O’Rourke’s Diner: Are diners bistros? – June 10, 2011
I had neglected, perhaps deliberately and ignorantly, the quintessential American dining institution - the Diners. I did not understand the raison d'être of diners, nor did I understand the fixation people had for diners. American food – raw or prepared – is, if euphemistically put, “unrefined,” and frankly, “bad” and truthfully, often “murderous” with all the additives and hormones and, needless to say, the fats. And yet, I confess that my favorite show for some time now - especially while on the elliptical in the gym - has been Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. The show provides me with a shot of self-righteousness to boost the ever-declining morale and takes my mind off the painful fact that I am laboring on a ridiculous exercise machine like some kind of a marmot. Despite being my favorite show on Food Channel, I had never seriously entertained the idea of ever dining in any of the featured diners, well, not until being hit in the head by Hightstown Diner (that's another story).
Are diners bistros? Belatedly, I have begun now to wonder whether I had been looking in all the wrong places in the U.S. in search of good food. Given my penchant for bistro over restaurant, and trattoria over ristorante, I perhaps should have suspected that real food might be found in diners rather than fancy restaurants, which seem to be equally plastic and Botox-ed up as many of their patrons in Manhattan.
Therefore, I went to O’Rourke’s Diner with one burning suspicion, which needed confirmation: Are diners the bistros in the U.S. that I have been searching for?
Upon arrival, miniature freshly baked poppy seed bread and blondie appeared along with the menu to attempt to bribe me into losing my resolution to be objective – hard to maintain on an early morning stomach, empty for two hours since leaving New York - from the start. The poppy seed bread was airy and light, while the chewy blondie was a little too heavy on the use of eggs, considering the oncoming onslaught of eggy breakfast.
Banana Bread French Toast
O’Rourke’s ridiculously decadent, marvelously rich, sinfully fattening, and mesmerizingly delicious French toast has nothing to do with either French or toast. French toast is called pain perdu – lost bread – in France; and although it is called “French,” its origin is mostly likely elsewhere (or why would you need to name it French?). Originally, it was a way to eat stale bread by dipping the hardened bread into liquid to moisten and soften it. O’Rourke’s version was, nonetheless, indeed "pain perdu," in that the bread had indeed been lost. In place of bread, Mr. O’Rourke uses three thick slabs of extra-large banana bread. As we all know, banana bread is no bread (although in non-English countries, it seems to cause an unusual amount of confusion). The banana bread itself - fragrant with the nutty and caramel banana flavor, yet not overly sweet - deserved at least all the accolades and adjectives I have just listed, but minus the adverbs, because it was still before the stupendous transformation. This banana bread was then dipped in a heavily eggy batter and fried in butter to an esthetically perfect golden yellow.
The genius of Mr. O’Rourke was not in the fact that he had conceived and produced this stupendous and borderline unfair - how does regular French toast compete now? - French toast, but it was in the touch of salt he put in the egg batter. The salt, although not loud, spoke quietly and firmly through the gooey, flambéed and brown-sugared bananas and managed to coax and control the sweetness and the richness.
The thin and sour diner coffee, which I usually abhor, was conveniently refilled multiple times to literally wash down the butter into my stomach.
The healthful benefits of the poached eggs were remedied by a supply of ample milk fat, in the forms of buttered and crunchily grilled English muffin, further butter-infused Hollandaise and melted Swiss cheese. The egg yolk was a runny, golden glory; it erupted all over the plate, which coated the crisp, yolk-proof muffin (in other words, buttered). The paprika-dusted poached shrimps were given a shock of cayenne peppers to wake up, not only the taste buds but also the brain, if the sugar rush from the banana bread French toast had not already done its work.
Lamentably, however, the fingerling potatoes made deplorably tasteless home fries, which was a total embarrassment to O’Rourke as a diner; to confound it further, the potatoes were no longer hot and had lost the fluffy alpha starchiness* by sitting on the grill in a pile.
(*When starch is heated with water, it turns into alpha starch, which creates the fluffiness and chewiness that we associate with carbohydrates, but as the alpha starch cools, it reverts to the rigid beta starch, which not only tastes dry and crumbly but is also hard to digest. That is why bread and rice stored in refrigerator, pre-reheating, taste simply awful.)
Roasted chicken hash – Special hash of the day
The famed funky hash of the day was roasted chicken, which was far removed from any typical hash as could be reasonably conceived, and yet still be called a hash. This meat and potato dish had brown strings of roasted dark meat and chunks of white meat – dark was better – for the protein and had a small amount of mashed potatoes. However, the hash mixed in a lot of other vegetables, including shitake mushrooms – woody and aromatic - and shredded lettuce – for a bright crunch. Somehow the hash tasted disconcertingly familiar, like the featureless face of a person, who had dropped in and out of your life. Half the hash later, nagging mystery was finally solved: It tasted like a chicken salad, but hot. Although it was still not your conventional chicken salad, the acidity of the mayonnaise and the crunch from the diced celery were present, which brought lightness to this unusual meat and potato breakfast favorite.
The “manly” Mr. O’Rourke, who wore an O’Rourke’s Diner T-shirt declaring “男士” (man in Chinese) (the other version, available for sale, was a printed yin-yang sign) gave a tour of the kitchen on our way out. I wonder if he would ever be able to leave his beloved diner long enough to visit the land he dreams about. But then, isn’t it rather romantic to keep dreaming about such faraway places in an Irish green surrounding, while cooking up marvelous breakfasts, in Middletown, Connecticut? I think it is.
Address: 728 Main Street, Middletown, CT 06457
Phone: (860) 346-6101