The Thanksgiving menu when I was growing up was pretty much fixed. The two questions were:
Waldorf salad or not? (Yes, if there were guests.) and
What about a green vegetable?
My schoolteacher mother didn't study nutrition in college, but there were small leaflet-like books put out during the Depression to educate citizens on proper nutrition for their children, and my mother dutifully absorbed them, or so she said. Her views were pretty reasonable and accurate given what we now know about such things, her mantra being A Balanced Meal. Thanksgiving did not meet her criteria for ABM, and mostly she didn't try to impose on the menu. But no mashed potatoes. (There's enough starch there," meaning sweet potatoes were a starch and not a yellow vegetable, dressing was certainly a starch, and then the brown 'n serve rolls and blackberry jam, the cranberry sauce and the pumpkin pie.) And there needed to be a green vegetable on the plate. Nothing exciting ever appeared. Canned peas or green beans. Frozen broccoli. Yawn.
Things improved several years after I married and had kids. For a long time, there was a spinach casserole that, mirabile dictu, came from a hospital cafeteria. (Thank you, Shriners!) Hard-cooked egg, a sharp cheese sauce and croutons over a layer of cooked spinach were the answer. And then in the Pollack years, other things came into play. Roasted brussels sprouts had a good run, especially with a little balsamic sprinkled over as they came out of the oven. And then there was this that made a picky 6-year-old diva beg for more. I think it was probably the tarragon.
There are plenty of recipes for similar things all over the internet, most of them more overtly Italian than this. I'm thinking whoever came up with this one, an old New York Times recipe that more or less pre-dates the internet, and probably is from Jack Bishop. Tarragon, unusual in Italian cooking, is mostly found around Siena, which is where the onetime picky eater spent a semester of college and really learned about serious eating.
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 c. chopped or diced canned tomatoes with liquid
1 lb. green beans, ends trimmed (I also break them up)
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. dried tarragon (or 1 Tbs. fresh, added at the end of the cooking)
Freshly ground black pepper
In a large saute pan or dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat. Saute the onion until translucent, about 5 minutes. If it browns a little because you forget to stir, that's okay. Add the tomatoes and simmer until the juices thicken a little, about another 5 minutes.
Add the green beans, salt and a little pepper to the skiller. Crumble the tarragon between your fingers or in the palm of your hand over the pan and add it all. Give the mixture a good stir, drop the heat to medium-low and cover the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally until the beans are tender but still a little resistant to the bite, about 30-35 minutes. You may go longer if you desire. If you're using the fresh tarragon, add it now, and taste to see if it needs more salt or pepper.
Serves 4, perhaps.
Regular readers know that our film and theater reviews stopped when Joe passed away in early March. Those well-polished loafers of his are ones I choose not to fill. But sometimes I find things that are too good not to discuss.
There's been a lot of ballyhoo about "Lincoln", as there is about all Steven Spielberg's films. I'd avoided said ballyhoo before I saw a screening of the film; now I find these discussions inadequate. Describing "Lincoln" in a 45-second spot or a 5-minute interview is impossible; the scope is just too large.
Nearly all the film is shot in the drabbed, slightly dusty light that is how we tend to think of the Victorian era. The golden lamp-like glow of many interior shots offsets to some degree the layers of velvet curtains and oceans of fringe and furbelows; that same light, often coming in from the side, lends some shots, particularly of some men in the House of Representatives gallery, the air of a Rembrandt portrait.
It's war time, of course, and we see plenty of the huge toll the Civil War extracted from us. Nevertheless, the focus is Lincoln's efforts to get the representatives to pass the 13th Amendment and how that would affect the end of the war, which is very close in the late winter of 1865. It's about the messiness of the political process, and seeing it just after the nastiness of the recent campaign makes it hit home even more. (The vitriol launched on the House floor during the debates on the amendment exceeds by far the acidity, still accepted, in the British House of Commons.) Tony Kushner's screenplay may at times feel a little too contemporary but it flies along. It should; this is 149 minutes long.
Daniel Day-Lewis , like Meryl Streep, has the ability to dissolve himself into the character, giving us the Lincoln we think we know, his son on his lap, and then a stranger, bellowing at his staff in a moment of supreme frustration. Tommy Lee Jones, playing Thaddeus Stevens, a powerful representative who's known as an outspoken abolitionist, is an absolute romp to watch and listen to.
