Sunday, September 25, 2011

Restaurant Week at Bouquet Restaurant + Wine Bar: New Food, and a New Friend

I hate to let a Restaurant Week pass me by. These affordably priced three-course deals ($26.10 for the Fall 2011 Greater Cincinnati Restaurant Week) are a great incentive to explore places I haven’t eaten at before. (GCI offers Restaurant Weeks in both spring and fall. The Do Downtown group also offers a Restaurant Week, with a separate set of participating restaurants.)

I’ve missed a few RWs because either I or my usual dinner partner Cindie was on vacation. We even had a reservation booked early this time. Then Cindie announced she was headed to the beach that week. I could have persevered with the same determination as when she baled on me for our dinner at Orchids during Do Downtown's recent Restaurant Week: “I am not missing this. Even. If. I. Have. To. Eat. Alone.” But I came up with a better idea.

Stephie of Small Girl Adventures is a local food blogger I’ve become friendly with via the interwebs. She was game to join in the revival of the Culinary Smackdown when I hosted back in July, and stuck around to participate in August. The Smackdown is a revolving monthly blogging cookoff where the previous month’s winner becomes host, judge, and theme-picker for the following month. And wouldn’t you know, Grumpy Granny, the August judge (who lives in Colorado) selected my hometown girl Stephie’s Bacon-Studded Brioche as the winner of Battle: Bacon. So Stephie is now standing tall as the host of this month’s Smackdown, Battle: Oktoberfest.

Stephie seemed like such a sweetheart online that I took a chance and asked if she might be interested in meeting me for a Restaurant Week dinner. She said yes to my “food blogger blind date” suggestion (whew!), and we met up at Bouquet Restaurant and Wine Bar in Covington.

Coincidentally, Covington’s Oktoberfest on Mainstrasse was taking place the night of our dinner, and the street festival had the road blocked off in front of Bouquet. When I called the restaurant to confirm our reservation, I was helpfully informed of that fact and told where we could find free parking a couple of blocks away. Covington is not an area either us is very familiar with. I managed to find the recommended lot, then got turned around trying to find the restaurant in the Oktoberfest hullaballoo, arriving a few minutes late. Stephie’s attempts to navigate the crowd and one-way streets resulted in her being a few minutes later than I was. She’s already posted about our dinner here, and I had to laugh when I read she was grumpy when she arrived because she wanted to make a good impression on lil ole me. She didn’t seem grumpy at all, maybe just a tad shy – after all, we had never met in person before. But soon we were ordering, eating, and talk, talk, talking!

Located in a row house with large windows looking onto Covington’s Main Street, Bouquet is a very congenial spot for talking. There was a mix of ages, attire, and different-sized groups that night. Stephie and I weren’t the only diners who didn’t arrive quite on schedule, yet the front of house staff made everyone feel welcome and at ease. We felt attended to throughout the evening, but never rushed. Bouquet’s décor, like the food it serves, is marked by simple elegance. Yes, there are white tablecloths, but there is nothing stuffy about this place. What does shine through is the kitchen’s commitment to locally sourced ingredients and skill in putting them on a plate. The food, thoughtful but unpretentious, is prepared with such precision that it highlights the quality of the ingredients and elevates each dish.

As it happened, Stephie and I both selected the same options for two of the three courses on Bouquet’s Restaurant Week menu. The day had started chillier than it was by the time we dined (and I felt foolishly overdressed by the time I’d hoofed it to the restaurant amidst the shorts-wearing Oktoberfest crowd). This light, yet flavor-filled Butternut Squash Soup topped with toasted pumpkin seeds perfectly fit the early fall tastes Stephie and I were both craving.

When I asked Stephie to join me, she mentioned this would be the first GCI (Greater Cincinnati Independents) Restaurant Week she didn’t have to work for. I hope it was as much of a treat for her to sit in a GCI dining room for a change as it was for me to sit across the table from her. Stephie got her culinary training at the Midwest Culinary Institute, then worked for her alma mater’s Summit Restaurant for two years before moving on to her current gig. Warm breads served with a salt-topped composed butter accompanied our soups. There was something about that butter I really enjoyed, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint the flavor. As soon as I unthinkingly asked, Stephie zeroed in on it as honey and rosemary, and I was extra happy to be in the company of a trained chef. Another plus dining with a sister food blogger: as we both pulled out our cameras, we realized there was no need to apologize for doing so.

We diverged in what we ordered for our second course, but not in our conversation. Stephie had the Heirloom Mixed Green Salad with pistachios, goat cheese balls, and Strawberry Vinaigrette, while I went for the Green Bean Caesar Salad. The menu description had me at fried capers. And what’s not to love about almonds, orange, and Caesar Vinaigrette to go with? I was anticipating a romaine salad topped with crisp green beans, but this was a full-on green bean salad with nary a lettuce leaf in sight. I enjoyed the twist, and the Caesar dressing, thicker than I would have expected from something described as a vinaigrette, was hearty enough to stand up to the fresh blanched beans. Enjoyed the dish, not interested in quibbling about the menu writing.

For our entrees, we both opted for the Flat-Iron Steak with Diced Potato Hash. Cooked to a perfect medium rare and served with a delicious red wine demi-glace, this course was my personal favorite of the night.

Stephie and I found so much to talk about that we were in no rush to let the evening end. Knowing that baking is her passion, after we finished our three Restaurant Week courses, I asked if she was interested in dessert, to which she readily agreed. She loved her chocolate brownie with whipped cream, while I savored my croissant bread pudding topped with crème anglaise, both accompanied by enormous cups of coffee.

Since Stephie selected Oktoberfest as the theme for this month’s Culinary Smackdown, it seemed only appropriate to check out a bit of the Mainstrasse Oktoberfest after dinner. It turns out another thing we have in common is that neither of us is big on crowds, so we didn’t spend a lot of time there among the revelers.

As it was, I already had plenty to revel in. A tasty meal becomes so much more when you share it with good company, and I thank Stephie for joining me. I was completely charmed and energized to meet her. We parted that evening agreeing to meet again to share other Cincinnati tastes, and I can’t wait!

This was such a fun evening that I was emboldened to ask another Cincy food blogger to join me for a Restaurant Week dinner. Stay tuned for that report, my Oktoberfest Smackdown entry, and good news about one of the Fountain Square food tent vendors. Catch lunch on the Square while you can - after September 30, the food tents will be gone.

ETA: Bouquet is the venue for Cincinnati Magazine's October Food + Thought event October 10. Click here for more details.


Velva said...

This is what food is all about....Discovering, sharing good food, laughter and friendship. Awesome!


Stephie said...

Huge cups of coffee, great food, and a good long talk with a nice new friend...what wasn't to love about that night (well, besides parking).

I am so glad you had as much fun and a good time as I did, because that means a lot! We'll for sure need to do something soon!

Dani said...

Life is good. :)

Jen said...

I love new friends. I haven't gotten to my dinner post but I'm determined to have it up in the next few days. It was so so so good--I've been thinking about that "sea dog" ever since we ate dinner together. Must. Visit. Lobstabakes.