Monday, April 12, 2010


Isn't Spring wonderful?? I'm sitting outside with my laptop even as we speak (type?). My shirt used to be white, but is now a pale yellow thanks to the heavy cloud of pollen floating around, but I don't mind. It's just so darn gorgeous out here, I can't help myself. After a beautiful Saturday afternoon of doing things around the house, Taylor and I decided we were past due for a date...and #1 on our list of criteria for the place we chose to dine was "Outdoor/Patio Seating." #2 was "Somewhere New", and #3 was "Somewhere with good Seafood". BINGO: Cotton Row Restaurant on the southwest corner of Courthouse Square.

I won't bore you with too many facts- you can check out Cotton Row Restaurant for them- but I will say that the Chef and Owner, James Boyce, is a Culinary Institute of America graduate with enough accolades to fill a wheelbarrow. His restaurant is based on "handcrafted American cuisine", utilizing locally grown produce, and an "upscale casual" atmosphere with a comfortable yet refined feel. Soft instrumental music plays in the background. The lighting is low and romantic. The walls are exposed brick, adding an elegant but "homey" feeling. It is evident that a lot of thought went into the ambiance- everything flows together, from the industrial style lamp resting on the hostess stand to the bank vault door near the back of the restaurant to the tiny black iron candle votives on the tables. Rich browns and antiqued metal finishes surround you from floor to ceiling, but the bright white tablecloths, the modern wall sconces, and the contemporary rimless plates bring you back to the 21st century. It almost seems as though you are dining in a swanky basement wine cellar...which the restaurant offers for private parties, by the way. Click here to check it out.

The plate glass window wall facing the street opens up, gracing the entire restaurant with an Al Fresco dining atmosphere. We decided to go one step further and actually dine on the outdoor patio. We were seated by the very gracious hostess and greeted warmly by several smiling servers and busboys en route to our table. The one assigned to us was named Parker. He was young and happy, engaging and conversational but not overly-so, AND he possessed the holy grail trait of a good server: he memorized our orders and did not write anything down. This can be good or bad, but when they actually manage to get everything right, it is highly impressive.

An additional server offered us several varieties of water to accompany our meal- we chose good ‘ole Huntsville Tap. Parker returned to take our drink orders, myself ordering a “Strawberry Basil Mojito” and Taylor having a high-gravity beer called “Delirium Tremens”. While waiting for our drinks, the water server brought us a basket of very warm rolls and a pat of butter to hold us over. Now, I know I haven’t even gotten to the meat of my review (pun intended!), but the Cranberry Walnut Wheat rolls were INCREDIBLE. Definitely one of the most memorable elements of the entire evening. They have been committed to long-term memory, and if I ever make it to the Food Network show “The Best Thing I Ever Ate: Bread”…I already have my answer. They were served with a generous amount of butter which was sprinkled with cracked sea salt- why didn’t I think of that??

My $8 cocktail was very sweet but equally smooth and refreshing. I typically don’t like things floating in my drink, but there is a special place in my heart for both Strawberries and Basil- so it didn’t phase me in the slightest. The Basil didn’t come through as much as I’d hoped, but it was very tasty and refreshing none the less. Not much I can say about the Delirium…..Taylor loved it. Parker was very attentive, as were various other servers who passed our table and never failed to ask, “Is everything alright? Is there anything I can get you?” He brought us our dinner menus, handing me mine first like a good Southern gentleman. The menu is striking, being a square trifold with minimal writing and imagery. It lets the menu items speak for themselves.

We decided to go a little crazy: sharing an appetizer, each having two additional courses, AND a dessert! Shh, don’t tell. :) I at least ordered two small plates…Taylor went for the big guns ordering a small plate and a regular size entrée. The menu was just so appealing that we simply couldn’t decide. You only live once, right? Parker was pretty pleased, seeing as he’d get a bigger tip with the bigger bill. We ordered:

cotton row hot sauce

These tasty little devils were VERY hot and delightfully crispy. They used adequately thick slices of young petite Green Tomatoes, which were extremely “tomatoey” and very fresh tasting. The breading was thin but crunchy all the same, the tomato showed through the breading which is a nice change from overly-done, thick crust usually found on fried foods. It was drizzled with a vibrant orange Aioli of some sort, it was mild yet flavorful- perhaps a simple Paprika Aioli or a mild Hot Sauce Aioli. Either way, it was a nice compliment to the deeply spicy housemade hot sauce, served in a decorative serving spoon. The hot sauce was incredibly spicy, but had a lot of depth and flavor to match the heat. It was dark brown, almost like a soy reduction, which made the level of spiciness surprising. The dish was accompanied with a small handful of sweet mixed greens, which added even more freshness and vibrance to the dish, bringing it all together nicely. We both agreed we would most definitely order this dish again, should it appear on the menu.

