Home for the holidays. An image that conjures up either nostalgia or terror, and sometimes both. For those who are off to visit the sites of childhood, parental retirement, or sibling settlement, I wish you well, peace on earth, joy to the world, etc., etc. For those away from home who remain behind in the Big Apple, I wish you a season safe from marauding tourists and roving packs of Kris Kringle Klones.
Although I would normally refrain from connecting food and illness, one malady seems fitting at this time of year. An infirmity which strikes when least expected – homesickness. The cure is not to pack your bags and hop on the next bus to the family estate. The reality of home has little to do with the imagined version. Better to hike yourself over to the closest “home-cooking” establishment and inhale the aromas of food that your mom never really did prepare, even though you’re quite sure you remember it that way…
I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to round up the gang and head over to a place called Miss Elle’s Homesick Bar and Grill. It’s not often that we venture to the Upper West Side, but I figured we could always drop in for a set at Stand-Up New York after we dined.
Let me just say I really do mean the following as a compliment. Miss Elle herself greeted us, and as she guided us through the eclectically southern kitsch bar and dining areas, I found myself having visions of Miss Mona and The Chicken Ranch. There was a homey, easy quality about the room that, without being elegant, defines southern charm.
We came in with the expectation that the menu would be loaded with southern fare. While Miss Elle’s certainly serves southern dishes, especially side dishes, the menu is an interesting selection of cross-country entries, plus an entire section devoted to Italian pastas. Although peanut butter and banana (or jelly) sandwiches, chips and dip, beaners and wieners, and the “left-over sandwich (ask!)” provided us with amusing conversational ice-breakers, we decided on slightly more sophisticated sustenance.
Fried calamari was crisp and light, though just slightly over-cooked. Its mild dipping sauce was a nice change from the sweat-inducing condiments generally served with this dish. Cream of mushroom soup was hearty and tasty. And Aunt Sadie’s Chopped Liver was just as I imagine Aunt Sadie made it. Although good, it could have used a little seasoning.
We passed on the Italian fare, which seemed fairly simple, ranging from basic spaghetti and meatballs to fusilli with broccoli and mushrooms in garlic butter, after passing through “Oo-La-La-Lasagana”. I recommend the chicken dishes and the Chicken Française in particular. Lightly breaded and sautéed it was topped with an unusually intense lemon and butter sauce. A butterflied rainbow trout was topped with capers the size of marbles and bits of lemon pulp that, while delicious on their own, overpowered the delicacy of the fish. A grilled tuna steak was simply prepared, and cooked medium – slightly more than we generally like it, but not overdone. Accompaniments incline toward the south with light and fluffy mashed potatoes, carrots slightly candied with cinnamon, sweet potato fries, macaroni and cheese, and fried cauliflower among the offerings.
The dessert list was pure indulgence. Peach pie, berry pie, cheesecake, and banana cream pie all peaked our interest. Our chocoholics opted for the fudge cake, and deemed it a hit. My personal favorite was the harvest pie, a composite of apples, pears, and apricots in a flaky crust with a crumble topping. Warmed with vanilla ice cream on the side, the pies are definite musts. If, for some inexplicable reason, you find yourself on the Upper West Side, Miss Elle’s makes a nice home away from home.
Miss Elle’s Homesick Bar and Grill, 226 West 79th Street (near Broadway), 595-4350. Open 7 days a week for lunch, brunch and dinner. All major credit cards. Lunch $5-15, Brunch $10-15, Dinner $15-25. Free delivery to the Upper West Side.
I wanted to continue our venturing to the far reaches of the East Village, so when I spotted “home-cooking” in a Zagat guide description, we headed for the border of Alphabetland. Billing itself as German-Swiss with a touch of French and Italian, Roettele A.G. conjured a vision that it lived up to. We entered through a narrow foyer with pastry display case and take-out counter. Two long rooms, barely wider than the foyer are dark, with heavy wood beams and paneling. A string trio in traditional suspenders contrasted with dangling silver earrings played bas, fiddle and hammered autoharp in the corner.
A beer and wine list was presented first and included a small but very select group. German beers and wines top the list, a few French and Italian selections follow. We promptly ordered a round or two. The all-around favorite at the table was a Doppel Bokk beer with a name longer than a stretch limo and a rich, smoky and slightly sweet flavor that impressed even our non-beer drinkers. We were also presented with a “fondue” menu, with prix fixe mega-cheese dinners in three varieties. We passed and turned to the regular menu, which changes weekly.
The polyglot menu is a trifle disconcerting with German, French, and Italian lined up in random order, but at least they relate to the origins of the particular dishes they title. English translations are scripted below each. The “vorspelsen”, or appetizers this week covered a mixed salad, a frisée salad with bacon and sausage, a herring and potato salad, onion tart, lentil soup, mozzarella with tomato coulis, duck liver mousse, dried Swiss beef, and melted Belsano cheese with cornichons and boiled potatoes. My personal favorite was the Stuttgarter Zwiebelkuchen, or classic Stuttgart onion tart, which was beautifully presented and savory with sweet onions. Appetizer portions are a bit small given their prices, but the entrées more than make up for the missing volume.
“Hauptapeisen”, or main courses were divided by country, and were more evenly divided among the cuisines. The German dishes were a perfectly cooked, yet very simple, Jagerschnitzel, or veal cutlet with mushroom gravy, a sautéed red snapper in Champagne sauce, and roasted brook trout in Riesling sauce. The Swiss entrée was roasted veal in a white wine cream sauce. Italian fare consisted of a wild porcini risotto and spaghetti with pancetta and peppers in a spicy tomato sauce. From the French came a leg of lamb with sweet garlic flan, a filet mignon with Pinot Noir sauce, and roasted baby chicken with Calvados and cider. Everything we sampled was well cooked, simply presented, and not exceptional. But then that’s what good home cooking is.
We were almost too full for dessert, but managed to nibble at Linzer and Sachertortes. Both were dense and rich, almost to excess, but somehow, just the way I’d want them made at home. Put Roettele A.G. on your must visit list this winter.
Roettele A.G., 126 E. 7th Street (near Avenue A), 674-4140. Closed Sundays.
CaB magazine was one of the first publications I ever wrote for. Published by my dear friend Andrew Martin, it covered the Cabaret, Theater, Music and Dining scene in New York City, long before slick publications like Time Out NY and Where NY became popular. We had great fun writing it, and some wonderful writers contributed to its pages. When the magazine folded in the mid-90s, Andrew disappeared from the scene, and rumors had it that he departed from this existence not long after. I was thrilled to find out in mid-October 2005, a decade later, that the rumors were just that. Andrew contacted me after finding my site via that omnipresent force, Google. He’s alive and well and a member of a comedy troupe called Meet the Mistake. Somehow quite fitting!