Favorite Places Locally

I’m always asking the locals where to eat.  It starts out with folks talking about how much they like to go out.  When I ask where they recommend, they stammer and stutter.  I have found really good Chinese food at Mapo.  And I like breakfast at the Morningside Cafe in Lisle.  Stacey and I tried the Bavarian Inn on Odgen and were pleasantly surprised.  Simple, cheap.  But where else?  And where’s the really good pizza?

Product, Passion and Salt

Thoughts, musings and occasional rants by Jimmy Sneed.

Source: Product, Passion and Salt

A Favorite Story/Lesson

When I was in Urbanna, Virginia, in 1987, the owner of the restaurant urged me to use margarine, salad oil, and frozen seafood, instead of the good stuff, to dramatically reduce our costs.

“These customers will never know the difference,” he declared.

I declined to follow his suggestion but am reminded of an interview I saw on TV some time back.

Olivia de Havilland was talking about the making of ‘Gone with the Wind’. She recalled saying to the producer, David O. Selznick, “We’re over budget, behind schedule, and on our third director. Yet you are bringing seamstresses over from Italy to sew the silk undergarments for the ballroom scene. Why bother? They can’t be seen. Nobody will even know that we’re wearing hand sewn silk.”

At that, Mr. Selznick looked at her and said, “You’ll know.”

Arrogant Crabcake

I had a customer (the wife of a chef) tell me she thought my putting a single cake on a white plate with no garnish was ‘arrogant’. She also said it was better than her husband’s. I always thought it was more about contradictions. My restaurant in Urbanna, VA 25 years ago was a weather worn beach house on rusty stilts. But the view from inside was spectacular. Messing with expectations.

Oh, here’s a link to the ABC TV show from last week on our softshell crabs.

ABC, Crabs, Garden, Fat

The ABC show on softshell crabs featuring us did boost business.  Whew.    The crabs are every bit as good as what I served in Virginia.  That’s thanks to my guys at Shore Seafood!  They’ve been most helpful.

Geoff (SugarToad’s Chef de Cuisine) and his guys have planted a garden out front.  Good thing ’cause he’s lost 10 pounds of his winter fat.  They’re very excited about this, coming in on days off to work the garden.  Ah, to be young.

Fingers and thumbs.

First the fingers: Stacey and I saw Shawn Phillips (see story below) on Saturday and were, no surprise here, blown away. At 66 you would think he has slowed down, but no. His guitar playing was breathtaking.

As to the thumbs: ABC ran Steve Dolinsky’s TV show on Friday featuring our softshell crabs. Everybody coming in on Saturday ordered them. We ran out. We’ll have more tomorrow but in the meantime we got some ‘regular’ softshells from our local purveyor. They’re too tough to saute so we cut the body in two and make a tempura of it. The watermen of the Chesapeake call them ‘dead man’s thumbs’, a take off of what they call the gills (dead man’s fingers).

These nuggets are very, very special and known only to the crabbers. I’ll bet you a carwash you’ve never seen them in a restaurant.

We Got the Crabs!

I went to Saxis, Virginia, last Friday to meet the folks that will be sending us our softshell crabs. It’s true that we do the best but in the interest of honesty (and humility) it’s all about the product. The dirty little secret is this. You do not want your crabs to arrive alive. It’s true. If they’re alive, they have ‘hardened’ enough to survive a cross country trip. We want them soft, baby soft, velvet soft. So you have to find someone who will remove them from the water immediately after shedding, not eight to ten hours later as all crabbers do.

Even I had trouble convincing the folks at Shore Seafood (don’t tell anyone our source) to pull them out right away and kill them. Poor silly chefs think they need ‘em alive so that’s the way it’s done. Since I used to ‘shed’ my own crabs back in Urbanna, Virginia years ago, I quickly convinced them that I know of what I speak. Our crabs are soooo soft that you end up eating the pure essence of crab. We’ll have them on the menu thru October. And, minimalist that I am, don’t ask for tartar sauce. You’ll see why.

At the floats with Robin

At the floats with Robin

Theft by Water

Here’s a peeve repeated. Saturday night I cooked for the Heart Association fundraiser in Washington, D.C. (Redneck Risotto with SugarToads). Afterwards Etienne (my assistant for the night, and former nemisis at Jean-Louis at Watergate) went to dinner at one of the town’s hot brasseries. We ordered sparkling water (Saratoga). Towards the end of the meal I wondered if there was any left, but the bottle had disappeared. Ah, the waiter showed up and refilled our glasses. Of course when I got the check there was a charge for two bottles @ $7 each. I noted to the waiter that I had not ordered a second bottle. He replied that Etienne’s glass was empty so he took it upon himself to refill, at my expense. I asked if that was their wine policy also…..

He got defensive and said if I wished, he would remove the second bottle from the bill. I wished.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. In fact, sadly, it has become more and more common. The first time it happened to me was at a restaurant in Charleston, SC five years ago. Now I see it as a good way for me to get free water! Please, don’t rip off the customer. Remember, it’s about passion.

It’s true, I have a rock ‘n roll hero.  He’ll be playing in Berwyn next Saturday, the 16th of May.  I’m all a twitter.  The following story may be a bit long for a blog, but I can’t help myself.



Backstage with the Beatles?  Lunch with Elvis?  Maybe a date with Tom Jones (hey, this story has to appeal to a wide audience)?  I had my own fantasy.


