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Connecticut diner perfect for a gourmet gathering

[Photo: AP]

O’Rourke’s Diner has been a landmark in Middletown, Conn., for 56 years.

Looks - and nostalgia - can be deceiving at O'Rourke's. Once a typical hash-slung diner, it has become a mix of the expected and the experimental.

By BILL DURYEA, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 18, 2002

[Times art]

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. -- Middletown is a city that has always leaned heavily on its diners. There are three of them, roughly evenly spaced along the length of Main Street. The best and most handsome of them is O'Rourke's.

Since 1941, O'Rourke's has anchored Middletown's bareknuckled north end, a stretch of post-industrial cityscape where soup kitchens and package stores rarely go out of business. The original O'Rourke's, opened by John J. O'Rourke, was a wooden frame building.

His wife kept it going during the war while O'Rourke ran a mess hall on the Galapagos Islands. Leaving the service in 1946, he purchased a gleaming new steel and glass diner from the Mountain View company in New Jersey and had it shipped north.

By the time I arrived at nearby Wesleyan University in 1981, ownership of the diner had passed to John O'Rourke's nephew, Brian. He had peeled his first potato for his uncle in 1959 when he was 8 years old.

Since assuming control in 1976 Brian O'Rourke never swerved from the diner's original mission to serve breakfast and burgers to those who needed it, whenever they needed it. O'Rourke's was as dependable as the railcars that rumbled outside the diner's windows, carrying rock from quarries across the Connecticut River.

photo Brian O’Rourke has his customers’ attention as he announces the menu for the gourmet evening in his diner last month.

[Photo: AP]

This was the O'Rourke's I expected to find when I returned to Middletown for a writers conference in June. What I found, much to my delight, was something like the Food Network as directed by Barry Levinson. I did not expect a gourmet meal prepared by a dinerman as handy with a machete as a paring knife.

So much of the old diner had not changed.

The vinyl seats in the booths were still the same fatigued mustard color. The tableside jukeboxes still offered Kay Kyser and Perry Como, but now you could hear Britney Spears' Oops! I Did It Again. The counter stools still supported the same slouched backs.

But the differences were just as evident. A waitress with a Sanskrit tattoo snaking around her wrist presented me with a four-page menu. She informed me of the specials: The fish was "lobster-stuffed pollock." The soup was gazpacho. Gazpacho!

I ordered a steamed cheeseburg (the cheese is steamed, not the burger) as an act of nostalgia, and a cup of gazpacho for the novelty of it. The soup was served with several slices of fresh-baked oatmeal raisin bread. Did I taste a hint of Guinness?

"Yes," said O'Rourke, when I asked him. "I baked it this morning."

That led to a lengthier discussion about the transformation of the diner, which was no longer open all night. O'Rourke said he grew weary in the early '80s of dealing with drug-addled college students. Gone, too, were all the ashtrays. Nine months earlier, O'Rourke had quit smoking and then banned it in the diner.

"Business increased 10 percent," he said.

But the biggest change had come in the mid-'80s when O'Rourke spent $180,000 to expand the diner. The diner gained about 12 seats, but more importantly O'Rourke got a kitchen with a 10-burner gas stove and two ovens. That, in turn, had freed him to experiment with dishes that he could never have managed with only a griddle and a deep fryer.

The effect on the menu was dramatic. French toast made its debut -- with amaretto sabayon. A dish called "Brian's Best" featured poached eggs over spiced lentils and chicken-andouille mousse.

Two eggs any style (still less than $2) didn't disappear, but now customers had a choice of double-smoked, Canadian or Irish bacon. Bored with cream cheese on your bagel? How about brie instead?

O'Rourke has difficulty explaining the genesis of this transformation except as the by-product of his work ethic and his passion for improvisation.

"You know what a lagniappe is? What it means is a little bit more for no extra charge," O'Rourke said. "It may be extra garnish, or it may be I spent my vacation playing with new dishes so I could bring it back here."

His personal evolution from hash-slinger to chef reached its apotheosis several years ago.

He had devoured Paul Prudhomme's cookbooks. He had traveled to the west of Ireland where he worked in the kitchen of a popular seaside restaurant. He had sat rapt in the audience of Emeril Legasse's television show. He had proven that he could serve 375 meals on a Sunday to people willing to line up in the rain.

He had even conducted his own cooking course for local "foodies." One of the students suggested he do a dinner for those who had attended the class. The idea appealed to O'Rourke.

At the first event a capacity crowd of 45, dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns, dined on a four-course meal, the particulars of which O'Rourke regrets he didn't write down. Since then the dress code has relaxed, but everyone still sups from china, with cloth napkins and good silverware. Wine glasses are provided, though it's strictly a bring-your-own bottle affair.

The dinner (for which O'Rourke charges $42.50) became so popular, he said, that some patrons now have "standing reservations. They're afraid of losing their tables."

It was my good fortune that the June dinner was scheduled for the following night.

"Come tomorrow night and you can see another side of me," O'Rourke said, scooping a dollop of steamed cheese from a tray by the griddle.

