I've been thinking long and hard about why I had such a visceral dislike for my experience at Arro Friday night--despite the fact (or because of the fact) that I was so looking forward to a French food fix in my hometown after 4 weeks in France.
Walk home one evening in Paris, post dégustation of wine, cheese with Paris by Mouth at La Dernière Goutte
Some elements are easy to identify.
Element 1. Really loud club music. Unclear if Arro is trying to be a club or bar that serves food, or if it is aiming to be a restaurant. I've been noticing the music now everywhere I go. They turned it down for us, as I started pouring for myself the bottle of wine I had just purchased as the bar (anticipating a long wait for our group of 3), as I needed something fast to distract me from how awful the first impression was with the music. That wine was my new recent favorite, however, which I was thrilled to see as an option: Clos Siguier, a natural wine from Cahors (France), which has been my recent go-to at Vino Vino.
Offerings were stupendous: the duck confit was almost my choice. I (and my two dining companions) opted instead for the very reasonable $25 "menu" or "formule"--French style, picking a starter, main dish, and a dessert.
What happened next was Element Two of a not-great night, and the focus of gastronomic debate with friends and introspection in the days following.
My starter was the French Onion Soup, a classic, and one for which I have fond, strong feelings in terms of how I like it given my experimentation with various recipes over the years. As my friends' Herb Salad starter arrived, which they loved, I received a white soup bowl with a plate on top of it. On top of the plate was a portion of a baguette -- about the size of that small 6-inch Subway sandwich -- covered with melted cheese. I looked up, dazed and confused, at the server. Uh, so, what's the deal here with the cheese bread on the side?
Answer: It's so the bread does not get all mushy in the soup. Or you can break it into pieces and put it in the soup yourself.
Ok, well, I thought that was sort of the point of French Onion Soup -- the challenge of toasting the bread just right so when it is broiled with the Comté or Gruyère on top you have that pleasing combination of textures: the crisp crust of the bread, the rich stock of the soup, the bite of the hot cheese. I ate it, sullenly, under protest, but noting the soup itself was nice. Not as strong and bold as I like mine, but with a sweetness, showcasing the obviously well-caramelized onions.
Element 3. The bread situation.
As one would expect from a place that is owned by the same folks who own the place that I think has the best baguette in town - Easy Tiger (which I told Meg Zimbeck of Paris by Mouth... hope she stops by and checks it out while she is visiting family in Georgetown/Round Rock this summer) - the bread could steal the show. Charging people $2 per person to have a bread plate (served beautifully, true) on the side though ... me no like. I get that something this artisanal and gorgeous cannot just be the side, not for those diners who may not care enough to notice how superlative it is. Surely somehow a bread serving can be built into the pricing, along with that mysteriously delicious, not-ordinary fluffy salted butter that accompanies it.
Despite the onion soup bust (for me), the bread sur-charge situation, and the nightclub music beat, dessert was exquisite.
Melissa and I ordered the Rosewater Profiteroles. (See the Arro menu here.) True, these were not classic profiteroles: with vanilla ice cream or a creamy filling inside and hot dark chocolate sauce (Benoit in Paris comes to mind), but I was forewarned on the menu not to expect that. Indeed, I ordered them because they were so intriguing ("Rosewater Profiteroles .. pistachio ice cream, raspberries, black pepper"). Maureen ordered the Dark Chocolate Pot de Creme -- another one of my favorite stand-bys, but this one was at another level, with "apricot brandy milk liqueur and cherries."
I am not "a dessert person." The Arro desserts could turn me into one. Bite after bite I marveled at the profiteroles: the combination of the spice of the pepper against the sweet lightness of the ice cream and the inherent ethereal nature of rosewater.
Over the next morning's workout, Melissa and I debated the deconstructed French onion soup and my whining, still, over this big let-down (for me). Classics are tweaked and revised and reinvented the world over. This is how innovation pushes the evelope in culinary terms. What was my big deal?
I honestly don't know. That loud music, the high ceilings that make the music bounce around all over, the really young dining crowd (not us). It just hit me in the face all wrong. Not sure why. Justine's is deafeningly loud, but I love that place. There the music is vintage jazz. Maybe it works because the music fits the space, the food, the diverse crowd.
Maybe Arro is still just finding its way, its people -- and the right soundtrack for the space and those people. Just not sure I'm going to be one of those people, unless it's a quiet Saturday and I'm at the bar, listening to jazz, having a glass of that Clos Siguier and a slice or two of that exquisite bread. And maybe a bite or two of that chocolate pot de crème.