STAR POWER AT L’ETOILE

Every now and then, I revisit my fondest memories of dining in Wisconsin. I’m not talking about squeaky cheese curds, or brandy Old Fashioneds, cranberries and booyahs, either.

No, I’m talking about dishes and restaurants that are forever welded into my culinary brain matter.

In Milwaukee, at the iconic KARL RATZSCH’S RESTAURANT, I feasted on the Platonic ideal of WEINER SCHNITZEL: a Viennese veal cutlet, pounded thin and lightly breaded, pan-fried ‘til crispy and golden, and served with several fresh lemon wedges (which, btw, are not ornamental; they’re for squeezing all over the cutlet). It spilled over the plate and into my gaping maw.

Among the supper clubs throughout the state, I think of the Wisconsin Dells and ISHNALA SUPPER CLUB, where I devoured a serious bathmat-sized hunk of incredibly flavored ROAST PRIME RIB with fantastic marbling and just the right amount of fat for taste, texture and big beefy flavor. Oh, and a sinus-clearing side of horseradish.

And speaking of big, beefy flavor…I don’t think you can beat a CULVER’S BUTTER BURGER, a fresh meaty treat with a butter-coated soft bun. It’s juicy, steaming hot and perfectly grilled to order on a searing-hot flattop. It’s a burger that makes you smile.

Finally, I remember ELSA’S in downtown Milwaukee. After all, how often do you eat a boneless, thick-cut PORK CHOP SANDWICH? Especially a country spice-rubbed half-pounder that’s simultaneously juicy, tender and smoky.

So it was that on a road trip to South Bend, Indiana to attend our grandson’s commencement a couple of weeks ago, we were routed through the heart of Wisconsin.

On the way, we spent the night in Madison…and, of course, dined (not just ate) at L’ETOILE, an icon of fine dining in the Midwest, situated across the street from the Wisconsin Capitol with a sweeping view of its white granite dome through floor-to-ceiling 30-foot-high windows.

Now, Joanne and I have immensely enjoyed dining at L’ ETOILE on several occasions, but this time we had the advantage of being joined by our friend Tim, riding “shotgun” with us, therefore enabling us all to see more plates of stunning food.

The menu is French-inspired American fare….and it is Michelin Star worthy. L’Etoile is helmed by its chef, Tori Miller, and his wife, Katherine, who is the pastry chef. Tori has a pedigree that includes a James Beard Award winner as well as a stint at 11 Madison Park in New York. The two are impassioned about supporting a tight network of local artisan farmers.

OK….LET’S GO……

Our friend Tim began with a LALO SOUR cocktail: meticulously prepared with Lalo white tequila, orgeat (don’t ask), almond, lime, star anise and orange bitters……which he dubbed as MAGICAL.

Sommelier Michael Kwas guided Joanne and me toward a bottle of FAILA Chardonnay 2021, from the Sonoma coast. Citrus driven and crispy, it ran $75.

Then we began with a PRE-AMUSE BOUCHE: 3 tiny French almond cakes (Financiers) topped with a dollop of intense whipped local goat cheese.

And then…the MAIN AMUSE BOUCHE: Honey Greek yogurt, grilled rhubarb, cucumber salatim sauce and a spicy SHUG – a kind of hot sauce.

PAIN D’EPI was offered next. Here’s where Katherine struts her stuff. Housemade epi – wheat sheaf-shaped, pull-apart French rolls – were airy yet substantial, with a golden crispy crust, and served with sweet local butter.

Lamb is not particularly popular in the U.S. and especially in the Midwest. Some say it’s because sheep do not do as well as cattle in our climate. Others say that because sheep are basically helpless, they are easy victims for rogue dogs, foxes and, in some parts, wolves. Not-so-hot memories from post-World War II still remain of eating mutton from tough, grizzled old sheep….much stronger, fattier and gamier than lamb.

And finally, lamb is a staple in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. And there just aren’t a lot of Middle Easterners in much of the Midwest.

However, when our Greek friend, Tim, spotted LAMB TARTARE as an appetizer on the menu, he couldn’t resist. And thank God he ordered it. Featuring lamb from Wisconsin’s Pinn-Oak Ridge Farms, Tony Yang’s rhubarb, egg yolk, crispy baguette, and Bleu Mont Dairy bandaged cheddar, it would make Paul Bocuse proud…$27.

I couldn’t resist the FOIE GRAS TORCHON…creamy duck liver spread over toasted brioche with toasted pistachios, wild fennel and sorrel.

Joanne’s choice was fine art on a plate: MI-CUIT OF SEA SCALLOPS. Three mighty sea scallops, grilled rare with charred spring ramps, chanterelle mushroom conserva and fennel-saffron emulsion. BTW: Chefs sometimes use TURMERIC instead of SAFFRON to achieve that precious golden yellow on the plate because it’s cheaper, but economy comes at the expense of flavor. THIS WAS SAFFRON…..$ 27.

Now for our MAIN COURSES.

It’s called KING SALMON for a reason. A true Alaska delicacy, this majestic fish boasts a bright red color, rich flavor and a unique texture. L’Etoile crowns it with local Black Earth Valley asparagus barigoule (a Provençale white wine sauce), Castelvetrano olives and green garlic…$52, which today sounds like a bargain.

Tim, a dedicated red meat eater, chose the BEEF RIBEYE STEAK from Andrew and Lisa’s family-owned Son of a Beach farms in Monroe, Wisconsin. It came with smoked Maitake mushrooms, Sue Vang’s local fresh spinach, short ribs and spring onion…$62. I think steak always feels good and tastes like a winner. This preparation was dazzlingly complex, with unending nuances of flavor that never obstructed the primal pleasure of a ribeye. Every steak lover should be lucky enough to enjoy such a dish.

Lastly, I opted for the STURGEON ($52), a fish that’s something of a mystery to me. I know it’s found in Wisconsin lakes and is usually speared. Tori serves his version with a ration of fatty pork belly, escargot, fennel, mussels, clams and green tomatoes. It had a rich, buttery flavor and a firm meaty texture. In all? Flavors were precise and potent – a fat-and-protein party in my mouth. (BTW, FAT is the most misunderstood and maligned of ingredients. FAT IS FLAVOR. It’s also worth mentioning that many seafood dishes improve when socked with some kind of meat.)

L’Etoile had a VEGETARIAN MAIN DISH on the menu consisting of kale shoots, wood sorrel, yogurt, pickled ramps, poblano emulsion and breakfast radishes.  “NO FRIGGIN’ WAY,” I said to myself. I’ve heard somewhere that vegetarian cooking is like Casablanca without Bogart.

And now….DESSERT.

I love a pure, classic FRENCH CRÈME BRULEE made with nothing but heavy cream, egg yolks, vanilla bean and sugar. But I also like ‘em “tricked-up” a bit. L’ Etoile gives this elemental dessert a springtime kick in the pants with the addition of rhubarb compote and bourbon cream, and then tops it with a rosemary cookie…$15. Joanne is a crème brulée connoisseur and she loved it.

Tim, who believes that the only appropriate follow-up to a ribeye is chocolate, chose a dessert called – wait for it – “Chocolate.” This showstopper paired a chocolate-peanut butter caramel bar with three dulce de leche profiteroles crowned with hot fudge, fresh blackberry sauce and salted peanuts. I can’t tell you how it tasted; he refused to share.

Poor me: I had to make do with Wisconsin Artisan Cheeses – three different wedges…probably all made by hand in small batches. But I’ve been to the mountain top. And I have had the mother of all blue cheeses…SOCIÉTÉ from the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in France.  Made from unpasteurized sheep’s milk, it’s creamy and moist with emerald-green veining. And I have yet to find a blue cheese in the states that rivals its taste…BUT WAIT….WAIT.

