Flavor: Seasonal modern American
Ambiance: Classy, modern
The Cellar Door certainly has its aspirations, and it makes sure that you take notice as soon as you arrive. What strikes you, after descending from street level into the Black Mountain restaurant’s subterranean chambers, is the boldly designed interior. The journey below ground occurs via a wooden staircase that – especially if you happen to be outfitted in high heels – makes you suddenly quite conscious of the competing forces of gravity and coordination.
Despite the use of dark colors splashed throughout the interior, most notably in the bar area, the restaurant doesn’t have a cave-like appearance or feel. Warm-toned accent colors, combined with large wooden wall panels and exposed brick, help to warm the place up, as does the well-designed lighting.
The furniture – which I am told took a bit of a world tour before reaching its eventual destination – is gorgeously wrought, and is a testament to the amount of effort, care and, most likely, money that has gone into this particular venture.
During a recent visit, the ambient mood created by the decor was further enhanced by the choice of John Coltrane’s music as our evening’s entertainment, the sounds of which poured from the speakers over our heads – though perhaps a softer trickle might have been more appropriate.
Our waiter was a pleasant enough fellow; he made concerted attempts to guide us in our food and beverage choices and was prompt and courteous throughout the time that he was our attendant.
However, for some reason not readily apparent to my Picky Companion or me, he abruptly ceased to be our attendant about halfway through our meal, though he bid us a very fond and sincere adieu. Shortly before our entrees arrived, he was replaced by a new server who, to his credit, picked up the ball quite smoothly. Nevertheless, this occurrence, as well as a wildly fluctuating light level during the course of the meal, are good examples of the continuity problems that affected our visit to the Cellar Door. Though the stage was beautifully set, the music score perfectly appointed and the players poised for a successful evening, some things continued to go a bit awry behind the scenes.
The bread, for example, was quite good. It had a lovely sourdough flavor and a good texture (although my Picky Companion lived up to his nickname by offering that it might have spent more time in the oven.) But the butter that was served with the bread was oddly grainy.
For our appetizers, we decided to order the house-made ravioli, which was stuffed with smoked salmon and finished with a lemon butter and crème fraiche, and the crispy duck confit over herbed spaetzle with a sherry/mustard vinaigrette. The salmon ravioli was divine in texture; the pasta dough was cooked perfectly and the filling was velvety and flavorful. Unfortunately, the dish, which would not have faltered otherwise, was overpowered by the overabundance of acidity from the lemon in the butter, and the capers in the crème fraiche and the white wine sauce that had not been cooked down quite enough. Picky felt that the addition of raw napa cabbage and large-diced red peppers as a garnish tended to clutter the dish, though he also professed his enjoyment of the ravioli sans all the extras.
The duck confit was wonderfully flavored and satisfying, but it was a bit dry, as was the couch of spaetzle on which it rested. Some liquid, perhaps a dash of stock or a bit of glace, added to the dish would have improved it dramatically; perhaps the vinaigrette that seemed to glaze only the surface of the duck leg could have been applied with a heavier hand.
Our entrees arrived quite quickly, as had the appetizers. Of the two we had ordered, the beef tenderloin was the better executed. Grilled slightly under our specification of medium-rare, but probably better that way in the long run, the meat was very tender, and the accompanying white-bean ragout with sautéed shiitake mushrooms was an appropriate bedfellow. The bordelaise sauce served with the steak had a luscious texture and was full of flavor.
The pecan-encrusted pork chop did not fare quite as well, and the dish’s downfall can be mostly attributed to the state of the grits on which the chop was served. They had been described on the menu as creamy, but they were anything but. The other issue was the crust: Although it was flavorful, it seemed to have been added to the chop as an afterthought, post-grill. That said, the chop itself was moist, flavorful and cooked appropriately, and the spaghetti squash that was served on the side was buttery and good.
For dessert, we chose a fresh peach and ginger tart from a selection that included chocolate and raspberry cupcakes, an espresso cheesecake and a bread pudding. Although it suffered a bit from an over-application of spices, but the dessert was still good and finished off the evening just fine.
Despite all of these snags and miscues, the Cellar Door remains immensely likeable. The staff is pleasant, the menu is creative enough and the atmosphere is great. This young restaurant, opened earlier this year, is clearly reaching for a goal, the ideal of which Black Mountain needs and deserves. The issues that Cellar Door seems to be suffering from are likely due to infancy blues. Sometimes the only way to resolve a problem is to experience it, then come up with the solutions.
Unfortunately for any restaurant, these problems can pop up on odd nights, such as when a restaurant reviewer comes to call. I had a chance to meet with the owner, and although she had no idea who I was or what I was doing there, she was noticeably concerned with the quality of our experience in her establishment. It is that sincerity, among other things, that makes me believe that the Cellar Door will improve on a good start.