Ring of Familiarity_lowres

Whether you're dining on your own merit or with a regular, the food that emerges from CUVEE Chef Bob Iacovone's kitchen never wavers.

With some reluctance, I've accepted that two things can increase the probability of an exceptional fine-dining experience: alcohol -- purchasing it, not drinking it to excess (though that can help, too) -- and being a regular. This combination is unattainable for the majority of diners, and as an anonymous-as-possible restaurant writer who must limit her drinking on the job, I relate. My restaurant reviews necessarily reflect dining experiences founded upon less-than-ideal circumstances.

Contrasting two recent meals at Cuvee, where I supped once in my usual manner and once with a wine-passionate regular, bears out this thesis. During both meals, the quality of food that emerged from Chef Bob Iacovone's kitchen and the service staff's strict professionalism never wavered -- there is no ruse here. Nevertheless, there were qualitative differences, and recognizing them may coax serious diners to adjust their priorities.

Cuvee is popular with big-ticket conventioneers for its downtown hotel location, smooth operation and capacity to accommodate large parties. The significant visitor quotient decreases neither the property value of the restaurant, nor the merit of Iacovone's dynamic Creole-continental musings, but it does mean that locals won't automatically feel like insiders. On my first recent visit (I reviewed Cuvee after it opened in 2000, when Bingo Starr was executive chef), I attempted to assert my local's savvy by ordering against the grain of glossy magazine reports and long-established signature dishes; I was rewarded with some covert hits.

Eaten from left to right, the bite-size "tapas assortment" shapes into a lusty, rhythmical movement: a chevre-stuffed pepper, fruity and molten within a brittle wrap of Serrano ham; a date's sticky-sweetness parrying with spicy chorizo, nutty Romesco sauce and sharp Manchego cheese; and black olives fried into beaded croquettes. A slab of Kurobuta pork belly the size of a kitchen tile comprised strata of luscious pork and pillowy, full-fatted bacon. It wouldn't be such a bad way to go, you realize after a few bites. Finally, a Creole cream cheesecake achieved the terrific, concentrated flavor of overripe bananas.

But while the staff completed every task with alarming precision, while the clever black napkin left no trace of lint of my black skirt, and while my Riesling was poured into a varietally appropriate glass, an indefinable aloofness, a coolness, permeated the air. As I handed over my valet stub, I doubted I had even approached the heart of Cuvee, and such doubts encourage sour memories -- of the squidgy seafood boudin, the anemic crab fibers (not the menu's "lumps") atop my strong-smelling salmon, and the fact that I never got comfortable enough to forget I was wearing pantyhose.

When I related this experience to the Cuvee regular, he invited me to try again with him (but without revealing my professional identity). Our meal was the party of the year. We received our first bite, gratis, direct from the chef: a spoonful of foie gras mousse -- essentially a flavored breath -- topped with a candied walnut and a dab of orange marmalade, which continued to cleanse the palate long after the mousse was mere memory.

Jeff Kudinger, the happy-go-lucky sommelier who might be peddling mountain bikes or microbrews if he hadn't fallen under wine's spell, asked for our order before the server did, to begin puzzling out what we should drink. He ultimately produced a finger of wine to match each dish, and the effect of his efforts was as enlightening as a painstakingly planned tasting menu can be.

There was a bright Torrontes from Argentina for warm slices of seafood boudin (lovely this time, an inspired charcuterie made with shrimp, risotto and caramelized onion); a sherry-like Pineau des Charentais rouge to sip with the seared foie gras and its adorable, baked fingerling potato dressed with the works; a chocolately red that matched the boneless black angus short rib in fatty richness; and a Gruner Veltliner, sweet as bubble gum on the nose, for the seared scallops, nutmeg-dusted butternut squash gnocchi and darkly toasted pecans -- a beautiful dish. Without such pairings, you can appreciate, even relish, Iacovone's detailed preparations; with them, the food attains an intellectual profundity that tickles your memory for days.

With his dark chocolate s'mores tart finished with housemade toasted marshmallow, pastry chef Patrick Phelan dialed into what the campfire dessert has been missing all along: peanut butter.

Everybody and everything looked good that night against the black coffee upholstery of Cuvee's central banquette, against the brick walls and beneath the Champagne bottle chandeliers. That includes the man in the cheeky Burberry-print pants, the foie gras creme brulee with scrambled egg consistency and the hogfish preparation, which under less stimulating circumstances I might have found boring. I've reacted bitterly to this sort of special treatment in the past, but it's difficult to condemn Cuvee when the food and service is class no matter your standing. It doesn't seem improper for a regular to reap a little extra from his investments of time, money, knowledge and curiosity. It strikes me, especially this month, that it's always rewarding to gift the person who you know will appreciate it most. Restaurants are no different.