The blue cheese wedge on my cheese board was spectacular – different than Société, but equally as good in its own right. Although our server undoubtedly told us, I don’t remember what dairy farm produced it.

At the meal’s end and after dessert, a plate of three deep, dark chocolate truffles were presented: the perfect finale to a delightful meal.

And as we were getting ready to leave, our server showed up with a warm, soft and gooey cellophane-wrapped OATMEAL COOKIE for each of us to take home. NICE TOUCH. I ate mine (and perhaps Joanne’s) before going to sleep. It was that kind of night.

A word about the prices: L’Etoile’s six-course tasting menu is $175 (more with wine pairings). Dine à la carte as we did and three courses will run about $100-120 before alcohol, tax and tip). To be on the safe side, budget maybe $175 per person and probably two-and-a-half hours minimum for dinner. That isn’t everyday dining for most folks, but it’s a bargain nevertheless. L’Etoile (which in French means “the star”) is indeed shooting for the stars. From the quality of ingredients and caliber of cooking to the standard of service and appointments (widely spaced tables in front of those amazing windows), this restaurant is aiming for perfection. Being on the receiving end of such an effort is a privilege that’s hard to assign a price to. All I can say is that we walked out of there feeling like our dinner was a bargain – and that L’ ETOILE is one of our very favorite spots in America.

I ain’t lying.

WTF

PHIL

P.S. EYE CANDY…..

Here are a few more images of L’Etoile’s magic cooking that Joanne and I have enjoyed over the years….

1…..In the late summer, I remember the smooth, buttery and silky CORN SOUP made with a rare hybrid corn and especially the garnish on the rim of the bowl…..a mix of blackberries, popcorn kernels and candied violets.

2……MEATY PORK BELLY and CRISPY RICE PUFF….salty and yummy.

3……CHAR-GRILLED OCTOPUS with Japanese eggplant, pearl onions and cilantro.

4……BELLE FARMS FOIE GRAS, with sweet corn and wild chanterelles.

5……In the fall, I had RABBIT TERRINE EN CROUTE with brown butter-braised carrots and sauce gribiche (a cold hardboiled egg-based sauce with mustard, cucumbers, capers and tarragon).

6……FOUNTAIN PRAIRIE FARMS’ dry aged Scottish Beef New York strip steak with green and yellow beans, mushrooms and spring onion confit.

7……As a petit four, we once had house-made CARAMEL POPCORN with two chocolate truffles on the side.

8……Oh yes, from time to time, they also make their own salty and sweet FIDDLE FADDLE.

L’ ETOILE has dishes that you or I will probably never, ever make at home.

It’s FRISKY and FUN.

And it’s HEAD, SHOULDERS and GENITALS above most any restaurant that you’ll find in the Midwest (or most anywhere else).

WTF

PHIL

A PROPER SUNDAY ROAST

As many of you readers know, I grew up in rural Illinois among factory workers and farmers. Corn was the crop and consequently the cows in the area were well fed and well marbled – no grass feeding in America’s heartland.

Living cheek by jowl in a household of three families was wonderful for me as the only child in the house, doted over by two grandmas, one aunt, an uncle and, of course, my mom and dad.

And as stretched as our budget was, we always seemed to eat well, if frugally.

Beside wild rabbit and squirrel in the fall and crappies from the Illinois-Hennepin Canal in summer, BEEF was the main domesticated meat at our supper table. Hamburgers were always served on sliced Wonder Bread. When she felt like getting fancy, my Mom treated us to platters of Sloppy Joes.

Kewanee had a lot of Eastern Europeans and a particularly large Polish population from whom someone in our household must have pilfered a recipe for Stroganoff. Ours, however, was most always made with hamburger and only rarely with delightfully flavorful and chewy bottom round steak.

Birthdays and anniversaries often called for a chuck roast, cooked until it was falling off the bone and served with winter vegetables that had been braised for hours.   It was a lip-smackingly good pot roast.

All in all, we did pretty good with not much money.

But Sunday was different. Sunday Dinner was the meal of indulgence. After church, all members of our household would gather at the dinner table as well as a guest or two. A frequent invitee was Leo Lester, who worked at the liquor store. I marveled at how many helpings of food he took and I was especially impressed with his ability to sop up gravy with soft-folded slices of white bread from the six-inch stack in the center of the table.

What made the meal special? My mom would shop at the A & P on Saturday and pick up a 5 lb. bottom round rump roast for Sunday dinner. No premium beef cuts for our house. Our rump roast came directly from the tough ass end of the cow. But mom roasted it LOW and SLOW and WELL DONE. I loved it.

Dinner was accompanied by scalloped canned corn and buttery mashed potatoes. Much to my frustration, cousin John often positioned himself within easy reach of the potatoes and loaded his plate with countless spoonfuls so that by the time the potatoes were passed to me, only a few flimsy, mushy scraps remained. Periodically I fixed it so that I reached the table first and claimed the potato-adjacent seat. I fondly recall the look on John’s face when the empty serving bowl reached him. It was delicious.

All that maneuvering took place around 1948 or 1949. Now, set your clock to the present.

Joanne and I are checking out food at London pubs.

One Sunday evening we dined at THE HARWOOD ARMS in Walham Grove W-6. It’s the only pub in London with a Michelin Star. 

On the menu was SUNDAY ROAST.

It was a one-plate feast consisting of sliced rare roast beef, braised vegetables, roasted potatoes and a hot popover – all worthy of that Michelin star.

Over the course of our trips to London, we took note of just how many restaurants, pubs and hotels were touting Sunday Roasts. Advertisements were everywhere.

Luxury hotels, oozing with grandeur, like CLARIDGE’S, THE CONNAUGHT and THE LANESBOROUGH carved their SUNDAY PRIME RIB ROAST elegantly at tableside from vintage rolling silver trolley’s for about $100 per person.

But it wasn’t just fancy places that served up a Sunday Roast. Old school pubs, many of them quite modest, were also in the game. THE AUDLEY, in Mayfair, served a version tempered with a weenie to lower the cost (the weenie was good, especially with an eye-watering dollop of hot English mustard). The price? About $40.

Other Sunday Roasts in that price range featured roast chicken or roast pork loin instead of roast beef. I have no doubt that if you ventured out of Mayfair into London’s less hoity-toity neighborhoods, you could enjoy a version of this dish for somewhat less than $40.

I can’t understand why it didn’t occur to me sooner, but recently I asked myself: WHY NOT SUNDAY ROAST AT MANNY’S?

And so it has begun. Chef Jason Smith invites you to enjoy a PROPER SUNDAY ROAST with all the trimmings:

Salt roasted, 40 day aged PRIME RIB ROASTED pink right to the edge, lashed with homemade gravy and served with warm crispy pan-roasted potatoes and root vegetables, accompanied by a freshly baked popover….Every Sunday, from 4:00 PM, priced $44.95.

W.T.F.    ENJOY, ENJOY

PHIL

P.S.  A bit of history: Sunday Roast has been an English tradition since the 15th century, when rounds of beef were spit-roasted and served only on the Christian Sabbath, as many abstained from weekday meat eating for reasons of religion. In fact, King Henry the VII is said to have commanded his chef to commence the roasting before church, so that the meal would be ready upon his return. Among those who joined him were his serfs and members of the Royal Guard (who, to this day, are referred to as “Beefeaters.”). I invite you to join us at Manny’s and make Sunday your Day of Roast.

