Friday night is date night, when Hubby and I go out because after my work week I need cocktails and food served to me. Usually we take advantage of the new Happy Hour rage somewhere, where decently priced drinks are accompanied by “small plates,” featuring food that’s usually over-contrived but hey it’s Happy Hour so who cares.
This past Friday, however, we spent the Happy Hour window visiting friends, and when we emerged into the evening, I had to quickly come up with a place to eat. Why quickly, you ask? Something about a baseball play-off game starting at eight and I was trying to accommodate Hubby. Hey, I’m a nice girl.
So I mentally scanned available spots in our neighborhood and decided on a place called Antoine’s, whose red “A” on a former Kentucky Fried Chicken building had been winking at me since the place opened a few months ago.
Now this red “A” had me a little confused, for I thought Antoine was French like Antoine’s in the French Quarter but the fact that it was red made me think Italian (just what Sarasota needs is another over-cheesed pizza joint) but in actuality the place is owned by a Belgian guy I had once designed a bar for. So here is where my car led us at seven-fifteen on a Friday night.
From the parking lot we could see into the picture windows that this was a snazzy little place and thankfully, after seven years of marriage and training, Hubby knew to leave his baseball cap in the car. “I sure miss Kentucky Fried Chicken,” he said. “Do you think they still have the coleslaw?”
We were greeted by a genuinely pleasant and accented waiter in black chef’s garb and were seated at one of the two remaining empty two-tops. The square former fast food room had a Restaurant Impossible-style decor to it, you could just imagine Robert Irvine’s designer presenting the slatted wood wall saying, “I just love this.” The lighting was a tad bright, the enormous white ball chandeliers floating about the larger tables like UFO’s needed to dim down a bit. There were thirty seats plus a few more at the small pass-thru to the kitchen, where I imagined someone very passionate was producing the food which, by the menu, looked to be fine indeed. A thirty seat restaurant, manageable, the size place I had wanted back when I was cooking and dreaming of my own place. Back in the previous century.
I ordered tagliatelle with shrimp and arugula in lobster sauce, Hubby the NY steak substituting mashed potatoes and spinach for the vegetable medley and French fries. Which pleased me because when you spend thirty dollars on a steak…um…fries?
Usually I squirm at menu prices upwards of twenty dollars a plate. For when I dine out, I want something I cannot or will not make at home. Sure, there’s a value to atmosphere but sometimes I come away feeling ripped off. But the smiling waiter in chef’s garb and my glass of pinot noir made me feel happy and when he presented us with a little unexpected gift of warm carrot soup in a martini glass with a few slices of grilled zucchini and chicken breast, I began to swoon.
Let’s talk about that waiter in chef’s garb. I learned a long time ago–– yes, in the previous century, when I was cooking in New Orleans–that waiters in France begin in the kitchen, then graduate to the floor. Where in America, any whinny coed can get a job waiting tables. This isn’t to say that in New York or Chicago or San Francisco there aren’t professional waiters, for there are. But when you’re like me and hug the balmy tourist town realm, there are a lot of untrained servers to ruin an otherwise decent meal.
So I loved our smiling waiter, and the way he expertly described the food with his Euro-accent.
Our dinners arrived, my shrimp peeking out from homemade-looking pasta wading in a shallow slick of lobster bisque, thankfully devoid of cream or parmesan. Hubby’s steak looking proud on its china white plate and we both dug in.
We were like cats at a feed dish, yumming and purring as we savored each bite, chewing slowly, sharing forkfuls with each other, each of us gazing at the plates of art sitting before us.
“This is the best steak I’ve had in Sarasota,” Hubby announced. “It’s like butter! And my spinach is crunchy still.”
“You don’t want to ask for a side of coleslaw?”
He was right, his steak was like butter with the right amount of char, not like any NY strip steak I ever had, a cut of beef flavorful yes but can be a tad sinewy. My shrimp and pasta was an elegant surprise. You see, I love shrimp and pasta but never order it out, fearing those commonly served,huge piles of gummy pasta sweltering in a pool of cheese and cream. Something about Antoine’s had me believing they would respect the dish and I was correct. The shrimp were large, the lobster sauce a perfect, bisque-like reduction infused with sherry, the tagliatelle a sweet and dense absorbent, the entire masterpiece flecked with curls of arugula, which I love so much I’m considering an entire blog about the magic stuff. Best of all, it was not a ginormous American portion; as I ate I wasn’t picturing where in my refrigerator the Styro-box would go, instead focusing on every blissful bite then using the spoon to finish off the lobster sauce in the bowl.
Hubby and I locked eyes when our plates were empty. “Wow!” he said. Quite a statement from my redneck guy who used to get intimidated by non-American menus. “Let’s have dessert!”
“What about your game?”
He shrugged and smiled an I’m-high-on-food smile.
So we shared a tiramisu dappled with fresh berries and food-swooned some more.
As we paid, my taste buds still danced in the aftermath of such great food. For this hadn’t been just food cooked by someone and served by someone. There is an artist in that kitchen and we experienced his masterpieces, served to us by a waiter who also shared in the passion of a great meal.
We will be back to the red A of Antoine’s. How lucky it’s so close to home.