Food trucks making the jump to “brick and mortar” restaurants has become something of a trend lately. I can think of four so far this year. Unfortunately, about half the time they seem to junk the trucks when the restaurant opens, which surprises and saddens me. I mean things are just starting to get more interesting for the truck scene, and we’re losing some of the better trucks! Still, there was one that I’ve known for a while now would not survive; the limitations of truck cooking were simply too confining for the imagination and ambition of the man running the show. Since the title of the post kind of gives away who I’m talking about, let’s just get on with it, eh?
I’ve talked about Brian before, starting with my write-ups of the Boise Urban Market (which is defunct now, sadly), through the days of the giant orange truck, and now Saint Lawrence Gridiron has put down roots in a little alcove just off Capitol and Bannock in downtown Boise. Those of you who have been following along as Brian’s little dream has evolved will recognize some of the menu, though even the familiar items have seen a little reworking.
Or so Brian tells me. As awesome as his brisket and poutine are, I wanted to try something new. Unfortunately, I was unaware that there are different menus for lunch and dinner, and the things I wanted to try weren’t available at lunchtime when I arrived with my mother and sister in tow. Completely at a loss now, I asked him to recommend something, and without missing a beat he said I should get the Ernest Burger. In Idaho, it seems like everyone from old-schoolers to hipsters have a hard-on for Hemingway, so I’m surprised I haven’t seen this burger on a menu sooner. What SLG serves is more like an homage to the original, since some of the components are hard or impossible to find these days. That decision made, we chatted for a little while about his new endeavor, everything from how he’s had to leave actually working in the kitchen to other people (he can recite their resumes by heart), to his pride in his minimalist menu descriptions, and how they show confidence in the ability of the cooks to adequately season the food by not automatically putting out salt and pepper on all the tables.
I rejoined my dining companions, who were complaining about the lack of detail on the menu. Uh-oh. Sis wasn’t feeling very hungry, but I did talk her into getting an order of fries. Mom debated for a bit before settling on the Chicken Salad Club.
|Chicken Salad Club with fries|
Mom had chosen fries as her side, and both ladies dipped into their orders right when they were set down. “The fries are cold,” said Mom. “Yes they are,” Sis chimed in. Double uh-oh. The ones further down inside the metal cups were warmer, but it was obvious that they had been resting for a while. Both also observed that the fries tasted fine, and would probably be really good if they were hot. They also complimented the house-made ketchup, but bemoaned the fact that they were given only one small cup of it to share between the two orders of fries.
As for the Chicken Salad Club, they were similarly unimpressed. No issues with the bacon, avocado, spinach or bread, but they felt the chicken salad itself, which is basically chicken and cream cheese, lacked texture and seasoning. This is where the lack of salt and pepper on the table came up (they would not request any from the waitress either, despite my repeated suggestions). They also talked about how they prefer chicken salad with a little bit of crunch; celery, onion, water chestnuts, etc. There was some joking about how I probably wouldn’t mention all of this in my review, but I’m honest to a fault. I also feel a need to mention that this is the precise reason I don’t order deli salads in restaurants: nobody is going to make them just the way you like them. When I mentioned all this to Brian a few days later, the first thing he asked was whether they picked up the sandwich and took a bite, or just tore the components apart with their forks; turns out they didn’t try it altogether. Apparently the plan is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and to be honest it makes ME want to try it. There are several things higher on the priority list though.
|Ernest Burger with succotash|
I, on the other hand, was overjoyed with my meal. To be honest, I was a little nervous about ordering a burger with no cheese, mayo, mustard, ketchup, steak sauce, barbecue sauce…you get the idea. Trust me when I say this burger doesn’t need that stuff. I have never had a burger as intensely flavored as this. I guess all the hooch must have eaten away old Ernie’s taste buds. When there is that much seasoning in a burger, it had better be balanced and complimentary, and this was. It was also pleasantly juicy, and the pickled veggies which served as the only topping were the perfect compliment, even though it’s nothing I would have ever thought of doing myself. As for the succotash, well, I should have asked what was in it. This version had peas, which I hate like poison. Once I had picked those out, what remained was very tasty, and marks the first time I’ve ever enjoyed lima beans.
