It was Cindy's birthday just before Christmas. Since it was on a weekend, she wanted to go away somewhere for her birthday. And we always seem to go to Chicago, so this time I wanted to go somewhere we hadn't been for quite some time. A buddy of mine had recently gone up to Galena over the Thanksgiving holiday. That gave me an idea. Cindy has always wanted to go eat at a restaurant near Galena called Fried Green Tomatoes. So I surprised her with a trip to Galena and dinner at the restaurant.
Fried Green Tomatoes was opened in 1993 by Fred Bonnet, a local commodities broker who once worked in the kitchen at the Eagle Ridge Resort near Galena. When a local restaurant owner decided that he wanted to slow down, he contacted Bonnet and asked if Bonnet would be interested in taking over his restaurant situated in a historic building south of Galena. The building was formerly the "Poor Farm" for Jo Daviess County dating back to the 1870's. Bonnet moved into the restaurant and named it after the film Fried Green Tomatoes, which had been released a couple years before.
Bonnet was renting the building out south of Galena and he wanted to move to a building that he could own. A building on Main Street in Galena came available. The building was a former leather store that was owned by Jesse Grant, the father of President Ulysses S. Grant. U.S. Grant, fresh out of West Point, moved to Galena in 1860 to help his father's growing business. When the U.S. Civil War broke out, the younger Grant left to fight for the U.S. Army.
Over the years, the building has been used as a theater, a saloon, a grocery store and a dozen other businesses since 1838. Fred Bonnet, and his wife, Mari-Kristen, bought the building in 2004 and moved the restaurant into Galena. Soon after vacating the old farm building south of town, the owner of that property had the building demolished, much to the consternation of many locals who viewed the structure as historic.
Fried Green Tomatoes is situated on two floors in downtown Galena (see map). The main floor has an ornate bar and a dining room area. Upstairs is a larger dining room, a smaller room that can be used for private dining and a large reception room. The Bonnet's purposely stripped the walls down to the original bricks and gave it a rustic look, similar to the old farm the restaurant used to be in.
We had reservations that I made through the Open Table web site for 7:45 p.m. Actually, Cindy had no idea that we were going to Fried Green Tomatoes for dinner. It was a big surprise for her . Downtown Galena was packed with holiday shoppers and people walking around participating in the annual holiday lumenaria celebration. Parking was going to be tight, but we found that Fried Green Tomatoes has valet parking for $5.00. We did that and went into the restaurant. The restaurant was full, there were a ton of people in the bar area and I wondered if our table would be ready at our requested time. The hostess told me that it would be a short wait and directed us to leave our coats at the coat check room. Fancy place!
It wasn't more than two minutes later that the hostess told us to go to the top of the stairs and we'd be seated in the upstairs dining room. We were met at the top of the stairs by a man who directed us to a table back in the corner, a nice and cozy location. He left off menus for us, as well as a wine list.
Our waitress came over to greet us and asked if we wanted anything to drink. I told her we were going to get a bottle of wine at some point. She asked, "Have you dined with us before?" We told her we had not, but were looking forward to it. She explained that their Fried Green Tomatoes appetizer was something that most people ordered to start their meal. "It's our most requested item on the menu." She said they lightly bread and saute green tomato slices in olive oil, then cover them with a homemade marinara and mozzarella cheese, then bake them until the cheese is melted and caramelized. Ohhhh.... That sounded good. We signed up for a plate of those while we looked through the menu.
Fried Green Tomatoes is probably more of an Italian restaurant than anything. They feature a number of Italian entrees and pasta on the menu. They also have steaks, chicken and seafood to choose from. The special that evening was a 6 oz. filet topped with butterflied prawns and served over a bed of garlic mashed potatoes. A dinner salad and soup also come with the meal.
When the waitress came back with our Fried Green Tomatoes, she took our order. Cindy went with the special. I was torn between veal marsala, veal piccata or the seared scallops. The waitress said, "Our veal dishes are very good. You get a large portion of veal with it." So I went with the veal marsala. For our wine, we went with a bottle of the Ruffino Chianti, a good hearty Italian red that I like and it was fairly priced at $59 a bottle.
Now, I recently got a new Blackberry Tour with a camera in it. I've been wanting to get a camera phone for a long time to be able to take pictures of places where I'm eating and plates of food that I'm having. The only problem is that the Blackberry Tour has a flash feature that is pretty damn bright and lights up everything for about two seconds before the picture is taken. If it flashed when the picture was taken, that would be better. In a fancy place like Fried Green Tomatoes, it's rather intrusive and obnoxious. Here is a picture of the plate of Fried Green Tomatoes. In a dark room with the flash feature off, the camera doesn't take very good pictures.
The Fried Green Tomatoes with the marinara and mozzarella were extremely rich. It was way too much for two people. But we finished up the plate by the time our waitress brought out the salad, which was served family style. It was a large bowl of mixed greens and some veggies topped with a raspberry vinaigrette salad. It was a good salad, but more than we could finish.
