Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Unintentionally Retro

The Copper Kettle
1005 South Main Street
River Falls, Wisconsin

There are two kinds of retro restaurants in my experience of the world: the self-consciously and intentionally retro, which is to restaurant dining as the PT Cruiser is to driving; and the unintentionally retro, which is more akin to a white '65 Impala with red tucaroles. The Copper Kettle is definitely in the latter category.

The place looks, at first impression, thoroughly up to date. Then you notice that you enter, not next to the bar, but through it. The dining room is off to the side, and the patio is beyond. We opted for the patio, it being a fine late-Spring evening in western Wisconsin. (We probably would have picked the patio back home, too, but we would have sweated through the evening as the temperature grudgingly gave back that third digit.) Out there we found a plastic dog guarding plastic roses and plastic tulips, all unabashedly placed as though fashionable, and with no sense of irony.

We had to start with an order of fried cheese curds, just because my friend Rick, who is on his maiden voyage to the midwest, wasn't sure he should believe us when we said there was such a thing. He was unimpressed: snobbishly so, I would say, and I put his dismissive attitude down to a lack of timely medication. The cheese curds were nicely done. Yes, they are somewhat reminiscent of fried mozzarella, just as an old Karmann Ghia convertible could be considered reminiscent of a Jaguar E-Type -- they're both European and only nominally 4-seaters, and both were available with steering wheels and gear shifters. I, who have at least had a few cheese curds in my life, the recent parts of it anyway, consider these tasty little beer-battered morsels to be well above average in the cheese-curd universe. But then, everything tastes good fried, right?

We ordered drinks all around, something we don't normally do back home. They were delivered by our waitress in good time, precariously balanced on a tray in a manner that set the mood for the evening. By the time we left we were on our way to a close friendship with this child of exile who claims unconvincingly that she can, in fact, remember the '70s. (Not because she was spaced out during those years, but because she was too young, if she was alive at all. You don't have to clarify that for any other decade in human history, except possibly the '60s.)

Our choices for dinner started with onion soup and house salad; roast beef with mashed potatoes; a Reuben sandwich with fries; and the chicken Kiev, a dish I have not seen on a menu since the 1970s.

The onion soup was unusual, in that it was made with a light broth instead of the de rigueur dark beef broth. The onions weren't carmelized, and the cheese sprinkled (sprinkled!) on top was either mozzarella or a travesty of Swiss. It was a thoroughly unauthentic concoction, and the greatest failing of the evening, but even at that it was enjoyable. The salad was perfectly ordinary, not quite as fresh as it could have been.

The Reuben sandwich was well made: plentiful corned beef and a goodly serving of sauerkraut on a superior quality pumpernickel bread, but presented as though no one in the kitchen has ever given the least thought to making a plate attractive. It was just put on the plate with a pile of fries and served, artlessly. Well, that's okay, I guess, but how easy would it have been to make it look more attractive? Extremely easy, as my friend Rick demonstrated before eating. A little presentation doesn't hurt, and it doesn't have to be fru-fru (the opinion of too many chefs notwithstanding; it's the student-loan debt talking, with them). The fries, by the way, were pretty good, although completely unsalted; cut medium-thick, with the skins, and fried the right amount of time in new oil at the proper temperature.

The pot roast was plentiful, and made just like most people's grandmothers would have done it. The mashed potatoes were made with the skin left on, and seasoned with garlic. Made with butter and milk and left slightly lumpy, so you know it's not fake mashed potatoes, and not made with a food processor. The meat required no knife; it yielded at the mere sight of a fork waved purposefully at it. And there was almost too much of it, despite the extremely reasonable price.

The chicken Kiev, that classic dish of the 1970s, was served as though it was still 1978. I suspect that the chicken breast was rolled around the seasoned butter in some distant food-processing factory, not the Copper Kettle's kitchen: it was simply too perfectly formed to be made in house. The batter on it was underseasoned and had the gritty quality of dry corn meal. In addition to being stuffed with butter, the dish was laid in a bed of butter and topped with a butter sauce. I haven't seen that much butter all in one place since Dr Atkins made his debut. It was, of course, delicious. I only hope my cardiologist doesn't read this.

What better way to top off a trip back in time than to order drinks that haven't been ordered since Styx broke up? A Colorado bulldog for Rick, a Golden Cadillac for me. Mine was all vanilla ice cream and no discernible liqueurs; Rick was happier with his. (He is out on the front porch now, still being happy.)

On the way out, the plastic dog bit me. I kicked him, but he didn't yelp. Stoic, he is.

[Since I'm writing this post on someone else's computer, I don't have access to my usual graphic for ratings. I will give this restaurant three chili peppers for the food, four for the service, three for the ambience, and three and a half for value. What's that mean? All in all, it was a pleasant experience, and I would be comfortable recommending the place to anyone looking for a meal in western Wisconsin.]
Copper Kettle on Urbanspoon

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