My heart was so set on trying the things that had first caught my attention on the menu, I returned two days later for dinner. Solo this time. Everyone I know is either dieting, vegetarian, only eats boneless chicken, doesn’t want to spend the money on higher-end comfort food, blah blah blah. I need more carnivorous, adventurous friends with disposable income. Watch for applications to be posted at a future date. Anyway, I sat down, was given a menu and a glass of water, and began flipping mental coins. While I perused the offerings, I became aware of a conversation a couple of tables down between a couple of customers and the waiter. They grilled the guy, literally ran him through pretty much every single menu item. Here’s the great thing: even though the restaurant had only been open a week, he answered every query flawlessly. Not once did he have to excuse himself to verify something with one of the kitchen staff. I’ve been to national chain restaurant grand openings that have had a LOT of money thrown at them, and have had waitstaff freeze like a deer in headlights if you ask a question that isn’t already answered explicitly on the menu. But I digress. Eventually the waiter made it back to my lonesome little table, and I ordered the Bones & Toast to start, followed by the Seared Trout for the main course.
|Bones & Toast|
Forgive the perspective of the above picture, but this dish is served on a long wooden plank. To get far enough away to get everything into frame, you basically lose the focus on the central component, which is half a marrow bone split lengthwise. So I guess it’s really “Bone & Toast”, but that just doesn’t have the same ring. There is some grilled bread off to the sides. This is the second time I’ve had this particular item. I’d seen it on so many foodie and travel shows that when I was planning my Seattle trip last year, I made finding a place that served it a priority. Unfortunately, I loved everything from that restaurant EXCEPT the roasted marrow, which wasn’t roasted enough to break down properly and ended up being coated with so much herb and bread crumb mix that you could barely taste the marrow. When done properly, you should be able to spread it like jam, not have to smash it like jelly. SLG does it right. The herbs and lemon zest added just enough counterbalance to cut the richness a bit. Smeared on the toast, this stuff becomes a butter of the gods. I’m not gonna lie, it is a little pricey for what you get, but then again I can’t think of anyone else in town that’s doing it, so if you want to try it without doing the work yourself…
Moving on, my fish came draped over a pile of smoked cauliflower, a dollop of pickled quince onion relish to the side, some scattered fried sage leaves, and with a healthy(?) splash of garlic brown butter.
|Oh, and a popover!|
The first thing I did was rearrange the plate for ease of use….
|Same food, but with some of it flipped over.|
For the longest time now, it seems like whenever I’m in the mood for fish, the restaurant I’m at goes out of their way to avoid doing a simple presentation. Everything is battered, breaded, smothered with cream sauce, covered in pineapple salsa, hidden under mango chutney, or some other annoying thing that makes me wonder why I’m paying so much for something I can barely taste. A good piece of fish is not generally inexpensive, after all. This was beautifully simple, clean, and cooked wonderfully. The relish was an unexpected treat, the fried sage a nice touch that I see all too rarely, but believe it or not what grabbed me the most about this plate of food was the smoked cauliflower. I love cauliflower anyway, but this gave me a whole new respect for it. In fact, while I was fine with the portion size of the fish, I would happily pay another dollar or two to double or triple the cauliflower, and I could have finished it, too. The popover similarly was surprisingly good, I would dare to venture he could sell those by the half dozen or more. I sadly neglected mine while I was obsessing over the fish and veggies, until the point where it had cooled quite a bit. Luckily for me, a good number of the entrées seem to come with one or more of them. I won’t make the same mistake twice.
I think it’s obvious that I’ll be back, so I suppose the question is should YOU go? If you’re looking for huge portions of inexpensive food, no. If you’re displeased if there isn’t a condiment cart on your table or loquacious menu descriptions, you should probably stay away. If you’re looking for unique interpretations of classic American comfort food, well then you probably already tried SLG during the food truck phase. If you missed the truck, just thank your lucky stars you have another chance and get your ass downtown!
Food: Things are still being fine tuned, and honestly I miss Brian’s touch in the kitchen. I think he’ll whip the new guys into shape though. In the meantime, most everything I’ve sampled has been very satisfying.
Value: I’m not going to lie, some of the stuff is kind of pricey. But then again, nobody else around here is doing some of the stuff SLG is. I don’t mind squeezing the turnip a little harder from time to time when I like a restaurateur and the food is good.
Service: Knowledgeable, and very friendly in a laid-back kind of a way. I like a friendly server, but keep the intensity toned down, you know? There’s a good balance here.
Atmosphere: Very cozy, definite mellow vibe. It doesn’t feel like a typical restaurant, there’s something more intimate about it somehow.
Final Grade: A-