By Ed Staskus
“It is a hard matter to argue with the belly, since it has no ears.” Marcus Cato the Elder
For the past fifty-or-so years restaurants have been rated on the star system by magazines and newspapers. One star means the spot is good, two stars means very good, three is excellent, and four is extraordinary. No stars means you’re on the spot. It’s either tasteless or you’ll be gagging behind the eight ball if you go.
There are some restaurants, standing inside the door, waiting for a table, you get a gut reaction, and it’s best to slowly back out of the place. It doesn’t matter if your name is on the reservation list. Tell the hostess it was a mistake.
“No one likes one–star reviews,” said Peter Wells, restaurant critic for The New York Times. “The restaurants don’t like them, and the readers don’t like them. It’s very tricky to explain why this place is good enough to deserve a review but not quite good enough to get up to the next level.”
Liquids and Solids at the Handlebar is a neck of the woods gastropub slightly off the beaten path, across from Lamb Lumber, in Lake Placid, New York. It doesn’t have the one or two-star problem. With Liquids and Solids it’s love or loathing, feast or famine, no stars or four stars.
“The joint skips the rustic pretentious vibes and serves unforgettable upscale drink and plates in a comfy atmosphere,” Nara Shin wrote recently in ‘Cool Running’.
They don’t take reservations. They describe themselves as “cooking and drink making how we want.” Originality is independence. It doesn’t matter that you have to set aside some of the tried-and-true. Most first-rate stuff is the fruit of originality, anyway.
Frank and Vera Glass, who live in Lakewood, Ohio, walked into the eatery on the corner of Station Street and Route 73 on a Thursday night in late June. It was hopping crowded lively, lots of talking, little of it for the sake of anybody else’s table. Besides, there was food and drink on the tables to pay attention to.
Summer was a week in and it was summertime in the north, a breeze in the windows. Mr. and Mrs. Glass were on a road trip and had stopped in Lake Placid to have dinner at Liquids and Solids.
“We’ve eaten here nine or ten times,” said Frank Glass. “We like it.”
“I never noticed this, it looks like they take their old menus, tear them in half, and put the meats and cheeses on what was the blank backside,” said Vera Glass, seated at a round table in the middle of the restaurant.
“Waste not, want not,” said Frank.
The menus are printed on a 2007-era Kyocera. “It prints the daily menus at a not so top speed, jams pretty fast, sensitive to overheating, traded a guy named Bill a meal for her,” said Tim Loomis, chef and co-owner.
“Best printer we’ve ever had.”
The meats, from the Kreature Butcher Shop next door, included Fennel Kolbasz, Andouille, and Corned Tongue. The cheeses included Dutch Knuckle “fruity and nutty” from the Sugar House Creamery in nearby Upper Jay and a feta “goat’s milk aged 8 months” from Asgaard Dairy in nearby Ausable.
Liquids and Solids is the brainchild, labor of love, and walk of life of Tim Loomis and Keegan Konkoski, the bartender, native Adirondack restaurateurs. “He got the action, he got the motion,” Dire Straights sang when the two were tykes. “Dedication, devotion, do the walk of life.” Getting the hang of going is in the going.
The restaurant seats maybe sixty, seventy diners and the bar seats maybe a dozen. There are no flat-screens, no pump up the volume, and nobody performs any tricks at your table.
“How’s it going, guys?” asked the server walking up to Frank and Vera’s table. “I remember you, you ate outside last fall.”
“We did,” said Frank, “It’s Mel, right?”
“Close, it’s Raquel. Do you want to start with a beverage?”
“Do you like IPA’s? The Gone Away is fantastic.”
“I’ll take that.”
Vera asked about the Maple and Spice.
“It’s a bourbon, a little spicy, high-end peppers,” said Raquel. “Keegan got the idea for it from a detox, like a cleanse, not that it’s going to cleanse you, but the combination came from that in mind. The apple and lemon juices level it out. The nice thing is it comes in two sizes, a small and a 19 ounce.”
“I’ll take the small one,” said Vera. “That way I can try something else later.”
“What do you like about bourbon?” asked Frank.
“Kentucky punch, it’s refreshing,” said Vera.
Food writers are anyone and everyone who writes about food and restaurants. Some of them prowl noodle shops, like Ruth Reichi does, handing out two and three stars. Others, like Jonathan Gold, win Pulitzer Prizes. There are more than 2 million blogs about food.
Food journalists reviewers critics are expected to be honest, understand both specific dishes and cuisine, as well as be able to look beyond the food to capture the whole of a restaurant, from sandwich shops to swanky supper clubs.
