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Tuesday, February 02, 2016

House of Mike

From the Restaurant Vault Dept.: I recently had lunch at Chez Mike in East Greenbush, the first time I’ve been back in a long while, and the place was a good as I remembered – certainly as good as it was when I first visited, and wrote about it, in 2009.


“IT’S THE STRANGEST THING,” says Mike Cohen. “Somebody showed me a blog entry that said how nice my restaurant is and how good the food is – but the writer promised to return only if I move out of the strip mall I’m in.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The Long Island-born chef-owner of Chez Mike notes that there seem to be few objections to big-city restaurants occupying strip mall-like spaces, so why this peculiar prejudice?

I’m inclined to blame it on the many mediocre eateries that strip malls attract, often joints where the bar dominates the room and the grilled chicken was burner-striped by Sysco. But as Cohen’s restaurant name suggests, this is far from the case at his eatery.

Formerly chef at Lippera’s Chatham House, Cohen decided to open his own place “while I’m still young and have the energy to do this. My wife and I live in East Greenbush, and when we looked at what else is here, we realized that there’d be a place here for the kind of restaurant I wanted to run.”

Chez Mike opened in June 2008, in the Hannaford Plaza on Columbia Turnpike, the restaurant so-named “to combine a sense of the French heritage of the cooking I do with something more tongue-in-cheek and accessible,” says Mike. He and Michele both are Culinary Institute graduates, and his resume also includes a stint at Manhattan’s renowned Four Seasons.

His mission: provide the area with “rustic contemporary American comfort food, familiar but with a few surprises.” This is certainly embodied in the most whimsical appetizer I’ve seen in a while, a crabmeat BLT ($12). Offered as a special, it placed a generous amount of fresh, real crabmeat, lightly seasoned and in a sensibly restrained dressing, atop a nest of shredded phyllo, topped with a picture-book stack of lettuce, tomato slices, and bacon strips.

And gorgeously presented, too, which is another hallmark of the place. The plates themselves are handsome; the food arrangements are eye-catching without being fussy. It’s in harmony with the eye appeal of the dining room itself, which stops being anything restricted to a strip mall the moment you enter and are seated.

How nice to be greeted by a staff that doesn’t radiate I’m-just-collecting-a-paycheck ennui. Katie, our server, confessed that she’d been working at the place for a mere month, yet she proved articulate and enthusiastic about the food and helped us arrive at a pleasing balance of courses.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
It’s a seasonal menu, newly revised for autumn. Seafood appetizers include littleneck clams in a white wine-tomato broth ($11), tempura scallops ($12) and fried calamari ($9); mushroom bruschetta is $8, sweet potato soup is $7 and a garden salad in balsamic vinaigrette is $5.

I’m a recent convert to roasting beets instead of boiling them, so the roasted beet salad ($8) looked inviting, and proved to be a modest but filling portion that adds a swirl of goat cheese mousse (looking like a soft ice cream serving) and red-dyed pickled egg quarters atop our  old friend shredded phyllo.

While we await the entrées, notice the easygoing room layout. Booths line the walls with tables between, and it’s the booths that fill first, giving a comfortable sense of intimacy. A well-chosen earth-toned color scheme is livened by food-related artwork on the walls. The bar area, separated by a low wall, is blighted by a television set, but the volume, at least, was muted.

And kudos to the background music, which was unobtrusive and given to classic songs by classic singers. (“You like anything that includes Cole Porter songs,” my daughter wryly observed.)

Back to Mike: “I try to put no more than three, maybe four things on the plate,” he says, making a virtue of restraint. The chicken dish we sampled featured a plump breast dusted with cornmeal moistened with cooking juices flavored with maple and vinegar ($18). A side of braised cabbage is therefore a reasonable and wholly appropriate accompaniment, but then comes the kicker: sweet potato waffles. Wholly unnecessary to the entrée’s success, but the kind of imaginative statement that pushes it way out of the realm of the typical. Having tasted it this way, I can’t imagine any other combination.

You can get a traditional pot roast ($19), a bacon-topped fish chowder ($23), spaghetti with meatballs ($17, but they’re lamb meatballs, so much the better) or even a half-pound burger ($9) with bacon, cheddar and fries.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
But once you try the braised beef short ribs ($23), there’s no going back. It was a signature dish for Cohen at Lippera’s, and his one try at taking it off the Chez Mike menu met with such outrage that he intends it to be a permanent fixture.

Of course they’re tender, leaping from the bone, but consider that they’re cooked in honey-sweetened stout and you get an idea of the richness of flavor, the reduction sauce running into the mashed potatoes to prolong the pleasure. The onion rings on top are the decorative exclamation points.

Then there are salmon au poivre ($19), sautéed calves liver ($17), grilled bistro steak ($19), butternut squash cannelloni ($15) – if you don’t find something to enjoy, you hate good food.

A well-chosen wine list offers a good by-the-glass selection, and desserts are a mix of in-house items (the crème brûlée and the pumpkin cake, $6 each, were excellent examples) and confections from J. & S. Watkins, where Michele works.

Cohen has made an impressively successful synthesis of fine dining and neighborhood diner, upscale enough to satisfy the demanding palate but accessible enough for anyone. Is the location a liability? Only in the sense that it’s not closer to my house.

Chez Mike, 596 Columbia Turnpike, East Greenbush, 479-4730. Innovative synthesis of fine dining and comfort food in an unassuming storefront at the Hannaford Plaza. Try the beef short ribs. Serving lunch Tue-Sat 11:30-3, dinner Tue-Thu 5-9:30, Fri-Sat 5-10, Sun 5-9. AE, D, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 15 October 2009

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