Restaurant Review: Eugene's Diner & Bar Yields Mixed Results
The eatery plays on a fun premise: old-school diner classics revamped by an on-trend chef and set in far-out ’70s-basement-inspired décor.
photos by ken gabrielsen
If you are of a certain age, stepping through the entry of Eugene’s is like walking into your childhood-basement playroom. All that’s missing is the rabbit-eared TV and lumpy sofa where you had your first groping session.
For those of you with lesser age, the wood-paneled walls, hook rug and starburst mirror “artwork,” Naugahyde mustard-colored banquettes, orange laminate tabletops, and checkered linoleum floor offer tangible evidence of just how fugly the ’70s really were.
The conceit here is that Eugene’s menu is inspired by diners of the ’70s — although, as the back of the servers’ T-shirts clearly proclaim, it’s “Burgers, Shakes, Pancakes & Caviar.” In other words, ordinary diner food is often ratcheted up with cheffy-chic treatment.
Golden, light Belgian waffles crisped just enough to hold tiny square ponds of melting butter and maple syrup are served (optionally) with a half marrow bone. The fattiness of the marrow helped cut the sweetness and turn this classic breakfast into a bona fide dinner. It clearly exemplifies Chef David DiBari’s idea of a “new take” on diner fare. This was one of several dishes listed on the All-Day Breakfast section of the menu.
We tried several “Plates,” including the roast turkey breast, which arrived cold to the touch. A quick dunk in the sous vide later and it was heated through and still moist and tender. The sides were a mixed bag: pasty cranberry jam tasted overwhelmingly of cinnamon and allspice; stuffing was formed into a patty and served crisp on the outside and tender inside, as though we’d skimmed the crunchy bits off Mom’s Thanksgiving casserole. Gravy, referred to by the honorific “that gravy” on the menu, was useful only as a texture; the pallid flavor contributed nothing.
On another visit, “that gravy” — which can be ordered as a side — earned its title with the kind of meaty flavor you want and expect. It made an ideal dipping sauce for the golden crisp fries with creamy centers that accompanied our burger. The burger, somewhat like a Twin Cities Jucy Lucy, consisted of two juicy, thin patties sandwiching cheese (in this case, white cheddar). Fans of DiBari’s Dobbs Ferry pizza joint, The Parlor, will recognize this burger.
The Parlor’s acclaimed Brussels sprouts also migrated to Eugene’s. We wouldn’t miss the sweet-spicy sautéed sprouts, accompanied by the crunchy pop of Rice Krispies and salty Parmesan, then doused in chili-honey.
DiBari has a way with vegetables. When his meatloaf proved too salty for anyone at our table to venture beyond just a couple of bites, the accompanying savory maple mushrooms and creamy, rich mashed potatoes were a satisfying meal themselves.
Eugene’s food was clearly a hit or miss — and several times we had both experiences on the same plate. Seared butterflied brook trout was tender and subtly sweet — once we pushed aside the bracingly tart lemon sauce. Similarly, the large matzo ball was traditional and delicious, but we just couldn’t adjust to its pairing with a very gingery turmeric broth.
If we have a hankering for pastrami, we’ll order Eugene’s house-cured, thinly sliced, and piled-high pastrami on pumpernickel rye again. And when we hear the siren call of grilled cheese, we’ll answer it with Eugene’s inside-out version: Not only is there gooey melted cheese inside, the outside is coated in grated cheese that is then fried crisp. (We didn’t sully it with the thick, cold tomato bisque with which it is served.)
As was the case with entrées and sides, desserts were a mixed bag. We loved watching them go round and round in their rotating glass case, just like the magical ones of our childhood. But some sounded and looked better than they tasted: a dense cream cheese and jelly cake and gluey sweet-potato cake were both oddly not particularly sweet. The Stickabutta pie, on the other hand, (an émigré from The Cookery), is every bit as sweet and rich as Buffalo, New York’s butter tarts, with a lovely buttery crust.
The standout finale was pudding chômeur, a French Canadian dessert of cake batter cooked in hot syrup. At Eugene’s, it is cooked in a tin can, which the server inverts at the table, allowing the “pudding” to jiggle its way out and the syrup to pool at the bottom of the bowl. The dessert, and the way it is served, perfectly encapsulates the fun and funky, old-meets-new vibe of Eugene’s. We’ll be on the lookout for more of the fare to live up to the premise and promise laid out by the groovy atmosphere.
112 N Main St,
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Marge Perry and David Bonom are food writers and coauthors of Hero Dinners: Complete One-Pan Meals That Save the Day. Their work appears regularly in Rachael Ray Every Day, Fine Cooking, AllRecipes, Newsday, The Kitchn, and many other publications, as well as on their blog, A Sweet and Savory Life.