Deborah speculated that the lobster might have been frozen. Then I thought of “lobster pounds.” In winter, lobsters move out farther and deeper into the sea and are harder and riskier to catch, so are more expensive (and actually taste better). “Lobster pounds” — giant saltwater tanks — are commercial facilities where Maine lobsters caught earlier in the season are kept alive. But their flavor deteriorates, compared to fresh-caught crustaceans. Well, whatever the cause, it’s also probably the source of the bisque’s unlobsterly flavor.
Despite our early arrival, the servers subtly pushed us to eat up and get gone. (In a restaurant that closes at 10:00 p.m., we were the last to leave, at 9:00.) Our waiter was cute and charming but evidently miscalculated how much we’d be talking along with eating — those noisy neighbors couldn’t stop us, even if we had to yell to hear each other! He had the kitchen fire up the entrées a little too soon, about two minutes before we’d have finished with appetizers — and, like the goat cheese, all the entrées were delivered just past lukewarm.
The surprise was smoked chicken, available both on the prix fixe and à la carte. As Deborah said, “I never order chicken in restaurants; I cook it often enough at home.” But this was chicken you’re not likely to cook. Half a free-range bird, its snap-crackle-pop skin literally puffed off the tender flesh. The in-house smoking is gentle, just a hint. The whole array was savory. Deborah fell in love with the puffy cubes of sweet potatoes and crisp fine bacon mingling in a faintly sweet sauce. Debbie was ravished by the accompanying spinach mixed with a generous waft of sesame seeds for crunch and nuttiness.
Coulon’s signature dish is Cabernet-braised Prime-beef short ribs in a star anise and wine reduction (also available both early-bird and à la carte). They’re rich and fork-tender, served over creamy Yukon Gold potato mash splashed with that supernal wine gravy, with seasonal vegetables: cauliflower florets; melting baby zucchinis; firm, skinny yellow string beans; and button mushrooms for depth. I stubbornly bogarted the dish until I could taste every element, while the Debs impatiently switched plates around.
Little wonder, because they’d started with two disappointing dishes. Spicy blackened hamachi (both prix fixe and à la carte) is a carryover from the opening days, when it was one of my favorite entrées — highly spiced but an earthy-sweet red miso balanced out the fire. This time, a line-chef stubbed his toe on the cayenne, producing the kind of plain, blasting heat that instantly exhausts your palate instead of exciting it. Lost under the fish (tender but overwhelmed) were sliced carrots, shiitake, zucchini, bean sprouts, snow peas, and loads of cilantro. “It reminds me of New Mexico red chile sauce,” said Deborah. “Just dried red chiles cooked in stock, nothing much else to complicate it.” “Whereas the complications make great spicy food,” I said, “the layers of flavor coming up from below to enjoy, once you get past the heat.”
From the à la carte menu we’d chosen cassoulet ($24), a staple at Coulon’s grandfather’s Belgian Lion. It’s a great bistro dish because its flavors get friendly with each other over time — just like its N’awlins cousin, red beans and rice, you can cook a big potful on a Monday and serve it all week long. A glorified Gallic version of baked beans, the traditional model includes white beans, duck confit, garlicky Toulouse sausage, and bites of lamb and/or pork, all slow-cooked in a meat-and-poultry stock with tomato and herbs and finished off in the oven, topped with crisp buttered bread-crumbs. Well, sorry — no crisp crumb topping this time. No deep taste of stock in the overfirm beans. Pork bits dried out. The duck was okay, if a bit tough. I did like the juicy sausage. (If it’s not authentic saucisson de Toulouse, it’s close enough for folk-cooking.) But we’ve all had better. For that matter, we’ve all cooked better. Another victim of the nuker?
Ah, but the half-price wines! Had to skip those great four-figure aged French reds, but the back of the list includes French regional bottlings, including undervalued Loire and Rhone choices. Aiming at the cold seafood platter, I chose a Muscadet, a crisp, insouciant Loire “oyster wine.” The discount brought its price down nearly to that of bottled water. (And I was so glad for it after hitting that blackened fish! Capsaicin, the hot-pepper chemical, isn’t water-soluble — needs cold alcohol!) For our “short-ribs red,” we scored a gorgeous 12-year-old Côte Rôtie from reliable shipper Guigal, $120 cut to $60. (More affordable yet, there’s a fine Qupé Syrah among the California reds for $32 list price.)
The early dinner offers three desserts: Chocoholic Debbie chose Belgian chocolate torte, chocolate cake layered with chocolate meringue, mousse, and cream, with ice cream on the side. This sounded like one of Michele Coulon’s pastries but somehow didn’t taste as exquisite. A “deconstructed” gingerbread cake with wine-poached pears (and persimmon ice cream) should be reconstructed: the dryish cake needs the fruit and ice cream right on top to moisten it. (Third choice is an ice cream sundae.)
My espresso was marginally acceptable, served lukewarm. Deborah’s decaf espresso was odious (sent back and replaced by a much-better cappuccino). The regular coffees were tepid and weak.
Given how good the good dishes are at Quarter Kitchen, I wouldn’t give up on it, I’d just order differently to replace the early-bird’s unthrilling starters and sweets with better stuff for a barely higher bill. I’d get there early on a weeknight for the wine discount and, if I were set on the fabulous short ribs (regularly $28), consider ordering one prix-fixe meal. For the rest, I’d go cannily à la carte, starting with a shareable bowl of “Steamed Mussels Social Style,” sauced with white wine, fennel, and cream, with frites for dipping — just $11, sized for two. (Coulon should manage this luscious Belgian classic handily.) For entrées, besides the smoked chicken ($20), you could gamble on another fine French-Belgian archetype: salmon in tangy sorrel cream sauce with yummy Pommes Anna ($22), or try “duck two ways” ($30) (confit and grilled breast), with a riot of garnishes including tangerine foam on top. For dessert ($10), consider sharing a pumpkin cheesecake or apple-cranberry frangipani tart. This “eat this, not that” version of a three-course dinner runs $30–$41 per person for two or more.