Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Blue Heron, Lake Ozark, Missouri



First, I’m going to tell you right away that this is a positive review. Yes. But I hope you’ll read on to find out why I like the Blue Heron. It’s really quite unique—a very special place. If you are not sure you want to dine there, read on; some of what I describe are things you could decide are drawbacks or virtues; at least you will get an idea of what the place is like, and you can decide for yourself.

Regular readers: I know by now you’re thinkin’ that I’m all in love with down-home cookin’, church suppers, German home cooking, and retro recipes, but I want you to know I have another side. In fact, Gourmet has been my absolute favorite magazine—no, my ONLY magazine—for years and years, and its demise has me in a huge funk. So don’t be surprised now when I start telling you about the Blue Heron at the Lake of the Ozarks.

Walking in the Door

Don’t get me wrong—there is something homelike about the Blue Heron. But you know how the Olive Garden says, “When you’re here, you’re Family”? The Blue Heron isn’t like that. Instead, at the Blue Heron, it’s like you’re visiting someone else’s family. Someone with a fantastic chef. And tonight you’re the guest of honor.




It begins when you step through the door. When we walked in, the owner himself, Joseph Boer, welcomed us cheerfully, with a big smile, and chatted with us for a little while. We had arrived right at opening time—5 p.m.—and after introductions and some light conversation, and some pleasant joshing around, he motioned us jovially toward the lounge, with its doorway to the outdoor pool area: “Go swimming!”

Great American Songbook, classic jazzy vocalists were playing in the sound system. I had a quick flashback to Las Vegas.

I noticed there are ramps everywhere there might have been a step or two. This makes it easy for people with physical disabilities, and it makes it easy for the waitstaff to cart the platters of food to the tables. Yes, they use real wooden carts. You never have to worry about a waiter dropping a tray of ice waters down your back.

Throughout, we found the service attentive but not omnipresent, which is the way we like it. The young woman who was our waiter knew the menu well and advised and served us gracefully.

Relaxing in the Lounge

The lounge. The lounge? Hey, we didn’t ask to be seated in the lounge! But wait—we are here to relax, aren’t we. And we just got off the highway. We’re here to enjoy ourselves! So, okay. Throw us into the briar patch! (Yeah, we could have requested immediate seating.)

This isn’t like Ruby Tewsdee’s, where you stand uncomfortably in the drafty entryway holding an oily surprise-buzzer in your hand, waiting anxiously for a table so you can be fed and outta there ASAP. Here, indeed, it’s not a “wait” to be seated—there were plenty of open tables when we arrived—instead, relaxing in the lounge before dinner is part of the experience. (If you had dinner guests at your house, wouldn’t you have them relax in the living room for a spell before inviting them all to the dinner table? Yes, you would.)

It also gave us a chance to examine the menu at our leisure.




Nota bene: The Blue Heron doesn’t take reservations; it’s first come, first served. It behooves you to arrive early, or else just resign yourself to an actual true wait. They don’t rush their customers through dinner.

In the lounge, we settled into some comfortable furniture around a small table with a blue votive (on a doily) on it. A waiter brought us a complimentary small plate of light hors d’oeuvres, with spiced mixed nuts, a sampling of olives, a seasoned cream cheese dip, and water crackers, and then served us beverages. They have an extensive wine and spirits list and proudly advertise that they’ve received Wine Spectator awards consecutively since 1983.




Sue and my dad wandered outside to the pool area to enjoy the sunset and had a terrific time chatting and enjoying the absolutely spectacular view of the Lake of the Ozarks. The Blue Heron stands on a bluff overlooking Horseshoe Bend, and the pool patio affords a fabulous sunset view. There are plenty of café tables out there, plus a romantic little gazebo. As well as several striking sculptures of herons and a few enormous wind chimes.








Dining

After we’d had this chance to relax for a bit, our server told us our table was ready, and we were led to a nice table next to a window. This time of night, at this time of year, the darkness obscured the view, but during the height of the season, I’ll bet many tables get wonderful views of the lake.




The Blue Heron is a large restaurant with at least a few serving rooms, and as we dined, the place began to fill up. Nevertheless, our service was excellent and never seemed rushed, and we never felt crowded. They have comfortable chairs, too, which my mom and her bad back enjoyed.

There is a nice selection of appetizers. When we saw that they offer escargots, we couldn’t resist. Not many restaurants in Central Missouri offer it—I suspect that many midwesterners (who nevertheless will snarf down brain sandwiches and braunschweiger) can’t abide by the thought of eating “snails.” The Blue Heron offers them in the shell or “homeless” (we chose the latter), and you can get your half-dozen of them in either a traditional garlicky butter sauce, or two in a curry sauce, two in pesto, and two in the butter-garlic. We chose the latter and greatly enjoyed them and the thin light toasts they were served with.

