Having not been back to L'Albatros in almost a year, when friend Diane arranged for a surprise birthday dinner party for her husband Steve at the aforementioned restaurant, I have to admit that I had mixed feelings. While I've enjoyed the food during my previous two meals at the restaurant, both times I felt cramped and honestly, unimpressed with the uncomfortable white patio-esque plastic chairs that dot the various rooms of the restaurant.
Their penchant for incredibly low lighting has not only hampered my ability to take a decent photograph, but also walks that fine line between romantic restaurant and bar scene where you might not want to continue the conversation with the person across from you were the lights turned to a level where you could fully embrace your partner's looks. However, it was the favorite French brasserie of the birthday boy, so I put aside my reservations and focused on having a delicious meal and good conversation instead.
As opposed to my other two meals at L'Albatros, I actually arrived early enough in the day to finally get a good picture of the front entrance to the restaurant:
Once inside, we were shown to our rather long table which quite quickly filled up with guests. So many guests, in fact, that the restaurant needed to add another extension to accommodate all eleven of us. Once we were all seated, I realized that the menu had changed fairly significantly since my last visit. I decided to include updated photographs of both the top and bottom of the menu:
Bread has traditionally been metered out a slice or two at a time and this visit was no different. The only oddity about tonight's bread service was that an overzealous busser attempted to clear bread plates off the table after our appetizers, forgetting that some people enjoy bread with their main course. As such, new bread plates had to be brought out to replace the cleared ones.
The bread itself,
as always, was fresh and tasty. At one point, I believe that L'Albatros got their bread from On The Rise bakery in Cleveland Heights and the quality of tonight's version seemed in line with that fact. Accompanying the bread were plates of olive oil:
To L'Abatros' credit, they were actually pretty good about returning with the bread basket to see if guests wanted additional pieces of bread. In times past, after the initial round of "breading," the bread basket never seemed to make a second round.
After filling the drink orders, our server began taking everyone's food order. Not having had it in a while, I decided to go with what seemed to be a French specialty, Escargot. Here was a shot of the dish as it arrived at the table:
After the server removed the lid, you could see the pool of melted butter in which the little snails swam:
A lot of the non-foodie folks that I know (including most of my family) would absolutely make that funny squishy face that somehow indicates utter disgust at the notion of ordering snails, but I have to tell you, gentle reader, that when done correctly, they are quite delicious. They don't really have a strong flavor on their own, but tend to take on the flavors of the other ingredients in the dish, usually butter and garlic. Tonight's version contained TONS of butter (I can hear Paula Dean squealing with delight), cooked onion and fennel, and bits of toasted crouton, all swimming in the same pool.
The big trick with snails is cooking them properly. Too long and they turn into tough little balls of rubber. Fortunately, L'Albatros knew how to cook them properly and these were tender with just a tiny amount of chew. The crouton added a nice element of crunch and I used the fresh bread to dip into the sauce. I did end up squirting some of the lemon juice into the tiny crock, but I think I would've needed a wedge or two more to cut through the fattiness of that much butter. The dish, overall, was quite good and I ate almost all of it, leaving only the pool of melted butter behind.
For my main course, I decided to go with a French classic made popular here in America by the one and only Julia Child, Boeuf a la Bourguignonne:
This dish was only available on Saturdays and even though I had seen it on the menu in a previous visit, it wasn't until tonight that I actually had a chance to try it out. Traditionally, this was a braised dish using red wine as the primary braising liquid. L'Albatros' version lacked any red wine flavor or the acidity that the wine would bring. The birthday boy was very familiar with this dish and commented that the sauce was rather thin as well. And while I was surprised to find a lack of wine flavor, I wasn't disappointed in the taste of the dish. The salt level was quite nice and the meat was tender and juicy. The accompanying root vegetables were also pleasantly cooked through and while not mushy, weren't also crunchy and raw either. Additionally, the level of smoke added by the bacon was balanced and didn't overpower the dish.
After our dinner plates were cleared, dessert menus were distributed to the masses:
Not being in a particularly "dessert" mood tonight, I decided to pass, but quite a few people ordered something sweet or savory (in the case of the cheese selection) to finish their meal. L'Albatros is known for their cheese board and when it arrives, you will know because both your sense of sight and smell will be assaulted. The level of knowledge possessed by the fromagier was quite impressive as he was able to answer all of the questions presented by tonight's guests.
Sadly, there were a few mishaps in tonight's experience, although they happened to others and not to myself. Some dishes didn't come out as expected and one diner's dish was served stone cold. When it was sent back to the kitchen, instead of re-firing the dish, they simply reheated it which caused the perfectly cooked meat to overcook. Others commented that their dishes didn't live up to expectations while some were completely content with tonight's meal. I will give kudos to the kitchen staff as all eleven appetizers and entrees came out to the table at the same time. Not an easy feat to accomplish for a large table of people on a busy Saturday night. Additionally, I wanted to give kudos to our server, who managed to split the check for the table into eight separate bills without a single error.
Negative blips aside, I still enjoyed the food tonight at L'Albatros and suggest that if you'd like to take a trip to a French brasserie without having to purchase plane tickets and take a flight across the "pond," give L'Albatros Brasserie and Bar a chance the next time you are in Cleveland. Reservations are highly recommended, even for smaller parties.
(In my best Julia Child voice) Bon appétit!