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Thorn, Kruse debate crowd-pleasing vs. attention-grabbing foods

Lessons from a Long Island diner that serves killer chicken parm.

In a monthly series, menu trend analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn debate current trends in the restaurant industry. For this installment, the two discuss the joys of simple foods.

Bret Thorn says keep it simple.

Nancy, I bought one of the best meals I had this year at a train station.

And it wasn't in one of those fancy refurbished ones like Union Station in Denver, which is now a destination food hall. No, this was at a commuter rail station on Long Island that looked like it hadn't seen a coat of paint in years.

I was visiting a couple of friends on the East End and had to change trains in Ronkonkoma. While waiting for my train, I soon spotted a diner that looked like it had been there for decades. I can’t remember its name and it doesn’t really matter; it’s the only diner at the Ronkonkoma train station. I peered inside at the bare-bones counter and Formica tables. It was a classic Long Island diner and therefore, I said to myself, "This place has a good chicken parmigiana."

I walked in and ordered a chicken parm hero, and the short-order cook grabbed a sub roll, pulled a couple of breaded chicken cutlets from the freezer, dropped them in the fryer and then put them on the split roll, slathered them with marinara sauce, covered them with slices of mozzarella cheese and popped it all into the oven. The hero came with a side of pasta salad and a can of soda, for $7.95. It was huge: I ate half and gave the second half to my hosts, who split it for lunch the next day. 

Nancy, it was delicious. It was exactly a chicken parm hero. If the meat was from a heritage breed of free-range chicken, they weren't telling anyone about it. The chicken wasn't hand-breaded — a quality whose allure I've never understood despite how often restaurant chains tout it.

Was the mozzarella made to order, or in-house at all? Was it fresh mozzarella?

It was not, thank goodness, because that's not what goes on a chicken parm hero any more than Camembert goes on a cheesesteak. 

There’s something timeless and magical about dishes like that. Perfected over generations, dishes like linguine with clams or pimiento cheese or Chicago-style Italian beef, or chicken Parmigiana, should be left alone.

I’ve been having conversations to that effect with a lot of chefs lately,

Jason Sobocinski, chef and owner of Caseus Fromagerie and Bistro in New Haven, Conn., was in New York to talk about goat cheese, and we got to talking about how New England classics — fried clams, lobster boils, etc. — are exactly as they should be, and fancying them up does no one any favors. Maybe the best thing a restaurant can do is think of clever beverage pairings to go with them.

Veteran Boston chef and restaurateur Michael Schlow, whose empire now extends to Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles (Detroit’s next), was reminiscing with me about his younger self.

“I had worked for somebody a long time ago who had asked me a rhetorical question about a dish that was on our menu,” he said. “I was a young cook who wanted to put my mark on everything. … He said, ‘How are you going to improve the rigatoni dish?’ and I launched into this well-rehearsed speech. He goes, ‘You misunderstood my question. How are you going to improve this rigatoni dish when it doesn’t need you to do anything to it other than to repeat it at the highest level?’”

There’s a lot of this talk on the independent restaurant scene as chefs who are maturing and becoming more secure in their abilities are making simpler dishes with fewer flavors but better ingredients — like the delicious linguini with razor clams, littleneck clams and guanciale, and that’s all — that chef de cuisine Audrey Villegas made for a preview dinner of 2 Spring, a restaurant that Jesse Schenker is opening in Oyster Bay, N.Y., toward the end of the year.

Another example was a bread course I had at the James Beard House recently, when RJ Cooper of Henley in Nashville was cooking there. He just served focaccia with pan drippings from the duck dish that he was about to serve, augmented with a little bit of Tennessee trout lily vinegar.

Meanwhile, chains are going for attention-getters, like the country-fried bacon that was a limited-time offer in September and October at Cotton Patch Café. As you’d expect it was battered and deep-fried strips of bacon served with a side of country gravy and, just to gild the lily, it came with ranch dressing, too.

Taco Bell, of course, is an expert at such things, most recently with their Naked Egg Taco, in which the shell is replaced by a fried egg. Starbucks, as we’ve discussed before, created a sensation with its color-changing Unicorn Frappuccino.

Even relatively staid Frisch’s Big Boy has rolled out a cheeseburger meatloaf.

The chains might be right to do that. In this time of sensory overload, a restaurant needs to do something to get customers’ attention.

Then again, they might not be right. During troubled times people tend to eat familiar food that takes them to a safe place, something that a taco wrapped in an egg doesn’t do (although maybe a cheeseburger meatloaf does).

