March 27, 1989 | Vintage Insatiable
Larry’s Home Cooking

        Larry Forgione has been itinerant so long, it’s hard to believe he’s home free now that An American Place is blooming on a faintly tawdry midtown block off Park. After all the rumored moves that foundered, he’s uprooted his precious little boutique on upper Lex and stretched it to fit the soaring space where La Coupole went belly-up and the Ritz Café just couldn’t survive.

        The $58 prix fixe has given way to an easier, more laissez-faire a la carte menu, with sandwiches, salads, pasta and grills for lunch (entrées $13 to $19.50; at dinner, $19 to $29). But it’s still the same celebration of America’s quality harvest that Forgione has been boosting since his days at the River Café. Now his sublime peppered brioche, earthy stockyard chowder, fried Ipswich clams with tomato tartare, and haunting rum-touched banana betty may be exactly what this less-than-pampered neighborhood has been craving.

        An American Place II opened soft, without trumpets, but by the second Saturday night, food-worldlings outnumbered civilians. The chill and clatter of La Coupole has been warmed and muffled, wood and dark carpet replacing tile except at the bar, columns sheathed with sound-absorbing mahogany veneer, steel-gray drapes framing tall windows, the walls wearing this season’s obligatory mottle and giant abstract paintings. And the chairs are handsome and witty, with backs that flex and a potty-like seat that lets you slide forward when fatigue sets in. The pace is just a bit slow – whether from start-up confusion or too-many-critics-in-the-room anxiety, I can’t be sure.

        Never mind. The warmed goodies in the breadbasket are lure enough to get me here for lunch: a feisty pepper bun, scallion-ham-and-cheddar biscuits, an old-fashioned Parker House roll to forever obliterate memories of cotton fluff in tearooms past. The day’s soup – a dark, intense essence derived from roasted bones (quail, chicken, duck and pheasant) with mushrooms, wild rice, diced vegetables, and tiny squares of duck sausage – clinches it.

        But lunch could also be lovely duck sausage, warmed, with scallion-spoon-bread griddlecakes and corn relish, an assortment of country hams, sausages, and a jellied pork-and-rabbit terrine with hopping-John salad, or deviled crab-and-oyster fritters mounded in the half-shell. Or chooses an entrée: those fried Ipswich clams with Portland hot slaw, or moist rectangles of grilled rabbit on pasta studded with shiitake, grilled red onion, and herbs.

        A simple chicken, split and grilled, is a marvel of flavor, though the ham-scallion-and-mushroom-flecked hashed browns are a shade too gentrified for me. But that’s a minor quibble at a moment when I’m nibbling perfect leaves of lettuce and field greens, impeccably dressed, and savoring tomato-apple relish or corn salad from Forgione’s carnival of old-time notions that will remind you of home – or what home might have been if your mom hadn’t been so stuck on iceberg lettuce and frozen string beans.

        It’s possible to find the menu’s flag-waving slightly excessive. Who cares that it’s northwestern salmon or Buffalo-style chicken salad of Chesapeake Bay crab, Key West shrimp, California endive? Well, Forgione does. And the boutique farmers and goat-cheese producers, the brokers of wild edibles and game, the whole blossoming of fish farming and fresh-herb nursing scarcely existed till he began demanding them.

        In the seventies, Forgione was a Culinary Institute grad interning at London’s Connaught, brooding about why European produce was so vivid and American mushrooms came dry or in cans, the lettuce wrapped in plastic, the strawberries woody and wan. “I remember waiting for the famous poulet de Bresse to arrive and thinking it tasted like the farm chickens my grandmother raised on eastern Long Island,” he says.

        Back home, installed in the kitchen at Regine’s, he went hunting for fresh game, “found the first person to sell us wild mushrooms and a man willing to raise chickens.” At the River Café, he had money to help Paul Keyser start a chicken farm upstate. “We bought everything he had, 30 chickens a week.” (Now Keyser supplies free-range chickens to dozens of the city’s best restaurants.) One staffer did nothing but run to the airport to pick up wild greens and game, miner’s lettuce from San Francisco, fresh fish and wild mushrooms from Oregon.

        In search of fresh morels, Forgione chased down Justin Rashid at his roadside farm stand in the Indian River, Michigan, discovered the “incredible fruit belt of Michigan,” and got Rashid to make jams for the River Café brunch. “I put some money in so he could build a small kitchen in 1981.” (Last year, American Spoon Foods shipped $1.5 million in preserves – wild blueberry, elderberry, chokeberry, thimbleberry, sour cherry – dried fruits, nuts and Forgione’s own smoked meats, relish, and barbecue sauce.)

When the precious greens ran out one day and Forgione discovered that Christian Millau was coming to dinner, he got in his car and raced to Central Park, foraging till he’d gathered salad for six. In those days, he was criticized for cooking French cuisine with American products. But meeting James Beard changed his style dramatically: “I came to be proud of serving American dishes … of offering Ipswich clams when everywhere else you could only get frozen clams or strips. Strawberry shortcake, chocolate pudding – desserts I had thought too simple, too unsophisticated – became important to me.”

        So now we have his peanut-barbecued Gulf shrimp, luscious Adobo-style duck in a cornmeal pancake with cilantro cream, seared New York foie gras with toasted Missouri pecans, and baby white asparagus from Michigan, embryonic little matchsticks that taste like bean sprouts. Lusty soups arrive in deep, giant bowls – robust stockyard chowder or a creamy bisque of corn and shrimp. Oysters cohabit with sea urchin on the half-shell in a chive-speckled champagne sauce.

        At dinner, midwestern venison – a plump, nicely charred fillet – sits in a lively puddle of peppered huckleberry sauce, flanked by slices of supernal beet. Juicy pheasant is surrounded by bits of Brussels sprout in mustard cream with a pheasant-and-forest-mushroom ragout. A coating of cracked wheat adds crunch to a tasty salmon fillet in a sauce zesty with sautéed artichoke and olives.

        There are bumbles, some perhaps due to newness: too much salt, an over-chilled appetizer, tough pasta (over-kneading or undercooking?). An adventurous reach or amusing whim can backfire. Buffalo chicken wings are scrawny and dry. I like the grilled-chicken-bread-and-goat-cheese sandwich; my companions find it bland. They adore the deviled crab-and-oyster fritters; to me, the crumb topping seems overwhelming.

        But the desserts are all Forgione wants them to be, cozy and nostalgic: devil’s-food cake, that addictive banana betty, superb bread pudding on brandy-spiked vanilla cream, lemon-meringue tart, double chocolate pudding that would definitely make mom jealous, and possibly the world’s best shortcake – fragrant strawberries, miraculous whipped cream, and a tender biscuit still warm from the oven.

        While charting his own moves, the chef has been consulting with the Morgan Hotel Group, drafting menus and training the crew at the Royalton, and he hopes to design “the ultimate American coffee shop” for the group’s new Century Paramount. And then there’s the 1703 inn he is reviving in Ramapo with NBC president Pierson Mapes as a partner. If all goes well, it will open in late autumn. Larry Forgione’s pot runneth over.

An American Place, 2 Park Avenue, at 32nd 

Click here for Vintage Listings Page.