Friday, December 01, 2006
Basque Country Dining: Saturday Night at the Star Hotel Restaurant
©Devany Vickery-Davidson 2006
It was the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend and we were rambling along Interstate 80, en route from Chicago to our new home in the San Francisco Bay area, a cat and two dogs in tow along with everything we needed to make the journey. Our food prospects on this trip had been pretty sad. In fact, we ended up in a lonely Council Bluffs, Iowa coffee shop (only thing open) on Thanksgiving night where I ate a not so wonderful Chinese Chicken salad for dinner. It did get better from there, but not much. Just when I was convinced that we were following the essential Donner Party Trail and fated to a culinary wasteland I noticed that with a little extra driving we could make it to Elko, Nevada where if my memory served me correctly, we might be able to dine at a great Basque restaurant. So, we found a pet friendly hotel there and drove across Wyoming, Utah and into Nevada
Elko, Nevada is a smallish high plains town located about 200 miles North West of Reno, just off I 80. There is not much to this town other than the casinos, bordellos and surrounding ranches. Because of the casinos and their hotels the place does have a smattering of restaurants, from steak houses to coffee shops. Northern Nevada’s large Basque population has been the inspiration for a few great Basque restaurants along Silver Street. The oldest of these is The Star Hotel, where I ate as a child on trips to Yellowstone. The other two are Biltoki and the Nevada Dinner House. Having already sweet memories of the Star Hotel, of course that is where we went to dinner on this chilly November night. In an old world immigrant kind of way it reminded both Wes and I of Three Brother’s Serbian Restaurant in Milwaukee., especially in the old Art Deco Bar where we waited about thirty minutes to be seated (reservations are only for parties of 8 or more).
My mother’s paternal grandmother was Basque and so I have always had an affection for the culture and food of these wonderfully seasoned Spanish/French people. When I was a child growing up in Southern California we used to go to a fantastic old hotel dining room in Chino (also sheep country back then before real estate prices made it impossible to farm there) called El Centro Basque Hotel. It was the first place I encountered things like real “Frenched” green beans, marinated sliced beef tongue and wine in little glasses instead of stemware... yes, even served to the youngsters, they just added water a bit of wine in the children’s glasses back then. Laws have changed and the Centro Basque Hotel is now a strip mall. Sad commentary on the value of good things.
What is Basque you ask? It is a region of the world that encompasses four Spanish provinces and three French provinces, literally “Zazpiak bat”, seven are one. The beginnings of the Basque nation, known as Euskadi did not actually form until the 1890’s, though the culture and language of these people has evolved over 10,000 years of living in this isolated region of Europe.
The Basque people began immigrating to Northern Nevada after the California Gold Rush ended in 1850. Many of the Basques were sheep herders and needed a place to stay in the winter. The Star Hotel was built by Pete Jauregui as a boarding facility in 1910 and has been running under Basque ownership ever since. It is now owned by Scott and Tricia Ygoa.
If you are interested enough to visit the Star Hotel , Start the meal, with a Picon Punch (see recipe below), the high-octane Basque digestif made of brandy, Picon (a Basque Bitter Orange liqueur), grenadine, and a twist of lemon. It will get your appetite going, and you are going to need a hearty sheep herder’s appetite at the Star Hotel!
The meals are served family style at long tables. The dinner bell rings and dinner is served, just as in the old days. When you are seated a basket of fresh Basque Sheepherders bread and real butter is served and immediately following that, a large bowl of soup. The night we were there it was a garlic cabbage soup in a light chicken broth with carrots, fennel, pimento peppers, cabbage and the one ingredient that is found in every dish except desserts Garlic! In the soup it is a back note, but in other dishes it takes awards as a supporting role. Next comes a huge gorgeous bowl of salad, just iceberg lettuce, but each leaf perfectly coated with a lovely garlic (of course!) vinaigrette. I had two helpings, Wes had one and there must have been at least three more servings left in the salad bowl.
The menu is simple. No matter what you order it will come with a variety of dishes, so the only real choice you have to make is what kind of wine you want and what your entrée should be. The offerings were salmon, steaks, roasted lamb, garlic lamb chops, baked chicken with garlic rosemary and thyme, shrimp in garlic butter, bacola a la Vizcaina (salt cod in pimento and tomato sauce), clams and rice, garbanzos with locally made cured chorizos, arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), fresh Dungeness Crab in garlic butter and a steak and lobster tail special.
The side dishes the night we were there were green beans (sorry to say, just canned ones), a tasty baked bean dish with a variety of beans, including some that were quite large, French fries (perfectly cooked) and pasta with red sauce. All meant to fill the bellies of hard working sheep herders.
We both chose grilled lamb chops, medium rare, marinated in garlic olive oil with paprika and topped with mounds of sliced sautéed garlic chips. Our plates each had three thick loin chops from fresh local lamb and they were perfectly cooked. At $19.99 each and $34 for an exquisite bottle of 2000 Rioja Reserve our tab was fantastically under $75, which was way beyond what I would call a bargain. No room for dessert, though it was offered. This is rustic, hearty food, not refined dining. But it is good food and an experience not to miss. I am still thinking about those lamb chops and the luscious garlic! The table cloths are plastic coated and the water pitcher is too, the waitresses are efficient and friendly. The noise level is a bit above a standard dining room because everyone is having a great time and most people there knew each other.
We are already trying to plan out a trip to Elko in which we can visit each of the three Basque restaurants and compare them. While the Star is the original and was packed with locals, having three there, thriving next door to each other is just too much of a temptation across the state line from our soon to be new home state, California. As they say there, “On egin” (enjoy your meal). Just one warning, watch out for the punch of the Picon Punch !
Star Hotel Basque Family Style Restaurant
246 Silver Street
Lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 – 2 pm
Dinner nightly 5:00 – 11pm
Reservations for parties of 8 or larger only
Average entrée: $17.00
Recipe for Picon Punch
1. Fill medium-sized beverage glass with ice cubes
2. Pour in 1 1/2 ounces Amer Picon liqueur & a splash of Grenadine
3. Add an equal amount of soda water
5. Rub twist of lemon around rim of glass
6. Float about 1 ounce of Brandy on top & stir
7. Slip Slowly, this drink is not for wimps