This is a man's movie - that is to say, it's about men, and Mary Lincoln's role is quite secondary, so Sally Field's job is made more difficult. Her emotional difficulties, well-known, and probably a major depression, accounts for her flatness most of the time. St. Louisans who are theater-goers will recognize Stephen McKinley Henderson, here credited as Stephen Henderson, who appeared at the Rep and directed at the Black Rep. And watch for three "fixers", attempting to convince congressmen to vote for the amendment, guys, A. O. Scott in his New York Times says, who "could have stumbled out of Mark Twain".
The details can be exquisite: Listen to the Jollys of Jefferson City being presented to Lincoln to petition for the return of a toll-road job, for instance, Lincoln's storytelling, from trials in Illinois to Ethan Allen in London to quoting Euclid. And lastly, there's John Williams' score, spot on.
Definitely not just for the history buff.
Opens today, November 16 at several theaters.
Some of us find it pretty amusing that "dive bar" now means "not a fancy cocktail lounge". The Southtown Pub is described that way by some of those commenting on the online reviewing sites. I know from dive bars. Dive bars were once, well, not a friend, but a nodding acquaintance of mine. And this, my dears, is no dive bar. Yes, it has a nice old-fashioned wooden bar back, sort of Art Deco. But there are too many television sets, the floor isn't sticky and there's no one asleep/passed out at the bar. I acknowledge that on one visit when the Rams game was on, the score was tight and it was in the last couple of minutes, the language from the bar was loud and contained the occasional expletive. But on another visit, a weekday lunch, it was quiet and tables of women, all casually dressed, were having lunch and discussing the various draft beers.
STP, as they sometimes refer to themselves, obviously are proud of their wings. The first thing many will notice is that these aren't Buffalo wings, which have pretty well come to be the expected version hereabouts. They're rubbed and smoked, the rub giving a little heat but not overwhelming. When the menu describes them as "jumbo", it's true. And they can be ordered individually. Very smoky, moist inside, and really not needing the six offered barbecue sauces, they're nicely satisfying.
Yes, six sauces, each in a Schlafly growler jug with a pump on the top, a handsome lineup with plenty of cups (and lids) . Among them are the original sauce, tomato-based and unsweet, "pig dip" that's a vinegar sauce, Carolina mustard, sweet-hot that's also tomato-based, a sweet red sauce that's pineapple-y and particularly unusual, and something called kitchen sink, which has, among its mysteries, a note of cumin.
Actually, there's a seventh, a white Alabama-style barbecue sauce that's mayonnaise based, pleasant and mild, which comes with a pulled chicken sandwich. The meat looks to be mostly white meat, the sandwich topped with bacon made in-house, which only adds, of course, to the smokiness, the whole thing enticing.
Jacked-Up Beef Brisket, said the menu, wears a layer of pepper jack cheese and crispy onions. I am not a devotee of brisket, but this was a remarkable sandwich, juicy, tender, smoky beef that pirouetted on the taste buds, the cheese kicking in just a little more heat. The "crispy onions" seemed to be nothing more than onion-flavored bits of breading, seemingly adding only texture, but could easily be forgiven, so good was the sandwich. Kudos, too, to the buns, which don't fall apart before the diner is half done with the sandwich.
The Taco Tuesday special was pulled pork in a flour tortilla, topped with their creamy slaw, a happily untidy dish, but while I'm generally a pork person, the brisket won this round. The side dishes include, among other options, a vinegar slaw with plenty of celery seeds and their angry beans, which aren't as fiery as expected, but more of a sweet-hot combination.
It's hard to resist the idea of a bacon chocolate bread pudding. The bacon is crumbled and used in a brown sugar sauce over the top of a dense bread pudding with chocolate chunks in it. Between the sauce, which is surprisingly light on sweetness, and the semisweet chocolate, they've cut back on the sugar in the pudding itself, so the vanilla bean ice cream alongside is a good idea. The bacon flavor is almost nonexistent, especially after the smokiness of the main courses. This is a good concept, but the execution lacks zing; a little reworking, beginning with larger pieces of bacon sprinkled atop things rather than made soggy in a sauce, could yield good results.
Good service, although on game day it was slightly disorganized. And how pleasant to go to a spot like this where the only smoke is from the barbecue. A good spot for a long, late weekday lunch to catch up with pals. And please note the online menu is currently out of date.
3707 S. Kingshighway
Lunch and Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Poor
Sandwiches and Entrees: $7-$20
I may have found one of St. Louis' greatest spots for playing hookey.
I went to Sump Coffee the other morning. It was quiet. Big front windows in the old building at Jefferson and Winnebago allow plenty of light if that's what you're in need of. The decor is minimalist, bare brick walls, interesting tables made of old soda crates, a gently curved bar - except for a matched red velvet chairs in full Victorian flower.
