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On the first Thursday evening after my return from leaving Rosie in Boston, Tim and I exchanged the usual, “What should we do for dinner?” conversation. Neither of us had made any preparations and the hands on the clock reached toward 7:30.

And we realized: there’s no one expecting anything of us. We could eat cereal if we wanted. Or popcorn. Or pancakes.

But given the fact that we both like our three squares, including protein at dinner, we decided, “Oh, let’s just go out.”

A quick change into some nicer jeans, a lick of lipstick and we were in the car, having our second most common food conversation: “Where should we go?”

The following Thursday somehow found us with the same somewhat barren fridge and the same lack of inspiration. And so our new tradition of “Thursdays Out To Eat” was born. Why not check out every restaurant in Arcata, we wondered. Sure, we have our old standbys (and I have to admit, we’ve only explored one new restaurant in the three Thursdays, and that was because it IS new – newly opened), but we’re going to make Thursdays the night that we try out and honestly assess each and every restaurant this town has to offer. Well, maybe not McDonald’s and Wendy’s. But yes on the Taco Trucks.

And, why not use this blog to document our gastronomical wanderings? After all, if not for an empty nest we wouldn’t be able to so blithely duck out each Thursday.

So – quick synopses of the last three restaurant experiences will hopefully be followed each week with a Thursday night restaurant review (posted sometimes the next week.)

Week One – we decided on Mazzotti’s on the Plaza. We knew we’d find good ambiance, reasonable prices, nice big salads and lots of pasta. But our voluble and enthusiastic server raved so much about the nightly special of fresh caught wild salmon served with a coulis of local heirloom tomatoes and grilled polenta that we were convinced to give it a try by splitting it. (Didn’t want to make this weeknight too much of a budget buster).

I started with their dinner salad – a favorite with their honey mustard dressing and a slice or two of their delicious warm dinner rolls coated with herb butter. Tim tried out the soup of the day. A half carafe of the house wine slid down easily and was just enough.

And the server was right. That salmon dish was the best food I’ve ever eaten at Mazzotti’s! Seared to perfection, the fish was melt-in-your mouth delicious and you could really taste the heirloom in the tomatoes. The polenta had been gently sautéed in just the right amount of oil to give it crispness and flavor without that rancid burnt taste.

All in all, a great dinner experience – which probably helped prompt our later decision to make this a weekly adventure.

Week Two: At first I thought we’d hit Sushi Spot since our young friend, Sazi, had given us a gift certificate. But she wasn’t working that night and we wanted to be sure we ate on a night when we could reciprocate with a big tip. So we headed across the street to Tomo to see if we could squeeze in at the bar. (Anyone who lives around here knows that it’s nearly impossible to spontaneously decide to go to Tomo for dinner and actually get a table in the dining room – without a wait. So we usually find ourselves in the bar since, aside from special occasions, we’re not the reservation-making sort.

Joe, the owner (manager for years and  years but now I’m pretty sure he’s the new owner), led us over to the remaining two seats at the bar and we settled in. I splurged and ordered the special cocktail of the evening because it contained elder flower liquor. it was a kind of martini, and quite tasty, but not strong enough for the $8 price tag.

Both the of Sushi specials of the night sounded yummy so we ordered a roll of each along with a bowl of edamame. I don’t usually get edamame, but I realized it’s really a deal for $3.50. Nice-sized bowl overflowing with the bean pods sprinkled with sea salt. Definitely takes that edge off while you’re waiting.

Now, this is why it’s better to report on a meal within a day or so after eating it. What was in those special sushi rolls? And what were they called? Henceforward I will take notes. I remember one was a bit too hot and spicy, and the other included prawns and was slathered in my favorite spicy miso sauce, but both were delicious.

But just as we were finishing up, Tim looked over and said, “Is it raining in here?”

“Huh?” I said.

“I just felt some drops,” he insisted.

“I don’t feel anything” I replied. But just then a soft drop brushed my cheek. “Wait, I do feel something!”

We looked around at our fellow diners. A few were looking around too with puzzled looks on their faces. I asked the bartender what was up but he had no idea.

Then Joe came hurrying over to our table full of apologies. Seems that when the heat is turned on in the hotel room upstairs, it sometimes causes some evaporation and leakage through the ceiling.

“It happens when the heat hasn’t been used in a long time,” he explained.

So, a little excitement was added to that night of sushi. Lucky we were finishing up since our stools seemed to be directly under the culprit radiator.

Week 3 – Bizou. Now that we knew we were making this a weekly habit, we’d told ourselves we would try out one of Arcata’s cheaper establishments this time. But we couldn’t decide on which and then Tim remembered all these e-mails he’s been getting from Beverly, owner of Avalon restaurant in Eureka who just opened the new Bizou a couple of months ago in the unlikely spot of the Safeway/CVS Shopping Center.

We knew this was far from an inexpensive option, but we had been wanting to try it out for a while, and Tim does keep getting these “personal” e-mails. “Let’s just go for it,” he said.

Wow, walking in one would never guess this was the former location of Uniontown Cafe. What a difference some remodeling accompanied by excellent taste and beautiful art can make! It’s an elegant oasis nestled between Papa Murphy’s Take ‘n’ Bake and Safeway. Amazing!

At first we were impressed with the friendly high spirits of our server. She explained that Beverly was over at Avalon, described the nightly specials, raved about Chef Ron’s Paella, and gave us a rundown on some wines we were interested in. But as the night wore on her chattiness and fixed grin reached a high-pitched fervor as to become a bit annoying.

“What do you think she’s on?” Tim hissed across the table.

“Oh come on! Probably just too many cups of coffee,” I replied.

He shook his head. “I doubt it.”

The menu is small, but everything was described in such mouth-watering detail it was hard to make a decision. We finally settled on sharing a bowl of the French seafood soup, and then splitting Chef Ron’s special Paella. A seafood motif for the evening. Soup – beautifully presented, swimming the flavors of delicate spices, I was in heaven until I chewed up a dried whole hot pepper. I grabbed for my ice water, eyes tearing, mouth on fire. Ouch!

Tim waited the five minutes or so it took me to recover and didn’t polish off the rest of the soup. For that I was grateful.

Our paella did not quite live up to expectations. They’d split it into two plates which is always a thoughtful touch, and the flavors again melded together with perfection, but the texture was a little drier than we’d expected.

Our Malbec from Argentina, suggested as a complement for the Paella – and firmly in our price range, was fairly tasty but probably not a contender for Wine Spectator. She twisted off the metal lid with a flourish, chattering away about how she didn’t have as much time to share insights about the wine when there was no cork to extract.

“Do you want to take a look at the desert menu – or are you going to drink your desert?” our hyperactive waitress trilled, glancing at my still-full wine glass. I had fully intended to shake my head to the offer of a desert menu, but since the portions had been gourmet restaurant-sized, I decided to consider a sweet ending to the evening. Mmm, once again a tough decision. We ruled out the hot apple concoction and the chocolate cake brownie thing, both of which required an additional 20 minutes of oven time, and settled on (of course) the creme brulee. Tim has been sampling creme brulees in restaurants across the state and country and has yet to find one that matches the creamy decadence of Folice Douce’s white chocolate version of the French desert.

This was a more traditional vanilla custard style creme brulee, the crunchy burnt sugar crust gave it a flair  that raised it far above the level of an ordinary flan. Tim sipped a port and I finished my wine, and by the time we rose to leave we were quite happily satiated.

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