Thursday, March 12, 2015

Old Standard

1621 Tower Grove Ave.
St. Louis, Mo.

The Story:
I was supposed to meet up with a clutch of ladies from the Missouri Women Bloggers group.
Supposed to.
About five or six of us had RSVP'd the invite.
I mapped the destination into my VW's hand-me-down Tom-Tom GPS machine. It got me there just fine. Too early. I spotted the eatery at 6 P.M.
I had an hour to kill. No problem I had a bottle of water, a good book and there was the vast and tidy Tower Grove Park, just a few blocks away. This day was the first real Spring-like day of the year, with the temperature finally hovering around sixty eight degrees.
In the park there were cyclists cycling, proud parents pushing strollers, runners running, dog walkers walking, the dogs stressing the leashes, eager to frolic. I Found an out of the way bench near a bright red and white striped-roof pavilion. The pavilions in the park date back, along with the many tall columns and statues, as far back as the 1870's, when the park first opened. It truly is a grand thing.
At about 6:20 my personal cellular flip phone started stirring and fidgeting in my pocket. The message, apparently sent to others in the group as well, asked if we were headed to the restaurant. I replied with a 'yup' and went back to my book. (A translated Norwegian crime thriller) My plan was to arrive at the restaurant about fifteen minutes early.
As the time approached I closed the book and drove the few short blocks back to the eatery.
I found a tight parking spot in the back, peeked into the open front of the building and saw no one that I knew. Not unusual. I'd only met the ladies once before and I have about the worlds worst facial recognition software in my brain. Yeah, I'm one of those people that simply cannot remember faces well. Probably due to my highly introvert-ish lifestyle, which includes as a major component, avoidance of eye contact.
A young lady blocked my entrance to the building. Someone in authority, obviously. "May I help you sir?" She asked.
I said I was there to join a group of ladies, which didn't seem to narrow it down much for her. I mentioned our meet-up coordinator's name. That seemed to help.
She stepped aside and pointed near the back, to a lone lady, who looked vaguely familiar, at a table space large enough to hold five or six people.
I walked toward her, hoping she would look up and show some sign of recognition. She did.
We sat and exchanged trite pleasantries. Then she said "I've ordered my meal to go."
I was confused, were we going on a picnic? 
"I got here just before six and waited, no one else ever showed up." She added. I looked at my watch, confused again, it was not quite seven.
She must have noticed my befuddlement, which meant she was much better at facial stuff than I've ever been.
"It was supposed to start at six." She said.
I felt pretty silly. I explained that I'd spent quite awhile making sure I could find the place, but had not revisited the initial invite itself and somehow had just solidly assumed that it was to start at seven.
She seemed okay with that, more frustrated that no one else had even replied to her message.
A server stopped by, I asked for tea. We explained that we weren't sure if the others would be joining us.
Her food sack arrived, She apologized and left, she'd already told her husband that she'd be bringing some home.
I was alone at a big table with a nice glass of tea and a menu in front of me. What to do.
Impromptu review. It was the obvious thing.
I'd brought my electronic tablet with me, along with some paper and a pen, I was ready.
The Place:
As pointed out earlier, this is a part of town that dates back to the mid-1800's, if not earlier. Many of the old
buildings have been maintained and re-purposed. There's a lot of old brick shotgun houses and storefronts. Old Standard's building was originally a stable for carriage horses. If I heard the waiter explain it to the couple at the next table correctly, it had also been a service station, a machine shop, etc. It'd had many lives.
The front bar area had the exposed slightly arching rafters you'd expect in an urban stable. The back dining area was more squared off. The stable section was exposed and white-washed brick, the dining area identically painted concrete block. The floor throughout was bare, unpainted concrete.
All the tables were wood, not painted to look retro-rustic. Rather than give it an antique appearance though, it looked a bit hipster.
The small space was pretty full and because of the acoustic nature of bare concrete, brick and high ceilings, it was also pretty loud. 
Sort of a cool, quirky place. Not bad at all.
In the back dining area, longer than wide, there was bench seating along the divider wall and wooden chairs opposite in the aisle. It was a tight fit for a large number of patrons, not a lot of elbow room. Cozy.
I was left there at the large table feeling even more awkward than I usually do. 
So when the waiter apologized profusely as he asked me if I would mind moving to a smaller table so they could accommodate a walk-in group, I was not put off by it, I was actually relieved. He moved me to a two
top in the very back. I bumped my head twice on the suspended light bulb hanging from the ceiling.
It was back there, next to the kitchen entry, that I encountered my first displeasure.
