my armchair-socialist father, an englishman, taught me that real food is blue-collar, like steak and kidney pie or mashed potatoes and liver. but after living for four years with my grandmother (his mother-in-law), a german nonagenarian brought up as the daughter of prosperous steel industrialists, i've developed a blooming taste for gourmet.
she is certainly pleased with her influence, as i no longer lick my knife at the dinner table and i've recently made business cards. to further my layman-turned-prom-king transformation, she has agreed to take me out somewhere new (and nice) every week. first on the list was square meal, on 92nd and madison.
it might be wrong to call a restaurant "minimalist" just because its olive-green walls are unadorned by photos or paintings. but everything, from the two plain wooden ducks in the middle of the room to the single elegant page for a menu, speaks of simplicity. the long, thin room feels both cozy and friendly, thanks to that green.
i realized, however, that i was the only patron sporting a t-shirt. still, maître d jonathan lakomyj (pronounced "lacomi") came over to meet us, and was quick to make me feel comfortable with a genuine "welcome."
once seated, our neat, chiseled 6'2" waiter appeared with my grandmother's wine, left there a week earlier (yes, square meal will store your wine). this novel service makes "byob" even better, and makes the modest $2 fee for corking and refrigerating that much more appealing. the result is obvious: despite an increasing number of empty chairs in many of the local restaurants, the tanking economy apparently has not affected square meal.
i chose a new addition to their spring menu, which changes daily: a roman-style spinach and cauliflower cannelloni flanked by pine nuts and oil, speckled with black pepper and parmesan ($9.50). soft and warm, the spinach and raisins hit first, followed by the perfect blend of pasta and oil, leaving the nutty cauliflower and pepper taste lingering on the back of the tongue. my grandmother's parisian-style braised leeks with a light dijon vinaigrette ($8) looked somewhat less appetizing, lying prostrate on her dish, and i congratulated myself for out-ordering her. she was, however, enjoying them.
the next course arrived: 10 seared scallops in an apple cider beurre blanc ($28). divine. i fought hard to eat the dish slowly, determined to enjoy the taste as long as possible, cutting the slightly blackened and buttery oyster mushrooms and fresh, perfectly cooked scallops into small bites.
my grandmother had ordered the calf's liver (pan-seared with lardons, shallots and a red wine vinegar glaze, $30). liver, a genuine no-frills working-class cuisine, is exactly what my meat-and-potatoes father would have ordered, so i asked for a bite. any proletarian preconceptions of the dish dispersed once the liver touched my tongue-and proceeded to melt by itself. it wasn't chewy or tough at all, and its strong earthy taste was well matched with the sweetness of the glaze.
the only disappointment was desert. "try the sabayon," my grandmother suggested. "the what?" i asked. she told me it's a light, mousse-like sauce that is good enough to be eaten by itself. mine turned up in a large martini glass full of seedless grapes. after one mouthful, my grandmother muttered that it wasn't a "real" sabayon. the mint balanced on top was the tastiest part of the dish, which i ate on its own.
desert aside, dinner was a tale of perfection. even my father, who my grandmother described as "the worst dressed man i have ever met," would have had a hard time complaining about it, thanks to the restaurant's unpretentious atmosphere and simply delicious menu. -- square meal 30 e. 92nd st. between madison and fifth avenues 212-860-9872 entrees $26 to $32