Dining out with an old friend is generally a pleasing endeavor. Flowing drinks, bunch o' laughs, memory lane, all to the backdrop of the Boss belting out "Glory Days." Or something like that.
Mantini's Woodfired is at 601 E. Carson St. 412-488-1960.
For Munch, this isn't always the case. It's not that Munch doesn't cherish time spent with dear comrades -- Munch does. But everyone has at least one chum with whom their relationship is marked as much by acrimony as accord. A pal who annoys you with one-upmanship, then makes you shoot beer suds through your nose with a barrage of dirty jokes.
Enter Big Shot Lawyer Friend of Munch (BSLFOM). Big for short.
Munch and Big met up on the South Side, a perfect location for a study in contrasts. It's the type of place where Dior suits and Dickies boots drink together. Where artists starve, looking painfully hip in the process, and Wi-Fi junkies beam up in coffee shops, sucking down java and cigarettes. Where Munch once saw a midget dance on a bar and a certain rookie quarterback signing autographs in the same joint.
Our choice on a recent Friday night was Mantini's Woodfired, a new place in the industrial buffer zone blocks between the pre-packaged goods of Station Square and the authentic cool of the Flats. Since 1851 the dark brick building has always been a tavern of some sort, albeit with multiple incarnations and long vacancies. Mantini's debuted last month offering steaks, chops and something notably lacking in this part of town -- barbecue.
Plumes from the grill embers wafted through the dark wooden bar as we entered, and cool blues played in the background at just the right volume. We parked our duffs on a pair of stools, and Paul, the barkeep, greeted us with a handshake before pulling draughts of the cold gold.
No strangers to a tipple or two, Munch and Big weren't impressed by the pedestrian beer selection but found a respectable quotient of California wines and premium spirits, especially bourbons and whiskeys. We each ordered a Rolling Rock ($2.75) and happily crammed our gullets with the barbecue pulled pork quesadilla appetizer ($5.95).
The soft tortillas and tender pork strands offered a welcome Southern twist to the Tex-Mex staple and was a pleasant distraction for Munch while the barrister prattled on about cases and clients, motions filed and hours billed. Big had spent the previous evening at a political fund-raiser, glad-handing anyone bigger than he, his nose brown as a UPS truck. Beatnik Munch had finished a Vonnegut novel and then rolled a solid 167 at Arsenal Lanes.
The adjournment to the dining room gave Munch and Big just enough time launch into a typically heated row over who was at fault over some inconsequential matter that transpired a decade ago (his, of course). Tempers were soothed by the duskily lit dining room, the walls painted a warm burnt orange and decorated by colorful abstract oil canvases.
Ever the carnivore, Big tore his incisors through the ribs special ($15.95) all the while slathering smoky-sweet house-made barbecue sauce across his mush. The rib rack was similar in size to the one that tipped over the Flintstones' car during the show's end credits and slow-smoked so that Big reported that the meat practically liquefied in his mouth.
Munch eyed up the grilled barbecued shrimp ($19.95) before picking the marinated pork cutlet ($14.95). Soaked in a mix of barbecue sauce, olive oil and spices, each bite burst with Dixieland flavor.
Each entree is accompanied by two ample side dishes. Big went for the garlic spinach and the steamed broccoli; Munch the barbecue baked beans and Cheddar smashed potatoes.
Munch spied fresh cobbler ($4.95) on the dessert menu and wondered aloud how exactly a shoemaker is prepared, until Big smacked him upside his Yankee head and explained it was a fruit pastry and a daggum good 'un. The steaming, tangy blueberries and hot sugary crust were complemented perfectly by two scoops of rich vanilla ice cream. Somewhere, Aunt Bea smiled. Big chose the Bourbon Pecan Crusted creme brulee ($5.95). Mixed with a dram of Jim Beam, the fluffy treat was as much Paris, Ky., as it was Paris, France.
Stuffed like hunting trophies and left only to argue about who would pick up the somewhat weighty tab, Munch and Big were pleased. The meal reminded us of the Memphis stop on our collegiate cross-country drive -- a blurry night of blues, booze and BBQ on Beale Street. Mantini's presentation of laid-back American classics dressed up with casual sophistication was a fine middle ground for a pair of dueling archetypes. Even these two fools.