Archive for August, 2010
Christopher Kelley’s note: I booted the PC while shaking off jeers from the MacHeads who were trying to convert me through peer-pressure. A cup of Mexican Roast Organic steamed from my over-sized QU coffee mug. I sparked flint to my candy cigarette — reminding my brain that it was time to transform into THE WRITER, despite the fact that I quit nicotine shortly after the millennium. Ritual is sometimes unavoidable. My fingertips drifted over the keys, ready to pound out the prose. It was to be a glowing review of Chef Kevin from Tony’s Too. That was when the back of my head was introduced to something that felt like a kitchen spoon being swung by the Mighty Casey. Darkness snatched me like a frog’s tongue and I awoke several hours later to find the following typed up on my Word Processor:
Hi, my name is Victoria. Some of you may know me as Mrs. Chris Kelley and today, I have hijacked his blog “Searchlights.” I actually don’t enjoy writing so much as I prefer the spoken word. But, why not give it a shot.
THE WRITER: “A shot.” Foul play afoot? My heart was racing. Was this some kind of twisted confession?
VICTORIA: We eat out a lot. We enjoy cooking and experimenting with food at home but, for us, it’s all about “the experience” of dining. And, for all our love of food and dining out, we’ve still been able to lose weight steadily over the last two years. People have been asking how we did it. Part of the answer lies here:
THE WRITER: “You are what you eat.” The words slid past my lips without hopping to the next line of text. I poured myself a drink of Bakon Vodva – smokey, subtle bacon flavors — and read on.
VICTORIA: Chris and I for the past year have been getting more and more into organics whenever possible — free range chicken, grass fed meats and veggies from our local farmer’s markets (I ask the local farmer’s market folks if they use pesticides and some do and some don’t. I choose the ones who don‘t). We love the organics section at Hy-Vee, on Broadway especially. In short, we’ve become aware and truly do care about what we put into our bodies to be healthy without sacrificing taste and indulgence. Whenever possible, we go organic.
Recently, Chris and I were able to experience the movie “Fresh.” Our brother-in-law and fellow foodie, Justin, purchased a license to screen the film, as it is not in theaters or available in video stores, yet.
THE WRITER: I remembered the night Victoria mentioned it. It was one of those in-between nights. We didn’t feel like being out, didn’t feel like staying in. We paid a visit to the homestead of the Hales, Megan and Justin, who had just acquired their copy of the film for the screening. There was a delicious meal consisting of farmer’s market vegetables, organic pasta and free range chicken waiting for us on the dining room table. There were bottles of Zinfandel and Riesling and Port calling our name from the wine rack. A quiet evening with friends and a movie. Before I knew it, there were five empty bottles on the living room coffee table. Yeah, one of THOSE quiet evenings with friends and a movie.
VICTORIA: “Fresh” is a documentary about food, but that’s too simplistic. Like the Oscar-nominated documentary “Food, Inc.,” it is an eye-opener and a perfect introduction to what’s being called “The Food Movement.“ It offers a warning about where we’re headed and offers hope for where we could be. It is about changing the way we eat and treating the land, the farmers, and the animals with respect. OK, this is where my dislike of writing takes hold, and I say “Chris, you do this.” Truly, I’m better at the podium.
But Chris is still sawing logs, so I guess I should continue. So anyway, “Fresh” is wonderful. “Fresh” takes us to farmers who are sustainable and who are organic and, YES it can be done and, YES it can feed the world! You see how they live and how they are working to educate others about organics.
Now yes, I know, I know, organics can be expensive. But as the movie points out, there’s no such thing as cheap food. You’ll end up paying for it somewhere down the line, probably in the form of medical bills. The farmer’s market is very affordable. Hy-Vee has a 10% discount on Wednesday in their health market. And let’s not forget about Thyme Square in Downtown Quincy. I love Thyme Square Café. The food is wonderful — fresh, seasonal and they use grass fed meat.
Small steps create change. “Fresh” educates us on how we can be sustainable and organic. You feel it is possible once the knowledge is obtained and shared with others. And yes, that night we had an organic meal while watching the movie. We all vote for what we want at the grocery store. Every purchase is a vote. Chris and I are not 100% organic. We compromise here and there to continue enjoying all the things we like to eat and drink. But, I feel, being organic whenever possible has helped tremendously.
THE WRITER: Patches of cold sweat soaked through my shirt as I reached the end of my attacker’s typed confession regarding this health-conscious, food-conscious motion picture.
Not long after the night of the wined-out screening of this “Fresh” movie, there was another, incident. A captive audience at a secret culinary gathering in the city of Quincy (the details of which, I’ve sworn to keep hidden in the shadows, for now) was made to watch the film in the hopes of spreading the message further. Of course, there were buckets of classy hooch on hand just in case “Fresh” was sticking on the way down.
I thought of smashing my PC, or, perhaps just holding down the delete key to erase the confession and save the world from the madness. But I couldn’t. The message is too important. And, as Buffy creator Joss Whedon once wrote: “You can’t stop the signal.”
Perhaps one night in the future, there will be a slight pause in commerce as a thousand households decide to stay in, uncork a bottle and delight in something FRESH.
Too heavy? Well, then, please observe this picture of a cat sitting up like a person:
In no particular order, here’s a short list of some of our top Quincy pastimes and palate pleasers for the month of August.
• Wine Flights at Brix. Whether you’re taking a break from Blues in the District at Washington Park or making Brix your destination from the get-go, a wine flight is the way to kick off your visit. Toss the menu aside for the moment and let Heather pour you a blind trio of great wine. We’ve been to some awesome wine bars where they serve you a prefixed flight, complete with descriptive tasting cards, but that still means you’re ordering off the menu. What I love about the flights at Brix is the fact that they’re on-the-fly. Give Heather some direction — red, white, sweet, dry, mixed — and she’ll set you up. We have a special place in our hearts for the unusual grape and the outcast wine that you’ve never heard of before.
