It was a benign and balmy night. To the west, trees sheltering the patio at Grey Moss Inn limned ink-brush forms against the fast-fading light. To the east, a full-bellied moon rose almost reluctantly in a dusky dome. Nearby, trumpet-shaped blossoms of melon-hued datura broadcast their perfume into lambent air already scented with hints of Hill Country cedar … and just in time, two glasses of crisp white wine arrived to break the grip of prose becoming ever more purple.

It’s not for nothing that Grey Moss is perennially proclaimed one of the city’s most romantic restaurants — but there are limits.

To cut to the chase, in welcoming weather the patio at Grey Moss is a must-do; it’s primarily in times of either oppressive heat or exceptional cold that the eclectic interior is equally imperative. In January and February, the fireplace could certainly be welcome, but don’t let that stop you from starting your meal with a glass — or a bottle — of one of GM’s whites.

The by-the-glass list isn’t as extensive as I’d personally like it to be (though by the bottle, it’s prodigious), but for us it did produce a Ronchi di Villa 2003 Pinot Grigio with more moxie than most, and a surprisingly crisp and grapefruit-accented Pascual Tozo Sauvignon Blanc from Argentina. The pinot grigio proved to be the more appetizer-friendly of the two; the sauvignon blanc served well as a palate cleanser between appetizers and entrées.

To cut to chase two, though traditional appetizers such as bread-crumbed oysters and game sausage are worthy of contemplation, it’s the new offerings created by current chef Jeff White that caught our attention. Partially boned quail stuffed with a house-made beef chorizo is now on the menu; crab cakes were a special — and both are spectacular. Yes, I’d try to amplify the flavors of the beef chorizo just a touch, but the quail itself was crisp and succulent, and the sauce featuring blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and currants in a sweet-sour matrix was altogether intoxicating.

Conservative companion, a Virginia girl with definite ideas about crab cakes, was impressed with the almost filling-free cakes but disdainful of the bacon-sweet pepper garnish. Fortunately for her, it was on the side; the quail egg and shredded scallion topping proved worthy companions to the crab, and the handsome presentation tended to transcend any quibbles of a tradtion-bound nature.

Locations such as Grey Moss seem to attract waiters of a more-than-normally-interesting stripe, and our French-born server (with an accent hard to pin down) was no exception. Noticing that we were lasering in on the Obscure Wines for the Adventurous Palate list (sorry, I couldn’t help it), he suggested an Argentinian malbec, the 2003 Pascual Toso, for our main course, and, with its bold and fruit-forward flavors, it proved to be just the ticket. Looking both backward and forward, we selected the 12-ounce Choice ribeye (“Our Premier Steak”) from the standard menu, and one of the evening’s specials, the osso bucco. (Rack of venison in a rum raisin sauce was another.)

The quasi-full moon now nearly fully overhead, it seemed perfect osso bucco weather, and the kitchen did not disappoint; the plate was equally full-blown, and the rustic recipe’s flavors were adroitly tuned to the al-fresco atmosphere. Admittedly, a marrow spoon to prize the creamy core out of the bones would have been appreciated, but we made do with a knife. And though the deep-fried spinach cap threaded with lemon zest was an inventive take on the traditional gremolata garnish (lemon zest mixed with garlic, parsley and sometimes anchovy), we would have appreciated more of both —tradition and invention, that is.

Chanterelles and fresh peas spangling a reduction sauce were welcome additions to the creation, as was a mound of munificent mashed potatoes, and it all added up to a hit.

After all this, the unadorned ribeye was bound to come off at a disadvantage — and it did. Oh yes, cooked over the once-and-former well in the courtyard, the steak was impeccably presented — for that matter, in new fashion propped over a quasi-deconstructed squash gratin and re-stuffed sour cream potato — but for this thrill-seeker, it just didn’t arouse the passions the purple-hued evening seemed destined to provoke. More malbec to the rescue.

Amazingly, we managed to save enough of the bold and beautiful wine to suggest trying it with the one dessert that seemed a potential pair: Queen Nell’s flourless chocolate cake; if ever there were a dessert made for dark and starry nights (which this now was), this is it.

Continuing in the vein of newly energized presentations we can only imagine are inspired by the new chef (recently invited to cook at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City), the cake was a delight to behold, and the dense chocolate/almond taste was as close a consort to red wine as I have experienced in recent times. Port, also in good supply on the award-winning wine list, is probably an even better post-prandial partner — balmy or blustery night, moon full or reduced to a sliver of its seasonal self.

Author: Ron Bechtol

Photographer: Janet Rogers