Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Bloomington Food Culture and Flavor Variations

So I know this is a restaurant review blog. I know that you all come here (in my imagination anyway) to find out about all the great spots to eat in this town. That said, it's my soapbox, and I will occasionally jump out and just drop a rant about food in this town on the unsuspecting internet. This is one of those days. (Fair warning. I'm about to wax VERY nostalgic. If you've been in Bloomington for under a decade this article is probably going to be meaningless to you. Let's just say I've been missing some things lately)

When I was a kid growing up in this town the west side was Bob Evan's, you could watch a movie at the Von Lee, and across the street was the video game cesspool of Bloomington, so alluringly named Space Port. (I was 5, I wasn't allowed inside, it was alluring). My childhood food memories are of being served ice cream upside down at the Penguin and getting to see my father work on trays of baklava in the kitchen underneath the Trojan Horse. The best part about the Ice Cream was the dirty video game room in the back of the Penguin, and the best part about the Baklava was that I wasn't supposed to be down there.

Bloomington had grit back then. Anyone who remembers the White Rabbit, or People's Park before it was rebuilt knows that. Anyone who remembers the wrought iron monstrosity that used to sit in the middle of College Mall ready to receive pennies thrown by children remembers that Bloomington used to have a delightful patina finish.

I have long been aware how much that finish was being buffed away, and for a long time I was very happy about it. Seeing long empty buildings being torn down fills me with elation (I'm looking at you Royal Dog), and watching a high class restaurant succeed here is a marker of how far we have come.

I remember when I was just out of high school my parents went to an up scale Italian restaurant on the west side of town that has since closed. I sadly cannot remember it's name. We went for their anniversary and the experience was delightful. I purchased Frutii di Mare, and it was spectacular. We looked at the prices and and decor and knew the place wouldn't be open in 6 months. No one could charge over $20 for dinner in Bloomington. It just didn't happen. Now, FARM charges much more than that, for much more eccentric dishes, Finch's maintains a very similar price profile with about the same level of expense, and there are other examples of fine dinning in this town that never used to exist. I am ecstatic about this development, and have been since I realized FARM was actually going to succeed.

Something happened recently though that made me wonder if something has been lost. For the last year or two I have noticed "quality" changes in places I wasn't expecting them. High class square white plates at Nick's, Bulwinkle's closing, and Uncle Elizabeth's moving out of their trailer, etc. etc. Little bits and pieces of "grunge" were being scrubbed clean all over Bloomington. I have had a niggling sense of discomfort with many of these changes. Something about sitting in a pub with dirty pictures of Bob Knight on the wall, and eating a burger with carefully plated fries on a contemporary chef's plate felt very wrong.

I couldn't quite put my finger on what was bothering me about these changes in Bloomington until two things happened. Once Kilroy's on Kirkwood remodeled. My friends and I go there for lunch every Tuesday for $2 cheeseburger day. Before they remodeled the burgers were awful. I mean really terrible greasy obviously pre-frozen patties, and we loved them. Food isn't just about being gourmet. Food is about a social experience and on some level it was really nice to go sit down and eat something and revel in how much you really shouldn't necessarily enjoy it. A little junk every now and then is surprisingly good for the soul. I allow myself so little that a trashy local cheeseburger once a week seemed a healthy portioned amount. When we walked back into Kilroy's after the renovation happened it felt terribly awkward. The restaurant was filled with stools out of a Target contemporary collection. The servers were all still wearing their frat shirts, and the culture of the employees had obviously not changed. Everyone seemed a bit disoriented by the changes. The food was definitely improved, and still had that pub grub flair, but it came on much nicer plates, and everything felt like it was trying desperately to be upscale, but no one there knew how to be upscale.

A few weeks after Kilroy's remodel my partners and I went to San Francisco for a week on vacation. We crashed in a friend's guest room and spent the week tooling around night clubs, and making a point of never going to the same restaurant twice. The food was amazing, and the experience was uplifting. Two restaurants stand out in my mind as being leagues above the rest. They were both in a Latin neighborhood maybe 7 blocks east of our friend's house. (San Francisco the land of micro climates, for weather and culture). This neighborhood was off the tourist trap trail, and it was obvious. The first place we hit there was a taco and burrito restaurant our friend was fond of. We walked the 15 some block to get there, got in line and ordered our food. The place was kind of dark, everyone was exceptionally abrupt, because let me tell you they had a line to get through. Nothing felt dirty really, but there was no attempt to maintain any kind of fake aesthetic clean either. The tables were worn, the kitchen, which you could see all of had a thick layer of age lining the walls. It was a layer that only great greasy spoons can develop. After navigating a posted menu that really required just a little bit of Spanish to really get through we placed our orders and waited outside for our food to be ready. We drank home made horchata out of generic soft drink cups and I awoke to whole new understanding of rice and cinnamon as a result. When I bit into my burrito it oozed seasoned grease. The kind of thick yellow red grease that can only come from authentic Mexican kitchens. Normally such a display would turn my stomach, but I didn't notice till the bite of burrito was in my mouth and by then it was all over. I was a convert, and the evidence dripping down my hand of the coronary I was going to suffer because of this meal couldn't even begin to dissuade me from finishing what I had started. I was in heaven.

