I generally give myself six out of 10 for looks and a seven for personality. Society at large, however, seems to have awarded me a four average. The latest thrill is, just as I reach an age mature enough to accept the popular vote, my small handful of good features—both physical and mental—begin their decline.
There is, however, a solution just a hop, skip and a jump away. The Foothills Milling Company (315 Washington Square South, Maryville) mysteriously lends its patrons a warm, subtle beauty in the way that other restaurants lend neckties. Gentle, forgiving light in a perfectly proportioned room, deferential yet friendly service, the ineffable optimism that comes from exceptionally good food—these are enough to make the most salientian of us rather princely. A quick glance around the dozen or so tables confirms the effect: Yes, we're all beautiful people now, glowing with a kind, romantic sheen.
And it's not just the clientele that dazzles; almost every dish here is gorgeous and plentiful, a culinary Scarlett Johansson that would look—and taste—good in any light. The family-owned restaurant's milling heritage is evident both in the historic equipment on display and in the pastry that is something of an idée-fixe, featuring in the cuisine's side dishes at a volume just short of twee. Like the décor, the menu is a combination of rustic and prim: high-end with some bravura touches and a good number of genuflections to the South.
A jolly trove of bread for the table includes rosemary focaccia and cornmeal muffins. Fried green tomatoes, served somewhat frivolously on a very long, narrow plate, are nicely done, but a little over-elaborate. Their bite is largely neutralized by the superfluous addition of chopped, fresh tomatoes. A pear salad, similarly, proves slightly overdressed.
But the perfection of the onion and goat cheese tart is enough to make you weep. Plump, creamy, light, and piping hot, the cheese gives just the faintest clotty tang amid the yielding crumble of the pastry. Yet this, almost unbelievably, isn't enough to make the tart the most enjoyable appetizer on offer. That prize must go to the fried rabbit livers, easily one of the best dishes I've had this year. Served on bread with a jalapeno glaze and shaved red onion, the quietly earthy taste of the meat balances perfectly with the sweetness of its accompaniment to create a melange of outstanding depth and richness.
The meats generally are preternaturally, almost suspiciously, tender. The duck—both breast and leg confit—seems to melt effortlessly, leaving just a hint of flavor to tug pleasantly at the port wine and blackberry soak. Barbecue braised pork cheeks (with macaroni and cheese tart, a good mashed potato, and baby green beans) are equally soft, yet retain a heartiness aided by the decent, if unadventurous, barbecue sauce.
Shrimp and grits prove a cozy delight, the jumbo shrimp, fresh and bouncy, sautéed with mushrooms, bacon, andouille sausage, and tasso in a white wine cream sauce over grits of a memorable coarseness.
Desserts are more policeman than revolutionary. The chocolate and vanilla custard cake is on the stolid side of dependable, but redeemed by the detail of its accompanying ice cream, a very lively chocolate affair. So too is the pedestrian deep-dish buttermilk pie wittily counterpointed by a delightful molasses brown sugar sauce.
Even with appetizers hovering around the $10 mark and entrees generally in the low twenties, Foothills Milling Co. is without question value for money. At its best, the food demands a hallowed sort of silence at odds with the effervescence its surroundings encourage. And for a while we are part of this rarified splendor, at least until, mortal once more, we emerge into the leaden stillness of Maryville on a Friday night. Leaving, I catch a glimpse of my reflection. Oh, well. Fun while it lasted.