The lemon bar, that tasty pastry made up of a shortbread crust and lemon-curd filling, is easily found on tables across the Midwest, especially on Sundays at potlucks among Jell-O salads, meat loafs and the requisite dozen or so slow-cookers filled with assorted cuts of beast.
But the lemon bar needn't be relegated to Minnesota church dining halls, although we love our share of lutefisk (as long as our share is zero). Nothing as delicious and satisfying as a lemon bar should share a table with the Norwegian white fish and lye dish. A lemon bar is a supreme dessert delight that garners a space of its very own. The lemon bar is so pure, so divine that nothing should impede the path from a grubby hand to the mouth.
Lately, the lusty lemon bar seems to have made its way from church halls to bakeries and even finer dining establishments. Starbucks has a version that is sprightly satisfying with lemony ooze and a powdered sugar edge that cuts the extreme tartness. Another fine example of the lemon bar can be found at the Corner Bakery. I often find myself sliding into the bakery under the guise of needing free WiFi, only to grab a lemon bar and a cup of coffee for an added jolt of energy to carry me through the day. There's one Corner Bakery where they know me so well that they will start plating the pastry the moment they see my car outside. You can even find the ubiquitous lemon bar at venerable Steins Bakery at Preston Road and LBJ Freeway. There you can enjoy a slew of cakes and cookies, including a delicious cheese pocket.
What makes the lemon bar so enjoyable might be its roots in family tradition. Nothing could be more soothing after a terrible day at the office than the thought of our grandmothers telling us things will be just fine as she hoists a plate of the treats. Sadly, my grannie lives many states away, so I set out to find the perfect lemon bar in Big D, one that will bring back those memories of the sweet and tart pastry. Bring on the Lemon Bar Skirmish: Rathbun's Blue Plate Kitchen vs. Lemon Bar.
I was tipped off about what was described as a particularly delicious version at Rathbun's, one of several restaurants run by Kent Rathbun, the Iron Chef slayer. That made sense, since Rathbun's is the chef's nod to home-style cooking, where he serves up such great dishes as chicken-fried steak and Dr Pepper-laced rotisserie chicken.
Rathbun only recently added the lemon bar to the menu, thanks to the prodding of an aspiring young pastry chef, 11-year old Jenay Benge, who started baking after raising money selling cakes to her teachers so she could afford a cooking class at Central Market. That was at age 7, and Benge has been baking ever since, wowing Rathbun with her adorable smile and even sweeter lemon bars.
Determined not to be influenced the gleaming grin of a tiny a chef, I placed an order for the lemon bar at Rathbun's bar. It arrived quickly, adorned with several dots of lemon coulis and topped with fresh whipped cream. The first bite delivered a slight crunch of short bread oozing lemon curd and droplets of dipping sauce. Since I was on a mission to find the best lemon bar, normally I'd take just a few bites in heed of my ever-expanding waistline, but when I left Rathbun's there was little left.
I headed over to Lemon Bar located in the West Village off Lemmon Avenue. Made perfect sense. Any restaurant named after a food item should deliver a great version or change its name. It was late and the usual lunch crowd had dispersed, leaving our party to a solo dish of lemon bar, at the bar.
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Lemon Bar's pastry was equally laden with dollops of fresh cream and ingenious slivers of candied lemon peel. Blissful dish. You could sense the concerted effort placed into this lemon bar, as if they knew I would cry foul and insist on altering the name of the establishment.
This is a difficult challenge to judge, but after much deliberation it has been agreed that lemon bars are delicious everywhere -- but in this case it doesn't hurt that one of the bakers is in grade school. We award today's toque prize of bragging rights to Rathbun's and Jenay Benge for an amazing feat of baking.
In an e-mail, Jenay described her development process with Rathbun: "We went back to the drawing board after Kent tasted the lemon bars too many times to count. Finally, they met his approval. He taught me how to zest a lemon the right way. I couldn't believe how much lemon juice and zest I added to get the right taste."
Congratulations to both Rathbun's and Jenay for a fine lemon bar that would make my grandmother cry.