THE PLEASURES OF CAMPANIA

Growing up in Kewanee, Illinois, my experience with Italians and Italian food was limited to two things. First was the curious MATRANI FAMILY, my grandmother’s friends who lived a few blocks away from us over on Burr Street. I liked them well enough – they were always friendly – but I must admit that as a seven-year-old, I thought they talked kinda funny. Out of suspicion and perhaps a little fear, I gave them a wide berth.

The second memory is of my Mom occasionally making EYE-TALIAN SPAGHETTI on winter Sunday afternoons when she was off work. I recall the hours she spent watching her sauce simmer on our two-burner stove. The moment of drama came when she added the olive oil, an ingredient so exotic that the local A&P grocery store didn’t even carry it. In Kewanee at that time, olive oil was only sold in pharmacies. So, after her Saturday afternoon shift at Knepps Dress Shop, she’d walk down to the BERG & DINES DRUG STORE and pick up what I guess was a 3-ounce bottle of the enchanting and slightly alien liquid.

Near the end of the cooking process, my mom would summon me to the kitchen. I’d watch her would take the tiny bottle, add only a few scant drops to the sauce…and then recoil, saying “OH NO, Phil! Do you think I added too much?”

I don’t remember what I said, but as a second grade student and blossoming vulgarian, I probably responded, “F**K NO, MA”…HIT IT AGAIN”. A Palmolive soap mouth cleansing followed.

That’s it: my Italian food experience growing up. We didn’t even get a PIZZA HUT in Kewanee ‘til 1972.

Just recently, one of our Parasole colleagues took a two-week vacation to Italy and spent a lot of time on the AMALFI COAST. She sent numerous pictures back to all of us during her visit.  And Joanne and I couldn’t help but recall our trips there during the BUCA days.

Among my favorite regions is CAMPANIA, home to the towns of POSITANO, NAPLES and CASERTA – each known globally for a culinary masterpiece.

Let’s begin with POSITANO and the surrounding region.

LEMONS. Herculean in size, grown on the steep, steep terraced hillsides of Amalfi on the Mediterranean Sea.

A staple of the region for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, these gigantic lemons were – according to lore – cultivated to provide the vitamin C necessary to protect seafarers from scurvy. 

Today Amalfi lemons are protected by the official and rigid rules of the COSTA d’ AMALFI I.G.P.

The pulp is pleasantly sour, but the thick peel, with its superior aromatic potency, is what’s prized in dishes like SPAGHETTI AL LIMONE and LEMON TIRAMISU, in which layers of flavor-bombed lemon sponge cake are cemented together with creamed mascarpone cheese.

And, of course, there’s LIMONCELLO, the digestivo made by steeping lemon zest and peels in vodka until the oils are released, then adding simple syrup.

Can you get drunk on limoncello? YOU BETCHA!

And now, BONUS TIME: a restaurant not to miss if you are in Positano…

LA SPONDA RISTORANTE at the HOTEL SIRENUSE. In this Michelin two-star dining room, iconic and beautiful seafood towers are paraded through the dining room like a trophy wife. Snag an outdoor table overlooking the Mediterranean at sunset. Engagement rings are passed out as you enter the restaurant.

Next is NAPLES – plucky Naples, gritty Naples, with the ever-present smoldering MT. VESUVIUS as a backdrop.

This is the home of the luscious, justly famous SAN MARZANO TOMATO, the product of Italy’s long, hot summers and the volcanic soil in which it’s grown.

Note: U.S. supermarkets abound with imposters. Last week I saw fresh “San Marzano” tomatoes labeled “Product of Mexico.” So be sure to look for the official “D.O.P.” designation of origin.

I’ve never seen fresh San Marzano tomatoes in American grocery stores. But do not despair! LUNDS-BYERLY’S carries the officially designed ALESSI canned product.

Is it any good? Well, when I was in MARCELLA HAZAN’S cooking school in Bologna, Italy, the master Italian cook used canned San Marzano’s in her marinara sauce because, she said, they were harvested and canned at their absolute peak of ripeness, and therefore more predictably flavorful than fresh.

BTW, just before serving, Marcella socked her marinara with a slug of insanely good BUTTER.  That made for some TASTY-ASS sauce.

Another bonus if you’re Naples: MIMI ALLA FERROVIA restaurant near the train station.

“Ferrovia” . in Italian, means train station. A word of caution, though: Hire a taxi or car and driver to take you to and from the restaurant and you’ll be just fine. REALLY…YOU WILL.

Known for traditional Neapolitan cooking, MIMI boasts “just off the boat” seafood that’s prepared not to impress, but only to bring you pleasure. The best part? It does both. Mimi is Michelin starred, and Mimi is IN THE HOUSE.

Finally, we arrive at CASERTA, a tiny town a few kilometers north of Naples just off the A-1.

This is epicenter of BUFFALO MOZZARELLA or as they spell it, “bufala mozzarella.”

Yes, it’s mozzarella made with WATER BUFFALO milk (as opposed to “Fiori di latte,” or cow’s milk).

Now, water buffalo are said to have been brought to Italy from East India several hundred years ago – possibly the 10th century – because cows could not tolerate the region’s heat. By contrast, water buffalo thrived in Italy’s south. Better yet, they happened to produce milk that was creamier, richer and fattier than cow’s milk. And as we all know, FAT IS FLAVOR. It’s also double the calories. Who cares?

Many of the “Caseifici (dairies) are still family owned and operated, as was the one we always visited: CASEIFICIO IL CASOLARE, where we were warmly and genuinely greeted.

In addition to the most famous antipasto, INSALATA CAPRESE (tomato and mozzarella), there are a host of other bufala mozzarella preparations worth trying – all with basil, all with olive oil and salt. My favorites include mozzarella with fresh figs and mozzarella with summer peaches. They’re the culinary embodiment of a sunny beach day.

But here’s the rub: Bufala mozz has an exceedingly short shelf life. Only a very few stores, primarily on the East Coast, carry the fresh product. The cheese is made in Italy on day one. It’s shipped by air on day two. And it better be sold by day three.

By day four, IT’S NO LONGER GOUDA.

Sorry.

BUT…W.T.F. PHIL

RELISHING A GOOD SUPPER CLUB

Ponder with me the Supper Club, a Midwest dining institution that most everyone has heard of, but hardly anyone knows the history of.

Perhaps it has its roots around 1919, when passage of the Volstad Act ushered in the Prohibition era. Even though liquor was forbidden all around the country, folks still wanted to drink (and drink they did). In the Midwest, especially Wisconsin, drinking (and gambling) often took place in secret, frequently in older roadhouses, well outside the city police patrols. These places were referred to as “blind tigers” or speakeasies.

Gradually, hoping to encourage longer visits by a wider clientele, ownership began to offer a few food items like fried perch, sandwiches and burgers, and even deep-fried chicken.

And then, in 1933, PROHIBITION ENDED! You could drink again! But not all municipalities allowed consumption of spirits. You could have a beer, but not the hard stuff.

Consequently many blind tigers and speakeasies continued to operate as regular restaurants including hard liquor, sometimes called SUPPER CLUBS – variants of which I grew up with in central Illinois.

There was WAUNEE FARM, a few miles south of Kewanee, run by Bud and Agnes Ward. 

Then there was DAVIDSON’S, owned by Kenny and Marie Davidson. Located (uncharacteristically for a supper club) in downtown Kewanee.  When we could afford it, it was a family favorite because my mother worked at a nearby dress shop, and on Saturday nights my dad and I would sometimes pick her up and head over to Davidson’s for their signature “Chicken in the Rough” – a half chicken, battered and deep fried, then disjointed and served with a logo’d bib (and NO silverware). Even though you ate with your fingers, it seemed pretty fancy to 8-year-old only child, Master Philip. I think it cost $1.15 per person.

