Can a Gold Coast watering hole cum supper club whose decibel level stops just short of painful produce food worthy of serious attention? For Yvette, the answer is a resounding yes.
For a long time Yvette remained in the shadow of owner Bob Djahanguiri's other two establishments, Toulouse and Turbot. Drinking, not dining, was the order of the evening. It was a place to be seen, if not heard, a place to wave at friends and let the tinkle of the ivories and clink of glasses drown out sorrows and setbacks. While no one, to my knowledge, complained about the food, no one ever raved about it either. It was there primarily to accompany the booze.
Several months ago, Djahanguiri made some changes. He brought in chef Scott Kotwas, formerly in charge at Toulouse, who revamped the menu dramatically. The result is that Yvette's kitchen can now vie with the best in the city, and at roughly one-half to two-thirds of the price. Dinner for two, including appetizer, salad, entree, dessert, coffee, and a bottle of wine, will run around $60, plus tax and tip--a bargain verging on a steal given the quality of the food.
The setting, however, doesn't match the food. Tables are too close together, and there's no smoke-free zone. Conversation is only possible at full volume, as the two pianists take their work seriously and pound out a storm--everything from light classics to show tunes--on the twin keyboards. It's best to go early, when there are at any rate fewer voices.
The front part of the restaurant, separated from State Street by a wall of glass, is a cafe, offering light fare from a limited menu. Going deeper into the room you'll find a bar on the right and, opposite, the two pianos and additional bar seating. Just beyond this center section is the restaurant proper. Here dark green predominates, from the square patterned carpeting to the embossed tin ceiling. Straight lines and sharp angles are softened by dim recessed lighting and hanging lamps. Pillars add some visual interest, as do an exposed brick wall on one side and a mural on the other. The mural depicts a bare-backed beauty, circa 1930, perched on a bar stool, a black Scotch terrier beneath her and two white ones alongside. Its tone might be called tongue-in-chic.
We began with ballotine of salmon with dill sauce ($5.95) and an assortment of pate, sausage, and rillettes ($5.50). The ballotine, fresh salmon encircling lobster mousse, came bathed in a light dill cream and garnished with mache leaves and arugula. The flaky texture and slight pungency of the salmon was gently offset by its dense lobster-cream filling, and the dill sauce added just the right herbaceous note. I cant imagine a better version of this dish. Our other appetizer was equally commendable, a slice of rich goose-liver pate, six disks of tangy, full-flavored venison sausage, and a mound of venison rillettes--fatty and coarse, as they should be. Garnished with excellent Dijon-style mustard, horseradish, cornichons, sprinkled with diced gelee, it was close to perfection as one is likely to get on a dinner plate.
The warm salad of the day, smoked pheasant with angel-hair pasta, was not far behind. A hollowed-out small head of radicchio filled with curly endive in mustard vinaigrette was placed alongside a mound of angel-hair pasta. The pasta, resting in a pool of natural gravy, was topped with slices of smoked pheasant and a fried quail egg. A semicircle of mache leaves provided a colorful textural contrast. The sharp vinaigrette on crunchy greens counterpointed the pasta's bland chewiness, to which the pungent meat acted as a foil, balancing the flavors. Other worthy starters include smoked trout with horseradish mousse ($4.50), sweetbreads with morel mushrooms ($5.95), and quenelles of scallops with pasta and chives ($4.50).
Our entrees were chosen from the daily specials. Roast venison with chestnut mousse ($15.50) consisted of four quarter-inch-thick slices of tender, rosy venison on a bed of julienned carrots and string beans. Still-firm zucchini interspersing the venison slices created a lovely pattern, highlighted by a puff pastry of chestnut puree and lingonberries in the center of the plate. Roast pheasant grand-mere ($15) reached the same heights: the tawny breast was perched on braised cabbage in a pool of rich, sweet sauce and surrounded by slices of mushrooms alternating with potato and pearl onions. Unctuous is the best way to describe it. Pheasant tends to be dry, but this was succulent, and the accompanying barely cooked vegetables couldnt have been better. The fresh fish of the day varies according to market availability, and ranges in price from $13.95 to $15.25. Salmon smoked in-house ($14.95) appears frequently, as does red snapper sauteed with crushed peppercorns ($13.95), both highly recommended.
Desserts, $3 apiece, are worth every calorie. A smooth lemon tart kept company with creme anglaise and raspberry sauce the night we were there, and a first-rate creme brulee, faintly redolent of orange, was creamy rich beneath its crunchy burnt-sugar crust. Smoky-winy coffee ended the meal on a satisfying note. Service was eager and enthusiastic, though not always knowledgeable.
Reasonably priced wines make choosing fun. We had a Chateauneuf du Pape, Petrarque '83 ($21), a moderately complex example of the breed. For a real bargain, one can choose from the "Yvette basket," which features four whites and four reds, at $3.75 a glass or $15 a bottle. It includes such reliable varieties as Trefethen White Riesling and Baron Philippe Rothschild Medoc.
Yvette, at 1206 N. State, is open seven days a week. The cafe serves from 11 to 1 AM daily, and to 2 AM Friday and Saturday. The dining room is open 5:30 to 11 PM Monday through Thursday, to midnight Friday and Saturday, and to 10 PM Sunday. All major credit cards are accepted. Call 280-1700 for reservations.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.