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Sunday, January 04, 2015

A Year of Dining

Jeet Jet? Dept.: My annual list of the most appealing places of the many I wrote about during the previous twelvemonth revealed a commonly suspected truth: there’s great dining to be found in pubs and low-cost ethnic eateries. Here’s the round-up.


IT’S NOT JUST COMMUNITY SUPPORT that necessitates the pursuit of locally grown and raised food. It’s the health of it. Try to get a medium-rare burger in any of the chain eateries. Food-service people know this. It’s one of the reasons that the better eateries are being more careful about their food sources. So I lead this year’s review of my favorite restaurants with The Table at Fort Plain (70 Canal Street, Fort Plain), a place that’s also helping give life to a town hit by economic downturn and floods. Chef-owner Aaron Katovitch ran a fine-dining restaurant on Cape Cod, among other successful ventures, but he wanted to return to his hometown, where he offers a changing menu of farm-sourced items in a friendly, informal setting.

The Table at Fort Plain | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Three top-notch fine-dining venues we visited this year happen to feature Italian fare, a much more desirable alternative to the fussy sprigs and spheres creeping onto our plates. Mio Posto (68 Putnam St., Saratoga Springs) is in a legendarily tiny space with only eight tables, but Danny Petrosino proved that you can make everything that lands on each table special. He did so well that he’s now helming the kitchen at nearby Maestro’s, but his friend and assistant Danny Urschel has taken over and we’re promised the same excellent quality and welcoming atmosphere. And the Bolognese sauce will always be available.

Mio Vino Wine Bar & Bistro (186 Main St., Altamont) has many more tables, but you may have a bit more of a drive to get there. No matter: It’s worth it. Michael and Emilia Giorgio partnered with the dynamic Tim Turano, which means that the service is as superb as the food, a rare combo in our area. The menu features small plates of items like eggplant with mozzarella and roasted red peppers or pulled osso buco; sandwiches and pizzas are offered, and entrées like pan-seared scallops, prosciutto chicken and Angus ribeye.

My first visit to Lo Porto Ristorante Caffe (85 4th St., Troy) was in 1992, when it had been open for a year; by 2004, chef-owner Michael Lo Porto’s nephew, Carmello, had been installed as executive chef, and still holds that position, although you’re likely to see Michael there and you’re still able to get Veal Scorcese, a dish developed for the famed director when he was in town shooting The Age of Innocence. Given the Lo Porto family’s Sicilian background, this is also a place for excellent seafood.

Three terrific pubs also are on the list. One of them is in Chatham, where it’s also one of the very few Welsh pubs in the country. Peint o Gwrw (37 Main St, Chatham) is longtime village resident Tom Hope’s opportunity to offer his neighbors the food and hospitality he prefers, and during the 14 years he’s been open the place has suitably evolved to the point where he even indulges his more oddball tastes. Which is why various curries are regular menu items. He also rebuilt the inside, and his care and expertise shows. Settle in with a pint, enjoy the music, and don’t be afraid of the menu.

England, meanwhile, was home to the man who opened Man of Kent Tavern (4452 Route 7, Hoosick Falls) on a middle-of-nowhere stretch of Route 7 between Troy and Bennington, but 25 years later it’s thriving under the ownership of John Bombard, who is keeping the original formula while adding some needed menu expansion. The ceiling of the unprepossessing place is obscured by beer towels, gimme caps, pennants and football club banners. The bar stretches almost from front to back and a few tables are scattered beside it. There’s outdoor seating when the weather is warm. Enhancing the burgers-and-other-sandwiches menu are entrées like mussels and bratwurst cooked in lager, stuffed sole and salmon Oscar, reflecting a commendable emphasis on seafood. Sixteen beers on tap, 130 in bottles.

The 50/50 burger—half beef, half bacon—has helped put The Mohawk Taproom (153 Mohawk Ave., Scotia) on the map, but the menu goes well beyond that with such items as fish and chips, steak frites, fried green beans, beer-simmered clams and a kick-ass homemade meatloaf. And there’s plenty of craft beer alongside the Bud Light: Ommegang Scythe and Sickle, Lake Placid Ubu Ale, Blue Point Hoptical Illusion and one that knocked my taste buds for a pleasant loop, Rushing Duck’s Beanhead Coffee Porter. They’ve got 20 taps working, so you’ll find something that pleases you.

On the ethnic front, I finally got to Casa Domenicana (260 Central Ave., Albany) this year, a restaurant that has been open for nearly nine years, ever since Hector Marmol decided to quit Queens in favor of Albany. The food of the Domenican Republic is similar to Cuban and Puerto Rican fare, and there are a few small tables at the restaurant if you’re not hurrying away with takeout. Lechón asado (roasted pork) is a must: meat that’s tender as can be but with a crunchy skin to give it character.

I unwittingly visited Northeast Chinese II (900 Central Ave., Albany) during a Chinese New Year celebration, so the place was nearly full, but what had been a depressing strip-mall buffet had turned into a bustling full-service restaurant—with a hot-pot buffet as a centerpiece. Order your broth, which is delivered to your table in a steaming pot, and select component items from the meat, fish and vegetables on display. In addition to the familiar, regular menu items include sauerkraut casserole, triple pork intestines, sliced pig tripe in fresh hot pepper, the unassumingly named sliced cabbage with fungus, duck blood cake and frog with hot sauce and chili. Clearly, it’s a place to go Asian hardcore, while your friend need be no more adventurous than General Tso’s chicken.

Yoshi Arita started in the kitchen at Japan’s Hotel Nagoya Castle before traveling to Restaurant Nippon in Manhattan’s midtown. He quit the city to open the long-gone Ginza in Latham, and remains in our area as chef-owner of Yoshi Sushi (640 New Loudon Road, No. 5, Latham), which he and his wife, Yon, have run for 16 years. The menu is devoted to sushi and sushi only, although you’ll get a salad and miso soup with dinner. Otherwise, it’s the area’s best manifestations of these raw-fish delights, also served as nigiri and wrapped in rolls. Fear not if the choice proves daunting: You can go for broke with the kamikaze plate, a 64-piece assembly that covers the menu’s high points, and needs only a platoon of trenchermen to finish it off.

Although the excellent Aladdin’s in Amsterdam closed—the locals are frightened of falafel—it has reopened in an entirely different guise as Falafel Den at 6 Phila Street in Saratoga Springs. It’s primarily takeout (there are about four seats in the place), but the falafel is as good (and truly unfrightening) as ever, and the prices are outrageously low.

The best sit-down Middle Eastern meal we enjoyed this year was at The Phoenicians (1686 Central Ave, Colonie), where seven simple spices inform a wealth of Lebanese items, including rotisserie preparations of chicken and lamb, the best lamb chops you’ll ever taste, and the reliable goodies like hummus and falafel and baba ganouj. Owners Robert and Rindala Rahal have made this a destination for those in the know, with a sense of hospitality that matches the excellence of the food. This, for me, is what makes dining out most special, and characterizes the places to which I most frequently return.

Metroland Magazine, 31 December 2014

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