Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Blue Frog Grill - Guest Review

Things are hopping in Marshall

by Jeanne Damoff author of You and Me, Sister

On the corner of West Austin and North Washington, in the heart of Marshall, Texas, a jaunty blue frog in tuxedo and top hat grins at passersby. He has every reason to be happy. He stands guard over a treasure.

Innovation isn’t easy in a small town, where everyone knows everyone, and no one minds stating his mind. It takes a brave soul to venture out, introduce old ideas in a new way, and patiently explain what and why, while trying to attract clientele. But when it works, everyone wins.

Among the visionaries helping bring downtown Marshall back to life, Shawne Somerford has to be one of the most energetic, creative, and fun. The Blue Frog Grill makes the fourth restaurant she’s launched within a two-block area, all of them occupying old buildings and incorporating original architecture into the design. Shiny hard-wood floors, ancient brick, and elaborate crown mold set a back drop for modern elements like shiny chrome lights, wi-fi, and—best of all—a fabulous menu emphasizing ingredients from local farmers and sustainability.

Brown paper table-cloths allow patrons to leave messages or artwork behind. One large round table near the front window is called “the community table”—reserved for people who come in alone but would prefer to enjoy conversation with their meal.

George, Jacob, and I dropped in for lunch today. We’ve lived here for fifteen years—new-comers compared to the royal families who’ve been around since before the civil war, but long enough to know we’d see familiar faces. Sure enough, Rebekah, the hostess who greeted us, grew up with our kids. Our waitress, Olivia, attends our church. Her father, Nate, plays with me in the praise band, and will be performing jazz piano at the Blue Frog on News Years Eve.

That’s another cool thing. Live music. Often it’s provided by Grady Lee, local Texas folk singer-songwriter and owner of a nearby B&B, High Cotton Inn. Today, however, a regular table occupied the small corner stage to best accommodate the lunch crowd. As I made my way around the restaurant taking photographs, I stopped at that table to visit with Frank Strauss, chairman of the Twelve-Way Foundation, and his wife, Bonnie, a lovely woman who works tirelessly for the Michelson Museum of Art a few blocks away. I also chatted with Chrys, a friend from church, and her daughter, Ginni, who were seated near the counter where wait staff picked up orders, and where I snagged some shots of the executive chef at work.

Chef Brett Spivy apprenticed under Giuseppe Brucia, a chef in Shreveport, Louisiana, which explains the Cajun slant to some of the recipes. Which brings me to the food. Which is amazing.

George ordered the special: BBQ brisket, creamy potatoes, and green beans. I asked him to describe the sauce, and he had a hard time finding the right words—only managing between healthy bites to say it wasn’t like anything off a grocery-store shelf and that it was very good. So I was forced to try a bite. (The sacrifices we make for journalism.) He was right. Delicious. Different. Slightly indescribable. Later when the chef made rounds of the tables, we found out why.

Jacob ordered “Dogs on the Grill,” a ¼ lb. kosher beef hot dog loaded with chili, bacon, “krispy kraut,” cheese, mustard, slaw, and/or peppers. I didn’t taste it, but Jacob gave it thumbs up. (It’s not polite to talk with your mouth full.)

I ordered the Rueben. I’m actually a bit of a Rueben snob, and this one didn’t let me down. But, as much as I love a good Rueben, I have to say the russet fries stole my heart. When Chef Spivy came by our table, I asked him why they’re so tasty. For starters, they use real potatoes, sliced fresh in their own kitchen. Then they dip them in a mixture of flour, garlic powder, cayenne, fresh cracked pepper, and kosher salt. I’m about as anti-junk-food as a girl can get, and I couldn’t stop eating those fries. (Next time, though, I think I’m going to go for the sweet potato fries. Olivia said they’re her favorite item on the whole menu.)

As an environmental biologist, George was particularly interested in the philosophy of sustainability, so he asked Chef Spivy about their methods. They begin by buying as much as possible from local farmers and vendors within a 30-mile range. This cuts down on energy used for transport, ensures freshness, and also supports the local economy. They buy their dairy products from a farmer in Gladewater, and a lot of their produce comes from an organic, hydroponics farmer in Winnsboro. Less than 12% of their supplies come from farther than 90 miles away, and that’s usually tropical fruit or other items that can’t be grown in this region.

When George asked what they do with potato peels or other organic refuse, we learned the secret of the BBQ sauce. Spivy uses beef bones and vegetable matter to make demi-glace that is reduced to stock for making brown sauces. Long simmering of combined flavors produces fabulous sauces while conserving resources. Any excess food is donated to places like the HiWay 80 Mission in Longview or the Twelve-Way Foundation.

We also visited with Shawne, the general manager, and she explained that they buy organic foods as much as possible and use environmentally friendly cleaning products. It’s all part of their over-all vision – hearkening to life in these parts decades ago, a way of life that has passed from public consciousness in this era where the reach of mega farms and the international shipping of foods extends even to small-town East Texas. But she says it’s worth the extra work and expense to remain true to the vision and to help educate others in sustainability. She’s even started a blog in her “spare” time to promote the restaurant and its philosophy.

The Blue Frog Grill just opened in September, so you could say it’s still in its tadpole stage. They’ve recently begun serving a Saturday morning, New Orleans-style brunch, complete with Eggs Benedict, Omelets, Sweet Cream Waffles, Smoked Salmon, Garlic Cheese Grits, House-made Sweets, and more. After the New Year, Chef Spivy plans to start cooking classes, and the pastry chef, Deon, will offer lessons as well.

After we paid our bill, Olivia brought us the customary complimentary cookies, hot from the oven. Chopped candy bars and nuts, baked into chewy dough. Mmmm. Shawne was so encouraged by our interest, she gave us a fresh, hot loaf of Chef Deon’s sourdough bread. It’s sitting beside me on the table right now, and I can smell the fabulous aroma even through the wrapper. As full as I am from lunch, I’m thinking a slice of warm, crusty sourdough with a cup of coffee might be just the right reward for typing up this review.

If you’re ever in Marshall, give me a call and we’ll do lunch. I know the perfect place, and I’ll be looking for every excuse to go back.

Jeanne's Blue Frog Grill Photos

Note: Two Eating Fred, Texas reviewers have novels set in Marshall, TX. Escape from Fred by the blog host is set in Marshall in the mid 1970s. Finding Hollywood Nobody by guest reviewer Lisa Samson is set in present-day Marshall, TX.


kelly said...

community table- what a neat idea!

Sounds like Marshall has a very bright future with folks like this opening multiple spots.

Only thing I hate about this review is the cost of my plane ticket for the sake of a warm cookie...

Brad Whittington said...

Yeah, I thought it was an interesting idea. That way, if you're alone and you want a little conversation, you don't feel like a stalker.

Heather said...

what a treat! makes me want to take a trip to marshall. that, and the people of the good town ;)

Brad Whittington said...

Marshall is an interesting town. The first half of Escape from Fred is set in Marshall. And Finding Hollywood Nobody, the 2nd YA novel by Lisa Samson is also set in Marshall.

Mes said...

I have had the pleasure of eating at this wonderful restaurant and I have nothing but good reviews! The moment you step in the door, everyone is so welcoming and the service is spectacular. I had the crab cakes and a piece of their turtle cheesecake. I am a cheesecake snob, and the pastry chef recieves two thumbs up from me! Everyone should definately have a chance to visit this unique place.