What do you think, Nancy, is it time for restaurants to return to simpler foods or are photogenic attention-grabbers the way to go?

Or is it possible that they can do both?

Nancy Kruse says there’s something for every taste.

You had me at Chicago-style Italian beef, Bret.

You know that I’m Chicago born and bred, but you don’t know that I also represent one-half of a Chicago-style mixed marriage. I hail from a family of White Sox fans, but I boldly married into a die-hard Cubs tribe, and, more to the point, I’m a Mr. Beef proponent (dry, extra peppers) who wed an Al’s Beef aficionado (dipped, no peppers).

Thinking of this always raises the vexing side question of why it is utterly impossible to get a good Italian-beef sandwich once you leave the city limits. I’ve endured way too many pallid pretenders promoting themselves as the real deal in cities around the country, and the inability of iconic local specialties to be reproduced outside of their native habitat is perhaps a topic we should discuss at some point.

All that said, I totally understand and share your enthusiasm for simple dishes that are well prepared using the appropriate ingredients. As a transplant to Atlanta, I’ve watched its evolution into a pretty good food town. Yet when travelers or tourists ask me for a restaurant recommendation here, I invariably suggest Houston’s, because it consistently delivers on the aforementioned attributes. The menu is actually rather fuddy-duddy in its refusal to chase the hot trends of the moment, though a number of locations added fresh sushi some years back, and kale has cropped up on the salad menu. Among the impeccably roasted chicken, fall-off-the-bone ribs, twice-fried french fries and towering burgers, there is something for every taste. It’s a safe choice — and I mean that in a good way.

For the same reasons, I regularly commend Chick-fil-A to anyone who’s somehow managed to miss its seemingly inexorable saturation of our restaurant landscape. Notoriously slow to make changes to the menu, the chain sticks to what it does best, which is to deliver totally satisfying chicken sandwiches and addictive, fresh-cut waffle fries.

While we are in basic agreement, Bret, a few things strike me about your argument. The first is that, as you know, fancy, fussy, fusion cuisine dreamed up by ambitious, cerebral chefs hasn’t disappeared. It has been transformed into the contemporary tasting menu, with its parade of deliberately photogenic, gastronomically complex small bites that prove that attention-grabbing isn’t just the province of chain operations. There continues to be a well-heeled crowd of what we used to call yuppies willing to pay the price for bragging rights, and they now have photographic evidence to prove it.

This takes me to the second point. It seems to me that the real difference between independents and chains hasn’t resided in over-the-top, deliberately provocative menu items, but rather in the ability of the latter to rev up their mighty marketing machines to get the word out to the consumer universe. Social media, of course, is helping to close the communications gap and level the promotional playing field.

A few months back, for example, the internet caught fire with images of scary-looking charcoal ice cream cones offered at Little Damage Ice Cream, an independent shop in downtown Los Angeles. The pitch-black cones, made from almond charcoal, can be stuffed with equally dramatic charcoal-gray ice cream for a black-on-black gothic treat worthy of Marilyn Manson. As an aside, there’s supposedly a health claim to be made, as activated charcoal is said to contain detoxifying elements. We’ll leave the question of salutary benefits to the dieticians; the point is that digital buzz begot conventional media coverage, both print and broadcast, far beyond the means of the typical indie operator.

Finally, you and I both know that a buzzworthy item can bring patrons in, but it won’t necessarily bring them back. It takes a solid menu and a satisfying experience to accomplish that. Seen in that light, the notorious Double Down that KFC unleashed on an unsuspecting dining populace in 2009, in which two deep-fried chicken breasts replaced the bun in a sandwich stuffed with bacon, Swiss and pepper jack cheeses, grabbed tons of press and raised the hackles of the food police. Presumably it also drove curious customers to the store, some of whom may have forgotten that the then-beleaguered chain actually makes some damn tasty fried chicken. If the Double Down provided the reminder that led to subsequent visits, it truly accomplished something.

I think we should just agree that our industry has a really big tent, and there is something for every diner and dining occasion. It’s not a question of right or wrong: Sometimes you want the perfect chicken parm hero, and other times it is the cheeseburger meatloaf that scratches your itch.

Now, because you brought up a subject so close to my heart, and because I like you so much, I’m willing to share an insider’s tip: If you find yourself at O’Hare airport with time on your hands, there’s an Al’s Beef a quick cab-ride away in nearby Park Ridge. What’s that, you say? You thought I favored Mr. Beef? So I do — but I’m not above a little culinary compromise for such a tasty and restorative fix.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News.
E-mail her at [email protected]

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