• Bittersweet: Rugged Handmade Confections by Michael Mitchell. Once upon a time, there was a wonderful restaurant in Downtown Quincy called Busy Bistro. Twice in Busy Bistro’s reign as our 2nd home (seriously, I think we almost had our own permanent place cards), the restaurant hosted a chocolate night — everything made with some kind of chocolate. Today, you can take home similar indulgences with anything from former Bistro chef, Michael Mitchell’s arsenal of confections: homemade marshmallows, crepes, unique flavor-infused chocolate truffles, etc., oh-my-etc. His birthday gift to my wife, Victoria, was a box of homemade absinthe chocolate truffles that barely lasted into the next morning.
• Tackling the martini list at Fitz’s on 4th. When Fitz’s opened in their newly remodeled building in Downtown Quincy, they presented a challenge to patrons: Finish Our List of Signature Martinis. The reward for doing so? A place on Fitz’s Martini wall of fame. Don’t worry; it’s not a requirement to do it all in one sitting. They keep a personalized list for you with your accomplishments checked off so you can take on another martini the next time you stop in. We love a good challenge…not to mention a good martini. Theirs are on the sweet side and very tasty. Victoria became #1 to complete the list. My sister, Megan, was #2. I captured the Bronze shortly after.
• A Culinary Adventure at The Lake Room at Tony’s Too. THE LAKE ROOM, not the regular Tony’s Too. I know; it’s confusing. For something REALLY unique and delicious, call two days in advance and ask for a five-course tasting from Chef Kevin. He blends outstanding flavors in ways you never would have thought of. Keep an open mind; he can be as unusual as you want him to be. Otherwise, just make sure you ask for The Lake Room menu when you walk up to the hostess. There’s both a Tony’s Old Place-style menu, as well as the fine dining menu. It can be confusing.
• Roberto’s Limoncello at Tiramisu. I’ve mentioned it once in another post, but it’s worth a second. If you’re not in the market for a meal, stop in at the bar and order this homemade lemon liqueur. It’s terrific. The common serving seems to be in shot form, but I prefer it as a slow sipper in a whiskey glass.
My Koog, a locally owned and operated French and German eatery/bakery at the intersection of 12th and Vermont,hosted a German pizza night this week.
Although they are normally open during the hours of breakfast and lunch, they open their doors one or two times a month at dinner for these theme nights. My girlfriend is a waitress there, and I have gotten to know the owners, Fred and Christine Scholl and their lovely daughter Clémence, very well.
They are kind-hearted, hospitable people with thick French accents, often saying funny things in English like “may you want more wine?” or “how you say…how you say?” They have been nice enough to invite us over for barbecues, to Six Flags, the Illinois State Fair, and even on a trip to their home in France they take every for immigration reasons. I was fortunate enough to sit down with them over dinner and talk a little bit more about the history, food, and events at My Koog.
My girlfriend and I walked into Fred’s apartment around 6:15 p.m., half ashamed that I only had time to bring a store-bought lemon meringue pie to a baker’s house. It’s a small two bedroom. I could hear a movie or television running on the floor above us. Clémence, who had been playing with Legos, hid behind her father’s leg until she recognized us. Then she greeted us with her warm smile and a tilt of her head. With usual French hospitality, Fred says hello and asks, “what you want to drink? Pepsi? Wine? Beer?” He pulls out a bottle of Oatmeal Stout called Poet, and says, “for you?” We both laugh, because he knows I write poetry and the gesture is flattering.
Fred walks over to a book shelf and grabs a book titled L’alsace, which is the name of the city on the French-German border where he and his family are from. It’s full of pictures of beautiful architecture, castles, villages and the Rhine River. As we sit at the dinner table, Christine decides to start cooking dinner for everyone while I ask Fred some questions I have jotted down on a pad of paper:
When did My Koog first open its doors?
“The business first opened downtown between Fifth and Sixth Streets on Hampshire in December of 2007, but the building it was attached to caught fire in 2009. The smoke and water damage was so bad that we were forced to close our doors. Fortunately, we had insurance and were able to reopen at our current location, 234 N. 12th Street.”
So, of all the places in the U.S., Why Quincy?
“We moved to this area because Christine has family in the area. I was originally a bank officer by trade and baked/catered as a hobby in France. We researched the area and found that Quincy had a history and population rich with German heritage. We thought we could bring traditional German dishes to the area, and add a little touch of France as well. This is one of the biggest cities in Western Illinois between St. Louis and Chicago, and the market seemed good. I also wanted to provide some diversity and healthy food to this community.”
Where did you get the name?
“A Koog is a small and round traditional German sweet cake, baked with raisins and almonds.”
Can you tell us a little about your menu?
“Our regular hours (7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.) are during breakfast and lunch. I usually wake up and go in at 5:30 a.m. every business day to bake breads, pastries and other items we serve all day long. This includes baguettes, strawberry and chocolate stuffed croissants, pecan and butter croissants, brioches, custard pastries, and single serving custard and lemon pies. For breakfast, we serve German and veggie omelets, a traditional German breakfast, bacon and mushroom quiches, and, on Saturdays, crapes with fresh fruit and Nutella. At lunch, a variety of soups, salads, and traditional baguette sandwiches everyday meats or specialty meats like prosciutto and sopressata calabrese (flavored salami). We serve traditional American beverages, coffee, tea, and some drinks popular in our region of France, like San Pellegrino with lemon.
NOTE: “All ingredients are fresh. If I can buy them locally, I do. Many of the fruits and vegetables are bought from local orchards and farms, including farmers market. There are no preservatives in our food, and nothing is frozen. Also, nothing is fried, so the food is very healthy. All breads and pastries are baked fresh the same day, and my family drives to St. Louis several times a month to purchase all meats and cheeses from a German butcher.”
As a bakery, what other services do you provide aside from an eatery?
“We have a selection of 20 to 30 made to order German and French cakes. Customers can order these cakes for pickup 1-2 days after the order is put in. Christine is the chef, and she bakes and designs them. We have one of the best Black Forest Cakes in the Midwest. We also catered for private parties, office luncheons, churches, so catering is available. I run a booth at the local farmer’s market every Saturday to sell freshly baked bread and pastries. In September, we plan to sell French and German style pottery from our native region. And we open for dinner once or twice a month depending on the season for special “theme” dinners.
