When you mouth off for a living, you occasionally must eat your words.
Or in this case a masterpiece of a Reuben sandwich.
“Oh, mamma,” I told the gravel-voiced gentleman sitting on the barstool to my right. “This is the Reuben of the Gods.”
I know. My job can be really brutal sometimes.
I heard Scott McCandless laughing. I think he said something like “Right! I knew it,” but I was too engaged with my own chomping to be absolutely certain.
McCandless, 64, is the owner of Clover, 913 E. Sharp. Ensconced in an attractive 1904 Craftsman bungalow, the restaurant is considered to be one of Spokane’s finest dining establishments.
In addition, some wonk at Food & Wine magazine named Clover in 2013 as being one of the country’s Best New American Bars.
But I didn’t come for the booze. I came to Clover last Thursday get my culinary myth shattered.
It all started with an earlier phone call to McCandless on an unrelated topic. Then, somehow, our conversation turned to one of my all-time favorite meals.
Ah, the Reuben, a combination of corned beef, sauerkraut and thousand island or Russian dressing between toasted rye bread.
Not everybody appreciates these intense flavors – I get that.
But I fell in love with the Reuben one hot July night in downtown Spokane. A college kid at the time, I caught a movie and then wandered into Hooligan and Hannigan’s, a landmark and sadly now long-gone joint on First Avenue.
It is there that I consumed what I’ve always considered to be the quintessential Reuben.
The corned beef, as I recall, was simmering on the bar in some sort of crockpot. The guy behind it put a generous portion of meat on two pieces of dark rye along with some kraut and dressing and…
It was so juicy I didn’t dare pick it up. I wound up dissecting it with a knife and a fork.
Even the New York Times singled this Reuben out in a review of Spokane during Expo ’74.
“Spokane is blessed with a good number of taverns serving man-sized sandwiches,” observed the writer.
“Noteworthy is Hooligan and Hannigan’s, 601 First Avenue, where a good choice from among dozens of sandwiches is corned beef and sauerkraut at $1.25.”
I’m embarrassed to say how many buck-and-a-quarters I tossed down during the Summer of my Sandwich.
Then I moved away for a spell. Hooligan and Hannigan’s passed into extinction.
My rapacious Reuben lust, however, lived on. It took me to many other establishments.
O’Doherty’s Irish Bar & Grill, for example, serves a damn tasty homage to the fabled Hooligan Reuben.
When I told McCandless my story, the man started talking crazy.
The Clover Reuben, he boasted, was something special. It was the result of marinating 15-to-17 pound briskets for two weeks in a concoction of Guinness beer and beef stock that “we make from scratch.”
All right. Game on.
I accepted the challenge to come to the Gonzaga University District and try this upstart Reuben.
I should’ve known I was in for something extraordinary when the barkeep served me an unexpectedly delicious glass of cucumber lemonade.
McCandless pointed to a dinner plate set against a window to his right. “One plate at a time,” the text on it read.
This was not just a cute message, explained McCandless, but his mission as a restaurateur.
McCandless advocates a number of things like fresh ingredients, knowing where every ingredient comes from and avoiding preservatives and other additives at all cost.
The olive oil used at Clover, say. It comes from the Sciabica family that has been making olive oil for 104 years.
And don’t get McCandless started on his special blend of peppercorns. It’s as if he selected each small kernel himself.
McCandless is a gregarious impresario. Funny. Likable. Sitting with this burly man was like attending a food class, which, by the way, he teaches every month at his corporate headquarters, 608 N. Argonne. (See cloverspokane.com for details.)
McCandless ran over some of his life story while we waited for our sandwiches.
Married to Liz. Six children. Worked a number of jobs from a steel company to making snow skis to building buildings to robotic equipment.
He grew up in Monterey, California, where he surfed as a kid and dived with scuba gear. He also got a job in a deli, which, he added, sparked his love for good food.
McCandless came to the Spokane area in 1991 and set down roots. “This is my last stop,” he said.
The Reuben arrived after a wonderfully fresh salad with candied walnuts that – yes – were made on site.
My sandwich sat halved on a plate with a slice of pickle and a small pot of yellow mustard.
You already know what I thought of it.
A mediocre Reuben can stay with you all day. That’s usually because the meat is too tough and overly spiced.
Gut bombs are why God invented Pepcid Complete.
Not this baby. McCandless was right. All the marinating and attention to detail was evidenced from the first to the final bite.
Smooth rich fabulous flavors.
This is also a case where you get what you pay for. A Clover Reuben will cost you 17 bucks, which is a long, long way from my collegiate forays to Hooligan and Hannigan’s.
That price is sure to cause some sticker shock. Reuben sandwiches at other establishments will usually cost about half that much.
But, hey, I didn’t write this to talk about about usual. You want something high end you have to pay the freight.
The Clover Reuben may not be everyday fare, but as I told McCandless: “I’ll be back.”