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What Ever Happened to American Food?

Sure, it was buried by fusion, scorned by ambitious chefs, and squeezed out by foreigners -- but two impressive new restaurants, Coach House and Wild Blue, have raised the flag again, and our fussy critic salutes.

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Was it the marvelous biscuits, flecked with bits of ham, Crowley cheese, and parsley? Or the irresistibly greasy corn stick, still hot from the oven? Was the rich buffalo pot roast to blame? Sitting at the new Coach House, Larry Forgione's homage to what was once celebrated as New York's best American restaurant, I find myself being swept away by this cuisinary time warp. It's clear I'm finally exhausted by too many overwrought foies with devilishly clever couplings, too many chops with displaced immigrant empanadas, egg rolls, and raviolis. Even those I'm embarrassed to admit I like.

Whatever happened to old-fashioned American regional cooking? I'm talking about the clean-cut, upper-crust classics that brought our forefathers, James Beard and Craig Claiborne, again and again to the late Leon Lianides's original Coach House on Waverly Place (now Babbo). Forgione strides these canyons virtually alone, quietly celebrating American tradition at An American Place and now in this compact annex of the Avalon hotel. Indeed, twenty years ago, his hunt for domestic wild mushrooms and fresh herbs (in the days when chanterelles came only in cans and fish on a menu meant either salmon or flounder) helped spark an agricultural revolution. Like Alice Waters in Berkeley, he subsidized local farmers to grow the heirloom products he needed, persuading a poultry supplier to raise chickens the old-fashioned way. "Free range" was the name he came up with. In the seventies, he was still cooking French, but friendship with James Beard brought out his Yankee Doodle Dandy.

The Coach House is Forgione's newest pledge of allegiance. Brand new Wild Blue in the World Trade Center and recently arrived City Hall have already joined the parade. And I hear murmurings of more regional revivals in blueprint. I'm holding my breath. This could be a trend.

Not to suggest that our town, the great melting pot, is without old-fashioned eating. Anne Rosenzweig's Lobster Club is as all-American as her lobster club sandwich, her gentrified matzo brei, and her simple squash soup. New York City's carnal obsession is still honored at steakhouses like the Palm, Peter Luger, and Maloney & Porcelli, with mammoth slabs of cow, crusty hashed-browns, the dreaded creamed spinach, and usually giant lobsters. A handful of deli stalwarts -- the Second Avenue Deli, the Carnegie, and the Stage -- comfort the Jewish soul with kasha varnishkes, matzo balls, and corned beef on rye even though their meat and bread have almost universally gone cruelly commercial. Black soul -- ribs, fried chicken, candied sweets, even chitterlings and peach cobbler -- survives fatphobia virtually intact at Sylvia's, Copeland's, and the Pink Tea Cup. And though I'm not sure what a born Texan or Tennessean would make of Virgil's, its macho take on barbecue is pig heaven to me.

The flurry of flag-waving around the Bicentennial certainly inspired a revival of American classics. Pastry cooks rediscovered crisps and crumbles. Hot-fudge sundaes, puddings, and shortcakes popped up on even the fanciest menus. "Seventeen years ago, you couldn't find mashed potatoes in a serious restaurant," observes cookbook author Arthur Schwartz, WOR's passionate mouth. "Now you can't escape them." (As if we would.) But that is small potatoes compared with the great regional smorgasbord I'm longing for.

Cajun burned itself out quickly, blackening everything in its path. (A classy carpetbagger could easily restore its image.) Low-country southern cooking came and went with Cafe Beulah. At the moment, galloping fantasy rules southwestern cooking at Mesa Grill (and in New Mexico as well). I love it, so I'm not complaining, even though it's not true-blue. I'm certainly not hungering for the sort-of-French, sort-of-Italian "Continental" food that passed for haute cuisine when I was growing up, though I guess you could say that's American tradition, too.


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