Tell me about the theme nights.
“In the past, we have done Mediterranean Night, French Night, German Night, October Fest, Vallentine’s and Wiener Schnitzel Night. All the meals we cook are in the traditional fashion from each region. For example, for French night, we served beef bourguignon. The price varies depending on the meal, which includes a drink, appetizer, entrée with sides, and desert. We ask customers to please reserve a plate ahead of time. The restaurant is small and can fill up quickly. This week, we are cooking German pizzas. They are 12 inches and are $10 a piece.”
What in the heck is a German pizza?
This pizza is made with thin crust, sour cream, onions, and bacon. In Germany, it is called Flam’s Pi or flammekueche, and it is very popular. Many families in Germany and France have a homemade oven, called a Flam’s oven, to bake hundreds of these pizzas and have large parties. Where I come from, they have no buffets like in America, but they have many restaurants that serve all-you-can-eat flammenkuche. We will be serving this traditional pizza, along with a spinach and feta, veggie, and a classic pizza with Italian sausage.”
Last question. I promise. If you could tell the community one thing about My Koog, what would it be?
“I think some people are afraid to try different foods, or they think independent, family-owned businesses are expensive. That is just not true. We serve quality food that is good for you and is reasonably priced. We are walking distance from most businesses downtown. We have fast service, usually only ten minute wait. That’s less time than people wait in line the drive-thru for McDonalds. We do carry out, so people can call ahead and we can have it ready when they come. I want people to know that we are just as much part of the economy as any big chain. The recession has been hard, but we like to invest our money back into the community by buying local and making healthy, unique food.”
I was so taken with the interview and all the information Fred had to share that I fail to notice the glass of white wine Christine poured for me, or the fresh baguette, or the plate full of rotini noodles with creamy pork and mushroom sauce cooked with tequila for flavor (trust the chef, it was delicious). As I put my notepad down, Clémence reached across the table, tilted her head, held up her small glass, and says “Ches?” (meaning cheers). We all follow suit and sit down together to eat, but not before Fred and Christine are certain we have everything we need to enjoy such a great meal.
For orders: Call (217) 214-5664.
My Koog is located at 234 North 12th Street. Their menu is accessible from the web at www.mykoog.com. To contact, call (217) 514-5664 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Fred is the store manager, baker, and “Expert Onion Peeler.” Christine is the head chef.
It’s my birthday month, which means I’m selfishly claiming the entire month of August to do what I want no matter how severe the distress calls, eye rolls, sighs, and bannered protests are from those around me.
In related news, we’ve chosen to begin celebrating Halloween Sept. 1 … August to October: three months of bliss!
Saturday, I decided for everyone that we were going to see “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” because director Edgar Wright is one of my favorite directors of all time. Victoria held a bullhorn to my ear, shouting “I don‘t want to see this movie” in the hours leading up to the screening. I wondered why? We should all trust in Edgar Wright‘s cinematic choices. If the Apocalypse came tomorrow and we few survivors were left to watch Wright’s previous films, “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”, playing on an endless loop on all channels all across the world due to some kind of electro-magnetic freak-a-zoid broadcast blunder, I think I’d be just fine.
Still, I promised her drinks and food beforehand. See? Negotiations and compromise leads to a successful marriage.
Sister and brother-in-law, Megan & Justin, picked us up around 5:00 and we attended an awkward wine-tasting at a local store where the lady manning the wine booth judged us for wanting to taste all 4 of the wines on display.
“Came here to get drunk, huh?” she asked, dribbling a bit of cabernet into a dentist spit-cup.
Tiramisu was our next stop because my last Italian restaurant experience out-of-town left me wanting Roberto’s Portobello app & homemade limoncello. Since it’s my birthday month, there was little discussion in the car. I said, “Go to Tiramisu.” And we went.
Okay, I’m really not THAT kind of selfish jerkstore. Justin also wanted to see “Scott Pilgrim” and everyone thought Tiramisu was a good idea.
At Tiramisu, Roberto sat us and we chatted briefly about a video I produced for Downtown Quincy. He brought us some champagne, wine, and beer. At 5:30, the restaurant was already filling up, but that was no surprise. Our waitress, Jessica came to take our order and waited patiently as my horrible pronunciation of the dishes we wanted devolved to me just pointing at the menu: “That. And that. And that.“
Tapas-style food has become an obsession. To feed this obsession, Jessica brought out small plates of shrimp, Portobello, caprese salad, broo-SKETT-ah, and a small pizza margherita and we all passed & shared. I ordered a glass of limoncello and Jessica looked at me with some surprise. “You mean, like, a full glass?” I said, “How about a double shot?” The rest of the table ordered a shot of it, too. It’s sooooo good.
We wrapped up our apps and drove to Martinis at 515 where friends, Kyle and Christina, said they had been there waiting for us since Tuesday. We made Yakov Smirnoff jokes that all began with “In Soviet Russia…” Chad rolled out his new bellini made with peach puree from Thyme Square, as well as his new martini menu with excellent concoctions like the Colorado Bulldog and the Juicy Fruit, which will leave you singing the classic Juicy Fruit jingle once you taste it. That’s because it’s the taste, the taste, the taste that’s gonna moooove yaaa. I drank champagne and entertained everyone with my new “Cash Cab” game on my iPhone4, which I am not cheating on my wife with.
Victoria tried sabotaging the screening of “Scott Pilgrim” one last time by telling me just how much she was dreading it. Kyle and Christina said they were going to wait for us when the movie was over so we could join them at the bar again (but were gone when we returned because Kyle said he got grounded). We paid up and left and went to the theater, stopping first at Megan & Justin’s house for one quick drink (flask) of Pyrat rum.
Two hours later, I took my first steps out of the theater feeling happy and satisfied, but it only lasted a moment as Megan and Victoria both said, “That sucked” in stereo. Justin and I disagreed. I would love to write more on “Scott Pilgrim“, but I’ll just end it with this: as Hollywood films grow more and more stale, boring, and uninspired, here’s an injection of adrenaline straight into mainstream film’s heart. Thank you, Edgar Wright.
