When December arrived, we wanted to usher in the holiday season with a night out. Because we also had a birthday to celebrate, we decided to dress up and try something upscale: Josef Steakhouse and Oyster Bar in Rockford.
Steak is upscale for me, and wearing a dress in the middle of winter ... well, it is definitely a break from the norm.
There is a feeling of elegance and sophistication at Josef, with its beautiful drum chandeliers and a monochromatic style that makes it warm and relaxing.
Right away we were greeted, and our host offered to check our coats. He then led us past a cozy lounge area and seated us at a table next to an inviting built-in wall fireplace. While there wasn’t any actual heat, it provided a comforting ambiance on a cold night.
Cocktails were our first order of business. Always on the lookout for something unique, I ordered a French martini ($10). To a fine vodka they added Cointreau and Chambord, then topped it with champagne. That bitter orange taste was just under the surface, and the hint of raspberry was enough to make it a pretty pink. I think I might have found a new favorite.
Jennifer chose a Moscow mule ($8.50). Served in a copper mug, it was quite tasty with a generous amount of the ginger beer she adores.
Helene tried the Akumal margarita ($8.50) which, along with Cointreau and lime juice, featured agave nectar to cut the bite of the tequila.
No one in our group is an oyster connoisseur, but we couldn’t justify coming to an oyster bar and not at least trying the house specialty. By consensus, we decided to forgo the raw selections and instead opted for the oysters Rockefeller gratin ($12.75). This featured jumbo cooked oysters in a half shell topped with spinach, bacon and hollandaise. It was delicious.
We also had to try the pate du Campagne ($12), which Josef makes from pork and serves with fig jam. We all love figs, and here the presentation included a mustard-based spread and tiny pickles in a little Mason jar. The combination of flavors, all slathered over a crispy sliced baguette, was fantastic.
Jennifer had steak on her mind even before stepping foot in Josef, and she was happy to order her favorite cut: filet mignon. The 6-ounce filet ($36), served with a port wine truffle sauce, whipped potatoes and asparagus tips, was outstanding. Her steak was perfectly prepared, and the truffle sauce took it to the next level.
Jennifer’s meal also came with cream of spinach soup. It was rich and soothing on a chilly night, and it came loaded with plenty of spinach in a velvety cream broth.
I was initially drawn to one of the specials, the fresh Alaskan halibut ($32), but in the end I ordered the bouillabaisse ($32). This is such a classic French dish, yet I rarely find it on a menu. Josef’s version includes mussels, salmon and whitefish all in a saffron-based broth.
Nikki deliberated on a few menu choices, but we talked her into splurging and ordering the surf and turf ($68) off the nightly special menu. Her meal was artfully presented with the lobster tail served curled around its shell and asparagus crisscrossing the plate, accompanied by roasted new potato wedges, lemon slices and drawn butter. The Angus tenderloin also was cooked just how she liked it.
The vegetarian roasted butternut squash ravioli ($19) caught Helene’s eye. Four huge ravioli were set in a wonderful brown-sage butter with a generous sprinkling of Parmesan-Reggiano cheese. Unfortunately, the sweetness of the squash overwhelmed the other flavors, but that didn’t keep Helene from finishing it off.
Helene and I began to reminisce when we saw the grappa ($7) on the wine list. I remembered it being made from the dregs of the wine-making process and being quite potent. Helene’s memory was of a strong herb flavor. To set our minds straight, we ordered some to have with dessert and happily reminisced some more as we sipped our way through a shared glass.
When we mentioned to our server that we were celebrating a birthday, she appeared a few minutes later with a piece of chocolate mousse cake and a Roman candle spewing sparks a foot high. It was the best birthday presentation I’ve seen.
Sharing food with good friends raises any meal to a higher level, and this meal did everything right.
The Four Dishes—Nikki Bolka, Helene Ramsdell, Jennifer Spangler and Beth Webb—review regional restaurants for The Gazette.