[Photo: AP]
Sean Lexa prepares to serve plates of triple salmon delight salad: Irish salmon mousse, Irish smoked salmon and O’Rourke’s cured gravlax.
I arrived a few hours early so I could watch the preparation. O'Rourke and his assistant cook Greg Lexa, 40, were finishing up the tail end of the lunch crowd and were talking about what they needed to get done for that night.

"The next few hours will be mis en place," O'Rourke said.

He is a hulking fellow with a dusting of gray beard. He has the shuffle of someone who routinely spends 100 hours a week on his feet. When he talks about food, about how he intends, for example, to present the entree for that night's dinner, his eyes glint.

"I'm going to fan the sliced duck breast over a bed of Israeli cous cous. I've done some vegetable croquets. That'll be the center point of the fan," O'Rourke said. "We'll saute some zucchini in walnut oil and fennel -- I love that combination. Then I'll braise some red cabbage for color on the plate."

"We'll start with the gazpacho," he said. "The tomatoes aren't the best this early in the summer, but by August when they're the best, everyone's bored with gazpacho.

"The middle course is baked sole stuffed with langoustine over a bed of mesclun. Then we've got the duck and for dessert a passion fruit mousse."

He had already seared the duck breasts. "They're ready to be finished in the oven just before we plate the dinner."

O'Rourke was braising the red cabbage in port wine and a dash of something called "hickory smoke" when Lexa, who had gone outside to fetch something from the diner's basement, called to him from the front door.

"Brian, we've got an emergency. There's a guy down there with a bottle and he won't leave," Lexa said.

O'Rourke called the police and asked for an officer to roust the man from the back of the building where the basement entrance is located. Hanging up, he retrieved a machete from under the counter and headed for the basement himself.

The cabbage was almost done by the time the police left.

Over the next couple of hours he prepared the cous cous, using duck fat to saute onions and peppers that he would mix into the cous cous. Meanwhile, Lexa whipped up an orange and lime vinaigrette for the salad.

"Microwave the limes for 30 seconds and you'll increase your juice five-fold," O'Rourke suggested.

Arlene Satriano, whom O'Rourke introduced as "like my wife," arrived to supervise the place settings and other niceties. Usually, Satriano prepares the dessert for the dinner, but the offering that night had been purchased from a food distributor with which O'Rourke had recently become affiliated.

Still, Satriano took an interest in how the dessert would be plated. While O'Rourke worked on a sample plate, Satriano said that when she first met him nine years before, "The people who would work for him, he would drive them crazy. The menu would change weekly."

Things calmed down and the turnover slowed when he set a three-page menu and reserved his experimentation for the weekends. O'Rourke's core staff includes Lexa, who is Satriano's son, and a feisty bantamweight kitchen man named John Gillespy. When I met Gillespy he had just had a five-point star shorn into the back of his head as a way to honor the Dallas Cowboys.

At 3:45 p.m., O'Rourke took a call from someone on the guest list who wanted to know the entree so he could make a decision on the wine.

5 p.m., O'Rourke asked Gillespy to get his white chef's jacket.

Not long after 6, Richard Fletcher, the corporate chef for Sysco Food Services (one of the diner's suppliers), arrived to give O'Rourke an assist in the kitchen. He ladled soup into bowls lined up on the griddle, which had been turned off so it could work as a serving table.

At 7 p.m., Gillespy, in a white jacket, took his position outside the diner to greet the first of the guests.

O'Rourke roamed the aisle, seating people: the UPS comptroller in booth 11, the two social workers in 8, the doctor of infectious diseases, the real estate agent, the contractor in 4 and the surveyor in 3.

"Hi, everybody. How we doin' tonight?" Gillespy said, getting the guests attention so O'Rourke could introduce the menu.

"We're starting with Johnnie's famous gazpacho," O'Rourke said, leaning against the marble counter. "Our second course is salad-tizer. That's when you can't make up your mind between a salad and an appetizer so you do both."

Soon the food began to emerge from the kitchen. Everything was going along swimmingly. The diner sparkled with light chatter as the setting sun soaked through the front windows.

A group of four that didn't show was replaced, as if by divine intervention, with a food critic, who wasn't even aware of the monthly prix fixe event, and her entourage.

O'Rourke was slicing the duck breasts when Satriano appeared in the back.

"Brian, there's a guy outside and he won't let Johnnie in the door," she said.

While Brian went to assist Johnnie, Fletcher took over the duck detail.

"The line never stops," he said.

Soon Gillespy was back, offering a blow by blow for the kitchen staff.

"He's drunk. He's a little under the weather. I told him to get away from the door. He ain't wearing no shirt. It looks bad."

Sitting at the counter, first-timers Carolyn and Carl Cicchetti had decided before the entree arrived that they would book again for next month.

"This is the kind of place I always look for when I'm traveling," Carl Cicchetti said. "A place that the locals go."

The dessert plates were cleared away, but the guests lingered and mingled. O'Rourke ducked back into the kitchen to make a little extra red cabbage for someone who had raved about it. The last guest filed out about 9:45.

O'Rourke relit the griddle.

"I'll be back at 3 a.m. I'll bake some breads. We'll serve the first meal of the day about 4:30. It'll be a street kid or a cop, maybe someone from the university."

He was already making a list of chores: peel potatoes and turnips, make chili.

Oh, and mix up a fresh batch of pesto.

Can't have a pesto omelet without pesto.

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