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Thursday, July 7, 2016 12:01 am

Unlikely food find in New Berlin

In a backroom attached to a convenience store, a young chef offers promising taste adventures

Justin Richardson, chef at The Garden

 

I slow my car to 25 mph as I drive into New Berlin. I’m on a mission to check out rumors about a young chef who is serving amazing food in the back of a gas station.

I first heard the buzz about this restaurant last summer but I never followed up because it seemed too improbable. However, when a friend visiting from New Zealand raved about the place this spring, I decided I had to check it out.

Driving through town, I finally spot a Fast Stop gas station. Spanning the back lot is series of interconnected buildings. I’m thinking: “This is not looking very promising.” Attached to the Fast Stop convenience store is a restaurant called Capone’s Hideout. In the back room of Capone’s Hideout is another restaurant called The Garden, the object of my investigation.

I enter The Garden through an attractive outdoor seating area bounded by immense quarry stones that look like they could have been salvaged from the Great Pyramid of Giza. The tastefully appointed dining room features a central bar and a brick pizza oven. Things are looking more promising.

Twenty-six-year-old chef Justin Richardson grew up around food. His family once owned Bernie and Betty’s Pizza. “I used to run around the kitchen when I was a kid.” He was 12 years old when his family sold Bernie and Betty’s and eventually opened Capone’s Hideout in New Berlin, where he cleaned and washed dishes. “I enjoyed cooking and working nights.”

After a stint at Lincoln Land Community College, Justin enrolled as a culinary student at Johnson & Wales University in Denver. The highlight of culinary school was a month-long trip he and 20 classmates took to Italy. “I thought we’d just travel around drinking wine, but instead we had to get up at 4 a.m. and attend cooking classes.”

Six years ago, Justin sketched out the design of his future restaurant on a napkin. The build-out began while he was still in college. He opened quietly without advertising. His original concept was to serve tapas (small plates of Spanish-style appetizers). “People were slow to accept. They were reluctant to pay $5 for a small plate because they were used to getting a cheeseburger for the same price. But this early experience allowed me to find my identity as a chef.”

Chef Justin admits that he gets bored really fast and is always trying out new dishes. “People seem to like my constantly changing menu.” He began expanding the menu and offering entrées. The current menu has three sections: Piccoli Morsi (small bites), Piccoli Piatti (small plates) and Wood-Fired Pizza.

The Garden Restaurant is hidden behind the Fast Stop gas station.

 

The menu states that the Piccoli Morsi are “NOT appetizers in the usual sense and served as is, when done, not before or after any other item.” However my order of mussels steamed in white wine with Italian sausage, fennel and tomato was generously portioned and reasonably priced at $9. The delicious Crispy Shrimp were flash fried and tossed in a spicy sauce ($9). The Baked Capicola consisted of provolone cheese, giardiniera, basil and Peppadew peppers wrapped in a thin slice of dry-cured pork, a nice balance of hot, sweet and salty ($6).

Though listed as small plates to share, I again found the serving size of the Piccoli Piatti very generous. My order of P.E.I. Scallops consisted of four large beautifully browned bivalves served with pancetta crema, asparagus and roasted fingerling potatoes ($23). The Lamb Osso Buco was a braised lamb shank served with gremolata (a condiment made of garlic, parsley and lemon juice), and creamy polenta ($24). The King Crab Linguini was a large bowl of Alaskan king crab chunks in a spicy sauce served over squid ink (black) pasta. Reasonably priced at $20, I had enough left over for the next day’s lunch.

Pizza options ranged from the familiar Margherita (fresh basil and tomatoes with fresh and shredded mozzarella) to the unique Rusty Goat (pesto, sautéed wild mushrooms, goat cheese, caramelized red onions and arugula).

Discussing his goals for the future, Chef Richardson states he wants to: “grow, progress and pay attention to details.” He plans to make more items “in house,” such as cured meats and cheeses. His family owns the property across the street and will be building a greenhouse so he can harvest his own herbs, greens and vegetables year round. He hopes to open another location on the west side of Springfield in a year and a half.

The Garden’s 45-seat dining room is “packed wall to wall” on Fridays and Saturdays. Reservations are a must. Walk-ins are welcome to dine in the outside patio if the weather is favorable.

I have visited the Garden several times over the past few weeks and have had very positive experiences. Chef Justin’s dishes have been well crafted and attractively presented. His continually changing menu offers the promise of new taste experiences.

In a previous column, I wrote about Food & Wine magazine’s Top New Chef, Iliana Regan. Chef Iliana and Chef Justin share the unique distinction of being owner/chefs of their respective restaurants. The food they serve gives us a glimpse into their creative vision. As they grow as chefs, we can evolve with them. When done well, their food can excite, educate and inspire.

Peter Glatz is always on the lookout for interesting new dining experiences. If you have any recommendations of intriguing restaurants within 100 miles of Springfield, please contact him at docglatz@gmail.com.

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