Every time I visit a restaurant for the first time, as long as its not bound, I grab a copy of the menu. When writing about a restaurant for Food GPS, I often refer to the menu to cadge details like the name of the farm that the carrot came from, or what that multi-ingredient sauce was on the salmon. Whether I write about the place or not, the menu inevitably ends up in an overflowing milk crate, until now.
I recently met a restaurateur who’s filled 14 banker’s boxes with menus he’s personally gathered. He likes to flip through the menus to see what sort of message each restaurant is trying to send. Since he’s so passionate about his collection, and because I never look at mine, I decided to donate my dusty milk crate to him. Before making the delivery, I decided to take one last look. Each menu, covering countless cuisines and dozens of cities, transported me to a particular time and place. This collection goes back over 10 years, long before Food GPS was even imaginable, but the menus still radiated plenty of life.
Here are five of my favorite finds:
In the summer of 1996 or 1997, before leaving Nashville on one of my seven cross-country drives, I flipped through my tattered, outdated copy of Roadfood. When driving, I tried to hit at least three restaurants a day based upon Jane & Michael Stern’s recommendations. My first stop driving south was Ollie’s in Birmingham, a circular barbecue palace that debuted in 1926. I knew I’d be stopping at Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q in Bessemer, Alabama, so I didn’t want to fill up, but the “World’s Best” Barbecue Sandwich” ($2.40) was so terrific that I ate two. According to “The Ollie’s Barbecue Story,” printed on the front page of the yellow menu, original owner James Ollie McClung partnered with son Ollie Wade McClung. When I-65 was built in 1968, Ollie’s had to move to the “landmark round wood and stone building.” The menu claims “we have a number of employees from the 50’s and 60’s still with us.” Sadly, they’re all out of work now. Ollie’s closed on September 4, 2001.
On the second to last leg of the same trip, I drove through the dusty streets of Canutillo, Texas, a border town near El Paso, looking for the Little Diner. It was a struggle to find, and looking at the map on the back of the menu, I can see why. According to their depiction, the Little Diner, “a must stop along chile trail,” is sandwiched between the Canutillo Cemetery and Live Buffalo! It was well worth the hunt. When I finally arrived, I gorged on a chile Colorado gordita ($1.05) and chicken flautas (4 for $2.70).
On a long-haul drive in 1998, I stopped at the Boudin King in Jennings, Louisiana, a city proclaimed the “boudin capital of the universe” by the State of Louisiana in a 1979 legislative session. On the menu, a cartoon alligator wears a toque and stirs a cauldron. I ordered the boudin, “a taste of the past, a great taste today!” While sitting on the hood of my car, I devoured the sausage, a “combination of rice, pork and seasonings.”
Later that summer, after completing an internship in Los Angeles and driving back to Nashville for my final semester at Vanderbilt, I stopped at Snake River Grill, supposedly the best restaurant in Jackson Hole at the time. I stayed there for three days, using the town as a base while driving into Grand Teton and Yellowstone to hike in the rain alone (dumb). Apparently the chef on 8/14/98 was Roger Freedman. I sat at the bar and ate candied pecans. I can’t remember what my appetizer was, but I’ll never forget that “grilled center-cut pork chop with roasted onion polenta, Swiss chard and wild boar bacon.”
Before my father and step mom moved to South Carolina, our Christmas Eve tradition was to eat dinner at The Ryland Inn, probably the top restaurant in New Jersey at the time, thanks to a long-time but still young chef, Craig Shelton. In what must have been 1998, my cousin Jimmy knew Al Bassano, a Bloomberg wine writer who was friends with Chef Shelton. This connection enabled us to bypass the normally impressive prix fixe menu in favor of an 11-course tasting menu. The paper was imprinted with gold leaf for the horseman logo and Relais & Chateaux insignia, which should have given us a hint at the meal to come.
Here’s what we ate:
1. Seared Belon oysters with wakame gelée and sea urchin butter
2. Seared divers scallops with cépes and black truffle vinaigrette
3. Pan roasted John Dory with white asparagus and parsley sauce
4. Loup de mer with Brussels sprouts, crosnes, and thyme sorbet
5. Butter-braised lobster with shallot risotto
6. Root vegetable crusted veal medallions, sauce Brunoise
7. Roasted Mallard with barley, quince, amaranth caramel, sauce au gentiane
8. Scottish roe venison with smoked beets, clove gelée and black pepper gastrique
9. Chervil meringue
10. Caramelized grapefruit, confit celery and white chocolate
11. Warm chocolate soufflé coulant
1997 Didier Dageneau Pouilly-Fume “Silex”
1997 Domaine Clusel-Roch “Condrieu”
1997 Rivetti Vino da Tavola (Super-Piemontese) “La Spinetta Pin”
1996 Domaine Grange des Peres VdP Herault
Although the details are hazy after over 11 years, the meal is still memorable, not only because it involved my first tasting menu, but also included my first kitchen tour. I’ve seen a lot of kitchens since then, and only the kitchen staff at Per Se had it better than Chef Shelton.
Tragically, the Ryland Inn was another culinary casualty. In February 2007, a water pipe burst in the basement of the building, which dates to the 18th Century. According to published reports, the cellar flooded, knocking out electricity for almost two months and precipitating a litany of structural breakdowns.
I enjoyed this nostalgic look at past meals, and could easily fill another post with these remembrances.