“We have a funny relationship with critics,” said NYC chef Wylie Dufresne. “Regardless of how well we prepare the food, if people don’t know that we’re out there, if someone isn’t talking about us, you guys aren’t coming.”
Sometimes, though, asking a critic to name their cream of the crop restaurant is like asking a butcher to name their favorite cow. It is problematic at best. Our dependence on food is vital, a matter of existence, but our tie-ins to food are intimate, existential.
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” said Virginia Wolff
Nobody needs a critic to find out where good food is. Just go there and try it for yourself. But, since the aughts, with the rise of Zagat, Yelp, and TripAdvisor, everyone’s a critic. Good criticism melds good judgment with a nub of good, old-fashioned crankiness. If you don’t like it, fair enough. But, there’s a difference between judgmental sideswipes and a write-up or write-down, whatever the case may be.
“The arrogant pretentiousness of the mixologist was unbelievable. Part-owner, if she smiled just once, she might even be pretty,” a Virginia diner wrote about Liquids and Solids.
“The short ribs were tough, fatty, and without flavor, the worse short ribs I’ve ever had. I’m 100% sure the chefs bring in and cook whatever animal they killed with their car that morning,” a downstate New York diner wrote about Liquids and Solids.
“Motivated by my dead taste buds and general anger, I am writing as a warning to others about possibly the WORST restaurant I have ever set foot in. My octopus had the consistency of a rubber boot,” a Canadian diner wrote, after rushing back to safety over the border.
It begs the question, however, why the diner was cognizant of the taste of a rubber boot in the first place.
If things don’t work out for DJ Trump in the court of public opinion, maybe he can take his talents to the food court, putting them to work yowling on Yelp.
Unlike reviews of books, music, and movies, reviews of restaurants serve a pragmatic purpose. They alert us to things like cleanliness and food poisoning. Food poisoning is one thing, pointing to a clear danger, but social media poison is another thing, like dirty dishwater.
Imagination, ingenuity, and invention aren’t for everyone, especially not in the food court. Creativity only works when you make mistakes along the way. Who wants to eat a swing and a miss? On the other hand, who doesn’t want to eat a home run?
“They warn you when you first walk in the menu is not for the weak of stomach. I had blood sausage, pureed sweet potato, and some other stuff on a croissant. It was delicious!” wrote a diner from New Jersey.
“The menu changes daily so it’s inevitable they’ll churn out some misses along with their hits. I got beef tartare with cured egg yolk, pickled onions, patty pans, scallions, bacon vin, jalapenos, and potato chips There was a lot going on. Risk-taking, but really yummy,” wrote a diner from New York City.
“The tempura asparagus buns were playful and dangerously addictive, the gnocchi and spaghetti squash layered with a ton of intricate flavors. Excellent service, attentive,” wrote a diner from Massachusetts.
The sound of someone tooting your horn is the sweetest of all sounds. The sound of someone’s two cents’ worth, however, when they’re panning you, can be hard to take.
There are many ways of taking criticism. In the heat of the moment many people get mad and defensive. Some don’t lose their balance, listening to what the critic is saying, taking it like a champ. Others simply admit their mistake and hope for the best. Sometimes you just have to shrug it off. The best restaurateurs take a slice of humble pie, swallow their pride, and try harder, or not, since they are already trying their hardest.
Ordering dinner at Liquids and Solids is simple. It’s all on one side of the paper menu and everything is in black and white. The Ramen plate, for example, is particularized as being made of fried chicken feet, scallions, mustard greens, miso broth, and minute egg.
The sides are called Smalls and the entrees are called Larger.
“Are you ready to go to the next step?” asked Raquel. Waiting tables means being the kind of person who doesn’t get lost on subways.
“Is the Caesar salad still a Caesar salad?” asked Frank.
“It’s a little bit of a play on it, and there are potatoes,” said Raquel. “The old Caesar isn’t on the menu anymore.“
“To keep it alive, it needs to have somebody in there inventing,” Peter Wells has said about chefs and their kitchens.
“OK, we’ll grab that, with two fried eggs on top,” said Frank. It’s a buck an egg extra at Liquids and Solids.
“How about the poutine, we can share that, too” said Vera.
“They’re a little different tonight,” said Raquel.
Poutine is a Quebecois dish, French fries and cheese curds topped with light brown meat gravy, usually served in greasy spoon casse-croutes and roadside chip wagons. French-Canadians say poutine won’t cheat on you, won’t betray you, won’t fight you.
“Poutine gravy is traditionally beef, but this one’s a veggie base, broccoli. It’s a little bit of a lighter poutine.”