Dear Summer: You’ve overstayed your obligation to make me miserable. Please leave.
Dear Autumn: We’ve made up your room just like you had it when you left. Come as soon as you can.
Dear Halloween: We miss you, baby!
I know that Bret Michaels has been the talk of the town this week. I work in an office with more women than men, which means I have heard his name so many times I could rip my ears off. I’m not really a Poison/Rock-of -Love/Apprentice/Every-Rose-Has-Its-Thorn/Men-Wearing-Eye-Liner kind of guy anyway, so I didn’t make it to the concert. Truth is, I couldn’t even if I wanted to.
If you read my last blog about Current River, you know that I was out in the woods all weekend. Unfortunately, somewhere between floating, rowing and drinking beer, I managed to stumble through a huge patch of poison ivy (which reminds me to really emphasize packing IVY DRY). Rather than take some shots of hard whiskey and fist pump to Bret’s steamy, classic rock ballads on Wednesday night, I decided I better keep it cool, so I went to Fuji Japanese Steak House and found out that a martini is a great way to do so, especially when its half price.
Fuji’s main attraction has to be its dining room. My family has been there in the past to celebrate graduations and birthdays. The hibachi chefs are a spectacle—spraying fire all over the place, flinging food at your face, and juggling eggs. Eating at the hibachi grill means sitting with a party of ten to twelve (whether they are with you or not), a hot metal surface a few feet away, and it’s usually loud with laughter, people talking over each other, and singing.
As a matter of fact, my favorite drink there is a called a Sake Bomb. The waiter/waitress sets a shot of sake (a Japanese alcohol made from rice) on two chopsticks that rest on the top of a glass stein full of beer. You chant the words “Sake bomb! Sake bomb! Sake Sake BOMB!!!” and on the third “bomb,” you pound your fists on the table. The chop sticks roll out and the shot drops into the beer. Then you Chug! Chug! Chug! Chug! If you couldn’t visualize from my description, check out this video with an epic metal soundtrack. What’s the phrase I’m looking for? Oh yeah! It’ll put hair on your chest.
But like I said, I had to keep it cool. No heat. No sweating. Even though I really like sushi, I thought sitting at a plain old booth on a weeknight would pale in comparison to my usual experience. As it turns out, they serve several different rolls of sushi and martinis for half price on Wednesdays. My girlfriend, Belinda, and I shared a spicy tuna roll, spicy salmon roll and a philly roll. I also had a cucumber martini. It was one of the coolest and most refreshing alcoholic beverages I have ever had. They had a good variety of other martinis too. I really wanted to try a Three Musketeers martini, but I stopped after just one because I was already a little tipsy. I never had a martini before, I didn’t know the whole thing was a mix of all hard liquors. All and all, after tip, it cost us only $20. I would highly recommend it to unwind halfway through the workweek.
Monday. The searchlights pulsed beyond the Arch, summoning us to the land of Saint Louis.
We were brought down for a couple of days to play “Mad Men” with a client and an ad agency who wanted a new series of TV commercials. The shoot went fast, which surprised some of the new people who were used to 10-person crews, film, and lots of wasted time. As a result, we had the rest of the afternoon and evening for whatever.
Lunch at Milagro in Webster Groves — an upscale Mexican restaurant with so-so, corporate décor and lots of tequila. Milagro the restaurant has nothing to do with Milagro tequila, but they offer the entire Milagro tequila lineup. Would you like to read the word “Milagro” five more times? Milagro Milagro Milagro Milagro Milagro. We sampled a vertical & horizontal tequila flight (room temp, no lime necessary) and ate duck tostadas, ceviche, and fish tacos. No fast food Mexican here. It was at this moment we decided to make the day all about Tapas.
Checked into the hotel in Clayton around three and took a stroll. We stopped over at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in search of sweets. St. Louis Magazine voted Simone Faure, head pastry chef at the Grille, the best crafter of desserts in the city and rumored that her creations could be purchased at the gift shop when the Grille was closed. At the gift shop, there wasn’t a hint of pastry. Victoria asked the nice lady at the desk where Simone’s delectable eats were. A phone call later, Simone, herself, was saying “Nice to meet you” and taking us on a tour of her pastry kitchen. She was pulling out homemade chocolates, a raspberry panna cotta, cakes, tortes, and tarts and saying, “Taste these.” She showed us a sweet sixteen cake that could take the prize on Food Network’s “Challenge.“ We sampled more. Victoria said she could eat these all day long and Simone said, “Don’t do that to yourself. Have it often enough to keep me in business, but there’s no need to do that to your body.” Very cool lady. On our way out, we saw the Ritz had Chanel purses made of cake and high-heeled shoes made of chocolate on display — Simone‘s creations.
We circled around to The Wine Merchant — my favorite wine store ever. An employee who looked just like Charlie from “Lost” gave us a lesson on Chardonnay. I asked about sipping rums and he took us to their tasting room to try some wickedly good stuff from Jamaica. We bought some sparkling shiraz with the hope that it was the same sparkling shiraz we had a few months ago at SLeeK restaurant’s two-year anniversary at the Lumiere Casino. (It wasn’t.)
A pit stop at our hotel room, then we walked to a place called Araka where, two years ago, I had one of the greatest seven course meals in my life. It’s a very hip and modern bar/restaurant. We ordered a couple of signature cocktails, pita bread with three Mediterranean dipping sauces, and the fine-dining version of tomato soup and grilled cheese. The loft above us was host to a fancy business party full of suits. I felt like joining them. Surely a few business buzz words would’ve masked my lack of a beefy stock portfolio. In the end, I decided NO … it looked like all the guests had their attorneys present as bodyguards.
