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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.