3687 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest
(No longer in business.)
A certain mystique developed around the Tractor Room from the day it opened. Perhaps it arose from the black velvet curtains inside the entry door, shielding the interior from prying eyes, or maybe it was the playfully old-fashioned masculine decor, with dark, button-dotted leather under dim lighting and an antlered stag's head over the bar. (The owners picked it up at a garage sale.) The menu proclaims the restaurant as the "Home of Bourbon and Meat." Yup, it's a double masquerade -- it's not just dressed up as a Montana hunting lodge, it's also playing a speakeasy -- even though it's perfectly legal and you don't need a password to get in. (A reservation is more apropos.) Sam Spade oughta be here, but he's tied up in Frisco, chasing a black bird and a bad redhead.
Under the same ownership as nearby Hash House A Go Go (Johnny Rivera and chef-owner Andy Beardslee), the restaurant took over the space vacated by Rice Jones when the rent shot up beyond reason. Tractor instantly began pulling in bushels of Hillcrest hipcats of all genders and legal ages. The night we went, the bar was packed with zaftig blondes and a few skinny Elisha Cook types, mainly paired or grouped like with like. Younger couples sat at the small tables near the bar, while larger groups and the older half of the crowd (including our gang) were seated on leather banquettes against the far wall. Contrary to early rumors, I saw nobody dressed to the nines -- fours to high sixes were more like it.
What drew me was a menu featuring game meats, including elk, bison, boar, and venison, all at pretty reasonable prices given their premium wholesale costs. I like game meats for their intense tastes and healthfulness, free from the chemical cocktails that make domestic animals fatten up fast at the price of flavor. I once wrote a meat-and-game cookbook that had to be delivered to the editor meat-by-meat. The only chapter that was any fun to write was the game chapter. (Well, the offal wasn't bad either.)
Given the owners' bent for heartland cuisine, I couldn't have chosen better dinner companions than the Lynnester and her mom, Mary Ann, rebel gourmets from northern Michigan. In their still-woodsy small town, the local motto is: "I killed it, honey, you cook it." And Lynne's cuddle, Samurai Jim, has a wild side of his own.
Since the Tractor pushes "honest cocktails," we began with a round of hooch. To our surprise, there were no sugar-bombs. (You're definitely not in the Gaslamp anymore.) My Ramos Fizz was the driest I've ever sampled, while Jim's "Prohibition Punch" was clean and refreshing, similar to the grown-up Plantation Punches of un-touristy Port of Spain. The Peach Bellinis that both Lynne and Mary Ann enjoyed were equally adult.
Our game hunt began with the appetizers. Crispy Elk Sausage Ravioli offered large, thin-enough pasta squares with crisped edges, stuffed with dryish ground elk meat and swathed with what seemed to be a cream sauce based on meat stock and spiked with tomatoes -- as far as we could tell in the Stygian darkness (it's surprising how much harder it is to identify flavors when you can barely see your food). The elk could've passed for lean ground round, with no distinctive wild flavor. Given the nonexorbitant price ($10), I guessed, correctly, that it was free-range farmed elk from New Zealand.
Wild boar and mashed potato spring rolls are sized for a hungry grizzly bear. The meat doesn't taste noticeably different from well-raised, well-stewed domestic organic pork. (The restaurant owners couldn't tell me whether the boar was actual European wild boar, aka cingale, ancestor of domestic pigs, or -- like most "boar" sold in the U.S. -- the feral descendants of escaped domestic razorback hogs brought over by the Spanish. They think it's the latter. Their meat wholesaler buys it from a game ranch in Texas.) The rolls were plated over chopped salad, a welcome blast of greenery in this fleshy feast.
Smoked salmon and rock shrimp cakes were so dry that we wouldn't have been able to guess what seafood they were made of. Mary Ann liked the toasted ciabatta under the cakes and the horseradish-cream streaks across the plate. But Jim found the chewy ciabatta literally hard going. "Ouch, my teeth are getting a divorce from my mouth," he quipped.
Fried shrimp cocktail bears the menu notation "IT'S GOT BOOZE!" Well, yes. You get two bread- crumb--battered, medium-size fried shrimp atop a layer of thick, acidic roasted-tomato sauce, which blankets a tall bed of ice. Alongside is a jigger of Blue Skyy vodka with spicy chipotle sauce lurking at the bottom. It's up to you to decide what to do with the BOOZE! When the dish made its way to me (third out of four), I tried a bite of the remaining prawn and then poured vodka on the rest of it, which gave it more flavor and enlivened the heavy sauce. But the dish seemed pointless -- 12 bucks for two shrimp and a hot shot?
A couple next to us were eating the two salads the menu offers. One of them tackled a large head of Bibb lettuce stuffed with blobs of Maytag blue cheese. "Glad I didn't order that," said Mary Ann. "I'd be intimidated." The other had the heart of romaine, of equal size but horizontally arranged, with Thousand Island dressing. "That one looks almost as scary," said Lynne.
There are two "signature" game meat stews -- the same stew with nothing changed but the meat. They're served in cast-iron skillets, in which they've been heated to blistering. One version offers wild boar in tender lumps that taste like good pork. The other has buffalo, with tougher, stringy meat and shreds on top, the mother lode of larger pieces hiding under the veggies and nuggets of smoky bacon. The vegetative components consist of fingerling carrots, tiny round potatoes, diced winter squash, pearl onions, and English gooseberries in their husks. These last look like golden cherry or grape tomatoes in papery coats, like those on fresh tomatillos. Their flavor is acidic and tomatolike as well. But take away the refinements (like the gooseberries and upscale carrots) and you'd have a standard hunter-style buffalo stew of the Prairie states -- the sort of recipe you find in older "I Shot It, You Cook It" game cookbooks. Alongside comes another "signature" dish, black-skillet cornbread, which is normal Southern-style cornbread, neither sweet nor fluffy but hearty.