At meal’s end, the waitress (there were no waiters) delivered a small bowl of tepid water to the table. Not realizing it was fingerbowl intended to purge the chicken grease from one’s fingers (who could conceive of such a thing?), I took a big gulp – to the warped pleasure of all the sophisticated locals seated near us.

Rounding out our trio of supper clubs was BRACKEN’S, on the edge of town. Owner Bob Bracken had been an all-state high school pole vaulter (clearing 12 feet, 3 inches if I recall correctly), and his restaurant was the adopted home of the Kewanee Ballhawks girls softball team, which headed there after every home night game at Windmont Park. But it wasn’t just the big-boned gals of Kewanee who loved Bob’s manhole-sized deep-fried pork tenderloin sandwich. That was my go-to choice as well.

What really drew me to Bracken’s, however, was the prospect of a parking-lot dustup and fist-fight between the Ballhawks and the opposing team on those occasions when our team lost and words were exchanged, followed by blows. I cheered for our team to win, but God I LOVED it when they took a lickin.’

So were Bracken’s, Davidson’s and Waunee Farm actually SUPPER CLUBS?

Notwithstanding the fact that these establishments were only open for supper, they weren’t known as supper clubs. I’m not sure anyone in Kewanee had ever heard the term. But they did indeed have many attributes of the genre.

And what might those attributes be?

First, they were family owned and staffed. Mom and Pop were running the show, usually from the kitchen or the cash register. Their daughters, when old enough, pitched in as waitresses, and their boys started off as busboys or dishwashers.

Down-home hospitality was the rule. A meal was never rushed. Nor was it treated as quick drop-in before some other event – what we in the industry refer to today as “utility dining.” Rather, supper clubs were destination dining, meaning the restaurant wasn’t incidental to the evening’s entertainment. It WAS the evening’s entertainment. Keep in mind, also that for many diners, a meal at one of these establishments required a lengthy drive. After all, they were originally located in hard-to-find areas.

Reflecting the effort it took to get there, supper clubs styled themselves as places that were worth the drive – even high-class. They were definitely the venue to celebrate a special occasion, though affordability was also a defining trait. The clientele, after all, was not affluent. They were working folk. And a restaurant’s success hinged on being accessible enough to turn most customers into regulars.

Hence the menus typically featured local ingredients and reflected local habits. Friday Night Fish Fry would feature perch and walleye in Wisconsin, and perhaps Mississippi catfish (alongside grilled pork chops) in Illinois. I suppose it might have been lobster if it were in Maine.

Décor often reflected the owner’s tastes and hobbies – hunting, fishing, football, bowling…complete with trophies and taxidermy mounted on knotty pine walls. As a step up: perhaps deep red vinyl booths, tufted and studded.

Since I was too young to drink, I wasn’t aware of the emblematic status of the OLD FASHIONED COCKTAIL as a dinner prerequisite at supper clubs. Some surmise that the Old Fashioned – made with bourbon, bitters, a dash of sugar, orange slice and a neon-red maraschino cherry – was created during Prohibition in order to mask the taste of poor-quality hooch. I don’t know if that’s really true.

What I DO know is that my hometown restaurants weren’t just serving supper-club cocktails. They checked the boxes for complimentary relish trays, rolls (frequently cushy  Parker House style), break sticks, cellophane-wrapped crackers, shrimp cocktails, onion rings, and baked potatoes wrapped in foil (served with a caddy of butter, sour cream, bacon and chives).

Deep-fried cheese curds? Never heard of ‘em growing up, but today they probably grace every supper club menu in Wisconsin.

BTW: the Wisconsin Old Fashioned is always made with brandy, not the traditional bourbon. The brand? Korbel.

So, a few weeks back we went to THE CREEKSIDE SUPPER CLUB at 48th & Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis. It’s a tribute to the supper clubs of the Midwest.

This place cuts the mustard on many levels…beginning with the stuffed “lunker” 12 pound walleye brazenly leaping above the fireplace and the warmth of the wood-paneled dining rooms with a liberal spattering of tchotchkes throughout.

We started with a basket of light, airy and buttery popovers – not exactly supper club fare, but who cares? They were DELICIOUS. We followed with an array of appetizers beginning with a revolving relish tray laden with shrimp, smoked salmon spread, sausages, marble rye toast, and various pickled items. It ran $29 and was plenty for the four of us. Other apps included Buffalo chicken wings, onion rings and deep-fried cheese curds…of course.

Two of us had a Wedge Salad, which was exceptionally cool and crispy, not to mention bacon-y and blue cheesy. The other two members of our party chose the dinner salad, included with the meal and appropriately topped with a sprinkling of shredded cheddar.

Then there was the obligatory Friday Night Fish Fry, which I believe is offered every night…..don’t know for sure.  For $24, you get a healthy portion of beer-battered cod with coleslaw and fries. If they served mushy peas, I could have been in London for fish and chips. Or you could choose beer-battered walleye with fries for $29.

Joanne enjoyed her grilled salmon with basil/lemon butter ($28). She loves salmon.

We didn’t order the crispy chicken sandwich with bacon, nor the Creekside Burger with fries ($18). But the table next to us did, and both looked great.

As the Supper Club Rule Book states, “You shall have Prime Rib every Friday and Saturday Night” and indeed we did. 14 ounces, medium rare – generous, tender, juicy and beefy.

We didn’t save room for dessert, but instead opted for the luscious dessert cocktails that have charmed supper club drinkers for decades: A stiff Brandy Alexander, a minty Grasshopper, a nutty Pink Squirrel – all chilled, all creamy, all sweet ‘n boozy.

So, that’s it. A little HISTORY, a little NOSTALGIA, and a BIG NIGHT OUT AT CREEKSIDE.

A final note: I’m not sure where the term supper CLUB came from. Maybe back during Prohibition, these establishments called themselves social clubs and the name morphed into “supper club.” One thing’s for sure: No membership is necessary at the Creekside. There’s no hush-hush password. No dues. No secret handshake. All you need is the desire for a nice evening out.

WTF,

Phil

THE LIDO (where I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ come) 

Write this down so that you don’t forget about it. 

 In Miami, overlooking Biscayne Bay on the spacious deck of the hipster-friendly STANDARD HOTEL is a restaurant called THE LIDO BAYSIDE GRILL. 

The environs are amazing. Though steps away from the action on South Beach, the property, set among the palm trees and peaceful tropical gardens of Belle Isle, offers one of Miami’s best locations for seaside dining.

The hotel itself is intentionally dated with smart furnishings inspired by the mid-century modern aesthetic. As you exit the lobby for the restaurant, you wander on a path through the magical, Zen-like gardens peppered with sculpture, Pauly’s island rope hammocks and a little oasis…’til at last the moment arrives when the breathtaking view of Biscayne Bay unfolds before your eyes. You have arrived at THE LIDO outdoor deck and restaurant. 

Joanne and I have dined here dozens of times, often with our grandkids…not necessarily because we are hungry and need an immediate order of stone crabs to stave off rickets. No, it’s because of the view – ESPECIALLY THOSE SUNSETS. 

Over the course of our visits, we’ve pretty much tried everything on the menu. I’d describe it as “breezy coastal cooking,” with well-curated, sure-footed offerings that suit the setting – starting with beautiful, eye-catching tropical cocktails, artfully paired with a wide assortment of small plates, citrus and fermented, health food and organic, chilled and grilled, deep fried and raw. 

Among the mains, look for grilled seafood (sometimes whole), Florida lobsters, hanger steak, and a perfect rendition of Chicken Milanese. Oh yes, they are also riding the cacio pepe train that has thundered through every Italian restaurant in the country…and it’s good. 

