Bringing hope to the table
The roads one can take in life are many. The road I was supposed to take today, however, I just missed. I was probably too busy concentrating on the bright purple tree splotches warning me not to trespass to notice Hempstead County Road 52 on my left, which looks like an unimportant gravel byway—a road I would never take if I were headed to a gourmet restaurant.
But a gourmet restaurant is indeed where I’m headed—to Dannie’s Cafe, a bistro located in a renovated red barn just outside Hope in rural Shover Springs. It’s not my first time here, but last time I didn’t drive and didn’t pay one whit of attention to my surroundings. This time, though, as I make a U-turn and head down the county road, I see indications that maybe I shouldn’t, in fact, be headed down this path. The sky in the east ahead of me is dark and stormy. A yellow caution diamond warns “WHEN FLOODED/TURN AROUND/DON’T DROWN.” And it’s already 2 p.m. on the dashboard clock, way past a decent hour for lunch.
The red clay driveway of Dannie’s could fit three or four cars across, and maybe two or three cars deep. Ample parking, I suppose, for the four white-clothed tables—17 seats total—available at the restaurant. Owner Bob Long greets me at the double French-door entry like an old friend and sits me at the first table on the left. A stunning hot pink rose in full bloom sits in a brass vase in the middle.
“This smells beautiful,” I say, inhaling the flower’s heady scent.
“It’s getting old,” Bob replies, but all I see is beauty.
In the windowsill near my table sits a dollhouse, miniature Beatles figurines rocking out on its second-story balcony. It fits the restaurant’s namesake perfectly: Bob’s brother-in-law Dannie Flesher was a music promoter in Chicago. The decor—like that Elvis bust with silver headphones clamped on its ears—is a fitting tribute.
Bob puts the menu in front of me and it’s just as expansive as I remember: pork chops and crawfish etouffée and salmon Oscar-style (topped with asparagus, crab cakes, and a béarnaise sauce) and more. Much more.
Last time I had shrimp cocktail and crab cakes with Sriracha remoulade and rack of lamb and Cornish hen and three or four sides followed by both crème brûlée and chocolate cake. It was so good I ate until my stomach was near bursting (and then poached my tablemate’s leftovers anyway). Last time, Bob chose for me. I ask him if he’ll do so again.
“We now have prime steaks, like a steakhouse,” Bob tells me, showing me the prime Angus ribeye steak special, which is seared in cast iron, finished in the oven on a stone and served with a wedge salad with homemade blue-cheese dressing and a side. “We keep changing, and we keep trying to raise the bar.”
It sounds delicious to me. “Bring me whatever you’d like,” I tell him.
I’m the only one eating at 2 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, as the local crowd tends to come right after church. But Bob still rushes to serve me, running the two stairs up to his kitchen to fetch me whatever it is he has in mind. He is every bit the attentive chef-slash-proprietor. Bob’s wife Flora stays behind to serve me a basket of garlic bread and a salad, offering fresh-ground pepper and Himalayan sea salt. “Quit taking notes!” she playfully orders me. “Taste the bread before it gets cold.”
Bob and Flora may be the consummate restaurateurs these days, but these two didn’t start their adult lives with running a restaurant as their goal. They, too, had meandering paths that led them to Dannie’s Cafe.
Bob went to Youngstown State University in Ohio, where he graduated with a degree in math and engineering. He went on to a career at General Motors, working on the first computer the company ever had. At that time, cooking was just a hobby (though an intense one). He cooked so much for friends and family that he incorporated cafe-style seating in his home’s entertainment room. He read every cookbook he could get his hands on—Julia Child, Paul Prudhomme, Alton Brown, Wolfgang Puck—and even sojourned to their restaurants if they had one open.
Soon Bob’s career opportunities diversified, but still not in the direction of food, per se. He left GM for a position with the Philips Electronic Company in Syracuse, New York. Philips’ North American headquarters were in New York City, and Bob’s travels into the city for work gave him the opportunity to attend the Miette Culinary Studio where he learned the art of French cooking from Paul Vandewoude. He supplemented this education with online courses in knife skills, plating and sauces.
The development of Bob’s cooking skills kicked up another notch when he became 50 percent owner in an online ticketing service, a position for which he traveled all over Europe to garner new customers. Entertaining prospective clients became part and parcel of his duties, and he divulges that “cooking meals was a good way to get their attention and establish relationships.” But the most important relationship started right in Bob’s own home, where he and Flora Flesher Lombardo both owned a condo in the same building in Syracuse. They were both in their late 50s when fate stepped in.
