CARS HOMES JOBS

At the Table: All aboard! for elegant meal during a scenic train ride

Sunday, July 22, 2012
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SOMEWHERE IN THE ADIRONDACKS — “A good meal and a good train ride. What could be better?” mused husband Eric, who had just finished dessert somewhere around Hadley. We were in a vintage rail car on the Saratoga & North Creek Railway, heading home from a day trip to North Creek.

North Creek was lovely. I exercised my credit card vigorously in the little shops that line Main Street and we sat on the patio with a glass of wine at The Copperfield Inn before the ride back to Saratoga. Round-trip tickets for seats in the dome car, a full-length glass-enclosed rail car fitted with cushy velvet booths, white tablecloths and fresh flowers, are $50 a person, but the look on husband Eric’s face made it worth it.

“Would you like to see the newspaper?” I asked.

“No, I’ll just look out the window,” he said.

OK, so the flowers on the tables were a bit droopy, but the rest was relaxed elegance. Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday accompanied us home, and it seemed right.

Saratoga & North Creek Railway dome car

WHERE: Aboard the SNCRR; 877-726-7245, sncrr.com

WHEN: Service daily, through Oct. 31 available from Saratoga Springs, North Creek and stops in between. Check website for times.

HOW MUCH: $55.36

MORE INFO: Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover. Not wheelchair-accessible.

Ready to roll

We knew what to expect, because we’d read the dinner menu online and were pleased to find smartly designed menus at our table welcoming us for dinner.

“Good Evening and WELCOME ABOARD!” they said, along with thoughtful quotes from people like Henry Ford. We were assigned seats 42 A and B, on one side of a booth. After the doors closed, Eric moved to the vacant south-facing seat, the better to supervise our progress home.

You can get a coach class ticket for $27 and walk into the diner car to eat, which is pleasant also. The train makes several runs daily until Oct. 31, with up to nine bucolic flag stops in the North Country.

The scenic railroad, several years in the planning, started operations in July 2011, succeeding an earlier operator. The new company brought plenty of rolling stock and experience in running short-line passenger operations, including several dome cars. You might recall the Polar Express, which successfully transported more than 30,000 people to the “North Pole” in more than a month last winter. That’s these guys, and they know what they’re doing.

Mom took a Snow Train from New York City many years ago, before she was married. S & NCRR resurrected service in 2011, with equipment storage and a shuttle to Gore Mountain. It’s an idea whose time has come back. You connect from New York at Penn Station via Amtrak at Saratoga Springs.

By the number

If you’re only going to have one appetizer, then it should be smoked salmon with fruit, crackers and smoked cheese ($11). All the food items are numbered, so if you want the chicken Cordon Bleu ($12) you indicate No. 24 on the meal check with the S & NCRR number 2 pencils provided. Prices are reasonable; the six entrees range from $9 for No. 25 (chicken Parm) to $16 for No. 22 (the 10-ounce New York strip steak). Dinners include bread and butter, and are served table d’hôte, which means literally, “the table of the host”; in a restaurant it refers to a complete meal of several courses for the price of an entree. That’s opposed to a la carte, where you pay separately for each part of the meal.

The dome car was mostly filled that evening, and the servers worked their way along the aisle taking orders and bringing drinks out in no particular order. We each had a chilled glass of wine ($5) and watched for black-eyed Susans and daisies that turned up in the sunny spots along the track. The Hudson emerges from the woods broad and rocky and bubbling, only 2 feet deep. There’s a lot of relaxing to do while you wait for your meal.

Dinner plates are brought out covered, the plastic dome whisked off to good effect by a smiling server. A note about the staff: conductors’ uniforms are snappy, with railroad caps and neckties, and servers are neatly uniformed as well, and they all look like working on a train is the best job you could ever have.

We didn’t see any bread and butter on our table or any of the others, I was disappointed to observe. But our dinners were brought out shortly by the cheerful young woman who kept our drinks filled, and she lifted the domes and presented the attractive plates graciously. Eric ordered No. 23 (8-ounce seared Ahi tuna, $13), served sliced into chunks atop buckwheat soba noodles. There was a spicy red sauce with bits of pungent wasabi throughout. It was quite good, he said.

I greatly enjoyed the No. 21 (stuffed pork loin, $15). Two slices of boneless pork loin sandwiched a thick layer of savory stuffing flavored with apple chutney and topped with blackberry brandy sauce. It was delicious, and the pork was tender, juicy and flavorful, in short, not like the pork I’m used to getting in the supermarket that must be brined, marinated, and coaxed into tasting good. The meat was about a half-inch thick and — this is important — there was a nice layer of browned fat all around the edges that helped make it so good. The salty meat tasted even better with the sweet blackberry brandy sauce. It was accompanied by a classic rice pilaf and brightly colored frozen-type whole yellow and green beans and slender carrots served on the side, a handsome balance of protein, starch and vegetable.

Dessert selections included No. 18 (warm butter rum cake) and No. 19 (fruit cobbler) for $4 each. Eric had no trouble choosing the cake, especially since it came with creamy butter rum sauce. “It looks like a donut,” he observed, scooping fresh whipped cream from the center. The dainty tube cake had a commercial color and taste, but it was also freshly made, like at home, if you bake with good prepared mixes. Whipped cream was stripped from the sides and sauce scooped from the plate as Eric worked through his dessert successfully.

The server dropped our check onto the table, then ran my credit card for $55.36 with tax and tip, without drinks.

I had to keep reminding myself that these meals were prepared in a minuscule space on the first floor of the train. Airplane food, even in the front of the plane, has a precooked, assembled quality. It can even be very good, if the ingredients are high-quality and the preparation is thoughtful. Our dinners on the train were more like homemade meals that had been prepared in a spacious kitchen by a highly skilled chef, and they were cooked to order.

A trip worth taking

The blue and gold engine huffed into Saratoga Springs train station and the spell was broken. We collected our leftovers and headed to our car, the dream of comfortable and reliable public transportation evaporating on the Northway.

If you haven’t been on a train in a long time, then you should go. If the last time you ate on a train was in the snack car of an Amtrak train, you should go. And though I don’t care for dining with small children, they should come too, especially if they’ve never been on a train.

The S & NCRR harkens back to a time when train travel was sophisticated and elegant. And the food is good, too. All aboard.

 
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