Araka’s new head chef, Steven Caravelli, came out of the kitchen for a minute. My very UN-shy wife called out to him and he came over and chatted with us. Chef Steven was just recently hired away from SLeeK (Hubert Keller’s restaurant, for all you “Top Chef” fans). We sorta met him in June at the aforementioned two-year anniversary of SLeeK when Chef Keller gave myself, Victoria, my sister & brother-in-law, and Chef Kevin from Tony’s Too in Quincy a private tour of the kitchen. Chef Kevin from Tony’s Too said to us: “How do you guys keep getting invited to these private kitchen tours?!?!” I don’t know, Kevin. Because we look like we want to eat.
After Araka, we hoofed it a few blocks to a popular Italian place called Café Napoli where a Rolls Royce was parked out front in the valet VIP spot. Victoria joked that we should pull up in our Chevy Aveo and toss the keys to the valet, saying, “Just park it next to the Rolls, chief.” Walking into Café Napoli, the air was thick with oils and butter and sauces and bread and I could sense it was somehow making me fat again. Luckily, we were seated in a corner with a great view and the waiter suggested an appetizer to share consisting of small things. A man with an entourage walked into the restaurant carrying a few bottles of
wine. Other diners began to surround him, which probably meant he was a celebrity, but I didn’t recognize him at all, so he must have been some sort of a sports guy. Maybe it was the over-sauced food or the fact that Café Napoli didn’t make their own limoncello, or maybe it was the fact that I was getting pretty full and tired, but I was suddenly missing Quincy’s Tiramisu with Roberto’s awesome, homemade limoncello.
Another brief stroll, then back to our hotel room where we contemplated opening that bottle of sparkling shiraz, but ended up falling asleep to episodes of “Pawn Stars” on the History Channel, instead.
I ate too much this week.
It’s Saturday. For once this summer, the sun’s not set to broil, but at any moment you feel like the clouds may be white charcoal in disguise just waiting for a match. It’s an empty Saturday, the kind of Saturday that can trick you into mowing the lawn or applying that second coat of paint to (insert household appendage) and watch it dry. What do you do?
If you’re Chris & Victoria, you fight the power, get in the car, and drive.
The road took us into Missouri first, to a little winery in Monroe City called Indian Creek. You may be familiar with their wine jellies from Domestics Etc. in Downtown Quincy. Just mentioning it takes me to a fond breakfast memory of spreading Indian Creek Riesling over a toasted English muffin while an extra dry mimosa whispered my name from the end of the table.
The winery is just outside of town in a newly purchased (and in-the-process-of-remodeling) farmhouse which caught us off guard at first. Where do you enter? Where do you taste? There were no markings of any kind save for a miniscule sign that read “winery open” and there was only one other car in the gravel, looped driveway. We called the winery and a kind voice on the other end of the phone invited us to go ahead and “Come in, come in.” Victoria waited in the car as I slowly approached the house to check it out. This is how horror films begin.
“If I’m not back in five minutes, well, you know the drill.”
Gentle Readers, I must confess my guilt in judging a book by its cover; it‘s worth the trip. Due to the ongoing remodel, winemaker Sheila Osbourne had us tasting in the kitchen of the farmhouse with a couple of bubbly ladies who were camping at Mark Twain Lake with their husbands. As we toured the remainder of the house, we got a proper look at what will soon become quaint, cool tasting room and gift shop. The wines were predominantly sweet, which normally causes me to hover near the dump bucket since I’m a dry wine guy, but these were very tasty AND paired well with the summer heat.
My Indian Creek Favorites:
1) Ralls Red
2) Salt River Gold
3) Rose (not to be confused with rose-AY!)
4) The moon-shaped bottle of semi-sweet white – no official name.
Seeing that we were primed for adventure, those bubbly ladies on the camping trip informed us of two more wineries in the area. Cooper’s Oak Winery in Higbee, MO – which is just outside of Moberly – and West Winery in Macon, MO. The day was still young and our car was full of gas, so we took to the open road, due South to Higbee.
Cooper’s is next to A&K Cooperage, producers of “fine American and French Oak barrels” for wine-making. It was exciting in an educational kinda way because I’ve never witnessed a barrel’s creation (perhaps as a disinterested youth at Silver Dollar City or some frontier/pioneer school field trip, or something, but no memories are popping up). Sadly, the Cooperage was closed and touring is only possible on weekdays, so we stuck to the winery and tasted.
There were two other couples in the tasting room, that day, also on tour of area wineries. A few locals also popped in during the course of our visit, looking for six packs of Cooper’s Deer Beer. This was baffling to the nice, young gentleman behind the bar. “It’s so BUSY today.”
“What, you don’t get a lot of people coming in to try your wines?” I asked.
“Not THIS many,” he replied, prompting me to pan around the room once to check for possible camouflaged tasters I might have missed in my initial count.
Cooper’s offerings were much drier compared to Indian Creek. But most were VERY earthy with aromas of heavy fertilizer. Still, some choice selections.
My Cooper’s Oak Favorites:
1) Cabernet Franc Icewine – a MUST!
2) Cooper’s Deer Beer (more of a light beer than a lager, but very good)
Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more…
Victoria and I accelerated to the North past half a dozen flea markets and a gargantuan machinery auction, hitting downtown Macon where an old building was bought and renovated into a town hot spot: West Winery. It was quiet in the winery that day, which meant more face-time with the owners, Chris and Jen West of Columbia, MO. Plus Victoria & I didn’t have to squabble with other pushy wine-tasters. The night before, the room was jam-packed. That because, on most Fridays, West is a venue for open mic jam sessions and featured musicians. The Wests are boosters of anything local, plugging several downtown Macon establishments & events, as well as showcasing local artists on the walls of their tasting room.
We asked Chris what got him into winemaking, to which he replied, “We didn’t have a lot of money when we first got married, so we couldn’t really go out that much. And I like a challenge, so I just started doing it.” Today, he has several barrels of wine at the rear of the winery, fermenting and aging (in barrels made by A&K Cooperage from Higbee). What was already bottled and ready to drink were some of the best wines of our adventure.
My West Favorites:
1) Roundhouse Red
2) Smokestack White
3) Apricot Sunset (the most unusual, delicious wine of the day)
4) Spiced Apple (Think warmed in a crock pot for Thanksgiving)
On our way home from West in Macon, we called and made a reservation for the Lake Room at Tony’s Too. Chef Kevin prepared an excellent six-course tasting on the fly that put Victoria and I in a state of food euphoria. Several minutes of time were lost.