Taylor’s appetizer:
granites and mignonette

While these oysters were perhaps the most beautiful thing I’ve seen on a plate in quite some time, I regret to say this was one of the low points of the meal. The idea of the icy granitas resting on freshly shucked oysters on the half shell is compelling for sure, but neither Taylor nor I found the flavor combinations successful for the most part. There were half a dozen oysters resting on a bed of sea salt and aromatics: 2 of them covered in a Pomegranate or Blackberry Granita, 2 covered in a “Cocktail Sauce” flavored Granita, and the final 2 covered in a classic Mignonette with diced shallots and vinegar. The deep purple fruity Granita tasted sweet and delicious on its own- and of course oysters are delicious- but together…not so much. It was very odd, and changed flavors in my mouth several times- none of which I enjoyed. It was very complex, and overall….puzzling. We moved on to the orange, cocktail flavored granita oysters- these were a little bit better, boasting flavors of horseradish and tomato, but still, for some reason, it was not very enjoyable. The gritty, icy texture was difficult to wrap my brain around while eating it with a smooth raw oyster. Lastly, we tried the mignonette oysters. These were definitely the most successful. The brightness of the vinegar and shallots married nicely with the briny salty oysters, but I still found myself wishing I just had a basket of saltines, a dollop of cocktail sauce, and a lemon wedge. Would not order this one again.

My appetizer:
citrus pickled jicama, roma tomatoes, crispy sweet potatoes

Wow, this dish was magazine worthy! Absolutely gorgeous. Bright green and orange, the curly texture of the sweet potato, all resting in a Martini tumbler on a rimless white plate….beautiful. BUT, that’s where it ends. My first thought after my first bite was, “Did they forget something?” The dish tasted incomplete. Like an element of flavor had gone missing. It lacked complexity. To be a “ceviche”, it lacked acidity. To come with citrus pickled jicama and crispy sweet potatoes, it lacked any real flavor. It was bland, had an odd texture with somewhat chewy shrimp and romaine lettuce mixed in with the jicama, and was overall kind of disappointing. It did taste very fresh and springy, but it was not spectacular to say the least. Would not order again. Sorry, Cotton Row. :(

Taylor’s main:
midnight black beans, papaya, cilantro-lime salad, chipotle butter

With this dish, Taylor and I were divided. I, myself did not enjoy it, and for $30, probably would have sent it back. Taylor, however, cleaned his plate. I will just say that to me, it was WAY too spicy, I even coughed after my one and only bite. I’m not a huge fan of black pepper, and the scallops were coated in it. So between the extreme spiciness of the beans and chipotle butter and the overly-pepperiness of the scallops, it was too much for me. Taylor’s comments: The black beans were tasteful and al dente, the sweetness of the papaya added a different dimension to the entire dish, and the scallops were perfectly tender and succulent. We are both huge cilantro lovers, which the dish had plenty of throughout. He loved it and would order it again. It was very bright and just what he was wanting on a warm spring evening.

My main:
marsala cream, shitake mushrooms, shaved parmesan

YUMMY! So good, so rich but still somehow light. This small plate came with 5 ravioli, resting in a beautiful modern bowl, with diced tomatoes, a couple shiitake mushrooms, and microgreens. The marsala cream made it sweet and rich, the pork shoulder and goat cheese made it hearty, the mushrooms made it earthy, the tomatoes made it fresh, the microgreens made it taste like spring, and the parmesan cheese added a needed saltiness. The raviolis were perfectly tender as was the pork and goat cheese inside them. There was just the right amount of marsala cream to coat each ravioli, but not drown them. I think this dish would be equally successful on a cold winter’s night, but the small portion and the brightness of the fresh tomatoes and microgreens made it fit right in with the spring season. My compliments to the chef.

Taylor’s dessert:
banana fritter, caramel sauce, chocolate bark

Taylor was in heaven. He didn’t even read past the first dessert menu item. He loves bananas and chocolate and caramel. His bananas were warm and very crispy, almost tempura fried. The caramel sauce was perfectly sweet, like any good caramel sauce should be. The chocolate bark was dark and rich, and does anything really go better with bananas than chocolate?? It came with a striking ice cream “tower”, shaped like a cone on the plate. He loved it, and ate every bite. I tried a bit, but was pretty preoccupied with my delightful dessert…

(Sorry no was pretty dark at this point!)

My dessert:
pound cake, warm caramel, pumpkin ice cream

Ah, just what one wants from a bread pudding. Thick, filling, and rich. It was not overly sweet, leaving ample room for the sweetness of the ice cream, which melted all over the warm plate like a crème anglaise. The pudding had chocolate chips hidden throughout it, which was a nice surprise every couple bites. It, too, had the sweet caramel sauce drizzled over it, which was heavenly. I didn’t detect too much pumpkin in the ice cream, but the dessert overall was very successful. The portion was small so it didn’t last long. :) It was the perfect ending to our wonderful Al Fresco meal on the patio.

(I tried...)

As the sun went down, our votive candle casted interesting shadows over the table, and made for an all-around romantic evening on the town. Our total bill came to $137, which was exactly what we expected to pay for our indulgences. And except for the minor low-point in the meal, I would definitely do it all over again. Can’t wait to see what Cotton Row can do with the abundance of summer produce. Until next time!


The Chef Next Door


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