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Special Ops

by B.A. Nilsson on April 20, 2011

The Pentagon Restaurant

I’m studying a steak, a 16-ounce slab of Angus sirloin, cross-hatched with grill marks. It lies atop a flurry of whipped potatoes, across which also are tilted a half-dozen grill-charred asparagus spears. A melting bluff of garlic butter slowly streams across the meat.

The sirloin yields easily to my knife; the first slice has the bonus of a small crust of fat. Otherwise, it’s cooked perfectly medium-rare. Salty, garlicky, but all in pleasant proportions. The excellent potatoes are a nice counterpoint.

Here’s the kicker: The entrée costs $17, which is a hell of a bargain for a New York strip. Usually it’s $23, but this is a while-it-lasts, every-Monday special. I notice a few such plates landing on neighboring tables, but they’re competing with the other dine-in Monday special, which gives you a free large pizza when you buy one, up to three toppings included. A large cheese pizza is $10.50, so do the math and think hungrily of leftovers.

The Pentagon Restaurant opened in December 2009 on Schenectady’s Erie Boulevard, occupying a space that has been home to several eateries over the years, beginning in the early ’70s as a tavern called the Erie Barge. The owners of a bar called the Grinch on Albany’s Eagle Street opened the Electric Grinch in 1979, pissing off big old neighboring tax cheat GE by flipping the letters of the monolith’s well-known logo for the eatery’s display.

It was the Pentagon in the late ’80s, a very nice Italian restaurant called Saluti until 1994, the Backgrounds for a decade thereafter, and the short-lived Bambino’s toward the end of the aughts.

Frank Popolizio has owned the building since 1978, and most of that time he’s been a hands-off landlord. This time he decided to take a more active role in shaping a restaurant and brought in Harvey Quimm (formerly of Alteri’s) as general manager to create a menu and environment that could find a local following.

Chef Kris Davis is a graduate of Schenectady County Community College’s culinary program, and sous chef Joel Kessler is about to graduate. “We make everything that we can right here,” says Davis, “otherwise we get the best, like the Perreca’s bread we serve fresh every day.”

The menu offers a best-of of foodstuffs, with steakhouse and Italian dishes dominating. Lunch features burgers (starting at $6), panini ($8 average) and wraps (most $9) with fish and chips ($9), sirloin with fries ($12) and scaled-down versions of such dinner items as chicken or eggplant parmigiana ($8 or $9) and an array of salads.

Dinner appetizers include (I love this concept) Italian nachos ($8), finishing the chips with sausage and a pecorino cream sauce, greens and beans ($8), French onion soup ($5), seared bacon-wrapped scallops ($8), fried calamari ($8), a dozen steamed clams ($8) and much more. There’s also a salad bar—small, but thorough—available for $3 with dinner, $7 as dinner.

One of the soups offered the evening of our visit was black bean with a dollop of, get this, crème fraiche ($2.80), which shows how detail-oriented the chef can be. It’s a less-sour version of sour cream, and an excellent complement to a soup that sported an unusually rich flavor of beef stock.

A page of steak preparations dominates the dinner menu. Suffice it to say that whatever cut you like and however you like it prepared, they’ve probably thought of it. Au poivre, pizzaiola, blackened, Cajun—all with that aforementioned sirloin, priced from $18 to $22. Surf and turf, which adds shrimp to a 12-ounce steak, is $26; a 21-ounce Delmonico is $23. They all come with potato and vegetable, and, as noted above, the asparagus I was served was grilled, which is my favorite preparation.

Being classically minded, my wife chose the chicken cordon bleu ($19), which arrived breaded and sautéed, stuffed with the traditional ham and cheese, but surprising us with a sweet, lively sauce of honey and pineapple. Totally unexpected, but quite pleasing. Other chicken preparations are marsala, parmigiana, francese and Dwyer, the last-named grilled chicken over greens and beans ($16-$18). And if you’re a modestly budgeted parmigiana fan, the Tuesday night special is a $10 chicken or haddock version—or stuffed shells—with sides of soup and pasta and, for two bucks more, the salad bar.

Among the Italian items are lasagna ($15), stuffed shells ($14), a trio of those two plus chicken parm ($18), penne a la vodka ($17), cavatelli torino ($16) and more. Veal dishes include parmigiana ($19) and piccata ($25). Seafood items include zuppa de pesce (clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops and more in a white wine broth over linguini, $24), shrimp scampi ($20), grilled swordfish ($20), parmesan-crusted sea bass ($23) and, on Fridays and Saturdays, crab legs for $23.

The look of the place has changed little over the years. One of two rooms is dominated by a bar, three sides of which you can sit around. Just over a dozen tables populate the other. The brick building has a comfortable feeling, and it’s accentuated by the very professional service.

Our waiter, Chet, is an old hand at the business, and accommodated us smoothly. And so once again two of my favorite gripes—Schenectady restaurants and mediocre service—are felled. Which is fine with me when a meal turns out this good.

The Pentagon Restaurant

54 Erie Blvd., Schenectady, 370-1978, pentagonrestaurant.com. Serving lunch 11:30-4 Mon-Fri, dinner 11:30-9:30 Mon-Thu (pizza until 11 on Thu), 11:30-10 Fri (pizza until midnight), 4:30-10 Sat (pizza until midnight). AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: continental steakhouse

Entrée price range: $7.50 (personal cheese pizza) to $27 (24-oz. T-bone)

Ambiance: easygoing tavern