Saturday, November 8, 2008

Et Voila- One of our new favorites

Thursday was sunny and warm, not necessarily the perfect weather for tucking into a hearty Belgian meal, but a sunny warm day is always a good excuse for heading out in search of a good meal. We had, in fact, originally planned to visit Et voila on the Sunday before election day but had decided to put it off, being …what’s the word…worn out by a little much pre-election entertaining. Sunday, being sunny but not at all warm, was more suitable to what we imagined was rib-sticking fare but our constitutions were just not up to it and fortunately the obliging folks at Et Voila were happy to let our reservation slide for a few days.

Still in the glow of post-election euphoria, the continued troubles of the stock market notwithstanding, we arrived at Et Voila in a mood of happy anticipation after a short ride from our house. Parking on that stretch of MacArthur Boulevard is sometimes a bit difficult, as we know from years of patronizing BlackSalt, but eventually we shoehorned the station wagon into a space a block or so past the restaurant and strolled down the street.

We were immediately pleased by the visual welcome we got upon entering the restaurant. The owners have done a wonderful job with a space that is, let’s face it, rather long and narrow. Try to imagine putting a restaurant inside a moderately sized airplane and you’ll get the idea. The immediate entry contains a bar which sort of doubles as a vestibule and congregating area and is not really big enough to serve any of those functions fully, but we were quickly and graciously welcomed and led to a table about halfway down the tube…uh, room. The room has been done in very warm shades of orange and black (I know, it sounds a bit like a Halloween theme but it actually is very friendly in a kind of harvest theme kind of way) with interesting fixtures and enough partial dividers to break up the long narrow space without making the room feel closed off or cramped.

Without further ado, we settled down to one of our favorite activities…reading the menu. While reading, which can be thirsty work, we had some good Belgian beer to get the evening started. Michael had a Delirium Tremens, one of my favorites which happily now seems to be available in a number of locations around town – here’s thanks to whoever the distributor happens to be. Wanting to branch out a bit, I tried a Gouden Carolus which was quite accurately described on the beer menu as combining the complexity of a brown ale with the lightness of a blonde.

Suitably refreshed, we felt able to tackle the rigors of the menu. I was immediately drawn to the croustillants of boudin noir. While I haven’t had boudin, or its English relative, blood sausage, since my last artery-clogging English breakfast, I figured the treatment of surrounding it with pastry and frying might moderate the earthiness…and how could a deep fried pastry anything be bad? Michael was drawn to the frisee salad ordered by the ladies at the next table, since we have been in search (unsuccessfully, I’m sorry to say) of the perfect frisee salad since Petit Louis in Baltimore sadly changed its formula (a dark day for every salad eater). However, he eventually decided on the day’s special soup – a chestnut soup with foie gras. Well, I think Michael would eat a bedroom slipper if it had foie gras on it so that was a very quick decision.

While we were waiting for the appetizers to appear, we downed a basket and a half of terrific bread. So good, in fact, that we tried to find out the name of the supplier from the charming and solicitous maitre d’. Predictably, he kept that information close to the vest, advising us that it was a small local bakery that only supplied a handful of restaurants. Smart of him. Otherwise I’m sure the bakery would be overrun with foodies demanding some of the perfect French country loaves – the bread was that good.

The appetizers arrived at just the perfect time (i.e., before we could finish the second basket of bread). The croustillant was quite a bit different than I had pictured it…for some reason I had had a mental picture of sausage sliced across and served in patties. Instead, the four croustillants were shaped like small cigars, or perhaps lumpia. They were extraordinarily good, crispy on the outside and with an earthy center of boudin that was quite satisfying without being overpowering. They were served on a bed of nicely dressed greens whose vinaigrette served as the perfect foil for the richness of the sausage. Michael enjoyed the croustillants as well and since he is sometimes a little squeamish about some of the more exotic meat products (let’s be honest, I’m no Tony Bourdain either) I was proud of him for downing one with obvious enjoyment.

We debated ordering a bottle of wine from Et Voila’s interesting and fairly priced list, but the strong beers had gone to our heads a little bit (like many Belgian beers, they are about 8% alcohol) and since it was a school night, we ended up just splitting a third bottle of beer between the two of us. It arrived just about the time of our main courses.

Deciding to go for the whole Belgian experience, I had ordered mussels in a cream sauce (which our waiter had given us to believe was his preference over the also-available provencale variety). To be honest, I was looking forward to checking out the frites that came with it as much as the mussels themselves. And I was not disappointed. The frites were excellent – hot, crisp, and salty. Of course the last few had begun to wilt a little bit by the time we got down to the bottom of the generous pile, but that is after all the nature of frites – yet another reason to eat them right away. The mussels were some of the best, if not the absolute best, I have had in a long time. They were unusually fat, mild, and delicious. The cream sauce was perhaps a little less flavorful than it could have been and not quite as garlicky as I expected, but frankly the mussels were so good on their own that they really didn’t need much of a sauce – which was wonderful soaked up with the last piece of bread that I had squirreled away.

Meanwhile Michael had ordered a salmon dish as he so often does, and this one was a real winner – a beautiful and generous piece of salmon perfectly cooked and perched on top of a bed of mashed potatoes. He was extremely happy with his choice. The one taste I managed to wrest from his grasp was, indeed, close to perfect. Salmon usually leaves me pretty unexcited, and I was happy with my mussels although I was sorry I couldn’t get Michael to taste even one. After an unhappy experience at BlackSalt a few months ago, he has not been able to get over the mental mussel hurdle.

As an extra side dish, we had ordered something called chicons au gratin, which was described as endive wrapped in ham and baked in b├ęchamel sauce. Hard to pass up that description. Since it appeared both as an appetizer and as a side dish, we figured it must be a specialty of the house and special it was. The endive was fully cooked through and tender without being mushy and the ham and sauce added a delightful richness. I had a little trouble reaching it through all of the mussel paraphernalia scattered around my side of the table and I am not sure that I quite got my share of it as Michael seemed to be gobbling it up whenever I looked over.

You’d think after all of that richness we would be too full for dessert but we rarely pass up dessert, particularly not when the rest of the meal has gone so well.

In a Belgian restaurant, what do you order? Well, if you’re me, you order chocolate, no matter what kind of restaurant it is, but since we were sharing, we decided on the…Belgian waffle of course. It appeared, and was devoured, with due ceremony. The waffle was thoroughly tasty, perfectly cooked with a light topping of fresh berries and a nice pile of whipped cream on the top. It was, I have to say, a little less distinctive than some of the other food we ate that night but it was a very pleasant and not overpowering way to finish a wonderful meal. We have heard rave reviews about the chocolate mousse and I will definitely be saving room for that on our next visit.

All in all, we can find very little negative to say – and a long list of positives – about Et Voila. Delicious food, wonderfully professional service, an attractive setting, and reasonable prices means we will be making many return visits!

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