The bread basket included a nice array of fresh rolls and bread slices, and the green salad is tossed with a variety of ingredients ranging from slivers of carrots to radish slices to bean sprouts and is served family-style in funky retro-modern white plastic bowls. The dressings—three—are brought to the table in small dispensers. All are homemade: French, house poppyseed, and ranch. Croutons (homemade, buttery, with the flavor of real, fresh garlic) were served separately in a small bowl, and toasted pine nuts were available in a shaker (like the kind used at pizza restaurants for parmesan, but cleverly modified for pine nuts with a single, larger hole at the center).




The vegetable of the day was cooked summer squash and onions sprinkled with grated parmesan cheese. For my druthers, it seemed a tad overcooked and oversauced. Since I knew the entrées would be filling, I would have preferred lighter, simpler, “healthier” veggies with a cleaner presentation; something more of a foil for the lavish meat dishes . . . but the squash preparation was certainly delicious.

Entrées

I had studied the menu online before we drove down to the lake, but I still had a hard time deciding what to order. The dishes are mainly classic Western European and American entrées, grouped into categories by meat type. Seafood, beef, poultry, and so on.

Note: As far as I can tell, there is not a single vegetarian entrée—not even the tried-and-true “roasted vegetables in a phyllo shell” that makes good use of last night’s leftover side dish (it simply amazes me that in 2009 they don’t have a vegetarian option).

Here’s a partial list of what we had to choose from.

Seafood: Cape Cod seafood pot pie; baked or champagne lobster tail; 1 lb. Maine chicken lobster; Russian crab leg; shrimp de Jonghe (a casserole of shrimp, garlic, sherry, and bread crumbs).

Meats: aged NY strip; “B&B twin” (filets with Bearnaise and Bordelaise sauces); beef kabob; steak and lobster stack; steak and trout combination; center-cut tournedos; veal schnitzel with foie gras; peppercorn-roasted lamb rack; smoked lamb rack.

Poultry: chicken morel; fried chicken breasts; Cornish game hen; pecan encrusted chicken.

They also offer, as a “post script” to the menu, trotter osso buco, which I was sorely tempted to get, except that for the sake of providing a quality review for you, I ordered one of the Blue Heron’s most famous dishes instead.

So I ordered one of their signature dishes, an entrée that is original to this restaurant: batter-fried lobster tail, served on a bed of shoestring potatoes, with hot butter for dipping. Yes, you read that right: batter-fried lobster tail. And it seems a strange thing to do to such a top-notch piece of seafood. Then again . . . the dish was executed well. The batter was light and crispy, and the huge chunk of meat inside delicate and moist. Personally, I don’t think I’ll ever order it again, because in the grand scheme of things, I think there are better ways to prepare such a fine foodstuff. Plus the crispy shoestring potatoes seemed to be not so much for eating as for keeping the tail from looking lonely on the platter.




Indeed, the dish—as with all the entrées—comes with a choice of potatoes: baked, shoestring, French fried, or Dutch whipped. I had to try the Dutch whipped. In fact, everyone at our table selected this form of potato, since none of us could remember having it before.

Dutch-whipped potatoes are quite a bit like twice-baked potatoes; they are finely whipped potatoes (with, apparently, butter and cream and seasonings), piped into a ramekin and baked until the top gets a nice crisp surface. Very creamy and enjoyable.




Mom ordered the 14-ounce Kansas City strip steak, which was enormous and (of course) comes cooked to your specification. I didn’t hear any complaints from her about it! It certainly looked good.

Dad, as is his wont, ordered the lightest, healthiest-looking item on the menu, the salmon Florentine, which came with asparagus. It was just the ticket for him, and it looked fabulous.

I was sorely tempted to get one of the restaurant’s three Dover sole dishes: the Dover sole Waleska (served with a creamy sauce with bits of chopped lobster), the Dover sole meunière yearling, 14 oz., or the Dover sole 18 oz. Hmmm. Sue ordered the 14-ounce sole meunière, in part because of the story about Julia Child’s Rouen revelation regarding this dish.




But I’m pretty sure that a service mix-up caused her to receive the sole Waleska instead; the plate that Sue received had two lovely pieces of sole with a creamy sauce, small chunks of shellfish, and a rounded mold of white rice, in addition to a beautifully carved lemon garnish. It was not the typical simple preparation of fish dredged in flour and cooked with brown butter, à la meunière. We didn’t ask, though we should have (indeed there is a price difference); at any rate, it was delicious and decadent.

