The limousine in front of Fog City Diner was nearly as long as the diner itself. It served as a reminder that today's diners are a far cry from yesterday's diners.
Fog City Diner, in San Francisco, may be the diner to end all diners, but other "new-era American diners," as co-owner Bill Higgins calls his, are going up all over the country.
Their stainless steel and neon are familiar. The narrow lane of booths looks like home to anyone who grew up with old-era diners. They may look shiny and sleek, but so were the diners of half a century ago when they were new.
But at old-era diners you never would have made a reservation, much less a week in advance. You might have ordered pork chops, but not with pan-fried cherry tomatoes, and your liver would have come with onions, not leeks. The diner of today still serves ketchup, but at Fog City it is "housemade" (you see, even the old term "homemade" has been updated).
Fog City Diner of course sells a chili dog (for $5.40; it's part of the diner tradition to have prices such as $5.85 or $6.35). The menu lists a hamburger and a grilled cheese -- with green chilies, red onion and cilantro. And as one would expect, there are homemade soups and apple pie and malteds.
A diner of today, though, is meant to be more than a simple update of the old mode. It is meant to fill the same purpose as bygone diners, which means serving the most current of foods without a lot of fuss. The no-fuss part means all-day service -- no particular lunch or dinner hour -- and prices that aren't intimidating. People come and go from 11:30 a.m. to midnight, and stay as little as half an hour or as long as three hours. Fog City Diner, with only about 80 seats, serves 500 to 600 people a day.
The big change is in what's current in foods. Appetizers. Nibbles. Snacks. Grazing ground. So Fog City Diner's menu is divided into the usual sandwiches and salads, side dishes and desserts, but also "bowls" (soups, chili and ceviche), "large plates" (steaks, chops, fish) and "small plates," which are the real meat of the menu.
Two or three "small plates" make a meal, explained Higgins, who is a partner with Bill Upson and Cindy Pawlcyn in Real Restaurants, which also owns Mustards in Napa and The Rio Grill in Carmel. A table of four to six people might wind up with nearly 20 dishes on the table. Oddly, the check average at Fog City Diner -- about $13 at lunch, $20 at dinner -- is higher than at the other two Real Restaurants, where diners order conventional meals. And grazers, according to Pawlcyn, "usually end up getting a very well-balanced meal" that includes meat, fish, cheese and salads.
Pawlcyn is the chef; she studied in Minnesota and Wisconsin, then worked in Chicago's Pump Room. She agrees with Higgins that serving multi-appetizer meals is a lot more work than conventional meals, but "it's a lot more fun. The cooks love it."
At night steaks and onion rings sell well, but throughout the day appetizer fare such as quesadillas, grilled stuffed pasilla peppers with avocado salsa, cold shellfish and "griddled" pastrami and jack cheese on rye are among the biggest sellers. Although the menu changes monthly, "small dishes" are likely to include thin delicate slices of barbecued pork, baked mozzarella with pesto on toast, Buffalo chicken wings, slices of veal with lemon, raisins, parsley and pine nuts, and steamed clams with polenta. Some modernizations just didn't take; when Pawlcyn attempted a tuna sandwich made with grilled fresh tuna, she found that you don't mess around with dishes that are sacred. She did manage to shake tradition, though, with an extraordinary garlic custard surrounded by mushrooms, chives and chopped seasoned walnuts; it is becoming Fog City's signature dish. This invention of Pawlcyn's came about because of her passion for garlic, but it wasn't easy to sell even to the staff. "How about doing a garlic pudding?" she suggested.
"Gross!" was the answer.
"No, as an appetizer," she explained. She added mushrooms for contrasting flavor, walnuts for contrasting texture.
It should go down in diner history.
Now that Pawlcyn has taught San Franciscans to love garlic custard, she is going to China with two other chefs for three weeks next month to teach the Chinese to love traditional American Thanksgiving dinner, grilled entrees -- and "small plates." Tabletalk
*As Hong Kong's lease from China runs out, it seems to be planting a firmer foot in American restaurants. A few months ago a Hong Kong company opened what could be the largest dim sum restaurant outside of China itself: Ocean City, in San Francisco, with 1,500 seats. Three floors are a blaze of bright colors and chrome, a Hong Kong blend of art deco and post-modern glitz. Two-layer carts roll by with dim sum from baos to beef tendons; at about $1.35 a plate, they add up to hardly more than $5 a person for your fill. Americanized? Hardly. While crowds waited for tables, the hostess called them by number -- in Cantonese.
*The guessing game of the season is going to be "Who Are Those Children?" The playing board: "The Fun of Cooking" (Knopf, $14.95), Jill Krementz's new photo-packed book of child cooks and their recipes. The first clue: Lily's last name is Vonnegut, and her mom is Krementz herself.
*We may yet lessen the trade deficit with Japan if Tokyo's sushi consumption remains high. The current sushi fad in Japan is the crab-and-avocado California Roll (called Avocado Roll there). Since Japan grows no avocados, they come from California -- and already the soybeans for the soy sauce have come from the United States, and even Kikkoman soy sauce, manufactured in Wisconsin, is now being imported by Japan. FOG CITY GARLIC CUSTARD (6 servings)
4 cups whipping cream
18 large cloves garlic
3 egg yolks
Salt and white pepper to taste
FOR THE SAUCE:
24 mushrooms, julienned (or 12 shiitake and chanterelles, if possible)
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste
6 tablespoons walnuts, toasted until lightly brown
Snipped chives for garnish
Bring cream and garlic cloves to a boil and reduce by 2/3 until thick, which can take as long as 40 minutes. Take off heat and run through food mill or strainer. Beat three egg yolks lightly and then beat the garlic cream into them. Season with salt and white pepper. Pour into buttered ramekins or custard cups, and cover with buttered parchment or waxed paper. Put custard cups in a pan of hot water and bake at 325 degrees for about 45 minutes, until just barely set, not really jelled. Test frequently so they don't overcook; a knife inserted in the custard should come out clean.
To make the sauce, saute' mushrooms in 2 tablespoons butter. When the mushrooms have released their juice, add stock, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Reduce to a sauce-like texture and swirl in remaining butter. Add walnuts.
Unmold custards onto individual plates, surround with mushrooms and walnuts, and sprinkle with chives. Serve hot as an appetizer.