By SHANNON WATKINS
For people with foodie leanings, the closing of a favorite restaurant is somewhere between the loss of an old friendship and the demise of a romance.
Ironically enough, my introduction to a particular restaurant was courtesy of a friendship that has long since passed its season. And now the same thing is happening to the place itself: Blacksburg’s Backstreets Restaurant is closing later this month.
“We’re all pretty sad about it, too,” said manager Eric Sturm, who also serves as chef. He was presiding over the kitchen in the mid to late ‘90s when I first dined there.
“It’s a big part of my life,” said Sturm over the phone. “I gladly would have retired here. But Blacksburg changed greatly over the years. Business is not what it once was–there’s a lot of dining options on the Tech campus now for students that there didn’t used to be.”
He also cited more elemental causes: “Both Steve (Andrews, the owner) and I are getting older. I’m also getting a bit antsy. I feel it’s time to move on.”
Backstreets has been in business since 1984, but I will always fondly recall the menu from its boom years in the nineties. After that point, Backstreets dabbled in periods of adding Asian cuisine to its menu, and, lately, a few Cajun dishes. But at its best it was pure Italian, not merely in the sense of cooking traditional dishes, but in playfully making the best of fresh ideas and ingredients.
One such dish that nobody but me seems to recall was a cream of almond soup that debuted as a weekend special and then vanished forevermore. Sturm doesn’t remember it and doesn’t have a recipe per se. “I was just kind of making specials of the day to taste,” he said when I asked.
Somewhat like Nora Ephron on her quest for cabbage strudel, I’ve dug around for a suitable recipe that can bring back the experience. It would help if I could place the exact flavor notes it had; but everything blended into a seamless whole. None of the versions I’ve tried at home seem to make the cut, either. Certain kinds of magic can’t be reproduced.
I will also miss the focaccia terribly: less like the usual poofy bread of its name, it was flattish but still soft and chewy, redolent of herbs and olive oil and its own salty, yeasty sweetness. It was the first I’d ever had and as a young twentysomething I felt terribly sophisticated eating it.
Backstreets’ chicken saltimbocca played a notable part in my recovery from a root canal (straight from the dentist’s chair to the booth, determined to chew no matter the pain). The way they cut mushrooms (quartered, not sliced) made me rethink my assumptions about the best way to cook things, and literally, I believe, made me smarter.
Their chocolate mousse was perfection, suspended between the airiness of a soufflé and the denseness of an ordinary pudding, punctuated throughout by tiny slivers of unmelted bittersweet chocolate that dissolved on the tongue. Their tiramisu is still the pinnacle of desserts in my memory, served in a small, luxurious puddle of cream. Backstreets taught me lessons about the pleasures of the table that I’ll never forget.
Luckily, I was able to beg a recipe from Sturm. Interestingly enough, it turns out the focaccia was essentially their pizza dough, rubbed with a special mixture, allowed to proof all day, then baked at 650F in a commercial oven for 5 minutes. Perhaps a slightly longer blast in a home oven at 500F will do the trick? I’ll have to try.
It likely won’t be as good when I make it myself, or maybe equally good but different. Honestly, I think what I’m trying to taste is my own past joy in discovering something new and exciting.
1 cup olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
½ tsp white pepper
1 Tbsp + 2 ¼ tsp paprika
¾ tsp onion powder
1 ½ tsp crushed garlic
1 Tbsp + 1 ½ tsp fresh basil
¾ cups parmesan cheese
Mix ingredients together and puree in blender. Brush all over your pizza dough of choice, preferably homemade; proof for a day, then roll out in a 13” circle, poke liberally with a fork, and bake at a high temperature for the shortest time possible. Excellent with any Italian dishes.