Friday, August 15, 2008

Your gleaming wood bar

Once upon a time, in the small town of Hudson, Ohio, there was a restaurant. It was a very special restaurant, not just for its food and drink and ambiance (though those were extraordinary, too), but for its people -- owners, employees and patrons alike. It was like a second home, the place where we went to celebrate life's victories and mourn its defeats. It is hard to find a restaurant of such caliber, personality and meaning. But it is easy to wax nostalgic about it, especially now that it is gone.

This August marks one year since The Inn at Turner's Mill closed its doors. The Mill, as we called it, occupied a historic mill building in downtown Hudson and was owned by the same delightful family from its opening in 1989 to its last hurrah in 2007. My family and friends went there when we were happy, we went there when we were sad. We went there on grand occasions, we went there on ordinary Tuesday nights. We went there after one of the family dogs passed away, to drown our tears in vodka and wine. We went there on September 11, as it was the only place that felt safe on that uncertain, terrifying day. We went there the night before Sister's wedding. Eight years later, we celebrated my rehearsal dinner there the night before I married Husband; I felt like I was welcoming friends and family from all over the country into my living room when they joined us in the bar that evening. Mom and I smoked cigars there while a brilliant trio played deep into the night. When Hudson suffered a 100-year flood in July 2003, which filled the lower tavern to the chandeliers with water, we patronized the Mill's temporary "bar" on the upstairs patio until the tavern could be rebuilt. We took friends there; we made friends there. Two tables at my wedding were filled with Mill patrons and employees. When the owners announced they were closing the restaurant, I went there each and every night until the doors were locked for good. It was the least I could do: I had to see the place out in style.

Shortly before the Mill closed last year, I wrote the following:

I am a freaking surly, emotional mess of late. I have been since August 7. The reason: my favorite bar/restaurant is closing. And before you go thinking it's like my neighborhood Applebee's is shuttering, let me explain.

Though it is not mine, it is "mine." It is "ours," mine and a spirited group of regulars' who could drink Norm, Cliff, Frasier and the whole damn Boston lot of them under the table any day. To say that my family has been patronizing this establishment regularly is putting it simply; more accurately, my family has chosen its hallowed, cozy, comfortable walls before, say, any number of substantial purchases and/or retirement plans that might have been realized in the absence of such a wonderful place.The Inn at Turner's Mill, we will miss you so.

We will miss your warm, dark, welcoming glow. Your gleaming wood bar, and your deep, rich sandstone walls. Your 150-year-old construction, your shining and spotless hurricanes (how did the servers avoid fingerprints on those globes all these years?). Your port-in-a-storm hospitality. And your staff. Good lord, your staff. Who catered to our every whim, even when we must (surely!) have been drunk and perhaps moody. Many of you have become friends, good friends, the type of friends who won't disappear once the doors are locked for good. My father has said it best: there will never be another place that is as comfortable as the Mill.

During the past week and a half, I have had my own Kubler-Ross stages-of-grief situation:

Denial. I received the call that the Mill was closing from my father, while standing in the check-out line at a local store. I was in such disbelief, the cashier had to ask me if everything was OK. I immediately drove over to the restaurant, in the hopes of learning the rumor wasn't true. It was.

Anger. Ask my co-workers. And my husband. I have not been a pleasant occupant of space recently. Favorite bartender Chris, who has admirably commanded the Mill's bar for many years, might be in his own anger stage right now, as last Friday he looked me in the eye and, flying in the face of the Mill's strict no-facial-hair policy, stated, "Know what starts today? MY GOATEE." A round of anger, on the house.

Bargaining. "I promise to come here every night if you'll only stay open." Four nights a week wasn't enough; but I swear, I will take one for the team. Alas, I could eat lobster at market prices each Monday through Saturday, topped off by several glasses of Louis XIV, and I still would not be able to keep the doors open. The owner is ready to close. And that is that.

Depression. When I got home from work yesterday, I was stricken by a sort of unwarranted malaise. Husband: "What's wrong?" Me: "I don't know. The Mill is closing. I want to take a nap." At the risk of offending those who have lost loved ones recently, or even not-so-recently, I sort of feel like there has been a death in the family. I might need that medication that, if you were represented by a frowny oval caricature, would make you into a smiley oval caricature.

Acceptance. We were all at the Mill tonight, including my five- and two-year-old nephews, who love it there because of the fun service they get from favorite bartender Chris. The owner's mother walked over to say hello and my older nephew looked at her and said, "This place is turning into something else." My tears started flowing, but he had said it all. Last week, he wouldn't admit it was closing. He kept asking, "But when will it open again?" I think he gets it now, and so do I.

