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Friday, March 18, 2016

In Memoriam: Jackie Baldwin

Beat the Drum Slowly Dept.: The news of the death of chef Jackie Baldwin is too recent as I write this to include much detail, but I at least can reflect upon her legacy by sharing two pieces I wrote about her, 17 years apart. Most recent was an overview of dining at RPI, which she helmed for a baker’s dozen years, and you’ll find that here. In 1991, my wife and I visited (the long-gone) L’Ecole Encore on Albany’s Fuller Road, where Jackie impressed us with her excellent interpretation of some classic French fare.


Jackie Baldwin
IF YOU’RE IN THE RIGHT MOOD, you can be pleased fairly easily. Bad burgers and watery beer seem great on a lovely mountainside with the right company. But when Susan insisted we go out to dinner one particular evening last week, I was in no mood to do so and knew that nothing would seem pleasant.

Besides, L’Ecole Encore would require me to sit in a dark, stuffy room and eat overly Frenchy stuff. With heavy sauces. And on a warm, summery night, I’m in the mood for cold soups and less-demanding entrees. “We’re going anyway,” said Susan.

I’m glad she insisted.

Did you know that L’Ecole has an outdoor dining deck? I didn’t, but was happy to take the host’s suggestion that we sit there. I’ve sneered at such accouterments in the past, having overlooked some pretty ratty parking lots in the name of al fresco dining, but L’Ecole Encore’s view of Stuyvesant Plaza is masked by trees and looks especially nice when the setting sun is ablaze.

No silly fruit drinks available – “We don’t have a blender at the bar,” said Mark, our superb waiter, but we ordered a half-bottle of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay from the generous selection of wines and regarded a menu (and specials) that included two of our favorite soups – pistou and gazpacho.

In its original incarnation, L’Ecole had a good reputation for high-class dining. That reputation deteriorated with successive attempts to make something else out of the place, so when Vince Cowan and Paul Distabile reopened it last July they chose L’Encole Encore as a name to suggest a return to the old style.

“But not the old menu,” says Cowan. “We made some changes in the look and the style, but we wanted to remind people how good the place was. When I lived in this area eight years ago, I used to dine here often. When I heard it was available, I jumped at the chance to get it.”

The look of the restaurant is airy, cheerful; menu design is similarly pleasant. Lunch and dinner reflect a similar style in which fresh ingredients and simple, innovative preparation are the keys.

Like many of the staff, chef Jackie Baldwin comes from the old Beverwyck and brings with her a flair for adding a nice continental twist to the standards. The dinner menu devotes separate pages to pasta and lighter fare, so you can design anything from supper to snack and probably accommodate any dietary restrictions.

Even when you abandon such restrictions you can’t do yourself in too badly. We started easily enough with the aforementioned soups, and I could have made a meal out of a couple of bowls of gazpacho. The two prevailing camps in gazpacho preparation are (as with peanut butter) crunchy and smooth. I prefer the former, figuring that you ought to be able to appreciate the color and texture of the component vegetables. Happily, the kitchen at L’Ecole agrees.

The garden not only is crunchy – it’s also jazzed with a little spice. Just enough to make the palate sparkle.

Although the classic soup pistou originated in Genoa, it’s also claimed by the French in Provence. What we tasted took the foundation of garlic and basil, tomatoes and olive oil, and switched the vegetables around a little (carrots instead of potatoes, for instance). The stewlike result was very pleasing, excellently seasoned.

It’s vinaigrette-ville at salad time, both of us opting for a fruit-tinged dressing over the small plate of fresh greens. Warm rolls made a great accompaniment; the only other thing I could ask for would be unsalted butter.

Although Three Pepper Chicken sounds awfully spicy, it turns out to be a preparation of chicken breast stuffed with colorful sweet peppers enhanced with the flavor of leeks. Susan’s entrée was finished with a white wine and cream sauce, all of the flavors designed to enhance, not overpower, the chicken. Nicely prepared, it’s also presented beautifully.

The dilemma I faced was whether to eat the citrus slices that came with my entrée. I ordered Citrus Scallops just because the name sounded so good. What I got was a plate of sea scallops sauteed to a firm, fleshy finish, served over rice, flavored with slices of lemon, lime and orange and the pungency of good olive oil.

It turns out to be pretty delicious, once you get used to the texture of the sauteed skins. Seafood and citrus fruit have a natural affinity, and scallops seem to welcome the pairing best of all.

Our plate of sauteed snow peas and summer squash was just one more well-designed, well-prepared touch.

From a menu of homemade desserts we selected a Chocolate Terrine, a devastatingly rich confection that has at its center a deadly slab of deep, dark chocolate surrounded by a pool of warm white chocolate and dabs of coconut cream.

The sun finished setting over Stuyvesant Plaza, the lights flickered on and we finished the meal with a sense of contentment that is inspired to a large extent by the summery outdoors, but which wouldn’t have been complete without skillful help from the restaurant.

Dinner for two, with tax and tip and a half-bottle of wine, was $70.

L’Ecole Encore, 44 Fuller Road, Albany, 437-xxxx. Serving lunch Monday-Friday 11:30 AM-3 PM, dinner Monday-Thursday 5:30-10 PM, Friday-Saturday 5:30-11 PM. All major credit cards.

Metroland Magazine, 6 June 1991

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