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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Blue Plate Special: Birth of a Column

I’d been covering the arts – music, theater, and dance – for Metroland Magazine for two years when, early in 1986, I suggested to founder and then-publisher Peter Iselin that I should review restaurants. At other area publications, that plum job was snatched by people high on the editorial ladder, whereas I’d recently been in the business and could bring an insider’s perspective. “I’d love to do that,” he said, “but we can’t afford it.” I was prepared for that argument, and pitched the idea that we make a virtue of poverty. “We call the place, ask them to comp us a meal, and present it as their finest effort.” The column, dubbed “Byron’s Blue Plate Special,” debuted on April 3, 1986. I restaurant-visited in the company of photographer Drew Kinum. Far from hiding my identity, the photos often featured my outsized mug. Barely discernible in the lousy photocopy accompanying this piece is the tuxedo I wore for that initial visit.

Once the reviews started running, restaurants got interested in buying more ads – but, as Peter discovered, they feared that the business of the freebie meal lessened the column’s credibility. Within six months, we switched to the unannounced visit policy that continues today. Here, warts and too many full colons and all, is my very first restaurant review. But don’t get your appetite up: the place is long gone.


Alan Yerdon and B. A. Nilsson at the Bijou Cafe
March, 1986 | Photo by Drew Kinum
Photocopy of newsprint by the author
THE TERM I’D LIKE to stress here is “homemade.” The Bijou Café doesn’t look like it’s going to be a “homemade” kind of place – until you check the menu, are told about the specials and, especially, get a basket of steaming bread.

“This is enough,” said Drew. “It can stop right here.” He slathered a bread slice with whipped butter and even forgot to take a picture of it.

Allan Yerdon and John D’Amigo opened the Bijou Café almost a year and a half ago. “We feature a continental menu,” says John, “but with some emphasis on Northern Italian cuisine. Our specialties are veal dishes, shrimp Genovese, that kind of thing.”

The restaurant features a long, narrow dining room with seating for about 50. Colors are attractive and subdued: there is much emphasis on presentation of the room and of the food.

Here’s what we chose for dinner: the Bijou Pâté is a loaf made from imported smoked ham, pork, veal and “good cognac.” It’s presented with a ramekin of Dijon mustard that nicely complements the hearty flavor of the meats.

Gratinee of Onion Soup is made from a stock that, wonder of wonders, doesn’t depend on salt for its flavor. And it has the traditional trimmings of crouton and thick cheese.

“Homemade” strikes again in the salad dressings: Drew’s blue cheese was a creamy mixture with large chunks of the stuff; my own creamy Italian (the house dressing) was thick and tart. And the salad was fresh and crisp.

A good dinner is put together like a vaudeville bill: each act has to top the one that came before it. This is the entrées accomplish, despite the considerable prelude.

Veal piccata, a special of the evening, was done properly – and that’s not too often the case. Start with a tenderloin of veal, slice thin and tenderize, dredge in flour, sauté with parsley and lemon, deglaze – surprising how many corners in that simple process get cut. Anyway, this serving was just right. Simple, delicious. And attractively served, with a tomato rose as its centerpiece.

Drew got the rose, too, along with his plate of sautéed sea scallops. You’re dealing with hefty chunks of meat there, so the challenge is to cook it thoroughly but not to the point of dryness. And the side dishes were rice pilaf prepared with egg noodles and dried apricots (“an Armenian recipe,” says Allan) and a vegetable sauté that included carrots, onions, kidney beans, lettuce, and spinach.

The last act on the bill: dessert. All homemade. A delicious-sounding list, but we stopped the waitress halfway through and suggested she bring us her favorites.

She couldn’t have chosen better. Warm pecan pie. Chocolate mousse. “Simple is best,” says Allan about the mousse, and that’s what it is: simple. Eggs, heavy cream, good chocolate. Neither dessert suffered from over-sweetening. And the coffee was freshly made.

The wine list at the Bijou boasts no extravagant vintages: we settled for a young Vouvray. There was the added pleasure of pianist Pat Christman, who played a gamut of standards and does so every Thursday. Saturdays it’s pianist John Ralston.

Special kudos to the cooks, Alan Birch and Paul Maorro, who work with Allan and John (the owners are likely to work the floor during dinner service and need trustworthy people in the kitchen).

“We are developing a steady clientele,” says John. “It’s nice when people get to know you. I like to walk around and visit with the customers.”

A new menu is being prepared that adds ossobuco, pasta dishes, and an apricot-glazed chicken that has become very popular. As Alan points out, “We have regulars in here all the time, so we like to change the specials to give them a variety.”

This concern results in a pleasant, family-style atmosphere at the Bijou. Sue, the waitress, was quite candid about her own feelings there: ‘’Don’t print this,” she said, ‘but this is the nicest place I’ve worked in.”

THE BIJOU CAFÉ, 817 McClellan Street, Schenectady, 382-1717. Lunch: 11-2:30 Tuesday-Friday. Dinner: 5-10 Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11 Friday-Saturday, 3-9 Sunday. Catering available. Private parties in the restaurant Mondays. Full bar, wine list. M major credit cards. Also featuring cakes baked for any occasion.
Reviews for “Byron’s Blue Plate Special” are written alter Byron finishes dessert. Before that, he picks a place, tells the owner when he’s coming and mentions that a) he expects to be wined and dined like royalty, and b) he doesn’t plan to pay for any of it.

Your dining experience will no doubt be under dissimilar circumstances, but don’t let that stop you from visiting the fine establishments surveyed in this space.

Metroland Magazine, April 3, 1986

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