An aroma swept through the room, just for a moment, but it curled my gut. I should have known or expected it, they were cooking down some greens. Though the aroma eventually passed through, an essence of it remained in my smell-memory. A few more times during the evening I be assaulted again by the preparation of a new order of the vile stuff.
I grew up in the south, I am quite familiar with southern comfort food. I love fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, black eyed peas, blackberry cobbler, apple pie, barbecue and even burgoo (look it up).
I grew up sharing meals with my ancient grandmother, one of the worst cooks to ever come out of the proud southern tradition. There was not a dish that she did not over-boil or scorch. Aromas, more correctly, odors, wafted through our small shared house nearly every day. Gagging, putrid smells would linger for hours, forcing us to play outdoors routinely, where the air was only fouled with rotting roadkill and untidy outhouses.
Grandma would grab a small knife, go back behind the sagging garage and chop whatever wild 'green' was growing there, then chop it up and boil it down to its molecular framework on her stove. How did it taste, you ask? 
Ha! I have no idea! I could never stand to get close enough to it to put any of the sloppy, slimy stuff in my mouth.
So greens are not a great smell-memory for me. I do not equate that odor with any sort of 'comfort'.
The Food:
This was the easy part. They pretty much only make fried chicken and sides. The only decision was which sides and how many and which chicken parts. Unlike at many chicken places, you can specify exactly which parts you prefer. If you know me, you already know I prefer dark meat.
You would also know I'm not a breast man. Angel certainly knows this. I'm a leg and thigh man. I like the lower parts, more muscle matter, more natural taste.
The reason so many things in the universe 'taste like chicken' is that refers to the the dull chicken breast, which is almost devoid of any definable or unique flavor. A generic meat taste and texture, similar to tofu, that works best only when soaked or dipped in something. Wings have a bit more muscle tissue, but not much since we've bred poultry for bigger breasts making their already weak wings pretty much unused. Plus, wings are a lot of trouble for the paltry amount of meat they hold.
So give me the thighs and legs.
I ordered one thigh, one leg and a side of slaw. That order, the '$10 Deal' came with a biscuit. Or so the menu said.
It lied.
The wait was longer than I had anticipated or wanted. I was a long way from home, alone, with only my tablet and the eatery's waitress-obtained WiFi password with which to fill the time. Not much going on in social media, no new emails, nothing popped to mind to browse and I don't have any games on the tablet. I'd purged those a long time ago. So I took photos of the tea, the menu, the dangling light bulb which was still swaying from its last smack of my forehead.
I hadn't tracked the time, fifteen, twenty minutes, maybe more. I had assumed they had a bunch of chicken piled up in a steamer tray in the back and slaw certainly wasn't made to order.
I finally decided that they had taken my order and only then started the frying process. Nothing else I could fathom, short of criminal sloth, could fill that gap. During that time, two or three more vile, nasal assaults took place.
The food finally arrived on some rustic tray. Immediately I worried about the bird gams. Very, very dark breading. 
Old Standard double dredges and then pressure-fries their 'famous' chicken, not unlike how the Colonel makes his. This is a tricky way to do things. When you pan-fry chicken, it takes longer, but you know when to stop cooking it. In a pressure pot you have to seal up the whole deal to maintain the 15 PSI of searing steam generated. You can't see it until you stop cooking it, gradually reduce the pressure, during which the chicken continues to cook, then finally and carefully open the lid. This is fine for a roast or other naked meat, but with more fragile and fickle bread crumb coatings, difficult too maintain consistency from batch to batch. A lot of variables at play that don't really apply to a tong-equipped mom standing over an open skillet. Thus, overcooking is a real risk.
Hopefully the outer shell will have protected the inner meat. And I do mean shell. The crust was the color of overcooked toast and pretty dried out.
The cornbread substitution surprised me, pleasantly. Cornbread is about my all time favorite bread. My dad made it the way his mother, my other grandmother, had shown him. Usually it was pan fried and pancake shaped. No need for fancy pans, just a skillet, some grease (his mom used lard) some batter and a skillet.
Southern style cornbread is not very sweet, its more earthy, relying on the very mild sweetness of the corn meal itself. City folks and big restaurant chins usually add sugar, or honey, or something, to sweeten it up considerably. I usually don't mind it though. This would be a good test of what statement Old Standard was trying to make. Was it going for a traditional plate or were they trying to impress the more upscale locals.
The slaw answered the question before I even had a bite of anything on my tongue.
