Dining discoveries made in Southeast Missouri

Sunday, February 19, 2006
Janice David, a baker at The Pie Bird Cafe in Fruitland, held a banana cream pie, left, and a blackberry pie with pie bird. (Fred Lynch)

The gastronome Anthelme Brillat-Savarin once observed, "The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star." I don't disagree, but surely the discovery of a new restaurant is almost as exhilarating.

Last year saw the opening of several new restaurants in Southeast Missouri, all doing their part to bring happiness to area residents. This review focuses on five which I consider noteworthy for one reason or another. All, with one significant exception, are locally owned and operated.

Gatherings Cafˇ is a stylish bakery/cafˇ located in the historic Marquette Tower at 338 Broadway in Cape Girardeau. It is owned and operated by Christo and Terre Chriss, who moved to this area from San Francisco. I first met them a couple of years ago at their Farmers Market baked goods stand in Arena Park. One taste was all it took (though I had several) to make me realize that whether it's a humble muffin or an elaborate torte, they know what they are doing. The Cafˇ menu branches out from the made-from-scratch pastries to include intriguing main course salads, robust sandwiches, and a full assortment of breakfast specialties. The restaurant has just recently begun serving a new dinner menu on Fridays and Saturdays that includes steaks, chops, seafood, Cornish game hen and even fondue.

'Sconewiches'

A disciple of Alice Waters, Terre's culinary offerings typify what has become known as "New American Cuisine." It's sophisticated but not intimidating, inventive but not fussy, reliant on the freshest seasonal ingredients, and, above all, creative. The clever "sconewiches" (savory scones, split and stuffed with eggs) are a case in point. So is the inside-out pork burger. Even the plebeian grilled cheese is elevated to aristocratic heights.

But my hands-down favorite dish on the menu, besides the pastries, are the shrimp cakes, which come either as an appetizer or in a club sandwich with bacon and avocado. They put Maryland crab cakes to shame.

Occupying a different culinary genre is The Pie Bird Cafˇ at 5512 U.S. 61, just off the Fruitland, Mo., exit on I-55. Amid quaint artifacts and tables fashioned from antique sewing trestles, this little spot, not any bigger than a gas station -- which it formerly was -- offers down-home fare just like your mom used to make. In fact, the only place I know to get a better piece of pie is at Mom's.

Owned by Diana Abernathy and managed by her sister Darla Macke, who, armed with some cherished family recipes, is the main cook, the cafˇ features sandwiches, burgers (including its "famous" pork burger), fried chicken, breakfast, and daily specials. If you're ever there when the pot roast is listed on the blackboard, order it. It will transport you back to an earlier era before we became a fast-food nation.

But, as its name suggests, the best thing about the Pie Bird is the pies, all homemade, including the crusts. Abernathy says she lost sleep trying to come up with the name for her cafˇ, but she couldn't have chosen better. A pie bird, or pie funnel, is a ceramic figure about 3-5 inches in size with a hole in the top. It's baked in a pie to allow steam to escape, preventing boilovers and soggy crusts. The Pie Bird Cafˇ boasts a large collection of the devices, some dating back to the turn of the last century, and, what is more, actually uses them. Thus, "pie bird," symbolizing its signature item, is the perfect name for the cafˇ. And its pies are close to perfection too, whether the coconut cream, the millionaire, the pecan-caramel-pumpkin, the walnut, the fruit varieties or the sublime raisin cream.

Pie by the slice

There is nothing more quintessentially American than pie, but, sadly, it's harder and harder to get a decent piece at an American restaurant. The Pie Bird, happily, still offers the real thing and, incredibly, they do it at only $1.99 per slice! The restaurant makes excellent cakes, too.

An altogether different dining experience awaits you at Joseph's Fine Steaks, Su Hill's stunning new restaurant at 1617 E. Malone Street in Sikeston, Mo. It's anything but down-home, which is just what you'd expect from Hill, also the proprietor of Cape Girardeau's chic pan-Asian eatery Saffron. I don't know what the Thai word for "flair" is, but Hill, who hails from Bangkok, has it.

