What Ever Happened to American Food?

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.

Defining American food is difficult, debatable. It’s Grandmother’s immigrant cooking. It’s Hungarian, Czech, Swedish, and Chinese. As Schwartz points out, “The last great American restaurant was the Coach House. What was American about it? A Greek owner. Avgolemono soup. Baltimore crab cakes. Cuban black-bean soup. French dacquoise.” That’s what I want. A heritage revival taking advantage of all the glorious products we now have. Fusion on the menu but not fusion on the plate.

Except for the egg-yolk-booby-trapped avgolemono soup, Forgione has resurrected all the Coach House classics that Schwartz recalls (at prices that can boost the tab for a three-course dinner with wine and tip to $85). The Madeira-spiked black-bean soup is actually more southern than Cuban. The chef’s Shenandoah Valley lamb rack, served with Jim Beard’s hashed potatoes, parallels Lianides’s Kentucky lamb. The first-rate veal chop is “real veal, slightly pink,” from calves that are free to range. Old Coach House regulars will recognize the wild striped bass poached in court bouillon, though on one recent night it was overcooked and unforgivably bland.

There is a warm, old-fashioned feel of welcome at a first early meal – our foursome almost alone in the unstylishly comfortable place. Spectacular house-made chips and toasted almonds are rushed to the table as we settle in, because “no one should wait without something to eat,” Forgione explains. He recalls Lianides toting cheese-stuffed celery to folks waiting for tardy tables to turn. Warm biscuits are instantly seductive, as is wondrously intense beef bouillon in a half-filled demitasse, a gift from the kitchen. Seared Key West shrimp on a toasted hominy cake in carrot-ginger broth bridges old and new. Americana mingles with old favorites from An American Place. Forgione fans will recognize the cedar-planked salmon, for instance, with Virginia spoon bread. In a tweak of the classic shellfish pan roast, the chef tosses razor clams with noodles in a garlic jus. Duck, first steamed, then roasted and boned, gets a persimmon glaze. At lunch, the deconstructed turkey potpie is a triumph – lots of dark meat and a perfect biscuit as a pillbox hat.

Sometimes the kitchen is off. Too-warm romaine hearts, an odd dribbled dressing. Oversalted clams. Sometimes it’s just the dish that disappoints. Gluey potato dumplings. I love how the sauce makes cod taste like lobster, but adding cauliflower distracts. Yet as always, Forgione serves the best fried clams in town – Ipswich beauties with plump, full bellies – and an unbeatable tartar sauce. (No mango. No cardamom. No bean sprouts. What a joy.) And his desserts are a National Hall of Fame: Jim Beard’s berry shortcake. Missouri-pecan pie. Rum-perfumed banana Betty. Warm bread pudding, the old Coach House crunchy mocha dacquoise, and, in winter, an exceptional quince tart with wildflower-honey ice cream.

In the fifties, when grand restaurants had to be French and outrageously haughty, the late Joe Baum dared to think American at the Four Seasons. Now his heirs at Windows on the World are betting on chef Michael Lomonaco’s upscale regional favorites at Wild Blue, replacing the pricier Cellar in the Sky. Take a few minutes to follow the pedal pushers and tank-topped tourists into the Greatest Bar on Earth (Greatest, yet no free nuts?) for a stirring view that sweeps the East River and its necklace of bridges. Then escape to the instant intimacy of Wild Blue, in architect Larry Bogdanow’s handsome rehab overlooking the harbor and Ms. Liberty.

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).

What Ever Happened to American Food?