This was not either of my  grandmas' coleslaw. Finely shredded cabbage swirls, a sprinkling of whole kernel corn and something curly and orange, not carrots, that firmness could not curl that tight. Peppers maybe? There was also no mayo in the mix. This was going to be a vinegar based offering. The stuff looked moist, but shiny, not creamy or milky.
I prefer the creamy kind. They were not traditionalists here. They were definitely fishing for a more
'sophisticated' palate. 
I went ahead and tried the slaw. Yup, vinegar. The little orange curls were more pickled. Pickled peppers? Who does that? I wouldn't be finishing it.
I had noticed when the food was served that though there was cornbread, there was no butter offered to fix it up properly. The server responded to my mention and returned to the table with a condiment-wrappered packet containing enough butter to grease a while pig. I needed about a teaspoon but was given ten times that.
She did show off the two unmarked squeeze bottles of house made sauce, one sauce white and creamy, the other the color of highway safety cones. She explained the white one, using the words 'honey', 'yogurt', then something else. I had stopped listening at 'yogurt' "It's great on the chicken." She claimed. I would taste it and see for myself, expectations, low. I knew what the bright orange stuff was, hot wing sauce. No thanks.
I scooped out some of the soft butter and split open the disappointingly cold cornbread wedge. Good thing the butter was soft because there certainly no BTU's left in the bread to melt it. Optimistically I tried it ahead of nearly everything else. I knew the chicken needed a minute to cool since I'd cracked open the crust on both pieces. Tightly sealed fried chicken holds in all that searing steam for a while.
Well, hell. Sweet. Too sweet, sweeter than Jiffy Muffin mix sweet. Almost dessert-sweet. No earthy, subtle cornmeal taste to be detected. Disappointing. 
Time for the real test. How badly was the breading overcooked?
It wasn't awful. There was a crispiness there, not quite the texture of old linoleum. Harder than the Colonel's, to be sure. It had a slight, but not over-powering burnt toast taste. I peeled off most of the breading and pushed it aside. 
The chicken thigh and leg meat was cooked perfectly. Still very moist, cooked through, but not too much. The outer shell had sealed in some seasoning, the pressure pot squeezed it into the meat. Not a strong or distinct seasoning, no single note rang out, but better than non-seasoned meat.
I finished all of the meat, a little of the breading, most of the too-sweet bread and barely any of the slaw.
Ten dollars and thirty seven cents was the tally. I couldn't tell if they'd intended to charge separately for the tea, which was quite good, but all I saw was the amount on the bill. I fished fourteen dollars out of my dusty billfold and just handed it to the lady. I'd been there long enough, I was ready to hit the long road home, I didn't want to bother with another waiting period to process a card.
The servers were nice enough, I guess. They were pretty busy and appeared somewhat harried. They didn't chat or up-sell, nor did they even seem especially outgoing. They were not crass or insulting though. They got the order right, by that I mean the plate delivered was pretty close to the one ordered. The time lag was in the kitchen A tea refill offer came only after the pointlessly narrow glass was near empty, no other was ever offered. I felt no connection to the servers though. Between the guy and the lady I didn't get the impression that either of them were too concerned about a lone, middle aged guy at a two top.
The food was quite a bit less than I had hoped for. They were trying to upscale a fairly basic meal. I'm sure I was not their target demographic, they just weren't cooking for my tastes. There's nothing wrong with that. As I get older I notice lots and lots of things offered up that I'm just not the target for. Movies, TV shows, clothes, cars. . . It's not just food. I know there's a crowd hungry for what they offer, the place was really busy. They don't need my vote.
Back when I worked at that Big Beer company, the people I worked with would regularly line up for lunch at another, much larger and well regarded, chicken house. They loved it. They still invite me to tag along occasionally.
Big plates, lots of starchy sides, enough to nearly fill some of the biggest boys I worked with. The few times I went, I found the chicken to be unnecessarily greasy, generally lacking in flavor, the potatoes over-mashed and the veggies over-boiled. But they raved about it. 
I get it, different people like different things. I've taken a similar hit whenever I bring up St. Louis style pizza. I just don't get that either.
So my criticism about the food is based on a recognition that tastes are widely varied. I hope I've described it well enough for you to decide on your own whether you might like it or not.
I'm at a point where I enjoy tried and true old favorites, un-tweaked, simple, basic, rather than replaced by or jacked up with whatever is newer, trendier, more modern. . . Which also explains why I keep Angel around.

Old Standard Fried Chicken on Urbanspoon

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