There's yet another reason to pity the 9-to-5ers who don't work downtown: They can't walk over to 3 Doors Down for a convenient and surprisingly good lunch. In a space occupied for too long by a nondescript, vaguely Cajun joint, Sue and John Daugherty and partner Ann Armour (late of Caf Sweet Annie's) opened 3 Doors Down last month with a commitment to eating healthily and well. But that's redundant.
Wrought-iron chairs are padded with comfy cushions; tables linens are bright yellow and blue prints, evocative of that season we all wish we had spent in Provence. Just walking in the door will melt away workaday stress; sitting down in a sunny front window to as fine a lunch as I had will renew you. Try to sit near the cozy corner fireplace, whose bright-colored tiles are topped with the goofiest rooster lamp I've seen in a long time, well, ever. You can get the lamp at Wal-Mart, but you won't get food like this on Academy Boulevard's chain-restaurant alley.
The daily menu is written on a chalkboard, contributing to the bistro feel and making frequent changes to the menu hassle-free. Lunch offers two soups in two sizes. The day I visited, the soups were creamy potato dill and vegetable-beef barley. The steaming barley soup was as rich as a stew and as flavorful as if it had been simmering for days. A good-sized cup goes for $2.95; a bowl big enough to be its own meal is $4.95. The two complex salads were $9.95 for a jicama and spring-greens salad served with a quesadilla, and $10.95 for a sublime shrimp, greens and fruit salad served with blue cheese and walnut crostini. A light lemon balsamic vinaigrette held it all together. The presentation of greens, shrimp, grapes and pears was gorgeous.
There are tough choices for both vegetarians and carnivores. Lunch entrees, all $8.95, were chicken and wild rice wrapped in filo pastry; pumpkin ravioli Alfredo; and flank steak with caliente catsup in a flour tortilla. Each came with a small house salad of baby greens and thin twirls of jicama, carrot and beet, topped with toasted pumpkin seeds. Take your kids (or co-workers); this is a fun salad to eat. They can see who's got the longest beet strand.
I ordered the chicken in filo and fell in love. Lightly seasoned with thyme, hinting at cranberry, those three not-so-little triangles exploded with flavors. The filo was crisp and rich without being greasy (tough to attain when you've got to brush each layer with melted butter).
I recruited two of my Taste Team's first string for a dinner visit where we sampled three of the night's four entrees. We made the painful decision to skip the crab ravioli in saffron sauce and headed for the beef tenderloin, chicken roulade and spinach gnocchi. It was like choosing which of your children to leave behind when you move to another state.
The beef tenderloin, two large fillets, was smothered in a cranberry port sauce and topped with a pat of rosemary gorgonzola butter. I salivate at the memory. It was fork-tender and accompanied by butternut squash (with its own dollop of maple butter) and roasted potatoes. The spinach gnocchi, redolent with garlic and cheese, took my dining pals back to happy times in Tuscany. The chicken was wrapped around a filling of brie and portabella mushrooms, then sliced and dribbled with a rosemary demiglace. The two large pieces of sage-seasoned polenta that came with it were among the tastiest I've ever had.
Entre prices range from $12.95 to $22.95. All entrees start with a house salad and, before that, an appetizer of cream cheese and red-pepper couli, crusty bread to spread it on, and thin slices of dried apples and pears. All these dishes need to tip the scales toward perfection is a fine glass of wine, a situation whose remedy is in the works or at least in the hands of the board which is reviewing the liquor-license application.
Shelley Hartman, the artist in the kitchen, is a pastry chef extraordinaire. In an attempt to review food by proxy, I watched the three lunchtime diners at the next table try to share two desserts, a lemon chiffon pie with a delicate blueberry sauce, and an Italian wedding cake, a multilayered, heavily creamed concoction festooned with thin slabs of chocolate and a whimsical chocolate 3.
My pals and I shared the chocolate roulade -- a jelly-rollish little gem made with raspberry and cream fillings -- only because we were so sated after the meal. Do try to save room for dessert. Or, given the coziness and closeness of the tables, introduce yourself to the owner of that pie sitting next to you. Maybe you'll get lucky.
Offerings like these are difficult to categorize. The ingredients are fresh; there are none of the shortcuts in preparation that often doom a dish; presentations are lovely; service is terrific. A lot of attention is paid to small details. Is it health food? New American Bistro? What trend is this? 3 Doors Down is the dream of some folks who have spent years mucking about with food, cooking it, serving it, eating it. Sue is the dynamo who welcomes strangers like old friends; Shelley is the shy one who may pop out to say hello. Maybe it's enough to say 3 Doors Down offers a small-town feel with big-city food. We can always use more of that.