James J. Molchan and Mory Gomez, co-owners and brothers-in-law, are serving Provencal-influenced cuisine at Hilltop Vineyard, a cozy restaurant on Bearden Hill. Gomez, who worked at the Chef restaurant in Bearden for 10 years, says the restaurant's French owner, Serge Conant, taught him a basic, rustic French cuisine.
The printed daily menu lists the basics: two appetizers, French onion soup, a few salads, and a handful of entrees. Daily specials, including desserts, are written on a chalkboard. The perfect end to the meal is the sweet and light Hilltop Cream Puff: pastry, flavored with cinnamon and sugar, is cut in half, filled with whipping cream and kirsch, and topped with chocolate.
Popular choices on the daily menu include caramel apple pork chops and Shrimp a la Serge, an appetizer named after Gomez's mentor—sauteed shrimp in white wine, shallots, garlic, and butter with brandy flambé. The simple house salad can be dressed up with either roquefort or with warm brie on a baguette.
"A lot of what we're doing is based on what I learned from Serge," Gomez says. "Basic soups, basic cakes, basic sauces. I buy food every day. A lot of it's based on what I see when I shop. Combining the ingredients is part of the fun."
"We're a casual place," Molchan says. "We're a bistro; we're not expensive. You can have a good meal here for the same price as at a chain. We wanted a cozy place. A lot of the things here are from my house or thrift stores. We're taking a pan-European approach. And we like wine. We believe red wine goes with everything. The wine list is only about 40 percent complete."
"I envision wall-to-wall wines," Gomez adds.
The wine list reflects the pan-European approach. The house red and white come from California, but everything else on the list comes from elsewhere: France, Spain, Greece, New Zealand, Germany, Portugal, Italy, South Africa. There's even a sake. Beers currently include Stella Artois, Highland Brewing Company Gaelic Ale, and Franziskaner from Bavaria. "We will always have a dark, a light, and an unfiltered wheat," says Molchan.
The Mediterranean cuisine is further complemented by the giant crusty loaves of house-baked French country bread. "We are keeping the basics good," Gomez says. "If the basics are strong, whatever you try is going to be good."
He hopes to start a bouillabaisse night soon.
"We'll take reservations and see how it goes."
Hilltop Vineyard (6535 Kingston Pike, 227-6432)
Tues.-Sat. 3-11 p.m. (bar with small plates), 5-10 p.m. (dinner)
Debbie's Purse: Named after Gomez's wife, this appetizer consists of rich, flaky puff pastry stuffed with spinach, feta cheese, and sautéed shrimp, folded into a half moon shape, and served with dill beurre blanc sauce. It's easy to see why it's quickly become the most popular appetizer.
French Onion Soup: This is the real deal—small bits of onion, rich broth, steaming hot, complemented but not obstructed by the crouton and cheese. It's about the soup, not the topping—just as it should be.
Filet au Poivre: The secret to this dish is simple: top quality, simple ingredients and homemade stock. The incredibly tender filet, dusted with peppercorns, is served with velvety potatoes au gratin and sautéed seasonal vegetables. It's perfect in its simplicity.