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The Exceptional Ordinary

by Laura Leon on February 14, 2013 · 1 comment

The Skyline Diner, 314 Columbia St., Rensselaer, 434-0233. Serving breakfast, lunch and early dinner 7-3 daily. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: American diner fare

Entrée price range: $4.49 (All American Hamburger) to $9.69 (Fried Haddock Dinner)

Ambiance: unassuming but clean

When did diner cooks stop knowing how to cook eggs?

I know whereof I speak; most Saturday mornings throughout the past fall and winter, a portion of the family hits an area diner for breakfast while the oldest has soccer practice. By and large, the eggs—whether scrambled, sunny side up or over easy—have been dry as stale toast, scorched with brown marks and often downright inedible. Poaching is a forgotten art, with cooks equating just about raw with the perfect runniness that creamily engulfs its accompanying starch. And omelets? Again, overly dry, with improperly trimmed and diced fillings, served like a crust of old wallpaper paste, and probably just as tasty. I suspect the downfall of cooked eggs has to do with timing, with kitchen staff being inadequately trained to take down a notch both the cooking temperature and the sprint to get the “finished” dish plated.

Apparently, the folks at the Skyline Diner aren’t ones to be influenced by what many of their colleagues or doing, or if they’ve noticed, have made a concerted effort to avoid falling into the same traps. Breakfast at the Skyline, which is served all day, can be the usual muffins, pancakes, French toast, but it is their eggs that are really worth attention. The omelets are creamy, not dehydrated, with a nice balance of fillings (vegetables like onion, pepper, tomato, mushroom, and meats like ham and bacon) cut so as to fit on the fork. The non-bread items come with good toast and decent homefries (although I prefer crisper). The coffee is good quality, and only $1.49.

Obviously, diners are known for more than just their eggs—particularly, burgers, fries, and pie—and depending on the part of the country in which you live, regional items like grilled clams and the Fisherman’s platter (New England) or fried scrapple (Pennsylvania). Personally, I don’t care for a diner that has a menu the size of a small-market phone book—how can one kitchen really deliver 99 percent of the time when it’s serving nachos and spanakopita and veal and peppers? With a mind to finding out what else the Skyline has to offer, I’ve returned repeatedly for non-breakfast, and have consistently been impressed.

Let me step back a second from the food; the place itself, a one-story building set slightly off Route 20, is nothing fancy, but it’s clean and gleaming. It’s usually bustling, with lots of cops and working Joes on lunch hour, a scattering of seniors, travelers breaking up a long trip, and families. Skyline reminds me that diners are still a place where ordinary people congregate to eat, suck down non-latte coffee, share news, and maybe just acknowledge another’s existence with a nod or a tip of the baseball cap.

Judging from the plates being served to other patrons, Skyline’s burgers are very, very popular. I have to confess, I’m a bit of a burger wimp when it comes to ordering out, as I am always a little nervous about the quality of the beef, and by that I’m not even talking about organic or locally grown, as I am referring to the proper fat percentage. A burger (or chili, for that matter) made with overly lean beef does not cut it. The All American Deluxe ($6.49) comes with fries, coleslaw, a pickle, lettuce and tomato; for $2 less, you can just go with the plain patty. The Texas burger ($6.49) had a lip-smacking pepperjack melt and the delightful crunch of properly fried onion rings combined with jalapenos. The Pittsburgher ($5.99) adds cheddar, grilled peppers and onions, and the Athenian tops its beefy goodness with spinach and feta.

The diner serves a variety of specialty wraps, about the closest to gentrification you’ll find here, although these are priced moderately at $7.99 (e.g., chicken cordon bleu; turkey club; hummus) to $8.99 (Greek salad wrap with chicken or gyro meat). The wraps are plentiful, their ingredients bright and fresh, and they come with a crock of soup—daily specials like the one I tried, chicken noodle, had good home-cooked quality—and fries.

Non-wrap sandwiches include the Monte Cristo ($7.49), chicken parm, French dip, hot Italian meatball subs, and a truly succulent barbecue pulled pork smothered in classic barbeque sauce. The Greek influence is felt in gyros filled with tender strips of lamb and beef ($7.49), a grape-leaf pita (the grape leaves are also available as a side) and souvlaki with a choice of chicken or pork. There’s also an excellent Greek country salad ($6.99), crisp greens and peppers, which comes with the option of chicken, gyro meat or hummus, along with a cup of soup.

Over the course of my visits, I’ve also been served one of the best meat loafs I can remember ordering out, as well as a phenomenal chili whose slight Moroccan flavorings all but cleared away the outside reality of yet another snowfall. The pies . . . well, let’s just say they look very, very decadent, the perfect foil to a late night cup of black coffee. Maybe next time. Something tells me I wouldn’t be disappointed.