Thursday, April 28, 2005
The Little Restaurant that Could
One of our favorite places to eat had declined in recent years--same name, same place but new owners, new cook. The general restaurant kiss of death. We tried many times to just give the once-popular restaurant one more chance, hoping, desperately, that our dining experience of the mid-1990s would somehow resurrect itself to its former roadside glory. It never did. We moved on to other venues, but wistful about the corn chowder, cream pies and homemade entrees we used to know.
Spring is indeed the time of new life and Casey J's on Route 12 in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire has reemerged in its former guise and stature thanks to one of the establishment's original waitresses and mainstays. Merrilyn Weston Patch recently bought the 12-year old eatery from its third owners and, judging from the parking lot, word seems to be out that Casey J's is "back". This is one of those unpretentious family places where you can hang with the locals or bring your weekend friends for brunch. We saw several people we recognized from regional towns, including ourselves, proving that people will drive twenty miles or more in the country for a good meal.
There is something on the menu for everyone--they used to even serve tripe but Merrilyn says you can't get it anymore--and portions are large (but you can ask for "lite" servings at a reduced cost). Entrees range from $6-16 but include homemade rolls, choice of potato and a vegetable. My husband had a 2" cut (12 oz) of prime rib, complete with roll, choice of potato and vegetable. On other occasions he often gets the meatloaf dinner. He chose homemade mashed potatoes with gravy and broccoli. It was one of the most flavorful cuts he'd had at a restaurant and perfectly cooked to his liking at medium rare. One of our boys had the homemade macaroni and cheese with a hotdog, from the children's menu, which came with a drink and ice cream. I chose the fried seafood platter with clams and scallops and both were plump, sweet and perfectly cooked. For a vegetable I opted for pickled beets, surprised to find them on the menu and delighted in their fresh-canned crispness.
Specials usually include a fried fish option, like oysters or scallops, steak, and sometimes lobster rolls, despite the rising cost of lobster meat. Regular menu fare ranges from pasta dishes to meat loaf. For Mother's Day, we overheard that Merrilyn will be offering fresh chops from Weston-raised lamb. Sunday brunch is ample and varied and regular breakfasts are also popular with hearty specials under $5 including eggs, pancakes and omelets, even a generous serving of fresh fruit cup, attractively presented, for a mere $2. The restaurant is open daily for all three meals, except Mondays.
Merrilyn was always one of the many reasons we kept returning--in good times and in bad. As a young widow and mother of several children, Merrilyn also managed to put on a brave front through the restaurant's several changes, keeping vigil, and always smiling, despite the diminished fare and increasingly grungy surroundings, and the turmoil in her own life. A native of Hancock, about thirty miles or so to the north, she recently raided her father's farmhouse and barn for antiques to put her own mark on the place: milk bottles from former area dairies line the walls alongside old tools, game boards, vintage cans, and faded Victorian photograph portraits of mystery relatives. [FYI Fitzwilliam and nearby Jaffrey are also great destinations for antiquers. However, there is nothing like going out to the barn on the old homestead for inspiration.] While Merrilyn has put her own touches on the pre-existing railroad decor--if Casey Jones ever lived in Fitzwiliam, no one seems to know about it--she hasn't messed with the food, only improving upon original offerings and bringing back the original baker who has also baked for Twelve Pine, the famed cafe eatery in nearby Peterborough.
Prior to one Thanksgiving dinner my husband and I put on in one of the first years of our marriage, we pre-ordered several dozen Parker House rolls and a number of homemade pies from Casey J's (I am not a good pie maker and at the time had a fear of making a successful yeast bread). The baker, Bett Eleftheriou is just the right fit for a place like this and knows how to make any kind of conceivable dessert, sweet rolls with a slight hint of honey, and a mean Whoopie Pie (for the uninformed, that's essentially two chocolate cake tops, baked as large soft cookies and smudged together with a hearty dollop of a creamy, often marshmallow-based, filling). Dessert specials change daily but there is always something to tempt the palate, like the best Boston Cream Pie, even after you've stuffed yourself on their home cooked entrees. In addition to several kinds of pies and cheescake, you can easily find diner standards like bread or grapenut pudding and apple crisp. But dieters, beware. This place has been banned even by the Weight Watchers™ point system.
One complaint I have always had about Casey J's is the tendency to overcook vegetables into a pallid, lifeless state (except for the carrots which can always pass as well done). Yet as the limp broccoli sits alongside the gravy I feel I'm back in London at the university dining hall so it easily becomes a nostalgic oversight. Since that time in my life I've realized that I like my veggies bright green and at least al dente. However, I can't hold it against them as Casey J's is not the place to go for your vegetables. You want to bring it all on and make your meal worth every caloric, amply served bite. If you want a menu that features items like "Pan-seared Spawning Brook Trout and Rabbit-bitten Field Greens with a White Raspberry-Tuscan Oil Spritz" or black-clad waiters hovering over you with large pepper grinders, then you shouldn't have gotten off at Petticoat Junction, my friend. But since you did, you may as well stick around and enjoy yourself and catch a later train.