Friday, December 14, 2012

With or Without You

There were two places I definitely wasn't going tonight.

Rappahannock and Saison.

Not because I don't want to check out two new places within walking distance, but because it was almost certainly going to be a mob scene at both.

And who needs that?

Instead, my evening's companion and I chose Aziza for a lower key vibe and the promise of great food.

We walked in to an empty restaurant and I found Chef Philip and his able-bodied assistant chatting at a table near the kitchen.

We agreed that Aziza's customers were the same as the two new places opening, which helped explain the lack of warm bodies here.

To warm our bodies further, we got a bottle of Marques de Riscal Proximo Rioja 2009, not on the menu but an easy-drinking choice with its juiciness and silky finish.

Because we were the only customers, the music was plenty loud enough for us to hear, although the content wasn't always to our liking.

Just to be clear, there's cheesy '80s and then there's '80s.

Yes' "Owner of a Lonely Heart" is not something I ever need to hear again, much less Sly Fox.

But put on some Pet Shop Boys and we're good to go.

I can even hear some old U2 and reminisce fondly about Bono's messiah period.

The music became a moot point before long because tables began to fill up and the decibel level rose accordingly.

We went from being the sole occupants to being one of seven tables, with only two small ones open.

I'm sure that made the kitchen staff happy.

We began with bacon, potato and leek soup, a cream-based indulgence with enough leeks in every bite to qualify them as the primary ingredient to be chewed.

Actually, the soup was very similar to certain oyster stews I've had, just without the oysters.

Next came spinach and sheep's milk ricotta gnudi with Szechuan peppercorn and ginger.

It was my first gnudi sighting, so I asked our server what to expect.

Seems gnudi is a kind of gnocchi made from ricotta and a little bit of flour, described by our server as "nude ravioli."

All the filling and none of the pasta. Sign me up.

The little dumplings were wonderful, delicately seasoned and with a creamy mouthfeel that was more than cheese, less than pasta.

To go with it, we tried the sauteed garlic bok choy with almonds, the kind of dish you only eat on a date if the other person is eating it, too.

Very good, very garlicky.

Tonight's crowd turned out to be a lively one, although one of the two 20-something girls behind us had the kind of foghorn voice that meant we heard every party recap, every work anecdote and every cliche that came out of her mouth.

That's entertainment.

After so much savory, there was nowhere to go but directly to Aziza's trademark cream puff and we did.

I've little doubt that if Aziza's ever thought to remove the puff from the menu, their customers would rise up and put that thought right out of their heads.

As it turned out, we'd lingered over each course so long that we'd long missed our 9:00 plans.

Fortunately, they can be had another evening.

Instead, we drove by Rappahannock to see the room crowded to the rafters with first night business.

I'd read yesterday that they'd already had 80 reservations on the books (for opening night yet) and it looked entirely possible that all 80 were still there at almost 10 p.m.

Saison was no better, with people up against the windows and spilling out into the corner.

Since both new restaurants are within walking distance of my house, there's no chance I won't be joining the throngs soon.

But on opening night, no way.

Far better to go with a proven winner and learn gnudi.

Even when the '80s music is giving me whiplash.

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