Sunday, July 26, 2009

One-of-a-Kind Restaurants, In Every Town

On one of our first dates, Russ and I went to Balloons, a restaurant on Washington Street in Auburn, New York. Established in 1934, Balloons had a reputation as a great steak house. If you walk in the door today, it seems not much has changed since the restaurant's early days. It's a place where everyone seems to know everyone, a central-New York Cheers of sorts. Jim, the bartender, greeted us last night by saying "Hello Professor" to Russ and "Hi sweetheart, where have you been?" to me. He notices when it's been a while, and that's always nice. The waiters (all waiters) wear balloon print ties. The walls are time-stained pine panels, heavily decorated in sports pennants, caricatures, and photos of famous or loyal patrons from eight decades of business. With the exception of the flat-screen TV over the bar, it's as if the world stood still mid-20th century and nothing has changed. Noticeably absent, now, is Tony, a popular and beloved waiter who worked at Balloons since its earliest days. Tony passed away a couple of years ago, and his presence is certainly missed. Russ talked with him often, and discovered that Tony used to come to Saratoga in the summers, and reminisced about dining at DeRossi's restaurant on Beekman Street (now Gotchas). Like DeRossi's in its prime, Balloons has the exclusivity of being one-of-a-kind, not something that chain restaurants, no matter how consistent or reliable, can ever provide. Every town has their own version of a DeRossi's or a Balloons. In my not-so-humble opinion, such restaurants are treasures, with local history and character, and should be considered before choosing the chain near the highway.

Remembering that date twelve years ago, Russ ordered Chicken Parmesan and I ordered Chicken Balloons. Russ's dinner arrived, and the cheese was melted perfectly over his chicken. He said his heart was just like the cheese - melted! OK, as schmaltzy as that sounds now, it sounded great then, and the memory brings a smile to my face.

Last night, Russ ordered Rattlesnake Pasta, an abundant dish with sauteed vegetables. linguini, and chicken in a spicy alfredo sauce. Of all the nights he's ordered it, he's only finished it three times. It was not to be last night -- he took a good amount home with him. I ordered Millenium Chicken. Nine years later, it's still on the menu, and it was fantastic. Millenium chicken is pounded and sauteed chicken medallions with shrimp in a champagne cream sauce, with very thinly sliced mushrooms, artichoke hearts, and ribbons of sun-dried tomatoes. The flavor combination was just right and I will attempt to duplicate this one at home.

I love to go to Balloons. When I go there, even after months away, it's as if I never left. I can't wait to walk in that door again, and for Jim to say "Hello sweetheart!"

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Next blog: What to do with all that zucchini: Ratatouille, and a chocolate zucchini cake (thanks, Val, for the suggestion!)

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