Beyond pierogies

My in-law equivalent refuses to learn how to navigate the wonderful series of tubes, so I can be quite frank in reporting I prodded my consort to do the right thing and head home for xmas only because I knew I would get a few good meals out of it. Along with a lovely ride up the Hudson and along the Erie Canal on Amtrak, now with real WiFi.

Lunch at Sea Bar downtown was totally vaut le voyage, not least because we got so much food for so little money. I had the BBQ and smoked salmon rolls in a bento special for all of $9.95: miso soup, sesame noodles and cucumber salad plus nine rolls (enhanced with avocado and spicy sauce). Bob was pretty blown away by his sashimi special, with no salad but five types of fish and otherwise the same accoutrements plus tea. We split a mega-pour of white and walked out with a tab not much more than two glasses of wine go for at Fatty Crab.

That night we followed a chorus of advice for dinner, with Bob driving through a wet and dark night to Lewiston to try Carmelo’s. This old bitch was the happiest of the three of us at table, because the menu hit all the right notes, but it was hard getting the other two excited, Gloria because unfamiliar is intimidating, Bob because he was still gut-shocked from a bad meatball back in the center of the universe. We happily shared the superb crispy squid salad with house-cured coppa over arugula with roasted peanuts and chile-lime vinaigrette as an appetizer and also the dessert with maple-bacon ice cream (more texture than taste). But Bob’s potato gnocchi with pork ragu and citrus-herb mascarpone needed something to pull all those elements into coherence, and G’s pork chop was well-flavored but too huge both for her to slice with arthritic hands and for us to appreciate the accompanying and overwhelmed roasted spaghetti squash, apple chutney and “spicy balsamic gastrique.” My “grilled bavette steak with roasted mushrooms, creamed artichoke, shallot puree and natural jus,” though, was just what we wanted to divide in half and tuck into DiCamillo’s (substandard) bread for our Amtrak ride home next day.

I’ll give big points for the huge wine pours and take none off for the ditzy service everyone retroactively warned us about. (Well, maybe one point off for “artesian” where “artisanal” was meant on the menu.) Carmelo’s is a fine restaurant, and its heart is in the right locavore place despite the jet-lagged barramundi. But is it Buffalo’s second coming? J’doubt it. As Bob said, the cooking starts with big flavors and finishes small.

Our other dinner, at Trattoria Aroma again, after a matinee of “Hugo,” turned out to be a travesty and a triumph. Just after we ordered, and Bob’s and my glasses of good/well-priced wine landed, the I-LE realized she was missing her wedding rings, the ones she has not taken off in 56 years. At one point we had three servers under the table searching, with their phones as flashlights, before I took the waiter’s suggestion to have the food wrapped to go while we sped back to the theater to comb the ladies’ room. As I anticipated, we were thwarted there and walked into her living room to see the diamonds glittering right by the chair where she’d been sitting with gloves on to keep warm earlier in the day. While she took Tylenol and reveled in recounting the drama to her sister by phone, Bob and I uncorked a bottle from Premier and marveled at how carefully the kitchen had packed our food so that everything was very nearly as good as it would have been on-site. Both the sausage on polenta and the special pizzette with soppressata and caramelized onion were nicely balanced, and my special gnocchi with peas and mushrooms rated A for both lightness in texture and richness in flavor. Even our salad held up. Plus the kitchen threw in a container of the excellent bread, regular and rosemary. I don’t know that I’ve ever had such a sense that a restaurant cared so much, not just about keeping the customer satisfied but showing pride in its food. And, obviously, it was a hard act to follow . . .