Omigod, those kids can cook! The Culinary Studies Institute at Oakland Community College is turning out aspiring chefs while offering the lunch-loving public bargain meals that will effectively derail productivity for the rest of the afternoon. If you can adapt your schedule to the Institute's limited hours of operation and tolerate its plasticware, you can sample both contemporary dishes and some old favorites dressed up for extra credit.
Watch and listen as Chef Dan Rowlson gently instructs a student, "You're one with your knife. ..." Rowlson gives the lie to the notion of the red-faced and raging chef, berating underlings when he's not throwing crockery. Don't top a pecan-crusted catfish with sauce, he advises; it ruins the crust's crispness. Instead, put the red pepper coulis underneath. Lift the Dauphinoise potatoes gently so that their stackedness is maintained. Build a little dam with your potatoes so that one dish's juices don't seep through.
Disclosure: I teach a couple of classes at OCC. That's how I learned of the Institute, but it's no well-kept secret: The special evening meals seat more than 200 diners and are sometimes sold out, and the no-reservations lunch buffet creates lines out the door and down the stairs. At one buffet, although I arrived at 10:35 a.m., I waited behind a dozen slender Japanese ladies who'd become regulars through the grapevine.
The amount of food available at the buffet was daunting, but not to some return customers who piled their plates higher than seemly. Almost everything was either good or great. (Chef Dan: Tell your students not to attempt caprese, which requires fresh tomatoes, this time of year.)
Some of the better items were good twists on old standards — potato salad, deviled eggs, mashed potatoes. There were 11 cold salads or appetizers plus a cheese selection, a paté selection, a fruit tray and a smoked fish platter. There were four entrées and a hot potato and a hot vegetable. That vegetable was named "Ritzy Cauliflower" and was topped with, no lie, Ritz crackers. Was this an homage to the '50s? In any case, the dish underneath was marvelous, with the cauliflower flavor unobscured by cheese.
Other winners were a salty, tangy Caesar salad, executed perfectly, with buttery croutons; potato salad made with roasted spuds — the only way to do this, from now on; Andouille sausage-stuffed pork loin; tender short ribs braised with Burgundy and pearl onions; and a squeaky poached salmon with lemon caper beurre blanc.
Some typical buffet dishes that I would usually pass up were done amazingly well. A delectable deviled egg that looked plain turned out to include smoked salmon. Even rotini tuna salad was delicious, very fresh and non-gloppy.
It was Mardi Gras on the day I visited the Ridgewood Café, so the entrées were chicken-shrimp Creole, Southern pecan catfish and "Louisiana tenderloin." That meant a Dijon-and-herb crust, and the beef was tender enough to cut with a plastic knife. The crusted fish was served with a subtle red pepper sauce (underneath). The side dishes were those sinful, cheesy Dauphinoise potatoes and green beans, carrots and parsnips.
And if such an ample and classy lunch upsets the order of your universe ("This feels like dinner," I kept saying), you can get a burger and fries for $4, or take away a $5.25 boxed salad: an enormous hunk of poached salmon served with pasta dill salad, asparagus and rémoulade.
Besides a variety of lunchtime possibilities, the Institute offers pricier evening dinners four times a year, including a December Wassail feast. The $55 Valentine's Day affair featured Sheila Landis on jazz vocals; an April 10 five-course dinner is titled Seasonal American Cuisine. Wines are chosen by sommelier Athena Bolger.
An OCC team won a gold medal at the American Culinary Federation's regional student competition this year. But team member Brad Ball says what he likes about his profession-to-be is that "no matter how good you are, you can always be better."
Here's the lunchtime schedule. It operates only during fall and winter semesters, and there's no food during breaks. I strongly suggest that you call before you go, and make reservations where indicated. Bring checks or cash only. Check out oaklandcc.edu/culinary.
Ridgewood Café: Entrées, salads and sandwiches; 11:15 a.m.-1 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Sit down or go through the line.Ridgewood Bakery: Tuesdays and Wednesdays. $5 pies, cookies, breads, rolls.Reflections Café: 11:15 a.m.-1 p.m. Thursdays. Sit-down service, reservations required. $12.95.Buffet: The next one is March 13. All you can eat, $9.95, includes drink and two desserts. High Tea: The next one is March 20. Not a tea but a five-course meal. Tickets required, $15.95.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.