“It doesn’t sound like the Meatatarian, but let’s try it,” said Frank.
“How are the smoked grits and shrimp?” asked Vera.
“Southern style, everybody’s lovin’ it tonight.”
“The fried pig head?” asked Frank.
“What they’re doing is they’re cooking the pig head down and pulling all the meat off of it, then balling it, breading it, deep-frying it, and it comes with polenta, cheddar, apples, maple vinaigrette.”
“As long as we don’t see the head,” said Vera.
When restaurants lose the make-it-or-break-it intensity that made them famous in the first place, no matter how crazy much they charge for their plates after that, they become just famous and meaningless. Liquids and Solids is more along the lines of super-excellent than famous.
People go to good restaurants to eat good food and have a good time. Eating bad food in some hash house would put anyone in a bad mood. Everybody’s got to eat. You might as well have an A-1 crack at it.
The good times that roll off the food line at Liquids and Solids kitchen are the doing of Tim Loomis. “Tim rocks,” said the waitstaff on their Facebook page. “Thanks for tossin’ that food on the plate and makin’ it taste and look all sexy like.”
The good times that spill out of the craft beer and specialty cocktail bar at Liquids and Solids are the doing of Keegan Konkoski. Last year for the second year in a row she was named mixologist of the year in Best of the Adirondacks 2015.
She mixes it up even when she’s not mixing drinks. “First day of fall, see ya tomorrow,” said Keegan on the first day of fall. “Off biking. This day should be a holiday!”
“How are you guys digging the poutine?” asked Raquel.
“You can taste the potatoes more, like the broccoli moistens it,” said Vera. “Are there any herbs in there? Am I tasting thyme?”
“I’m not 100% sure. I’ll have to ask.”
Broccoli is one of the world’s healthiest foods. Many children, however, vow that when they grow up they are going to uninvent it. “I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it,” said George H. W. Bush soon after being elected. “I’m President of the United States now and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli.”
Liquids and Solids doesn’t necessarily try to reinvent the wheel, just realign the wheels, starting with plain old broccoli.
“They said no herbs, just different kinds of broccoli,” said Raquel.
“Who dreams this food up?” asked Frank.
“Why change the tried and true?”
“Who knows what goes on in his head? Try to figure that out, you’ll be here all day.”
“What’s that oily peppery taste?”
“That’s actually simple. They did a rue, flour and butter, cooked it down with onions, and salt and peppered it.”
“It wasn’t thick, it wasn’t all ruey,” said Vera.
“They cooked it down enough that the cool tastes come out,” said Raquel.
“Why can’t Tim do a Caesar salad that you can count on and just fork up?” asked Frank.
“I think he put it on the menu in the first place for people who struggled to find something on our menu. It’s everybody’s go-to. People like to order what they know.”
All food is comfort food for somebody. Caesar salad, no matter where you are, is a standby. You can always rely on it. Except when you can’t.
“Why does Tim do anything? There’s always a reason. Until a month ago he was doing kale and mustard greens because there was an abundance of it on the farm.”
Halfway through dinner a fresh cocktail, a #1, and another pint of beer came to the table.
“Cheers” said Raquel.
“This is different than the Gone Away, but still grapefruity,” said Frank.
“It’s not an IPA, but it’s got a little funk to it” said Raquel. “It’s brewed with wild yeast cultures, in Allagash, Maine.”
“That sounds Turkish.”
“It doesn’t sound American.”
“Did Turks go to Maine, found Allagash, and make beer there?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
Liquids and Solids closes at 10 PM. By then the dining room was almost empty. Half a dozen people sat at the bar, two of them with plates of poutine.
“Don’t leave that bite on the plate,“ Vera said, glancing at Frank’s plate.
“Let them eat pig’s head!” said Frank.
In the bowels of some restaurants, whenever a food critic is spied walking in, the kitchen goes into overdrive. Everything else takes a back seat. Whatever the critic orders might be prepared and plated two three four times to make the order absolutely unconditionally no ifs ands or buts great.
At Liquids and Solids everything is prepared and plated once, because everyone’s a critic.
“How was everything?” asked Keegan Konkoski as Frank and Vera Glass passed the bar on their way out.
“Good, thanks,” said Frank.
“I had the #1,” said Vera.
The #1 is a whiskey, whistle pig, st. germaine, suze bitters, cherrys, cran-molasses mix, and falernum.
“You had the #1?”
“Yes, I did.”
Vera Glass walked out of Liquids and Solids at the Handlebar with a happy full belly and big smile pasted on her face. There’s nothing like tasty sincere food, a sincerely serious drink, and a sincere tip of the hat to make one’s day.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.