Sex appeal in a restaurant isn't just intimate ambience, seductive music or a menu filled with luscious, potent aphrodisiacs; it's a combination of all those things. The result of the meal should be an intense desire to ditch dessert after a couple of bites, dash home and take off all your clothes. (Think of the dining scene in the movie Tom Jones, where Albert Finney and his saucy wench lustily devour their supper, staring at each other with libidinous abandon.) A few local restaurants set the mood for love right away. Piropos, with its romantic view and succulent steaks, comes immediately to mind, as does Café des Amis -- such a secluded spot for secret dining a deux -- and Le Fou Frog, where the Left Bank bonhomie is contagious, and Jasper's, which is much more beguiling in its casual surroundings than it was in its former, highly formal location.
Add the city's newest French restaurant, Aixois, to the list of sexy scenes. The two-month-old bistro gets its romantic allure from its attractive young owners, Megan and Emmanuel Langlade. The couple -- she a local girl, he a native of Aix-en-Provence -- fell in love while they were working at another restaurant, eloped, had a baby and opened their own place. They've carved a long, narrow dining room out of what was once a portion of the old Crestwood Gallery.
The room has a lot going for it: big plate-glass windows looking out on a shady patio, oversized mirrors on the far wall, wooden beams and surfaces painted in the shades of Van Gogh's sunflowers and Toulouse-Lautrec's russet reds. But with so many hard surfaces, the acoustics are terrible -- it's impossible to whisper sweet obscenities, especially when the place is packed. "We're doing something about that," says Megan, who has hired a sound consultant. And who cares about talking when there's food and l'amour, baby?
Aixois has been hot since the minute the Langlades threw open the glass-paned doors, although not everyone has been receptive. "I don't want to wait for a table," sniffed my friend Linda, who hurries to new restaurants the way that the terminally hip rush to gallery openings. "And besides, I don't trust a restaurant with a name I can't pronounce."
It's pronounced "Ex-wah." The Langlades chose the name after considering and then discarding a dozen or more. They considered Déjà Vu, until Megan took her children to Swope Park and saw a banner that said "Deja Zoo." And they wanted something that would reflect chef Emmanuel's personality. "He's from Provence, making him an Aixois," Megan says. "We knew people would have a hard time pronouncing it and an impossible time finding it in the phone book. But we knew if the restaurant was good enough, people would find us."
And they have, often waiting an hour or more for a table. But happily, the Langlades have lifted their archaic reservation policy (only available for parties of six or more). Megan now takes "limited" reservations for smaller groups, she says. "I want it to remain a neighborhood bistro," she says. "A place where people can just walk in, if they want."
I walked in three times and waited for a table only once, during the weekend dinner rush. And I didn't mind waiting, because the people-watching was tres bon. The scene-makers had arrived first, to earn their bragging rights: the lacquered Mission Hills contingent, the over-thirty mod squad, the social-climbing yuppies. On later visits, I saw that the younger neighborhood residents -- lithe and attractive, full of laughter and joie de vivre -- were joining the crowd. All were blabbing over plates of buttered bread and charcuterie (slices of prosciutto, imported Italian sausage and a mellow house-made, chicken-liver mousse) or tender and garlicky escargot bubbling in a buttery broth.
Aixois is a real bistro, not fancy. Tables aren't covered in linen (though the napkins are cloth), and the silver is mismatched, like the chairs. Waiters are handsome and charming, though not in any sort of sophisticated, Gallic way. A century ago, novelist Henry James described Parisian waiters as knowing when to say "that little something extra"; the Aixois servers, however, are too frazzled for such niceties on busy weekend nights. They scurry through the room, juggling china plates so artfully arranged that a simple salad carries as much erotic charge as a Cézanne painting of nude bathers: Greens lie tousled underneath two cold shrimp, half an avocado and eight glistening grapefruit sections with a pink cognac dressing.
The six salads are definitely exhibition-worthy (and expensive), including a pile of mustard-flavored arugula sprinkled with fresh strawberries and a dollop of warm, creamy goat cheese. Soups are visually impressive too, especially the deceptively simple broccoli concoction I tasted one afternoon, which looked like a pool of liquid jade. Made without a drop of cream, the soup was light and fresh-tasting, with just a dash of black pepper thrown in for punch.
Dinner choices also sounded like simple affairs, but Emmanuel cooked and presented them with great drama. His only blunder was the oven-roasted chicken, which smelled heavenly but tasted as dry as parchment. Afterward, I was secretly thrilled with my own good luck at choosing the sautéed ruby trout, its skin peeled back to uncover a shockingly pink fillet, bathed in a sauce of butter and fresh lemon juice.
And I hurried back for another visit. This time I gazed down, unashamed, at a tender breast of duck, its skin perfectly roasted and crispy, lightly brushed with a sweet peach glaze (but not for long -- Emmanuel replaces summer peaches with autumn chanterelles this month). My friend Bob, a steak lover, wavered between a beef tenderloin or a Kansas City strip. He finally chose the former, seduced by the sound of an intensely flavored demi-glace made with pungent ewe's milk Roquefort. It was exquisitely grilled and dripped with the sensuous, caramel-colored sauce.
My heart beat twice over the pan-seared lamb loin, fragrant with fresh rosemary and accessorized with tender mushrooms, carrots sliced as thin as orange tissue paper and golden croquettes of plump, fried potato puffs. My friend Cindy, a perpetually dieting entertainment writer from Chicago, shocked all of us by ravaging a seafood concoction inspired by Moulin Rouge: a chorus line of plump shrimp posing on a bed of mashed potatoes, glistening with a sauce of fresh garlic and chopped tomatoes.
Who could think of dessert after all that? An espresso, perhaps, but.... Cindy wanted crème brûlée, and out it came, the flat dish of silken custard topped with a veil of crisp burnt sugar. I'd promised myself I would take only a taste of the hot bread pudding, baked with fresh raspberries and served with a cloud of whipped cream -- but the whole thing disappeared in a moment of ecstasy. And Aixois may be the only restaurant in town serving the favorite Victorian dessert called "Floating Island" (a pouf of meringue on a lemony custard), but the servers will steer diners toward the more substantial choices, like that bread pudding or decadent chocolate mousse.
As a prelude to a kiss, a dinner at Aixois is as intoxicating as champagne bubbles. One good bite always leads to another. Or as that great romantic Lord Byron put it best: "All human history attests that happiness for man -- the hungry sinner! -- Since Eve ate apples, much depends on dinner."