I’d be remiss not to report some of the Lido’s “velvet rope” missteps in the past. For a while they had a NAZI straight out of central casting as the host. “You vill NOT be seated until der entire party of four ist here.”  “You vill NOT have a table near der vater.”  “You vill leave after 2 hours. Ve haf another party scheduled for das table.” 

We’ve also endured our share of servers who seemed to believe their absence makes the heart grow fonder. Note, also: If you are driving, valet parking is a must…but it’s $35 for 3 hours. And the menu is a bit pricy (At $49, the hanger steak is $12 more than ours at SALUT).

Nowadays, however, the place seems more well run, with a far sunnier disposition. Now that the Standard is no longer the hottest, newest place in town, the Lido has become markedly more guest focused. Funny how that happens. They also welcome dogs. 

So, more about the food. It is sometimes said, “The more spectacular the view, the drearier the food…It’s a place for the view, but not the food.” 

Well, I’m here to say that the food at the LIDO is good. It fits. Is it five stars? Of course not. Nor should it be. It’s OK to like a burger. 

After all, eating out is not just about the food, but rather the entire experience of the evening including the sunsets, the wine, the music, the tropical breezes and who you are with. And besides, it’s hard to drag your eyes away from the extraordinary waterfront views. 

So, in the end I’m dreamin’ and thinkin’ of Otis Redding softly singing, ”JUST SITTIN’ ON THE DOCK OF THE BAY…… 

WASTIN TIME!”

WTF 

  

PHIL 

RAAG RULES

I love Indian food.

And because the culinary regions of the subcontinent are way too diverse, delicious and complicated for me ever to understand, I’ve learned to just sit back and enjoy the embarrassment of riches that Indian cuisine has to offer.

My knowledge is limited to the following, and I’m not even sure what little I do know is accurate. Apologies in advance.

My understanding is that, broadly speaking, India has four culinary regions. Some dishes (like curries and naan bread) are found throughout the country, while other dishes are strongly associated with a particular geography, where availability of ingredients, climate features, access to the sea, and the history of the region, etc. have influenced the course of culinary history.

There certainly aren’t clear-cut culinary divides from one region to the other, but we can say that the north is home to tandoors, samosas and a high use of dairy. The west coast is known for fish, obviously, as well as coconut milk, chutneys, and the consumption of beef and pork. Along the east coast you’ll find more lightly spiced dishes, lots of seafood, and an abundance of sweets. And then there’s the south, which is known for its explosive flavors, spicy biryanis (a basmati rice dish baked with chicken, beef, goat, shrimp, lamb, vegetables, etc.) and pappadums – the crispy, peppery rice crackers.

Here in America’s Upper Midwest, there aren’t a whole lot of Indian restaurants, and many of them tend to cater to a value-focused clientele that’s not terribly knowledgeable of the variety and nuances of Indian cooking. That’s not to say the food is bad. Quite often it’s excellent. But I don’t think our Indian restaurants draw a lot of culinary pilgrims. (I do recall, however, that Sri Lanka Curry House had a following back in the day).

Indian restaurants have a much greater footprint in New York and other American cities with large Indian populations. Joanne and I have dined several times at TAMARIND on Hudson Street in Tribeca, with its theatrical tandoori oven right in the dining room. Take the kids. BTW, tandoor isn’t a recipe. It’s a white-hot clay oven for cooking meats marinated in yogurt and Indian spices.

But if you want the absolute best that India has to offer (outside of India), head to London. It’s home to an astonishing plethora of important fine-dining Indian restaurants.

WHY?

Well, Great Britain has had close links to India for over 200 years. But the biggest contributor to London’s Indian dining scene, by far, was the inter-religious conflicts that caused the division of India in August of 1947. Muslim Pakistan in the North violently clashed with the Sikhs and Hindus in the South, causing hundreds of thousands of people to be displaced in one of the largest and most tragic human migrations in history.

That migration occurred at a time when England was particularly welcoming to immigrants. After the loss of so many men in World War II, industry desperately needed workers to keep the mills and factories going. Indian migrants answered the call. As of 2021, some 656,000 Indians were living in Greater London. That amounts to about 7.5% of the metropolitan area’s population.

And – “thank our lucky stars” – they brought their cuisine along with them.

Consequently, London today is said to have more Indian restaurants per square mile than any city in the world outside of India.

The city certainly boasts the “crème de la crème” of top-tier Indian fine dining restaurants. Many are Michelin starred, including old-school favorites like VERSWAMY, CINNAMON CLUB, ZAIKA and CHUTNEY MARY.

Among the more recent additions to the London dining scene are GYMKHANA, reminiscent of colonial India, on Albemarle St. in Mayfair, where I love the Achari Guinea fowl and Joanne favors the biryani. Reserve weeks ahead.

BENARES resides on Berkeley Square in the heart of luxurious west London – think of the World War II song popular during the height of the Battle of Britain, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” If two of you go there, request table #17, in the corner. We were there near the time of the coronation and had the celebratory “Coronation Chicken.” It was so good they might have made it a permanent menu offering. As an appetizer, I would suggest the tandoori trio of lamb, chicken and king prawns….with three chutney’s.

Just down Mount Street, a half block from our hotel, is JAMAVAR, a palatial space with outposts in New Delhi, Goa and Mumbai. Table #16 offers cat-bird seating for two.

AMAYA, in Belgravia, is over 10 years old, but its contemporary twist on many classic dishes keeps this hotspot on the vanguard of London Indian restaurants. Absolutely indulge in one of their many iterations of tandoori’s. You won’t be disappointed.

As much as I love Amaya, however, they may harbor some lingering disappointment with me. In fact, I was thrown out of the restaurant for taking pictures of the food in front of me. I argued with the manager.

“Just whose food is it?” I asked.

“It’s not yours,” he said.

“Well, I’m eating it.”

“Oh no you’re not.”

I lost.

(In the Instagram era, what do you think the chances are that they’re still enforcing that policy?)

Finally, I would suggest BIBI on Audley Street, down the block from Marks & Spencer, just off Oxford Street in Mayfair. It’s new. It’s tiny. And it’s hot, hot, hot. Grace Dent, food writer for the Guardian newspaper, proudly stated, “I’d happily bathe in their peanut sauce.” Dine at the counter and watch the show. If you are not inclined toward counter dining, there are two booths numbered #5 and #6. Bibi’s set menu appears to represent the entire country and the dishes are delicious and witty. BTW, in 2022 Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine named Bibi its “Restaurant of the Year.”

So, here we are back in Minnesota.

But wait! There’s a new sheriff in town!

His name is Sohil Goorha and he owns a restaurant called RAAG, serving “Progressive Indian Cuisine” near the corner of 50th & France in downtown Edina.

“Raag” means “symphony” in Hindi, and a symphony it is. French technique is definitely involved here and it surfaces in surprising ways in conjunction with classic Indian dishes. Recently we enjoyed a rack of lamb but instead of traditional mint sauce, the chops were resting in a delightful pool of mint curry.

Cocktails are creative. Among the offerings are the Tamarind Martini, the gin-based Cool Cucumber, and Raag’s eye-catching Neel Gagan, a blue drink made with white rum (and presumably blue curaçao?). Of course, non-alcoholic options abound, including cool, creamy Lassis, made with yogurt, milk, fresh fruit and sometimes cardamom. Try the Mango Lassi.

Pappadums and garlic naan are frequent starters for Joanne and me. But we don’t stop there. Samosas are paired with mint and tamarind chutney. Grilled scallops, still in their shells, are topped with watermelon caviar red pepper coulis and a fresh slice of blood orange.

I like the Scotch Eggs Nargisi Kofta, encased in minced goat. Joanne does not.

