FDR, CIA and DDD: A Summary of Central NY acronyms

Stop one of my annual summer road trip was to the heart of New York state to check out the Culinary Institute of America  (CIA).  Its flagship campus it located in Hyde Park which also happens to be the birthplace of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Unlike the other CIA, FDR had very little do with the cooking school. Although both CIAs were formed a little more than a year apart following WWII, the school was originally founded in Connecticut and did not relocate to Hyde Park until 1970.  The CIA (the school that is)  has produced some of America’s most notable celebrity chefs including Marcus Samuelsson, Anne Burrell, Michael Symon, Duff Goldman and the late Anthony Bourdain.

We arrived in time for the daily 4 pm tour which is conducted by students within the school.  Our guide, Ezra, showed us many of the ongoing stations and classes within the main building which ranged from fondant to rock candy to baguettes.  We were told of the hours of home practice required to perfect the tournee cut, a skill often used as a screening tool at interviews  all over.  There was an interesting discussion about the differences between the baking  vs cooking stream of students.  The bakers are meticulous (aka boring) while the cooks tend to be quite eccentric. (aka annoying).  It was quite surprising how the tour did nothing to mention the aforementioned celebs and seemed more a recruitment tool in the event I wanted to quit my job and enhance my cooking credentials beyond a “Dad’s grillin’ so everybody’s chillin'” apron.  I’d clearly opt for the cooking side of the curriculum and more specifically the culinary science arm so I could use words like “oxidative enzymatic browning” with an enhanced confidence.

cia campus
Culinary Institute of America Main Campus
cia 2 campus
Culinary Institute of America- Hyde Park Campus

Of note on the campus tour was “Old Diamondsides”, a sculpture representing the Atlantic Sturgeon, a vital species inhabiting the adjoining Hudson River. The life size   depiction is constructed from hundreds of pieces of recycled cutlery  and is meant to represent the struggle of such a magnificent species to survive in spite of over fishing, pollution and other human interference.

cia-fish.jpg
“Old Diamondsides” Sculpture

Although Guy Fieri is not an alum of the CIA, I would feel remiss if I did not venture to the Eveready Diner,  Hyde Park’s lone contribution to the DDD empire.   Characterized by neon lights and chrome finish, this old school diner promises big portions and great desserts and didn’t disappoint on either front.  The spinach dip was a bit watery but flavourful.  The consensus at the table was that the chicken salad, burger and mac and cheese were all quite acceptable although the potato salad was a bit bland. Plus, a sunnyside up egg on a burger can brighten any plate up. My mom (caught off guard in the picture above) is till talking about the cheesecake (which i think she ate before i got snap a pic).

The day ended with a hotel stay in New Paltz, New York. All  I can say is that it is one of the more interesting U.S. towns I have stayed in.  I should have known when I checked into the Hampton which was recently built directly adjacent to the Put Corner historic graveyard which houses the remains of 120 residents of the town placed between 1801-1880.  Two celebrity graves, that of heavyweight boxing champion Floyd Patterson and Oscar Tschirky, inventor of the Waldorf salad, are also buried in town but not in the plot hugging the Hampton. A visit to the really creepy dollar store down the road was surely a foreshadow for my visit to Bangor the next day and easily could have been the setting of supernatural anarchy in a Stephen King novel. Who needs Pennywise when you’ve experienced the horrors of a New Paltz dollar store.

 

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“Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” and they “Do the Evolution” of the Diner

I tend to hit my fair share of diners in my travels. In the past few years there has been a resurgence of the old diner concept with new establishments popping up in even some of the chic metropolitan areas of big cities (places like The Little Goat in Chicago and Rose and Sons in Toronto).  Although the “evolution” of new school diners have grasped onto some of the concepts of their ancestors (such as vinyl booths and counter seating), nothing can replace some aspects that make the old school diner what it is.

Here are a few observations I have made about diners:

1. Ninety-percent of old school diners are either named after a person or some kind of geographical entity or location. In Sudbury, I grew up going to Gloria’s restaurant.  The Countryview diner in Chatham inspired me to write this blog.  There’s the Lakeview in Toronto, the Southside restaurant in London and the Elgin Street diner in Ottawa.  The fact that there is there is no view of a river at the Riverview or that  Alice’s is owned by some dude named Paul  seems a moot point in the diner culture.

