Thursday, September 22, 2011

Buffalo Gal * * * * *

What did I know about Donnelly, Idaho?

It’s where I spent a hilarious weekend, and once I was detained there for a half hour one hot summer day during some road construction. That was all.

The rural Valley County city has a population of around 150, give or take a few. It’s 4,865 feet above sea level and on the northeast shore of Lake Cascade, nestled between Cascade and McCall. I’ve never expected to find anything phenomenal there, but the tweeting BuffaloSous chef Jake Totter got my attention with his lure of the tasty dishes to be had at Buffalo Gal in none other than Donnelly, Idaho. Curiosity was piqued. Since Donnelly’s not exactly a part of my driving routine, this was a destination mini-vacation. A two hour and twenty-three minute jaunt. In other words; road trip. Winding mountain roads, rustic cabins, and frothy water tumbling over boulders along the way are what the drive up offers, accompanied by pine-scented air and a stunning sunset if you go in the evening like we did.

You can’t miss Buffalo Gal. It’s tucked off to the left of the main highway going through town, headed towards McCall. The well-maintained building with its large flower pots outside every window seemed to indicate good things within.

Inside, the eclectic mix of décor instantly reminded me of Sun Valley eateries, where I’d always marveled at their brazenness in combining antlers with French Country. This was similar; sort of Western-meets chic-meets Shaker-style. Four ceiling fans twirled at just the right speed overhead, soft-toned walls hosted black and cranberry-colored accents, battery-operated mood candles set atop each table, and a wooden sign hung near the kitchen that said ‘Dinner Choices: 1) Take It and 2) Leave It’. Suspecting we were in for a singular experience, I began grinning before we were even seated.

Had there not been a game going on that night, chances of getting a spot would have been slim to none. Nearly every table was occupied, in addition to the to-go customers who mulled over the menu just as much as I did. A guest claiming she was only there for a quick take-out salad looked dismayed as she perused choices.

“Oh my,” she sighed, “That looks good, too!”

Traditional items like spaghetti and meatballs, Caesar Salad, and Chef’s Daily Homemade Soup were present, but the majority of the items made my eyes bulge. Chana Masala, Carne Frita, Poisson Cru and Sweet Potato Gnocchi? Had we made a wrong turn? I thought we were in Donnelly!

The waitress brought us a sample of the Chana Masala. Detecting a citrus-like substance, I asked our server about it, who consulted with the chef and returned, assuring that there was in fact no lemon grass in the recipe, which had been my best guess. She later informed me there was actually ground coriander in the tasty concoction. Feeling validated and with what I thought was good humor, I asked if I got any points for that. With complete deadpan expression, I was told ‘No. You don’t.’ I think she was serious.

What was this menu doing in Donnelly? This sort of thing was comparable to the summer we camped at a place that gave away free antique steam-engine rides all day long, or the day we stumbled upon Santa Claus, Indiana, complete with Christmas-themed amusement park. Delightfully unexpected; delightfully out of place.

Why? I was soon to find out. In time, owner Julie stopped by our table and introduced herself. She was the woman behind the former Buffalo Gal produce. Years prior, the closest tomato to be bought was in McCall, several miles down the road. Julie not only brought fresh tomatoes to the area, she also brought things like persimmons and other fruits and vegetables that had been unheard of before Julie's arrival. Now she and Tom did the same thing, but with prepared dishes. During the season’s slack times (the months of May and November), the couple re-charges with travel and eats food without any type of agenda.

“That kick starts the creativity all over again,” said Julie. She looked over at the plates that had been set on our table just then by the waitress.

“Those are sweet potato fries,” she said, “They’re ridiculous. It’s a good thing I don’t have much access to those things; they’re out-STANDING.”

My dinner partner had already sunk his teeth into his Idaho Barbeque Buffalo Burger. With the buffalo supplied by a place off Smiley Lane a few miles down the road, it couldn’t get much fresher. When asked how he liked it, he looked annoyed to have to stop eating long enough to reply, and in fact didn’t.

We spoke next with owner Tom and the BuffaloSous himself, Jake Totter. Tom talked about their slack-time travels.

“When we go, we just take some time to breathe. We’ve been to Basque country; talk about great food. Most of the time we’re in Miami, and we have an apartment in New York, so when we fly to Puerto Rico…endless new ideas. The Peruvian special tonight came from a Miami restaurant. Not too proud to say I steal ideas everywhere I go. The Carne Frita is a poor person’s street food or hangover cure. The brisket, though, is one that’s original. It’s probably our number one best-seller.”

Jake Totter’s beginnings with Buffalo Gal were brisket-related. When he went to dinner at the restaurant, he went home that night and emailed them his resume.

“It was that good. I knew I needed to work here,” he said with a smile. He auditioned with his Chicken Satay, which is now on the menu.

“I could tell he knew what he was doing,” said Tom, “But had no idea what an asset he’d be. He’s enabled me to take the menu just about anywhere I want to go.”

When asked about the name, Tom said that it was Julie’s ‘brand’, and she decided to keep it, since the name already had a reputation for quality.

“I’m filling up fast,” whispered my dinner partner, just as the waitress placed the dessert menu before him. “I’m still hungry,” he amended.

I’d already eaten a third of my generous portion of Vietnamese Pork and Noodles, which tasted like dishes I’d had in the finest of Vietnamese establishments. I was intrigued with the infusion of ground anise and fresh basil, and couldn’t wait to finish it off. However, being a slow, deliberate eater, I set my entree aside for the time-sensitive home-made coconut ice cream, with its resoundingly fresh coconut taste.

“We don’t believe in subtle flavors,” Tom told us.

Finally, a place that takes its food right up to the finish line.

I feel zero remorse in admitting that I ate the rest of my entrée in the passenger seat within about ten minutes’ time on our way back down the mountain. To Buffalo Gal’s food, I give a vigorous round of applause. It was worth every mile.