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Twice Told

Good thing we returned to Avalon.

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When we slide into our booth at the back of Avalon's amber-lighted dining room, I wonder, “Why don't we ever come here?” I think it's been five years or more since I had a meal in a place I drive past a couple of times a week. Everything on the menu sounds so wonderful that we have a difficult time deciding: small plates or big plates, the duck or the filet? The server's patient guidance is quite helpful, given that the menu's layout focuses on food-chain distinctions rather than courses. Once we've settled the questions and ordered, we enjoy a rare opportunity to relax, soak in the ambiance, and wait for dinner to arrive. … and wait for dinner to arrive … and wait.

It's a Friday night and the place is bustling, which gives us plenty of people-watching opportunities. Strangely, however, we aren't watching them eat. Everyone seems to be in the same boat: a lifeboat, sorely lacking provisions. The group of gentlemen at the table behind us becomes increasingly vocal while more drinks arrive sans food. The server's winning smile is enough to stave off the wolves, but for how long? I actually find myself hoping we don't get served first.

I've always considered a menu to be more of a contract than a sales pitch. And when our food finally arrives, decidedly out of order, we find ourselves more than disappointed. Something as simple as edamame fritters, potentially a neat take on falafel, are dark brown and oil-saturated, essentially inedible. Who wants to put a burnt glob of soybean paste in their mouth? But the glob-of-paste theme continues into the next course, so it must be a choice on the part of the kitchen, right?

Sometimes a dab of something far exceeds an abundance of it. Take the fava bean, goat cheese and mint crostini, for example. Not that the flavor was anything exceptional, but I'm thinking, why stretch your goat cheese with fava bean paste if you're going to spread it two inches thick on burned toast? Why waste saffron and anchovy oil in a sautAced shrimp dish that seems to call for as many cloves of garlic as there are prawns to go with them?

Our server's smile fades when she sees the amount of food still on our plates when we ask that they be cleared. And no, we don't want to take it to go, as much as it pains me to waste food. We leave thinking, “Oh yes, that's why we don't frequent this joint, in spite of the atmosphere and stellar front-of-house service.”

But researching a review really does require multiple visits, for good reason.

It's unseasonably warm for a Monday in January, and a crowd huddles around the bar for happy hour. A few tables fill up and the steady hum of service commences apace. This time I take charge of the ordering. Now I'm focused on simple hearty, tried and true. No more feeling around the edges for the trickier flavor combinations and attempts at vegetarian fusion. We savor delectable beef tenderloin, smoked with mushroom cream and shaved horseradish. Pulled pork with sherry-vinegar slaw on toasted flatbread points tangs and satisfies. Grilled beef tenderloin with winter root vegetables, as earthy and rich as I could have imagined, are worth the trip alone. Even the watercress and blue cheese salad with which we start seems artfully constructed and perfectly thought out.

What a difference a day makes! Savvy diners know that the best day of the week for service and execution tends to be Tuesday rather than Friday. And you also have to go with what a place does well. Friday seems rushed and disjointed and certainly uneven in pacing. But Monday is a dream; the kitchen has time to take its time and allow that fine reduction of the pan sauce that makes all the difference. 

Avalon has made me think twice, and reminds me that, in part, the fault is mine for a poor order the first visit. But I hope the kitchen thinks twice and steps up to the full potential of what it's capable of producing. Cooking requires critical self-analysis to force an ever better result from the same goods and equipment, regardless of time. It's the time and fire thing: You have to rush without rushing. S

Avalon ($$)
2619 W. Main St.
353-9709
Dinner daily: 5-11 p.m.
avalonrestaurant.com

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