2. Much like you can count on any Chinese restaurant to have either a cocktail menu or a horoscope written on  their disposable menus (which eventually will be laden with bright red sweet and sour sauce), diners slap down the generic bilingual Welcome/Bienvenue mats which quickly get soaked with egg grease or globs of strawberry jam.  The table is also adorned with a carousel of prepackaged peanut butter, strawberry jams and orange marmalade (which in fact may be the same marmalade that has been there since 1984), hard butter packets and creamers which  not only lighten the less than stellar coffee but serve as building blocks for bored 6 year olds who eventually shove one or two in their mouths and pop them much to the chagrin of the accompanying family members.

4. As much as the show “Two Broke Girls” annoys the hell out of me, it’s a fair depiction of the old school diner.  The blackboard is reserved for the soup of the day plus/minus today’s special which tends to be a classic comfort dish.  My personal favorite is the “hot hamburg” (the “er” on the end of hamburger is entirely optional for some reason) in which  a hamburger patty in placed between two slices of white bread and laden with rich gravy and served with frozen crinkle cut fries and “homemade” slaw. The special also comes with soup or juice as a side.  I’ve always been intrigued by how the provision of a 3 oz shot glass of juice even compares to a steaming bowl of “homemade” soup. The same show also depicts the reality that the minimum age to work behind the cash in a diner is 70 (perhaps this was the inspiration for Pearl Jam’s “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town)”.  This person is clearly the quarterback of the organization despite the fact they take ten minutes to enter the price of each of the hand written orders into the Casio cash register and verify with the waitress that I indeed ordered the addition of grilled onions on my homefries for $0.45.  The process is interrupted two or three times when the cashier engages in a conversation with the three of four regulars about the size of Mabel’s homegrown pumpkin or the fact that toilet paper is on sale at the local grocery store.

5. Rice pudding and jello are mandatory desserts in any old school diner.  Furthermore, the pudding must be topped with an amount of cinnamon equal to a Rob Ford stash and the red or green jello must be cut into squares with architecture I.M. Pei would envy.

6. Small town diners ultimately have a dichotomy of staff.  On one side is the surly old woman who could tell you the number of pieces of gum stuck under table twelve, the amount of force you hit to hit the chugging ice machine with to keep it fully functional and the name of every regular who has walked in since the sixties.  On the other is the 17 year old “friend of the family” waitress whose angst is evident in the nose piercing (which later becomes the focal point of conversations at the counter when she’s not there).  This angst is partially rooted in the slight reality that she, like her coworker, may never leave the tight web of a small town and be forced to marry some guy named Billy and have a stag and doe the whole town will attend.

In the end, I adore diners.  They scream Canadiana in the same fashion as snowbanks and poutine.  Whether they have stayed the same for 50 years, evolved over time (including replacing old staff with hipsters with an equally surly attitude) or recently opened with adherence to an old school philosophy (like Mae’s in Detroit), they are a fundamental component of the food service structure and deserve respect. I think of the numerous food network shows in which the celebrity chefs cite the perfect fried egg as the pinnacle of culinary expertise yet it’s second nature to many of the seasoned veterans who grace the grills of diners across the country.

DDD:Cleveland:Lucky’s Cafe

Despite living in Ontario, I’ve been there three times and have thoroughly enjoyed it.   Each visit is an experience.  It’s a bit outside the normal definition of a DDD, but still maintains the fact that food is delicious. I’ll let the pictures do the talking regarding  Lucky’s, which is located in Tremont, a posh neighbourhood in Cleveland.  It has all the elements of a great breakfast/lunch place.

Lucky's Herb and Vegetable Garden
Lucky’s Herb and Vegetable Garden

From sweet to savory, anybody’s taste will be satisfied here.

The “biscuits” dish is surreal, with sausage gravy I can only describe as some sort of nectar of the porcine gods.  Both the biscuits and the eggs are light and fluffy like clouds where these gods reside.  The potatoes and grapes are perfect sides, especially when you douse the former with their homemade hot sauce. One of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had.

Biscuits
Biscuits

Perhaps the only thing that could make the above dish better is bacon.  In its own creative style, Lucky’s offers pecan coated bacon which bring some sweet into the natural saltiness of this iconic meat.  Although a buck and a half a slice, all you’ll need is a slice or two.

Pecan Bacon
Pecan Bacon

The gingerbread waffle floated like a magic carpet carrying Aladdin in the form of maple apples and honey whipped cream.  According to the new menu, this waffle has been replaced with a lemon one.  Needless to say, I don’t doubt it will be equally good.

