I was surprised to spot my trusty henchmen Col. Tex Trailer and Babs Woof at the bar, grinning into frosty glasses of pearlescent liquid the color of Tinkerbell's tutu. Although it is not unusual to find Tex and Babs hugging a bar rail at 6 p.m., it is extraordinary to find them lapping up dainty pink cocktails, especially those that do not contain large measures of bourbon. This mysterious circumstance fueled my excitement. It was our first excursion to what my colleague Joe Bonwich calls "Hot Locust Version 2.0," an event to which I had been looking forward for weeks.
A few months back, when word hit the streets that the Hot Locust Cantina was to be sold and retooled, I was bummed out, relieved and sanguine all at once. I was bummed because I had grown so attached to the orange-scented salmon-and-wasabi appetizer that I could not envision a world without it. I was relieved because the old staff had become jaded and querulous, which often resulted in disheartening inconsistencies. And I was sanguine because I'd had glad tidings of the new owners, chef Margaret Kelly and general manager Richard Kraus. These tidings were not in error. The new Hot Locust Cafe is an epic delight.
I did not find the interior much altered; Kelly and Kraus have wisely resisted tampering with the warehousey exposed-brick downtown-bistro look of things. Walls are now a perky yellow, a large brooding landscape hangs over the bar, floors are freshly varnished and tables are draped in white linen. None of these minor improvements, however, was so appealing as the long- overdue exile of the rabble-rousing Side Door Music Club patrons to a separate entrance. It's a real restaurant now instead of the high-traffic, punk-rock hallway of yore.
I tried a couple of dishes just because of their quirky names. One of these was Chicken Under-a-Brick, a mesclun salad abundant with spunky seasoned croutons on which nested an entire roasted chicken, squashed flat (presumably by the alleged brick). The culinary esoterica behind the practice of flattening fowl with masonry eludes me, but I'm all for it; the bird was wonderful. Crisp with brown puckers where, I suspected, the brick had once been, its skin was jumping with lemon and herbs. Inside, the meat was as succulent as roasted chicken gets. My one complaint reflects an admittedly provincial bias against serving hot meat on raw greens. Unless the flora in question is sturdy, like spinach or chard, it is subject to superwilt, a condition on behalf of which I am unable to make a convincing case.
Another intriguing offering was Smoked Salmon Towers with Asian Guacamole. Though there was nothing discernibly vertical about the dish, its flavors were a towering triumph. Strips of excruciatingly delicious, smoky fish surrounded an avocado mixture laced with sesame oil and soy sauce. A drizzle of hot oil provided punch, and a smattering of minced onion and tomato added crunch. Caressing these comely morsels was a handful of greens tossed with sweet vinaigrette. With its delicate palette of pink and green, the dish was a graceful miracle of balance, deftly sidestepping the perils incumbent on mixing metaphors and big flavors.
Challenging the physical limits of the human mandible was the grouper poorboy. Our beer-battered fillet was a peerless specimen, but it came sandwiched between planks of grilled bread so awkwardly thick that even Tex, whose lips (according to Babs) are legendary, had trouble cramming it in. He eventually overcame this difficulty with a clever deployment of knife and fork.
One seldom hazards to seek greatness in a humble quesadilla, yet it was universally agreed that Hot Locust Cafe's forest- mushroom version was nothing short of transcendent. A tangy call from the mushrooms was answered eloquently by tomato and caramelized onion. This ensemble, folded with gooey fontina into a perfectly crisped whole-wheat tortilla, nipped at the heels of high art. I could eat one every day for a week (and I would, too, if they'd deliver to the South Side).
Another paean to the edible fungus was a roasted-onion-and-portobello soup, which is impossible to describe without using the word "woodsy." In a sumptuous broth the color of rich loam floated chunks of sweet onion, meaty mushrooms and scallions. The bonus goody was a sort of fried wonton filled with a mixture of tomato and Gruyere; this was a bit tough but added an unexpected note of interest.
The menu makes wild and impressive claims as to the authenticity of the caesar salad, and these I do not dispute. I merely suggest that nostalgia is a romantic disease. According to the hoary anecdote, the dish was invented in 1924 by an Italian pilot named Alex Cardini, whose brother Caesar owned a restaurant in Tijuana. Folklore indicates that this "aviator salad," formulated on the fly from the minimal ingredients on hand that day, did not originally involve anchovies. Neither, I am tempted to infer, does the caesar at Hot Locust. If you are among the legions of anchovyphobes who, out of blind fear, nurture a hysterical aversion to these pungent little fish, you will be gratified by the flirtatious lemony dressing with its dusting of Parmesan. If, like me, you have come to regard the anchovy as the salad's most distinguished if less than genuine additive, mild disappointment will reign. It should be noted that Hot Locust's version is composed of whole romaine leaves and that the kitchen resolutely frowns on tearing them up for you.
I leave you to contemplate the lush possibilities of Hot Locust's signature strawberry fritters (see sidebar). The seductive beauty of this dessert lies in the tension between the innocence of the fruit and the wanton debauchery of deep-frying it. Whole batter-dipped berries zapped in hot oil and anointed with caramel and chocolate sauces tasted something like beignets and the Texas State Fair and Catherine Deneuve and the Elysian Fields, all rolled into one. I hate to end with a cliché (if I got a raise, I'd spend more time on lyric poetry), but these babies rocked. Or, as Tex Trailer put it, "Giddy-up!"
HOT LOCUST CAFE, 2005 Locust St., 231-3666. Hours: lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; dinner, 5-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu. and 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; closed Sun. Entrees: $11.95-$20.95.