And it shows throughout Joseph's spacious dining room and adjoining "J-bar." The place is a far cry from the usual robber-baron dˇcor of most steakhouses and as upscale a successor as you're likely to find to America's first steak house, opened in 1927 by a former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl. It featured sawdust floors. Joseph's, on the other hand, is so strikingly sleek and smart you might think you're in Los Angeles or New York instead of Southeast Missouri. Everywhere you look you'll find tasteful contemporary furnishings and accents, all decidedly elegant but not the least bit flamboyant.

Many martinis

The custom-made copper bar is a case in point. Across its polished surface come some 16 different versions of the martini. The menu, which changes regularly, features escargot (topped with puff pastry), Caesar salad, French onion soup, salmon, duck, seafood and lamb chops. But the star, of course, is the steak: some five types ranging from Chateaubriand to a petite filet. Given the bill of fare, Joseph's is probably not the sort of place you'd go every day, though the restaurant does serve a lighter luncheon menu, but if you're a dedicated carnivore, you'll find yourself salivating in anticipation of regular visits.

On the other hand, a place you could imagine eating at every day is Bella Italia, which reopened last year at 20 N. Spanish St. in downtown Cape Girardeau following a devastating fire. That's because the restaurant specializes in Italian cuisine, perhaps the original comfort food.

As manager Susan Smith puts it, it can cure a bad day. Agreeing, Alan Davidson says about the Italians in the Oxford Companion to Food, "Although they have not occupied the commanding heights of haute cuisine ... they have succeeded better than any other European country in developing and spreading over most parts of the world a cuisine which has the enormous merits of being cheerful, tasty, varied, inexpensive, and unworrying." Thus, there is with Italian food, he argues, "no need to worship international star chefs or quail in front of snooty head waiters or act as though the cost of some pretentious dish is no problem -- on the contrary, all one has to do is enjoy the food."

That pretty well sums up the philosophy at Bella Italia, an attractive trattoria-like spot with red-checkered tablecloths where the glow of candlelight creates a convivial atmosphere conducive to good times, friendship, and occasionally even romance. (The place has been the scene of no less than three marriage proposals just since it reopened last November.)

The menu features such hallmarks of Italian cooking as hand-tossed pizza, shrimp scampi, chicken piccata, spaghetti and meatballs, fettuccine Alfredo, baked pastas like a singular Florentine lasagna, and desserts, such as tiramisu and Italian cream cake, made on the premises by an in-house pastry chef. Another hallmark of Italian cooking is also evident: generous portions. No one ever leaves hungry.

The same thing can likewise be said of the final eatery in this review -- White Castle -- though portion size is not the reason. Its cult-status burgers are diminutive, but aficionados like me (you either are one or you're not) devour them by the sackful. (Heard the one about the guy who wandered into a White Castle and inadvertently ordered a quarter-pounder? Before he knew it, they had packed up 500 burgers for him!)

Belly bombers

Unlike the other restaurants in this review, White Castle is a chain -- the first fast-food hamburger chain ever, in fact, and the first to sell a million and then a billion burgers. And it's got to be the only one left where the soda costs more than the sandwich. Though these days the opening of a chain restaurant in Southeast Missouri is almost routine, the opening of White Castle was, for those of us who grew up on "belly bombers," a watershed event. No wonder they set a store record the day they opened here. It took 84 years for White Castle to make its way to Cape Girardeau, but it was worth the wait, for our Castle is especially regal. A remodeled restaurant of a previous chain, it boasts things you don't usually find at White Castle -- like upholstery, wood trim, tile floors, picture windows, and hanging light fixtures. But the food is the same and the service is the friendliest you'll find at any fast food joint, including other White Castles.

