Beyond 'grazing'

Chef George Greiser makes a triumphant return to Gershwin's

I have an electric fork at home, purchased at a New York flea market.
You mean electric knife--someone always says when I tell them that.
No, electric fork.

There's a space in the handle for a battery, and when you push the switch, the tines of the fork go round and round. It's a spaghetti fork, see, and it saves you the great labor of twirling the noodles yourself.

I guess it could prevent some poor spaghetti maniac from developing carpal tunnel syndrome. But I doubt it. Some great ideas just aren't.

"Grazing" was like that. As a fine dining concept, that is. For cows and teenagers, grazing has always worked great. But in the Eighties, when Gershwin's opened--along with other "New American" restaurants--it offered "grazing plates." Remember?

The idea was that, instead of ordering an appetizer and entree, you ordered several small plates, each a different dish. It's not a bad idea: in an era of short attention spans, it kept dinner excitingly episodic. But even six little plates of food couldn't replace the gut impact of one big beefsteak, and grazing was a flop.

Mostly, people just didn't get it--they felt ripped off as soon as the first grazing plate arrived with what seemed to be a partial serving and a lot of garnish. Never mind that it was first in a series, just allowing you to eat the same amount more slowly, with more variety. That feeling of uncomfortable fullness is what you pay good money for when you go out to eat. Anything less, and you might not be getting your money's worth.

So grazing's gone. Its legacy is that in most restaurants today, the appetizers are the most interesting part of the menu.

Gershwin's did not go, though, and in the last few months, everyone has been telling me to play it again. George Greiser, the sous-chef of the restaurant when it opened, has returned from New York, where he's been cooking for the past several years, brightening his resume with such star turns as Pino Luongo's Le Madri, Aquavit, and Gotham Bar & Grill.

You just don't get more true-blue American than the Gershwin brothers: Ira, George, bootstraps, blues, and all. So Gershwin's made an apt name for a restaurant that opened right when Americans were deciding we needn't be embarrassed about liking our own native foodstuffs--that "American" and "cuisine" were no longer an oxymoron.

Even though Greiser's past few jobs have focused on Italian and French food, he's cooking American at Gershwin's. The menu is a list of classics from San Francisco cioppino to Chesapeake-style crabcakes to '90s-style pizza and '80s-style beggar's purses (these made with scallops instead of caviar). Quesadillas, pastas, venison, flavors from New Orleans and New York--Greiser pulls his ideas from all over, but puts everything together with confident simplicity.

The place still looks like what the name sounds like: a hotel restaurant, the front room conservatively brass and glass, the back room all brick and baskets of ferns. It's comfortable, though, relaxed without being exactly casual; there's live music on the weekends. We were served by a highly (even harshly) efficient waitress with a brisk hotel demeanor--lots of friendly goodwill but no real grace, which sums up the decor as well. But our food had plenty of style, especially for the ready-to-eat price.

Bread was a surprising delight--hot, crisp-crusted, and chewy, it set the standard for the meal, which started with house-smoked salmon. Thin pink curls of fish, garnished with hard-cooked egg, the yolks and whites chopped separately; diced red onion; sour cream; fish roe; capers. But I loved the fish simply on its own--strong, silky, and fragrant, with tones of sweetness and sea mingling with the smoke. Crabcakes were equally good, patted together with a light hand, smoothed with a creamy remoulade that had a mustard kick.

The warm baby spinach salad with bacon was a meal in itself, tender little rounded leaves and chewy bacon bits just sweetened with pear, while the arugula salad, packed into a four-inch mountain on the plate with hearts of palm and big shavings of parmesan, could have grazed a herd of cows easily--it was far too much for any one person to eat. Caesar was pungent, with big sourdough croutons.

Every entree was dramatically presented--with a big herb sprig or lattice potato slice jutting up. Smoked pork tenderloin was fork-tender and lightened by a touch of sugar, and this time, accompanied by whipped sweet potatoes and a tart red currant sauce.

Red snapper en papillote, a New Orleans dish that perfectly illustrates that gourmet city's propensity to gild the gustatory lily, topped fine white fish with shrimp and lump crab and a rich cream bisque-type sauce in the parchment shell. Garnet-red venison, garnished with redder cranberries, was crusted with pistachios, protecting the lean meat from toughening and adding some richness and crunch. Whipped potatoes were zapped with horseradish and spoon-molded into little ovals.

Desserts, an indulgence, were just as good. And there's a page-long list of wines by the glass as well as beers, some non-alcoholic.

Even the simple dish of linguine with tomato sauce ordered by my daughter was a shocking delight. Shocking, partly because the kitchen respected the tykes enough to serve them this sauce.

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