Sunday, August 06, 2006

Belated Birthday Dinner (Conesus Inn & Aladdins)

My husband, Tom, and I share the same birth date -- July 10 -- but not in the same year.

When people hear about this, they usually say something like, "aw ... isn't that cute." It may be slightly cute, but it's really a pain. If I make him a birthday cake, I'm making myself a birthday cake. If I throw him a party, I'm throwing myself a party. You get the idea.

Several years ago, we came to an agreement that we wouldn't give each other gifts, but we'd have a nice night out to celebrate our birthdays. (This is a big relief to Tom, as it gives him one less occasion to sweat about a gift for me.) Our friend, Marie, is kind enough to volunteer for babysitting duty on these nights.

Our usual spot for our birthday dinner is on Conesus Lake, one of the Finger Lakes, about 45 minutes from our home. We make the trek to The Conesus Inn because of its exceptionally delicious prime rib. It's this beef that makes The Conesus Inn Tom's favorite restaurant. I'd prefer something a little more culinarily adventurous, but I'm happy enough to go there. It's a pretty setting, has a casual antiquey atmosphere, and while the food isn't terribly creative, it's generally well prepared.

The last time we went to the Conesus Inn was probably a year ago. That was the time we sat at three different tables. The first table they gave us was in a dark corner with no view of the lake. It was also right next to an air conditioning duct, which froze my legs. When I complained, they moved us to one of a handful of white PVC tables that are outside, on the concrete slab between the restaurant and the lake. After we had been outside for a few minutes, it began to rain. Hard. So they moved us back inside to a table that made me happy. It's times like those that Tom utters his favorite line from "When Harry Met Sally" (one of my favorite movies): "You're the worst kind of woman. You're high maintenance but you think you're low maintenance."

This time, I was wiser. I assertively told the hostess, "we'd like a table where we can see the lake." After a little pause, she said we could wait at the bar until one opened up.

We had drinks in their bar, which has quite a collection of antiques. As I admired them, I wondered who gets the task of dusting them.

After a few minutes, they called us to our table which did, in fact, have a view of the lake. And the setting sun was shining right in my face. Since I requested this table, I didn't complain about the glare. (I also didn't want to give Tom more fodder for calling me "high maintenance.") In the setting sun I watched a guy stop a jet ski and jump off to swim in the lake. He looked like he was enjoying himself, but he made me nervous. I pondered what I'd do if he looked like he was in trouble. Would I stand up and scream "call 911?" Dash out the door to rescue him?

I distracted myself by looking at the menu. It was different than last time. In the past, they had the kind of menus you often see in fancy restaurants -- fancy type on parchment-like paper, held in a leather-like folder with a gold string. The new menu was a plastic spiral binder, with sheets printed on a color printer and inserted into clear sheet protectors.

I paged through the menu in search of the description of the way the Conesus Inn ages their beef. This information had always been in the old menus. I looked because I recently read It Must Have Been Something I Ate, a thick collection of essays by foodie icon and lawyer Jeffrey Steingarten. One essay was devoted to the process of aging beef, the incredible flavor and texture this process imparts, and lamenting the fact that this is rarely done anymore as steak houses go for the quick buck at the expense of flavor.

When I read the essay, I had thought about emailing Mr. Steingarten and letting him know about the wonderful beef at the Conesus Inn. Maybe I could join him for dinner there, I fantasized. As we dined I could listen to the foodie icon wax eloquently about bluefin tuna or sea salts or whatever he was into at the time. Then he would profusely thank me about turning him onto this exquisite place that wasn't all too far from his New York City dwelling. Maybe he'd even mention me in one of his columns.

Back to the Conesus Inn ... the sheet about aging beef, which had been prominent in the previous menu, was curiously missing from the current menu. Suspicious, I thought.

While the format of the menu had changed, it looked like the dishes hadn't. A few chicken and pork dishes. Some fish from distant oceans. But from what I've observed, people order two things at the Conesus Inn -- King Crab legs and prime rib. I love King Crab legs, and they are always good at the Conesus Inn. I considered sampling the aged beef I had read about so much in Steingarten's book. One choice was a combination of crab legs and prime rib, so I asked the waitress how many crab legs came on the combination plate. Two, she answered, plus a claw. That didn't seem like nearly enough crab. So I ordered the crab legs, with a promise from Tom that he'd let me taste his beef.

Tom's only choice was the cut of his prime rib -- princess, queen, king, or Truman. If you ask me, there's a subtle form of male pressure going on with those names. How many men would be comfortable ordering a princess cut, even though he knows the larger cuts are a bad idea for his health? Tom, being comfortable with his masculinity, ordered the queen cut.

First the server brought us a basket of warm bread -- some rolls and a crusty French bread -- and little packets of real butter. Yum. I love restaurants that serve warm bread.

Next was our salads -- iceberg lettuce with a sprinkling of canned garbanzo beans, black olives, and some croutons, plus a ring of red onion. I ordered mine with poppy seed dressing. I know a lot of foodies who would sneer at this salad, particularly in the middle of summer, when so many locally grown alternatives are available. That's why I don't consider myself a foodie. It was tasty and crunchy. I ate it all.

Finally we got our entrees. My plate had a pile of bright red crab legs, which came with a little cup of melted butter. I sized them up for a few seconds, considering where to start cracking.

"Look, she doesn't know what to do," exclaimed a voice from the boisterous table of eight (seven women, one man) next to us. She leaned over and gave me a tutorial on how to eat crab legs. "That's the knuckle ... don't start there, break it off ... break off the pointy part too ... start with the middle part ... see, it's already cut for you."

I listened patiently because she meant well. But for the record, I've ordered crab legs before. I know how to eat them.

Anyway, the crab legs were good. (I struggled with a better adjective than "good," but I'm not sure what more you could say about crab legs. They tasted like crab legs. You dig the meat out and dip it in melted butter. And we all know what melted butter tastes like. So, it was ... good.)

Tom's beef looked the same as it always did. Big. Thick. Juicy. He dug in, and I asked him how it was.

"It's not as salty as before," he commented. I remember the flavor he decribed, but I personally wouldn't call it salty. To me, the flavor was intensely beefy.

I reminded him of the bite he promised me. However you describe the flavor of the beef we remember, this piece of meat wasn't it. It was tender and juicy, but the flavor was bland. Tom ate silently, without the occasional mutters of rapture he'd make in the past. My hunch, I'm afraid, is that The Conesus Inn no longer employs the aging process that made their prime rib so popular. (Later, I checked their Web site, and that doesn't mention aging either. Looks like there's no need to contact Mr. Steingarten.)

As always, there was too much food for one meal, so we wrapped up the leftovers in the plastic bags they set on our table without our asking for them.

We didn't want to have dessert right away, so we drove 30 minutes closer to home and stopped at Aladdin's Natural Eatery in Pittsford. The Pittsford Aladdins is in an area called Schoen Place. People can't agree on how to pronounce its name correctly (here's a link to the debate), but in any case it's a quaint area with a bunch of old buildings along the Erie Canal. Aladdins has two outside areas overlooking the canal -- a balcony and another area at sidewalk level, where we were seated.

I've been to Aladdins dozens of times, and I almost order their yummy chicken pita sandwich. Their fruit and nut salad is also very good, provided you ask them to go easy on the yogurt. I always stop to admire the display case of desserts at the entrance, but it's rare that I actually order one.

Tom immediately picked his favorite -- carrot cake. I had a hard time deciding from the baklava, key lime torte, and the carrot cake. I picked the carrot cake and when it was served, I regretted it. Carrot cake is a fall or winter dessert. It's just not a dessert that goes with watching the ducks paddle around the canal on a pleasant summer night. There was nothing wrong with the cake, though. It was moist and subtely spicy with tangy cream cheese frosting. I happen to prefer a carrot cake that has walnuts, but Tom doesn't. After dessert, we took a short walk along the canal and we were home by 10.

Today for lunch, I fished my baggie from the fridge. I picked out the crab meat, mixed in a little Hellman's Light mayo, diced celery, salt and pepper, and served it with some buttery Pepperidge Farm butterfly crackers. I shared it with my 11-year-old son, B., who pronounced it "one of the best things I've ever eaten."

Tom picked at the bone of the prime rib and said, "this isn't good. I just didn't want to admit it last night." I usually simmer his leftover bone to make broth for some killer French Onion soup, but instead Tom gave the bone to our dog, Charlie. Charlie, in his own way, pronounced it one of the best things he had ever eaten.


So it looks like I won't be dining with Jeffrey Steingarten at the Conesus Inn. And I predict we'll be finding another restaurant for future birthday celebrations.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

just for the record i have worked at the conesus inn for a long time and they still prepare the prime rib the same way they always have. If you were unsatisfied with anything you should have spoken up because it is very important to us that our customers are happy. I hope you will consider returning again in the future.

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