Flora, the tenth of 13 Flesher children, had traveled a long way from the family’s Shover Springs farm by the time she met Bob. She’d earned her Ph.D. in English literature from the New School in Manhattan, taught English to medical students in China and finally settled into a professorship at Syracuse University. Her first husband had passed away by then, and she’d had her own unique experiences in cooking during that marriage, learning the secret Lombardo family sauces from her Sicilian mother-in-law.
As Bob and Flora approached proper retirement age, they decided they wanted to return to the Flesher family farm, thinking they would sell antiques. But with Bob’s passion for food and Flora’s specialized Sicilian training, the cafe seemed the right way to go instead. Even that choice, though, turned out to be not a destination, but yet another journey.
“At first there was no trust, so everybody ordered hamburgers,” Bob says of the early days of Dannie’s Cafe. I have to admit, it’s pretty rare (if not unheard of) to expect a quality fine-dining experience in rural Arkansas. Bob himself will tell you he and Flora flunked the three tests of a restaurant: location, location, location. But in the year they’ve been open, Bob has seen—and led—an interesting progression in the dining here.
To accommodate the public, Dannie’s Cafe started off with some pretty standard fare: fried catfish, hamburgers, pizza. Then, slowly but surely, Bob began leading his patrons toward a more refined menu: pork Marsala, fettuccini and “Dannie’s Chicken” (sautéed with shallots, served with mushrooms in butter and Marsala, two cheeses, cream and garlic). “It’s been an evolution, where you take the customer base and elevate it.” Bob explains. “Now we have risotto, which we simply call ‘Italian rice.’ People think, I like rice, and they order it. They realize it’s different when they taste it, but they like it.”
Now Bob’s serving dishes like Chilean sea bass (which he gets from a truck out of Shreveport, waking up every Thursday at 5 a.m. to meet the driver just off Exit 31) with a bacon-and-leek ragout. And every once in a while, he tries things that are very unusual to the area, declaring a special dinner night where the dish du jour might be bouillabaisse or beef Bourguignon. He sends these special invites out via mailing list, then puts an open call out on Facebook for any remaining open seats. Only the first 12 get in.
But today, I am in. I braved putting off lunch and driving dirt roads to make it. Bob, in all his former-geek glory (he still loves his technology—just ask him about his induction oven), has chosen a dish just for me—a little off-menu surf-and-turf that people have begun to order on the sly. On a white rectangular plate, the Chilean sea bass that traveled from Louisiana, covered in the bacon-and-leek ragout, is on the left. A prime ribeye steak is on the right, and at the top center of it all: a mushroom risotto.
A string of cheese trails from the cylinder of risotto as I pull the loaded fork toward me. The Parmigiano-Reggiano Bob uses to make his “Italian rice” provides a tart initial punch, but the cream settles the taste and the mushrooms give it an earthiness that makes for a lovely bite. The sear on the ribeye is expert—it crackles when I cut into it and the inside cleaves like butter. I ask Bob what he seasons his steak with and he smiles: “Just salt and pepper. Believe me, that’s all you need.”
I’m warier of the sea bass—I’ve never particularly cared for fish, thinking it too … fishy. But my culinary guide has deemed that I should take this venture through to the end, so I do. Bob’s sea bass is flaky and light and the salt is right on and it’s not fishy. Not fishy at all. But maybe the richness of the ragout with all of its fresh herbs balances that out? I’m no expert on cooking. Just pretty well-versed in eating. And this fish I would eat again.
“You know what I like best?” I ask Bob. “That while your flavors are robust, they don’t remain heavy on the tongue.”
“When you have quality food,” Bob replies, “you just need salt and pepper.”
I’m not so sure about that, and Bob even capitulates a little, bringing a cast iron skillet from the kitchen. “See the pockmarks? These skillets were passed down through both our families. The more they’re used to cook, the deeper the flavor seeps in.”
Even the cookware at Dannie’s Cafe has been on an epic journey.
At the close of this culinary expedition, only one thing could possibly make the trip any better: dessert. But, alas, Bob has none today. “Last night we had a sorority come at closing! We had about 30 diners total, and we’re just out of the molten chocolate cake. That’s what happens when you make everything fresh.”
I guess I can give him a pass—this time. But the next time I travel for gourmet food off the beaten trail, I’m going to be all the wiser from my previous sojourns: I’ll order dessert in advance.