BRING YOUR OWN ICE BUCKET. AND ICE

Dinner at Big Mamou. Another unqualified food review by Mo____________________________________________________________________________________

Mo RingeyLet me start by saying that I am not a culinary expert, nor am I a licensed oenophile. As a matter of fact, in my mind I was once enrolled in, and expelled from, the Cuisine et Tradition School of Provencale Cuisine in Arles, France for being a gastronomical ne’er do well because I chose my forks based on astrological positions and I once led the trained pigs in that “bottle of beer on the wall” counting song while ostensibly rooting for truffles in the french countryside. Was it Sartre who once said something about “rooting up muddles and fallacies like so many truffles…”? Maybe it was my Aunt Mary.

Anyway, I think most of going out for dinner is the experience. The food is a huge part of it, clearly, but the service and ambiance are just as important in the overall dining experience hypotenuse. And this is my newsletter so I can assign restaurant reviews to me and so I did. Like I did with The Green Street Cafe, and El Guanaco.

So, Wednesday night a friend took me to dinner at Big Mamou in Springfield for unhijacking her computer.

I LOVE Big Mamou. Part of the charm is that it is BYOB which makes the whole experience more picnic-y, more down home and much cheaper. On a busy Saturday night people arrive in large, jovial groups bearing coolers or brown paper bags and inevitably, flailing arms of coats coming off.

The waitstaff is snappy and sharp-witted, as they push in chairs in the aisle (from the previous guests who did NOT) and work around the stumbling, happy hordes, and dodge the inevitable human flailing arms. So snappy in fact that I think if you accidentally decked them while throwing off your coat, they’d likely deck you back. And that’s part of the charm.

So we stopped at a wine shop en route and asked them for a recommendation. I have found that if you stop in at a good wine shop and tell them where and what you are eating, they can perfectly match your wine to your dish, which makes the whole experience much more fun. We had help choosing a Kerpen Riesling 2005 which was a nice match for the spicy acts to follow. It was sweet and seemingly complex yet sheepishly light, in a not so light kind of way. It was almost even shy. It was not properly chilled however, and this set the stage for our waitperson experience.

We wanted it really chilled to complement the spicy dishes we anticipated ordering so we started by asking for an ice bucket. The waitperson (let’s name her *Dixiecup* so I don’t have to keep typing *waitperson*) said they had no ice buckets or things to put ice in. I am tenacious though, so I asked did they have any kind of containers at all? No. Can you find some old plastic bucket to put some ice in? No. A condiment container? Trash bag? Anything? No. Then I said, “Well, I think I have a nasty old plastic ice bucket in my truck from The Hampton Inn in St. Louis. If I get that can we clean it up a bit? No. I can clean it in the bathroom sink maybe? No? If you give me some water I can rinse it outside on the sidewalk and then we can use it? Or I can use an old garbage bag from my trunk if you just give us a little bit of water and ice? Or we could buy it? What price, a bit of water and ice?” Finally Dixiecup took her reluctance for a walkabout and returned with a plastic bucket complete with a cup of water and some ice. We put the wine in and the ice water barely covered the bottom inch. We needed to act and fast!

So we cleverly ordered 2 glasses of ice water and informed Dixiecup that we’d order our food in a bit, once we felt properly hydrated. We had to remind her a few times that we needed water and then we’d order so finally we got it. As soon as she wasn’t looking we covertly poured our ice water into our bucket, like secret spies under cover. It was oddly fascinating and satisfying. It was cat and mouse, spy vs. spy. Then a party of 3 lovely people from Ware sat at the table beside us. They had a little cooler and a bottle of wine. They seemed to be negotiating with Dixiecup at frustrating length. When Dixiecup walked away they threw up their hands (not in a coat-shedding kind of way) and looked at us and asked, “What did you pay?”. I thought they were kidding but then Dixiecup came back with a wineglass full of ice and I saw one of the women dejectedly pouring her cherished wine directly onto the ice!

I felt compelled to step in, like when you see a crime being committed and you get an adrenaline rush and beat up the perpetrator and save the victim and go on TV and get a medal of bravery from the mayor (but first get a new haircut and even put on lip gloss and mascara) and give autographs and interviews and then go back to your life. Yeah, like that.
I leaned over and said, “Do you want…” and before I could finish the woman from Ware shouted, “Yes! Thank you!” and she reached over and put her wine bottle in our bucket with relief and vindication. We made new friends. Every time they reached over to retrieve or return their wine to/from our ice bucket, we exchanged niceties. It was really quite special. We bonded. I wanted to hold their hands. I wanted to tell them to go to YouTube and listen to the Young @ Heart Chorus sing, “I will fix you”. I wanted Fred Knittle to come along and fix us all. I wanted to start a fan club for the whole universe. I think people from Ware seem really nice. I had never met any before.

Anyway, the food. It was really good. I went to New Orleans once and I ate everything I could find so I do have some gastronomical comparative metrics against which to rate this feast. It was truly great and we tipped Dixiecup very well because we kind of enjoyed the whole ice bucket battle and maybe because we felt victorious. I feel victorious exactly 0 times each week so it was a unique and refreshing feeling for which I thank Dixiecup.

We started with the Louisiana fried oysters in seasoned cornmeal with fresh Cajun remoulade. The oysters were plump and amiable and the cornmeal coating was loose and light yet coherent and did not overwhelm the oysters or hoard too much oil from the fryolator so the result was more oystery than fry-ey. The remoulade was seemingly mayonnaise-based with a mild spice and had a pleasantly vague crunch. The slight crunch was clearly from some lucky vegetable that had gone on a wild ride through the cuisinart. I am guessing onion. Both my compadre and Dixiecup thought maybe onion too. A local character in New Orleans who once randomly best-friended me on the street (my crazy magnet was showing 3 bars of reception), told me an old Cajun joke: “When a bunch of Cajuns get together to make dinner one says, ‘You guys decide what you want to make for dinner; meanwhile I’ll start chopping the onions”. And so it goes. (that’s Kurt Vonnegut, no?)

We then ordered the Crawfish Quesadillas in flour tortilla with crawfish tail meat, cheese and green onion and served with corn tomato salsa. The quesadillas were lightly something-ed. They seemed baked but aren’t quesadillas usually pan-fried? And the cheese was in perfect quantity; it neither overwhelmed the dish (as we are wont to do in this land) nor underwhelmed (as we are not wont to do), and the green onions were complementary without being a punchline. The whole melee was drizzled with a beigey-brown sauce which was sweet and tangy. I think it was vinegar and sugar and secret ingredients. Dixiecup agreed it must be so. We wished we had more of the corn tomato salsa but didn’t want to push our luck, already being the envy of Springfield due to our ice bucket coup.

We finished with the Aunt Millie’s Five Flavor Pound Cake with brandied pecans and peaches. It had many flavors but my math skills are hilariously lacking (according to my tax accountant who says I would be best served by the witness protection program or a winning lottery ticket) so I can’t be sure about the actual number of flavors thing but it was pretty good.

And this does not exactly make for a full tasting of the menu but I also draw on previous visits in which I had the Chef Wayne Big Bayou Special which was incredible and also the Cajun Blackened Catfish which was delightfully delightful. But I guess I can’t put that in this review as on those visits I did not take notes. Next trip to Big Mamou I am bringing ice, a bucket, candles, and a letter *R* for the bathroom wall where it says, “Lake Ponchatrain”. I give it 5 ice cubes with a remoulade-y exclamation en pointe.

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