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Friday, November 01, 2013

Grape & Growler

Bon Appetit Dept.: Yes, this is the review that’s in the current issue of Metroland, but I’m posting it here to show you the photos I took that didn’t run in the magazine.


WE ENTERED to a blast of jukebox, a bass-heavy throb that struck fear in the eyes of my wife. Not on her account, although she’s been known to plug her ears when a mildly noisy bus goes by, but because she assumed I’d want to leave. Such is the power of hunger, however, that I took us to one of the many empty tables in the place.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
It was soon enough after 5 on a Friday evening that an after-work crowd had assembled at the bar, managing, with the conversational virtuosity given to those who frequent clamorous watering holes, to understand one another. Unless it’s a matter of dumbly acknowledging that which you didn’t actually hear, and responding with what you’re confident won’t be heard.

We sat and studied the menus. The room is large enough to hold about a dozen tables a comfortable distance from one another. The ceiling is decorated with several parallel rows of beer taps, souvenirs, I later learned of Savannah’s, the downtown Albany establishment formerly owned by Joe Schaefer and Peter Cusato.

The growler end of things is celebrated with a 30-strong on-tap list, at the least-threatening end of which is Coors Light, heaven help you, but it goes on to include such stalwarts as Smithwicks, Harp, Newcastle Brown and Guinness (with which I immediately slaked the thirst and aggravated the appetite), and local brews like Saratoga Lager, Saranac Blueberry Blonde Ale and a couple of selections apiece from Ommegang and Lake Placid.

At the grape end – sadly for me, I didn’t explore it. Turns out there’s a separate room separated by hallway and door that serves as the wine bar, where we could have enjoyed our meal in relative quiet. I discovered it on a return visit for lunch. So there truly is the potential here to satisfy both beer-seeking and wine-seeking requirements, although the grape end of things hasn’t taken off to the extent where there’s always a bartender on hand for that room.

Schaefer runs front-of-house operations; Cusato, whom I spoke with on my second visit, is in the kitchen and oversees what you’ll be eating. Julie, my affable server, exhorted me to celebrate a rainy day with the house specialty, mac and cheese – “Made to order!” – and so I did, choosing the Big Boy Mac and Cheese ($11), recommended, no doubt, to suit my body type.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
It’s the traditional M&C (which is $10), topped with chili (available alone for $3 or $6), and it’s mountainous. When I say it’s good, when I say it’s satisfying, I am judging it in terms unrelated to gourmet dining. There’s nothing rarefied about this dish, and there shouldn’t be. What’s done well is the reimagining of it away from the odious instant variety, with grown-up sized pasta and a more interesting blend of cheeses.

The Grape and Growler opened in late July, not far from Wade Road’s many industrial and airport-related entities (there’s a Lear Jet Road nearby!) and an easy escape from Wolf Road’s array of chain restaurants.

The menu is straight-ahead pub fare, but with as much of it made from scratch as is convenient. For example: the house dressing is homemade blue cheese, of a texture far less mucilaginous than the store-bought stuff.

Appetizers include nachos ($8), fried calamari ($9), popcorn shrimp ($7) and a $10 combo platter of four items with four sauces. Black bean and French onion are featured soups ($6, with a cup of black bean available for $3) and among the 13 salads are Caesar ($6), chef or tuna or taco ($8 apiece), Italian, Vermont or Bleu (sic!) Chicken, the last-named featuring artichoke hearts and olives in addition to crumbles of the much-misspelled cheese ($9 apiece).

Poached pear salad is $8 and sports softened pear slices and crispy, cinnamon-rich candied walnuts, with blue cheese and tomato slices mixed with romaine, served with a balsamic vinaigrette. It was an unspectacular, slightly overdressed assemblage that performed exactly as expected.

Much of what helped me remain jukebox-oblivious was a burger craving. Our server that evening assured me the burgers were terrific and that I could get one cooked precisely to my specification.

I wasn’t prepared to tackle the Grumbling Growler, a $25, 16-inch monstrosity. Nor was the peanut butter-coated, donut-housed burger ($9) a candidate. The egg-and-cheese enhanced burger was a possibility ($9), as was the Bonanza Growler, with its bacon and barbecue sauce ($9), but I went for the Angry Buffalo Growler ($9), served with jalapeños and buffalo-wing sauce.

It arrived with not a trace of the hoped-for pink within, but what’s the point of complaining? That’s a thing that needs to be gotten right right off the bat. And it was still enjoyable – it just seemed like a chain-restaurant burger.

My wife’s order of chicken quesadillas ($10) was a better example of satisfying pub fare, assembled well and of large-enough size to provide her a next-day lunch. And an order of chicken wings (10 for $8), with a homemade sauce hot enough to give an appreciable kick, was excellent (you’ve also got mild, medium, honey-barbecue and garlic among the candidate sauces).

We left too early for the entertainment, which, each Friday and Saturday, is Bandeoke: you get to sing your karaoke favorites with a band, a group known as The Ruddys. And Thursday is Trivia Night.

It’s a strange neighborhood for a neighborhood pub, but I like the promised diversity of the place, I very much like the mac and cheese, and I’m going to give them another shot at that burger.

The Grape and Growler, 155 Wade Rd., Latham, 783-8000, Serving Mon-Wed 11-10, Thu-Sat 11-2. AE, D, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 31 October 2013

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