New Yorkers' `Home' Away from Home
IN the depths of Manhattan, David Page is cooking up heartland American cuisine. And it seems to suit New Yorkers just fine.
Mr. Page grew up in a small Wisconsin town, and his menu shows it. "Home," the restaurant he runs with partner Barbara Shinn, is taking a new look at American cuisine.
In creating the restaurant, Page dug deep into his Midwestern roots. Back in Wisconsin, his grandparents raised their own chickens and cattle. They had vegetable gardens that were "organic but without the name and pretense," Page says.
With an unassuming attitude, the owners of Home have created some surprisingly fresh interpretations of Middle American dishes such as pork chops and short ribs.
"Home is not home cooking," Page hastens to say. "We picked the name `Home' because of the James Beard quote: `American food is anything you eat at home.' It's more about comfort and the feeling of being in a place where you can relax," Page says.
At Home, Page and Ms. Shinn are attempting a return to the fundamentals of the hospitality business. Restaurants in this country were invented as stopping off places - country inns where travelers could take rest and food, Page says.
"I think restaurants generally have evolved into something completely different," he adds. "At a lot of restaurants in New York, it's likely that you are going there for everything but the food."
Home's menu is memorable but not complicated.
On a recent visit, a friend and I started our meal with an order of blue-cheese fondue served with chunks of toasted walnut bread. We also had an interesting Home salad with confit of duck.
The main course was a mustard seed-coated pork chop with roasted tomato sauce. Served with a saute of cabbage, corn, and leeks and a griddlecake, it was exceptional.
The narrow dining room's warm hues and cozy atmosphere are soothing. The seating is comfortable for couples, but the small booths proved to be a little too cozy for groups of four.
Shinn and Page see their new restaurant as part of a broader revolt against large establishments that seem as if they are run by a corporation rather than by a chef-owner. "Not having to sit anonymously in a 250-seat restaurant is a nice experience," Page says. "Many restaurants have evolved into a Hollywood kind of environment."
A number of big restaurant "failures in the '80s came from someone on Wall Street who had made a zillion dollars deciding to open a restaurant for his ego's sake," he says.
While Page and Shinn seem pleased with the reception Home has received from the critics thus far, they seem more concerned with what the locals think. Home aims to be a lower Manhattan institution - a walk-by, no-reservations type of restaurant for neighborhood folks.
Page's shopping trips do not stray far from the restaurant. In the morning he heads to the local cheese store and meat market.
"Here in New York, you still can go to the local grocer, cheese shop, produce guy, and baker," Page says. "I can go to five different markets, bring everything back, and create a meal. In the meantime ... I'm meeting the customers."
Page apprenticed and cooked for several restaurants in California before moving to Montpelier, Vt., in the mid-'80s to teach at the New England Culinary Institute. While working in Vermont, Page fell in love with the "incredible" ingredients available from Vermont farms, including cheeses, free-range veal, and a broad selection of organic produce.
Page and Shinn's shared passion for fresh ingredients comes through in the food they serve. "I walk into the meat market and hand select the short ribs," Page says. "It's nothing new, it's the way marketing used to be done."
The two owners have found that changing the menu to match the shifting seasons is a pleasant challenge that they did not face in California.
In New York, "we noticed that we wanted to eat different foods than we did on the West Coast," Shinn says. "It took a couple of years to get the overall view, to see how climate affects your appetite."
Home is located in Manhattan's West Village. The scale of the buildings is more human - four- and five-story buildings with small businesses on the street level - compared with the echoing granite canyons of midtown. Page and Shinn chose the neighborhood because it "is one of the most comfortable parts of the city," Page says. Just about right for a place called Home.