Paneer, a very mild buffalo milk cheese that does not melt (it squeaks) is from the North but is enjoyed throughout India and at Raag appears in several dishes. I had a skewer of paneer squares prepared tandoori style. 

In addition to several curries and the obligatory butter chicken (wonderful), they do a riff on Tandoori Chicken, which is blackened with edible charcoal, eggplant mash and beetroot…no, no, no, you’ll like it.

A signature dish at Raag (if there is only one) would be the fig kofta – three little lamb  meatball shaped cones lounging in a spicy lagoon of yogurt, fresh figs, tomato, toasted cashews and pecans. YUM.

Also delicious is a Grilled Shrimp Dish in a pool of turmeric-infused coconut milk.

And then there are desserts…

Historically, outside of the subcontinent, Indian desserts do not have a good reputation….way too sweet…weird textures.

But at Raag? Cheesecake? It’s one of the best (and I know cheesecake because Manny’s has THE best). Chocolate Mousse? The same.  Delightfully decadent. It’s very good (although dusting the dome with 24 carat gold dust is perhaps unnecessary, as it has no flavor or texture). And then there’s the Panna Cotta. I’ve had plenty of interpretations of panna cotta, but Raag’s is different. It’s pleasantly sweet, and – I’m not certain but I would guess – is flavored with rosewater. Most unusual and one of the best I’ve ever had.

Joanne and I have had the privilege of dining in some of the most renowned Indian restaurants in the western world. And RAAG stacks up with the best of them. Count yourself fortunate to have them in our corner of the world.

Oh, about the tepid reputation of Indian desserts. I believe that it was Calvin Trillin who said, “Most Indian desserts have the texture of FACE CREAM.”

But, dear readers, I must investigate and get to the bare-ass bottom of this tattle. So, I’ll soon be off to a deep dive at the POND’S INSTITUTE OF FACE CREAM CONTEMPLATION…all on your behalf.

WTF

PHIL

RC COLA AND A MOON PIE

One of the fond memories of my teenage years takes me back to the long, hot and humid summer days in Kewanee, Illinois, when my buddies and I would sit for hours on the steps of John Draminski’s grocery store telling filthy stories and bragging of sexual conquests (that, of course, never ever happened; although I did have the thrill of holding hands one time with a sophomore girl known as “bare-hand Sal”)…..never got to second base.  

On those lazy, endless summer days, I must have consumed gallons of “soda pop” and pounds of walloping, sugar-ladened chocolate treats.

However, we were an astute bunch. No Coca-Cola for us (those six-and-a-half ounce bottles were too small). No Pepsi either. We had a taste only for the “CHIEF” of the colas – the “BOSS” of the brimming bottle: a thundering 16-OUNCE “ice-chest cold” ROYAL CROWN COLA. All mine for all of five cents.

Of course, this select group of teenage, dog-days degenerates were equally discerning when it came to the chocolate treats we washed down with a he-man swig of our RC Cola. (I can’t imagine that much sugar, all at once).

Draminski’s always kept a healthy stock of WHOOPIE PIES – vanilla cream frosting sandwiched between two chocolate cake-like cookies.

Also in the store were VANILLA BUNS with a chocolate-salted peanut covering (think of a Nut Goodie). We also enjoyed HOSTESS CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES – but they were a dime. Only occasionally did our junk-food budget stretch that far.

Once in a while, John Draminski would get a small delivery of something called MOON PIES. I had occasionally seen them at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store out on Tenny Street, but never thought much about them. Someone said they were pretty good and had a marshmallow filling between two chocolate-dipped graham crackers.

Then one day this guy wandered into Draminski’s and said, “I reckon I’ll have me a bottle of pop and a Moon Pie.” As he spoke, he reached for a strapping bottle of Royal Crown Cola bobbing in the ice chest by the register.

I don’t know if I had ever heard a southern drawl, but I said to him, “You’re not from around these parts, are ya?”

“Naw,” he said, “I’m from Chattanooga, Tennessee, the home of the Moon Pies.”

So I bought a Moon Pie, too – my first.

We sat for a while and he proudly told me that Moon Pies were a workingman’s treat because they were large and filling and gave men a lot of energy. They were popular among coal miners, who would take ‘em down in the mines for their lunch break. He said they were a “Southern thang” and it was unusual to see them this far north.

(I was pleased that he considered Kewanee part of the North, as my family certainly didn’t want to be associated with those hillbillies from Southern Illinois. Sorry, Joanne.)

I really liked Moon Pies. I guess I got hooked, because every time the store received a shipment, I was first in line. Besides, they were bigger than the other treats and still only cost a nickel.

Soon after, I began to take notice that, once in a while, Moon Pies would pop up in gas stations and hardware stores around the outskirts of Chicago, Peoria, and even in Kewanee. I thought that guy from Chattanooga said they were from down south. But I looked into it recently and learned that the pies followed the migration of factory workers to the northern cities. Made sense.

Also, not frequently, but now and then, I would spot ads promoting the pairing of Royal Crown Cola and a Moon Pie. And as Joanne and I drove back from Florida several years ago, (when driving was our only affordable option) we spotted several iterations of ads plugging the pair. NASCAR sponsors a Moon Pie racing car. Downtown Chattanooga once put a giant RC Cola and a billboard-sized image of a Moon Pie above a movie theater marquee. Farmers found a little revenue by allowing painted ads on their barns. 

Even Mr. Rogers, got in on the act before he died in 2003.  Along the way we learned of an annual festival in Bell Buckle, Tennessee celebrating the growing cult-like marriage of Moon Pie and RC Cola. Truck stops and gas stations also sold thermometers and t-shirts pairing the two products.

And in the film, THE GREEN MILE, starring Tom Hanks, there’s a scene where an imprisoned Toot is drinking a bottle of RC Cola and about to eat a Moon Pie when death-row inmate Wild Bill, in the adjoining cell, offers to buy the pie for a nickel. What follows is explosive…you better watch.

Best of all, BUBBA got his 6-PACK – and huffily offers, “IT’S A SOUTHERN THANG. YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND”.

No doubt Bubba is right. I’LL PROBABLY NEVER UNDERSTAND.

But my memories are indelible. I’ll always cherish those hot summer days with my pals, sitting out front on Draminski’s steps with a step-over-dog asleep on the shady sidewalk in front of us…and me, wolfing down ROYAL CROWN COLAS and MOON PIES.

And perhaps a hush-hush smoke afterwards.

WTF,

PHIL

NOBLE ROT, IGNOBLE GLUTTONY

Just what the hell is “Noble Rot?”

I had heard the term from time to time but never bothered to investigate.

Then a couple months ago, when Joanne and I were in London, we were seeking out restaurants that were not expensive… yet had earned a lusted-after Michelin star. One of the names that popped up was THE NOBLE ROT in Mayfair.

That prompted an investigation.

Noble Rot, I learned, is a type of grey fungus (Botrytis cinerea) that is affectionally and deliberately cultivated on grapes to enhance the making of certain wines, especially expensive sweet wines that earn consistently high Wine Spectator scores.

The Botrytis grapes are not pretty. They are partially raisined by a process that concentrates their flavor and sugar while still on the vine.

The Noble Rot is a neighborhood restaurant located in Shepherd Market, an oasis of calm, in Central London……And as you might suspect, it’s a wine bar with a cleverly curated carte that caters to all tastes and budgets…with a Coravin wine-by-the-glass list that’s reputedly the best in town…and it all comes with all MICHELIN-STARRED food.

The founders, Don Keeling and Mark Andrew, have opened two other locations besides Mayfair – one in SOHO, the other in Bloomsbury.

