Nick's still does the trick

For many Indiana University alumni, no Bloomington establishment evokes stronger nostalgia than Nick’s English Hut. (Which is neither English in origin, or a hut. Discuss.) Just saying the name brings to mind (usually drunken) visions of the quirky little shingled-awning, half-timbered façade on Kirkwood Avenue just a block from the edge of campus. Indeed, within stumbling distance.

Nick’s English Hut on Kirkwood Ave.

Inside, the nearly eighty-year-old restaurant welcomes drinkers and diners into its dark and cozy man-cave environs with Indiana University memorabilia strewn over every available inch of space. Be forewarned, taking in the IU license plates, photos, pennants, mounted deer heads and newsprint-style tables feels like looking through a giant kaleidoscope, and being in here for any length of time can be enough to make you feel dizzy. If the room starts to spin, just focus on the food, or one of the televisions scattered throughout the joint (this is one of the best spots in town to settle in for an IU game).

I didn’t hang out at Nick’s often when I was an IU student, but I do recall one particular end-of-semester happy hour with J-school ethics class comrades and regular lunches here with coworkers when I interned at the Herald-Times newspaper. This was 20-some years ago. The menu doesn’t appear to have changed much since then. Chili, sandwiches, pizza and deep-fried apps are what you want here.

My old college partner in crime (her nickname, in fact, was the Crime Dog), and I hit Nick’s for dinner about a week ago when I passed through town. First, we fueled up on a mini-pitcher of beer across the street at Kilroy’s, our old hang. If I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard “last call for alcohol!” within those walls… but that’s another story. Nick’s seemed more family-friendly than I remembered, perhaps because you can no longer smoke inside. Maybe we’re just older now.

Nick’s mushrooms with Dijon dipping sauce

We shared an order of the (deep-fried, of course) mushrooms as a starter. Yummy, greasy beer-battered goodness on a plate. The Dijon mayo dipping sauce was pretty tasty, too.

cup of Nick’s house-recipe chili

I followed this up with a cup of cheddar-smothered chili; Crime Dog went with the stromboli. Both house specialties. Nothing fancy, just the kind of solidly dependable eats you want in a place like this.

Nick’s famous stromboli

They say change is good. Not always, though.

For more information, visit www.nicksenglishhut.com.

Nick's English Hut on Urbanspoon

Nick’s still does the trick

For many Indiana University alumni, no Bloomington establishment evokes stronger nostalgia than Nick’s English Hut. (Which is neither English in origin, or a hut. Discuss.) Just saying the name brings to mind (usually drunken) visions of the quirky little shingled-awning, half-timbered façade on Kirkwood Avenue just a block from the edge of campus. Indeed, within stumbling distance.

Nick’s English Hut on Kirkwood Ave.

Inside, the nearly eighty-year-old restaurant welcomes drinkers and diners into its dark and cozy man-cave environs with Indiana University memorabilia strewn over every available inch of space. Be forewarned, taking in the IU license plates, photos, pennants, mounted deer heads and newsprint-style tables feels like looking through a giant kaleidoscope, and being in here for any length of time can be enough to make you feel dizzy. If the room starts to spin, just focus on the food, or one of the televisions scattered throughout the joint (this is one of the best spots in town to settle in for an IU game).

I didn’t hang out at Nick’s often when I was an IU student, but I do recall one particular end-of-semester happy hour with J-school ethics class comrades and regular lunches here with coworkers when I interned at the Herald-Times newspaper. This was 20-some years ago. The menu doesn’t appear to have changed much since then. Chili, sandwiches, pizza and deep-fried apps are what you want here.

My old college partner in crime (her nickname, in fact, was the Crime Dog), and I hit Nick’s for dinner about a week ago when I passed through town. First, we fueled up on a mini-pitcher of beer across the street at Kilroy’s, our old hang. If I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard “last call for alcohol!” within those walls… but that’s another story. Nick’s seemed more family-friendly than I remembered, perhaps because you can no longer smoke inside. Maybe we’re just older now.

Nick’s mushrooms with Dijon dipping sauce

We shared an order of the (deep-fried, of course) mushrooms as a starter. Yummy, greasy beer-battered goodness on a plate. The Dijon mayo dipping sauce was pretty tasty, too.

cup of Nick’s house-recipe chili

I followed this up with a cup of cheddar-smothered chili; Crime Dog went with the stromboli. Both house specialties. Nothing fancy, just the kind of solidly dependable eats you want in a place like this.

Nick’s famous stromboli

They say change is good. Not always, though.

For more information, visit www.nicksenglishhut.com.

Nick's English Hut on Urbanspoon

Morel of the story

My dad, a native Hoosier from Vincennes, and my brother, born and raised in Richmond, are avid outdoorsmen. This time of year, this can only mean one thing. Mushrooms.

