When I first stopped blogging about restaurants I thought I would get back to it pretty quickly, but after a while I got busy with other things and I realized that the HFG had become too much like work. Recently, however, I decided to try again so Mrs. HFG and I agreed we would go to Cavey's in Manchester for Valentine's Day and that the HFG would make his triumphant return (OK, perhaps a semi-triumphant return).
Cavey's in an interesting place because it is both an Italian restaurant (upstairs) and a French restaurant (downstairs) with separate menus and wine lists. Honestly, there are a ton of good Italian restaurants in the area, so we had no interest in going out to Manchester for Italian food but we both thought it would be fun to go downstairs and try the French restaurant. On the whole, we had a really good night, but there were some issues.
When we walked in there was no one to greet us, except a coat check girl, so we stood around and waited for the hostess of the Italian restaurant to come over, ask about our reservation, and send us downstairs. When we got downstairs, we waited again, because the maitre de was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, a very hardworking and charming sommelier asked us to be seated in a little ante room (complete with a black and white checkerboard tile floor) and offered us a cocktail (I had a reasonably good Manhattan, Mrs. HFG abstained) while our table was set.
This episode framed perfectly the night from a service perspective. The sommelier was polite, hardworking, and very service-oriented. The rest of the staff was adequate but frankly pretty rough around the edges. Food meant for someone else was brought to our table and our server neglected to mention that the kitchen was out of rabbit (one of about only 6 entrees) until Mrs. HFG placed her order. Not the end of the world, but not good in a fancy and fairly expensive restaurant either.
In fact, the service was pretty ragged throughout. The layout of the downstairs is odd and the pass is very narrow so even with a crack staff it would be tough going. Sadly, Cavey's doesn't have a crack staff and there was a constant bottleneck as servers bumped into one another and passed plates between them trying to get things sorted. Oddly, however, there was plenty of staff and they were constantly in motion, but nothing seemed to happen very quickly, which leads me to believe that training and management are issues. That part of the experience made Mrs. HFG and I pine for Max Downtown (in no small part because the staff is similarly attired), because the service there is always on-point.
The decor was also problematic. Cavey's was probably a very beautiful place 40 or 50 years ago, but it is tired. The carpeting is old and worn and the wallpaper is both very outdated (it reminds me of wallpaper my grandmother had in her apartment in 1975) and starting to curl and flake along the baseboard. Also, while many of the dishes are quite modern, the first course and my coffee cup were richly gilt in gold that reminded me of the china my mother has in her ancient hutch; not necessarily a bad thing, though with the tired interior you definitely got the feeling you were in a time warp.
Still, there is a lot of dark wood, there are mirrors, and there is a certain old school charm that makes you feel like Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Sinatra are going to walk in in their evening jackets, sit down, light up, order a bunch of wine, and wait for Don Rickels to come and make fun of them. If management would throw down a new carpet, deal with the wallpaper, and freshen the place up a bit, the old gilt dishware would be really cool and the place would really have that "wow factor" (yes, Mrs. HFG and I have been watching Storage Wars on A&E). You might even think you were at the Casino Royale, even though you were only in Manchester.
For my first course, I ordered the "Fire and Ice" which was a paring of seared foie gras and fresh foie gras with a huckleberry reduction and a small block of what tasted like gingerbread, though with the consistency of cornbread ($20). It was amazing. The HFG is a HUGE fan of foie gras and this offering was just magnificent, with the huckleberry and the gingerbread providing a great textural and taste contrast. Mrs. HFG loved it as well, saying "I don't even like foie gras and I love this." Easily the second best foie gras I've ever had (best was at Le Caveau in Montreal, now closed :< x1,000).
Mrs. HFG ordered the butter lettuce salad with warm goat cheese, pistachios, and roasted beets ($12). I had some of the goat cheese, which was amazing. Mrs. HFG liked it, but thought there were too many pistachios and not nearly enough goat cheese or beets ("there were like three beets on my plate" she grumbled).
