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Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009 12:10 pm

Good food, good friends at Williamsville's Blucat Cafe


Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came.
You want to be where everybody knows your name.

—”Where Everybody Knows Your Name,”

by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo (“Cheers” lyrics).

Shortly after visiting the Blucat Café in Williamsville, I began hearing a melody in my head. It was familiar, but I couldn’t place it or remember the words. Then I remembered: it was the “Cheers” theme song. I was puzzled. “Cheers,” the television sitcom, had run from 1982-1993. I’d watched the show occasionally, but wasn’t a regular viewer. I realized that my subliminal mind had made a connection that my conscious mind hadn’t: The Blucat really is a place “where everybody knows your name.”

Whether they’re small-town diners, coffee shops, or neighborhood bars; or big city cafés, coffeehouses, or pubs, places where folks regularly congregate over food and/or drink have always been an essential element of the “glue” that creates and sustains a community. Sadly, many such places are dying, as drive-throughs and fast food joints have driven them out of business. Some, however, still carry on the tradition, though it seems they’re far more rare here in central Illinois than in other parts of the U.S., particularly in the South.

The Blucat Café has pulled it off. What’s really extraordinary is how quickly it’s achieved that vibe: The Blucat opened just six months ago. It’s not some kitschy, faux old-timey wannabe, either. True, the building itself is old. But owner Jill Manning, along with family and friends, spent months before opening gutting the entire place, doing tile work, paint treatments and refurbishing to create a space that’s contemporary, eclectic and inviting. There’s an open kitchen in the back, framed by a counter with menus, pour-it-yourself water and iced tea, and a few stools perched in front. A pile of battered, obviously well-used, cookbooks have been tossed onto the top of a drinks cooler.

Manning does most of the cooking, along with some of those same family and friends (who also help with the serving). She’s not a trained chef. Manning has just “always liked to cook”, and she does a very good job of it. The Blucat’s menu is simple: sandwiches, burgers, soups, horseshoes, salads and pies, the same things that can be found on countless other menus in the area. What makes the Blucat’s food exceptional is the care with which everything is made. The buns and most breads are made in house. The chicken tortilla soup I had on my first visit was delicious, although a bit too thick (classic tortilla soup is a brothy concoction with numerous garnishes). But the beef vegetable soup I had on a subsequent visit was masterful. Most beef vegetable soups are ho-hum as far as I’m concerned, but the Blucat’s featured a rich (though not at all fatty) beefy broth chock-full of tender meat and vegetables that had been cooked long enough to flavor the broth, but not so long as to lose their individual character.

My grandmother would have approved of the most recent soup I enjoyed: ham and bean. Actually, the Blucat’s version of this common concoction was the closest I’ve had to Nana’s since she passed away. It’s one of those things that’s simple, yet requires skill: Skill to cook the beans so that they’re completely tender yet not disintegrating, but enough so that they give depth to the broth. The ham was in large, falling-apart chunks. The soup was seasoned perfectly, too: just enough pepper to save it from all-too-common blandness.

Pork tenderloin and chicken sandwiches (both on those house-made buns) can be ordered grilled or breaded (in-house upon ordering) and fried.

I have to admit that even though Blucat’s menu is small, I’ve not tried everything. That’ s because I can’t resist Manning’s wonderful corned beef. “I just stick it in a pan and pour some beer over it,” she says. Manning uses it both for horseshoes and Reubens. I’m a sucker for Reuben sandwiches, those glorious concoctions of corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian or Thousand Island dressing on grilled rye. But more often than not, I’m disappointed after ordering one. Not at the Blucat, though, which makes the best Reuben I’ve had outside New York City. It’s different, to be sure. Blucat’s corned beef is sliced thicker than NYC deli corned beef; the shreds of rosy meat sticking out from the grilled bread and oozing cheese like fringe. The proportion of meat to cheese to sauerkraut to dressing is just right: clearly corned beef is the main ingredient, but not (as is often found in those NYC delis) piled on so high as to be overkill.

Then there’s Blucat’s pie. Manning makes a great pie, with a lard crust (for more about lard, see the 10/23/08 RealCuisine column). On my first visit to Blucat, I ordered a piece of the blackberry. I wasn’t hungry (the corned beef horseshoe had taken care of that), but wanted to try some pie. “You want ice cream on it?” I was asked. “No, thanks,” I replied. “You should,” came the response. “It’s pretty tart.”

“No, thanks,” I repeated. She was right. The pie was certainly tart — tartly perfect. The generous slice was more than even my husband and I could finish.

The only thing I’ve had at Blucat that I didn’t particularly like is the house salad. It’s composed of spring greens, spinach, feta, blue cheese, pecans, tomatoes, carrots, onions, dried cranberries and blueberries, and seasonal fruit. Though flavorful and generous (my husband and I split a small and couldn’t finish it), it was too sweet for our personal taste.

Utilizing local and seasonal products is a priority with Manning, though one she can’t always fulfill, especially off-season. The Blucat doesn’t yet have a liquor license; Manning says when and if she gets one, she wants to focus on Illinois wines and beers.

Music is an integral part of the Blucat. Tangible evidence of her “main interest” adorns Blucat’s walls: a collection of banjoes, guitars and brass instruments, some fancifully painted by the Williamsville High Art Club, hang on iron railroad spikes. Manning is a songwriter who sells her musical creations as well as her culinary ones. She’s performed at well-known Nashville clubs as well as with local bands. The Blucat is small (seven booths and three six-top tables), but Manning is committed to sponsoring live music. Currently, on Tuesdays, Dr. Terry Killian sings and plays guitar and piano. Wednesday is open mic night. Thursdays feature Jaigh Lowder and occasionally his daughter, Josie (who is clearly talented, but needs to turn the mic down). Manning designates Fridays for blues and Saturdays for bluegrass. “I can’t pay ’em much, if anything,” says Manning. “But they like the atmosphere here so much that they come anyway.”

Ah, yes… that atmosphere. Another way of saying that everyone who comes to the Blucat Café feels welcome. There’s a certain indefinable something that’s more than that, though. One can be made to feel welcome in a restaurant, coffeehouse, bar, or diner by friendly waitstaff. Every time I’ve visited the Blucat, there are folks who know and enjoy each other. Rather than being made to feel like an outsider, though, almost immediately I feel like I belong. Like, next time, everybody will know my name — or at least remember my face.

The Blucat Café, 112 W. Main Street, Williamsville, tel. 566-2800. Hours are Tues - Sat. 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.-8 p.m. The Blucat does not accept credit cards.

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