in the bottom of a white bowl. The server then pours in an earthy, crimini-flecked wild-mushroom broth. White asparagus soup followed the same presentation procedure — al dente snippets of the namesake vegetable and micro sprouts bathed in a silky white asparagus purée of thin but well-bodied consistency.
Villa salad, which we shared, is an innovative take on the classic caesar: full-length leaves of romaine hearts and baby red ultra romaine adorned with grilled and quartered artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes, tender white anchovies, Parmesan shavings , and "frozen caesar dressing" — nitro-ized white crumbles that melt into tastes of anchovy, garlic, and Parmesan.
We bypassed a foie gras torchon with caramelized hazelnuts, cherries, and spiced bread in favor of the other two starters: seared ahi tuna and beef carpaccio, each strikingly presented upon stunning plateware. Four purplish slices of the tuna were arranged on a velvety red pepper purée (the peppers juiced, thickened, frozen, and placed on the plate like a rectangle of red carpet) dotted with rings of dried black olives and red onions, hard-boiled quail egg whites, a small dice of haricot verts, and a quenelle of vibrant fennel sorbet. It's a showstopper.
The carpaccio brought four bright red circles of top round of beef bolstered with caper berries, planks of Parmesan, micro sprouts, drizzles of olive oil and peppercorn aioli, and an egg yolk that had been cured with sugar and salt. This, too, was uniquely rewarding.
Modest portions and a light touch left us with plenty of appetite for main courses. We didn't choose the Maine lobster tail with lobster-stuffed tortellini, or the dry-aged New York strip steak with truffled pommes purée, or whole Dover sole filleted tableside. I was curious about the "Red Foot" chicken, but our waiter couldn't really impart much about it. I found out later it is a French-bred, free-range chicken from North Carolina.
We went with branzino: two seared fillets served skin side up and plunked upon a bed of lightly curried lentils, braised celery stalks, and an amazingly ethereal parsnip purée. It was disappointing that the plate was absent advertised parsnip chips, which I would have gladly swiped from my wife's plate. She is not nearly as big a fan of that sweet root vegetable as I.
Just as well — two giant double chops of Colorado lamb were more than enough to tackle. And they were the best chops I've had since, well, I really can't recall. Slow-roasted and meltingly tender, they tasted like the lamb equivalent of prime ribs of beef (which is, in essence, what they are). Beneath the chops was another purée of pure softness, this one culled from eggplant and paired with tenderly grilled eggplant slices. Completing the plate were cubes of "Greek yogurt jelly," whose soft tofu-textured squares were spicily dusted with harissa.
The Villa will be a killa to your pocketbook. Soups are $17 and $18, which is way high (even granting that one will pay more for this sort of quality, service, and ambiance). Our appetizers were $19 (carpaccio) and $23 (tuna), and entrées run from $40 to $50, but these courses (especially starters) were memorable enough to be worth the money — relatively speaking, that is. Desserts by Parisian-trained pastry chef Luc Buisson were very good, yet at $19 each, they probably represent the worst deal here. At that price, they should be beyond very good and beyond excellent; they should be extraordinary.
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No way I was going to invest that kind of dough in what is described as "vanilla bean crème brûlée," although there is no reason to think it would not be eminently creamy. We likewise skipped the profiterole pyramid — also a bit prosaic-sounding for $19. Instead, we indulged in "lemon three ways," which was something like a deconstructed lemon meringue pie. A buttery crust, arranged on the plate in strips lined with dabs of lemon curd, are interspersed with browned, meringue-like squiggles of lemon sabayon and a scoop of creamy lemon yogurt sorbet.
We enjoyed more an appropriately airy raspberry soufflé dessert, but the presentation upon clear, modern Plexiglas plateware was too incongruous with everything preceding it. The soufflé came creatively matched with lemon cookies, semifrozen domes of Earl Grey tea jelly, and a tantalizing quenelle of passion fruit/white chocolate sorbet, whose latter ingredient was subtly woven in with the fruit.
At meal's end, we were each brought a plate containting a quartet of tasty petits fours. Thoughtful gestures such as this, along with meticulous attention to detail, make dining at any of Barton G. Weiss's three restaurants something special (Barton G. and Prelude being the others). The Villa is the one to turn to when you want something really special.
Or at least it was for a while. After our visits, we found out chef Albertson was moving on. The sous chef will take over until a new toque is tapped within the next few weeks.