This is a reunion time of year.
And Karen Melanie LaRocco has just returned, with better stuff. The Garden City native is cooking on Long Island, after taking her toque to New Hampshire, where she went following a good run at Melanie's A Bistro in Farmingdale. Be glad.
She's running the kitchen at Bistro Etcetera, which takes over the Main Street address previously occupied by Bistro Toulouse.
It's a cozy 30-seater, with traditional, dark-wood wainscoting and contemporary track lighting, all polished and glowing as if set up for the coming festivities.
There's some playful artwork, from an oversized cupcake to a knife-and-fork set that could be used to eat it. An eclectic collection of black-and-white celebrity photos, from one of Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush at ease to another of Grace Kelly in splendid solitude, lines the upper reaches of a wall. They seem odds and ends -- et cetera.
And that does give you an idea of the direction of this warm, charming spot, which plays the bistro theme, but with American and international variations.
Share the mezze plate, a savory combination of chickpea hummus, cubes of feta cheese, crinkly black olives and an eggplant-and-sundried-tomato relish, ready to be spread on triangles of toasted pita bread.
Or spark your appetite with a spirited combo of pan-roasted shrimp and chorizo, finished with cilantro, tomato and tequila. The quesadilla, with roasted duck, caramelized onions and goat cheese, turns into a Latin-New American spin on Beijing duck, each triangle ready to be dipped into hoisin sauce.
Onion soup is on the salty side, but sufficiently bracing for late December. A tangy Asian slaw nearly overwhelms seared sea scallops, which don't keep much of their wasabi dusting.
But enjoy a juicy, fibrous, ancho-chile-rubbed New York strip steak, boosted by very herbaceous chimichurri, the Argentine sauce, and a cut of fried plantain. Applewood-smoked bacon and blue cheese accent the excellent filet mignon and go with triangles of crisp potato cake, too.
The pork chop "semifreddo," however, a riff on Milanese, materializes slightly chewy, with dull breading. And a filet of panko-crusted cod is bland, despite the roasted mushroom vinaigrette. Vegetarians are better off, with the full-flavored roasted-vegetable version of a shepherd's pie.
Obligatory desserts: rich, dark chocolate-and-orange pot de crème; and warm, moist sticky toffee pudding, with toffee sauce and a spiced pear compote.
You'll leave merry and happy.