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Diner's Notebook

Tales of the City

New Yorkers (or at least New Yorkers of a certain class) are different from you and me. Not just because they're shamelessly contentious, or because they bulldoze each other out of the way with Darwinian ferocity in pursuit of rush-hour taxicabs. They're different because they drink fresh pomegranate-juice margaritas and eat parsnip pierogis without so much as a raised eyebrow.

Houstonian that I am, I goggled openly at the words "parsnip" and "pierogi" conjoined recently on the menu of Arcadia, a foodie temple on Manhattan's East Side. Out of pure perversity, my friend and I ordered chef Anne Rosenzweig's most outrageous-sounding stuff. There were buckwheat fried oysters with spiky, beyond-trendy mizuna greens and fragile circlets of fried (!) lemon peel. Guess what? They were fabulous. So were crisp rabbit hash threaded with browned onions and rhubarb marmalade (honest) and pomegranate lamb sirloin with "a panoply [!!] of grilled, roasted and frizzled lilies" (which, in a wonderful food joke on us, turned out to be variations on that humble member of the lily family, the onion).

Even the parsnip pierogis came off as voluptuously Americanized versions of the mittel-European noodle dumplings; there were only three to go with my seared-rare duck breast on peppery savoy cabbage, but I could have eaten a dozen. By the time I got to Arcadia's strawberry shortcake with piercingly tart rhubarb-lemon ice cream, I had sunk into the traveler's trap of thinking that there was no (choose one) food/shopping/museum/street life half this goodback home.

My ritual visit to the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station reinforced this pernicious belief. Several dozen iced-down Humboldt Bay Kumamotos, Massachusetts Cotuits and intensely briny Prince Edward Island Malpeques on the half shell were all it took to drive Captain Benny's from my heart. But then the tide turned. While I gorged on spectacularly sooty, thin-crusted New York pizza at John's on Bleecker Street -- swept up in a delirium of fresh garlic and fenneled sausage and archaeological layers of initials scratched into the varnish of ancient wooden booths -- my eye fell on some faded, autographed photos of the Apollo moonwalk astronauts. "Remember who you are," they seemed to be telling me.

A half hour later, rummaging through new and vintage institutional dinnerware at the Fishs Eddy store, I came upon an old Houston Club platter detailing a long-forgotten "Diner Complet Pour Les Gourmets." The whole menu was set down in loving script, from a mysterious sounding "Attereux of Sweetbreads Moderne" to "Roman Punch" and "Roast Young Duckling with Oranges and Chrysanthemum Salad." The wines were from the 1940s and '50s.

Marooned in cynical, sophisticated Manhattan, the platter seemed touchingly earnest and provincial. I identified. I turned it over and regarded the $32 price tag. Then I marched to the cash register, ponied up and fled with my prize onto Broadway, feeling as smug and triumphant as if I had just ransomed a kidnap victim. My plate and I were going home.

-- Alison Cook

 
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