Our next stop was Martinis at 515 where we met a friend of ours, Dr. Doug, for an after-dinner cocktail & a discussion about all things that matter in life. In need of a digestif, I asked Mixologist Chad for advice. The cocktail consigliere recommended Drambuie, which I knew nothing about save for the short film my friend, fellow filmmaker, & Emmy-winning, Travis Yates, made about the liquor – “A Complete Mystery.” I ended up liking the bevvy as a slow sipper, but not as much as I enjoy Pyrat Rum or Roberto’s grappa at Tiramisu.
From there, we ordered a Sochi Russian preparation of Absinthe.
YES, Absinthe is legal in the US.
NO, it will not make you go mad (unless you’re drinking it straight…don‘t do that…straight Absinthe is yucky).
Usually, Absinthe is served by melting a sugar cube over the glass and then pouring a dash of water over top. We first learned of the Sochi Russian preparation at Chef Hubert Keller’s restaurant Fleur De Lys in Las Vegas. To my knowledge, Martinis is the only place you can get Absinthe in Quincy, outside of the liquor store (to MY KNOWLEDGE, I said) and to see Chad prepare a Sochi Russian Absinthe is a delight. Be easy on inhaling the vapors the first time…it can take you off guard.
Dr. Doug, being the responsible Doc he is, tasted the Absinthe, then left the rest to Victoria and I. It was loud that night at Martinis and I ended up misinterpreting a conversation that led to giggles and double entendres the rest of the evening.
It was a Saturday that left us buzzing with good feelings for the next two days.
When I was I kid, I played a computer game called “Oregon Trail” created by MECC. Set in 1848, the game was based on the famous trek out California way on a packed Conestoga wagon. Among several obstacles, rivers and streams forced you to face a treacherous float down the current, avoiding rocks, whirlpools, and other hazards.
At twelve years old, that defined adventure for me. Now that I actually know how to use an oar, l head down to Current River in Southern Missouri every year to live the dream, with a little less at stake, of course.
Current River is one of the most popular floats close to this area. I use the term “close” loosely because the area is actually a three to four hour drive away, and there are no major interstates running North to South that make it a quick, easy drive from Quincy. Regardless, thousands of people come from all around the Southern and Midwestern U.S. every year to float the river.
Despite its name, the river is relatively calm and serene. It’s called a float trip because most people pack a cooler full of ice, beer and bologna, bungee it down, and spend the day literally floating downstream. You can also rent canoes and kayaks for longer trips or if you prefer a little more action. There are several beaches to pull aside and have a beer with fellow floaters, river caves to explore, and large rocks or cliffs to jump off of. It’s also very common to come around a bend and see a massive group of twenty people reclined in inner tubes, tied together with rope, and double fisting two cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
The first step of going on a float trip is planning.
Some people like to fly by the seat of their pants, or are lucky enough to have someone else plan it all out for them, but my girlfriend and I had the great pleasure or organizing everything this year. I would suggest doing some research in advance. I have heard horror stories of groups booking a camp site they can’t even get to because they don’t own four-wheel drive vehicles. And guess what? No refunds.
When you call to book a campsite, I recommend that you ask questions:
• Are these party camp sites or private sites with quiet hours? Are they easily accessible?
• Is the cost a lump sum or per person?
Most websites suggest that you make camping reservations at least two weeks in advance, and I highly recommend it. Many groups that float the river are large — 20 to 30 people — so campsites can fill up fast. Jason’s Place, one of the more popular campgrounds where we stayed, also advertises an early bird discount if you book summer trips in January, and since several groups go every year, they take advantage.
You also need to decide how far you want to float/paddle. Trips range in length from 2.5 miles (small 1 day) to 144 miles (large 8 or 9 days). Each float trip is named for the points where you “put in” (put your canoe in the water) and where you end. Check out this map for a reference to river access points. This year, we took a 20 mile trip in one day (Akers Ferry to Round Spring). This was the longest I have finished in one day to date, and I wouldn’t recommend it if you have novices in your party. We did, and I felt a little responsible when the sun sank low in the sky, our buzz wore off, the fist-sized horseflies came out in swarms, and we still had 5 miles to go. I suggest a 10 mile trip at most if you are looking for something a little more leisurely. You’ll have a lot more time to stop and drink, mingle and experience the river.
Here are a few things I highly suggest you pack:
1) Plenty of beer. Most floaters drink throughout the whole trip, and no one wants to run out. That’s a huge party foul. Plus, it just feels right to tackle the outdoors with a cold beer in your hand.
2) A koozie. No one likes the last half of a warm beer.
3) String cheese and lunch meat. You need to stop for lunch too.
4) Water shoes. The riverbed and beaches are rocky, and the current can pull a flip-flop right off. If you tip, you could cut or bruise your feet without them.
5) Bungee cords. You’re going to need something to keep your cooler strapped down in case you tip over.
6) Plastic bags or a dry sack for any electronics or items that need to be kept dry.
7) Sunscreen and bug spray (with deet). Enough said.
8) Ivy dry. If you stray off the beaten path, you will find poison ivy and sumac everywhere.
9) Swimsuit and towels.
10) Camping essentials—tent (waterproof if possible), sleeping bag, etc.
11) (Optional) Your dog. The river is pet friendly to obedient dogs.
12) (Optional) Costumes. I saw all four Ninja Turtles, Hercules, Xena, and the Power Rangers.
Canoe rental and a campsite for two nights cost us around $46.00 per person (this fee can vary if you book through different campsites along the river). Rafts seat multiple people, canoes seat 2, and kayaks seat 1, so prepare your party numbers accordingly. You have the option to pay over the phone or when you arrive. I suggest paying cash when you get there in case people cancel. Most rental companies also charge a fee for cancelling within eight days of your reservation, so read the fine print. All together, with gas, food and drinks, the trip probably cost us anywhere from $75 to $100 each for the whole weekend.
