This is not your mother’s diner
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The Americana Diner in East Windsor is not my mother’s diner. She loved to breakfast there after its glorious late 1980s renovation, but would be surprised (and I think pleased) to see its menu today. Sure, her old favorites are still available, but now she could have turkey hash instead of corned beef, or even a yogurt parfait or steel-cut oatmeal. The Eggs Florentine comes with 9-grain toast, and there’s a cheese plate from Cherry Grove Farm. And if the Carolina cheddar grits at breakfast are anywhere near as creamy as the Parmesan grits I enjoyed at dinner, sign me up.
Constantine Katsifis’ Americana Hospitality Group also owns the Skylark Diner in Edison, which made news several years ago when they brought in award-winning chef Craig Shelton to upgrade that menu. Now, with the help of Executive Chef Aishling Stevens, Mr. Katsifis is elevating the food at the Americana, and it’s paying off. The menu features grass-fed beef, local produce, excellent house-baked bread, and they’re working on their own flock of chickens for their eggs.
The Americana, which turned 25 last year, was voted Best Diner in New Jersey last summer by Star-Ledger readers, and this spring, Katsifis and Mr. Stevens received a Local Hero Award from Edible Jersey magazine, which go to farmers, chefs, and food entrepreneurs who have made a positive impact in their communities.
The restaurant seats 330, with a lounge offering cocktails made with fresh juices and infused flavors. My friend and I arrived for Sunday evening dinner, and were seated in a large booth by the front window. Our service was exemplary, efficient and enthusiastic. Our half baguette arrived peeking out of a slim brown paper bag with a greeting printed on the outside. There were sea salt crystals on the sweet butter, a harbinger of good things to come. (You can buy their breads to take home, too.)
We ordered two appetizers from the Share Plates section of the menu, one entrée from Main Plates, and another from Salads. While I am usually leery of menus that wander all over the globe (much less at a diner), in this case, the kitchen acquitted itself well, no small accomplishment. And while you won’t find old chestnuts like the hot roast beef sandwich with gravy of my youth, there is still plenty of comfort food to go around.
Lamb Koftas ($11), a throw-back to my Armenian heritage, were tasty little ovals of mildly flavored ground lamb, grilled and served with pita triangles, and yogurt-cucumber sauce. A juicy charred lemon half completed the dish. Rich Grits ($13) swung over to Low-Country cooking, with two large grilled chili-marinated shrimp, dramatically served heads on, over very creamy white grits. Slices of spicy chorizo kicked it up a notch.
Beer battered cod fish and chips ($16) were a model of its kind, two large fillets with crispy coating. The accompanying french fries were not crisp, however, the only disappointment of the meal. But the house-made tartar sauce was quite good, as was the lovely — and very fresh — “simple salad” with velvety Bibb lettuce, red onion, and red and yellow grape tomatoes on the side. Its light dressing was perfect.
Similar greens anchored the Roasted Sirloin Salad ($16), made with rare grass-fed beef, sliced thin like carpaccio and laid out like the petals of a flower around the platter. The leaves of Bibb lettuce were carefully layered into a pile in the center, with tiny cubes of carrot and cucumber, along with slivers of snow peas and shiitake mushrooms. Maytag bleu cheese was sprinkled about, and although we didn’t see the white corn mentioned on the menu, the dressing, again, was just right, letting the flavors shine.
While I’m not usually satisfied with salad as a main course, I’d take a chance on any of the Americana’s after that, and I noticed that their fruit salad comes with yogurt and honey, plus toasted banana nut bread. Other Share and Main Plates include a bruschetta sampler, roasted clams, Pine Island Oysters, Potato Bonda Fritters (an Indian dish), Moroccan Spiced Free-Range Chicken, Prosciutto-Wrapped Pork Chop, a giant Arancini (risotto ball), and two versions of seafood pasta. Grass-fed strip or ribeye steak is $27.
A wine list offers selections by the glass ($7-$8), with the same wines available as bottles for under $30. We enjoyed two reds, Temporada Malbec from Argentina and a Spanish blend, Atalaya Laya. If you see the latter, especially, in a store, snap it up as it’s surprisingly good for such an inexpensive bottle.
The basic burger is $11, with specialty burgers at $12. An Americana Veggie Burger can be vegan and gluten-free. Sandwiches are $11 and $12 (I’ll be back for pastrami), and a long list of both classic and globally inspired sides runs $3 to $5, and even includes — get this — house-fermented kimch. A concise list of printed Specials includes a deal where if you order one item from each of three courses, $7 is taken off the total.
A selection of sensibly small dessert pastries is $3 each. Our lemon tart was perfect, thin crisp crust, nicely tart filling, dollop of whipped cream and blueberries. Coffee ($2) was piping hot, too. The Americana is now the diner of my modern-day dreams.