Friday, May 23, 2008


Whether it was the effect of a rare hot-orange sunset falling over Seneca Lake vineyards, or the fact that we were finally playing on a full deck – that is to say, we snagged the last couple of seats on the Café’s popular shaded dining area – at the Stonecat Café we recently enjoyed one of the most memorable and delicious meals of our food critiquing careers.

Our evening began with a bottle of Finger Lakes bubbly, not our regular Bagley’s, which we love not only for its toasty flavors and fine bubbles, but also because the label letters drift down the bottle in the ice bath, giving us word games to play between courses, but with Swedish Hill’s good semi-dry Riesling, a fitting match for our first course: a green salad with still-pliant dried sour cherries and caramelized walnuts in a roasted garlic vinaigrette, and a plate of crisp crostini to be spread with sweet roasted garlic cloves and a cloud of fluffy chevre. The kitchen sent out a tasting plate of wild mushroom ravioli in a lemon Pecorino cream sauce, redolent of the scent of local woods after rains. Lighter appetites might have let it go at that, but, gourmands that we are, we charged on gamely.

At the Stonecat we tend to fall back on the smoked pulled-pork barbecue in its vinegary Carolina-style barbecue sauce, which is probably the best pulled pork you can get in these parts. We’re also fond of the cornmeal-crusted catfish with its smoked tomato coulis. In fact, Chef Scott Signori is a sort of genius at the smoker, producing his own smoked sausages, wild Alaskan salmon, shrimp, trout, and whatever else he can get his hands on. He smokes tomatoes for his tomato sauces and chilies for his throat-searing “Scooter’s hot sauce.” He has a deep understanding of the smoker’s capabilities, and he uses it imaginatively and judiciously.

Nevertheless, in the interest of giving you a fuller picture, we eschewed the pulled pork and catfish. On one platter, silver-dollar-sized, seared scallops strutted their stuff in a jazzy red Thai curry sauce. Bedded down on a pouf of steamed white rice, the scallops were fresh, sweet, and clearly free of the supermarket additives that pump up weight at the expense of texture and flavor. The curry sauce was spicy enough to bring taste buds to attention, but restrained enough to give those exquisite scallops their rightful stage, front and center.

“Hector pepper molé,” a symphony of smoked chicken, shrimp, and Signori’s own maple-juniper sausages, bathed in a rich molé sauce, played over a pair of herb-flecked polenta pillows. He combines ground almonds and pecans, a warming, fruity medley of ground chilies, and the requisite chocolate for his molé, and it is, as you might expect, dark, complex, and plate-licking good.

We were tempted by the Indian-flavored peas and paneer, a mild, fresh cheese, simmered in a tomato-yogurt sauce, and served over jasmine rice with fresh peach chutney; we’ll have to return to sample it soon. An evening chill moving in, we migrated to the Stonecat’s cozy dining room for finishers, a whipped cream-topped apple crisp and a dish of espresso gelato, to help keep us awake for the drive home over the ridge. We applaud Stonecat’s loyalty to Finger Lakes wines and to locally grown, seasonal, organic foods, which make up more than seventy-five per cent of their menu, and contribute to the freshness and focus of Scott Signori’s cuisine. The café’s service is good-humored, well informed, and attentive, the servers unusually attractive and appealing. That doesn’t hurt.

The Stonecat, which closes from December to March or April, is known for its Sunday jazz brunches featuring Signori’s homemade sausages, corned beef hash, and pulled-pork barbecue, as well as a good selection of vegetarian and vegan options. Dinners are served Friday through Sunday, from 5 to 9. Wednesdays are Pub Nights at the Stonecat, featuring lower-priced sandwiches, platters, pizzettes with a variety of toppings, “nibbles,” (what, exactly, is a catfish finger, we wondered), and sides of their homemade spicy dilly beans and cornbread. Patrons belly up to their ample bar to sample local brews and wines, and gentle musical duos and trios hold forth. Thursday is “Big Night,” where pasta reigns, compatible wines are available by the glass, and prices are pasta-low. Thursday favorites include bison alla Bolognese, and Signori’s spiced-up take on linguini putanesca.

The Stonecat Café is located in the midst of the Hector winery scene, at 5315 Route 414, approximately seven miles north of Watkins Glen, and just a short hop, over Searsburg Road, from Trumansburg. Check out their Web site at It’s a good idea to make reservations, especially on weekend nights. Call them at 607 546-5000.