Of course this story has a twist into more than friends territory, and though it's hard to mark an exact beginning for that twist, one of the major bumps along the way involved a dinner invitation. Just across the street from Midtown, there's a tiny little bistro-looking place called Ratatouille. Now, our hero (ahem) happens to be a vegetarian, and so she'd heard that Ratatouille was extremely friendly to folks like her. The guy -- should we just go ahead and call him C? -- was a fairly enthusiastic meat eater, someone who had, on a recent outing, eaten three McDonald's cheeseburgers without breaking the slightest what's-in-this sweat.
So it came as something of a surprise when he suggested we dine there.
It was a lovely meal. I had a pasta in a cashew cream sauce that wasn't that far removed from the cheesy cream sauces that you'd find nearly anywhere, save that no butter or real cream had touched the whole wheat noodles. C had the blue cornmeal empanadas, which came with artful pools of chocolate mole and crema. We were the only people in the restaurant that night, and our service came at the hands of someone we suspected was the owner, who talked us into a shared piece of vegan German Chocolate Cake.
Once you've found a cheeseburger-lover who's completely content to share vegan cake with you, well -- vegetarian girls, you know what I'm talking about.
So, anniversaries. It's now been just over a year since C and I upgraded from "all the time hanging out" to this dating thing, and that required a celebration last weekend. We went back to Ratatouille and found only one significant change: there were several parties of diners enjoying the place, which made for a warm, bubbling atmosphere of conversation and celebration along with allowing for much more admiration of other people's food.
We started with an appetizer of an heirloom tomato, cut horizontally and layered with fresh basil leaves that had been lightly tossed with a gentle greenish curry dressing (which also dotted the plate).
For the main dishes, we both went with eggplant: I had the eggplant parmesan, which comes on a bed of polenta made with a very, very few mushrooms and green beans. The eggplant was perfectly cooked, soft but not falling apart, lightly breaded, coated with orange cheese, and topped with an acidic, salty tomato sauce that would have been too intense were it not for the cooling, creamy polenta underneath.
C had an eggplant dish that involved slightly custardy eggplant slices with layers of smoked onion ratatouille between them. Of the two dishes, I thought his won; he said he'd order mine next time.
C's Eggplant dinner
There was no room for dessert or even for the fresh hibiscus tea that one hostess suggested, nor for the extremely tasty-looking pot pies that kept drifting by. I struggled with the choice between the eggplant, the zucchini lasagna (which can be made vegan), or the house pasta special of whole wheat noodles with sauteed squash and that same, tasty cashew cream sauce and toasted hazelnuts.
This is one of the few places in Eugene where it feels appropriate, maybe even necessary, to dress up (though strangely our waitress wore shorts). Maybe the prices -- ranging from $15 to $20 a plate for an entree; $7-$9 an appetizer -- are part of what makes Ratatouille feel fancy, but some of it is also a cultivated, quiet, artful atmosphere that the chef himself creates through careful displays of food in portions that encourage you to savor each bite.
Location: 1530 Willamette St.
Hours: Lunch: Monday through Friday 11-2 p.m.; Dinner: Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m.