Le diner/ the diner

HAPPY EATER

September 30, 1990|By ROB KASPER

First I went to a fancy dinner, then I had lunch at a cheap diner.

At first glance there seemed to be no similarities between these two meals. Nor was there at second glance.

But by the time I got around to giving them a third glance, it was getting close to deadline and I began to see subtle connections between the two meals.

Especially when I pulled out the old "compare and contrast" bTC technique. The last time I remember using the procedure was when I wrote themes for English class. And as readers of this column can attest, it has been a long time since I have been in an English class.

I started by comparing and contrasting the appearance of the chefs.

The fancy dinner was prepared by 12 chefs. They appeared at the end of the meal. They marched out of the kitchen at Baltimore's Harbor Court hotel and were greeted with applause by members of the Maryland chapter of Chaine des Rotisseurs. This is an organization composed of fans of fine food and drink. I was there as a wildly applauding guest. Everyone was cheering because they had been fed a magnificent feast consisting of eight courses and five wines. Although this was a special meal for the group, Michael Rork, the hotel's head chef, figured the meal would cost about $125 in a restaurant.

In addition to the chefs-on-parade segment of the evening, throughout the night various chefs made cameo appearances before the group. For instance, Shawn Fields, a hotel banquet chef, stood up and explained how he fixed the marinated flank steak appetizer called Kansas City sushi.

In contrast, when I finished lunch at the Silver Diner in Laurel, the chef did not come out of the kitchen. He did not have to. I could see him from where I was sitting. If he disappeared from view, all I had to do was wait for a waitress to walk to the serving line near the kitchen and holler "ordering." Whenever she did this, a guy in a white apron appeared and immediately started dishing up food.

I went to the Silver Diner because it was a nouveau diner. This is a diner that has the classic looks of the old stainless roadside diners, but comes without their classic grease. The restaurant is shooting for an average check of $6. Mine was close to $10, for soup, sandwich, pie and coffee.

This diner, which is owned in part by Bob Giaimo, who once presided over the area's The American Cafe restaurants, had some unusual items on the menu. Among them were fresh raw vegetables with low-cal herb dressing, and stir-fried shrimp with pasta in a teriyaki-sesame sauce. I couldn't bring myself to pull my rig off the highway and stoke up on some stir-fried shrimp.

The truth is I didn't drive a big "rig." I drove an average sedan. But one day when I was metaphorically "truckin' " to Washington, I took the Route 198 exit off Baltimore Washington Parkway, headed toward Laurel, turned north on U.S. 1, and rolled past the Laurel Centre shopping mall until I saw the diner and its "Now Hiring" sign.

I sat at the counter and ordered a cup of soup.

I also had soup the night before at the fancy dinner. The nighttime soup was made with pureed butternut squash and sweet potatoes. It had many things floating around in it. These floaters were later identified by chefs Tom Parthemore and Paul Santi as sesame seeds, fresh ginger and a lump of crab meat. The soup was luscious. I lapped it up. I also lapped up the glass of Lustau Oloroso sherry that was served with it.

But the next day, long after the lapping had ended, my body felt the need for a simpler, safer soup. The cup of split pea that the Silver Diner served was warm and comforting, just what I needed to keep truckin.'

I also had one of the diner's cold meatloaf sandwiches. It reminded me of the game course at the fancy

dinner. I couldn't figure out what kind of meat was in the meatloaf. And the night before I couldn't figure out what kind of game was in the sausage.

The meat in the meatloaf was so smooth I thought it might be veal. Later I learned it was a lean type of beef that had been ground to a very smooth consistency.

I had also been wrong the night before when I had played "Name the Game" with fellow diners at the Harbor Court. There I had confused the rabbit with the pheasant. I probably still couldn't pick them out of a line-up.

Dessert was a difficult choice. Both at the diner and the dinner. At the diner I agonized over whether to try the traditional banana cream or the daring Heath Bar ice cream pie. I listened to my stomach, which after working on eight courses and five wines, wanted something easy. Banana cream won out. But part of me, a part other than my stomach, was sorry it missed trying the Heath Bar ice cream pie.

There was no sense of unfulfillment during the dessert course of the fancy dinner. Everybody got a dessert, and there were many different kinds of desserts. On my side of the table we traded bites. This way I got to sample seven desserts. My favorites were a wedge of dark chocolate covered with raspberries (you could push the raspberries off and get a straight shot at the chocolate), a strawberry napoleon and the macadamia nut tart.

The menu called this a "melee of desserts."

Until I saw the word on the fancy dinner menu, I thought a "melee" was a fight. That is what my English teacher taught me. But he wasn't far off. Judging by the way everybody behaved the other night when there was a melee of desserts, the best tactic is to grab a fork and keep jabbing.

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