Le grand dinner well worth the price

Jan. 08, 2013 @ 03:32 PM

Food Network has a show called “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” Each episode has a different category, like fried foods or Asian cuisine. One episode was about French favorites, and our beloved Bull City got a shout-out.
Alex Guarnaschelli, FN’s newest Iron Chef, revealed her favorite French grub was Gratin de Macaroni (macaroni and cheese, speckled with bacon), at our very own Vin Rouge (2010 Hillsborough Road).
Ever since then, I’ve wanted to try it. I’ve been a few times to Vin Rouge, but it was always for brunch. And when Eggs Benedict is on the menu, there’s no contest.
I would happily choose Eggs Benedict over a pair of Jimmy Choos, a lifetime subscription to Mad magazine, or a pony.
When The Kid was home on Christmas break, we wanted to go out to dinner. We presented to our little scholar the choice between Watts Grocery (1116 Broad St.) or Vin Rouge.
The Hillsborough Street French alternative, helmed by executive chef Matt Kelly, was selected.
When we arrived for our 8 p.m. reservation (and I strongly suggest reservations), the place was rocking.
The host greeted us and readied a table in the front room. It’s a very snug space, with small tables just inches from the bar and other tables.
I wasn’t thrilled by the location. The Kid and I had once brunched in approximately the same spot. It was packed that day, the bar was three deep with customers, and we spent half our meal with the backsides of frat boys in our faces.
When the host returned to seat us, I asked if we could sit somewhere with more room.
We had to wait about 10 minutes more, but were rewarded with spacious seating in the much quieter back room.
My request was treated graciously. Restaurants desire happy customers. If you encounter a glitch while dining out, politely inform the staff. They will almost always try to accommodate you. But if they don’t know there’s a problem, they can’t fix it.
Our waiter brought us a small bucket filled with baguette slices, and a dish of tasty flavored olive oil, for dipping.
We started with pork rillette, a pâté of slow-cooked pork served with crostini, a schmear of mustard, and greens. It was rich and delicious.
For our salads, The Kid and I ordered the frisée aux lardons. Lightly dressed curly endive with cubes of bacon (the lardons), potatoes, and a fried egg on top (The Kid ordered sans ovum). The egg was classic sunny-side up, and the top was just set. My pork could have been rendered a bit more, but the potatoes were excellent; they’d been cooked in bacon fat, with just the right amount of browning and crunch.
Petey had the mixed greens, studded with apple, walnuts, and blue cheese. He liked the variety of tastes and textures in each bite.
We all ordered different mains, so we would be able to sample three dishes.
I finally procured my mac. It came in a large gratin dish (so large that I took home a doggy bag), with a crusty browned top. Rather than the traditional elbow, they used an elbow with ridges, so each piece was cloaked with sauce. And the sauce was exactly right; it wasn’t soupy or dry. The flavor was a testament to the skills in the kitchen. The main cheese was gruyere, but perfectly balanced; not too “Swissy” tasting.
Petey decided on the steak frites. It’s a traditional French bistro dish consisting of steak and French fries.
He picked the New York strip option. He ordered it medium-rare, and for him it was a touch underdone. Then I tried it. To me it was perfect (he should have requested medium). There was a crust on the outside, and the inside was the same shade of bright pink all the way through. Not an easy feat to accomplish.
The fries were freshly cut from spuds, and spot on — crispy on the outside, with a creamy interior.
The Kid picked mussels in a beer cream sauce, with a side of their fries (the serving of taters was brobdingnagian).
The moules arrived in a large covered crock shaped like the shellfish hiding inside. They were a hit and devoured with relish.
I’m not a seafood fan, and had never had mussels before. But for the sake of this column, I gathered my courage and tried one. I figured they would be oyster-like, and either rubbery, slimy, or both. They were a very pleasant surprise in my mouth. The mussel was firm but not chewy. And, it tasted pretty good. I attribute most of this to the creamy, malty sauce, but the meat itself was actually OK.
You’d think after all these vittles, we’d be sensible and call an end to our feast. But they had crème brulee on the menu, and I would take that stuff from a stranger in a van. Also, The Kid was eager for their chocolate mousse.
So, we ordered dessert.
My child adored the rich, creamy, chocolaty treat, but with my milk chocolate taste buds I found it a touch intense.
The crème brulee was a song. Every bite was preceded by the satisfying crack of my spoon shattering the brittle canopy of caramelized sugar. The custard was an ode to vanilla, with the exact right consistency, neither too thick nor runny. I ate every bite. Truly, it was the best I’ve ever had.
Throughout the evening, each person on staff was friendly and welcoming. As we were leaving, the entire kitchen staff wished us a good night.
All this bounty does come at a price. The bill and tip, with no alcohol, came to $150. But we really ordered way too much food. The salads were large enough for a meal by themselves, and ordering the pork rillette was pure overindulgence. I cannot, and will not, regret that delectable dessert, though.
The entire evening left me with but one complaint. I am not blessed with even the slightest of posterior padding, and the chairs we perched upon were unadorned wood. So, by the time I’d sat for the 90 minutes our meal spanned, my cheeks were pretty darn sore.
The uncomfortable, overly stuffed feeling I experienced I blame entirely on myself.
Thanks for your time.
Debbie Matthews lives, writes and cooks in Durham. Her email address is momsequitur@gmail.com.