At this point we were beginning to realize how the Tractor Room can serve game at reasonable prices: They're using cuts from the toughest, least costly pieces (front shoulders, legs, etc.). Long, slow wet-cooking (stews, braises) or grinding the meat are reasonable solutions to wringing some tenderness from the hardest-working muscles on the animal. There are no game steaks or roasts on this menu -- dry-cooking only suits tender cuts (ribs, loins) from the high-priced lazy muscles "high on the hog" (or on the bison). Unfortunately, just as all cats look gray in the dark, stewed meats generally end up tasting more like "meat stew" than like themselves.
"In northern Michigan, the local hunters bring home venison and cook it badly," said Mary Ann as she looked over the menu. "I never want to eat another venison chili." So we passed on the venison meat loaf, which is, after all, just a solid version of venison chili (minus some spices).
Instead, we tried the chipotle-charred tomato pork ribs, which Lynne remembered seeing celebrated in a review or food blog. The pig meat tasted boiled (or simmered) before its final turn on the grill, while the sauce was hot, heavy, coarsely spiced, and -- oh, just forget it. Some people obviously like it, but none of us did.
English gooseberries reappeared as a glaze for a salmon fillet, nicely done to our order of "please, not overcooked!" As a sauce, the gooseberries were true to their tart nature, and since the same berries garnished all our other entrées (even the ribs), they'd already cheapened themselves with their promiscuity. Given the careful cooking of the salmon, I'd bet on the kitchen doing a fine job on its most expensive entrée, a USDA Prime rib-eye steak.
A side of a baked acorn squash half, its cavity aswim in bacon-maple butter, was delightful (even if the squash was on the older, pulpy side). The bacon was excellent. "Be a great breakfast!" said Jim. Another side dubbed "heavy cream mashed potatoes and fresh batch gravy" was pure comfort food, right down to the bits of potato skin in the mash.
After the meat-heavy dinner, we couldn't bring ourselves to order any of the weighty-sounding desserts (e.g., fudge with a side of peanut butter cookies). We noticed that the sextet of bearded, flannel-clad "bears" at the table to our right also passed on the sweets, as did the salad-eating ladies to our left. Maybe they knew something we didn't.
The staff is attentive and pleasant, but some may need more training on wines, e.g., opening and pouring those rich young reds (so suited to the menu) a little before they're needed, to let them breathe away their up-front tannins. Luckily, it took as long for the stews to cool to eating temperature as it did for our big, plummy Rhone to open up in the glass.
Whether or not you'll like the Tractor Room is a matter of personal taste. Its website's claim of "Honest Cocktails and Meats" is truthful (unless you count that silly shrimp cocktail), but the style of cooking is simple, hearty, midwestern meat 'n' potatoes fare. (When even a spring roll contains mashed potatoes, you know it's not a California palate designing the menu.) The food reminded me at every turn of a slightly glorified version of the college dining hall where I waitressed in Ann Arbor (back before anybody ever thought of serving sushi to college kids). And although Lynne and Mary Ann come from that same milieu, they've rebelled against its manly culinary ethos. Very few dishes here gave us any joy beyond that of a full belly. "Would you come back here?" I asked my companions. "Never," said Lynne. "Nah," said Jim. "No, these dishes are mainly about size, not really about quality or pleasure," said Mary Ann. In my younger years, I encountered a few gentlemen who fit that description -- they didn't get second tries either.
ABOUT THE TRACTOR ROOM
The co-owners of the Tractor Room are Johnny Rivera (who deals with the "front of the house") and chef Andy Beardslee. Beardslee, who floats between Hash House A Go Go and the Tractor Room, did not respond by deadline to numerous messages left for him, so I spoke with Rivera.
"It's important to us that, if we're gonna do game meat, we're gonna do it as best as we can -- no hormones, free-range," he said. "We're trying to get fresh rabbit, never frozen, for rabbit stew. A lot of people won't want us to serve rabbit, but at the end of the day, it's still a free country, isn't it? And we're about to start serving Maple Leaf duck."
The heart of the concept of the Tractor Room was in serving clean, hormone-free meats, especially game. "Restaurants in the past had a hard time trying to get organic, free-range meats. The general consumer has driven this truck in the right direction, so that companies will carry it. It's not that difficult to find free-range products with no hormones added now -- but eight, ten years ago, you'd almost be laughed out of the butcher's. We're not trying to wear it on our sleeve but we're just saying, 'We enjoy this, come on in.'
"Basically, we wanted a hunting lodge on Fifth -- Manhattan meets Montana. We wanted to evoke a time when things were simpler in people's minds, before we knew not to smoke, not to drink -- so we serve bourbon and meats. The pictures on the wall are like a union hall of swankiness. We don't have to overconceptualize, it's just something we dig personally. We had a hard time finding a place that's dark enough inside. I think there's been a bastardization of bars. That's why we don't have televisions. Why should you have TVs? Your whole experience should be of conversation, of the essence of the cocktail -- that's the whole point. We're not trying to be the new Bouchon, the new Thomas Keller. We're just trying to have a place where you go, 'Hey, I feel comfortable here, I don't need a $400 bottle of Skyy (which sells for $22 in the drugstores) to rent my table.' Unfortunately -- or I guess, fortunately -- we've become packed as a result.
"Andy is from Millford, Indiana. You can really see his Indiana background in our brunch. He studied at Cambridge Culinary Arts School in Boston and worked in Boston for about ten years before he came out here. I'm a Southern California boy. The bottom line is, there are some American ethics we put together here that maybe are a little idealistic. The gentlemen at the bar wear ties -- and combat boots."