Saturday, April 17, 2010

Hannah's Off the Square, 100-mile Meal, April 20, 2010


By Ellen "EJ" Sackett
Originally published in the Denton Record-Chronicle, DentonTime, April 15, 2010

Nine summers ago, Sheena Croft arrived in Denton with nothing but her cat, her car and a small overnight bag. Excited to start a new life in Texas, her boyfriend, now husband, was about to begin graduate studies in art at the University of North Texas, while Croft, a trained chef, planned to travel around Texas to learn about its cuisine. 
They packed all of their belongings in a huge Ryder truck and drove in tandem from southern Georgia, stopping to spend the night in New Orleans. The next morning, they woke up to find their truck gone.

They did, however, have an apartment ready and waiting. The property management company provided them with towels and tooth- brushes. Croft’s aunt sent a care package of clothes and helped them with immediate expenses. But the stress of starting over in a new place took its toll. At a shopping excursion at Sears, the couple had a minor melt- down. It got the attention of a clerk, who called in the store manager, who listened to their story and offered them a line of credit at zero percent interest. The Sears manager also handed Croft a section of the Denton Record-Chronicle with an article about a new “Tex-French” restaurant that was opening in two weeks, called “Hannah’s Off the Square.”

“I put on clothes from my aunt and drove to Hannah’s,” Croft said.
She was determined to convince the then-owner, Eric Hill, that she was the perfect person to be chef. Unfortunately, he already had hired someone else, but Croft didn’t give up. She told him: “I know this cuisine. I know your customer base. I worked at a restaurant just like this for three years. Let me create a menu.” 

Almost a decade later, Croft is still creating menus as the restaurant’s executive chef, never leaving her Southern roots far behind. “We didn’t have fast food,” said Croft,
referring to her years growing up in southern Georgia and northern Florida. Instead, her family ate what was readily available to them. “My chicken was shark tail, alligator, snapping turtle — they were all mystery white meats,” Croft said. “We’d get mussels from the river, go down to the creek and get crawfish, go deep-sea fishing where the Suwannee River enters the Gulf of Mexico. We were down there every other weekend, bring back whatever, fishing in the river behind our house, getting mullet, smoking the mullet, gathering hickory nuts for the fire, drying sassafras leaves from the tree in the backyard for gumbo filĂ©.” Even now when Croft goes home for Christmas, she can count on being served either quail or squirrel. “My mom gets her .22 out and goes into the front yard,” she said.

Croft became particularly mindful of using fresh, local ingredients a few years ago when she read the book Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100-Mile Diet, by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon. The book inspired her to create a meal served family-style for Hannah’s patrons using only ingredients found within a 100-mile radius of Denton — all the way down to the salt. The 100-mile meal has now grown into a biannual event. Previous such meals were held in the fall, when fresh, local produce is abun- dant. However, Hannah’s upcoming 100-mile meal is the first to be held during the spring. “There’s not as much in the spring as in the fall,” Croft said. She called it “a challenge. I just want to see if I can do it.”

The 100-mile-diet concept is related to the Slow Food movement, whose focus, in part, is reducing the environmental impact of how food is brought from farm to table. “It’s also the way of preparing food — the idea of things being cooked simply within their season, as fresh as possible,” Croft said.

The dishes served Tuesday night will be based on what produce is available “right then,” Croft said. “The food really does dictate the recipes.”
The menu will include soup; simple salads; sauteed greens; roasted and braised meats including beef, pork and chicken; egg dishes; and fresh strawberries and whipped cream for dessert. The meal will be accompanied by local wines selected by wine steward Jason Lastovica.

“My large food vendors have contracts with local farmers. I can order through my regular supply,” Croft said. She will also get some specialty items from small farms “at the last second.” She’ll use herbs grown in her own garden, a stash from her larder of canned goods and red wine vinegar from other seasons and 100-mile meals past, and produce from local growers through the Denton Community Market and The Cupboard Natural Foods. In addition, she has been promised amaranth (Chinese spinach) from the community garden at Bowling Green Park. “I have a plot there,” Croft said. “I put in tomatoes, lemon cucumbers, chili peppers, all kinds of stuff. I’m really excited to be able to get some things from there for the next [100-mile meal] in the fall."


Hannah's Off the Square Restaurant
111 W. Mulberry St. Denton, TX 
$75 per person, limited seating

Friday, April 2, 2010

Eating Out(side) in Denton

By Ellen "EJ" Sackett
Finally, it’s safe to sit outside. Winter is over, so you can dine in the open air without wishing you hadn’t.
I can’t name all the Denton-area eating establishments with outdoor seating, but here are several.
Denton Record-Chronicle/Ellen Sackett
Denton Record-Chronicle/Ellen Sackett
Patrons Jana and Jim Lampe enjoy medium-sized cups of coffee on the patio at Zera Coffee Co. on East McKinney Street.
On the downtown Square, enjoy a cosmic cup of coffee in front of Jupiter House, savor specialty ice cream at Beth Marie’s, or devour a typical English meal with a cold brew at Abbey Inn — that is, if you can find an empty chair.
One block south, locals and college students go to Sweetwater Grill & Tavern’s enclosed patio for the feel of outdoor eating year round. Rooster’s Roadhouse and Fuzzy’s Taco Shop on Industrial Street offer picnic tables in front and more outdoor seating in the back, and if you crave drinks and live music, head down a few doors to Dan’s Silverleaf.
For a more upscale dining experience, listen to the gurgling fountain on the backyard terrace at Hannah’s Off the Square, enjoy a cool breeze on the patio at the Greenhouse Restaurant or relax with a glass of fine Italian wine behind the renovated Victorian-style home that is Giuseppe’s Italian Restaurant.
For outdoor Tex-Mex, think On the Border Mexican Grill and Cantina off Interstate 35E, or stop in at Mig’s Beer Garden at Miguelito’s on East McKinney Street at Bell Avenue, then go next door for some Mexican hot chocolate at Zera Coffee Co.
Want someplace scenic? For a wide open vista of North Texas spaces, head for WildHorse Grill at Robson Ranch near Ponder, or look beyond Interstate 35 from the west porch of Good Eats at North Loop 288. End the day by going to the Pourhouse Sports Grill patio to watch the sunset over Unicorn Lake.
Don’t let spring showers put a damper on your outdoor dining. Don your raincoat, dodge the drops, don’t wait and don’t forget — it’s Texas, after all.
The weather is sure to change, and 100-degree heat is just around the corner.
Originally written for Denton Record-Chronicle, DentonTime, April 1, 2010