Pleasing Penn palates

It isn't an easy assignment. The folks who run the student dining halls have some new strategies, but it seems everybody's a food critic.

Posted: November 01, 2007

The problem with food served in a cafeteria is that invariably it tastes like cafeteria food.

The steam-table aura is hard enough for any cafeteria to deal with - add to that requiring patrons to prepay nearly $4,000 a year, and you've got a college dining hall.

Inmates in state penitentiaries may be easier to please.

At the University of Pennsylvania, where freshmen are required to buy a $3,884 two-semester meal plan (it's optional for all other students), expectations run high, said Laurie Cousart, who oversees Penn Dining.

"Our students come from many places across the country and around the world," Cousart said. "They have sophisticated tastes."

So, just as with academics and athletics, she said, Penn works hard to stay competitive.

Penn Dining already offers Seafood Tuesdays and Restaurant Thursdays (with table service in lieu of cafeteria lines and a menu that features lobster and lamb chops).

Now there are two new offerings: a weekly farmers market right on Locust Walk, the school's pedestrian-friendly inner sanctum, and Guest Chef nights, evenings when some of the city's most innovative chefs cook in the campus dining halls.

Matt Babbage, executive chef at the World Cafe Live, took the reins in September, and last week it was Michael Solomonov's turn. The Israeli-born Solomonov is executive chef at Marigold Kitchen, at 45th and Larchwood, which has been a favorite of the Penn community since it opened as the Marigold Tea Room in 1934.

There's no extra charge to students on Guest Chef nights. And at the Wednesday afternoon farmers market, students can use their prepaid Dining Dollars. Like debit cards, Dining Dollar cards are simply swiped on the spot. The cash-starved students love that part.

And who wouldn't love farm-fresh mushrooms, green beans and squash grown in Lancaster County and displayed on a checkered tablecloth, with a real Amish farmer at the cash box? As authentic as it gets.

Ayesha Samant, a freshman from Greenwich, Conn., professed great excitement about the market.

"I'm used to organic stuff and farm stuff at home," Samant said. But a peek in her plastic bag revealed a sticky bun and an apple dumpling.

Amish merchant John King of Paradise, Pa., had his tables piled high with banana pickles, zucchini relish, chowchow, pear butter, apple-blossom bread, homemade root beer, shoofly pie, molasses snaps, and two kinds of whoopie cake (pumpkin and chocolate) - and still Ilana Barach, a senior from Salt Lake City, complained: "Bring back the kosher sushi!"

Sunni Yuen, a law-school student, griped even as she picked up fresh spinach and pears. Yuen grew up in central Canada, which apparently has fresh produce aplenty, but what does she miss? Eating as an undergrad in Ithaca.

Cornell had 17 dining halls (Penn has 3), an agriculture program, and offered majors in food sciences and nutrition, Yuen said, "so you come to expect really good food."

You can't please all the people all of the time, but sometimes it seems impossible to please anybody, even for a moment.

Arie Fisher, a freshman from New York City, loves the on-campus farmers market but wishes his Dining Dollars would roll over, like his cell-phone minutes.

The farmers market is an outgrowth of a student advocacy group for local foods, FarmEcology, said Cousart. And the Guest Chef program also grew from student interest.

Gripe as they may, students are lining up for both new programs.

The lines stretched out the door last week, when Solomonov made Fenugreek Braised Beef Short Ribs with Olive Oil Poached Shrimp and Celery Root-Apple Puree at Hill House cafeteria. (Fenugreek, by the way, is an herb, and the recipe is featured in today's Food section.)

"Fenugreek Short Ribs again?" said one wisecracker.

Guest chefs don't take over the whole kitchen. They present one signature dish. And it's served on a bread-and-butter-sized plate, so it's really a sampling of what they can do. That's hard for some students who've grown accustomed to making the most of the cafeteria's all-you-care-to-eat program.

Still, Solomonov's short ribs were a huge hit. He served 730 students - 44 percent more than usual - and said he loved every minute of it.

Fernanda Dobal, a student from Brazil, found the chef's special "a refreshing change."

Executive chef Tia McDonald of Aramark - the company runs Penn Dining - was there to oversee the rest of the nightly offerings: hamburgers, hot dogs, stir-fried vegetables, five kinds of pizza, roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy, sandwiches, soups, cakes, ice cream, frozen yogurt, fresh fruit, and a make-your-own waffle station with a custom-made waffle iron that presses PENN onto the finished product.

Fruit Loops, Cocoa Puffs, Lucky Charms, and six other varieties of cereal are on tap at breakfast, lunch and dinner and, yes, some students did eat all of the above in addition to sneaking back in line for second helpings of poached shrimp a la Solomonov.

"It's not enough to fill me up, but it's good," Austin McDaniel of Albuquerque said after wolfing down the chef's special.

No worries, though. McDaniel had another tray of food at the ready: a cheeseburger, a hot dog with mustard and ketchup, a roast beef platter, and a dish of fresh pineapple.

"I'm saving room," he said, "for dessert."

Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or Read her recent work at http://go.

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