I planned for an elegant dinner out last month. It was important to me that everything should be extraordinary, with nothing taken for granted - not the room, not the service, and certainly not the food. Too often, visiting a restaurant amounts to nothing more than escaping one's kitchen - a convenience rather than an experience, a meal rather than an event. But I wanted this night to be memorable.
My daughter turned 17 in mid-July, and to honor the day I asked her to join me for dinner. Say "special-occasion restaurant" and any number might come to mind. Surely, one of these is Steventon's (a place I've always wanted to visit) in Le Claire. Established in 1991, sitting atop a bluff just off of I-80, Steventon's has earned a reputation for elegance in dining and décor.
The dining room is dominated of course by the view of the Mississippi River beyond the large spotless windows that run the length of the restaurant. Diners are seated facing the spectacular panorama, which includes various watercraft, and the river homes and businesses of Port Byron on the Illinois side.
Its interior is a study in shades of gray, with splashes of color in the bright red blouses of the servers, and in the watercolors of beach-walkers that lined the wall behind us. Likewise, the clever use of monochrome intensifies the colors of the foods set before us. The presentation of our dinners on white square china seemed positively festive.
We each selected appetizers. My daughter was intrigued by the idea of flaming Kasseri cheese, and I chose lobster-and-mushroom-stuffed artichoke caps with Hollandaise. (By the way, visit Steventons.com to view the menu.) The Kasseri (made from goat's milk) is flambéed tableside by lighting half a shot of Bacardi 151 poured over it, and served with crostini - toasted shapes of crustless baguette brushed with olive oil and garlic.
Tasting like a buttery mild cheddar, the Kasseri was happily shared. I was the only fan of the artichokes, however. I suspect my daughter objected to the tart bite of the artichoke caps, but I found it complemented the mellow richness of the lobster stuffing like berries on cheesecake. Slices of lemon for squeezing served with both dishes were wrapped in doilies to capture seeds, and tied off with red ribbon.
Dinner for me was a difficult choice, but I finally decided on the ahi tuna, rare. My daughter chose Beef Stroganoff. This was a bit less adventurous from her than I expected, but then she did try a bite of those artichoke caps ... .
Mixed-greens salads and a bread basket were served next with three small scoops of whipped butter, one of which was flavored with mixed berries and another with garlic and dill. While I was partial to the herbed butter, my daughter couldn't make up her mind and freely swiped at any of the three to spread on her roll until dinner was served.
But then I did take something for granted: The menu offers ahi tuna either blackened or pan-seared. With basmati rice, fresh ginger, and wasabi, and the tuna pan-seared rare, I was anticipating a dinner akin to sushi. As it happened, I didn't specify the pan-seared part (as opposed to blackened), and our server didn't ask, and my tuna came to the table ... blackened.
But cooked to perfection, the smoky heat of the Cajun spices gave a bit of fire to my cool tuna steak. While it wasn't what I ordered (or was it?), it was exceptional. And from time to time, I spread small amounts of wasabi the consistency of cream cheese on petals of fresh ginger, cleansing my blackened palate and clearing my sinuses up to my eyeballs. The rice was flawless as well: nutty and aromatic, light and barely moist, sticking to nothing.
My daughter pronounced her dinner merely "okay." I thought the classic Stroganoff preparation was, well, classic. Butter, sautéed onion, and mushroom thickened in demi-glace with sour cream were tossed with an abundant portion of fettuccine. In her defense, though, I thought the beef was a bit overcooked, a little tough.
Or perhaps she was saving room for dessert. Flaming liqueurs with fruits (Cherries Jubilee, Bananas Foster, Strawberries Napoleon) spooned over ice cream head a list of tableside specialties that also includes Crème BrÃƒÂ»lée. We shared warm chocolate cake - fudge-centered, muffin-shaped - with cinnamon ice cream. A dessert tray of cheesecakes was also presented by our server, but are not homemade.
I should mention the wine list. Steventon's provides wines in 39 bins, with another 13 reserve wines. Space prohibits a fair accounting, but among those represented you will find Evolution (a nine-grape white from Oregon), Chateauneuf de Pape, Stag's Leap Artemis, Opus One, Veuve Clicquot, and Dom Perignon. Half a dozen ports are listed also, including Birds of Paradise White Port. In addition are listed some two dozen exotic martinis such as Cherry Cheesecake Martini, with Smirnoff vodka, vanilla schnapps, and cranberry juice, and Chocolate Banana Martini with vodka, crème de banana, Kahlua, and cream.
So not quite perfection, but near enough. It was a special occasion, after all. My companion and our conversation were delightful, our service nearly impeccable. Classical piano music playing in the background served as a subliminal reminder of Steventon's weekend piano bar, behind which the evening's bartender stood that night, polishing away the spots on glass after glass.