Cafeteria food is never like this

August 28, 2007|By FEDORA COPLEY

For anyone who has never been to LJ's and the Kat Lounge, let me make this quite clear: It's an exquisite experience. Even when they serve cafeteria food. Especially when they serve cafeteria food.

For the most part, LJ's suave sophistication is adult-centered. It is one of the best, most expensive restaurants in Hagerstown. But still, it is fun and interesting for teens.

LJ's is the restaurant dining room, with chocolate brown walls and a full view of the kitchen. The Kat Lounge is funkier, carpeted in zebra stripes.

It was in the stylish confines of the latter that my family began its descent into delectable dining.

This night in mid-July was promoted as LJ's first Epicurean dinner. And this was no ordinary meal. Each course, of which there were 12 plus hors d'oeuvres, was a creative, gourmet adaptation of a school cafeteria dish. For example, hors d'oeuvres included a savory version of the classic Nutty Buddy ice cream treat - salty chicken mousse (instead of ice cream) with deep chocolate swirls and homemade savory cone.


Dinner begins

After hors d'oeuvres, we moved into the dining area. Alex Tiches, LJ's owner, welcomed about 30 diners with a casual introduction to the following feast. He said Chef Lonnie Coble and himself think food is "about having fun with friends," and that the evening's dinner was exactly that. As the night progressed, I came to think this statement was right on.

The night's menu was printed on charming brown paper lunch bags standing at every place setting. The first course was grilled cheese and tomato soup. In the context of LJ's, we knew this would not be the classic combo, but something else entirely.

Wait staff placed in front of every person a white dish, on which rested a 2-inch-square sandwich and a shot glass filled with two layers of liquid, one creamy and one clear. The sandwich was exquisite - light, moist bread with whipped, 8-year-old cheddar cheese in the middle. It was incredible.

The shot glass contained a nonalcoholic tomato soup "shooter" - a potent tomato water layer topped with bechamel sauce. The two flavors created a wonderful cream of tomato soup flavor. My brother, Rowan, downed his all in one go. I savored mine.

Rethinking the Twinkie

Thus the evening began. During the next 11 courses, we were continually amazed at the ingenious, flavorful, sometimes bizarre dishes. The fruit roll-up was house-made from applesauce with cinnamon. The pizza slice was a dessert pizza with banana slices and chocolate on a shortbread crust. There was even a savory "Twinkie" - house-made angel food cake filled with a dollop of foie gras.

A family favorite was the "succotash" - deep-fried sweet corn ice cream with intensely flavored lima bean-butter sauce (it sounds horrible, I know, but it was incredibly delicious). I also liked the beautifully light, crispy, house-made tater tots (I thought back to the movie "Napoleon Dynamite" and had to chuckle) served with blue cheese ketchup.

Interspaced between the savory courses were sweet courses, like the fruit cocktail of ripe strawberries and peaches served with balsamic vinegar-vanilla sauce. The sharp vinegar flavor brought out the sweetness of the fruit. I don't think I'll be making the combo at home anytime soon, but it was definitely interesting.

Food of the future

All the courses were prepared in a unique and deconstructive way. The chef took the components of classic cafeteria meals and painted a whole new picture by molding them into something different and creative. My brother thought some of it was like the food of the future, as if made in a chemistry lab. In a good way, though.

The lasagna, for example, was served in layers - beef confit, smoked mozzarella, garlic bread and tomato jelly. I did not partake of it, because of the meat, but it looked fantastic. My sister, who does eat meat, said it was interesting, though difficult to get all the components in one mouthful.

With every course, a different kind of alcohol was served. Each one - wine, beer, whiskey, port - was carefully selected to complement the dish it was accompanying. My brother and I being the only kids present, we got alcohol-free beverages.

The evening was a fun time for my family, both because of the incredible flavors and because of the time we spent together.

I'll have a whole new perspective the next time I sit down at a cafeteria to eat grilled cheese and tomato soup.

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