When I was younger and nastier, my friends and I teased a pal who had called to say he was enjoying his new job cooking for a brand-new bistro on the other side of the country. "It's small, but it serves food with integrity," he gushed. We all snickered for months: "I couldn't possibly stop by Burger King. It just lacks integrity." "Do you think that pizza had enough integrity or was there too much tomato sauce?"
A decade later, though, I'm still mulling over that word. Though it continues to sound pretentious, I realize that "integrity" has come to represent much of what I look for in a restaurant. Does the food satisfy both the mind and the belly? Is the chef throwing stuff together because it sounds hip or novel, or is she building dishes in which each ingredient is cared for and brought into sync with the others? Most of all, are the cooks cooking for themselves as well as for their customers?
The Purple Plum, Glenview's newest bistro, hits a lot of those marks. A month ago, Sharon Anderson and Sherrie Sparks opened the Purple Plum in the Park Boulevard space that Sophie's once occupied. They've packed the tables a little tighter, keeping patrons at close quarters with their fellow diners, but have redone the ceiling to absorb the extra noise. Otherwise the room looks much the same -- a high-ceilinged space with hardwood floors, subtle earth-toned walls, and a large, attractive bar and take-out counter in the front. Brobdingnagian vegetables -- gargantuan beets, chard leaves, purple plums -- have been painted on the walls at the front and back of the dining room.
Sparks and Anderson met as students at the California Culinary Academy and learned a thing or two about integrity from Bay Area stalwarts Chez Panisse (where Anderson interned) and Bay Wolf (where Sparks was assistant pastry chef). The pair share their responsibilities, though in general Sparks focuses on the desserts and the front of the house and Anderson runs the line.
Under the tagline "Californian soul kitchen" the pair are combining Californian freshness, clean flavors, and seasonality with the deep succulence of the food they grew up with -- Southern home cooking and African-American cuisine. And though they claim to be serving comfort food, the dishes I tasted were anything but milquetoast.
Winter arrived on the day of my first visit, and my wet, well-chilled friend and I needed a little comforting. After deliberating over the tiny, tiny menu -- three apps, four entrées, three sides, and three desserts -- we started with winter squash soup and mixed braised greens. Both were pitch-perfect: The squash soup, smelling faintly of nutmeg, brought out the squash's earthiness instead of its sugar, and the soup glided over our tongues like crème fraîche. Odes should be written about the turnip greens, mustard greens, collards, and kale braised with meaty bacon and acidic tomatoes. I've wanted greens like this for a long time: no clanging iron taste, no untoward bitterness, no gray mess straight from the steam-table.
I whimpered when our server appeared, whisked away the last two bites without asking, and brought out our entrées. The same thing happened on my next visit. It showed one of a couple green spots in the service, which is otherwise warm and familiar. Neighborhood restaurants depend on good service as well as good food, and Sparks and her crew spend a lot of time going from table to table, chatting with all the diners.
After taking off with the greens, our waiter returned with our entrées, praising them as she put them on our table -- she belonged to the "Oh, you'll love this!" school of serving, which I deplore when the food is mediocre. But her enthusiasm seemed genuine and, for the most part, merited.
My friend's vegetarian risotto with pumpkin, roasted red peppers, green beans, and roasted mushrooms had many fine points: a perfect creamy, thick texture and distinctly flavored ingredients. Made with a weak vegetable stock, though, the risotto needed something else to give it character. The beef short ribs had more than enough. The meat had been braised so long that it fell off the bone and came apart like cotton padding. Turnips, carrots, and Brussels sprouts all lent a wintry sweetness to counteract the beefy, decadent short-rib sauce. Everything had been spooned over a mound of grit-free creamed grits.
"Anybody can do mixed-green salad," our waiter had told me, so on visit two my friends and I took her advice and tried all the other sides and appetizers. While waiting for them to arrive, we snacked on the house-made breads -- moist, buttery cornbread and marshmallow-soft dinner rolls -- warmed in the oven.
The sides came in the same small white ceramic bowls that you get your black-eyed peas and candied yams in all over the South. Tender red beets were cooked until tender and then "pickled" in a mild, sweet vinaigrette with a little shallot. Orange cheddar tinted the elegantly creamy macaroni and cheese (no post-9/11 menu is without it); my companion, who styles herself the queen of mac 'n' cheese, loved the touch of garlic but thought the sauce slightly loose. I defer to her.
Our entrées showed off how seamless the combination of Southern and California cuisines could be. A quarter-inch-thin swordfish steak was topped with a chunky, tart green-olive tapenade that somehow tasted more muffaletta than Milano. It came with a pool of smoky black-eyed peas stewed with tomatoes. Like the braised greens, the peas had flavor so deep you could taste the soil they were grown in. Three solid pieces of classic fried chicken, soaked in buttermilk and then dredged in flour, looked great and tasted meaty, but the skin had not yet developed into a crackly crust -- perhaps the oil had cooled. Both the fried chicken and the swordfish also came with snappy, tart red chard sautéed with garlic and lemon until tender. A mound of cream-and-butter-filled mashed potatoes accompanied the fried chicken and a nightly special of meatloaf, the ne plus ultra of comfort food. Even better, the chefs had smooshed out a well in each dollop and filled it with honest-to-goodness gravy.
After such big meals, desserts were low on my priority list; I only managed to try a couple. Though we found our slice of Meyer lemon cake a little dry, it carried the specific, addictive scent of the Meyer lemons. It came with a scoop of vanilla-bean ice cream and a drizzle of lavender honey, so fragrant we could smell it from the spoon. The flavor of the not-too-sweet sweet-potato pie may have been dense and spicy, but its texture bespoke foamy beaten egg whites.
In a couple of weeks, Sparks and Anderson will start stocking the front counter with takeaway food such as roasted chickens, grain salads, and hoisin-glazed ribs. Other plans include lunch and a real Southern brunch on weekends. The Purple Plum may not yet be doing everything perfectly, but they're certainly doing it right.
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