The second dive we hit there was a breakfast diner we stopped at on our last full day in San Francisco. There was nothing descript about the ambiance. It could have been taken out of a Normal Rockwell painting if not for the complete lack of midwest, middle aged white men. The menu was what you would expect from any diner, eggs, omelets, pancakes, french toast, coffee. Here and there something stood out. There were two obvious things that stood out. One you could buy plantains, fried as a side dish. Second there was no fake attempt at a Mexican breakfast omelet, that you so obligatorily find in every standard American breakfast joint. My husband loves them, so I have stolen bites from plenty of these dishes. They're tasty, but are about as authentic as a Taco Bell Gordita. This little diner had the best basic cup of coffee I drank the whole weekend. The plantains were a religious experience, and the eggs were so fresh, so wonderful that I wish I could send the cooks from the brunch joints around here to study with the cooks in that little greasy spoon in San Francisco.

Neither of these restaurants attempted to be anything other than a reasonable comfortable place to come and consume food. They weren't overtly concerned with their appearance, just the quality of their food. Nothing was carefully plated, though everything was clean. The real difference was the food didn't feel "intentional". When a chef, or even a fine cook makes a meal there are details to be considered, flavors to be carefully balanced, plating to be carefully arranged. It is an art, a dance, a performance. When a grandmother makes food, it is hearty, and rich. It isn't so much an art as a warm embrace.

Bloomington is rapidly loosing it's warm embraces, it's "awful" dives. Once upon a time you could go downtown to a little diner named Ladyman's, and get simple breakfast dishes that were incredibly made for very reasonable prices. They refused to take credit cards long after it was a requirement of all sit down establishments. They didn't make fancy omelets, they didn't have unexpected twists on flavors and textures. They had eggs and bacon, and toast. It could have been any roadside diner, except for the Kirkwood view. The food was amazing, and the service was matter of fact.

Once upon a time bar and grills in this town served casual food on casual plates, and if you really wanted to just get away from all pretension you had somewhere to go. There are still a couple spots that feel that way, a couple places that feel organic. Beer and pizza at Mother Bears, home made mazto ball soup and BBC when the season comes around. (Original only, the newer stores just feel too "decorated" for me). The seeds of soul are there, I just hope Bloomington turns around eventually as a city and stops associating "high class" with good everywhere.

This was a hippy town in the 70's. Hell it was a hippy town when I was in high school in the late 90's, so while the reference might be trite, I can't help it. To every thing a season and a time. A time to sow and a time to reap. There is a time to go out in a tux or a dress and have a dinner of elegance and adventure, a time to go on a first date at a trendy coffee shop with quiet secluded corners, and a time to go out drinking with your friends at that place where the beer is always cold, and the drunk food is always delicious, but everyone knows the sturdiness of the furniture is more important than how well it matches because god knows what's going to happen if we loose the game, or heaven help us if we win it. There is a time to grab that greasy burrito to go, and a time to walk into the diner you're parents have been taking you to since you were 7 and have the waitress look at your dreaded blue hair with the same sort of loving disdain your mother does as she takes your order. There is also a time for upscale eateries, with fancy named dishes that bear no resemblance to their namesakes. Bloomington is a cleaner town today than it was a decade ago, and a much cleaner town than it was two decades ago. This has brought in new opportunities, and possibilities for everyone. Some day though, I'd like to come back to Bloomington and see a little bit more of her roots showing. When you meet that perfectly manicured pretty boy in the bar you know he's going to be high maintenance, no matter how perfect he looks. I'm a moppy headed hipster who never really knew he was pretty in the first place kind of guy. I guess that's what I look for in a town and it's food as well.

1 comment:

  1. I've only been in Btown for about three-and-a-half years, but no, this isn't meaningless at all. Having grown up between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, I have a lifelong affection for cheap, greasy spoon diners and questionable-looking dives with accidentally amazing food--and I expected to find at least a little of that out here. Even one dive would have been enough for me. Unfortunately, it looks like I came a few years too late. Every time I think that I might have found that kind of place in Bloomington, I end up disappointed.

    The burgers at Nick's are delicious, but overpriced, and many things about the place scream of trying too hard. I tried the Awful Waffle, thinking that might be what I was looking for, and discovered just how richly it deserves its nickname. Bear's is sort of close, but I've heard too many stories of people finding nasty things in their food, so I'll only drink there. And we've had that conversation about Kilroy's. I could go on, but why bother? The closest thing that I've found to the right kind of comfort food without pretension is Denny's, and that's incredibly sad.

    Oddly enough, my current favorite Btown restaurant is the Laughing Planet. Yeah, it's a very hipster kind of place, and I usually don't like that--but it's comfortable, the staff is friendly, the food is fantastic (and very customizable), and the service is extremely fast. I love it, but I'd still rather have a proper dive any day.