It wasn't exactly instant romance behind the saute station. When Dan Grimes returned from vacation to his sous-chef job at the Latest Dish on South Fourth Street, his former boss and good buddy was gone. Suddenly a woman named Mary Ann Ferrie was in charge of the kitchen, and she wasn't about to be run over by someone else's recipes. Namely his.
"We butted heads for a couple weeks," she said. "Oh, yeah. We hated each other."
That was in 1997. Now the two are married and Ferrie is quick to concede: "He's right about recipes nine out of 10 times. In fact, I married him for his cheesecake."
Our server at Chlöe, the new restaurant Grimes and Ferrie have opened in Old City, was also quick to mention the romantic cheesecake, which is exceptionally light and coyly undersweetened.
But it was already more than obvious that this cozy little gem of a bistro was the product of a love fest. Ferrie's bridal bouquet, for heaven's sake, is mounted on the wall, not far from the wedding invitation.
The earth-tone decor has a homemade New Age touch that says "potpourri": thistle brooms, votive lights wrapped in handmade paper cones, tables lacquered with herbs and twigs, knickknacks on floating mantels. Even the purple velvet wall hangings had been made by our server, who spoke of the food with such reverence and detail that you had to wonder whether she'd also cooked it herself. (She hadn't.)
It's quite a change from the trendy Latest Dish, where a boisterous bar crowd is the main event and the cooking merely an interesting distraction.
This tiny BYO can get pretty loud, too. With hardwood floors and only 30-some seats, all it takes is one yappy table, just as it did when the space was Marco's restaurant. Even so, Grimes' and Ferrie's food is worth braving the noise, an ideal example of good value (all entrees are under $20) and clever cooking that doesn't take shortcuts.
Seldom does a menu draw on so many diverse international flavors with such natural ease. This duo can borrow from Morocco, the Caribbean, Asia or the American South without a hitch. It's simply good contemporary cooking that relies on fine ingredients and smart ideas rather than pretense, resulting in dishes that are creative but don't forget how to taste good.
A bundle of asparagus spears and garlicky Boursin cheese is wrapped in a crisp quiver of smoky bacon. A free-form grilled pizza teases between salty and sweet with smears of fig jam, crunchy nuggets of pancetta, and molten streams of Gorgonzola cheese. Homemade country pate has that perfect balance of coarse rustic chunks and liverlike spreadability, perfect for the accompanying crusty bread and grainy mustard.
Much of the menu is American comfort food at heart, whether it's an excellent pork chop stuffed with corn, bacon and dressing over port-braised collards, a heap of tender, meaty ribs glazed in bourbony barbecue sauce, or delicate cod encrusted with crisp bread crumbs that hint of coriander.
But Chlöe also has an abiding affection for more assertive, exotic spicing. Before they are grilled, skewered lamb cubes served over minted couscous are marinated in yogurt and Moroccan spices, a blend of coriander, ginger, cumin, cardamom, cloves and fenugreek that tenderizes the meat.
Moist chicken breast gets a tropical tan from its dry rub of curry, garlic and paprika, a swelling heat that contrasts with its garnish of grilled bananas soused in rum and molasses. A lively Indonesian coconut curry gives perfectly grilled shrimp exotic appeal, but it's the bed of corn-studded pancakes that makes the dish.
There were less-inspired moments. The braised fennel appetizer was a nice idea, but an awkward and surprisingly bland take on veggie Parmesan. The mussels had a tasty broth piqued with Dijon mustard, but the New Zealand mollusks were too big and chewy.
The beet salad was too crunchy, and parboiling the bulb before roasting seemed to have blanched out the sweetness. I loved the homemade asparagus ravioli in sage brown butter; they would have been perfect had the cheese filling been less runny.
But far more often than not, Chlöe's menu scored. And in light of the moderate prices, I was impressed by the quality of the ingredients. Everybody these days claims to use "sushi-grade" tuna, but the rare grilled fillet over jasmine rice and seaweed salad was such a gorgeous ruby color inside that it was like eating some exquisite sea melon. Likewise, the rib-eye steak was not simply tender, perfectly moist and surprisingly lean; it had a wonderful beefy flavor, no doubt enhanced by Grimes' homemade Worcestershire sauce.
In fact, if I were Ferrie, I would have married Grimes for his Worcestershire, not his cheesecake, which was a little too light for me. Why shortchange indulgence when it comes to that important genre of cakery? Even a cute candied kumquat on the side couldn't completely compensate.
On the other hand, a gentle touch is what raises many of these familiar desserts above home-cook status. The tiramisu was as light as a cloud over the cyclone of chocolate lines squiggling the plate. Grimes' deep-dish apple pie was classically tasty, but most notable for its flaky double crust.
But my favorite dessert was the banana bread pudding, yieldingly moist and fragrant with fruit. Actually, it happens to be the only dessert that Ferrie claims as her own. But if Grimes' recipes are indeed right nine times out of 10, Ferrie's 10th guarantees a dinner worth savoring from start to finish. Craig LaBan's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.