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Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2006 10:02 pm

Bistro on the prairie

Passing of friend evokes memories of the Crow’s Mill

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We lost a good friend last month. Harry Radwine lived in Taylorville and, in his later years, Springfield. He was active in Temple B’rith Shalom and civic organizations, but Harry also made an important contribution to the culinary life of central Illinois. Not because he was a chef, professional, or amateur. His wife, Leila, an excellent cook, ruled the kitchen in the Radwine household. No, Harry’s — and Leila’s — contribution was two of their sons, Nat and David.

In the ’80s the idea of sophisticated cuisine in a casual setting was a novel concept anywhere. In Springfield it was almost radical.

Nat and David had renovated the old Crow’s Mill School on Toronto Road. For years before, the old two-room schoolhouse had been the Navy Club, a slightly seedy bar patronized by farmers and counterculture types from the new Sangamon State University.

Was it fate that made my husband, Peter, decide to stop at Crow’s Mill for a beer on his way home from work one day? It was conveniently situated halfway between his dental office and home, and I was hauling our kids around. When he walked in, it was apparent that the Navy Club seediness had been replaced with a rustic atmosphere that was relaxed, friendly, and eclectic. The air was scented with smoky mesquite and baking bread. There were high ceilings, big windows, a stage at one end, a grill at the other, and a beautiful old bar.

The bartender told Peter that David, the chef, had recently graduated from the CIA (Culinary Institute of America, the “Harvard of culinary schools”). Nat acted as manager, maître’d, sommelier, talent scout, and booking agent.

When Peter reached for his wallet to pay for his beer, he realized that he’d left it at the office. While trying to track me down, he watched musicians hauling in equipment and tables being covered with flowered cloths and candles. Dinner specials were being discussed with the staff: grilled swordfish with sauce Choron, housemade fettucini with spinach and Gorgonzola. Pâté was being sliced and artichokes steamed. Cartons of just-flown-in fish were arriving just in time.

When I finally arrived to bail Peter out, he persuaded me with no difficulty to stay for dinner. We quickly became regulars, having stumbled into an experience so rare in America as to be almost nonexistent: a real bistro. They didn’t call it a bistro, but that’s what it was: a meeting place as comfortable and familiar as your own family room with delicious food, drink, and entertainment.

Nat and David weren’t just our hosts; they also became our teachers and friends. Our culinary learning curve spiked during those years. With David we explored hardwood grilling, breadmaking, and the art of stocks and sauces. He’d give us samples of a new sauce or dish he was experimenting with before putting it on the menu. Nat guided us as we matriculated from Gallo Hearty Burgundy to eclectic wines from around the world.

Our Crow’s Mill education wasn’t limited to food and wine. At 9 p.m., the tablecloths came off, the lights went down, and the quaint schoolhouse was filled with music. We heard world-class blues by John Lee Hooker and Pinetop Perkins and jazz by Mose Allison and drummer Barrett Deems, who, along with hoofer Eddie Eugene, taught us that old age is only a state of mind.

At their legendary once-a-month Sunday dinners, Nat and David pulled out all of the stops with food and wine usually found only in big-ticket restaurants in big cities. The atmosphere was slightly more formal as David, in starched chef’s whites, described his culinary creations and Nat, in a tuxedo, discussed the wines he’d chosen to match them. The meal always ended with Leila’s delicious mint truffles.

Possibly the only others who came to Crow’s Mill as much as we did were Harry and Leila. We’d see them when we’d show up with our kids in tow (a few times in costume because of school plays or Halloween) or when we’d come for a date. Harry and Leila began to seem like a favorite aunt and uncle. We were there to celebrate the arrival of Nat’s son, Zach. All grandparents are proud, but Harry set a new high. He wasn’t too inhibited to show it, either.

All good things must end, and so it was with Crow’s Mill. David and Nat were moving on to new experiences. Assembling for the last time at the old schoolhouse, we ate, drank Champagne, cried a little, and laughed a lot.

Since then we’ve been privileged to share many good times with the Radwines: Sunday brunches, picnics, celebrations of the arrival of Nat’s daughters, Zöe and Mira, Harry and Leila’s 50th anniversary. For David’s 40th birthday, Nat; his wife, Carol; Peter; and I surprised him with a party at our farm that we planned to re-create that old Crow’s Mill ambience as much as possible with music and classic Crow’s Mill dishes.

Last month we gathered to remember Harry and celebrate his life. At Nat and Carol’s, after the service, it suddenly struck me how much the atmosphere was like that last time at Crow’s Mill.

We’ll miss you, Harry. We’ll miss your wit and wisdom, and, yes, even your corny jokes. Rest well, my friend.

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.

Leila Radwine’s mint truffles

12 ounces semisweet chocolate
3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
A few drops of peppermint extract
1/2 teaspoon salt

Melt chocolate and stir in remaining ingredients. Pour into wax-paper-lined 8-inch-square pan. Refrigerate 30 minutes.

2 teaspoons cocoa powder
2 teaspoons instant coffee
2 tablespoons sugar

Mix together. Cut chocolate mixture into small squares. Dust hands with cocoa mixture and roll chocolate into balls. Refrigerate.

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