MY FAVORITE RESTAURANT isn't your favorite. Which it shouldn’t be. Part of the magic of the restaurant business is its diversity, which makes it similar to music. As with music, the more you study and participate, the more diverse your tastes become.
|Cafe Capriccio | Albany, NY|
Entertainment Weekly digested the year for us in top-ten structured paragraph bites, again to inspire awe at their columnists’ ability to regard their entertainment experiences in hierarchical terms.
Pleasant dining is not about such ranking. Even the detachment necessary to regard a restaurant as a review subject damages the dining experience. Dining occurs completely in the present, which is one of its less-regarded gratifications. It’s a social event fraught with ritual. It’s nourishing (or it’s supposed to be). It heightens an occasion: dine with someone you love and it’s a wonderland of bliss. Get stuck at a table with a loathsome individual and your food will taste vile.
So: a year’s worth of dining reminiscence, with an eye to the high points. It’s complicated by the lack of really lousy restaurants in the area, which is something we take for granted. There’s also an imbalance of fine dining opportunity in the Capital District. In terms of population density, you have a proportionately easier chance of finding (and affording) a top- notch dinner in this area than in Manhattan or Boston or Montreal. And this area’s best is easily as good as anything in those other cities.
Four places I visited in Albany this year continue to assert themselves as outstandingly inventive. Cafe Capriccio, now immortalized in chef-owner Jim Rua’s new book, has an appealing, quirky ambience, a staff with character, and food that is always surprising and satisfying. Dinner there is a feast for all the senses. Maurilio at the Quackenbush House is another northern Italian-inspired place that also offers whatever chef Maurilio Gregori damn well pleases to cook, in a lovely building where there’s plenty of personalized attention.
For drop-dead creativity, pay attention to Ric Orlando at Justin’s. He combines cooking styles from all over, especially the southwest and Caribbean, working out of an embarrassingly small kitchen but delivering a superior product.
Although we visited the Mansion Hill Inn on one of the monthly cigar nights, and thus sampled a menu geared to compete with same, it was clear that chef David K. Martin has a restless imagination and a deft hand at bringing together a variety of cooking techniques, all of which combine into some of the handsomest looking plates in the area.
You’ll find great food at the re-vamped Beverwyck, although it has the ambience of hotel restaurant without the hotel. Nicole’s Bistro at L’Auberge brings fancy French dining down to earth, making the menu more accessible without compromising the quality.
And the old and new in mainstream Italian also thrives: Lombardo’s changed hands but retained its quality and old- friends feeling, while Yates Street became The Pasta Factory and introduced a traditional menu with lower prices but the same skillful (and skillet-ful) approach.
Getting a little out of the city, The Olde Shaker Inn in Latham is where chef Jim Westervelt makes a cross-cultural menu dance with attractive delights. It’s another place with a pleasing mixture of good food, service and atmosphere.
The former tenants, Kathleen Murray and Scott Lynch, now run the Shipyard in Colonie, in a large, friendly building with a familiar menu that Lynch turns into a very satisfying presentation.
And the Desmond still reigns as a pinnacle of elegance and forethought. Last February’s instalment of the annual Albany American Wine Weekend was a virtuoso pairing of food and wine that showcased chef Michael St. John.
Speaking of wine and food: the first ever wine weekend at the Friends Lake Inn in Chestertown provided an opportunity to see (and taste) chef Tim Stephenson’s work, which was a knockout. He drew up a difficult Saturday menu but prepared every course to perfection.
Also in the north country: the Mirror Lake Inn in Lake Placid stands apart from that tourist-town’s typical overpriced venue by providing first-class everything. Morale is dangerously high there, owners Ed and Lisa Weibrecht add a friendly, personal touch, and chef Carl Gronlund keeps the menu rooted in Adirondack tradition.
Former Mirror Lake Inn chef Jim Rose is back in his boyhood neighborhood at the Union Hall Inn in Johnstown. It’s a drive, but it’s a destination. The 18th-century building is dressed for the holidays, and the menu is thoughtful and priced just right.
Let’s stay on the road for a couple more destinations. The Crooked Lake House in Averill Park brings top-rated chef Mike Cunningham to the kitchen of his dreams. It’s rustic, it’s pretty. And the food is superb. Also look for afternoon tea.
Down in Athens, near the banks of the Hudson, the Stewart House was taken over by transplanted New Yorker Kim McLean, who has recreated its Victorian splendor (actual Victorian splendor is really pretty ghastly) and frightened the natives with unusual recipes mixed in among the burgers.
A trio of natural food restaurants deserve mention. The Four Seasons in Saratoga Springs serves a Sunday buffet that looks great and tastes even better, and I dare any meat enthusiast to feel unprovided for at such a meal. And Albany’s Mother Earth Cafe and its nearby sibling, the Half Moon Cafe, encourage a meeting of the arts amidst good, meatless dining.
Schenectady maintains its somewhat frightened identity as taker-of-no-chances. The reopened Carlton Restaurant was a stand-out, however, as chef-owner Antoinette Colucci makes magic for those persistent enough to find the place.
Which brings us, finally, to Troy. Something has happened there. This year we visited Lo Porto. We visited 95 Ferry Street. There was a return to Cafe Allegro. And, a little out of town, the Hunter’s Inn. All of them exemplary places, and all booming (I hope) in a city that time forgot.
The best restaurant is the one in which your company is pleasant, your expectations are met, and the flavors dance merrily on the palate. This list should help you choose the next candidate.
– Metroland Magazine, 24 December 1992