I used to catch a fair amount of crap for taking French in college. I had my reasons. I took Spanish in high school; ,my first year, the teacher (inadvertently) taught me four different ways to say “Shut up” because she said/yelled it so much at the students in my class. The second year, I was spared having to do 90% of the work because I’m a girl, and I was rather chesty in high school, and my teacher seemed to appreciate that. One of the popular teaching techniques in both Spanish classes was to put on “Spanish-themed” movies (rarely were they actually in Spanish): I’ve watched Selena and Stand and Deliver more times than I can even count. And after those two years, I knew almost no Spanish.
So when I got to college and decided to major in English and found out there was a foreign language requirement, I had a decision to make. If I took Spanish, they would see it on my transcript from high school and require me to take level 2. If I took French, they would assume I knew no French and let me take the introductory course. At the time, I also believed I would go get a PhD in Comparative Literature, in which case I could probably come in more contact with French literature than Spanish. That didn’t pan out, but it doesn’t matter. I went for French.
French was incredibly difficult and scary for me. That was the only class that made me cry in college. But once I stopped crying and put on my big girl pants, I really enjoyed it. I had a great professor who used fun techniques to help us learn the language, like memorizing poems, translating lyrics Carla Bruni songs, and going to a French restaurant at the end of each semester.
To be fair, I’ve only been to one French restaurant in Atlanta, but it’s so good, I sort of feel like I can trust that it’s the best. Cafe Alsace, a small French restaurant that tends toward Alsatian cuisine, pulling from Germanic influences, is located in Decatur and is some of the best food I’ve ever had. The first time I went, it was with my class. I had never eaten French food before, and I was still on the outskirts of my picky eating phase, so I worried: would I find something to eat? And would I be able to order in correct French?
The servers were kind and helpful, and I managed to stumble through my order. “Je voudrais la spaetzle avec jambon.” Oh yeah.
That first field trip to Cafe Alsace only paved the way for many more trips, both with the class and with my friend Auzelle, my French class cohort. We were ridiculous undergrads, making broad pronouncements about poetry and life and identity and writing as we sat on Auzelle’s porch every night. We spoke French in fragmented Franglais, using that hybrid language to make snarky comments about people. “Quoi de neuf, pussycat?” she would often ask. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I would answer. We translated everything into our bastardized version of French.
I offer up these flashbacks to present my most recent culinary problem: I knew where to get good French food in Atlanta, but in Norfolk? I had no idea. So when I went back to Atlanta, I’d try to make it to Cafe Alsace so I could get my fix of champagne and escargot and whatever amazing entree they offered that day and a scoop of lavender-vanilla ice cream to finish it off.
This week, I saw that Voila was participating in Norfolk Restaurant Week. Voila, located in downtown Norfolk on Botetourt Street, serves French cuisine in an adorable, smallish restaurant right near the Light Rail stop.
My roommate Andrea, an enthusiast of French movies, French philosophers, and French cyclists, joined me for our Restaurant Week visit. We picked our glasses of white wine, and Andrea noted that, though she had felt intimidated by the restaurant before coming in, she was pleased to find that it wasn’t at all intimidating inside. The decor is beautiful, and the servers couldn’t be friendlier or more helpful.
After we placed our orders, our server brought us an amuse-bouche. I only learned about amuse-bouches on Top Chef. There are several ideas behind these appetizers. Unlike a regular appetizer that you can order off the menu, an amuse-bouche is created specially by the chef as a preview of what the meal can/will be. It is meant to encapsulate a range of flavors in one bite, so there are a lot of layers to the flavor. The amuse-bouche that was served to us was a slice of cucumber, topped with smoked salmon, caviar, creme fraiche, and a chile-lime drizzle. I popped it in my mouth and had to stop Andrea in the middle of whatever she was saying. The coolness of the cucumber, the smokiness of the salmon, the saltiness of the caviar, the creaminess of the creme fraiche, and the slight tangy kick of the sauce – I was shocked. I sometimes worry that when I eat food and go into ecstasies over how good it is, it seems like I’m the last girl in the world to find out a big secret that everyone else has known for several months. But this was delicious, and since it was my first amuse-bouche, I was tickled to experience the complexity of so many flavors in one bite. I then realized I forgot to photograph it, so I took a photo of my empty plate.
The first course we had was escargot. Earlier in the day, I had gone to lunch with everyone who works at the law firm where I work. We had Mexican food, and I was pushing myself to try and finish the humongous burrito on my plate when I stopped myself. What was I doing? I was going out for French food in six hours – I shouldn’t force myself to eat anything in excess, lest I ruin my stride for French food. I shared that philosophy with my lunch mates and told them I’d be going out for French food. “What will you order?” one of them asked. “Oh, I’m starting with escargot,” I said. She scrunched up her nose. “Snails?”
Yes, people. Snails. Delicious, tender, amazing snails. Erase from your minds the image of insects adhered to porch railings or sidewalks with their shells on their backs. Escargot has a texture much like clams – tender, packed with flavor, small enough to eat in one bite, without being chewy or rubbery. The escargot at Voila was served with tomatoes in a thin sauce of white wine and garlic. It had been a couple of years since I had escargot, and that was in Atlanta. It was everything I remembered – so delicious.
For our second course, Andrea and I decided to divide and conquer. She ordered sole meuniere – seasoned sole in a light butter sauce, served with golden beet and squash gratin. Andrea has loved beets since I made them in the fall for my CSAcation column, and she was glad to have them on her plate with the sole. I tried a piece of the fish, which was perfectly seasoned, buttery, and rich.
I ordered the NY Strip with asparagus and fingerling potatoes. The steak was perfectly cooked and peppery, full of flavor. There’s a level of flavor that I like – I’ve defined it in terms of salt before by saying that I want something to be painfully salty. I like a painfully flavorful steak, one that seems to kick me in the mouth. And this steak was exactly what I wanted. The vegetables were fresh and well-cooked. Perfect.
And then, the finale. Creme brulee. It was Andrea’s first creme brulee, my second, and it came with a drizzle of strawberry sauce, which provided a nice contract in flavor to the super sweet creme brulee. There’s a particular joy in the first moment you dig into creme brulee, when you break through that top crust and get to the sugary custard below. I feel that break through in my bones, and I know it’s going to taste so good. And it did. It was amazing.
Andrea and I left the restaurant full – oh, so full – and rolled ourselves home to watch So You Think You Can Dance and work on getting through the food hangover we had.
Voila has a three-course menu offering everyday. The food is excellent, the service flawless, the ambience quiet and charming. I highly recommend checking them out.