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Liquid Assets Wine Bar

Given the economy, more restaurants are turning to a formula that's long since proven its value in Europe: the "prix-fixe menu."

The French term indicates a multicourse selection of predetermined dishes at a set price. Fittingly, Ashland's iconic French eatery Chateaulin has specialized in the format for decades and may even carry it into lunch this month.

No longer so exclusive, the concept is gaining ground locally as restaurants attempt to lure customers with the promise of more food for less money than one would spend ordering each dish separately.

Larks Home Kitchen Cuisine in the Ashland Springs Hotel started advertising a $30 menu including soup or salad, entree and dessert through March 31. Before shutting down for January, Amuse Restaurant hosted "three-course Thursdays" for $36. And shortly after debuting bona fide entrees late last year, Liquid Assets Wine Bar started offering a "winter special" menu: three courses for $30.

I've always been partial to prix-fixe menus but make a point to peruse them in advance to diffuse any disappointment over the selections. As many restaurants post menus online, this requires minimal effort.

So I knew to expect entrees of risotto (good), lamb (very good) and chicken (my husband's favorite) at Liquid Assets on a recent weeknight. In addition to an entree, the winter special menu includes soup and a choice of small plate or salad.

Some restaurants such as Chateaulin will pair wines with prix-fixe courses. Albeit a wine bar, Liquid Assets hasn't made it that far but is one of the few local establishments that serve "flights" of wine, usually three half-glasses for a set price.

The featured flight of pinot noirs ($14) seemed a good match for carrot soup, chicken-liver pate and braised lamb shoulder with sauteed spinach and white-truffle mashed potatoes. Friends ordered the beer-cheese soup, mixed-greens salad topped with goat and feta cheeses and carrot and kale risotto. Since the kitchen ran out of chicken, my husband, Will, settled for the lamb with his warm chevre salad and soup.

One would hope otherwise, but diners may find less emphasis on presentation and possibly even smaller portions once restaurants have locked up several courses.

Our friends commented that Liquid Assets was generous with its soup, of which the beer-cheese was favored, even if it wasn't as attractive as the carrot with its garnish of creme fraiche. Tasting little of the sweetness expected from carrots, I suspected the soup had a boxed base.

Liquid Assets has always excelled, however, at salads, cheese plates and similar accoutrements. While everyone shared bites of salad, I offered tastes from my ample supply of paté. Topped with a layer of clear gelatin, the paté was better than I remembered, smooth and mild with the perfect supply of toasted baguette and a small mixed-greens salad. And for the a la carte price of $8, a bargain.

I might say the same of the lamb if mine hadn't comprised so much fat and comparatively little meat. Yet I chalked up that oversight to servings running low. Will's plate, by contrast, displayed about half the amount of fat when cleared away.

Although the potatoes contained no visible traces of truffle, the aroma was discernible, and the spinach was flavorful. The risotto's colorful array of vegetables and garnish of microgreens made for a superior presentation next to the lamb.

Prix-fixe menus that omit dessert seem more calculated since diners usually can be convinced to finish their meals on a sweet note. Will ordered the chocolate mousse, our friends the vanilla and chevre panna cotta (each $7). Portions seemed smaller than I recalled from earlier visits, but both desserts were creamy and satisfying.

Appetite for rich food still unsated, I took a chance on the Iberico curado ($9), a Spanish cheese made from cow, sheep and goat milk, and couldn't have been happier. Two 4-inch-long wedges of semihard cheese were accompanied by soft baguette slices and lightly dressed microgreens.

Look for special prix-fixe menus celebrating Valentine's Day at establishments such as Larks and Medford's McAndrews Avenue Grill.

— Sarah Lemon