The place opened about five months ago, so if you haven't been yet, it's time to go. By now the grill should just be getting properly "seasoned."


Recipes

Shrimp Cakes (Gatherings Cafˇ)

Ingredients:

1 pound shrimp, cleaned and deveined

4 cups panko (Japanese breadcrumbs), divided

4 tablespoons scallions, minced

2 tablespoons parsley, minced

2 tablespoons fresh chives, minced

4 eggs

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

1/2 teaspoon pepper

2 teaspoons dried thyme, divided

3 teaspoons minced lemon zest, divided

1 1/2 teaspoons Emeril's essence

1 teaspoon lemon pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

Directions:

Roughly chop shrimp and combine with 2 cups panko, scallions, parsley and chives. Whisk together eggs, lemon juice, mustard, Worcestershire, salt, cayenne, pepper, 1 teaspoon thyme, 2 teaspoons lemon zest and 1 teaspoon Emeril's essence. Add shrimp mixture, mix well and chill at least two hours. Form into patties. Combine remaining 2 cups panko, remaining 1 teaspoon thyme, lemon pepper, remaining teaspoon lemon zest and remaining 1/2 teaspoon Emeril's essence. Dredge patties in panko mixture and fry in oil until golden brown, about 4 minutes per side. Serve with remoulade sauce. Makes 8-10 large cakes.

Hummingbird Cake (Pie Bird Cafˇ)

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 1/2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1 can (8 ounces) crushed pineapple, drained

1/2 cup oil

4 eggs, lightly beaten

2 teaspoons vanilla, divided

1 cup chopped bananas

1 cup chunky applesauce

2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts, divided

2 tablespoons finely chopped walnuts

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 stick butter, softened

5 cups powdered sugar

Directions:

Combine sugar, flour, soda, salt, cinnamon, pineapple, oil, eggs, 1 teaspoon vanilla, bananas, applesauce and 2/3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts and mix well. Bake in two round 9-inch greased cake pans at 350 degrees until cake tester comes out clean, about 30 to 40 minutes. Let cool. Combine cream cheese, butter, remaining teaspoon vanilla and powdered sugar and beat until smooth. Frost cake. Decorate sides with remaining coarsely chopped walnuts and top with finely chopped walnuts.

Escargot Encrust (Joseph's Fine Steaks)

Ingredients:

1 dozen extra large snails

1 stick butter

1 tablespoon finely minced garlic

2 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley, divided

2 tablespoons white wine

pinch of kosher salt

2 puff pastry sheets, 6x6 inches

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

lemon wedges

Directions:

Drain snails well and place on two escargot plates. Combine butter, garlic and 1 tablespoon parsley and heat until butter melts. Stir well and add wine and salt. Spoon over top of each snail. Place pastry over tops of plates to seal. Bake at 375 degrees until golden brown, about 13 minutes. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and garnish with lemon wedges and remaining parsley. Serves 2.

Italian Meatballs (Bella Italia)

Ingredients:

1 loaf leftover bread

2 1/2 pounds ground beef

1 egg yolk

2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

3/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano

3/4 teaspoon dried basil

1 1/2 teaspoons ground pepper

1 tablespoon garlic pepper

1 tablespoon salt

Directions:

Remove crusts from bread, soak in warm water, and drain. Combine with remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly. Chill in freezer for one hour. Roll into 3-ounce balls. Bake at 350 degrees until well done. Makes about a dozen.

White Castle Meat Loaf (White Castle Corporation)

Ingredients:

10 White Castle hamburgers

1 egg

1 stalk celery, chopped

1 can (8 ounces) tomato sauce

1 teaspoon garlic powder

salt and pepper

1 can (8 ounces) tomato paste

1/2 cup catsup

Directions:

Cut burgers into pieces and combine with egg, celery, tomato sauce, garlic powder and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well and mold into a loaf pan. Mix tomato paste and catsup and coat top of meat loaf with mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes. Serves 6-8.

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