Roll On, Columbia

Columbia's a college town. It's also an eatin' town. Big-time.

Booches Billiards Hall

Columbia, Missouri

An ATM that dispenses five-dollar bills: I must be in a college town.

Specifically, I'm standing in the vestibule of a bank in Columbia, Missouri, the home of Columbia College, Stephens College and the University of Missouri's flagship campus. At last count, I have (barely) enough in my account that withdrawing it in five-dollar increments isn't essential — but since I don't need much more than five bucks for lunch at Booches Billiards Hall (110 South Ninth Street, Columbia; 573-874-9519), it's convenient.

Booches opened in 1884 — Chester A. Arthur was president, kids — so I'm probably the last person in the world to learn that Booches a) doesn't take credit or debit cards and b) serves only burgers.

"And cheeseburgers," our waiter says. "They're small, so most people usually order two. We don't have fries. We do have chips. In bags."

My fiancée and I each order two cheeseburgers, a bag of barbecue chips and a soft drink. While we wait, we admire the sheer scale of Booches, a long, high-ceilinged space, dark wood and dim lighting, dominated by pool and snooker tables. Regulars' cues are stored along the walls, protected by tiny padlocks. It should reek of a century's cigarette smoke, but thanks to Columbia's ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, it smells like ground beef frying.

Our cheeseburgers arrive wrapped in wax paper. No plates. They're small compared to a burger from, say, O'Connell's, but not slider small. Two make a filling lunch. The flavor is straightforward: beefy, salty, cheesy. I take mine plain (your topping choices are onion, pickle, ketchup and mustard) and briefly wonder why we bother putting anything at all on our burgers. Those at Booches are — simply — outstanding.

We've come to Columbia for the True/False Film Festival, a celebration of documentary filmmaking. Our schedule is tight, but I'm determined to sample — sample being the key word here — as many of Columbia's restaurants as I can in 48 hours.

We don't have time for a proper dinner this evening, but we stop in Sycamore (800 East Broadway, Columbia; 573-874-8090) for drinks and appetizers. Sycamore is as big as Booches — at least three times as long as it is wide; maybe two stories tall — but that's the extent of the similarities. Sycamore is a modern, sophisticated space, all earth tones and burnished wood.

Chef Mike Odette's menu highlights local, seasonal ingredients. We order lobster pot pie (lobster isn't, strictly speaking, an ingredient native to Missouri, but it's chilly, and pot pie sounds just right), gnocchi with butternut squash and fried sage leaves, and an excellent shiraz from the thoughtful, affordable by-the-glass list. The pot pie's crust is soft and flaky, its top puffed out to an impressive size. The pie has more potato than lobster, but the lobster is perfectly cooked, each piece a burst of buttery sweetness. The gnocchi are excellent, not too heavy, not too light, and the squash is tender and sweet, but the fried sage leaves — only three of them, sadly — steal this dish. The frying gives the strong flavor of sage a mellow, slightly nutty undertone. If James Beard were God, this would be the bar snack in Heaven.

We're still hungry, but we need to head to the theater. We're starving by the time the film is over, so we make the pilgrimage to Shakespeare's Pizza (225 South Ninth Street, Columbia; 573-449-2454). There's not much left to say about this institution, the Platonic ideal of a pizza joint in a college town — of a pizza joint anywhere, really. We're served a delicious pizza with pepperoni and mushrooms; the pepperoni are sliced thick, a very nice touch that gives the whole pizza a boost of flavor. Shakespeare's claims to stay open "past your bedtime." We prove it. We're so tired we nearly leave without our souvenir plastic Shakespeare's cups.

We enjoyed our stop at Sycamore last night so much that we've returned today for lunch. I have a weakness for dishes that combine pork and pork, so I order the sandwich with pork loin and bacon (and fontina cheese, grilled onions, sun-dried tomato mayonnaise and barbecue sauce) on focaccia. This is good, especially the pork loin, from nearby Patchwork Family Farms, and I also like the "Hummus Wrap": cumin-spiked hummus, roasted red peppers and cucumbers in a whole-wheat pita made in-house.

My fiancée goes to a film. I wander around downtown, drinking too much coffee. When we meet up again, I need to settle my caffeinated nerves, so we head to Flat Branch Pub & Brewing (115 South Fifth Street, Columbia; 573-499-0400) for a beer and — since I can resist pretzels and cheese dip no more than I can unholy combinations of pork — a snack.

Flat Branch, which opened in 1994, offers beer in a wide range of styles, from traditional ales to brews spiked with green chiles. With its hoppy body and hint of coriander, Katy Trail Pale Ale reminds me of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, while Oil Change Oatmeal Stout (so named because Flat Branch used to be an auto dealership) is rich, creamy and filling — perfect for a late-winter afternoon.

For dinner we visit the Wine Cellar & Bistro (505 Cherry Street, Columbia; 573-442-7281). You enter at street level, then descend a ramp into the cozy dining room where tables are nestled among the wine racks. It's a lovely, even romantic, space, and executive chef Craig Cyr's menu reveals a man passionate about food.

Consider the description of the duck confit appetizer: "Mexican vanilla, juniper and garlic marinated Muscovy duck with watercress salad, candied yuzu, Goatsbeard cheese and Vietnamese-cinnamon-roasted, shag-bark hickory nuts."

My first reaction: "Wow."

My second reaction: "What's yuzu?" (It's a citrus fruit common to China, Korea and Japan.)

In other words, there's a lot going on in Cyr's dishes. In those I try, at least, these unusual ingredients and combinations work. The vanilla and cinnamon add just the right notes of sweetness to the confit and its accompanying salad, while the juniper and the yuzu give each a slight zing. In another appetizer, curry bridges the savory sweetness of braised oxtail and the more caramel sweetness of acorn squash.

The menu plays clever, too. "Tuna Mac" is a piece of fantastic ahi tuna seared rare, served over ziti pasta in a blend of fontina, Swiss and Boursin cheeses. Here Himalayan black truffles add an earthy note to the rather straightforward flavors of the tuna and pasta. Reassuringly, Cyr can also leave well enough alone: A tremendous veal chop, grilled medium-rare, needs little help, and Cyr dresses it with a relatively simple sherry vinaigrette.

Though the menu features more sophisticated dessert selections, we can't resist the chocolate fondue, which comes with homemade marshmallows. I don't think I've had homemade marshallows before. They are an indulgence, much more substantial than the store-bought variety. The fondue also brings enough fresh fruit to feed a table of six, and once again we stagger out into the Columbia night, full and exhausted.

We're as eager to return to the Wine Cellar & Bistro today as we were to return to the Sycamore yesterday. Unfortunately, our time in Columbia has reached its end. There's time for breakfast and one more film before we head back to St. Louis.

We stop at Cucina Sorella (22 North Ninth Street, Columbia; 573-443-5280), a small café owned by Trattoria Strada Nova, a more formal joint across the street. I'm fairly confident someone somewhere warned me never to order huevos rancheros at a café with an Italian name in the middle of Missouri, but Cucina Sorella's are good. The sauce packs a gradual heat, and the chorizo provides a strong, sharp flavor.

The guy sitting next to us is ready to leave, but a delivery truck has blocked his car. I ponder how nice it would be to get stuck here just one more night. Maybe the Wine Cellar could squeeze us in early or late; if not, Columbia boasts a remarkable number of good restaurants squeezed into the few square miles of downtown, and we'd be sure to find a table somewhere. But our car is free to go, St. Louis is still a two-hour drive away and we have dinner reservations — on the Hill, no less — at 8:15.

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