Grub at earth's end

A stop at The Classic Cafe means eating well where the highway ends

There's this odd little smell that thrives in cottages and cabins. It's not a bad smell, really--although I'm sure that if we could figure out how to eradicate it easily, we'd send it packing with a cloying spritz of floral-scented Glade air freshener.

The first time I was introduced to that smell--a clean, musty aroma resembling crisp bed sheets aging without the scent of human sweat--was when my dad took me to his boyhood town of Glidden, Wisconsin, to teach me how to fish. I was 4 years old.

The old cabin we stayed in was on a small body of water known as Torre Lake. The somewhat rustic hovel had an old wood stove, twin beds with back-destroying divots down the middle, sagging chairs covered with throw rugs, and shelves holding fishing knickknacks and old Reader's Digest condensed books. The floor creaked as you walked across it. That smell drenched the air with hearty thickness.

From that time on, this aroma became linked in my mind with vacations, with exotic sojourns from the routines of daily life--at least until I discovered frozen daiquiris on the beaches of Puerto Rico. And an exotic vacation it was. Torre Lake was a naturally clear blue body of water in the middle of the north woods that could only be fished from a rowboat, from which we caught sunfish, crappie, and largemouth bass.

We pulled out loaded stringers of fish and slapped them on a large wood plank table where my dad cleaned them. Using the stable of tricks and exotic seasonings learned in the Navy--flour, butter, salt, and pepper--he cooked up some of the best fish I can remember eating. (My dad ate sausage, since he hated fish).

The experience sparked an obsession with fishing. I practiced casting in the back yard, blew my allowance on fishing gear, fished muddy rivers and lakes--even sneaked out in the evening to fish golf course water hazards. And why not? I was at that age where I had no responsibility for my own recreation. All I had to do was catch the things and eat them.

Which is why I completely lost interest in fishing the day my father announced I was old enough to clean my own catch. I managed just a 2-inch slit in the belly of a lake perch before I hopped from the bathroom to my bed, from which I didn't rise for two days. My tackle box has been collecting dust ever since.

These were the memories that flooded my mind when I first set foot in The Classic Cafe in Roanoke, a town not far from where the edge of the earth drops off into the darkness of infinite space. And these thoughts aren't too far off the mark, because a trip to Classic Cafe is like a trip through childhood vacation memories. In addition to the long drive, which passes herds of grazing steer and buffalo, you'll find a venue unlike any of the glitzy or strip-mall-integrated restaurants you'll find in Dallas. As owner Curtiss Wells says, this is "destination dining."

You may find yourself wondering what that destination is. On the corner of Texas 114 and Oak, just before you come to Classic Cafe, you'll find the Roanoke Land and Cattle Co., a small cubed bunker in an institutional shade of beige. In the back of The Classic Cafe next to the parking lot is a simple blue frame house recently gutted by fire. The dwelling's windows, at least the ones that weren't destroyed by the blaze, are covered with reflective tinting. Scores of bicycles lie hidden behind shrubbery and trees, and the whole property is cordoned with yellow police tape. Dallas strip-mallville this is not.

Opened in May 1993, Classic Cafe looks like a precious cottage done up in baby blue with white trim, shutters, and porch rails. This circa-WWI structure was originally built as multi-unit housing and has since had many uses. It was a dress shop when Wells took it over with his brother Chris.

Inside, this rustic B&B-like cafe is cozy, with creaky floors, yellow walls, and green wood trim. Little alcoves fitted with glass shelves are notched into the walls. In addition to a thick layer of dust, these shelves hold knickknacks, plants, fake fruit, and books such as The Sociology of Social Problems; Infamy: Pearl Harbor and its Aftermath; and--the only volume touching on human appetites--The Summer of '42.

Tables are topped with cheesy vinyl coverings and the walls are speckled with original watercolors and acrylics by one Carolyn Riegelman. Classic Cafe also has that smell.

On my first visit, which coincided with a raging evening thunderstorm, the ambiance ignited a furious memory exhumation coupled with an exaggerated sense of coziness.

But this menu is far from simple cabin grub rendered from a Navy-issue spice rack. It's clean, unassumingly imaginative, and, for the most part, successful. Chef Jennifer Brightman, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, subtly draws from several areas to tone her New American menu, including Asia, the Southwest, and the Mediterranean.

Starters, such as the honey-glazed and peppered house-smoked salmon, illustrate Brighton's deft touch. Served with a salad of arugula, red onion, and ripe diced tomato, the chilled salmon slices were lightly smoked in-house with apple wood, creating a restrained, smoky frame for the refreshingly clean, rich salmon flavors accented with a slight sweetness. A dribble of chive sour cream charged with lemon juice injected the fish with liveliness.

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