For dinner I had the Denver fillet of venison ($37) with glazed winter vegetables. The vegetables were not memorable, but the venison had a great flavor and, cooked to the chef's recommendation of medium rare, had a wonderful taste and color that contrasted beautifully with the charred exterior. I've had venison a couple of times before (the first time was at the Avalon Cafe in Weston, MO - a wonderful little place in a small town outside of Kansas City) and it's not easy to work with. I thought the chef did a great job.
Mrs. HFG had the Angus filet of beef with a beef bordelaise sauce (which is typically made with dry red wine, bone marrow, butter, and shallots) with a potato puree ($36). As with the venison, the beef was well-prepared and had good flavor but I don't think it makes the list of truly memorable meals.
Both of our dinners were very good, though as Mrs. HFG noted, more in the French style, than traditional French cooking. Reductions were more the order of the day than heavy sauces, and the selection of entrees was evocative of French cuisine, though not necessarily what you'd see in Paris (or Montreal) - think New American cuisine in a French style.
For dessert, Mrs. HFG ordered a magnificent concoction consisting of a dark chocolate and peanut praline mouse and caramel ice cream ($10). It was one of the best desserts either one of us can remember having; rich, sweet (but not too sweet), and a wonderful, creamy texture.
I opted for the warm Valrhona chocolate cake accompanied by a malted chocolate milkshake ($10). I liked Mrs. HFG's dessert better, but I have to say mine was very, very good and the chocolate milkshake (served in a miniature cup) was both clever and fantastic; thick and delicious and topped with a generous spoonful of fresh whipped cream. :> x 25.
On the whole, dinner was very good, with a really good first course (absolutely outstanding for me) and amazing deserts, sandwiched around a good dinner.
We also ordered an absurdly expensive bottle of wine. While Mrs. HFG and I like wine, neither one of us is a huge connoisseur. Being Valentine's Day, however, we decided to do it up right and treat ourselves to a first class bottle of wine, which isn't too hard given Cavey's extensive and reasonably priced (relative to what you'd pay retail for the same bottle) wine list. I asked a close friend who is a wine connoisseur and collector to look at the wine list (conveniently posted on the webiste) and make some recommendations. He was very impressed and gave me about half a dozen suggestions.
Ultimately, we decided to go full-bore and order the 1994 Dominus ($267). Dominus is actually a California wine, but the proprietors are from Bordeaux and make their wine in that style. My friend described the '94 Dominus as "one of the legends" in no small part because of its nearly perfect Parker score of 99.
The '94 Dominus was beautiful, with a rich, almost regal, purple color. It also had a great nose, with a mix of cherry and maple syrup. On the tongue, however, the notes were much more earthy and oak, with a strong taste of mushroom. I know that sounds odd, and perhaps not that appealing, but it was a great wine that complimented (and stood up to) every course in both our meals. It was also strong out of the bottle (i.e. it didn't need to open up), though it was not overpowering, and it held its taste all night. It's hard to ask for more than that.
Honestly, this was quite probably the best wine I've ever had and even if Mrs. HFG and I don't go around ordering wine at that price point (we don't), it was worth it this one time for the experience.
Cavey's clearly has a following. It was crowded when we arrived at 7:30 PM and there were still people there at 9:30 PM when we left. Many people appeared to be at least semi-regulars and a bunch appeared to be on their special Valentine's Day date (including the young couple next to us; a very nervous young man whose foot kept tapping and his lovely date who was trying very hard to cut him a lot of slack), so it's clear that east of the river, it is a destination and deservedly so. The food (at least downstairs) merits that following even if there are problems with the service and the decor.
I don't know when we will get back to Cavey's (so many restaurants, so few meals), but we will because you are not going to find better French (OK, French-inspired) food in the area with a wine list to match. Here's the link to their website - http://caveysrestaurant.com/Default.aspx