Ambience, style, flair — these have become as necessary as kitchen seasonings to spice up a dining experience in upscale restaurants. Especially in wintry New England, to make up for its dearth of palm trees.
Take Café Noir. The latest offering by restaurateur John Elkay replaced his XO Steakhouse, in the same space, not because the first place wasn't hip but so its replacement could be hipper. Kind of like the earlier name change from XO Café, but with a full body transplant. And XO was cool, so cool, with a waitstaff in blue jeans and white shirts and ties. Even the decor merged formal with fun, as in its well-wishing graffiti in the faux marble entryway.
Café Noir also wants to entertain you coming and going. A cute quote is tucked into your napkin like a cookie fortune; a billow of cotton candy is served gratis with your check. The bar area has crystal chandeliers; wine labels paper support posts; metal fighting cocks are wall decorations instead of aperitif posters. There's that iconic black cat poster of the Montmartre cabaret Le Chat Noir. Elkay wasn't the first chef to link food with sex, but he has been among the most relentless. Café Noir has black mesh nude sculptures, full-frontal female and buns-side male. All appetites are accounted for.
After our drink order was taken, our waiter pressed a rubber stamp onto the bistro paper covering our table, not to mark his territory but to signal that we been attended to. Despite the specialty drinks — including a Dirty Frenchman and a Naked French Maid — I resisted the libidinal appetite enhancements and ordered a modest glass of Bordeaux. (Johnnie's choice of a cutesy red blend, Little James Basket Press, was not only a bargain at $6.50, but better than my choice, bigger and a little peppery. A female trio at a nearby table agreed, from what we could hear.)
We were there on a freezing night early in the week. Since they only have valet parking Thursday through Saturday, I was irritable and cold after finally finding a spot and trekking back to waiting Johnnie. A breadbasket wasn't automatically brought to tide us over, but one arrived upon request, full of crusty French bread. We were soon warming ourselves over hot bowls, personal cold-weather favorites of each of us. Her tomato soup ($4.50/$5.99) was seasoned intriguingly with an unplaceable spice. My baked onion soup ($5.99) had nicely browned Gruyère, but the broth wasn't nearly robust enough with beef stock.
My tablemate was tempted to have a grilled cheese sandwich, which was on the menu, with her soup, to reprise a childhood winter lunch. But for an appetizer we instead shared one of three tarts offered, described as "Alsatian style pizzas." The Pissaladière ($6.99) was a thick, hand-sized round, topped with caramelized onions, pieces of olives, and salty with anchovy. More bread than topping, but tasty.
For her main dish, Johnnie considered the roasted chicken breast ($16.99) in a cider gastrique, with pumpkin gnocchi and "monet onions" (stuffed with bacon). But with her dainty appetite, she instead had a half-order of fettuccine ($8.99/$16.99), which had crimini mushrooms blended in a cream sauce, wonderfully enhanced with truffle essence. It wasn't al dente but still had some elasticity, and I wished she'd ordered the big bowl.