“You must not read the newspaper. That place closed.”

We’re trying the third of three locked doors at the Dayton, OH, restaurant we’re supposed to eat at. We made reservations two weeks ago via Open Table. But according to the nice couple passing by, the restaurant is shuttered — a cash-flow casualty.

We look up the street and see a triple-X bookstore/theater. Numerous bars. A lonely looking woman strumming a guitar and talking to herself. My boys start to whine.

“We’re from out of town,” my husband says. “Is there another place around here where we can eat with our boys?”

“Weeeeelll,” the woman says. “There’s a new Italian place a couple of blocks down.”

Ten minutes later, we’re sitting on the patio at Roost, toasting the serendipity (and one restaurant’s bad luck) that brought us here.

Roost (http://www.roostdayton.com/) is a tiny eatery in an evolving neighborhood. It opened in November and offers unexpected Italian fare. Sure, you can order spaghetti and meatballs, which the little boy latches onto. But he also gobbles up the marinated olives and gorgonzola and the truffled French fries that we order. The husband makes short work of an Italian sausage special. I’m more than happy with a warm mushroom and arugula salad and a bowl of Anaheim pepper soup.
Roost is why we’re shunning chains during our drive to and from the Midwest. The people here — from the bussers to our waiter to the two owners — are palpably excited about cooking seasonally and sourcing their restaurant with local food. Partners Dana Downs and Beth Hirschbach worked in catering before opening the place. When this building, which holds just over 30 tables, became available, they jumped at the chance to have a spot of their own. They couldn’t get bank financing, Beth tells me, so they took deep breaths and did everything themselves.
It seems to be paying off. Dana was recently named Dayton’s “Best Chef.” On this Friday, tables in the dining room are booked until 9 or 9:30 p.m. — the reason we’re enjoying a rather windy, slightly brisk meal outside.
Roost is indicative of what we’ve found on our 2,000-plus mile trip to Missouri and back. Chefs are doing interesting, exciting things with food — in flyover country, no less! During our time in Kansas City, my husband and I ate at Bluestem (http://www.bluestemkc.com/), one of our favorite haunts. This restaurant could easily hold its own against any of the Washington, DC, places we frequent (Nora Pouillon’s and Michel Richards’ included).
Bluestem opened in 2004. Since then, it and its chefs, Colby and Megan Garrelts, have received relatively little national press. I can only attribute this oversight to Bluestem’s “flyover country” locale — and to national restaurant writers who seem to concentrate solely on so-called hot spots. (Truly, if I read about one more “of-the-moment” restaurant in Portland or Austin, I may just vomit in my mouth.)
The night we visit, Bluestem sends out an amuse bouche the moment we sit down. It’s a warm cracker with meltingly sharp cheddar cheese inside. We order the three-course menu option (versus the five-course option or 10-course tasting menu) for $60 per person, plus a bottle of wine. We could pay $25 extra per person for wine pairings/presentations from Bluestem’s sommelier. But it isn’t necessary … General Manager Jeremy Lamb visits our table often, and we have lovely conversations about the local food scene and area farms.
Before the first course arrives, Chef Garrelts sends out what I can only call an amuse bouche flight: Four small bites that prepare us for the meal to come. There’s minced smoked salmon; a cold potato soup with herb oil; a tempura scallop; and a bite of perfectly ripe, bracingly chilled watermelon topped with a sliver of cherry tomato.
Heirloom tomatoes stuffed with burrata cheese and served with an olive oil crumble.
Our meal doesn’t disappoint. I dig into peeled heirloom tomatoes stuffed with burrata cheese; a roasted hen with creamed kale and bing cherries; and a dark chocolate torte with cherry sorbet and a cherry fritter. The husband enjoys a salad, salmon and a cheese platter. Our waiter brings us a tray of tiny desserts we can end the meal with as we sip coffee.
“Does Kansas City get this?” I ask our waiter at one point. (Because after 28 years away, I, too, am sometimes guilty of a flyover country mentality.)
“The foodies do,” he says. “People who come in with a Groupon deal are kind of surprised. But they leave happy, and that’s what we want.”
Colby and Megan are now preparing to open a second restaurant in Johnson County, KS. Called Rye, it will try to define “Midwestern cuisine.” There will be beef. And lots of pie.
I hope the national press takes note. Because it sounds like the kind of restaurant I would love to simply stumble across.
So after 2,200 miles in the car, how did we do on that quest to avoid fast-food and chain restaurants?
Not a perfect 10. There was the McDonalds breakfast our second day. Driving to Dayton from Kansas City we had another Mickey D’s stop outside Effingham, IL. (It was my fault. I was starving.) This morning we grabbed Panera Bread to eat in the car.
But three stops? That’s one chain every 733 miles. It’s not a gold, but I think we took the bronze.