The dining room is timeless and impressively approachable, softly lit and old school. The cuisine, while basically British at its roots, has one foot entrenched in tradition while the other foot kicks it forward, resulting in an inventive modern Euro/British dining experience.

The drill…

Joanne and I shared several starters and snacks, including choux buns filled with savory duck liver mousse and drizzled with honey – a delicious counterpoint.

Next came four creamy Maldon raw oysters (think Maldon Salt in the spice aisle at Lunds). Two were bathed in Raveneau Chablis wine sauce. The other two were paired with miniature chorizo meatballs.

Spicy fried Mylar prawns with their whiskery heads were delightfully crunchy and ready for dipping in house-made mayonnaise (a really nice mayonnaise).

Palourde clams from the Iberian peninsula, steamed in white wine and butter and paired with little morsels of Basque sausage, were a big hit, too.

Do not – I repeat, DO NOT – skip the bread plate with slices of chewy rye, sourdough, springy focaccia and the light bitter tang of Irish soda bread. Tear off pieces, slather them with farm butter, and sop up the broth of the steamed clams.

Other appetizers included Parma prosciutto with fresh figs and Hereford prime beef carpaccio with piquant green peppercorns.

Okay, Minnesota, don’t freak out on the upcoming offerings.

Cornish cod roe, spread on sourdough toast, was salty and wonderful. How about Devonshire smoked eel with sour gooseberries and horseradish?

Grilled octopus and deviled eggs casino with anchovy butter followed. Both good.

Salads were large enough to be shared. We still ordered three. Chilled smoked sea bass with cucumber, fennel and Marcona almonds was an unexpected combo. A classic followed: Belgian endive, pear, walnuts, dried cherries and Stilton blue cheese. YUM! But the best of the salads paired smooth, silky burrata with fresh figs, arugula, olive oil, mint, chile flakes and anchovy. Yep…the BEST!

Then came a few “tweeners.”  Could have been appetizers, could be mains.

One combined chilled salt cod, octopus, fingerling potatoes, sugar snap peas and breakfast radishes with yellow mayo – more of a summer dish.

As it was fall and truffles were in season, I ordered the tagliolini with white Croatian truffles. This was the only item that broke the budget. But how could I resist the sweet, earthy “He-man” armpit aroma? Does that make me a BAD PERSON?

Speaking of aromas, gnocchi with goat curd and winter mushrooms looked and smelled good. We didn’t order that.

The problem was that we were getting full. So the following images capture notable selections made by our fellow diners.

I hope I wasn’t the Ugly American roaming from table to table taking photos. But the other patrons were friendly enough and didn’t seem to mind. Then again, it’s said that the British will never say what’s really on their mind – * “Yo! Fugger pig! Get the hell away from our table, you wanker!”

Oh well, here goes – and it’s a beautiful sampling of what to expect from this pocketbook-friendly Michelin-starred London restaurant/wine bar: Heritage breed Middle White pork loin…prime Scotch beef sirloin…Welsh Blackface lamb chops…smoked eel resting in crab bisque dotted with caviar…Dover sole for two with crab butter and Jersey royal potatoes…Slip sole in smoked butter…Cornish monkfish with mussels in mustard bourride…French Challans duck breast (the same duck served at Paris’ iconic Tour d’Argent)…and the leftover leg of the duck, you ask? Why duck confit, of course.

All right, here is what Joanne and I ordered…

Perhaps one of the best side dishes ever: Delicata squash, spinach, walnuts and Roquefort butter.  And for our main dish? Roasted chicken in Vin Juane sauce for two with morel mushrooms.

By now we were really full. But you know what they say: There’s always room for a cheese course. I remember the Brie and the Stilton Blue.  But other than that? My memory is obscured by a recollection of chocolate mousse served with brandied prunes, vanilla ice cream and a hazelnut biscuit (“cookie” to you and me).

Finally, I conjure a vision of a sort of profiterole, the likes of which I had never seen: a baseball-sized choux pastry with dark chocolate syrup, lip-smacking salted toffee caramel sauce, toasted hazelnuts, sea salt flakes and mascarpone cheese. THAT was memorable, even at the end of a wine-saddled dinner.

Now, one last thing about noble rot, the nasty fungus that is among us: It’s related to penicillin, creamy blue cheeses, wines of superior quality and, finally…., ATHLETE’S FOOT.

WTF,

Phil

* “Yo! Fugger Pig”…. A.A. Gill, London Times

ALL HAIL SNOUT TO TAIL

It’s testimony to the wonderful childhood my parents provided for me that I had little idea how precarious our family finances were. I should have seen it because, after all, we had three families living under one roof. But the actions they took to keep us fed didn’t seem born of necessity – maybe because I enjoyed them so much.

In the summertime, my dad I and I (along with our uncle and fellow housemate, who had a car) would head for the canal where we’d catch crappies for supper (we never called it dinner). During the fall and winter, the men would hunt for squirrel and rabbit, which my mom, grandmother and aunts would fry up, then roast with Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup. All perfectly normal. No hardship at all. It was just what we did.

When I was 10 or 11 and on the early, early cusp of manhood, my Dad began taking me to Stetson’s cattle farm each spring for the owner’s popular cookout. It was a strictly male-only event. Giggling about it, my mom and aunts told us to have fun as we left for an evening of feasting, beer drinking, and male bonding.

You see, this was the time of year that bulls were birthed. And that mean it was time to cut their balls off.

I, of course, had no idea what was involved at STETSON’S ROCKY MOUNTAIN OYSTER ANNUAL SPRING COOKOUT. There I was, an 11-year-old early adopter of open-fire oak-grilled bull testicles (served on a burger bun slathered with French’s yellow mustard) and it didn’t even occur to me to brag about it to friends. “Please sir….may I have another”.

Later in my culinary life, I became familiar with chefs using the whole animal – including balls, snouts, brains and innards. The movement is called “the Fifth Quarter” and it allows restaurants to make ethical and environmentally sustainable use of the entire animal.

You may also have heard it referred to as “snout-to-tail dining.”

Major markets around the globe have seen the sprouting of whole-animal restaurants. SABOR in London, located just off Regent Street, features deep fried pig’s ears and half whole-pig feasts where hard-core carnivores thrill to ears, jowls and snouts still attached to the head. Also in London, there’s BARRAFINA, where Joanne and I enjoyed (well, perhaps only I enjoyed) lamb sweetbreads from the wood-fired grill.

Perhaps the first time we ventured into the joys of snout-to-tail dining was in Paris when our kids were probably 5 and 6 years old. PIED DE COCHON, which opened in the old Les Halles market area in 1947, specialized in serving left-over pig parts. In fact, it’s probably the only restaurant in the world to be named after a pig’s foot. I remember the experience vividly. After all, it was at my insistence that we visited Pied de Cochon and ordered their signature deep-fried trotter. Talk about dining as theater – each platter arrived at our table with TOENAILS INTACT and hair-bristling between them.

Only I gave the “pieds” a proper go. Noting the unsatisfied look on my kids’ faces, the staff served each of us a complimentary young “pig cup,” which turned out to be a watery small bowl of canned fruit cocktail. WTF.

A place in Chicago has caught our attention: THE PUBLICAN. It’s still there and thriving. Joanne even scarfed down a few salty pig-skin crackling (you can take the girl out of Sparta, Illinois…). 

And that brings us to the Prince of Pig…the King of the Kidneys… the Oracle of Offal…the Baron of Balls and Guru of Gonads: FERGUS HENDERSON, who in 1995 boldly launched ST. JOHN RESTAURANT near the Smithfield Market in London. His simple creed was, “If you’re going to bang an animal on the head, it’s only polite that you eat it all.”

