In June I ate a multi-course meal at Niche, one of St. Louis’ most highly acclaimed and innovative restaurants. Each course was beautifully presented, some components having been delicately placed with tweezers. Niche and its owner, Gerard Craft, and executive chef, Nate Hereford, are so committed to using only local ingredients that they are replacing citrus with regional vinegars, making their own cheeses, including sophisticated white-rind cheeses such as Camembert, and even using sugar made exclusively from area beets. My most memorable taste came from a hauntingly delicious cup of tea/consommé made from specially treated and smoked oak bark and wood, garnished with the barest hint of smoked pork fat.
In July I had wonderful lengua and al pastor tacos at Taqueria La Mexicana, a bare-bones establishment attached to a grocery, Carniceria La Mexicana, in Bloomington. I’d come hoping to find a Mexican ingredient not available in Springfield (they had it); the tacos were an impulse to find out how the place might measure up to the real thing; heretofore the closest genuine taquerias I’d found were in Chicago (lots) and St. Louis (a few). The tacos were spot-on, something I’d been pretty sure of when looking at the grocery items and the platos – aka plate dinners. La Mexicana’s included delicious-looking beans instead of from-a-can refried beans and “Mexican” rice that clearly included tomatoes, onions and other vegetables and spices.
In June I had buckwheat cakes and sausage at Ruby and Ketchy’s in Morgantown, W.Va., a diner that has been in business since 1958. I went back to Ruby and Ketchy’s for a country-ham lunch that included green beans cooked long and slow with plenty of bacon, and coleslaw. Dessert was house-made blackberry pie.
In July, I had brunch at Springfield’s American Harvest Eatery. The menu combined classics such as house-made sausage, blueberry coffeecake and chicken fried steak with delectably creative innovations such as Italian breakfast toast (eggplant jam, anchovy butter, ricotta salata and micro-greens) and spicy chorizo hash. Choosing between the appealing brunch options is usually made slightly easier because some items, such as the carbonara pasta and breakfast salad, are available for lunch and/or dinner during the rest of the week.
In June I had a creative cocktail at The Grand Army Bar in Brooklyn. Newly opened, it’s quickly become one of trendy Brooklyn’s places to see and be seen. It’s also literally one block from my daughter’s apartment. Formerly a dingy faux-Fifties coffee shop, it was a place to which I had occasionally retreated in order to write without distraction. Now totally unrecognizable, it was decorated by a cutting-edge firm that specialized in unique spaces. They’d kept true to Grand Army theme (Grand Army Plaza is an Arc de Triomphe-esque Brooklyn landmark) with a gorgeous copper and zinc-topped bar that showcased a raw bar in its generous curves. In fact, it was the delights of the raw bar that now had tempted me to retreat from my vegetarian daughter’s household: a sign advertising $1 raw oysters on the half shell for weekday happy hours. Pristinely fresh, the oysters were presented on elevated metal stands on a bed of crushed ice, along with a caddy of sauces that ranged from traditional (cocktail and mignonette) to exotic (jerk, ponzu and green curry) presented in small bottles with eye-dropper lids.
In July I had a beer and a bowl of fish chowder at Little Sandy’s Restaurant in Oakland, Md. It was 4:30 p.m., I’d been driving through pouring rain for over three hours and desperately needed a break. Little Sandy’s was empty except for a table of three farmers in dirty denim overalls hunched over their beers, suspenders stretched over big bellies. The only other customers were two elderly ladies with starched blue-tinged hairdos, garish polyester blouses and too-short slacks, eating pie and drinking coffee. My pasty-faced server, ball cap jammed over stringy hair, sported a worn T-shirt with a faded logo. Her slacks were too short, too.
Which do I prefer, upscale cutting-edge eateries or down-home rustic places that either have been around forever or are casual joints with great food?
Before we had children, my husband and I talked endlessly about how we wanted to rear them. One of our primary agreed-upon goals was that our kids would be comfortable in any social, professional or other situation. Actually, Peter and I wanted our children to be more than just comfortable. We wanted them to enjoy a range of settings. Yes, it was the kind of idealistic notion most new parents have, but I realize now that it was a goal we set not just for our kids but also for ourselves. Peter’s background was Chicago suburbia, and mine was Springfield countryside. We appreciated those backgrounds but were eager to experience as much as we could of America’s and the world’s diversity. Though, at the time, we weren’t solely thinking about eating, either in homes or restaurants, that’s a big part of the picture. After all, food and human interaction in the form of sharing meals have always been major components of cultures and social strata across the board.
On the whole, we did a pretty good job. I especially remember one summer vacation where the first days were spent camping and canoeing in Indiana. Meals were hot dogs, biscuit dough wrapped around the ends of marginally clean sticks and s’mores, all cooked over an open fire. Then we packed up and headed to Chicago. Pulling into a Magnificent Mile hotel, we made quite a sight. I’d cleaned everybody up in the campground bathhouse, but we were still undeniably grubby. The back of our battered Volvo station wagon was stuffed with camping gear up to the ceiling; our Chicago suitcases were strapped to the overhead luggage rack; and three quarrelsome kids were crammed between more piles of camping stuff in the backseat. The doorman was dubious; clearly the Clampetts had come to town. Once everyone had (re)showered and donned city-appropriate clothes, we hit the town. Peter had a dental meeting nearby at American Dental Association headquarters; the kids and I breakfasted at the hotel, where we had oatmeal crème brûlée then headed off to museums.
I’ve been thinking about the “Which do I like best?” question lately. That server at Little Sandy’s might have been pasty-faced, but she had a big smile and my delicious chowder was clearly made in-house. I appreciate upscale and trendy restaurants. They’re special-occasion destinations, not places where I can routinely dine. If they were something I experienced every day I probably wouldn’t enjoy them as much. Ethnic restaurants are a constant and affordable joy – a window into not just unfamiliar tastes but different cultures and customs. Then there are those all-American classic restaurants and diners. Sadly, they’re the rarest of all. Places like Ruby and Ketchy’s and Sandy’s are fast disappearing from America’s landscape. Even when they hang on, sometimes the honest cooking that made them so wonderful is compromised: Ruby and Ketchy’s thin, lacy-edged buckwheat cakes were the best I’ve ever eaten; the coarse hand-formed sausage patties were wonderful; and the blackberry pie was tart-sweet perfection – but the mashed potatoes that accompanied the ham were clearly from a box.
But do I actually have to choose? What I like best is being able to experience it all – enjoying a range of different experiences. The contrast between my glamorous cocktail at Grand Army and my Little Sandy’s beer makes me chuckle. Those camping meals made our Chicago dining all the more memorable – and vice versa. Contrast – that’s the ticket!
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.