The standard by which an eatery should be appraised is how well it succeeds at whatever it aspires to be, be it a drugstore soda fountain or a temple of haute cuisine. What does Corky's aim to be? One glance at the seasonal menu and it could be pigeonholed as a steakhouse, a soup-and-sandwich place or another T.G.I. Friday's knockoff. But look a little closer, and a pattern emerges: The food is thoroughly American and distinctly Midwestern, drawing on the heartland cookery of cowboys, farm wives, short-order cooks and Methodist church circles. Some might label the food retro, although it's impossible to pin dates on such comfort-food classics as creamed spinach, mac 'n' cheese and apple crisp.
Chef/owner Pepe Kehm (Café Provençal and New York's Rainbow Room), consulting chef Greg Perez (Painted Plates and Napa Valley's Road House 29) and executive chef J Hampton Voyles (Café Balaban and Whittaker's Bistro) are reviving dishes we thought were as passé as lime Jell-O and cocktail weenies. Corky's house salad is a metaphor for this mission: Servers shamelessly trot out quartered heads of iceberg lettuce draped with buckets of "2000 Island" dressing. Before you pooh-pooh this lowbrow salad, taste it -- we were won over by the snap of the moist leaves, the squish of the white-cheddar pellets, the softness of the velvety dressing and the crunch of the brittle croutons.
Corky's is proving that even school-cafeteria recipes can be resuscitated with fresh ingredients. Take the grilled cheese sandwich. Instead of melting anemic squares of processed cheese between slices of Wonder Bread, Voyles layers tomatoes and white cheddar -- one of the oldest American cheeses -- on thick planks of Texas toast. The mulled applesauce we ordered on the side, far from being lunchbox fare, tasted like the liquefied essence of apples baked with butter, cinnamon and cloves.
In fact, Corky's offers a whole menu of side dishes, a win-win trend in the restaurant industry that helps owners boost check averages while giving customers more choices. The amaretto-glazed carrot coins had a honey-sweet, nutty gloss but were so large in diameter you could practically count the rings. These coaster-sized carrots had wide, tough, bitter cores that made the dish virtually inedible, underscoring the importance of beginning with quality ingredients. Pulpy, bright-green creamed spinach sported a garlicky sauce that reminded us of warm salad dressing rather than heavy cream. A similar sauce accompanied the beer-battered onion rings, cut thick and stacked on a tall peg according to size, like an infant's toy. A more piquant sauce or even plain ketchup would have been a livelier foil for the fat onion rings, which any self-respecting greasy spoon would have been proud as punch to serve up.
Some entrées come with side dishes or salads, but the restaurant seems reluctant to make even reasonable substitutions. Asking a chef to omit a certain spice or vegetable from a thoughtfully conceived dish might be considered rude. But wanting to swap an iceberg wedge for a spinach salad seems like a perfectly proper request, and we offered to pay the $1 difference. The first time we asked, our request was swiftly vetoed. On another occasion, the indulgence was granted for $1.50, but only after our waiter vanished for a moment to negotiate on our behalf, like a Chevy salesman convincing a backroom manager to authorize a deal.
About half of the dozen sides are potato dishes, perennial favorites at potluck suppers in VFW halls and church basements. Among the best was the bleu-cheese potato gratin, a dish that Midwestern homemakers might call "scalloped potatoes." Brown, crispy and tangy, these marvelous potatoes were plated with the most flavorful steak we've enjoyed in the past year. We attribute its exceptional flavor to the dry-aged beef, the molasseslike house seasoning (one of several choices) and the finishing scoop of herb butter, which mingled with the meat's juices, enriching and sweetening the steak's surface.
Another entrée served with potatoes was an evening special of grilled salmon, refreshingly prepared without the usual Asian influences. The fish, resting on a pallet of roasted-garlic red-skinned mashed potatoes, was surrounded by a nest of salty shredded cabbage, julienned carrots, chopped tomatoes and raw scallions. The earthy cabbage was as supple and transparent as glass noodles, and bits of the braised vegetables had caramelized. If the seasoning had been corrected, it would have been a fine dish. An entrée of chicken ravioli consisted of mealy ground poultry encased in a clunky dough and whitewashed with too much pasty spinach-and-roasted-garlic cream sauce. It's the only pasta entrée on the menu, and we reckon we'd have been better off with pecan-encrusted catfish or maybe a pulled-pork sandwich.
Every dessert we ordered -- apple crisp with a brown-sugar crumb topping, banana cream pie folded into a martini glass, a "mudslide" of brownies, chocolate pudding, bananas and Oreo crumbs -- was crowned with a bouffant of real, unsweetened whipped cream. Confections such as these could have been found chilling in the icebox 50 years ago. Even Corky's servers can't resist them. Our waiter sheepishly owned that the waitstaff had polished off an entire vat of pudding before the chef had a chance to turn it into banana cream pie.
You might not be able to trust them around cookie dough or chocolate shavings, but the servers here are so darn friendly you might think they're trying to recruit distributors for the latest pyramid scheme. We've rarely visited any restaurant at which the employees showed such enthusiasm for the place. It's easy enough to understand -- with perks such as those luscious desserts, who wouldn't be smiling?