But Dickinson wasn't Cowell's fate; eating and drinking were. After 17 years of waiting tables, Cowell -- who has a master's degree in English and plans to eventually go back and earn a Ph.D. -- decided that she had constantly been preparing for a next phase in her life when, she says, "all the time, restaurants were the next phase."
One could wax poetic, even robust, about Europa! A Café, the restaurant that took Gigi and her husband, Scott, to the next phase of their culinary careers. Over the past four years, the lunch-only bistro has become a magnet for the Brookside noontime crowd. "Mostly women," Gigi concedes, "but a lot more men recently, since Blackwell Sanders Peper Martin moved their offices to the Plaza."
Gigi and Scott Cowell met while working at the old Remington's in the Adams Mark Hotel. In 2001 they took a leap of faith and purchased their own business, even though it wasn't a restaurant in the traditional sense. For one thing, the former Decadenza Café, in the middle of the Crestwood Shops, didn't actually have a kitchen. In its own brief (and, despite its name, unpoetic) history, Decadenza was a coffeehouse and gift shop that sold food prepared by caterer Lon Lane. The Cowells were working as caterers around that time, too, providing food for Café Maison, another venue without an actual kitchen.
When they were lured to take over the Crestwood location, Scott and Gigi took their signature dishes with them: a chicken salad made with walnuts, golden raisins, shredded chicken and fresh dill; a soothing tomato-basil soup; and Gigi's lemon layer cake, adapted from her Grandmother Mary's recipe.
Café Maison has its own kitchen now (and sells its own versions of the Cowell dishes), but it lost some of its grande saveur after the couple left to open their own place, installing a bite-sized kitchen in the old Decadenza. Part of Europa's success has to do with its simple, uncomplicated menu and ridiculously generous portions, but it mainly works because of Scott's and Gigi's personalities and their warm rapport with customers.
"We have some patrons who come in for lunch a couple of times a week," says Gigi, who still waits tables every day, when she's not sneaking back to whip together another bowl of lemon cake batter and slide the pan into the oven.
Unlike Café Maison, though, the Cowells haven't had much luck offering dinner. Europa discontinued its Friday-night suppers after a year, Gigi says, because evening business demanded that they serve wine, and they couldn't get a liquor license, thanks to that big, beautiful church across the street.
That same church also proved a devilish problem for Sunday brunch. "There wasn't enough parking on Sunday morning," Gigi says. "And then we decided we didn't want to be working seven days a week anyway."
That makes sense to me. After all, the pair seems to be in constant motion the other six days of the week, turning out lunches that are more European in spirit than design. The current menu is an eclectic one, with nods to New Orleans; Italy; China; and Buffalo, New York, alongside dishes one might actually find in a Parisian bistro. The quiche du jour is a thick slab of savory custard baked in a wonderfully flaky crust. And the pâté platter is heaped with all of the accoutrements necessary for turning Scott's country-style pâté into a sumptuous meal. Artfully arranged around the thick slices of pâté (made with ground pork, veal, olives and vermouth, all wrapped in bacon and baked) are salty kalamata olives; crisp cornichons; slices of tart apple, cool cucumber and green pepper; a wedge of molten brie; purple grapes; and satiny Swiss cheese.
I confess that I prefer the smoother, mousse-style pâté to this more rustic chilled version, and so does my friend Bob. He liked the accompaniments more than the actual pâté, which he found flavorless.
It does taste better at room temperature, but why quibble over petty pâté preferences when you can shuffle off to the other side of the menu and bite into one of Buffalo's most famous sandwiches? Roast beef on weck isn't as well-known as some of upstate New York's other culinary innovations (spicy chicken wings and chicken spiedie), but it's beloved among the natives.
"We have customers from the Buffalo area come in for lunch and freak out when they see that on the menu," says Gigi, a California native who thinks Scott -- a Midwesterner -- added the thickly stacked roast beef sandwich so that Europa would have a "more substantial" lunch offering.
Substantial is putting it mildly. This sandwich is a hefty number, with the roast beef layered on a crusty, yeasty roll called a kummelweck (or kimmelweck), a kaiser roll brushed with pretzel salt and caraway seeds before it goes in the oven. The City Tavern bakes the rolls to Cowell's specifications because it's the bun, not the beef, that makes this sandwich unique. And just like in Buffalo, it's served with both horseradish and au jus.
An even heartier creation is a toasted baguette split open in the center and heaped with roasted chicken, fat artichoke hearts, tomato sauce, and Parmesan and bubbling mozzarella cheeses. "It's a deeply emotionally satisfying sandwich," announced my friend Ned, not known for giving compliments freely. "It's almost as fantastic as the tomato-basil soup, which is heavenly."
These man-sized lunch choices aren't always ordered by males, we noted. We watched a nearby table in amazement as one well-coifed Amazon polished off one of the bountiful baguettes in four bites. "Thank God the waiter got his fingers out of the way in time," Ned said.
Yes, there is a waiter on the floor, too, a broad-shouldered artist named Richard who, like Gigi, has waited tables for most of his adult life. "And why not? In Europe it's an honorable career," said Ned, a veteran server himself.
Honor comes in many forms at Europa. There's plenty of it to be earned in Scott's tiny kitchen, where he grills stuffed panini sandwiches, including a fantastic roasted vegetable version and my new favorite, a Reuben-style number with corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and a pinkish "special sauce" that tastes like good ol' Russian dressing.
For lighter fare, there's a disarmingly simple frittata made with shrimp, fresh herbs and mozzarella, which I devoured in about four bites myself. Why muddle around with lunch, I thought, when I was ready for dessert? Gigi's from-scratch lemon cake is the most-requested confection here, and once you've tasted this moist, sweet and tart layered pastry, no other local version will do.
Still, I have been known to find great solace in a chocolate cake thickly iced with mocha frosting, or a French apple pie topped with a crumbly crust. And lots of whipped cream, which enormously cheered Bob, who once had ordered a similar pie in a bistro in Chartres, inviting laughter from the owner for wanting something so American as whipped cream. (The Frenchman brought it anyway.)
There's a lot of costly bric-a-brac lining the shelves around the Europa dining room, which I think should be tossed out and replaced with books. I once asked Gigi what classic title would best describe her restaurant.
"Great Expectations," she said. I'd say they're met.