Like everything in Dale Wamstad's "III Forks Territory," Buttermilk Café & Market is a puzzle. Is it a down-home country café pitching platters of chicken-fried steak and liver and onions? Or is it a Park Cities estate sale?
Whatever it is, it's curious to behold. Buttermilk is joined at the hip to III Forks' Trading Post, whose wares spill out in front of the café, right up to the revolving doors. You'll find statues and fountains big and bad enough for any lawn, or any master bedroom in the quarter-acre range. Deer, dolphins, an alligator, mermaids, a cheetah, a giraffe. Heck, there's a golfer near the entrance to the café captured as he follows through on his drive. How swell it would be to plant that near the crepe myrtle.
Inside the Trading Post, you'll find more idiosyncratic doodads scattered amongst the scented candles, stuffed animals, and paperweights. There's a $385 AM/FM radio purported to be a replica of Charles Lindbergh's pond-crossing two-way radio. Or how about a telephone that's a replica of a GI field phone for $97.50, so that you can call in an air strike when you get tired of that golfer statue taking chip shots at your mermaid fountain?
There's even a bird cage mansion constructed of rich red-stained wood and wire imbedded into an end table. This canary villa has a variety of detailed rooms and a bell tower, all for $895. Which newspaper do you use to carpet that?
And what does all this have to do with corned beef and cabbage and meatloaf? That's the mystery of Buttermilk, a conundrum complicated by an alcohol-free beverage list (they do have alcohol-free beer) that includes damn good homemade lemonade ($2.95) and horribly feckless coffee (bottomless $3).
Tepidity continues with Buttermilk's flat French bread: midget baguettes that look as though they were run over by a cement mixer before they were halved, spread with butter, and left to revel in blandness.
Still, significant portions of this menu strike with middle-of-the-road, flavorful, rib-sticking heft. The tossed salad ($3.50), is a big bowl of leafy, fresh, chunky exuberance.
Tenderloin beef tips with egg noodles ($9.95) looks like a sleek dish extracted from a Pasta Roni commercial. Only this had the flavor to match the flash. Using the same beef used next door at III Forks steak house, the dish was pocked with chewy, rich chunks of meat swaddled in wide, gummy egg noodles lubed in gravy oozing with smooth country swank. No box could spew this.
You can see some of the ingredients in this meal at Buttermilk's market, a little food showcase to the side of the dining counter. Chilled cases splash fluorescent light over baskets of bulging, bright carrots, peppers, tomatoes, and highly waxed Granny Smith apples as well as packaged foods and dressings. Opposite the veggies, a refrigerated case holds prime sirloins, choice New York strips, veal chops, and racks of lamb. It also cradles lean prime tenderloins -- long, narrow tongues of deep red meat weighing in at 5 pounds each. This is not your typical country café stuff.
The sliced roasted turkey dinner ($9.95) is. Moist, tender disks of turkey are laid simply across the plate and sparingly dribbled with gravy, deftly exploiting the meat's rich, sweet flavor (even if it is, in all likelihood, carved from a loaf). An accompanying ball of dry, pasty dressing, unfortunately, wasn't up to the same standard, and neither was the glob of desiccated mashed potatoes. But a vibrant dab of cranberry sauce and a cluster of bright, firm peas gave the plate the spark it needed to hold together.
What's most pronounced at Buttermilk is that the food isn't drowned in floods of gravy and butter. This country klatch has enough confidence in its dishes to leave well enough alone. It's guided by a simple straightforwardness, which doesn't always equal success.
The cheeseburger ($3.80) was parched and bland, saddled with a wilted pile of stale, rippled potato chips. The Denver omelet ($7.95) was little more than a thick, lumbering strip of overcooked, rubberized egg. But Buttermilk's hash browns are stellar: Dark mahogany cubes bristle with a crisp sheathing concealing a hot, moist core. Chicken tenders were good too -- chewy white meat knobs with a delicate, well-seasoned coating.
But skip the pies, at least if the lemon meringue ($2.95) is typical. This low-rent mess featured a prefab foam top, flimsy crust, and bland lemon custard.
Buttermilk is a comfortable spot with girth and brawn. Officially owned by Wamstad's wife, Colleen, it boasts some 6,700 square feet filled with straight-backed chairs, precious knickknacks, and huge paintings on the walls. The front section has burly, overstuffed booths and a long counter with a wood-paneled base and stools with red vinyl seats ringed with studs -- sturdy furnishings, which you might need if you eat Buttermilk's hefty portions and swallow its kitschy trinkets.
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