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What Ever Happened to American Food?

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Sneak into this romantic hideaway with someone else's husband or even your own. The flirtation begins with the award-winning list of 1,500 wines and champagnes plus another 25 or so by the glass. Lomonaco's elegant food -- thick slices of silky foie gras with toasted brioche, splendid shrimp chowder, lobster risotto properly soupy and still perceptibly al dente -- is reason enough to bring sophisticated New Yorkers back to the 107th floor. In early tastings, sauces were sometimes over-reduced, too salty or too sweet. And fried oysters strike me as fashion victims in their too-bulky crumb coats, though I like the peppy guacamole they're leaning on. But all of us are excited by his beer-braised beef cheeks, pan-roasted cod with bacon and cockles, impeccably grilled halibut steak, and fabulous Colorado lamb T-bones big as Mike Tyson's fists. With entrees priced $18 to $28, our group of restrained winos can order $6 sides, enough for four to share -- amazing beets, garlic-mashed Yukon golds, too-sweet baby carrots, and battered asparagus. Yet the bill is less than $100 for two, tip included.

Cub Room's chef-owner, Lutece-prepped Henry Meer, braves his own American revival with wit and a wedge of iceberg lettuce. He gamely poured a fortune into a splendid celebration of turn-of-the-century New York at City Hall, which opened last fall. Installed in an 1863 neoclassical cast-iron building in TriBeCa, the sweeping space is supposed to evoke Katz's Deli, Oscar's Salt of the Sea, and Peter Luger. He's having fun with the retro relish tray (celery, carrots, radishes, and pickles), the Parker House roll, and baked Alaska. A few weeks ago he sold out of the $65 filet mignon-lobster surf and turf halfway through the second seating. A hill of mollusks and crustaceans sits on ice at the raw bar, where chowders and pan roasts are cooked to order. Prime steaks come off the intense heat black and blue if you wish, with a side of bearnaise sauce. The knockout hashed browns are a must. And the new dessert list resurrects the Lady Baltimore coconut layer cake alongside old-fashioned apple pie, strawberry poppy-seed shortcake, and Key-lime pie.

Manhattan's all-star chefs seem willing to leave this terrain to Forgione, Meer, and Lomonaco. Ambitious whisks with visions of Beard awards tend to dismiss old-time American cookery as Mom's down-home grub (even though it's what Charles Palmer and Alfred Portale cook for themselves at home). But that great grub is what brings homesick New Yorkers to Home and Drovers Tap Room, Village outposts of New Jersey and midwestern home cooking. There's not a lot of derring-do in pan-seared salmon with basil grits, spice-crusted pork chop, and burgers with homemade ketchup at modest prices in pocket-size Home -- or in the meat loaf, buttermilk fried chicken, and plum cobbler at the even homier Drovers. Just sighs of contentment from a hungry clientele. And sitting at the counter in Pearls Oyster Bar, you can almost feel Cape Cod's briny spray.

Maybe the solemn implications of the millennium will stir up fresh nostalgia. Recently, Zoe's Kevin Reilly told me how he picked up his mother's Betty Crocker cookbook and found the smoky crab soup that's on his spring menu. Forgione is refining plans for Rose Hill, a smartened-up version of the late Gloucester House that will go into his 32nd Street space when he moves An American Place to the new Benjamin Hotel on Lexington this summer. Restaurateur Shelly Fireman has been eavesdropping at oyster bars, planning to transform Fiorella on Third Avenue into a Sheepshead Bay seafood haunt. "I'll say I learned everything from my grandmother in Provincetown," says Fireman, whose exaggerated childhood memories (he grew up in the Bronx) infuse his Brooklyn Diner USA. And, surprise, deviled eggs have just landed on Fifty-Seven Fifty-Seven's bar menu.

In a city that happily supports kitchens born in Armenia, Szechuan, Afghanistan, Uzbek, Sardinia, Nice, Tibet, and Molyvos, there has to be room for classics born close by: Beard's boiled rare leg of lamb. New Orleans boeuf en daube glacé. A nice Huguenot torte, perhaps. Brown-sugar-glazed country ham . . . you know, good ol' Wasp soul food. The best of the Northwest and, gosh, the Midwest too. Maybe even sour-cherry pie. My pal Arthur Schwartz misses boyhood treats at Patricia Murphy's Candlelight Restaurant in Brooklyn Heights, where waitresses in gingham walked around with baskets of popovers. I miss the buttery lobster chunks with black walnuts inside a saffron rice ring that I tasted at Manhattan's long-defunct Little Old Mansion on my first dinner date with my husband and ex-husband-to-be. (I miss golden innocence and being 23, too, but that's a novel.

The Coach House (16 East 32nd Street; 696-1800). Wild Blue (One World Trade Center, 107th Floor; 524-7107). City Hall (131 Duane Street; 227-7777). An American Place (2 Park Avenue at 32nd Street; 684-2122). Home (20 Cornelia Street; 243-9579). Drovers Tap Room (9 Jones Street; 627-1233). Pearls Oyster Bar (18 Cornelia Street; 691-8211).


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