Thursday, August 11, 2005

Restaurant 61: Cafe Normandie (Annapolis, MD)

RESTAURANT: Café Normandie
LOCATION: 185 Main Street, Annapolis, Maryland
DATE: August 1, 2005
FOOD: Split the following: Appetizers: Artichoke Stuffed with Crab; Baked Brie with Honey and Almonds; Entrees: Cornish Hen Stuffed with Spinach, served with roasted potatoes; Lobster Thermadore; Desserts: Crepe filled with Vanilla Ice Cream, Pecans, and Caramel; Profiteroles with Chocolate Sauce, Almonds, and Vanilla Ice Cream.
BEVERAGE: Bottle of Pinot Grigio; Decaf Cappuccino
PRICE: $150.00 (for two)

But what would you expect?

Leave New York and the food changes. The restaurants change too, with everything from interior design to plate presentation noticeably different than in the cozy confines of the five boroughs. The changes aren’t always dramatic, nor are they necessarily bad. But there’s no denying, New York is singular when it comes to haute cuisine.

But that seems a bit preposterous. Of course, New York is known worldwide for its celebrity chefs and innovative food stylings, but in the end, food is food, bread is bread, and wine is wine. How different can things really be?

The first and most obvious difference is the portion size. New Yorker’s are relatively fit, a trend that might be surprising if the restrained and eloquent plating of most upscale restaurants wasn’t taken into considerations. Sure the city has its McDonalds and all you can eat buffets, but at the premier eateries, Danube, Bouley, Per Se, WD-50 just to name a few, egregious amounts are nowhere in sight. Diners aren’t left hungry, they’re just not deliberately overfed.

At Café Normandie, the plates were large and so too were the servings. The lobster was as ostentatious and extravagant as the lifestyle a Henry James character. It was also huge – huge in the way the Sears Tower is huge, huge in the way Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane occupies every inch of screen space by the end of the film. No high-end dining restaurant in New York would ever serve such a wildly large portion. But Annapolis wasn’t New York, and the taste of the lobster was nothing to scoff at. As creamy as the baked brie which preceded it, though the richness of the lobster meat and butter, cheese, and cream combination was perhaps too indulgent. The lobster, while satisfying and delicious in small bites, was too much to handle, especially in such an uncontrolled portioning and much of it was left uneaten. When an entrée costs $26, it’s a shame and financial frivolity when any of it goes to waste.

The second difference that proclaimed itself with the impact of a head-banging Futureheads song, was the plating technique. While Asian-inspired ceramics are certainly not the sole dominion of the Tri-State are, at Café Normandie, a restaurant ranked by Washingtonian magazine as the only Annapolis restaurant to be included on the DC Area Top 100, the plating, dishes and food included, were much more traditional. Maybe this is expected at a country French restaurant, but the change was noticeable nonetheless. The brie, perfectly baked until the cheese developed the desired over-crust top layer, was wonderful to taste but rather lard-like and unappetizing to behold. Appearances can be ignored when taste triumphs, but the contrast existed regardless.

A third change was the attention to detail. At a dinner at The Modern, the wait staff seemed to sense what patrons would do even before the diners did it, effortlessly pulling out chairs and refilling water glasses, all the while remaining unobtrusive. At Café Normandie, the service was fine and attentive, but there were little things that never would have passed at a nicer New York establishment. Perhaps most glaringly was the artichoke filled with crab, in which a delectable and rewarding crab salad had been plopped a top an artichoke not completely shucked of its leaves. While the decision to include the leaves was deliberate, it made the dish cumbersome and messy to eat, something that would be fantastic at Dinosaur BBQ, but not for a romantic French dinner.

Finally, there were the ingredients. Whereas most New York restaurants include a Cornish hen or chicken dish mainly as a way to appease the non-adventurous dining dead, at Café Normandie, the Cornish hen was a special, and like the lobster, prepared in a style distinctly French. More moderately sized than the lobster, the Cornish hen was excellent, paired well with crispy pan fried potatoes and buttery sautéed spinach. The only negative of the course was that there was only dark meat on the plate, the more succulent parts of the bird apparently getting lost somewhere between coop and kitchen. Another example was the crepe, not only massive, but filled with a rather too American heaping of vanilla ice cream. However, like the profiteroles stuffed with the same ice cream, the crepes tasted amazing, blending mild bases with scintillating sugary sauces of caramel on the crepe and chocolate on the profiteroles. The portion sizes were the most extreme of the evening, but is this really a complaint when desserts taste as fantastic as Café Normandie’s did? It’s hard to say.

In the end, even taking into account the relatively supersized amounts and various other non-New York methodologies, it’s easy to see why Café Normandie holds the reputation as the best restaurant in Annapolis. Every thing was delicious and at times even memorable. But to misquote Dorothy, “I don’t think we’re in New York anymore”. For all its merits, Café Normandie only further solidified why its beneficial to live on the Hudson.

But of course, what else would you expect?

RATING: 7.4/10


Anonymous said...

This tripe that passes as a restaurant critique is way too provincial. Why do you bother leaving your beloved NY? Life is too short to waste it thinking all that surrounds you is superior to everywhere else on earth. You live in NY for god sake, not Bali.

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