Lighter than Air 

Gertrude's raises spirits with spectacular fare -- and uncommon care

A true story: I had recently returned from my uncle's funeral in upstate New York. An unhappy time, to say the least. After being back in town a few days -- which happened to be bleak, gray, sunless and cold -- I decided a sitter and a dinner someplace nice was in order. I called Gertrude's to make a reservation and the owner answered. (Keep in mind that, as a reviewer, I never make reservations under my own name.) When I asked for a reservation for the following day, he mused, "OK, that's Saturday. What [time of day] are you thinking?" Being prone to blurting, I replied, "I'm thinking about killing myself if the sun doesn't come out soon." He laughed. I laughed. Then he confided, "You know, I kind of enjoy the gray rainy days myself," and I told him I usually did too, but I had just returned from a funeral and it was more than I could bear. He told me to come in, and they'd see if they couldn't cheer me up.

Darned if they didn't do just that. After we got tucked into our cozy booth, the waitress took our drink orders. When she delivered them to the table, she asked if we had made our reservation the day before. I said yes, I had. Then she asked, "Did you ... um ... when you made your reservation, were you kind of ... um ..." So I filled in the blank and said, "Suicidal? Yes, that was me." Robert Wooldridge Jr., the owner, had asked the waitress to keep an eye out for "the 6:30 reservation," because he had stopped on the way to work and picked up a small bouquet of flowers, just on the off chance he could help cheer up someone who was down.

Of course, the food alone could have done that. The figs and chvre appetizer looked so simple, but the flavors merged together divinely. The goat cheese was spread on a tortilla, blended with chopped figs and fresh red peppers, rolled up and sliced. And the potato pancakes, large enough to be an entree on their own, had just enough sweet potato in them to impart a slight earthy sweetness. They were good enough -- crusty, golden brown on the outside and tender on the inside -- that the sour cream that accompanied them was just gilding the lily.

Wooldridge definitely has a way with soups. Since there were four of us, I got to sample both the bacon and onion, with meaty, salty pieces of bacon offsetting the sweetness of the onion, and my favorite, white bean and roasted garlic. The latter was thick and velvety smooth, with the buttery richness of roasted garlic. Two in our party ordered half-size Caesar salads instead of the house salad, and the dressing was tangy and full-flavored without being harsh. Instead of being topped with multiple croutons, it came with a single large one, which my friend dubbed "the uni-crout, for all your crouton needs." I was happy with the house salad, because I'm a sucker for a perfectly balanced vinaigrette.

The entrees were celestial in quality, but making the decision was torment. From the Eggplant Parmesan, with a simple but perfect marinara sauce, to the seafood-filled paella, it was heaven. I especially liked the range of seafood in the paella, which seemed to have everything from perfectly cooked mussels to delicate bites of flaky, moist salmon. The artichoke hearts were a nice addition as well.

But as much as I savored the paella, I loved my husband's entree even more. He ordered a garlic-infused fillet mignon, and on a scale of 1 to 10, it rated at least a 12. This was easily the best beef I've ever tasted, rich but not fatty, tender and juicy, and just so out-and-out luscious it was almost enough to make me give up vegetables. The venison was equally well prepared, ranking right up there with some of the best I've ever tasted. As a longtime fan of venison, I was pleased to see that the preparation didn't try to disguise the unique flavor of the venison, which isn't at all gamey.

You should go to Gertrude's immediately, or sooner, and sample the root beer ice cream. This is sort of like the concentrated essence of a root beer float, cool and creamy with that unmistakable flavor. The award-winning Chocolate Oblivion didn't let us down, either. It's a rich, dense, flourless chocolate cake that doesn't go overboard on sweetness. But the best dessert was the special: a light, delicate wisp of a tuille (a very light, crispy cookie) filled with an ethereal lemon mousse about as light as a cloud, napped on a puddle of fresh raspberry sauce.

At the end of the meal, I gathered my flowers and wrapped the stems in a paper towel to take them home. My belly was full, and my heart felt just a little bit lighter.


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