1125 Sixth Ave.
The thing I've always most admired about French cooking, and French-influenced cooking, is the way ingredients are combined to yield a sum far greater than its parts. Jason Seibert, the chef/owner of downtown's Café Cerise and a former executive chef at Spago's Maui location, is a skilled chef well versed in French cuisine who turns out dishes that are marvels of interplay between diverse flavors and textures, featuring fresh local produce.
In addition to the daily changing menu of original and creative appetizers, entrées and desserts, Café Cerise also offers several original and excellent cocktails to start your meal off right, such as the Cerise Cocktail and the Negroni. The Cerise Cocktail, consisting of kirschwasser, Absolut Citron, cherry and lemon juices, was quite bracing, with a strong cherry/citrus flavor. The Negroni, made from Anchor Brewing Company's Junipero Gin, Campari, sweet vermouth and orange zest, is also an impressive creation, the gin providing a counterbalance of bitterness to the sweet ingredients. Think grapefruit juice, and you'll have an idea of what this drink was like.
While we sipped our drinks, the waiter brought out a cloth napkin folded into the shape of an envelope, stuffed with warm bread. Toasted flatbread cut into strips resembling bacon was one choice, well seasoned with kosher salt, pepper, parsley, fennel and garlic-and-onion-flavored olive oil. My favorite, though, was the soft and crusty focaccia balls-seasoned with garlic, olive oil and a generous dusting of kosher salt. No dipping sauce required to make them interesting.
For appetizers, we chose the tomato and fennel tart with picholine olives and arugula pesto, and a chanterelle mushroom and sweet corn chowder with red pepper purée. The chowder was smooth and creamy, punctuated with the smoky flavor of bacon and a light, velvety texture. The tart consisted of a flaky and buttery crust layered with rich roasted tomatoes, feta cheese and olives, served atop baby lettuce with a dollop of arugula pesto, its tartness offsetting the sweetness of the tomatoes and the richness of the crust and cheese.
My date chose the lemon-and-white-wine-marinated quail with sweet corn risotto, red pepper coulis, English peas and shaved pecorino for her entrée, while I opted for the red wine-braised short ribs of beef with house-made pappardelle, sautéed spinach, broccoli rabe, chanterelle mushrooms and red wine jus. As good as these dishes sound, they tasted even better. The short ribs were perfectly braised to fork tenderness, with an absurdly rich and beefy flavor, the vegetable and noodle bed they sat upon picking up the au jus beautifully.
The quail was similarly outstanding-tender and flavorful, with a nice tang from the lemon juice. The sweet corn risotto offered an unusual twist on this staple side dish, with the red pepper coulis accenting it nicely. In addition to the English peas, the vegetables also included spinach and tender roasted gold beets. Definitely recommended.
Reluctantly, we pushed away our dinners about halfway through, wanting to save some room for dessert. We had a feeling that with food as good as we'd had so far, the desserts must be something special-a suspicion that was wholly borne out.
From the list recited to us, we opted for the chocolate terrine, described as a checkerboard of light and dark mousses, and a take on bananas foster, consisting of bananas sautéed in dark rum and served with Tahitian vanilla gelato from Gelato Vero Café. Again, as good as these dishes sound....
As tasty as the bananas and ice cream were-and they were incredible, make no mistake-the chocolate terrine stole the show, rivaling anything produced by Extraordinary Desserts. Comprising intensely rich dark chocolate ganache poured around alternating milk and white chocolate mousses in a checkerboard pattern, the generous slice laid upon raspberry purée decorated with blueberries and was easily one of the best chocolate desserts I've tasted.
It's hard to write about a place like Café Cerise without sounding like a paid shill. However, Chef Seibert has succeeded in the difficult task of marrying creativity with expert technique-producing an end result informed by tradition but not beholden to it. As with most restaurants downtown, the prices ain't cheap. Appetizers hover between $7 and $10, with entrées coming in between $20 and $25. The desserts, however, are a bargain at $5 apiece, making this a nice alternative for a coffee and dessert spot. Café Cerise also offers a moderately priced lunch menu, with dishes between $8 and $12.