Thursday, November 02, 2006

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: BLACK TIE CAFE, YARMOUTH, MAINE

Review of an outstanding restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


RESTAURANT REVIEW: BLACK TIE CAFE, YARMOUTH, MAINE

John Chuckman

At last, the Black Tie Café serves dinner, not at its original location in the Old Port, where the throbbing beat of a nightclub upstairs apparently discourages an evening menu, but at a new location in Yarmouth.. This has been open for less time than I like to allow for the kinks in new operation to be worked out, but a call to a friendly and helpful staff member assured me things were running smoothly. So I made a reservation.

And they do have the kinks out. They have transformed a small, nondescript building along Route One into a special destination. Going there reminded me of one or those wonderful discoveries along a small road in the French countryside, a charming little restaurant run by people who love food.

You enter immediately into a bright, pretty gourmet food shop and a waft of aromas. A door at one end leads to the restaurant. Here the lighting changes to warm and subdued, against chocolate-colored walls, creamy rough paneling below the chair rail, and the luster of oak-strip floor. The tables have crisp linen and handsome candle-fixtures flickering under shades. A few cozy booths to one side, another on a dais at the back, an open waiter-service pantry in a back corner - these few architectural touches transform a simple rectangular room into an intimate and inviting space.

Service is more than good at Black Tie, it is intelligent. This is apparent in the way you are greeted, the way details are automatically attended to (as when a knife - carried off, as it should be, with an appetizer plate - is quietly replaced), and in the discussion of wine and food. The style of service might be characterized as informal but crisp. Later, I noticed the staff of three working with the smooth harmony of a small stage troupe. Whatever needed attention, such as resetting a table, was taken up by the first available hands.

The occasional gruff sound from the kitchen adds the right note of food-centered informality. We were advised by our waiter that these occasional, muffled grunts were the cook's way of announcing orders.

The wine list is interesting. The selections are mainly from California, and, most interesting, they are all vintages, something that would not have been possible many years ago. If half the listings prove as good as what we enjoyed, there are many pleasant discoveries ahead. The wine list has full bottles only, but there are daily selections by the glass posted. In response to our request, the waiter recommended a California Merlot that proved exceptional, Hahn 1997, Monterey ($5.75 a glass). This is dusky, fruity, liquid velvet.

A basket of bread is brought immediately, sliced baguette, very tasty, with the distinctive aroma and flavor of sour-dough starter. It is especially nice with the sweet (unsalted) butter served. The crust lacks the crispness that this admirer of great bread enjoys on such a loaf, but this is about as serious a criticism as I have.

With a glass of delightful wine and some tasty bread, we are prepared to spend time studying the menu. The appetizers bring together a great many food traditions, from French and Italian to Thai. And this is characteristic of much of Black Tie's cooking, somewhat eclectic and, as is it proved, elegantly successful.

Keeping with this spirit, we had grilled-shrimp crostini with mushroom pate ($9) and Asian vegetarian spring rolls ($7). The crostini were excellent, the mushroom pate providing a rich, moist filling between plump shrimp halves and crisp bread, all drizzled with parsley butter. The spring rolls come sliced, releasing the scent of ginger and sesame, on a plate with a honey-lime glaze and topped with fresh greens. The greens and the glaze are more than decorative since the recommended way of eating spring rolls in Southeast Asia is wrapped with greens and dipped in piquant sauce. Food that reflects this kind of culinary understanding fills me with anticipation for the rest of the meal.

It is a summer menu, happily dominated by seafood, though there are beef, lamb, pork, chicken and vegetarian entrees (one of each) for those not delighted by salmon, crab, lobster, tuna, shrimp and mussels, or bouillabaisse.

The waiter was careful to ask how the pan-seared Pacific salmon ($18) should be done, again reflecting Black Tie's intelligent service. It came medium rare, the stage at which a fish like this remains succulent, arranged prettily with herbed mashed potatoes, Swiss chard, and lemon-dill veloute - a delicious combination.

Our other dish was a special, not on the regular menu, soft-shell crab on a bed of wide Thai rice-noodles with tomatoes, zucchini, Kalamata olives, crumbled Feta cheese, and a remarkable, pungent sauce reminiscent of Thailand ($22). Yes, that's right, Mediterranean and Asian elements combined in one dish using such a delicate seafood as soft-shell crab. And it works perfectly. This dish was among the best I have had in years, memorable for its delightful, unexpected blend of flavors from two of the world's great cuisines.

I was pleased to see the dessert menu topped by fruit and cheese, a delightful French custom that still has not widely caught on in America and that I would surely avail myself of another time. But I wanted chocolate, and the menu provides several intriguing ways to satisfy this craving. We selected the chocolate truffle flan ($5.25). Berries are another craving, so we also selected the mixed berry crisp ($5.25).

The flan was a complete success, a rich chocolate custard served with the sauce you'd find on a crème caramel. The berry crisp was less successful. There was a nice compote of blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries inside, but the crumb topping was less than crisp, and, most unsatisfying, there was too much of it underneath the fruit, reduced to porridge by liquids - my one low note for the evening.

Our bill came to $95.77. I'll be going back for the bouillabaisse.

NUGGET INFORMATION:
Black Tie Café
233 Route One
Yarmouth, Maine
846-8022
Food: 4 Stars
Atmosphere: 4 Stars
Service: 4 Stars
Dinner Hours: (Summer)
Monday and Tuesday: (Closed)
Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday: 5:30 PM - 9:30 PM
Friday and Saturday: 5:30 PM - 10:00 PM
Lunch Hours: (Summer)
Monday through Friday: 11:30 AM - 2:00 PM
Brunch Hours: Saturday and Sunday: 9:00 AM - 2:30 PM

Credit Cards: AE, MC, VISA
Price Range: Entrees $15.00 to $21, but with several items at "market"
Reservations: Strongly Recommended
Bar: Full
Wheelchair Access: From Rear Only and Throughout Restaurant; Step-down for Shop
Serious Cuisine in an Intimate Atmosphere


MAP LOCATION INFO:
On Route One , just north of Interstate at the south end of a strip of Yarmouth Area businesses along Route One. It is on seaward side of Route One.

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