It began in early 1972 when I was managing a stereo store in a mall near Rochester, NY.  My roommate came home one night to tell me he had heard that Shawn Phillips was going to play at the Gold Nugget the following Saturday night.  A concert not to be missed.


So what?  Who is Shawn Phillips, and isn’t the Gold Nugget that pizza and beer joint where we saw Cheech and Chong last month?  Indeed it was and Shawn Phillips is supposedly a huge talent.  Let’s go.


What I heard and saw that night changed my life:  a voice that ignored octaves and soared.  Veins pulsed on his forehead and arms while he played the most powerful guitar/sitar/double neck electric music I had ever heard.  Wearing a black cape and with blond hair down to his, uh, belt.  Luckily I had foresight to set up my eight track recorder at home (I owned a beta too) since the show was being broadcast on the local college radio station.  I got to listen to this concert a thousand times.


Four years later, in 1976, Stacey and I heard that Shawn Phillips would be playing in our Wahington, D.C.neighborhood at the Cellar Door in Georgetown.  Whatta show.  Shawn Phillips alone with his nine guitars: acoustic, classical, electric, double neck electric, sitar, etc. playing a song written for each instrument.  And that voice.  This has got to be the most talented musician/songwriter in the world!  Sure wish I could meet him.


Then what happened to him?  For years I asked everybody I know (who’s over 45 and enjoys music) if they know what happened to him.  Most only vaguely remembered him, or not at all.  He wasn’t exactly Donovan (though he wrote some of Donovan’s songs).  Somebody remembered hearing that his scalp had been ripped off in Italy when his hair got caught in a boat propeller.  Ouch.  I wondered if he died.  Wouldn’t that suck?


Well, 30 years later, while looking at a potential site for a new restaurant in Richmond, VA, a good friend (and master pizza oven builder), Nabil Attie, suggested a woman artist he knew to help us paint the walls with awesome colors.  She lives in Charlottesville and he gave me her number.  I called.


“Hello, is this Diana Deiss?”


“Yes, is that you Shawn?”


“Shawn?  No, this is Jimmy Sneed, Nabil’s friend.”


“Oh, hi Jimmy.  I thought you were somebody else, a friend of mine named Shawn Phillips.”


For one of the few times in memory, I was at a loss for words.  I felt as though I’d been hit in the back of the head with a baseball bat.  When I finally came to and caught my breath I sought confirmation.  “You mean Shawn Phillips, the legend?”


“I don’t know about that,” she said, “but he is a singer.”


“Do you really know him, really?  I mean, how well?”


“Jimmy, you know his big hit, The Ballad of Casey Deiss?


“Know it?  Hell, I can sing it.”


“I’m Diana Deiss.”




“So what happened to him?  Where is he?  Does he still perform?  How can I meet him?  Say something dammit.”


“Yes he still performs and I think he lives in San Antonio, Texas.  I’ll ask my daughter, they e-mail each other weekly.”


I’m shaking.  “Diana, listen to me.  I’m flying to San Antonio in two weeks to give a cooking demonstration at the Food Bank.  Do you think, I mean, could you, uh, uh.”


“I’ll call him right now,” she said as calmly as if making a reservation at a restaurant.


A couple of hours later my hostess buzzed me to say that there was a Shawn Phillips on the phone for me.  Not ‘A’ Shawn Phillips, THE Shawn Phillips.


“Jammie, how are ya?  This here’s Shaaaaawn Pheelips.”


Not!  Shawn has a voice like the finest of musical instruments, not a twang like Quick Draw MacGraw.  Is this some sort of a joke?


“Naw, it’s really me, Jammie.  I hear yer comin’ to Taxes.  Would ya lack to have dinner with my wife and me?”


Excuse me?  Would my wife like to win the $10 million lottery?  Would Madonna like to meet the Pope?  Would Clinton like to get [romanced]?  You betcha.


We met for dinner.  And what a moment.  Shawn’s a master story teller and his now ex-wife, Tassia, super nice, and smart.  But that twang, I can’t get over it.  How in the world did Diana think that we sound alike?  I’m confused.


“No, actually I can understand why she thought you sounded like Shawn,” said Tassia.  “There’s something in your voice….”


“It’s the tamber,” offers Shawn.  “We’ve got the same tamber.  I can hear it.”


So, there you have it.  A bona fide fantasy come true.  Except, I haven’t heard him perform in 30 years.  How’s the voice?  “Better than ever, Jammie.”


End of story.  Well, not quite.  Six years ago Stacey and I took a bike trip from Virginia to Las Vegas and back.  We stopped to say Hi to Shawn in Austin where he insisted that we stay with him and (new) wife Jules.  And he cooked for us!  Spaghetti with tomato sauce and lots of garlic.  So, he can sing and cook!


As for his musical credentials, I once asked him his three greatest professional accomplishments.


“Wail”, he drawled, “I taught Joni Mitchell to play the ghee-tar, I taught George Harrison to play the see-tar, and I turned the Moody Blues on to LSD”.  Not bad, eh?


He still plays gigs (South Africa, Lebanon, Canada, the States) and will be in the Chicagoland area (Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn) on May 16th.  I’m trembling at the thought.

tim·bre (tām’bər, tĭm’-)  n.   The combination of qualities of a sound that distinguishes it from other sounds of the same pitch and volume.