Fine dining with roadhouse attitude
Come as you are to Seneca Lake’s Stonecat Café
Chicken Under a Brick
Regional Cuisine and Bar
5315 State Rte. 414, Hector
During the week, you have to look businesslike as you give boardroom presentations that close million-dollar sales. On the weekend, it’s time to get sweaty. You and your partner love the little highways that crisscross the isthmi between the Finger Lakes…the wind in your face, the roar of the motorcycle engines beneath you, and the lush views that scroll by charge you up for the next Monday morning at the office.
While most weekend trips mean ribs or wings for dinner, she’s in the mood for something fancier today. Most lakeside restaurants wouldn’t bat an eye at a couple of ragged-looking bikers, but you can’t help but feel self-conscious sipping vino among roadtrippers wearing perfect coifs and sparkling jewels. As you rumble northward between Watkins Glen and Hector, you almost miss Stonecat Café, a low-slung roadhouse that used to be a fruit stand. But there are a lot of cars out front and even a couple of Harleys. She points to the driveway, and you both pull in.
Stonecat is as low-key on the inside as it is out front. Worn wooden floors and exposed beams give it a refreshing ad hoc atmosphere that’s much different than the immaculate bistros you take clients when you need to impress them. Posters taped to the wall advertise live music nights, and a patio with grapevines snaking along the walls and ceiling offers a view of hillside trees just starting to show autumn colors. You’re relieved to see that the clientele is a cross section of posh country-clubbers, families, sunburned cyclists, and a couple of grizzled bikers in do-rags. The two of you fit right in.
The drink list is a twenty-six-page master class in regional beers, wines, ciders, and craft cocktails. The waiter asks if you need more time as you and she scan through the hundreds of selections. When you ask for a recommendation, the waiter suggests an intriguing white wine made from red pinot noir grapes called Polarity from the Heart and Hands winery in Union Springs ($14). The wine is more amber than other white wines with the anise and citrus expected from traditional red pinot and the dryness of a grigio. Your partner chooses a more familiar sauvignon blanc from Hosmer Winery in nearby Ovid ($8).
To start, she orders the Seasonal Farm Salad ($14), a colorful toss of organic greens, fresh chèvre, walnuts, and sliced beets. The origin of each ingredient is dutifully listed at the bottom of the menu, all from nearby farms. You try the Gravlox ($12.50), which is smoky, thinly sliced salmon served on a bed of greens with herbed cream cheese, pickles, and fresh bread. Immediately, you two divide up your appetizers, the red vinaigrette dressing of the salad nicely complementing the hint of McKenzie rye whiskey in the cured salmon.
Chicken Under a Brick, you wonder ($28). The waiter explains that the weight of the brick keeps the chicken flat, exposing it to more consistent heat and making the skin really crispy. You have a quick look at Google and learn that it’s a recipe that goes back to the Roman Empire. The Tuscans call it pollo al mattone. Okay, color yourself curious. The chicken arrives just as promised, spatchcocked and char-marked with a nice Cajun sausage cornbread stuffing. The barbecue sauce served alongside is complex and tart, obviously homemade as it avoids the cloying sweetness that pours out of a bottle.
She tries the Spinach and Mushroom Risotto ($33) with andouille sausage. The risotto eschews imported rice and instead uses big pearls of local barley and spelt. It’s got a more chewy feel than its fluffy Italian counterpart, and the slivered shiitake mushrooms from Hawk Meadow Farm are almost like shellfish. The sausage is coarse and flavorful without being too dry, a quality dependent on both factory and cook.
As the light of a golden sunset washes through the mesh blinds of the patio, you’re considering maybe just one dessert and another drink. You split a slice of cheesecake ($8) and a Glendale Fizz ($7). The cheesecake is presented with edible flowers, cherry compote, dried raspberries, and roasted almond slivers in a manner so beautiful that is almost painful to plunge your fork into. The Glendale Fizz is a sweet vodka cocktail made from local Concord grape juice and a twist of lemon. It tastes like the unholy marriage of a Presbyterian communion and a flashy dance club.
It’s dark by the time you get home, and you’re utterly relaxed. Places like Stonecat Café make the corporate grind more bearable. Sunday drivers and closet bikers alike are welcome in a rustic atmosphere that is as laid back as its dress code. Drinks and ingredients are clearly sourced from local farms. In fact, you might run into some of the farmers themselves enjoying their produce prepared by a skillful chef.
Mark Gillespie is a freelance writer who enjoys exploring the culinary, artistic, and natural treasures of Rochester and the Finger Lakes region.