This is Serious Coffee. Just coffee. No scones, no soy--milk half-decaf pumpkin vanilla thingies with fake whipped cream on top. Not even any dry toast. Variations on espresso depending on how much milk goes into it; I had a cortado, the very speaking of the word takes me back to a counter in Barcelona. Cortados have two ounces of milk and a double shot. (And is this the only place in town with a flat white, so beloved of Aussie coffee fiends?)
I settled in with part of the New York Times, which sat on a shelf. The few other customers mostly utilized the wi-fi, although I heard a conversation regarding the differences in the biochemistry and immunology departments and the vagaries of stem cells. (Please note: This is not within walking distance of either med school.) The coffee arrived quietly but with a distinctly proud flourish.
And it was grand, smooth and strong and only slightly acidic, some chocolate and tobacco notes in it, too good to knock back standing up the way I did in Barcelona.
Just be aware, this is high-octane stuff. Once upon a time, in another life, I worked up the street. If Sump had been there then, I would have flown through a shift. But this was a sweet, short escape.
3700 S. Jefferson Ave.
A while back, my associates at St. Louis Magazine chose Bristol Seafood Grill as having the best buffet-style restaurant brunch. While there were plenty of categories (you can read the whole story here), it did remind me that it had been years since I'd been there.
The interior is dark, perfect for nursing any headaches or malaise from previous indulging, and lush-feeling, a sort of luxury that's reminiscent of Reagan-era fur coats and Gordon Gekko wannabes. The heavy carpeting, plus alcoves and semipartitions, keep the noise level down. The crowd is varied; next to me, a couple told the waiter it was their 51st anniversary, and across the room, a middle-schooler in a wheelchair had both a leg and an arm in casts from a skateboarding accident.
The food is in a sunken area mid-restaurant, and I am sorry to report that the middle-schooler couldn't get to it for lack of accessibility to that part of the restaurant. (There certainly wasn't any room for a temporary ramp, but in this day and age of increased awareness, it would appear some re-thinking is called for.) This evoked some pleasant and uncondescending attention from a manager type, but service overall was pleasant but distant. This is a brunch buffet; I don't expect to be fawned over but it took a while for an initial server's visit. I got no water, no one offered a cocktail, and coffee refills had to be sought out. But the warm cinnamon biscuits brought around were offered more than once, which was nice and a happy temptation; it would be easy to fill up on them.
On the cold seafood table, it was nice to be greeted by some smoked mackerel, salty and clean-tasting without marked oiliness. And seared, blackened tuna was also a winner, the coldness calming the spicy exterior. Even the spiced peel-and-eat shrimp were better than average, good-sized guys not overcooked, the seasoning noticeable but not off-putting to the reluctant taster. (Plenty of horseradish was right at hand for others.) Lots of oysters sitting on ice and carefully arranged, but at a slant, like a raked stage - and thus none of their juice, or oyster liquor, was retained. They hadn't dried out, but they were mildly disappointing, with their very mild flavor, lacking the oh-wow feeling that oyster indulgence should provide.
The same biscuit dough, minus the cinnamon and sugar, provided the drop-style biscuits for the biscuits and gravy that led the hot food line. Crumbly and rich, they're an easy base for a tasty gravy with plenty of sausage in it, a far cry from the wallpaper-paste stuff that sometimes is found. Link sausage was finely ground, the soft, tender interior a contrast to the firm casing. Bacon, whose smell greeted me when I emerged from my car, was first rate, thick and smoky, not burnt but tender-chewy, and a nice surprise in this house of seafood. Skip the overcooked scrambled eggs, generally a good idea on any buffet and still true here. Potatoes are lightly fried cubes with good seasoning, a little onion and pepper scatted among them.
Lobster macaroni and cheese didn't give a lot of visual proof of its headlining ingredient, but it was abundantly clear in the flavor. Beef tenderloin resides at the far end of the table, and chicken piccata waits in a carving dish, but it was fish I was after. Mesquite-grilled salmon turned out to be much better than chafing-dish life usually creates, full-flavored and moist, not dried out. Chipotle-grilled shrimp enchiladas did pretty well in that same environment, staying moist, a light smokiness, plenty of cumin and just a little heat to the spiciness making for a good time and a gustatory change of pace. And speaking of change of pace, Thai chicken wings, small drumettes and flaps crisply deep-fried after being seasoned with garlic, ginger and probably some lemongrass, were a bonus. I'm surprised they're not on the bar menu.