Around the second or third week in April when the weather alternates between rain and 70-degree sunny days, they start getting the itch. All it takes is one rumor of sightings to make their eyes light up in anticipation. The next thing you know, they’re spending every spare second tromping through the woods in hot pursuit of these fickle beauties.

Indiana wild mushrooms are only available for a very short window each spring, a few weeks between late April and mid-May, depending on the weather. That’s what makes them so coveted; you have to wait all year to enjoy them. By the time they finally arrive, you’ve whetted your appetite for 11 months. Of course they’re going to taste good!

Each mushroom aficionado has his or her own sacred hunting territory, and good luck getting any hint as to the location of these favored secret spots. Some folks are even lucky enough to find the elusive little fungi boldly popping up in their own back yards, although I think those stories are nothing more than urban legend.

My dad likes to tell a tale about taking me along on a mushroom hunting expedition when I was about four years old. After an hours-long romp through the woods turned up nothing, I was tired and whiny. As dad slung me up into his arms and turned to carry me back to the car, he glimpsed a mushroom. Then another. And another. Jackpot. Forced to choose between an exhausted little girl bucking to go home and a veritable grove of mushroom bounty right in front of him, ripe for the picking. I’m sure he had tears in his eyes as he reluctantly toted me out of there.

If you like mushrooms, you NEED to taste an Indiana morel. Fresh, their flavor isn’t like any kind you find in the grocery store; it’s wilder, gamier and meatier. It’s a shroom you can really sink your teeth into, not like those bland little white button deals or those overhyped exotic varieties. I enjoy those as well, but I find you really have to season the heck out of them to give them any sort of personality.

And speaking of the supermarket, don’t you dare spend $20 or $30 a pound for the pathetic measly dried morels you find there. Befriend a mushroom hunter and start sucking up pronto. Lots of people have a mushroom source, just ask around and you might be surprised to find out that your unassuming office mate is actually a mushroom superman in disguise. These folks are more popular than crack dealers this time of year; bribes might be in order if you hope to find yourself on the receiving end of a batch of mushrooms.

Besides the pretty, spongy, yellow morels — the most prized of the bunch — you can also eat a kind of mushrooms my dad calls spikes (I’ve also heard these referred to as “peckerheads,” which I find much funnier). Make sure you’re getting your mushrooms from a trusted source so you know you’re eating the safe variety. Don’t go picking any old toadstool you find in your yard and tossing it into a deep fryer. You do NOT want to mess around here — nearly everything but morels and spikes is poisonous and can cause serious and potentially fatal health consequences if ingested.

When you can get your hands on the right mushrooms, however, it’s culinary bliss. Just as everyone has a spot for hunting, everyone has a favorite method when it comes to preparation. Morels are usually best battered and fried, although I’ve also seen them simply sautéed and sometimes making appearances in sauces at upscale restaurants. I prefer them fried. I’m an Indiana girl, after all…

Many people rely on a simple egg/flour dip before tossing the shrooms in a frying pan, but my dad swears by a seasoning mix called Drake’s. That’s what I used last night when I tried my hand at frying them for the first time. My dad and brother are the resident experts when it comes to fixing mushrooms at our house, so I’ve always just enjoyed up to this point without ever having to do anything to earn the honor. My dad came over for Easter weekend and brought with him a big batch of spikes that he left to me to take care of. Around suppertime, I got out all my frying accoutrement, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

As the vegetable oil heated up on my trusty old Chambers gas cooktop, I measured out the Drake’s and mixed it in a solution of half water and half beer (Thr3e Wise Men Snow Bunny Blonde, to be exact). I set aside a small stack of mushrooms for my test batch. A quick dip in the batter and then into the oil they went. I made the rookie mistake of trying to fry too many mushrooms at once and my first effort fused into a big doughy mass that I had to flip over like a giant pancake. Still, I was able to break them up once I took them out of the pan without affecting the taste. Grease splattered everywhere. When it was all said and done, the stovetop looked like a war zone and I was covered head to toe with a thin film of oil that still hasn’t come out even after a thorough hair washing.

Tentatively, I took a first bite. Greasy, salty, meaty goodness! Hallelujah – I am my father’s daughter! Mushrooms are deliciously addictive straight up and outrageously good in an omelet, but I piled a stack of the crunchy little morsels onto a piece of Miracle Whip-slathered bread for a heavenly sandwich. And, I was thrilled when my stepson and son tied into the platter like they hadn’t seen food all day. (I guess they hadn’t really, stuffing themselves instead on the contents of their Easter baskets.)

my little mushroom eaters

Feeling much more confident, I fried up the remaining mushrooms and took them down to our neighbors, where they were equally well received and eaten on sandwiches with mustard (note to self — must try). My husband refused to even taste a single mushroom. He did, however, clean up the massive mess I’d made of the kitchen while I was down the street visiting. Thanks for having my back, babe.

France can keep its snobby truffles. I’ll take my Indiana morels any day.