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Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Dialectic of Dining

From the Vault Dept.: This won’t help much if you’re hungry and heading north, because the restaurant is closed for the season. But it has persevered for over a dozen years now, serving a menu of unlikely fare (gourmet dining!) in an unlikely location (north country!). I reviewed it shortly after it opened, with my then three-year-old child in tow, after which we went camping ... but that’s another story.


Chef Richard Dwyer
A SUPERIOR DINING EXPERIENCE is threefold. The customer first attempts to achieve gustatory satisfaction through knowledge of food. Second is the attempt to prepare that food yourself. The final stage is when you gain knowledge of yourself through contact with excellent food preparation experienced in the outside world.

I couldn’t help but get Hegelian in contemplating the Owl at Twilight – the restaurant unbashfully borrows from the philosopher in one of the finest puns in foodservice. Worried about what happens when philosophy “paints gray on gray,” Hegel suggested that that’s when “the Owl of Minerva first takes flight with twilight closing in.”

And here, in the Adirondack village of Olmstedville, which is in the town of Minerva, is a restaurant that’s anything but gray on gray. The house, unexpectedly tucked into the woods, is charming; the dining room has been refurbished to a state of quiet, colorful attractiveness and the food bursts with flavor.

Once a private residence, the building housed an infamous watering hole called The Pub and, as Betsy’s Steak Place, had more of a prole profile before Richard and Joanne Dwyer took it over and refurbished the place. “We practically gutted it,” says Richard. “We put in new floors, new furniture – about all that remains are the chairs, and we re-covered those.”

Entrée pricing runs from $14-$25, which is on a par or lower than the better white linen restaurants in our urban midst; in the north country, it’s an anomaly. Unless you’re catering to tourists, and the Owl at Twilight most assuredly styles itself as a destination. “We’ve been busy all summer,” Dwyer says, “filling up at least one seating every night.”

Now they have cut back on their hours, closing Mon-Wed, although they’re planning some open Mondays as the leaf-looking tourists head north.

A cruet of rich olive oil sits on each table; when the bread basket is served, you also get a ramekin of garlic butter. The flavor parade begins.

Five appetizers and nine entrées make this a perfect-sized menu; additional items are presented nightly. Although I promised to leave my daughter home during visits to fancy restaurants, we were in a jam here; fortunately, by arriving at six and indulging no lingering, we were able to squeeze out just enough good-behavior time to enjoy a meal and annoy no neighbors.

We started her off with a bowl of black bean soup, built upon a thin, flavorful stock that needed only a touch of something salty to complete its flavor spectrum. Flavor abounded in the grilled shrimp appetizer that Susan ordered ($9), served at her request with its salsa on the side. The shrimp were handsomely arrayed in an oversized martini glass with spicy pesto at the bottom; the salsa, made with fresh tomatoes, added a cooling effect.

I was warned that the mussels steamed in a habanero and tequila broth ($6) would be especially spicy, which was fine with me. It turned out to be one of the most delicious plates of mussels I’ve tasted, the broth filling out the fish flavor excellently – and it didn’t seem as spicy as all that. In fact, my daughter, who has taken a liking to mussels, swapped her plate for mine and found gold in those last few shells.

House salads are an attractive array of absolutely fresh mixed greens, grape tomatoes, homemade croutons and more, with a sherry vinaigrette. None of this choice of dressing stuff, either, which is fine with me – at my ideal restaurant, in fact, you’d pay a fixed price for dinner and have very few choices.

Chef Dwyer gained a lot of inspiration from Douglas Rodriguez, whose book Nuevo Latino is one of my own mainstays. So I was in my element amidst all the seasonings, which were well showcased in my entrée of roasted pork tenderloin ($17). It’s prepared with a garlic and cilantro adobo, which is a Spanish term for a marinade, and served with a citrus-rich papaya salsa spiced with mustard and chiles.

Roasted garlic-enhanced mashed potatoes and buttery snow pea pods garnished my plate; Susan’s shared the vegetable, but a serving of rice completed her entrée of grilled chicken breasts with a roasted corn and grilled pepper relish. The meat speaks for itself, with the grill imparting a nice smoky flavor. The relish gives it crunch, with a wonderful contrast between the smooth warmth of the meat and cold pop of corn kernels.

The risotto appetizer changes daily, and was presented with asparagus tips during our visit, which sufficed as an entrée for my daughter. A classic preparation, creamy and rich.

Joanne is the service mainstay, and she tended the full dining room with impressive grace while we were there, aided by two others who were a bit more tentative. All in all, we had that relaxing sense of being completely cared for.

I selected two glasses of wine during dinner from a good-sized, well-priced list. Wine and beer features are also posted on a chalkboard near the copper-covered bar. Although my wife and daughter slipped out to play in the actual twilight at this point, I remained long enough to sample a dessert of chile brittle, which describes the pepper flake-infused sugar bark served with and adding sparkle to homemade ice cream with caramel sauce.

Although we took back roads during our travels, you’ll find this restaurant not far off the Northway – take the Minerva exit and you can’t miss it.

Dinner for three, with tax and tip and all of the above, was $96.

The Owl at Twilight, 1322 County Route 29 (Pottersville-Olmstedville Rd.), Olmstedville, 518-251-4696.

Metroland Magazine, Sept. 7, 2000.

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