I miss the lunches I used to have with my mother in the little mezzanine lunch spot in the Lipman Wolfe department store downtown. When I was a child, coming "into town" involved wearing a pretty dress, white anklets, black patent leather Mary Janes and even white cotton gloves—it was, after all, the era of Jackie Kennedy and her pillbox hat. I'd order exotic fare like chicken salad with slivered almonds, or little tea sandwiches that I'd eat half-distractedly as I looked over the railing at the shoppers on the floor below.
The dining room at Meier and Frank has a similar hold on my memory, with its quiet, plush draperies, the older women sitting at "their" tables, the heavy (i.e. real) silverware, the solicitous staff who'd worked there for decades. Neither place had a menu that rose much above old school favorites like meatloaf or creamed vegetables, but they seemed fancy, even rich, to my small-town girl self.
Crab cake sandwich.
Both are now relegated to the once-upon-a-time category, but once in awhile I find myself wanting to stray from the of-the-moment hipster hangouts and cafés and go someplace with a quiet grace, lovely service and, please god make it so, terrific food. And no place in town fits that bill better than Bluehour, Bruce Carey's flagship that in the last year or so has been experiencing a renaissance under chef Thomas Boyce.
The new winter menu was being featured when my friend Bette Sinclair invited a group there for lunch recently, including a rich and velvety celery root soup, a strikingly fresh trout salad on a bed of greens and winter chicory, and a crunchy and completely filling crab cake sandwich with what looked like a whole avocado sliced in it. A star was Boyce's housemade tortellini lightly sauced with fresh tomatoes and herbs, the pasta perfectly tender and with a creamy, luscious filling that oozed out when bitten.
Not to brag, but I won the jackpot when I ordered the potato gnocchi with rabbit sugo. Gnocchi, when made correctly, is often described as "pillowy." But I'm here to say that pillows are a harsh metaphor for what Boyce is making in his kitchen. His gnocchi are like little clouds, the white, fluffy kind that you see floating in perfectly blue summer skies. They practically evaporate, melting into the sauce to make a creamy mouthful.
Boyce stopped by the table to chat, and was kind enough to spill the beans on his method: cook the potatoes—always russets, he said—until they're just a bit overdone, which means they'll be a little drier. They should be riced while they're still warm, then allowed to cool to room temp. At that point add the flour. If they're too warm when the flour is added, they get clumpy; if too cool they absorb too much moisture from the air. Above all, don't work them too much. That's it.
Very old school, but very special. And most definitely a place to take your (well-behaved) child or niece or nephew to lunch. It may well be a memory they'll carry with them for decades.