An evening at Joseph Decuis brings as much intimidation as anticipation.
The stellar reputation of the restaurant in downtown Roanoke makes dining there the centerpiece of an evening out, and its stunning list of gourmet ingredients and the impressive techniques used to contrive its offerings can overwhelm even the most snooty foodie.
But regardless of whether you play it safe or dive into something different, the experience will be a memorable one.
Starting on the loftiest end of the gastronomic spectrum, the pan-seared foie gras and the braised Wagyu oxtail risotto lived up to expectations. The foie gras was perfectly seared to almost black on one side, and its texture was smooth and velvety. Its fatty richness was soaked up by the crispy pan perdu underneath and was cut perfectly by the sweet-sour combination of the huckleberry demi-glace and aged balsamic drizzled over it.
The oxtail risotto was rather heavy, but satisfying. A slow-cooked egg oozed into the dish, adding creaminess from the yolk, while the white blended and softened the heaviness of the beef. Red wine added an acidic finish.
The most impressive salad was the shaved vegetable, which consisted of brussels sprouts and fennel shaved into strands to form a slaw. It was accented by currants and dill and lightly tossed in a timid brown butter vinaigrette. The signature Gumbo Ya-Ya was great – plenty of andouille sausage and chicken – but the most impressive soup was the winter squash and tomato. The scent of roasted corn wafted up from this smooth, golden, blended soup and the flavor dominated. It was topped with a finely chopped tomato relish – think pico de gallo – that added just the right peppery kick.
Joseph Decuis served two of the finest entrées I have ever eaten, starting with the simply named but complexly contrived pasta Bolognese. Veal, pork and Wagyu beef were used to make the somewhat creamy, light brown sauce, which had a strong, meaty aroma and just a hint of sweetness. It was served with perfectly executed homemade Pappardelle pasta and topped with wilted Swiss chard, which provided textural diversity and bitterness.
The Gunthorp Farm rabbit fricassee was even more impressive. The leg and thigh of the rabbit were tender, succulent and mild. The dish was enveloped by a blend of green lentils, carrots, mushrooms and apple chutney, which added the perfect sweet finish. It also included a large, crispy croquette filled with ground pheasant thigh and more braised rabbit meat. The flavors were pronounced and unique, and it was hearty and rustic in presentation and flavor.
The braised Heritage Farm Wagyu chuck roast would have benefited from a similar austere approach. Chuck roast is typically a one-pot, hearty dish marked by sustenance, not flair. Joseph Decuis roast, however, suffered from the big-plate, tiny-portion syndrome that was in vogue 15 years ago. Three inch-thick medallions of roast about the same circumference as a silver dollar were topped with a flavorless soy foam and flanked by just a few tiny cubes of carrot and potato. The meat was tender and extremely moist, but the three purées – carrot-black walnut, caramelized onion-star anise and maple bacon jam – did not lift the dish past its level of disappointment.
The wild-caught Falkland Island sea bass suffered from too much restraint. The fish was perfectly prepared and it was moist, fatty and delicious but did not draw much from its accompaniments. Bacon added a salty kick, but the potato broth was way too timid. It was far better than the roast, but nowhere near as impressive as the pasta or rabbit.
The five-spice seared Massachusetts diver scallops were a much better seafood option. The five-spice dusted on the three giant scallops melded well with a dark salty broth drawn from braised pork belly. Nestled in that broth was a scrumptious veal cheek ravioli made from the same homemade pasta dough as the Pappardelle.
The dessert offerings were impressive and, of course, somewhat intimidating. The tasting of truffles or the sticky toffee pudding were the only safe bets, and both were serviceable. The finest finisher, however, was the baked chocolate beet mousse. The mousse was rich, chocolaty and wonderful with just a hint of beet flavor finishing each bite. A canelé of beet sherbet rested next to it and provided a palate-cleansing, fresh, sour flavor.
If that isnt unique enough for you, you may want to try the savory ice cream flight featuring three varieties in crispy little crepe-like cornets. The fennel ice cream in a pistachio cone was my favorite, as the citrus notes of the fennel really worked well in a sweet application. The pancetta in a black pepper-dotted cone was interesting as the salty, bacony bits of pancetta became hard when frozen and mimicked the texture of chocolate chips. The Manchego cheese in a sesame cone was the most savory of the three, and even my liqueur-infused dessert coffee did not provide enough sweetness for me to finish it.
But the desserts were adventurous, as was my entire Joseph Decuis experience. Service and atmosphere require little explanation, as the restaurant lived up to its reputation for fine dining in both areas. Terms like charm and class could be freely thrown about when describing either aspect.
Am I anticipating a return to Joseph Decuis? Yes. But I cannot quell any feelings of intimidation for those who have yet to venture there. Its opulent ingredient list and the complex methods of presenting those ingredients may be overwhelming, but they are also what make it so special.
Restaurant: Joseph Decuis
Address: 191 N. Main St., Roanoke
Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol served: Full bar
Credit cards accepted: Yes
Menu: Pan-seared foie gras ($26), oxtail risotto ($10), soup du jour ($6), gumbo ($8), shaved vegetable salad ($8), rabbit ($24), pasta Bolognese ($22), scallops ($32), chuck roast ($28), sea bass ($28), desserts ($8)
** 1/2 (3-star maximum);
atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).