Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Haus Cooking

Magnolia’s fare is copious, homey, and satisfying

Posted on Wed, Feb 20, 2008 at 4:00 AM

click to enlarge food_magnolias_cmyk.jpg
Release Date: 2008-02-20

It’s 8:20 on a Sunday morning. I don’t normally review restaurants at 8:20 on a Sunday morning. Not even at 9:20, for that matter.

But the hour hasn’t deterred a parking lot full of folks, many of whom are still waiting to be seated. I arrive, give a name and am given in return a big, blue buzzer device. “It shouldn’t be long,” I’m told. Let’s hope not, I think; waiting to be seated at breakfast seems like a totally alien concept — until I remember such lines at Mi Tierra and the Guenther House.

Thankfully, the buzz is quick in coming, though a moment of panic ensues when the hostess says, “That was three with a high chair?” Despite the brief glitch, it’s clear that the Magnolia Pancake Haus has this act down pat, and that its reputation as a popular breakfast hangout at least has a lot of backers. The pale yellow and Colonial green dining room is abuzz with tables full of families, many of them multi-generational. Water and the menu arrive quickly. I’m now the one to slow down: Breakfast occupies three full pages.

Eleven omelettes (not counting specials), eggs alone and with various sidekicks, Benedicts and corned beef hash, pancakes and waffles, breakfast meats … the mind boggles. But the seasonal specials list comes to the rescue with a special Bodega Bay omelette served with a choice of pancakes, toast, or grits. Add to that a side of turkey hash and I’m good to go for the entire day, I think. A carafe of coffee arrives — a smart way to deal with the refill issue in a crowded dining room, I note to self.

The coffee, a mentioned brand I don’t recognize, is OK but not outstanding, yet it seems to suit the situation; this does not appear to be the half-caf, low-fat, soy-latte kinda crowd. The kid on the banquette next to me has only stood up on the seat a couple of times before the plates arrive looking large — very large. OK, I think, butter the pancakes first before they get cold, then tuck into the eggs. Restraint will be required; you don’t have to eat all of this …

The omelette, oozing with a very creamy goat cheese, looks impressive for sure, but bells immediately go off. It’s not that the fluffy, folded contraption lacks that baveuse (literally “slobber”y) center the French love so well; that I didn’t expect. Rather it’s the substitution of baby spinach for the advertised arugula. The arugula would have made for a nice peppery contrast to the applewood-smoked bacon and the tart-creamy goat cheese. Drizzled with crème fraiche, it’s still a good omelette; it simply lacks the extra spark that would have pushed it toward great.

By serving whipped butter (two tiny containers, just in case), Magnolia has solved the melt problem, however, and the light and delicate pancakes are perfect when I get to them. There’s nothing special about the thin, sweet syrup served with the short stack, but then I could have ordered the Bananas Foster pancakes I had my eye on earlier. In the end, their seductive, but excessive-sounding banana- praline sauce just seemed too rich. Ditto the powdered-sugar and whipped-cream toppings on the puffy, apple-stuffed and secretly spiced Authentic Munchener Apfel Pfannekuchen.

As for the smoky hash, it was what it said it was: ground smoked turkey with potato and just the merest whisper of onion. The almost-sour mesquite smoke flavor was a little too tangy for this taster, but hundreds of others — many of whom were still waiting when I exited — clearly must disagree.

The crowd at lunch — and there is one then, too — is less of a family affair, and at 12:30 seating was almost immediate. In contrast to breakfast, which is served all day, the midday menu is only a page, with salads, soups, sandwiches, and burgers constituting its core. A salad, a sandwich, some sides, and we’re good to go again — starting with the daily soup recommended by Chris, the same server I happen to have had at breakfast. “Cheese; it’s good,” he said. And it was. “Some like a little Tabasco with it,” he also said as he set down the double-barreled holder with both the red and green options. Also good — in moderation.

I expected “soup of the day” to be good at this sort of operation; the “classic” gumbo I was less sure about. I needn’t have worried. Of the three main ingredients — shrimp, sausage, and chicken — the fowl was the hardest to find, but the “nut brown” roux yielded an appealingly toasty flavor base, one that was amplified especially by the sausage and copious amounts of black pepper. The shrimp didn’t stand out in the shuffle, but its presence was apparent in the soup’s murky shadows.

Nothing at all stood out in the Rachel, one of the best deli sandwiches I’ve had in years. It was the all-for-one attitude of the sauerkraut, smoked turkey, Swiss cheese, and just-sweet-enough dressing that made this paragon between pumpernickel pop, in fact. Sadly, the sandwich is ill-served by a side of Audrey’s German potato salad. I realize I’m likely to be in the minority here, too, but I found the dressing to be sweet and cloying despite the presence of bacon bits. A quick trip to Schilo’s would reveal the contrasting camp.

The Cobb Salad was invented 80 years ago at the Brown Derby in Los Angeles as a way to use up leftovers and has survived to become a classic. Since leftovers were its rationale, variations are to be expected, but there’s one element that should be constant: This is a composed salad, not a tossed or teased one. Most of the elements — chicken breast, hardboiled egg, bacon, green onions, blue cheese and greens — are present in Magnolia’s version, just not the form. (For a good recipe, go to whatscookingamerica.net/Salad/CobbSalad)

Avocado, an essential item, is in evidence, too, but in this case we’re subtracting, not adding points; its color and texture suggested a pre-peeled, vacuum-packed product at a time when the fresh version was available at 3 for a dollar at my local H-E-B. Maybe restaurants can get away with this in avocado-challenged parts of the country (and even here I know of places that have used the stuff in guacamole), but we should revolt. The sweet poppyseed dressing passed muster, and it’s going to be hard to make a case against wimpy gorgonzola crumbles, but I might go for a pecan-chicken rendition the next time an urge for sanctimonious salad strikes.

The crowds suggest there is much more to explore. Those same crowds also suggest that early morning and, say, 1 p.m. are the best times to avoid them. BYO avocado, however.

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