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Raising the Bar

by B.A. Nilsson on April 13, 2011

Blu Stone Bistro
There are hints in the menu of Blu Stone Bistro that this is a hotel restaurant—at least, that it knows it occupies space adjacent to the Hotel Indigo and therefore ought to offer grub to the traveling crowd. It disguises those hints as comfort food; thus, an $18 turkey dinner with stuffing and mashed potatoes and a entrée of meatloaf available in $9 and $18 size versions.

But the yellowfin tuna ($11 and $20) is served with polenta cakes, a side that unfortunately remains unfamiliar enough to a large slice of America that the very word may seem scary. I know, I know, you yourself can’t wait to tuck into the next such serving that lands ’neath your fork, but we must remember that places like the Olive Garden thrive by serving pabulum to the unadventurous.

Blu Stone is the two-year-old eatery in a space that formerly was the Callaway Grill and famously was the Parc V, on the northern spur of Wolf Road. Its redesign was considerable, with aqua-toned rooms and seating, a dark-hued bar where live musical entertainment takes place, and a couple of gathering rooms for small parties.

Having bitched last week about the general mediocrity of service, I was completely disarmed by a hostess who acknowledged my reservation by saying, “Your table is all ready. In fact, it’s the best one in the house.”

As she walked away after placing us at a very nice spot by one of the large windows, my wife hissed, “Did they recognize you?”

Trust me; that very rarely happens. This month marks 25 years of Metroland restaurant reviewing, most of which I’ve helmed, and, even as I’ve grown older and fatter, my anonymity has endured without the use of wigs and other disguises.

No, what we got was a clever front-of-house parry to personalize the dining experience. The kind of effort that costs nothing but resonates effectively with the guests. We were handed to a waiter named Jeffrey, who maintained that skill throughout the meal, working cooperatively with the other servers but maintaining the lead. He easily helped us with menu decisions and skillfully prodded us to refill our glasses of wine. The sense of well-being that top-notch service provokes was with us throughout the meal.

Blu Stone’s menu takes a direction of which I very much approve, blending casual fare into the fancy stuff and offering it in varying portions and prices.

Appetizers, therefore, are re-dubbed Small Plates, and include greens and beans ($7; $9 with sausage), lamb “lollipops” ($12), tuna tartare ($12), and a small portion of the beef short ribs that also are offered as an entrée ($10).

Four salad offerings include house and Caesar ($8 each), orchard (with chicken, apples and apricots, $12) and sliced beet ($10), the last interspersing the vegetable with slices of goat cheese, criss-crossing them over a bed of mixed greens showered with sunflower seeds and dressed in a tarragon vinaigrette. This was my daughter’s starter, reflecting her current avoidance of anything refined or factory-raised.

Sandwiches are $10 to $12, leading with a prime rib burger and including sandwiches filled with tuna or turkey, short rib meat or chicken.

Pasta dishes include a macaroni and cheese preparation available in $7 and $13 sizes, fettuccine topped with sauce Bolognese ($10 and $20) or tomato-pesto cream with chicken and broccoli ($9 and $18).

I can indulge them including risotto in the pasta heading, especially as the wild mushroom risotto Blu Stone offers is as good a preparation of this dish as I’ve ever had, insanely creamy with the distinctive flavor of its mushrooms singing through and a side (actually a top) of grilled asparagus, which I ordered in the $8 (as opposed to $15) size and still found a formidable portion size. Fortunately, my daughter wasn’t bashful about stabbing samples of it for herself.

My wife is a menu ditherer, the type who decides early on what entrée speaks to her (usually chicken-based) and then, on the brink of ordering it, with a server poised, pad in hand, to record the order, wondering out loud if she really oughtn’t to have the meatloaf.

“Do you need another minute?” the server asks, and no, she insists, she just has to . . . and we wait until the server politely eases away for the nonce.

Jeffrey, however, was Susan’s equal. As soon as he detected her equivocation, he swooped in with the suggestion of scallops. “They’re really our signature dish,” he noted. “I guarantee you’ll enjoy them.” This, of course, melts any resistance my wife might have, reminding me that I must improve my bedside manner.

“Should I get the small order?” she asked.

“That’s only two scallops,” he noted. “The large order has four.” And the large order ($22) it was. It’s coated with a pesto that includes sun-dried tomatoes, and includes its own serving of (mushroom-free) risotto, and the fact that it disappeared under Susan’s busy fork suggests that Jeffrey called the portion size correctly.

My choice was a half-order of the short ribs ($10), another excellent manifestation of a classic dish, here served over mashed potatoes and topped with a rich, rich gravy.

Other entrées include filet mignon ($28), grilled ribeye ($21), lamb chops ($22) and salmon scallopini ($22). My daughter had the half-portion of yellowfin tuna ($11), which she ordered rare; the only snag of the evening was its pre-serving journey into far-side-of-medium territory, but it was such a thin slice that this would be difficult to avoid. Not impossible, however, and worth the kitchen’s while to pay attention to.

But, as I say, that was the only bump in an otherwise wonderfully smooth evening of excellent food and superior service, and I recommend this as a model for an upscale eatery that also does casual very well.

Blu Stone Bistro

661 Albany Shaker Road, Loudonville, 869-9976, blustonebistro.com. Serving dinner 4-9 Sun-Thu, 4-10 Fri-Sat. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: gourmet comfort food

Entrée price range: $7 (small plate of mac and cheese) to $28 (filet mignon)

Ambiance: blue and green