"I'm sorry, but Mr. Perloff isn't selling any more apricot tortes today. He says they're dry."
The server's stunning bit of news was delivered with a certain regal pride, as if it were an edict handed down from finicky Georges Perrier or from Masaharu Morimoto, who once refused to sell me a delicacy called monkfish liver because it "wasn't fatty enough."
But this was a diner - the Country Club Restaurant & Pastry Shop - home of fluffy matzo balls and crispy blintzes, the bustling domain of grandmotherly servers named Millie, Carole and Maryann.
Since opening in the Northeast in 1956, though, the Country Club has aspired to be much more than an average diner. Owner Noel Perloff's father, Jack, even planted "restaurant" in the name when, in 1968, the old stainless-steel Kullman diner cars were carted away and replaced with the stuccoed Spanish arches of the much-larger present building.
It arrived from North Jersey in 20 pieces and technically was still, by virtue of its prefab pedigree, a diner. But the senior Perloff could brook no anti-diner snobbery. His establishment would be regarded with the respect of a legitimate restaurant.
Who could have known then that diners - bastions of honest, home-style food and unpretentious atmosphere - would be supplanted by fast-food chains on the one hand and trendy upscale restaurants on the other? That diners would become the stuff of longing and nostalgia?
It's a fact, evidenced by the many new diners sprouting up along roadsides, flashing their faux-deco veneers of stainless steel festooned with neon lights. But few have the flavor of authenticity. And our stock of venerable old diners is dwindling, both in quality and quantity.
Yet the Country Club seems to be getting even better, evolving without abandoning its traditions. Noel Perloff is comfortable with his inner-diner and determined to keep it fresh. ("I don't want to wake up and realize that all my customers moved to Florida and I'm serving 1960s food in 2010," he says.) He still serves mashed potatoes with the meat loaf, of course, but now they're redskins and Yukon golds.
The sprawling pink-and-green dining rooms won't win any design awards. But Perloff has yet to turn back the clock and sheathe his stucco in steel, even though he has fond memories of the old diner look.
The diner's Jewish and American comfort food, however, remains a constant labor of love, built on family recipes and fresh, high-quality ingredients.
Perloff even hired a well-known consultant to update the food a decade ago, but the recent surprise hiring of executive chef Marco Carrozza represents a potentially seismic shift.
Carrozza, brought in to replace retiring longtime chef William Love, made his name at the now-closed Marco's, a stylish Old City spot about as far from Northeast diner culture as you can get. The Italian- and Southern-inspired Carrozza had never made a matzo ball in his life, but he seems a smart fit.
So far, he has added a few specials - a shrimp-pesto pasta here, a pecan-crusted chicken with Dijon cream there. But mostly he has been mastering the basics.
The closest Carrozza gets to vertical food these days are the chicken croquettes, two crisp cones that tower over the plate as if molded in a '50s brassiere. I've come to dread croquettes elsewhere because they're usually just pasty stuffing flavored with bouillon. But inside these golden-crusted beauties, I found mashed-chicken heaven, the meat bound with a buttery, oniony veloute sauce.
With the new guy surrounded by kitchen veterans like William Green, the blintz master for 35 years, the Country Club's justly famous classics seem secure. The matzo balls, an ideal balance of mouth-filling fluff and resilient chew, are buoyant in homemade chicken soup stocked with carrots and celery.
The dairy platter is a study in Jewish soul food: amazing cheese blintzes of handmade crepes rolled in buttery crumbs, noodle kugel bound with raisin-studded custard, simple but satisfying potato pancakes, and the best knish I've ever eaten, its flaky crust filled with airy, oniony potatoes.
The Friday night proccas are the archetype of stuffed cabbage. The ground-meat-and-rice filling is comfortingly soft but not mushy, and the sweet-and-sour tomato-raisin sauce is endearing.
Carrozza's potpie arrived in a puff-pastry package so huge that it could have been delivered by UPS, with ladlefuls of richly sauced chicken, peas and carrots brimming over the edge.
No restaurant is flawless, especially one with such a large menu, and I found a few duds here. The roast turkey was dry and the Western omelet ordinary. And a side dish of "escalloped apples," which looked like gooey canned pie filling, was the only item that appeared less than homemade.
Carrozza however, seems to be curing the Country Club of a malady that afflicts even the best diners: overcooking the seafood. His Friday night flounder francaise was perfect, its moist white flesh sealed in a browned egg-wash crust. And a broiled shad special was so deftly cooked that I could taste the fish's distinctively dusky, salty tang.
When it comes to dessert, some of us usually head for the soda fountain - I for the sublime chocolate shakes that go down like clouds of frothy ice, and my 3-year-old daughter, Alice, for the clown sundae, a delightful ice-cream rube with cherries for eyes, cookies for ears, and a cone perched atop his chocolate-sauce hair.
By our fifth meal, though, Alice was ready for a guided tour of the pastry case: sugar-crisped wedges of cinnamon-laced Jewish apple cake, citrus-crowned Key lime pie, creamy rounds of cheesecake, chocolate-iced eclairs, butter cookies with rainbow sprinkles, and golden shortcake tiered between ripe strawberries and poufs of whipped cream.
Her eyes widened, and so did mine. There were no apricot tortes, of course, not today. But the pride in Mr. Perloff's pastries, and the region's finest diner, was still on magnificent display. •
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Red Chopstix, in Center City.
Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.