Now you’re ready to float. We carpooled down on a Friday afternoon in two hatchbacks and a truck. We wanted to get to our camp while we had daylight to find firewood and set up the tents. The first night was a big party. We met a group of about 30 people at the site next to ours from the Illinois-Indiana border. They brought two sets of bean bags and bag boards to play Cornhole. Everyone was there for a good time, and they were happy to introduce themselves, let us play, and share some beers. I caution you not to drink too much if your bus leaves for the river early in the morning.
Our bus picked us up and left for the river at 9 a.m. We were originally scheduled for 10 a.m., but we woke up at the crack of dawn on Saturday due to some light rain. The staff at Jason’s Place is very accommodating since buses run all day. The bus schedule is posted at the camping office, and they drive floaters to and from the river all day so personal vehicles can be left at the campsite.
The canoes were waiting for us at the water’s edge, and we hopped right in, bungeed down the coolers (after grabbing some beers) and started downstream. The sky cleared up shortly after we put in, and it was smooth sailing. The river is very clear and shallow in most places. It was relatively easy to stay together. We pulled over to talk to other groups and swim whenever we wanted. I highly suggest stopping at Cave Spring if you get the chance. The water is cerulean blue, freezing cold and stretches far beneath the cliff on the east side of the river. It’s beautiful.
There are several other things to see along the river, and your experience will depend heavily on what length of the river you decide to float, and the group you take with you. If I had to make a recommendation, I would suggest Pulltite to Round Spring, even though Cave Spring isn’t on that stretch. It has better stop offs and more places to dive off rocks, over-hanging trees, and rope swings. The current is a little stronger. We had two canoes tip over on this stretch, and we had to scramble to retrieve the oars, canoe, and whatever contents that weren’t bungeed down. The canoes are also equipped with net sacks for trash. This prevents garbage from floating down the river when canoes tip.
We finished our float at 7 p.m. I was exhausted. That’s 10 hours of rowing. Okay. Okay. You got me. I floated and drank most of the way. But I was still tired. Thankfully, we were able to get on a bus right away and ride back to our campsite half an hour away. We started a fire, shared stories, laughed about how “outdoorsy” we weren’t, and turned in early. We left for home the next morning after cleaning up the campsite.
I feel compelled to add this cautionary note:
• Please be responsible.
• You are on a river in the summer heat. Hydrate yourself.
• Wear sunscreen.
• Be alert (and sober) enough to respond if your canoe tips. It happens all the time in short areas with swifter currents. Others are usually willing to help, but you can’t count on it. If you read The Herald-Whig, you know a thirteen-year-old boy wondered away from his camp, fell in the river, and drowned this past weekend. I’m not trying to scare you. This is rare, but it does happen. I just want you to be aware.
Bottom line—everyone is there to have fun in the great outdoors. I recommend you take a float trip at least once in your life. I think the element that makes this specific trip so popular is its diversity. The experience is designed to accommodate large groups, families and small groups canoeing and camping over long distances. The variety of floating options makes it simple and safe enough for even the most unskilled and hydrophobic people. It’s a place to relax, take your time, and enjoy nature. The campsite staff is used to people missing buses and staying on the river late, so you never have to worry about schedules (even if they give a pick up time). Current River is a staple vacation for every Midwesterner and a memorable experience for me every year.
On any night of the week, you can head east on Broadway, passed all those big box stores — Lowes, Wal-Mart, Home Depot — to the edge of town and hang out with the “Sand Eaters,” “Spiked Punch” or “Benny and the Sets” at a local bar and grill called The Grove Inn.
In case their names didn’t give them away, these are just 3 of the 28 sand volleyball teams that play in The Grove’s sand volleyball league. And, if you can’t stand sitting back, relaxing, and drinking beer (which I know can be difficult), you can also get a team together and join.
The Grove Inn sponsors three summer sessions of sand volleyball throughout the spring and summer every year. Each session is eight games long and costs $125. Each team roster allows for 10 members, and the fee is usually divided up amongst them. For example, a group of people that I work with have a team, and they each pay $12.50 per person, which isn’t bad for two months worth of games.
Each session can afford to accommodate so many teams because The Grove schedules games five nights a week from 5:30-10 P.M., and they don’t care how many teams you play on. I know a girl that plays out there on three teams, two nights a week. Her teams are sponsored by local businesses, which is another option if you can’t swing the $125. They have some rules. Six people in the game at a time (subs can rotate in), and there has to be at least three girls in the game on each team. Two guys can’t work the ball over the net alone — a girl has to hit it somewhere in there — and you only have three hits to get the ball over the net. You’re allowed to use any part of your body to get it over. A match consists of three games to 15 in regulation volleyball scoring (only serving team can score) unless time is running short. In that case, you move to rally scoring.
I know what all you die-hard competitors can’t help but ask: What do I win? What do I get for dominating all 28 teams and rising to the top? Well, if you come in first place, The Grove awards you with another session for free, so the good times keep on rolling. But I can’t stress enough that it’s not about the fierce competition. The Grove is a place to leave the everyday grind (and your shoes) at the edge of the sand and really enjoy yourself. Most people participate because they like volleyball, regardless if they are good at it, or they just like $5 pitchers of domestic beer. This is my kind of sport, maybe due to the fact that I’m a lanky, uncoordinated oaf, but more so because I can’t argue with cheep bud light and the chance to dive around in the warm sand.
On a final note, I want to remind everyone that The Grove doesn’t mind if you come out just to socialize and have a good time. The $5 pitchers are for everyone, not just the players. After all, one of the teams is actually named “Here for the Beer.”
We decided to go mad. We bought silly hats of ridiculous proportions. We bought tea cups and cupcakes and fashioned them into a mountain of sugar and butter cream. We were having a party — a Mad Hatter Tea Party — in honor of two birthdays: my wife and my sister, who were born on the same day across a six year gap. Location: Martinis at 515
Martinis is one of the newest establishments to open up in Historic Downtown Quincy. You may remember the location as Roderick P. Miller’s or even Ally & Co. after that. Owners David & Angie Wedding gave the spot a facelift that both updated and retained the building’s historical significance. Its classy layout, service and drink menu stamps another marker in the map of Downtown Quincy’s Essential Destinations.