Carrot cake, lots of cookies that don't look like everyone else's (hey, I can't try everything), several kinds of tea breads and mini-tarts, including a fine lemon version are around the centerpiece of the dessert corner, which is a double chafing dish. In that were doughnut holes, crunchy and warm, but a little oily, and a simple bread pudding with a crunchy top. Warm, thick chocolate sauce for the doughnut holes and a rum-laced custard sauce for the bread pudding sit nearby, with higher marks for the bread pudding and its sauce.
When I went to the Bristol website, they say there's an omelet station and Belgian waffles. If there were, no one mentioned them and they were not in sight, so be prepared. But basically, aside from the clunky service, this was pretty good value for $22 per adult.
Bristol Seafood Grill
11801 Olive Blvd., Creve Coeur
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Yes, but see above
Brunch: $22 for adults
St. Louis' Year of the Hamburger is drawing to a close. Arguing about hamburgers may be like arguing about pizza or barbecue. I've finally come to the conclusion that if it tastes good, there's no one way to do it "right". It's much about individual preference, thick versus thin, beef versus pork. Taste, whether you mean flavor or choices, aside, there's no reason why a thick hamburger (or pizza crust) is innately superior to a thin one or a tomato-based sauce less correct than a vinegar-based one.
So a hamburger must stand on its own. This is why critics are at best ambivalent at "Best of" lists. We're happy enough to say something is good or even great, but choosing The Best is difficult. (The other side of the ambivalence is a chance to give kudos to some deserving but relatively unknown dish or restaurant.)
All this is a roundabout lead into Five Star Burgers, Steve Gontram's new spot in Clayton. It's a far cry from Harvest, the bastion of Modern American Farmouse cuisine that Gontram opened, owned and shepherded until a couple of years ago. And it's actually part of a small chain begun in Taos by Steve's dad Bob.
Don't go thinking McDonald's. If I had to choose something similar, it would be Shake Shack, but with the addition of sit-down service. Located on Clayton's west side, it draws lunchers from the tie-and-suspenders crowd, but manages to be kid-friendly as well. Every time I've visited, there were kids, from toddlers to middle-schoolers and even the wee ones were well-behaved and quiet. And that may be due to the speed of food arriving. Even in the evening, burgers arrived before salads were finished.
And the burgers? All-natural, hormone-free Angus beef, say the Gontrams. There are also bison, turkey, lamb and vegetable burgers, plus a portabella-wich, for those avoiding beef. Of the three I tried, the basic 5 Star burger was the least successful. The order for medium rare brought meat that was only pink in a few spots, the burger patty looked almost painfully pre-formed and the flavor was deeply unremarkable. They're served with ketchup on the side; mustard must be requested.
Interestingly, that burger was the only major misstep. The Gateway burger wore cheddar, and lots of crumbled bacon plus four very good onion rings, unfortunately not sold separately (hint, hint) and a side of a sweet barbecue sauce. This one was perfectly cooked, juicy and beautifully bovine in its flavor. And a lamb burger was so good I almost gasped, with tapenade, the black olive spread, and some tzatziki on it, extremely moist and happily messy to eat.
Speaking of messy, this is a good place for me to point out that the buns are brioche. Traditionally brioche dough is a little sweet, and buns made of it seem, to me, to be antithetical to burgerdom. No noticeable sweetness in these guys, though, and they're sturdy enough to stand up to just about anything a two-fisted burger eater can do to them. French fries are arrive hot, in a paper-lined mini-fryer basket with seasoning a little peppery, which is what sets them apart. Sweet potato fries come with what looks like mayonnaise, but is described as maple cream, a fine complement to them. Both are available as half-orders, too.
The restaurants' New Mexican roots are shown in the crispy green chiles, available during happy hour and as a topping for the burgers. These are Hatch chiles (a city in New Mexico), seeded and roasted, then coated in a light cornmeal batter. Deee-lightful, especially with a cold beverage, and I suspect they could be had as a side. Not frantically hot, just a little tingle.
Wine, of course, and plenty of draft beer, plus tasty fountain sodas from an outfit called Maine Root, plus shakes, floats and mini-ice cream cones with ice cream from Serendipity in Webster Groves. But beware: what Serendipity calls salted caramel is actually butterscotch. They're NOT the same thing. It's annoying to expect one flavor and get another one.
Mostly zippy service, although there are occasional episodes of neck-craning to find assistance, this on busy evenings. No reservations - this is, Gontram or not, a burger place, after all.
Five Star Burgers
8125 Maryland Ave., Clayton
Lunch and dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Poor