A year later, the Mill's beloved employees and colorful cast of patrons have moved on to other restaurants and bars, but nothing quite fills the old haunt's shoes. Dad was right: nowhere else feels quite as comfortable.

Though I remember the Mill so fondly for its people, the food was worth celebrating as well. The menu changed with the seasons; every three months I looked forward to new dishes lovingly created using fresh ingredients, some even grown on site in the restaurant's small garden. During the waning months of the Mill's existence, there was a pasta dish on the tavern menu that I ordered with great frequency. It seemed to go well with cosmopolitans.

Cavatappi with chicken, fresh mozzarella, radicchio and a hint of pesto. I believe the original dish had shrimp, but seeing as how I have never been a shrimp fan, Bartender Chris always subbed chicken for me. Because he is Chris O'MotherfuckingHare, and he bends over backwards to provide good service. (Quite literally: he used to juggle lemons for my nephews when they would come into the restaurant.) Those last few weeks that the Mill was open, I subsisted on this pasta along with the aforementioned cosmopolitans and the occasional tasty shot. Come to think of it, this pasta is most likely the reason I did not keel over during that period of time; in addition to being delicious, this cavatappi creation soaks up liquor admirably. Which is not necessarily a high-priority characteristic that I look for in good food, but is a property that comes in rather handy when one's favorite restaurant is closing and one's alcohol consumption skyrockets as a result. I'm just saying.

I realize that most of you do not have such a strong personal connection to The Inn at Turner's Mill. Even so, give this pasta dish a shot. Whether you are happy, sad, drinking, teetotalling, whatever, it is a wonderfully hearty late-summer meal. And if you're in a hurry, you don't have to make the pesto from scratch (though I'd recommend it). This dish would be just fine with a quality store-bought pesto. The pleasing sharpness of the radicchio is just right with the creamy and subtle sweetness of the fresh mozzarella -- and the smoky edge of the grilled chicken is a marvelous foil to the herb-y, garden-y basil pesto. And it all would have gone better with a side order of Turner's Mill but can't always get what you want. At least not after August 18, 2007.


Adapted from The Inn at Turner's Mill's recipe, originally developed by executive chef Michael Fiala

This recipe is especially quick and easy if you've made the pesto ahead of time. You can even grill the chicken beforehand, then warm it through before adding it to the final dish.

For the chicken:

2 boneless skinless chicken breasts

1/4 c. olive oil

1 t. kosher salt

1/2 t. freshly-cracked black pepper

1 t. fresh rosemary, chopped

For the pasta:

1 t. olive oil

2 small or 1 medium head(s) of radicchio, sliced

Pinch kosher salt

Pinch freshly-cracked black pepper

1 lb. cavatappi

2/3 c. pesto

6 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese

Grated Pecorino cheese, to taste

Prepare the chicken. Place the chicken breasts on a plate or in a shallow bowl and coat both sides evenly with the olive oil, salt, pepper and rosemary. Let the chicken marinate for about 20 minutes, then cook the chicken on a grill or in a grill pan until the internal temperature registers at 161 degrees Fahrenheit. Don't be afraid to get a little char and golden brown color on the chicken; it adds a wonderful smokiness to the dish. When the chicken is cooked, remove from the grill and set aside.

Place a large pot of salted water over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. While you wait for the water to boil, place 1 t. olive oil, the sliced radicchio, salt and pepper in a medium skillet and sauté briefly for 4-5 minutes. You want to wilt the radicchio slightly but allow it to retain some of its lovely purple color and crunch. Remove from heat and place in a large serving bowl.

Chop the chicken into bite-sized pieces and add to the serving bowl.

Cook the pasta to al dente according to the package instructions. When the pasta is cooked, remove it from the water using a spider or a wire-mesh sieve, reserving the starchy cooking liquid. Place the cooked pasta in the serving bowl, then add the pesto, fresh mozzarella and stir well. Add about 1/4 c. of the starchy cooking liquid to the serving bowl to loosen the pesto and create a creamy sauce. (You may need to add a bit more water depending on the consistency of the pesto.)

Garnish with grated Pecorino and serve immediately.

Serves 4. Or, maybe just 2 if you're both drinking and excessively hungry.


Living on the Spit said...

That's so sad. I have had a few tried and true establishments close where I live as well, and it just breaks my heart. D--- Economy. Thanks for sharinf the recipe, it looks really yummy.

Dianne said...

Thank you so much for the comment!

We really do miss the Mill -- it seems that you can sympathize! I am especially melancholy about it this week because I have some dear friends visiting from Australia and I always wanted to take them to the Mill. It is the only establishment that would have welcomed them as if they were family! Alas....

Thanks again for reading!