St. John is a favorite of mine and I’ve eaten there several times both with family and Parasole colleagues. It’s not Joanne’s favorite (that’s an understatement), but I’m pleased to report that with my then 9-year-old grandson, the ball doesn’t fall far from the sac. He devoured a plate of DEVILED LAMB KIDNEYS, served on toast with a mustard sauce.

Fergus Henderson was the first, I believe, to offer roast beef bones with parsley salad as a signature dish. It arrives loaded to the brim with gelatinous beefy marrow for spreading on toasted bread.  

Another appetizer choice would be smooth and effortless Chicken Liver Mousse, slathered on toasted pumpernickel.   

Even if you are a bit on the prissy side, you should at least try a kidney with gravy and mashed potatoes. You may not like it, but you can have bragging rights.

Now, it takes a certain kind of person to not like crispy, salty Deep-Fried Chicken Skin, especially as a crunchy counterpoint in a leafy green salad.

A pair of thick and gloriously fatty Middlewhite Heritage Pork Chops are a carnivore’s dream.

Wild game makes frequent appearances on Fergus’ menus, including Roasted Wild Rabbit, Pheasant and Lamb leg Pot Pie For Two.

So what was Joanne to order? Fortunately, St. John’s offers safe harbors such as Roast Leg of Lamb, Grilled Halibut, and a few other seafood options.

DESSERT? Sticky Toffee Pudding, of course, and a plate of madeleine cookies.

BTW, if those offerings make you squeamish, you should know that St. John has earned a Michelin star 15 years in a row.

Closer to home, I had another favorite: ANIMAL in Los Angeles. Sadly, it didn’t survive COVID and closed last June. But they deserve a mention because chefs Vinny Detolo and Jon Shook came as close as anyone in the United States to honoring Fergus Henderson’s philosophy. They proudly admit to “knocking off” the legendary chef’s roast beef bones and marrow, crackly beef tendons, and chicken liver toast – not to mention veal brains.

Joanne had a difficult time at Animal and eventually ordered the Soft-Shell Crab, which she loved. But the idea of Buffalo Pigs Tails and Chicken Feet caused her to step outside for some fresh air.

WTF

PHIL

BLEU DUCK KITCHEN IN ROCHESTER, MN

As a kid growing up in central Illinois, I would always look forward to my dad’s two-week summer vacation. Along with my aunts and uncles (they were the ones with the car), my parents and I would head for a fish camp in Walker, Minnesota, about four hours north of the Twin Cities. We would leave in the middle of the night in order to make the 600-mile drive non-stop.

I managed to sleep most of the night (despite the nicotine buzz I got from riding in a car full of smokers), but I insisted that they awaken me so I wouldn’t miss the famous EAR OF CORN water tower on the outskirts of Rochester, Minnesota.

It still stands today.

Of course, I never imagined that Rochester would play a significant role in my professional life. Rochester, just like Joanne and myself, has “growed-up.” I’m reminded of the song from the musical Oklahoma: ”Everything’s up-to-date in Kansas City…They’ve gone about as fer as they can go.”

They couldn’t have written that song about Rochester, because it just keeps on growing. And talk about up-to-date – the multi-billion dollar expansion of the Mayo Clinic will make it the world’s preeminent health care destination.

As some of you may know, five years ago we launched PITTSBURGH BLUE STEAKHOUSE in the new, world-class Hilton Rochester Mayo Clinic Area, a 440-room, 18 floor tower located in the heart of downtown Rochester.

And what a pleasure it has been to serve throngs of friends and locals as well as the multitude of folks visiting Mayo.

Having been named the “THE BEST STEAKHOUSE“ in Rochester, it is fortunate for our patrons that we are so close to the Mayo. After all, Pittsburgh Blue specializes in weapons-grade cholesterol-laden beef – the kinds of cuts that London Guardian food critic Jay Rayner recommends you enjoy in proximity to a defibrillator.

If you gotta go…what a way to go!

Though my first stop in Rochester is always Pittsburgh Blue – I’m partial to its Flintstonian slab of bloody, rare prime rib –or a 24 ounce dry -aged Porterhouse steak.  ….medium-rare.   I find that the next night something else may suit me.

But where to go?

I dream of a small family-owned place that nobody knows about, one of those “best kept secrets” that is simple and unpretentious, where the father cooks for the sheer joy of it and the mother and son ply you with refreshing local wine as the family dog lazes hearthside.

YEAH….in my dreams!

But let me fill you in on a Rochester restaurant that Joanne and I have come to know and love – a place that has some of those same attributes, and even more.

It’s called the BLEU DUCK KITCHEN. Situated on the edge of downtown, this small restaurant is folksy, easy-going and yet smartly designed.  

The chef, whom I have not met, seems to know physics, biology, surgery, art, and design. Moreover, an impressive imagination allows him to bridge multiple culinary cultures and preferences with ease. Seasonal fare is well represented. Healthy dishes complement decadent choices. Asian and Latin-influenced items are joined by Italian, Greek and American-inspired offerings. Some dishes are spicy, others are safe-harbor comfort-food preparations. And all of them have the culinary underpinnings of French technique. It’s FRISKY and FUN!

Joanne and I have dined at the Bleu Duck on a number of occasions over the past several years, and although I frequently take notes, I just haven’t done that here. So my descriptions of the food are from my occasionally flawed memory. Big deal. You’ll get the gist.

The menu is short: 5 starters, 5 second courses, and about 10 mains. Offerings change frequently. In fact, in all the times I’ve eaten at the Bleu Duck, I’ve never seen the same menu twice.

Dinner always begins with slightly sweet and soft Hawaiian rolls.

And then come the STARTERS. Among them: Deep Fried Oysters; a riff on Scotch Eggs using tiny quail eggs; Pork Egg Rolls with a spicy chili sauce; Calamari, sometimes served with artichokes, but usually with jalapenos and peanuts; Frog Legs offered Nashville Hot or perhaps Buffalo Style with bleu cheese, celery and hot sauce; and savory Crème Brulée with Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes and bacon.

SALAD CHOICES have included a simple green salad, a Tuna Poke Bowl with spicy yellowfin tuna and avocado, and a Cauliflower Bowl as well as a hen-of-the-woods mushroom salad with marrow mousse and caramelized onions.

An oyster bar in Rochester, Minnesota? You betcha! Apparently, the owners cut a deal with the Maine Oyster Company on Casco Bay and bring in fresh oysters daily.

Sometimes I break tradition and enjoy Starters as Mains and Mains as Starters. A few examples: Lobster Risotto (or, in the summer, Sweet Corn Risotto with goat cheese, salmon and tomato); Lobster Bisque with only claw and knuckle meat, parmesan croutons and chives; Mac ‘n Cheese; and a favorite: Fried Cornish Game Hen on a savory waffle.

And now the MAINS……

Choices might include Grilled Lamb Chops with white beans; Roast Duck with corn pancakes and chipotle aioli; Lamb Shank with corn tortilla, black beans and watercress; Sea Scallops with roasted carrots, chard and roasted garlic; and Shrimp & Grits with andouille sausage, sambal and scallions.

And finally…DESSERT

There’s a signature 16-layer Vanilla Crepe Cake (also available with strawberries); Croissant Bread Pudding with strawberries, whipped cream and chocolate shavings; and a Chocolate Torte with raspberry coulis, chocolate ganache and whipped cream.

So that’s it…Humble and charming….deep and punchy flavors….frequently exotic…..modest portions… and I’m certainly not going to knock size, because, as we all know….size isn’t everything.

This is a restaurant with a consistently seductive menu. To paraphrase the late A.A. Gill, food critic for the London Times: “Girls who don’t want to go all the way on a first date, should be very, very cautious about dining at Bleu Duck.”

WTF

PHIL