Monday, October 10, 2005

Our Darling Clementine by Theresia Ota

Tucked between 2nd and 3rd Avenue on Clement Street is a gem of romantic French cooking. Two blocks, and much more, separate Clementine from the Chinese bakeries and dull cafes so typical of this part of Clement. Named by the chef/owner, Didier Labbe, for both the street and the orange, Clementine's menu featured everything that should be on a classic little French restaurant's menu, that is to say, nothing was unexpected, not even that each item on the menu was first written in French, and then explained in English below. The appetizers featured foie gras with caramelized apples, and escargots with garlic butter; but we decided on the asparagus, endive and crab salad with aged balsamic vinegar($9.75), as well as the porcini mushroom ravioli with truffle oil and cherry tomatoes ($8.50).

For such a small restaurant, the wine menu was quite impressive, featuring wines from many different countries, including not only the obvious -- good old U.S.A. and France -- but also Argentina, Greece and Israel. Despite the worldwide temptations, my friends and I decided on the only Pinot Gris from California on the menu ($39). Not a spectacular wine, it was very middle of the road, not too much alcohol, not too much fruit, and not too heavy. It was a warm day and a wise choice that paired well with most of the items we ordered.

Our appetizers were before our eyes within minutes of ordering them, barely allowing us the opportunity to admire the romantic interior. It is lovely. The walls are a creamy tangerine, with mirrors in detailed gold frames, and the perimeter of the restaurant is a bench upholstered in a sage green and gold fabric with pillows to match. But the porcini mushroom ravioli brought our attention back to the food and proved my theory that it would take a fool to ruin an ingenious Italian idea, such as the aqueducts and pasta. The ravioli were topped with a light mushroom broth, and the porcini-Parmesanesan filling gave the dish a delicious, warm, and rustic flavor that was enhanced and brightened by the cherry tomatoes. The crab salad, however enticing the presentation, was unimpressive. The crab appeared to have been fresh from the freezer, and tasted more like sea water than crab, with similar texture. It was served alongside endive that tasted very much like an old news paper. Still, the dish was not a total failure, since the asparagus was grilled perfectly and the balsamic vinegar that complemented it off was truly aged, not something to be found at any supermarket on sale.

The entree selection on the menu was as definitive of French cuisine as the appetizers, featuring such dishes as roasted poussoCornishnish hens)with garlic, duck breast with orange reduction, and bistro style rib eye steak wFrenchench fries. My party selected the roasted poussoin with garlic, the filet of salmon with portabella mushroom and fennel, as well as the rack of lamb with parsley and provencal herbs with spinach fondue. The presentation of all of the entrees was in the classic style, not an uptight Parisian style. The focus was the beauty of the food. Nowhere did you get the idea that the restaurant had hired an architect to put their dishes together. The poussoin was roasted to perfection, without a single taste too dry from being overcooked. The rack of lamb was the definition of medium rare, the herbs and seasoning were excellent; even the steamed fondue of spinach was lightly salted and fresh. But the highlight of the entrees was without a doubt the salmon. If it came from the freezer, I was fooled. The entire filet was delicate and moist, with just the right amount of salt, pepper, and dill, so that all of the flavor was coming from the fish; paired with the fennel and portabella mushroom, the chef allowed the star of the dish to be the freshness of the ingredients.

We had reservations for 6:30, and seating was immediate, although we would not have been opposed to a short wait outside of the restaurant's adorable dark green gold-lettered facade. The hostess, pleasantly asked in a lovely French accent if we would like to sit in the front, near the windows and entering guests, Since we wanted privacy, we chose the back. We noticed that even when the restaurant became busier, the tables in front near the hostess station were never occupied.

Once we were seated with menus in hand, our waiter for the evening greeted us with a little speech in French that, by the end of it, had me and my two friends hanging on his every word. Simply the epitome of charm, Arno, our waiter, had learned our names and was shaking our hands before we knew it; plus he never let our wine or water glasses go approach half empty. Arno's attentiveness was a remarkable feat considering he was the only waiter in the restaurant for more than a dozen tables and his charisma brought smiles to the faces of every guest he served.

In fact, by the time our entrees were cleared from our table, Arno knew us so well that he told me what I would enjoy for dessert. Actually, the most impressive aspect of Clementine's presentation was the dessert menu. Unable to decide on one dessert for each of us, my friends and I shared the vanilla creme brulee, the fresh apple tart with caramel ice cream, and the caramelized French toast with hazelnut ice cream. Each of the desserts was marvelous. The burnt sugar that topped the creme brulee cracked like a perfectly thin layer of golden stained glass.The crust of the fresh apple tart was flakey and the apples were so fresh they maintained their crispness though sliced as thin as tissue paper; and the caramel ice cream that melted all over the tart, left our mouths with the sensation that we were eating a delicate caramel apple pie.

Before Arno could recommend it, I had decided on the caramelized French toast with hazelnut ice cream, as it was a remarkable notion amongst its traditional counterparts. The textures alone in this dish were fantastic. The first taste is the crisp caramel dissolving and crunching, followed by the velvety smooth, and lightly cinnamoned toast, very reminiscent of the velvety smoothness of foie gras, the creamy, cold, melting hazelnut ice cream, was the grand finale to our whole experience, the experience of a little piece of France only a few blocks from USF

126 Clement Street (2nd/3rd Avenues)

Overall: * * * *
Food: * * *
Service: * * * * *
Noise: ! !
Price: $ $ $

Overall/Food/ Service
* = not completely awful
* * = good
* * * = really quite good
* * * * = Almost Perfect
* * * * * = Amazing Perfection from food to price

! = very quiet
! ! = pleasantly noisy but easy to converse
! ! ! = must raise your voice to be heard
! ! ! ! = must yell to be heard
! ! ! ! ! = cannot converse/ near deafness

Price ( per entree)
$ = $ 0- $10
$ $ = $10 - $17
$ $ $ = $15 - $23
$ $ $ $ = $20- $30
$ $ $ $ $ = must have platinum Am Ex!


Blogger ohthatsthespot said...

That sounds incredible next time I'm in that area I'm definetly going there. Just not eating the crab. But everything sounded so delicious. Yummmmmmmmmmmm!!!!!!!!!!! Great article.

7:18 PM  

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