Walking in for the first time, I felt right at home, comfortable, very much in my element. You can saddle a high chair at the bar, relax in the open lounge with wait-staff service, or steal away to a somewhat private lounge in the back with friends. The best part is the standards — the staff seems to care, they’re knowledgeable, they’re open to new recipes and flavors, and the drinks are served correctly. I’ve seen cool bars slip away — standards dropping as the wrong element takes over. I don’t see Martinis going that way at all.
In the role of mixologist, David lured away Chad Davis from the Spring Lake Country Club.
Me: “How’d he do it? How’d David get you?”
Chad: “He said ’We’re opening this place, and we don’t want to do it without you.‘ So I thought about it and decided to go for it.”
Chad is responsible for the martini recipes, but is also sharp in coming up with something new on the spot. Victoria will often challenge Chad with a simple direction: “Make me something good with champagne” or “Make me something fruity with Christiania vodka.” He always delivers.
The martini list is long and wonderful, dangerously so. Chad makes them in such a way where you can taste the alcohol, but it’s delicious because it‘s quality alcohol and it‘s mixed well. My first night there, I downed four of them in a flurry of excitement … I wouldn’t recommend that. My favorite is the Bobitini, made with Absolute Peppar and garnished with giant jalapeno olives that Chad makes, himself. Of course, there are plenty of non-alcoholy tasting drinks as well.
The Mad Hatter Tea Party — not to be confused with any political parties — happened on a Friday. Why the theme? Do we have a thing for “Alice in Wonderland”? Sure. More the classic cartoon than Tim Burton’s vision. But, really, the idea of hanging out with the Mad Hatter, alone, was just loony enough to be cool.
We planned everything out with Chad and the Weddings ahead of time, taking over the front lounge where a table was set up to play home to our mountain of cupcakes and food. Knowing our current taste for champagne-like drinks, Chad ordered a case of extra dry Friexenet “champagne” specifically for this event and concocted a lemon-tea flavored drink to serve as the special $5.15 martini.
Thyme Square catered with a spread of hors d’oeuvres that went fast. Thyme Square restaurant is another new destination in downtown Quincy that specializes in farm-fresh breakfast & house-made lunch and consistently puts out bright flavors from local sources. The Portobello mushroom sandwich and gazpacho have quickly climbed high on the “Kelley’s In List.” At the Mad Hatter Tea Party, Brian, Erica, and Chef Shupe of Thyme Square even stayed and hung out for a bit, despite how busy they’ve been since opening the restaurant.
And now, a Mad Hatter’s play-by-play:
The party started at 7pm. First, there was me, Victoria, sister Megan, and brother-in-law Justin. Un-Party Guests were present at the bar since we didn‘t want to privatize the Mad Hatter. “Champagne” was poured. We put on our crazy hats. People stared. Other Party Guests arrived — some with hats, some without. We bought rounds of $5.15 specials for guests and bottles of Friexenet for ourselves.
I brought my new mistress — a Canon 7D — along and started snapping off pictures with or without any approvals. Victoria and Megan by their mountain of birthday cupcakes. Jon Van Ness and Claudia Lasys posing. Jennifer and Pat Wendling posing. Todd Shackelford, Krystyna Freeman, Eric & Kathryn Thomas shouting “NO PICTURES!” Chef Michael Mitchell in a Fez hat. Nadine Mitchell in candids she would later denounce as cruel. Jim Schuetz giving his wife, Julie, antler fingers. Kathy Birsic asking for a pic good enough to be her Facebook profile. The Moms — Karen Wiseman and Sue Kelley — talking about whatever moms talk about. Greg Ellery looking like a director. Victoria looking beautiful.
A man at the bar said I should let him take a picture of me, but I would not relinquish my camera.
By 10 p.m., it was wall-to-wall bodies. Waitresses were running to-and-fro with trays of drinks. Chad was also running around delivering bevvys in a blur — a martini ninja. Fitness trainer, Angie Asmann, challenged me to raised-feet pushups and I accepted, leaving my ridiculously large hat on. Afterwards, a friend of my brother-in-law’s tried flirting with Angie and was seen doing pushups near her … it’s still unclear if he was challenged or if he just started pushing-up, unprompted. A friend of a friend of a friend — a.k.a. a stranger — tried helping himself to our “champagne” and, when Justin called him out, the stranger walked away mad and refused to hug-it-out later.
People were chain-smoking conversations — one after another.
There were intense discussions in far corners that no one would remember. There were momentary breakouts of dancing. The popular “Finger-Pointing Dance” that Justin and I invented in Chicago made the rounds amongst the guests. The food vanished. The cupcake mountain disintegrated. All but a few bottles in the case of Friexenet was consumed. Strangers became friends but forgot to introduce each other. I didn’t see anyone Tweet or check their Facebook page. The Social Network was Martinis at 515.
Chef Michael presented a gift to Victoria: his creation of Absinthe chocolate truffles that were so good we had to hide them. Someone asked if the truffles are illegal. I answered, “They’re so good they SHOULD be illegal, but, seriously, no Absinthe is legal” but I was talking to myself because I was pouring a drink. New friend, Heath, who wore a giant Dr. Seuss-looking hat, drank four Bobitinis before moving onto beer, but later blamed his next day hangover on the single Absinthe truffle he ate. I stopped and listened and heard laughter all night.
Megan and Victoria opened their gifts. I can’t recall if anyone sang “Happy Birthday“ to the birthday girls. Just now, as I write this, Victoria tells me: “No.” Pause for belated birthday song. Several of us switched to water. The night was winding down and the crowd was starting to thin out. As the hour hand drifted past 12, the Mad Hats came off. There was talk of late night, but Victoria and I decided it was futile to try and sustain the birthday buzz. We packed up. Homebound under the waxing moon.
Thankfully, neither of us saw the Cheshire Cat grinning down from the lunar face.