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Saturday, August 21, 2010

What makes a dinner memorable?

And so our youngest son has been dropped off for the first time at college. A day of firsts. This is our first child to go away to school, our older son chose to live home and commute and so we, the parents, are filled with emotions; pride, a bit of anxiety, happiness, and a sprinkle of worry. We wear our smiling faces as we watch him walk away to his new temporary home.

Coincidentally, it is my birthday. My husband of 23 years and I begin a quiet and thoughtful 3 hour ride toward home and I spot a restaurant.

"Are you hungry," I ask.

"No, not really," he answers and by the time I can point out the restaurant, he realizes I am not asking if he is hungry, but rather if we can stop at the cute restaurant I just spotted next to the river. He turns the vehicle around and I smile.

A tough task lies ahead. How do we separate dropping our son off and my birthday? Or should we try to at all?

We stand in front of the restaurant and can clearly see the dining room is lined with tables butted against the windows. "I definitely want to sit by the window," I think as I take the picture. Memories of meals by the water come to the front of my thoughts and push away the cloudy unsettled feelings that were there.

As we approach the front door, I wonder, how many other families stop at this restaurant for this very moment in their life? How many other parents find a few minutes of comfort in food after leaving their child to start their own journey?

Is this part of the process? Finding a little adventure of our own? A place to create new and happy memories...stories to share with family, "and we found this wonderful little restaurant overlooking the river..." Hope and promise. So much anticipation for this one birthday dinner. Or is that what it is at all?

Upon entering the gift shop/foyer area, we notice crafts, maple syrup and other items for sale on the left and a generous sitting area that somehow reminds you of a grandmother you never had on the right. A woman, who can only be defined in age as "older", greets us and carefully picks up menus. She walks purposefully and carefully, it is hard for me to slow my gait, I am so accustomed to speeding ahead - from one task to the next, hurrying to finish and now, the walk is symbolic in a few seconds, I have no need to rush.

Without asking, we are seated a few tables away from other dinners, by a gloriously large and clean window. This is the table...

Typically, things happen a bit quickly in a restaurant in New York.
Normally, your water glass is filled, you are asked if you would like a drink and once that is brought to you, your order is taken.
I knew somehow, this would not be the case.
Yes, a young lady came and poured water and another lady asked us what we would like to drink, but she also told us, "Your cheese and crackers will be right out." Hmmmm.

Not every meal has to feature trendy gourmet bits to be impressive. Quality, freshness and even a touch of unique lend to the warm, homey but yet, out to dinner feel.
The house drinks are listed in a flap in the menu and I select the French Martini. Basically, vodka, Chambord and pineapple juice, shaken with ice and poured into a stemmed cocktail glass. A moment of sweetness to be sure. We clink our glasses in a toast to my birthday. Is that why we're here?

Next, we place our dinner orders and time seems to stop. Conversation feels a bit forced and we seem to choose what feels like safe and neutral topics - the crows fishing on the sandy bank of the river, wondering how deep the water is and laughing about the 70+ year old group of Senior Citizens who are discussing Facebook. Should we just dive in and talk about the huge pink elephant? Will he be ok? What's he doing now? Our older son text messages in and asks where we are (if we were closer to home he would have joined us) and we try to act as though all of this is normal, everyday, routine and we are fine.

The waitress brings us a "relish platter" and a basket of pop-overs. How quaint! What a lovely interruption and of course, it makes the elephant disappear.

Though the elements in the platter are not foods we would typically expect to eat when we are out, we sample and begin to speak a bit more relaxed. "Wonder when he will feel homesick, right away or after some time?" "Wonder how he will get along with his roommate." "Well, we did our job and the rest is up to him..."

My husband leaves the table to find the men's room and upon his return he tells me, "Remember how your grandfather used to leave little pieces of paper and notes written in pencil around his house? Well, the men's room has a note by the light switch, 'Please turn off light when you leave' and a note to remember to flush."

Charming or annoying?

The relish platter has been cleared and we continue chatting through a fresh and crisp salad. Feeling a bit more at ease, able to relax and just enjoy the meal, our main courses arrive.

Though the menu called it "Broiled Seafood" the scallops and shrimp did not have a broiled feel. I was happy to have chosen from the House Special section, "Braised Beef." We were offered two vegetable choices from silver bowls; a green bean medley or cauliflower and I had a generous spoonful of each along side a baked potato.

We share our entrees and as I thought from looking, mine seems the better choice. The beef had been cooked long and slow to fork tenderness and the gravy was rich without being salty or over seasoned. Yum.

The dishes are cleared, the dessert menu is brought to us and in one of the sections, a story of the history of the restaurant. Lovely. I make a selection and venture away to the Ladies' Room. No note about the light switch, but the gleamingly clean tile and grout allow one to forgive any taped reminders. This restroom is indeed well maintained.

An individual pot of tea arrived in my absence and he has a cup of aromatic coffee. Within a few minutes our dessert arrives and thankfully, no secret candle or strangers singing, "Happy Birthday." This dinner was much more.

Apple Fritter - made with Granny Smith apples (I asked).

While this recipe is not from the baker, it seems the closest thing I could find on the web.
Our apple fritters were really apple pie pockets served in a cozy vanilla sauce.
Heaven. We wait to see what our next trip up or back from our son's college will bring...

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