That night, the restaurant was heavily populated, and as I learned later, many of the diners hadn't reserved -- they'd started at the bar during happy hour and then moved on to a table when hunger struck. The kitchen wasn't prepared for so many walk-ins, which delayed food delivery to a pace slow enough to melt your pocket watch. Naturally, the diners (some already well-lubricated from bar sojourns) filled the long gaps between courses with more wine. With the hard-edged decor, a single loud table here makes the whole restaurant painfully noisy, and two such tables turn it into the soundtrack of Jumanji. In the brick-walled back room, which bounced all sounds around, there was a full-throated hyena octet (mainly the sort of surgically enhanced blondes who have more fun and everyone nearby has to hear about it). In the main dining room was the testosterone tetrad, bellowing like rogue elephants in mating season. And since the kitchen that night was so pokey, we were sentenced to spend a long evening with both parties of revelers. Sometimes I want to strangle all restaurant designers, or at least send them to Gitmo for a few months. (The chef-owner later told me that he's planning to install some sound-absorbing devices, like live trees.)
The food was mainly very good, although better in the entrées than the starters. Sam, who'd eaten at the restaurant before, counseled ordering not one but two of the foie gras torchon appetizers to share. Sage advice, since each plate had only a minuscule portion of foie gras versus an excess of toasted brioche bread. Garnishes involved a frizzle of microgreens, a spiced honey reduction, and a rather picante pear chutney, which diminished my pleasure in the rich liver. I love hot pepper, ditto foie gras, but not together. The tiny torchon segments, however, had a heavenly texture.
The soup du jour was pumpkin with apple -- sweet, festive, and again, a bit simple, like a liquid Little Mary Sunshine. As with the cauliflower soup, I felt it needed a touch of darkness or exoticism to jolt it out of the nursery (cardamom comes to mind). But again, this is a question of taste; most people would surely find it utterly lovable.
A vol-au-vent pastry filled with escargot was a welcome departure from the standard butter-garlic treatment for snails, but upon tasting, none of us loved it. The filling of the puff-pastry shells mingled snail meats with an equal amount of mushrooms (with shallots and cognac) in a variant of heavy sauce brun loaded with black pepper and salt. Interesting idea, but quite a lot was left over, and nobody at the table wanted to doggy bag the remnants to face another day.
Our wine choice for the first course was unexpectedly apt: From the section called "Whites of Interest," I whimsically picked a French pinot blanc that proved surprisingly on the sweet side, delightful with the foie gras, and palate relief for the lashes of heat in the snail sauce and foie gras. A well-priced Faiveley Mercurey (2003) Burgundy for the entrées was a tempting bargain but, still too young, it tasted somewhat clenched. If you order this, have it opened and poured to "air" in the glasses well before you need it; it did open up in the glass. (If I owned a bottle, I'd cellar it for another five years.)
Forget all that snobby folklore about "white wine with fish." If there was ever a fish made for red wine (try a Côte du Rhone), it's the "Devilfish," monkfish tightly wrapped with Spanish prosciutto and served with herbed-baked tomato slices and a slightly sweet, deep-flavored sauce of sherry with reduced chicken broth and veal glaze. This is a fish dish that tells your mouth it's meat. Alongside come perfect green beans and a mysterious golden mound resembling a light yellow yam, which turned out to be the chef's reinterpretation of Spain's tortilla española. Normally a rustic, chunky frittata of eggs, onion, and potato, here it's a compacted mound of mandoline-sliced potato and onion. It tasted faintly sweet but had an indefinable quality as well, as if the spuds had moved on to a higher social caste than their tuberous origins -- the Anatole Broyard of the root world.
One of the favorites of regular diners here is rack of lamb. Served rare as ordered and cut into three thick, juicy chops, it was daubed with a verdant garlic-parsley butter purée and surrounded by a red-pepper oil. Alongside was a newfangled ratatouille of small, solid eggplant chunks and some faintly bitter, firm dice of salsify, aka "oyster plant." (This rare, sublime root vegetable lives up to its name: slowly roasted or braised until tender, it takes on a flavor and texture vaguely resembling oysters.)
An organic chicken breast, just a bit dry, was food for the Inner Child, with a sweet, thin glaze of lavender honey, and accompaniments of mashed potatoes, young carrots, and a high-toned Mediterranean broccoli variant.
By the time we received our desserts, the noisemakers were departing and we could at last hear ourselves and our food talk. The sweetest voice of the evening belonged to a baked fromage blanc -- essentially a dense, flavorful mini-cheesecake on a cracker-thin sweet crust, surrounded by crème anglaise with caramelized pear. It was a platonic ideal of cheesecake, just barely anchored to the reality of mouths and bellies.
Lemon panna cotta surrounded by berry compote was also fine, but to my taste oversweet. Comparisons may be odious, but I couldn't help imagining the same dish as it might by prepared by the local Emperor of Panna Cotta, Jack Fisher (now dessert chef at Jack's La Jolla). I think Fisher would have more lemon and less sugar, for a subtler, more austere seductiveness. I found this one over-friendly, even a bit slutty.
My minor arguments with Avenue 5 are mainly questions of personal taste versus restaurant economics (and, of course, physical design). Even if I want more complex flavors in several dishes, the neighborhood patrons don't, and they're the restaurant's mainstay. Anybody who lives nearby is surely blessed by its proximity. Most neighborhoods, we have to make do with taquerías and pizzerias which, even if they're good, don't compare with the interesting pleasures offered at merciful prices by Avenue 5.