The waitress took the salad away and then came out with two cups of a homemade pepper/tomato cream soup that was filled with ham, chicken and green peppers. It was very good, but, once again, very rich. We weren't certain how we were going to be able to eat our meal with all we'd had up to this point.
As we were finishing up our soup, a large group of people came up the stairs and began to filter through the dining room. I looked over and saw the only open table in the room was a four-seater. There were more than four people heading to that end of the dining room. By the time the last person in the large group came up the stairs there were about 25 to 30 people. I wondered what the deal was and suddenly a man in the group announced, "Merry Christmas from the Main Street Carolers!" And they launched into a Christmas carol. They sang two carols and then sang, "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" as they exited the dining area. It was kind of a nice touch during the holiday season.
Not long after that, our main entrees were brought out by the waitress and a helper. She wasn't kidding that the veal portions were large at Fried Green Tomatoes. I had two rather large veal cutlets topped with sauteed fresh mushrooms and swimming in a marsala sauce that seemed to be darker than marsala sauces I've had before.
Cindy's filet with butterflied prawns looked great and she said the steak was cooked perfectly to her liking. My veal marsala, however... Well...
Years ago, my grandmother used to make Swiss steak for nearly every family dinner that she had. It got to a point that it became a family joke, fully knowing that for every birthday dinner she'd have for one of our immediate family, she'd have Swiss steak. My sister was born two weeks before me, my cousin was born a week before me and I was born in late April. Each time my grandmother would have a dinner for our April birthdays - each week - we'd have Swiss steak. But no one could bring themselves to tell her that we were really burned out on Swiss steak. To this day, I have a strong aversion to Swiss steak.
The marsala sauce at Fried Green Tomatoes had a tomato base to it, something I'd never ever had before with a veal marsala. The first bites brought back bitter memories of my grandmother's Swiss steak. To me, it was almost repulsive. Not that it was bad, it was very flavorful and the veal was very tender. But I'd never had a marsala sauce that was so tomato-heavy.
The waitress came around and asked how our meals were. I said, "I should have gotten the veal piccata."
"You don't like it," she asked.
I said, "Well, it's not that it's bad, it's just that I was sort of surprised to find your marsala sauce was a tomato base. It's sort of heavy and it's tastes like my grandmother's Swiss steak."
Cindy said, "Oh, God! And that's not a good thing!" She knows the story of my grandmother's Swiss steak by heart. She knows to never make Swiss steak in our house.
She said, "Well, we can certainly rectify that situation. I can get you the veal piccata."
I replied, "Oh, no. No, no. I ordered this, I'll eat this. I'll just remember the next time I come here I won't order the veal marsala."
Actually, I have been spoiled by the veal marsala at Ristorante DeMarco's in the western Chicago suburbs. It's, by far, the best veal marsala I've ever had. I should just not order veal marsala at any other place because I know I'll be highly disappointed.
The heavy marsala sauce was very rich and filling. The veal cutlets were served on top of broasted potato wedges. I didn't have a bite of the potatoes.
(By the way, Fried Green Tomatoes does not have a child's menu. They also do not have high chairs or booster seats. Head chef Joe Kuhse doesn't have a deep fryer in the kitchen so they don't make french fries. Fred Bonnet has said that it isn't that they don't like to have children in the restaurant, it's just that they don't fully accommodate to people with young children. "If a kid needs fries and a hamburger," Bonnet once said, "we'd go next door to the Paradise bar and get them a burger and fries from there." In other words, Fried Green Tomatoes is a grown up place.)
Our waitress came around when we were finished with our meals and tempted us with the dessert tray. We were both stuffed from the meal and I wasn't certain that could do any dessert. But she said, "All our desserts are made in house. We're especially known for our tiramisu."
I began to cave in. I said, "OK, bring us a piece of tiramisu with two forks."
Cindy said, "Hold on a second, buddy. I think I want to try the creme brulee."
I kind of groaned and said, "I don't know if I want creme brulee."
She said, "OK, get the tiramisu and I'll get the creme brulee. Then we can share."
When the waitress brought out the desserts I about died. The piece of tiramisu was huge. Cindy's dish of creme brulee was manageable, but I knew there was no way I could even finish the tiramisu, even with Cindy's help. And we couldn't finish either the tiramisu and creme brulee, but we made a big dent in it.
Other than the veal marsala - which, I'm sure, most people would absolutely love - everything about Fried Green Tomatoes was excellent. The service was wonderful, the waitress was friendly and accommodating, the food was great, the ambiance was wonderful. Our car was right by the back door ready for us when we went down to leave the restaurant. The only thing Cindy regretted over the whole night was that she never got a chance to eat at the original Fried Green Tomatoes out in the country. Oh well. Sorry, babe. We just didn't get it done. But in the grand scheme fo things, I have little to complain about with this version of Fried Green Tomatoes.
We remarked many times during our visit to Galena that we were amazed why we didn't come up more often. We're only 75 minutes away and we've gone a lot further just for dinner before. With a place like Fried Green Tomatoes, it will be easy to get back up there more often. And I can't wait to get back.