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B.A. Nilsson

In Season
By B.A. Nilsson

Café Lucia
90 Church St., Lenox, Mass., (413) 637-2640. Serving dinner Tue-Sun 5:30-10. AE, CB, D, DC, MC, V.

Food: ****
Service: Hurried
Ambience: Pleasant

I took a gamble and reserved a seat on the deck. When I visited in 1995, a downpour kept me inside, but it was an extremely pleasant meal in which all the little details were perfectly in place.

Perhaps it’s a function of dining outdoors this time, but those details have slipped somewhat in the intervening years. Owner Jim Lucie, who has run the restaurant since 1983, wasn’t there the night of my recent visit, and there was a Tanglewood crowd also to contend with, but I still think this has the potential to be a faultless experience.

The major problem, and it’s one that hobbles fine restaurants everywhere, is service. Even if your employees are hired on the most fleetingly seasonal basis, you need to plug them into a workable system. And the only one that works worth a damn is the captain-waiter system, also known as inside-outside service.

This puts someone on the floor at all times, who thus is always available to needy customers. Another server works the kitchen, placing and picking up orders, which are served by whomever is most available. This guarantees that at least two servers are working each table; if it’s busy enough, someone else should be busing tables as well.

Because the (outdoor, at least) service at Café Lucia is one server per station, we had only one very busy server (whose station was inexplicably filled well before those of other servers) to attend to our needs, so water went unrefilled and bread wasn’t replenished—and the bread is served roll by roll, which is elegant but demands more constant server attention.

I arranged to meet a high school friend for an early dinner between Tanglewood concerts, and so I fled the grounds even as the last note of the Eroica symphony rang in the air, to avoid being stuck behind all those Bostonians on walkers. This put me at my Café Lucia table well ahead of the reservation time, and I sat in the pleasant sunshine and worked on some writing projects.

As I waited, I ordered an appetizer of house-roasted peppers and anchovies ($10). This is where we get down to the basics of worthy ingredients: Fresh bell peppers (red and yellow), prepped on the premises. Large salt-cured anchovy slices. Currant-sized capers. Salty? You bet. Delightfully so. Matched by the sweetness of the peppers and the yeasty crunch of the rolls served alongside.

I wanted a glass of wine to go with it, something fairly light, but of the two whites available by the glass, the Orvieto turned out to be unavailable. “Can I get any other non-Chardonnay by the glass?” I asked.

“No.” Wrong answer. Jack’s Oyster House in Albany has the right idea: The answer, the menu declares, is always “yes.” Open a bottle of something. You’re going to get five or six glasses out of it. At $7 per glass, you’ll gross $35 to $42, more than the listed price of many of the whites.

So I opted for a glass of sherry—and how nice, for once, to find my favorite aperitif actually available. It’s otherwise quickly disappearing from bars and restaurants.

The Tanglewood crowd caught up with me. Surrounding tables filled. I overheard the enthusiastic opinions of the concertgoers, and marveled again at what little focused attention people give to music.

When Rod arrived, we settled into the meal for real. He chose a soppressata-based appetizer ($12), featuring a soft Tuscan salami made from coarsely chopped pork head and tongue that’s larded and spiced. It’s served with a liberal helping of way-fresh baby arugula (from Sky Farm) garnished with shavings of pecorino Romano cheese and large Calabrese olives.

Like my peppers-and-anchovies appetizer, you create flavor combinations yourself with this dish. With olive oil, bread and a full-bodied glass of wine, you can do wonders on the palate. Rod was sipping a Chianti; I’d moved to the house chardonnay.

Soup of the day ($7) was made from sweet Vidalia onions with some cloves of roasted garlic peeking through; chicken stock and rice finished the simple brew, although the few grains of rice seemed like an afterthought. Great flavor, though.

Café Lucia offers an à la carte menu, so salads come at a price ($8 or $9, to be exact); we skipped to entrées, which are divided between a half-dozen pasta items and about as many meats. Pasta variations, priced from $14 to $26, include a straightforward marinara, a Bolognese sauce, rigatoni with hot sausage and, as Rod ordered, linguini and scallops in a light seafood sauce ($26).

Scallops, when you can find good ones, don’t aggressively shout their flavors, so it’s important to moderate the accompaniments. A barely intrusive velouté spread its richness on the palate, with help from a cautious sprinkling of sun-dried tomato bits and chopped scallions.

The seafood special of the day was grilled striped bass ($25), two small sections of which were served alongside arugula and shaved cheese. Wonderful as it tasted, it’s not much for 25 bucks. These are Lenox prices, though, and echo in the nearby restaurants. My sense of value says, however, that such a price means you ought sit on something classier than resin.

We finished with a couple of homemade desserts: Torta della Nonna, a perennial favorite, features a lemon cream and shortbread crust, and cannoli cake ($7 for each dessert) puts the familiar flavor of sweetened ricotta into a fluffy cake. After an espresso apiece, we headed back to Tanglewood.

Dinner for two, with tax, tip, desserts and a few glasses of wine, was $162.

TABLE SCRAPS

The AIDS Council of Northeastern New York presents its 12th annual benefit in Saratoga at the National Museum of Dance at 6 PM on Sunday, Aug 4. A buffet dinner will be catered by Michael’s/The Franklin Plaza, and there will be music by John Charles Cook, the Michael Panza Trio and the Bennington Woodwind Quintet. Also featured is a silent auction of unique collectors’ pieces and personal services. Tickets are $125 per person and are available by calling the Council’s office at 434-4686, ext. 217. For more info about the council, visit the website www.aidscouncil.org. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland. (Special e-mail bonus: send info to food@banilsson.com!)

—B.A.N.

(Please fax info to 922-7090)


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