Wednesday, September 3, 2008

If it was Worth the Drive before . . .

We drive through St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin three times before we find it. Subtle, next to a window full of hair salon offerings, the small lettering reads "The Dam Bistro." Dumb name.

"I hope this is good," I tell the DNB as we enter.

It's the finale to our Labor Day weekend. I've researched our day trip to the max, because this is me, and made reservations at The Dam Bistro after seeing it listed as a Restaurant Worth the Drive. Our server, Barbara, quickly fills us in. Justin Grecco is the new owner and chef, she explains. He's changing the name to "Grecco's on the St. Croix," and the official opening will be October 1. She's only been working here for a few days; she broke two wine glasses her first night. We're delighted with her friendliness and have no concerns for our wine glasses.

We place our dinner in Justin's hands and order the six course Chef's Tasting Menu. He immediately appears at our table and introduces himself. He shakes the DNB's hand firmly, but clasps mine gently with both of his. I am completely smitten - the man knows class.

"Tell me what you like and what you don't like," he instructs.

"I don't like olives," I say immediately. Yuck. "Olives and fish."

He smiles without judgment and heads to his kitchen. Moments later he and his sous chef appear with our first course. It's a salad with lamb bacon and fried egg, served with mustard dressing and flatbread croutons. He chooses a light white wine to accompany it.

As we finish our salads, Barbara brings us warm bread and Hawaiian lava salt sprinkled on softened butter.

"I feel like royalty," I whisper to the DNB. "It's so different from how we were treated at the winery." He nods.

Earlier in the day, we went to Chateaux St. Croix, a new winery north of St. Croix Falls. We stood at the tasting bar for a long while before we were greeted. The woman who finally helped us poured a sample and then disappeared. When we saw her again, she was eagerly filling the glasses of those near us, but never looked our way. Ageism, I thought, ready to walk out. We were the youngest at the tasting bar by far. Did they think we just wanted to get buzzed off their meager three free samples and then hit the road?

Justin reappears, filling our glasses again with a different wine. "For this course, we have a Hungarian scallop with smoked paprika, a broccoli puree and tomato salsa," he explains.

It is the most perfectly cooked scallop I have ever eaten, so tender I could cut it with my fork. Barbara moves to clear my plate before I have finished the broccoli puree and I nearly swat her hand away. The DNB sits with his eyes closed, savoring.

Our third course is a lobster penne with a cream sauce and truffle oil. I try to find words to describe how amazing the dish is. If I were a food critic, I would use adjectives like succulent and flavorful, comforting and slightly earthy. But I'm not.

Foie gras is our fourth course, served on pepper toast with a ribbon of fruit marmalade. We admit to Justin that we've never had it before. "How do I eat it?" I ask, wondering whether to pick up the toast with my fingers or cut it into bites.

"Whatever makes you comfortable," he tells me. "I don't mind if you lick it off the plate."

"Ah, I already did that with the lobster sauce," I confess. It's an exaggeration, but only just so.

I instruct the DNB that he is not to remind me what foie gras is until after I've finished it. I don't love it, but it's not the chef's fault. The marmalade balances the salty richness of the meat perfectly, and the cabernet he's selected adds just the right amount of spice.

"Goose liver," the DNB says, gauging my reaction. I take a long sip from my water glass, and try not to think about force-feeding. We decide we probably won't seek it out in the future.

Barbara clears our plates as Justin places a bowl in front of each of us. "My gift to you," he says. It is a fresh roasted corn soup with cilantro. I can smell the rosemary garnish on top. Sweet corn is summer, and the soup is heavenly.

Justin sits down with us to taste the merlot accompanying our final savory course: a blackened filet mignon with goronzola, served with potato gratin and green oil. He shows me how to properly swirl the wine in my glass and asks me about its nose. "I smell plum," he says, sniffing with his eyes closed.

I don't eat beef often, and the filet is too rare for me. But the DNB has found his nirvana in the tender cut. The merlot's velvety smoothness complements the peppery spice of the meat.

We pause to enjoy a glass of port wine, and soon a chocolate lava cake appears for dessert. It is surrounded by wild berries and a lightly sweet, custardy creme anglaise. The fresh figs should be a little more ripe, but the tiny champagne grapes make up for it. We are the first in the restaurant to taste them.

Justin stops by once more to thank us for coming and shake our hands again. Our bill is $110. We leave comfortably satiated, not overly full, and very, very happy.

As we drive back to the Cities, I finally find the words.

"Every once in a while, if you are lucky, you will enjoy a benchmark meal," I state, as St. Croix Falls disappears in the distance. "It is the standard against which all other meals will be compared. This is that standard."

The DNB nods solemnly. We continue the trip in silence.


dana said...

What a great experience-- I want to try some of those dishes!!

Anonymous said...

Must agree - Justin is doing wonderful things with the new place. If only you'd gone to Trade River Winery in Grantsburg, WI (20 miles north of St. Croix Falls, on Hwy 48) you would have had a better experience! Justin even carries some of their wines at the new Grecco's!