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Timbuktoo’s
****
Out of a possible five
$$$

Fremont log cabin is special

The bond between a mother and son is special, and in the case of Timbuktoo’s in Fremont, it is that bond that makes the restaurant special.

Owner Tim Barry took over the quaint log cabin restaurant from his mother, Connie Moeller, about two years ago. It was The Herb Garden when she ran it, and Tim changed the name and tweaked the menu to be more representative of his skills, but she remains a strong part of his team. All of the homemade soups and desserts are from her hands, a fact that brings a big smile to her son’s face.

“I am so proud of her,” Barry said. “She only started baking a couple of years ago. I mean, she always baked, but not for a restaurant until then.”

The cabin, which was built next to a flower shop Moeller ran years ago, was her home at first before becoming a restaurant. It has an understated décor with touches of old schoolhouse here and there – a globe, mini desk lamps, model planes. It has hardwood floors, which is what one would expect in a cabin, and the trademark exposed beams crisscrossing overhead. And although not overly formal, it really created the perfect atmosphere on a warm spring day when all of the windows were open, allowing a fresh, cool breeze to circulate throughout.

Moeller lives next door now and only has to walk across her yard to get to Timbuktoo’s kitchen. The crust on her rhubarb pie, however, was worth walking across a yard of hot coals for.

It was thick and super flaky and very pastry-like with just a touch of sugar. It was the best part of the pie – not that the sweet-tart rhubarb filling inside wasn’t great – and I enjoyed every morsel. The secret to that flaky masterpiece, Barry said, is a simple guideline his grandmother set of using strictly Crisco shortening and Mazola-brand oil when baking. Well, that and a lot of love.

I loved Timbuktoo’s pea-pickin’ cake even though it didn’t have a crust. The light, spongy yellow cake with pineapple and mandarin oranges baked into it was served ice cold and topped with a whipped icing that made it the perfect summer dessert – the kind of thing you would have at a family picnic. The Key lime pie was creamy and just a little tart, and the super rich and fudgy two-layer chocolate cake was hard to stop eating even though it was the complete opposite of that light, airy yellow cake.

The most impressive entrée came from Barry’s hands – the coffee-crusted rib-eye with bleu cheese compound butter.

Barry buys all of his meat locally in bulk and cuts the steaks himself. The rib-eye was seared wonderfully with the charred coffee forming a crust that gave way to the tender, pink and juicy center. The coffee rub also had a subtle sweetness to it, which was perfectly cut by the chunky pat of bleu cheese butter. It was just an unbelievably good steak.

Another unbelievable fact was exposed when I sampled Timbuktoo’s crab and salmon cakes. I was shocked that I enjoyed the salmon cakes more than the crab, especially considering I thought the crab cakes were top-notch – browned until crunchy on one side, but soft and moist the rest of the way through and packed with sweet, stringy, succulent crab.

The salmon cakes were seared the same way and were just as moist. Barry steams the wild-caught fillets first, he said, to make sure the fish stays moist and delectable before forming them into cakes.

They were basically the greatest salmon patties that your mother never made on those dreaded Friday fish nights.

The spinach balls appetizer was also a winner, and I thought they were a vegetarian’s dream. These little morsels were slightly smaller than a golf ball and were firm and chewy. They had a savory, herbaceous flavor from the fresh spinach and sort of reminded me of meatballs in terms of texture.

Moeller’s soup offerings did not make the impression her pie crust did, but all were enjoyable with the highlight being the corn chowder. It was full of diced red skin-on potatoes and had bacon pieces and a good amount of black pepper in its dark, savory base. The corn did add a splash of color and just a little sweetness, but it was really more of a good bacon-potato soup with corn than a true corn chowder.

There was only one problem with the grilled seafood stack, and it turned out to be a fortunate one. Described as a layer of crab, shrimp and grouper over rice, the layer of crab was actually a crab cake, which I really didn’t need after having them as appetizers, even though they were great. The shrimp were plump and perfectly cooked, and the grouper rivaled the crab cakes in quality as it was dusted with a delicious seasoning blend that had the perfect balance of salty, sweet and spicy.

The roasted mushroom ravioli had potential with a filling of roasted portabellos and porcinis folded into béchamel sauce, but they were smothered under a blanket of Timbuktoo’s homemade marinara sauce. The sauce was nice – thick and surprisingly zesty – but it was overpowering, and I found myself scraping off as much of it as I could. With just a hint of sauce, I could actually taste the meaty, flavorful mushrooms and detect the creaminess of the béchamel. Barry prides himself as a saucier, but he needs to pull back the reins on the marinara here.

The only other entrée flaw was with the bourbon-glazed chicken. The chicken breast was grilled nicely, but the bourbon sauce lacked bourbon flavor and just seemed like a pasty, dark barbecue sauce.

Restaurant: Timbuktoo’s

Address: 215 E. Indiana 120, Fremont

Phone: 260-495-1658

Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; (open one hour later during peak season, Memorial Day to Labor Day)

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol served: Full bar

Smoking status: Non-smoking

Credit cards accepted: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Crab cakes ($8.99), salmon cakes (entrée only $15.99), spinach balls ($6.99), grilled seafood stack ($22.99), bourbon-glazed chicken ($12.99), roasted mushroom ravioli ($11.99), dessert ($2.99)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3 star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130, or go to the “Dining Out” topic of “The Board” at www.journalgazette.net. DuVall’s past reviews can also be found at the Web site, and you can hear Ryan from 5 to 6 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.

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