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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Best of 1994

From the Year-End Vault Dept.: Let’s glide back 20 years for a wistful look at the Albany-area eateries that impressed me the most in 1994.


ALTHOUGH THERE WERE GOOD MEALS to be sampled locally during the past 12 months, some of the best eating was found farther away. Keeping in mind that a good diner meal can be the apex of culinary splendor in the right circumstances, it doesn't take away from the fact that a special anniversary dinner held last February at The Point in Saranac Lake was the finest meal I’ve encountered. Chef Bill McNamee, working with guest chefs David Lawson and Jean-Michel Lorain, put together a masterful menu that I’ll highlight: chilled terrine of Arcachon oysters, sea scallops finished in a cappuccino sauce, then a combination of Brussels sprouts and Beluga caviar before the venison entrée, dark-flavored and buttery.

Dining Room at The Point, Saranac Lake
Down the road at the newly-refurbished Lake Placid Lodge, we sampled more of McNamee’s cooking, which I’ve termed Adirondack gourmet. Game dominates the entrées – we tried a hearty portion of Muscovy duck, served on a bed of red cabbage and currants, braised to an appropriate sweetness – and even meatless eating can be rich as demonstrated by the Tagliatelles aux truffes noires, which is pasta made from white truffles, sauced with porcini mushrooms and black truffles.

One of the area’s best chefs took off to Woodstock some months back, and we finally got out to Ric Orlando’s New World Home Cooking Co. last summer. He’s still cooking the exuberant, salubrious stuff you may remember from Albany, but the Woodstock setting is much more encouraging (a sad commentary on the Capital Region).

Another fine Albany restaurant closed after a quarrel with the city’s palate-less mayor. Maurilio at the Quackenbush House put the talents of a dynamic chef, Maurilio Gregori, in one of the city’s nicest old buildings. Maurilio’s unique cooking is inspired by his native Ascoli Piceno, in the middle of Italy, bringing the sunny flavors of olives and tomatoes and such to a varied menu of game and pasta.

The Palmer House Café in Rensselaerville is another day trip, worth the traveling. The village itself is an antique picture postcard; Sunday brunch at the Palmer House is a trip to a friendlier time and place, thanks to the work by chef-owners Susan Lenane and Bill Bensen, who have run the place since 1986.

We visited a couple of places that are noteworthy but seasonal. Saltsman’s Hotel is in the little Montgomery County town of Ephratah and is closed November through March. They no longer rent rooms, but the old-fashioned family-style dinners are casual, tasty, and terrific. For a more formal, gourmet experience, Siro’s in Saratoga Springs is open only when the thoroughbreds run in the summer. Again, it’s an old tradition upheld nicely, worth reserving (as some regulars do) a year in advance.

Speaking of upholding a tradition (and getting to the best of the local restaurants), a recent visit to Jack’s Oyster House in downtown Albany confirmed that the third generation of the Rosenstein family is making customers feel as welcome (and as well fed) as Jack himself did when he opened in 1913. Great high-ceilinged dining room; great service; great seafood.

Italian restaurants are done well in this area, and we visited some of the mainstays and were pleased to see high standards upheld. The best news was the reopening of Roma Appian Way in Schenectady, where sisters Gina and Anna uphold the from-scratch cooking they learned in their family’s restaurant just outside Rome. Order an antipasto and marvel at the ingredients. Paolo Lombardi’s Ristorante in Wynantskill is named for the young chef, and it’s actually the same kind of Italian-American mixture that he is, stressing a mix of the traditional and the unusual. The antipasto caldo is a winner. For a very traditional, family-style eatery, Testo’s in Troy still prevails. You know the sauce (it’s in the stores). Go and try the lasagna.

We were reassured to discover that Hattie’s in Saratoga Springs is in the worthy hands of Christel Baker, who (with some help from Hattie) is maintaining Hattie Austin’s traditions and adding a few new touches as well. You’ll still get that great fried chicken, but I was also treated to a terrific catfish special when I stopped in.

A couple of unusual places worth visiting are Nepenthe, Albany’s best vegetarian restaurant, where the frustratingly laid-back service is redeemed by the imaginative cooking of Paul Phillips and his partners, and Little Czechoslovakia, an astonishingly good ethnic restaurant in the wilds of Ballston Spa. Also upholding its tradition as our best (and oldest) Indian restaurant is Sitar in Albany, where you also get superb service.

Dorato’s in Guilderland cooked up a great meal back in March, taking me by surprise because the place seems at first to be just a noisy saloon. The quiet dining room is something else entirely, though, and chef Michael Dorato maintains a great, imaginative menu. Look for their award-winning bread among many other specialties.

Finally, the best of the area’s fine-dining establishments that we sampled in ‘94. The Scrimshaw, at The Desmond in Colonie, remains on top. Chef Michael St. John has pulled back from anything exotic, which is a shame, but the straight-ahead menu is done extremely well. I have a fond recollection of cedar-planked salmon with lemon cilantro butter.

Ogden’s, in that wonderful old phone-company building in downtown Albany, isn’t afraid to experiment a little, and I went crazy over the mushroom ragout served with the pork tenderloin special, which itself was exceptional. Just as good as the fettuccine topped with fresh tomatoes and goat cheese, garnished with scallops.

Edging out all the rest, and one of the most recent additions to the local fine-dining scene, is The Unlimited Feast. Long a catering mainstay in Albany, their dinners are spectacular, with a menu that mixes exotic and unusual flavors. You can design your own salad from a list of toothsome ingredients, and you can order entrées like grilled tuna steak  with roast tomato ancho chili sauce or mushroom agnolotti with sautéed portobellos, sun dried tomato, tomato and pancetta.

I got to sample “roasted sake ginger marinated baby coho salmon with citrus ginger sauce and vegetable confetti,” which got a pungently sweet flavor from that sake and ginger combo; I also tried free-range chicken roasted to a splendidly moist finish and served with a hearty complement of turnips, squash, mashed potatoes and braised bok choi. And the place has killer desserts, too.

Metroland Magazine, 22 December 1994

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