Search This Blog

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Once Upon a Time

From the Back of the Fridge Dept.: Over a decade ago, and for a very brief time, there was an excellent diner not far from my house. What I wrote about below was the latest of several attempts to get something going in a too-large space, and this, too, died a few months after this piece appeared. The power of the press can’t fight the culinary apathy of this area.


FOLLOW THE MOHAWK RIVER west from Waterford and you encounter a string of dying cities, a tribute to the boom and bust wrought by the Erie Canal. Even after canal trade was superseded by over-the-road (and rail) shipping, cities like Schenectady, Amsterdam, Little Falls, Utica and Rome continued for several decades to thrive as business and manufacturing centers. Now they cling to whatever vestiges of economic opportunity they can summon. Amsterdam’s former rug factories are shells, and downtown Amsterdam’s most visible entity is a failed mall that confounds traffic.

Photo by Martin Benjamin
Take the Amsterdam exit of the NYS Thruway (it’s exit 27), turn left on Route 30 and make a quick left into the parking lot of Super 8 Motel and you’ll see the sprawling New Amsterdam Diner, reopened not quite three months ago after many years dark – and with a terrible reputation even before that.

Right now it’s one of those gems where the food is far better than the location and appearance would suggest.

“A friend showed me the place,” says chef John Papis. “I had restaurants in Manhattan and I wanted to get away from there. Too much excitement. Here you have fresh air, a beautiful view. . . . ”

The history of diners in this country begins with portable carts parked in familiar locations, soon giving way to shacks and converted railroad cars. It was acknowledgment, as cars moved faster on ever-more-accommodating roads, that people on the go always need to stop and eat.

Regional specialties have been eclipsed by standardized fast food joints, but a diner-cum-restaurant such as the New Amsterdam gives you a shot at something cooked for you right then and there.

Smokers congregate at the bar; I head left for the non-smoking room and its dozen or so tables and booths. The local radio station, country, of course, plays in the place, relying on such aging stars as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, which is fine with me.

You’ll pass a display case with revolving displays of pies and cakes. When I see key lime pie and rich New York cheesecake, I know not to eat too much dinner.

White-linen restaurants seek a niche in which to flourish; the diner approach tries for total culinary coverage. The New Amsterdam Diner’s multi-page menu features two pages of always-available breakfast, with plenty of omelette variety (including a vegetarian frittata) in the $5-$6 range. Similarly, the pancake and waffle variety is unique – a $7 tutti-frutti waffle sports bananas, strawberries, apples and raisins.

The core of the offerings are the entrées, which is where I put in the most exploration. Each time I discovered a soup that was homemade and nicely balanced between stock and ingredients, from a simple (but chunky) chicken noodle to minestrone, Yankee bean and some commendable chowder.

Of course it’s arrogant to term a dish “the best baked meat loaf,” but it’s an arrogance I find endearing. The $10 entrée includes a house salad (soup is offered as an alternative) and potato and vegetable (my daughter had French fries, of course, and ignored her peas). The dish itself features a mix of meat and herbs that ranks it extremely high in the meat loaf pantheon. It’s irresistible.

It’s not just roast chicken: It has an apple-walnut stuffing ($10). Greek moussaka ($10), although not served en casserole, obviously was prepared in one, because the flavors of the ground beef and thin-slice potatoes had plenty of opportunity to mix with the eggplant and crusty béchamel sauce. The portion I sampled was a little saltier than I prefer, but the balance was otherwise terrific.

More ambitious is the chicken breast Milanese ($15), which sports a huge portion of chicken surrounding a center of prosciutto and spinach, topped with fontina cheese. Not what I think of as diner fare, yet it was presented with accomplishment (and real mashed potatoes). Likewise, an order of broiled scallops in a lemon-butter sauce ($13), which typically gets way too much heat, was cooked and presented just right. The only entrée disappointment I’ve had was with an order of spanakopita ($10), and only then because the phyllo pastry didn’t suffer reheating very well.

Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” adorns a booth-adjoining wall; Raphael’s cherubs overlook another. Yet the artwork seems almost haphazard, and contrasts amusingly with the simple wooden tables and booths. Chairs, by the way, are sturdy and comfortable, but the place would benefit from a more thorough refurbishment. Still, these are cosmetic issues that fade once the food is put in front of you.

And the food will be put in front of you. I haven’t seen the same servers twice during a succession of visits, but as long as Mercy is on the floor, you’ll be taken care of. Not only is she a genius at selling you on menu items, she’s also genuinely concerned with your satisfaction and isn’t bashful about checking in – the kind of service all too rare these days, even in the fancier joints.

With any luck, others on other shifts will copy her techniques. Right now, business is slow and the staff can support. With any luck, the place will get busier – I pass it regularly and thus have a selfish wish to see it remain open – and I’m hoping the current level of good customer care will be maintained.

New Amsterdam Diner, 234 State Highway 30 (Just south of Thruway Exit 27), Amsterdam, 842-xxxx. Always open. AE, D, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 12 June 2003

No comments: