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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Abundance Shared

By B.A. Nilsson

Some things sound too noble to be for real. Take the Century House’s “enjoy one/share one” program, which donates a meal to a regional food bank for every meal you purchase at the restaurant. Since its implementation in June, the program has been extremely successful, traveling to a different area food bank each month, where the restaurant’s managing partner, Colin DeMers, is among those serving the meals.

I spoke with DeMers about the program, trying to tease out of him some ulterior motive that would explain such altruism. “I wanted to find a way to give back to the community,” he explained. “Sure, it’s a way of calling attention to the Century House, but it’s also something I believe is my responsibility to do.” The usual promotion benefits the customer’s pocketbook and/or palate. This one assuages your guilt. Is there a payoff for you?

Yes, as a matter of fact, and this is the province of chef Michael Niccoli, who has crafted a menu that adds delightful gourmet touches to a list of traditional (meaning non-scary) items. In other words, the nervous traveler, accustomed to chain-restaurant sameness, should be as happy with the dinner here as the more adventurous diner who enjoys seeing, say, gnocchi reimagined.

The Century House is a 60-year-old hotel and restaurant complex that’s been owned by the same family since it opened. Recent renovations have rendered the dining room especially attractive, celebrating the building’s Federal-era roots. There’s a comfortable tavern feel about the combination of plank floors, exposed brick and antique tables, accented by a fireplace and comfortable lighting.

The lunch menu offers salads ($5 to $12, depending on the meat you add), a large list of sandwiches at $9 apiece, burgers ($10) and such entrées as fish and chips ($11) and a five-ounce filet ($14).

Something of the same sensibility informs the tavern menu, where again you find burgers along with salads ($7), pizzas ($10) and steak ($18), among other items. But we explored the dinner fare, drawing from a three-page menu of well-chosen suggestions.

I watched as appetizers went to a nearby party of eight, a procession of cocktail-sauced martini glasses rim-lined with shrimp, the least imaginative of starters ever offered. This drove me to try the gnocchi ($8), which delivers a one-two punch of sin by being fried in butter and served atop a gorgonzola cream. It was a dramatic departure ablaze with flavor.

Signature soups include a three-onion brew ($6) and lobster chowder ($9), the latter a longtime favorite that remained as appealing as ever, thick and crowded with sweet chunks of meat.

Even the salads, with some austerity potential, are rich: Buttered walnuts liven the arugula salad ($7), with added blue cheese and an apple-walnut vinaigrette, while the iceberg-based chopped salad ($7) sports crisped pancetta and purple beets.

Other starters include bacon-wrapped shrimp brochette ($11), crab cakes with peppadew aioli ($15) and grilled eggplant rollatini ($8).

The entrée list starts humbly enough with a turkey pot pie ($19) that I’m sure is anything but ordinary, and includes roasted Cornish game hen ($23), hanger steak ($23), braised short ribs ($22), and a number of seafood dishes, including pan-seared sea bass ($24), a Cape Cod pot of lobster, scallops, shrimp, clams and whitefish over pasta ($38), and the lighthouse shore dinner ($35) that gives you broiled lobster, pan-seared scallops and crab-stuffed shrimp.

Much as I wished to explore some manner of fish, when told that one of the evening’s specials was veal osso buco, I felt I had no choice but to sample what turned out to be a superb preparation of slow-cooked shanks, richly dressed with crisped onions and served with a needed marrow fork. It was served atop a rich risotto, making it almost its own appetizer and dessert. But I did get to sample the potato-wrapped cod ($25), which puts the fish in a nicely textured jacket of Yukon gold potato strings, served on a rich clam-based cream sauce and surrounded by littleneck clams.

Chef Niccoli has a different take on chicken piccata ($20). Traditionally a sautée of thin meat slices, his presents a whole roasted breast in lemon-caper sauce. “We get such a good chicken,” says Niccoli, “that I wanted the meat to speak for itself.” It did so, loud and clear, quite nicely. Alongside were broccoli and rice. Another locally obtained product is duck, and it’s celebrated with an accompaniment of blackberry duck jus in a $21 dish that presents sliced breast crusted with peppercorns, served with field greens.

We enjoyed the excellent attention of longtime waiter Gordon, who exemplifies the elegance good service demands.

For a sweet finish, we sampled a baked Alaska (single but still-large portion, flamed in the kitchen) and a superb chocolate mousse. Then we were asked to sign the “enjoy one/share one” book, giving us a glimpse of comments from other diners, and it felt good to know that our excess would benefit someone in far more need of food than I am.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Halloween is just the prelude to All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, celebrated in Mexico as El Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead—an upbeat holiday in which departed loved ones are expected to visit their still-quick relatives, who honor the dead with an altar and special offerings. El Loco Mexican Café (465 Madison Ave., Albany) holds its fourth annual observance of the Day of the Dead with a traditional celebration from 4:40 to 9:30 PM on Sunday (Nov. 1). The altar will be decorated with sugar skulls, flowers, candles, and pictures and other mementos of the departed. Guests are invited to bring photos or other objects meant to honor their deceased loved ones (pets included); also honored will be those in the public eye who passed away in the last year. And there’s a culinary incentive: All who bring something to share at the altar will receive a complimentary piece of pumpkin-pecan cheesecake. More info: 436-1855. Web site: ellocomexicancafe.com. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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