Waffles
Waffles

For the tree huggers, there’s a granola and yogurt offering, complete with fresh fruit (although I don’t think the bananas were grown within 100 miles of Tremont).

Granola and Yogurt
House-Made Granola and Yogurt

For the savory at heart, the Reuben is fantastic. Other than the cheese I believe the entire dish is house-made, from the bread to the sauerkraut, including the potato salad. I ordered it with the soup which was equally delicious.

Reuben
Reuben with Carrot-Ginger Soup
Lucky's Potato Salad
Lucky’s Potato Salad

The Verdict

Instead of my normal banter, I’ll rely on the visuals to get my point across.  Lucky’s is a friendly, consistent and quality cafe in the heart of a city not known for a plethora of culinary genius  (well, except for Michael Symon who made an appearance during the taping of Lucky’s on DDD). It’s a can’t miss spot for me with every visit to Cleveland. The food is amazing,  it’s clean and the service is friendly.  Ask Zagat, who rates it  27, 20 and 24 respectively.

5 Guyz!

Lucky's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:King West:Sadie’s Diner and Juice Bar

My morality needed a boost as I found myself surrounded by friends and colleagues hunting high and low for vitamin releasing blenders and adhering to diets making them as alkaline as a Duracell battery.  So I made a decision that for one meal I would skip the meat and “eat what food eats”.  This philosophy drew me to Sadie’s Diner and Juice Bar, a well-established vegetarian diner in the King West area.

I entered with a brave face in hopes that the astute staff wouldn’t turn on their radar and call my bluff by detecting the trace amounts of pork by-products circulating in my blood from a bacon binge a few nights before. The waitress was a hip version of Anne of Green Gables, sporting some very flowery pants and a personality that matched.  A discussion about the merits of brewed coffee versus lattes followed and I felt a little more confident that my cloak and dagger attempt at portraying a clean eater was actually working.

I sat and stared at a menu offering some decent and classic breakfast dishes but with tree-hugging substitutes such as “fakin” and “fauxsage”. In the end, I settled for the Huevos Rancheros: Two eggs over easy on corn tortillas with salsa, refried beans, guacamole & cheddar cheese for  $12. It was calling my name as it had no reference to either the above mentioned imposters of something called “vegan cheese”.

As I sipped my coffee (I don’t use dairy..so there), I looked around and made a few interesting observations:

1.  There are pez dispensers (with numbers trumped only by the Paper Moon cafe in Baltimore) encased in the walls.

2.  Pieces of irony are scattered across the restaurant and included pig salt and pepper shakers, a replica of the Simpson’s Lard Lad and a really mean looking chicken as the April picture on a calender hanging on the wall.  Perhaps the latter was not ironic, because a word bubble inserted over the chicken could easily say “Take my eggs, but don’t touch my breasts!”

3.  Stunning artwork by struggling artists, jaded lovers and cautious optimists adorn the walls.

My breakfast arrived. The tortillas were crispy, the eggs were a bit over done (I need that ray of sunshine when I cut through the yolk…hmmmm…sounds like a cool theme for a painting) and the salsa,  beans and  guacamole were just ok, maybe because it couldn’t hide behind breakfast meat.

Huevos Rancheros: $12
Huevos Rancheros: $12

A plethora of juice combinations, in raw or smoothie form and starting at about $4 are available to complement any meal. They are juiced fresh without the help of David Wolfe, the Adam Duritz meets Jim Rome looking “longevity” expert, and his nutribullet…. but that’s another story.  Additions include vegan supplements such as:

Maca Powder: for increased energy & strength – $1.50

Sprouted Golden Flaxseed: fights cholesterol, natural source of antioxidants – $1.50

Spirulina Powder: mega-source of vitamin B12 – $1.50

Veggie Greens: a day‘s worth of fresh veggies in one scoop – $1.50

or…Vegan Protein Powderadd to any smoothie for extra oomph!

Raw Hemp Protein – $2

Brown Rice Protein – $2

Pumpkin Seed Protein – $2

VEGA Complete – $4

My Take

Joking about my meatless meal aside, Sadie’s is a neat place with a decent menu. There is passion in the food, the walls, the art and the staff. It’s neat, hip and cool with a fresh decor and an ok vegetarian menu. In the end, a fun switch from the everyday temptation of farmland friends but not so good whereas I’ll consider giving  up the sinful flesh. Or maybe I’m just afraid of that damn chicken.

Sadie's Diner on Urbanspoon