Caverns Palace (Howes Cave)
March 2013 (dt)
6.44 - 7.25, 7, 7, 6.8, 6, 6, 6, 5.5

Yup, unique!
          Upon entering, one cannot help but gawk in amused wonderment at the ceiling. Gray-brown, cave ceiling wavy-bumpy, with hundreds of “stalactites” dripping. ... no other DP8 restaurant can boast such immediate ambiance. It was cool, or retro, or innovative, or in-keeping-with-Howes-Cavern, or 60s-ish, or…. ok, done with that.
          The menu is humungous, bordering on a good diner combined with a sports bar & grill combined with a basic fine-eating establishment. Twenty appetizers, half a dozen soups, half a dozen salads, pizza, fifteen sandwiches & paninis & wraps, ten styles of burgers, and five to ten entrées each in the chicken, seafood, Italiano, beef, pork & lamb, and seafood categories. Whew!

            We finally settled on:
>sea bass special, chili-Thai glaze (Mark & Don: good fish, fresh, we thought; tasty & ok topping; fresh mashed potatoes, I think, although Mark ordered a baked potato; and a so-so vegetable medley)
>baked lobster tail with blue crab stuffing; choice of baked, mashed or fries (as accompanied all the dinners); veggie medley (Joyce & Deb T: lobster was ok-good, a bit dry; stuffing – ehh; both liked the mood-light candle that served as the butter warmer
>fried shrimp (Chay: good; five large shrimp, with fries)
>sausage & chicken al forno (Kerry: ok, an experimental try for him; large portion, enough for doggie bag; ...)
>herb chicken Italiano: chicken with mushrooms, eggplant, tomatoes, herbs & spice (Julie: good; doggie bag big enough to feed family of four)
>beef Wellington (Deb K: very good, tenderloin cooked right, pastry done right)

            All of this came after a rare splurge of appetizers, the sizes of which could have almost served eight for dinner. We ordered:
>bruschetta: a heaping twelve inch plate with five five-inch slices of bread, drizzled with oil and garlic (did I say garlic!?), surrounding a heap of tomatoes, onions, herbs, garlic that had an enjoyable “bite”; the “crispy” in the menu’s bread description never happened, but we liked it anyway.
>spinach-artichoke dip: another twelve inch platter, with a bowl of baked creamy dip, with a heap of tri-color corn chips (and not the “crispy baguettes” on the menu
>bubbly seafood dip—a combo of lobster, shrimp, and crab, baked in cheese, served on another twelve inch platter, with the chips instead of the menu’s baguettes
(Many of us strained to pass the plates around, attesting to the weight of the plates.)

I think the knowledge that dinner came with soup or salad bar caused throwing caution and responsibility to the wind as we kept piling up the appetizer order.

The dinner accompaniments were:
>the roasted tomato bisque with smoked gouda filled a hefty mug-bowl that Kerry, Deb K, Joyce, and Don enjoyed;
>Mark, Chay, Deb T, and Julie opted for the salad bar, a rare occurrence (the bar) in the modern setting but it fit Caverns Palace. (The last salad bar we could remember was at Laney’s, a long-ish time ago.) And it was a nice, basic-good bar, with bread to be sliced, greens, two pasta salads, a potato salad, and another half dozen bowls of choices to make

            Then, the siren call of dessert wailed but half of us were sated by this time:
>pass – Mark, Deb K;
>coffee – Joyce;
>Sambuca – who else?;
==>chocolate mousse cake – Don: an average cake but good enough to end the evening; Julie liked it
==>coffee crème brûlée – Deb T: ehhh, a good try
==>apple pie – Kerry: good, warm, drizzle of caramel

For DP8, we had enough choices for a suitable DP8 dinner; and if one wanted only a sandwich or soup some night, CP is a worthy casual choice.
          The wine list was a bit more varied than one finds at most places (and with very modest mark-ups, also). Our first bottle was a Zacharias Vineyard 2010 Ambelo-Phos (Greek Red - 90% Assyrtiko), and Mark ordered a Casa Larga NV Cab-Merlot (a Finger Lakes wine). (Tim, you best hustle back, a bunch of people are getting practice being wine stewards!) Both were good choices for the five red wine drinkers. A couple sodas and a beer filled the list.

Our waiter, Jen, was very good – convivial, attentive, friendly, assertive (in a good way), and strong (had to be with the weight of the plates).

Ambience (once you adjusted to being in a cave—ok, only the ceiling) is a modern, airy feel, aided by the surround-a-mid-wall bank of windows overlooking Howes Caverns’ hillside visible across the valley, with the classic lettering still writ large enough to read even a half-mile away.
          CP’s main entry feeds you toward the greeter, with the bar twenty feet beyond, a salad bar just a few feet away to the left, with booths along the roadside wall, banquettes along the back wall not already taken by the bar, and then two rooms visually separated by décor and a large door frame. We occupied the whole center of the left-hand room and it was heaven for us. (The right-hand room, we learned later, as seen in the photo, was a double row of booths.) Although most of the middle section was full, our end room was solely ours, even though another fifteen seats were available.
          We sat four on the side, with three wider-than-usual tables placed together, graced with fiber mats, a place setting wrapped in a paper napkin, and a “centerpiece” of an unlit votive candle, a salt and pepper shaker match, and a small bowl of sugar packets. Sturdy chairs were comfortable the night-long. A synthetic wide-board floor assemblage was mostly not noticeable. A lot of brown, dark brown, and cave pictures/representation comprised the interior color scheme.
          Lighting in our room was recessed, creating a cave-ish effect on the wavy ceiling, and the same was true for the booths and banquettes in the main middle room. However, lighting of the main room, running down the center peak, was created by clusters of four hanging semi-globular lights, each with its own rod, of different levels, of different colors, reminding us of floating sea urchins, each cluster about fifteen feet part. It was… nifty ....
          We asked for water around, and out came glasses and two pitchers of ice water, set on the table for us to pour. In fact, even the wine bottles came opened, but corked, and we poured as we needed. Classy-diner-ish. Noise level, even with white noise in the background, was as quiet as any place we have been, and much appreciated. Perhaps, it was the ceiling absorbing the noise.
          The bill came to $85 per couple, a darn good deal for the gobs of food we ate, including tax, drink and tip.

The evening had started at the Teator house, where three cheeses awaited (everyone learned quickly which was the jalapeno), along with salsa and taboule waiting for the blue chips, a small plate of cooked shrimp with red sauce, and cauliflower and broccoli with some ranch dip. ...
          Of course, the change of cast of characters smacks the Karneses and Teators, but the Notars and Quinns filled in quite capably and congenially, making for another enjoyable evening. So, we spent about five minutes speculating what the “southerners” were doing, based on phone calls, emails, and Facebook.
          Conversations drifted from Z’s memorial (and Chay’s and Kerry’s part in it), a little more about Z, a cool weather week behind us and ahead of us, retirement, the enormous pressure to retire exerted on Kerry from two “unnamed” sources, school stuff, Princeton Plan, more DE stuff as we drove past it, Christopher, the Quinn “kids” and challenges, Africa & Bridget, Julie’s work, Deb K’s work, not bicycling, Kalli and cats, Julie’s rescue dog efforts, Niagara Falls & Notars, Canadian Niagara wine, silly wine sales laws, Nathan and house, Hurricane Irene, Schoharie and how many houses were dark when we drove through, golfing, HS baseball season, retirement (again, but not for Julie, for a loooong time).
          Thank you, Mark and Joyce, and Kerry and Julie, for rounding out the “8” this evening, and we original, home-anchoring 4 look forward to catching up with the traveling 4 and our usual ways in April.