Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Grounding the Butter and Salt Flight

   When Spiaggia opened on Michigan Avenue in 1984, my wife and I of course were younger, still of an age where trying out new restaurants seemed a sort of civic responsibility, a duty to contemporary culture. 
   Being young, we were also on a budget, so went to Cafe Spiaggia, the 2nd tier, farm team eatery attached to Spiaggia, for those who only wanted to spend a lot of money on dinner, as opposed to an obscene amount of money. What I remember from that long-ago meal was a big white plate -- big plates were hot then -- with an arrangement of tiny triangular raviolis circling the rim. 
    The other thing I remember is that we went directly from Cafe Spiaggi to the Dunkin' Donuts on Rush Street, because we were hungry. 
    One of the joys of aging is the realization that it's okay to avoid trendy restaurants -- all those new chefs who serve spoonfuls of foam and eye cups of distilled essence, who waft scents in your face while flicking morsels of food at you. You pay a lot for a little; I imagine it helps to be drunk, and since I don't drink, that's another reason such places are easily avoided. 
     But sometimes I'm not the one in charge of dinner, I'm meeting other people, and they have their own ideas about where to go. Being polite, and deferring, I get dragged to new places that way. One drawback of being polite, an over-rated virtue.
     Saturday night, for instance. I was meeting two college friends in Evanston. When I am in Evanston I always go to the same restaurant, Dixie Kitchen, and get the same thing, blackened catfish with red beans and rice. It's always excellent, and ordering anything else would be diminishment. When my friends asked me where we should meet, I said, "Dixie Kitchen." 
     That didn't fly, for some reason. Maybe not trendy enough. I didn't ask. Polite. They suggested The Cellar at the Stained Glass. The name itself worried me. Something pretentious about those two "The's." "The Lord of the Manor House." The Stained Glass is a contemporary restaurant; the Cellar, a satellite beer bar appended to it that serves small plates of food. Same owner, same kitchen. Kinda like Spiaggia and its ancillary Cafe Spiaggia.
      I arrived early to the Cellar at the Stained Glass, was allowed to wait at the Bar in the Cellar at the Stained Glass, and looked at the Menu for the Bar in the Cellar at the Stained Glass.  One item leapt out: the "Butter and Salt Flight," which was described as: "Parmigiano reggiano butter with fleur de sel; goats milk butter with Himalayan pink salt; truffle butter with truffle sea salt. Warm French bread." 
      All for only $6.50. 
      Strip away the superfluous adjectives, and what they have contrived to do is charge for the bread basket by trotting out some fancy butter and salt. Six bucks fifty cents for a loaf of bread would obviously be larceny, even at a trendy spot. A kind of genius really—social mores dictate you can't charge for the bread; that would be like charging for a napkin. So charge for the butter and salt. And why not? They charge for fancy water now. Sea salt and mountain salt and what have you is supposed to be in the same vein, though it doesn't appeal to me, and I can't imagine how it appeals to anybody. Still, I wanted to take that test flight, for professional purposes.
      "We have to order it," I told my table mates, wearing my journalism hat. A marvel should be fully experienced. But my friends, alas, were wearing their order-something-good-for-dinner hats, and turned up their noses at the suggestion. If I insisted, it would involve pushing their wishes aside for my own interests, so I let it go. Hobbled by good manners.
      So maybe the Butter and Salt Flight is the most profound gustatory experience you can have in Evanston for $6.50. I can't damn it in full cry without having tried it, which is frustrating. Or maybe it is another new age scam, designed to use the crowbar of pretense to separate the status-conscious diner from his or her hard-earned cash. 
     I'd like to say that, in pursuit of truth, I'll go back there next time I'm in Evanston, soar with the Butter and Salt Flight, then deliver a full report. But over at Dixie Kitchen, they give you a basket of pancakes with your meal. The pancakes come nestled in wax paper, served with regular butter. The salt is on the table—basic NaCl white salt. But it costs nothing, is not called "A Flight of Pancakes," which I never realized was a blessing, but I do now. They taste just fine. All things being equal, I think I'll go back there next time for my catfish and let the Salt and Butter Flight remain a mystery. Some things are better left unknown.


  1. Catfish, Neil?
    So, you don't care that it's trayf or you're hypocritical & keep kosher at home & eat anything at restaurants.
    I've plenty of relatives & friends who do the second, which I find hysterically funny, even though I'm now an atheist.
    I know this is supposed to be apocryphal, but one relative actually met their rabbi doing that & both were really embarrassed.
    I wish I had been there to watch. I would have laughed myself sick while eating a BLT!
    But I grew up eating shrimp all the time & still do.

    1. Catfish is trayf? Really? You learn something new every day. What's the matter with it...too many whiskers?

    2. Don't you read the column at all Becca? Did you really think I keep Kosher? Most Jews don't.

  2. The "Butter and Salt Flight" sounds intriguing, but I've never quite understood the appeal of those trendy but pretentious and overpriced restaurants. When I look at a menu posted outside and see too many descriptive adjectives, it's usually a sign for me to keep walking. Depending on the occasion and the company, I guess it's a fun thing to experience once in a while, but also good to know one can resist the lure. Trying out a new, exciting place is one thing; paying through the nose for the privilege of deciphering their menu is another.

  3. Clearly you need new friends in Evanston, because you apparently hold no sway over the ones you have now. Stand up for yourself!

  4. Weird timing, with the news of Charlie Trotter passing away today. I can't stand trendy restaurants, or their even crazier and expensive cousins. I've been to a few, and everytime the expensive dish is served, I think, that's it?

    That said, the food tends to be tasty there. But everything about the experience makes me want to run home and cook for myself.

  5. You're very old school...sure most bread should be complementary, but try the bread at some place where the chef pays great attention to every detail. At the Girl and the Goat, for example, what Stephanie Izzard does with bread is well worth paying the $3-4, and she offers several choices.


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