As you all know, my dad passed away in June. On Father’s Day, of all days. Without going into too much detail, it took from that moment until late November for my mom and I to know if we would be able to keep the house, my childhood home for 23 years, or not. When the answer to that was negative, we put the house on the market. By some stroke of luck, it went under contract three weeks later and was set to close on March 1. The eight months during the span were absolute hell. Not just because he died, and that was bad enough, but because we were in limbo. Not knowing what is going to happen is worse than knowing the worst. We ended up finding a place in early January, and started the move on January 15. It took the full month and a half to move everything over. I did not have to hire movers because we have such amazing friends. Anyway, why does this figure into a food blog?
I had been cooking up a storm and hitting up all my favorite restaurants (as you can probably tell if you are a regular reader). But there was one place I avoided: my favorite restaurant (and my dad’s favorite): Perth Amboy’s Portuguese Manor. I just could not go in there. We have literally had the same waiter/maitre’d for more than 15 years. I wanted to avoid the conversation and the memories, especially not knowing what our fate would be.
We ended up closing a day early, on February 28. It was only fitting that we finally ate at Portuguese Manor that night. The timing was right. I was ready. We walked in and saw our waiter friend. Rather than the usual greeting, hug, and handshake, instead he approached a bit more gingerly. Maybe seeing me first instead of my dad threw him off. This man of always impeccable professionalism did not say hello. Instead, it was a slow, “Is everything okay?” I go on to explain the story and he was shocked. He sat us and over the course of the evening kept coming over and talking. He genuinely cared and wanted to know as much as he could. He then recounted, and I am not exaggerating, word-for-word the last conversation he ever had with my dad. This must have taken place in May, as we probably went there for his birthday. He also told us of losing his own father at a young age, and expressed his sadness for our family. Such a moment transcends the usual waiter-customer relationship. This was a man who had been present at nearly every special occasion dinner this family has had since I was a small child. It was fitting he was there on such a night.
Rather than the usual sangria, I had a gin martini. Dad would have approved. There was then the usual litany of delicious foods. It had been a long time—too long. But everything was perfect as it always was. There was the salad and fresh-baked bread, an appetizer sampler consisting of bacon-wrapped scallops, stuffed mushrooms, and stuffed clams. That stuffing I could eat by itself by the spoonful, it is so good. My meal was the zarzuela, a spicy seafood stew. My mom had a similar dish, just not spicy and made with a green sauce.
For dessert, there was Tartufo. This was more of a joke and an order made “for dad”. I swear, every restaurant we went to that offered this, he would order it. Even despite Portuguese Manor having a rather extensive dessert menu, it was always Tartufo. I washed it down with a so-good-it-should-be-illegal Spanish coffee, and a shot of Portuguese almond liqueur which was brought over on the house.
It was during the meal that I realized it was over at long last. This may sound strange, but his death and the meaning of it was finally final. The house was no longer in question. The move was over. The legalities taken care of. To be able to come to that realization with a martini in one hand and a spoonful of seafood stew in the other, and at a place that had such meaning to the relationship between my father and I was more than special. It really was the end of the line, and this meal helped bring us there.