Desserts, Coffee, Cordials

We didn’t have room for dessert, but FYI, here is a small list of items I got from the Blue Heron’s Web site: apple “phyllo bouquet”; chocolate soufflé; creme brulée; cream puffs with chocolate bath . . . you get the idea.

They offer a fabulous selection of after-dinner cordials, spirits, and liqueurs. They encourage you to enjoy desserts and cordials out by the pool, if you wish.




Additionally, they offer some terrific after-dinner coffee preparations: espresso tableside; French presse; and small or large vaculator (that’s a vacuum coffee maker—most of us would view it as a “retro” coffee preparation; I’m dying to try it. The contraption looks like a cross between a swanky manual-drip coffeemaker and a bong).

Also, they offer Kopi Luwak, which I wish I had ordered, and would have, if I had recognized the name: Its other name is “civet coffee”; you might have heard of it. It’s made from coffee berries that have been ingested and excreted by Southeast Asian civets. Kopi Luwak is the most expensive coffee in the world, and many say it’s the most delicious—bright, with no bitterness, with a certain “je ne sais quoi” imparted by the unique “enzyme treatment” the beans receive. So—my goodness!—does the Blue Heron sell the real thing, true Indonesian weasel coffee? I guess we need to go back and find out.

Prices

The prices aren’t listed on their Web site; I guess to do so would be tacky. A place like this isn’t cheap, but remember that in addition to all the carefully prepared foods on your table, you are also paying for the view, the service, and the fact that you are absolutely not rushed here. They don’t have to turn over the tables ASAP at the Blue Heron, so you can linger and talk all you want.

The least-expensive entrée was about thirty dollars, but most are in the range of forty to just under fifty. The breads, salad, and vegetable come with the meal. Appetizers, drinks, coffee, and desserts are extra.

Ambience

They’ve worked hard at creating a romantic, elegant, grown-up restaurant, so this is not the place to bring toddlers and ill-behaved children. In fact, they might not allow little kids in there at all (call them if you need to know). Also, don’t insult the other diners by wearing inappropriate clothing or behaving like a country rube. And overall: This is not where you go to “grab a bite” before dashing off to do something else. If you need your food right away, this restaurant (and much of Europe, for that matter) probably isn’t the place for you.

Instead, bring someone special here for a memorable night. Order some old-school, traditional gourmet foods that you never make at home. Finish with some excellent cognac. Make an evening out of it. This is the idea at the Blue Heron; the restaurant experience is itself the evening’s entertainment.




It may or may not agree with you, but the décor—particularly outdoors—is all blue-themed. It’s rather kitschy because it’s almost too much blue-blue-blue. The spherical outdoor lamps are fitted with blue light bulbs and emit a blue glow. The patio furniture is blue. The wood trim is blue. And so on. I sense that a high-class designer or big-city guru of taste would think it’s too much, but I enjoy the exuberance and the fun of it. I sense a bona fide personal touch, with a bit of a sense of humor about it. Thumbs-up.




A Word about the Owner

There’s more on the Blue Heron’s Web site, but here is a brief recap: Joseph H. Boer came to America from Holland at age twenty after working and studying in Holland and Switzerland; he worked at fine restaurants in Kansas City and Topeka. At age twenty-six, he began his first restaurant at Osage Beach, “The Top Deck.” Two years later he opened “Lefty’s Little Chef’s Steakhouse” on the Bagnell Dam Strip, which is where he developed the batter-fried lobster tail.

He took a sabbatical from running restaurants to study business administration at the University of Missouri, then returned in 1972 to Osage Beach, opening the venerable Potted Steer Restaurant at Grand Glaize, and opening the Blue Heron, at the intersection of Business 54 and Route HH, in 1984. This past year, construction on the Highway 54 expressway forced the closure of the Potted Steer (to the grief of many), so the Blue Heron remains this cordial and enterprising Dutchman’s only restaurant.

He makes a real effort to greet his customers at the door and to approach them toward the end of their meal to make sure everything was satisfactory. He’s a real character, a memorable fellow with lots of stories and a quick wit. If you go there, tell him hi for me. Tell him I’m the one he thought looked “devilish.” (Maybe he saw me trying to take photographs of our dinners and figured I was trouble!)

When They’re Open

I hate to say this, but the Blue Heron is closing for the season on November 21. Additionally, they are only open on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, which by my count leaves you with only six more nights this year to head to the lake to enjoy the Blue Heron. They’ll reopen for the new season in April. Check their Web site or call them for the official word on next season’s opening, but for the remainder of this fall, they’re open 5 to 9:30 pm on Thursdays and Fridays, and 5 to 10 on Saturdays.

I do encourage you to take some time out and enjoy a relaxing evening at the Blue Heron.




Blue Heron on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

University of the Ozarks said...

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