More than a year ago, I decided to review restaurants that have been in business for more than 25 years. Anyone who has contemplated opening a restaurant knows it is hard work. I’m not sure what the life expectancy of a new establishment is, but the dinner Edward and I enjoyed at Friday, Saturday and Sunday made me realize why this institution has been in business since 1973.
Last week, my sister Sandy and I went to the Ritz to see “My Week with Marilyn.” We passed by Sassafras on the way to the theater.
“I’ve been going to Sassafras for years,” I said. “Let’s have a bite after the movie.”
We strolled around Old City, going in and out of shops, until 6 p.m., when our stomach clocks went off. I could not wait to revisit this pub, which I have never reviewed, even though I stopped by for a few appetizers about a year ago.
Sassafras just might be the city’s first gastropub; its doors opened years before the term was coined. It has been open for more than 35 years, according to its website, although Fergus, the friendly barman from Belfast, thinks it is closer to 39 years.
Not much has changed since I first came here as a graduate student many years ago. Sassafras has a long narrow space with the original tile floor, tin ceiling, hanging lights, wooden bar, which echoes the Edwardian Age, and booths in the back area. Sandy and I settled in and I looked at the menu, which has not changed since my first visit. Jazz was playing on the sound system.
I sipped a superb Rob Roy ($11) and remembered how delicious the grilled vegetarian spring rolls with ginger soy dipping sauce ($6.95) along with the steamed homemade Mongolian dumplings ($9.95) were.
Each dish Sandy and I ordered brought me back to the days of my youth at Sassafras. It was one Proustian moment after another. The bill of fare has changed little since the mid-‘70s although I doubt the restaurant offered a vegetarian burger, lamb burger or ostrich burger when Gerald Ford was president.
French onion soup ($5.95) was piping hot and prepared with rich, not-at-all salty, homemade stock. The caramelized onions — slowly and gently cooked in butter — added a natural slightly sweet flavor to the stock. A crouton floated in the center and the whole crock was topped with a thick layer of Gruyère cheese that melted as soon as it hit the broiler. This has to be the finest onion soup in town.
We shared the spinach salad ($6.95), which was thoughtfully split in the kitchen. It was a composed salad of perfectly dry baby spinach, sweet red onion bits, red ripe tomato half moons, cucumbers and hard-boiled egg wedges. I clearly recalled the homemade Maytag Blue dressing, which I always have enjoyed, and I’m pleased to write it was as fine as it was years ago. If you hanker for blue cheese dressing, which never saw the inside of a bottle, order it at Sassafras.
Around 7:30 p.m., two gentlemen arrived with their instruments in tow. Sassafras features live jazz a few evenings a week. Sandy and I took to the lilting sounds of a sax and guitar like ducklings following their mother into the pond.
The Angus burgers ($10.95) were always among the stars of the menu here. They are perfectly charcoal grilled on the outside and medium-rare on the inside. We ordered them with imported sharp cheddar cheese and Applewood smoked bacon. I marveled at the slice of a red ripe tomatoes used here at this time of year. So many places serve anemic tomatoes in winter when they should just forego it. Our juicy burgers came with a portion of not-at-all greasy french fries, which I tucked into just after I sprinkled them with malt vinegar.
Sassafras brought back so many memories. I only wish I had a Madeleine and a cup of tea to bring my dining experience full circle.
Two-and-a-half tips of the toque to Sassafras. SPR
48 S. Second St.
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