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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Olympic Heights

From the Kitchen Dept.: This week’s Metroland features my review of an Albany diner that transcends the genre. It got me thinking about diners I’ve written about in the past. Here’s one of my earliest reviews, written back when the magazine had no budget for meals and we announced our visits. The Olympic has since gone through a tumultuous history of closing and opening again. Jerry Menagias is now part-owner of Schenectady’s Blue Ribbon Diner.


A BLACKBOARD BY THE inner door lists a wide range of dinner specials with a continental touch characterizing them. Not what you expect in a 24-hour diner. The Olympic is located just off Schenectady’s 1-890, Michigan Avenue exit. Recently remodeled, it has a facade of attractive wood paneling. In other words, it is not your typical dineraunt.

Photo by Drew Kinum. Apologies for its
over-photocopied distress.
The dinner specials are a good indication why.

Partners Jerry Menagias and Bob Gerolyrnatos have been operating the diner for three years, resisting the short-lived food fads that have come and gone. The three-page menu is a solid selection of breakfast, lunch, and dinner items, with a back page of children’s portions and desserts. Even unfolded, the menu is no larger than a place setting – not like the massive diner menu that keeps unfolding until you’re leaning it against the back of your neighbor’s head.

Along with printed fare are columns of inserts, duplicating the blackboard information (so you don’t have to take notes as you enter). The evening of our visit, the specials included two  preparations of chicken (parrnagiana and marsala), roasted fresh ham, New York strip steak, short ribs and veal Oscar, all in the $6 to $8 price range

Sure, you do a double take. You’re at a counter or in a booth, and there are dispensers of granulated sugar nearby. But the walls have a bright elegance about them: white wallpaper unobtrusively patterned, light pine wainscoting.

Three of us were at a booth in a wing to one side of the counter-grill area, out of visual range of the desserts case, a seating tactic that would prove useless. We started with an appetizer plate of fried mushrooms and fried mozzarella sticks, sampling accompanying sauces of blue cheese, tomato and warm raspberry. The breading is tight and the frying was accomplished so that everything was cooked through without too-runny cheese sticks the result.

Most of the dinners come with soup and salad or vegetable. The two soups of the day were split pea and beef barley, and confirmed what I already knew from previous visits: there is some fine soup-making going on in the Olympic’s kitchen. The pea soup was, surprise of surprises, not over-glutinous, with a flavor that didn’t depend on salt for its zip. Susan’s beef barley had those ingredients and more – every good kitchen has vegetables to use up, and soup is supposed to be the way to do so. Too often you just see the canned stuff, but here were soups that help to keep the menu always fresh.

French onion soup is a regular menu item, and Drew, who is getting a reputation for his consumption of that substance, found it to be a generous crock flowing with browned and melted cheese.

If, on the other hand, you order a salad, it’s a large portion of iceberg, tomatoes, carrot slices, red cabbage, and onions that you dress yourself. The homemade Italian was delicious.

The entrees themselves filled the dinner plates along with garnishes of curly-leaf parsley and tomato. For Drew it was a thickly-cut New York strip, ordered medium rare, done just as he likes it. Susan’s broiled filet of sole was made with fresh fish and cooked with a subtle decoration of herbs.

I took Jerry’s recommendation of veal Oscar. He’d just broken down a veal leg and the meat was very fresh. The cutlet was tender – it cut with the side of a fork – and was coated with a lemony Hollandaise.

It seems strange that the use of fresh items and a little care should be something to celebrate. It should be the norm. But we all know it isn’t, and thus there is good reason to celebrate this particular kitchen. Fresh asparagus on the veal, side orders of fresh corn (on the cob) and broccoli. Susan’s side order of peas were frozen but, well, that’s how she likes them. Mushy. “It’s what I grew up with,” she explains.

Chef-co-owner Menagias offers this explanation of his kitchen philosophy:

“I try to use fresh vegetables whenever possible. If I can’t, I use frozen, never canned. And I try not to freeze my meats – they lose flavor when you do. Keep everything fresh, including your spices.”

He has been cooking for 15 years, many of them in a posh place in Northport, Long Island. “I worked with a Polish guy who really taught me everything, especially what I say about freshness. I’ve been in Schenectady since 1970 and I like it here. For a while I had a place on Erie Boulevard, but we lost too much business when GE closed down its third shift. Now I’m here, near the highway, and we’re doing very well.”

Menagias’ wife, Ginger, who works as a hostess, chose our desserts for us. They make most of the items there, obtaining their pies from a baker. You’ll see a chocolate toffee torte listed on a dessert menu at each booth. Grab a slice – it’s an amazing amalgam of flavors. I can’t tell you how Drew’s Black Forest Cake tasted because he wouldn’t share any, so he can’t tell you how the toffee torte was, either.

But Susan was generous with the cheesecake, and it’s just what that dessert is supposed to be, rich, flaky, and moist. The topping of fresh strawberries didn’t hurt, either.

Ginger also served us little bowls of fresh fruit salad as an accompaniment, with melon chunks, blueberries, grapes, and kiwi fruit the delicious mixture. Perhaps this is the secret to being successful in Schenectady: absolutely no pretentiousness, low prices, and terrific food.

OLYMPIC DINER • 262 Brandywine Avenue. Schenectady. Open 24 hours, seven days a week. All major credit cards.
Reviews for Byron’s Blue Plate Special are written after Byron finishes dessert. Before that, he picks a place, tells the owner when he’s coming and mentions that a) he expects to be wined and dined like royalty, and b) he doesn’t plan to pay for any of it. Your dining experience will no doubt be under dissimilar circumstances, but don’t let that stop you from visiting the fine establishments surveyed in this space.
Metroland Magazine, 14 August 1986

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