Chubby Sperry was a Saratoga fixture in the 1930s, a racehorse owner who also characterized the social scene as Prohibition drew to a close. While I’m in no position to affirm what his namesake restaurant was offering when it opened in 1932, it is known that it legitimately went liquid immediately upon the repeal of the Volstead Act at the end of 1933.
Last year, the place was acquired by a group including Christel and Colin MacLean, who several years ago revived the venerable Hattie’s and then created Broadway’s Circus Café. They bring a keen design sensibility to their projects that includes a talent for setting a welcoming mood. It’s exactly the kind of approach Sperry’s needed. Their masterstroke was bringing chef Dale Miller to the team. During his decade as executive chef at Jack’s Oyster House, he demonstrated how deftly he can fit in with a well-established eatery, which he’s doing again at the helm of Sperry’s. His exit from his eponymous Albany restaurant probably teems with tabloid-defying complexity, and the pursuit of that story only encourages the gossipmongers.
Saratoga’s most apparent dual identities are its August face and anytime else. But there’s another duality lurking: its history as playground of the wealthy and its present identity, still drawing the well-heeled but with a prefab quality about its nouveau reach.
Sperry’s gallery of vintage racing-world portraits still lines the wainscoted walls of its main dining room and bar area, but those walls have been carefully refinished, the lighting redone, the tables spruced—a myriad of touches, large and small, to make the room look the way you like to think of it looking, but which hasn’t been the case for years. A rear dining room, once a crooked screened-in porch, has been thoroughly redone and now shares the charm characteristic of the rest of the place. It’s also the way to the outdoor dining areas, which consist of a couple of tables on a platform overlooking the tables closer to the al fresco bar. Which is where we would have dined had not a punishing heat prevailed.
But dinner in the front room is dinner in old Saratoga, with excellent people-watching prospects. And racing season provides a colorful array.
Good food? You bet. The “lobster pot” bisque ($8) we started with set the tone for the excellence and whimsy that would characterize the rest of the meal. Served in a lobster-shaped bowl, the brew is garnished with lobster-shaped puff pastry. Neither of which is necessary to the success of the soup—it stands alone as an example of how to balance familiar flavors in a bisque that’s refreshingly light.
Some Miller signature dishes are here, like the artichoke fritters with lemon aioli ($10), a full-of-surprises creation that looks like tempura but puts a richer batter around the vegetable’s leaves (the stems become holders) and pairs them with a piquant, garlicky mayo. And his crispy calamari ($11) is a jumble of tender baby squid bits with a sweet crunch, a chili-lime sauce, and the spice of a stripe of sriracha.
Beef carpaccio ($12) emerges as a checkerboard of pale, tender, nearly transparent meat ringed by shavings of reggiano cheese and dotted with horseradish mayo. The starters we sampled were garnished with greens.
Others include foie gras Melba ($18), clams “Canfield” casino ($11), seared tuna tartare ($12) and Maryland crab cakes ($12). Raw bar offerings include oysters ($9 for six), littleneck clams (ditto) and shrimp cocktail ($12).
Alongside salads of greens ($6), iceberg wedge ($8) and Caesar ($8) is a charming “bite and sip” prosciutto and melon ($10), with a demitasse of melon soup complementing the tangy meat. A $10 panzanella salad tosses crunchy croutons with tomatoes and mozzarella.
Bread service is a tray of freshly baked popovers with ramekins of butter, which is cruelly addictive stuff.
The entrée list features fish: roasted halibut ($32), grilled salmon ($28), pan-caramelized sea scallops ($28) and brook trout ($20). We sampled the last two. The scallops (it’s a serving of four) are as buttery as I’ve ever tasted, with a touch of orange to its finish. Although I enjoy the old-fashioned, serve-it-whole trout approach, here it’s presented as strips of meat alone, with a very crisp finish and brown butter as an unneeded complement. Warm tabouli salad, itself a terrific concept, lurks beneath.
Alongside a couple of pasta entrées you’ll find a whole lot of meat. Braised short ribs ($26), hanger steak au poivre ($28), roasted duck breast ($28), rack of lamb ($32), veal porterhouse ($34), New York strip ($32) and more. The ribeye, however, gets a 59-hour marinade in Cajun spices, which persuaded me toward it. (It’s $32.)
Those seasonings are apparent, although garlic dominates, and none of it overwhelms the flavorful beef. Served at a point just past rare, it couldn’t have been more tender. Shredded fried onions and new potatoes garnish the plate, alongside a buttery compote of string beans and carrot strips.
The place got insanely busy as the evening progressed, but our service remained exemplary. (We were a known quantity, for what that’s worth.) A large party that should have been outdoors was heat-forced to stay inside, so the noise level went up drastically, but everyone (except the alcoholically un-self-conscious partiers) kept good spirits about it.
And may I add that to finish with the gâteau Marjolaine ($9), a hazelnut-and-praline-based creation that’s deceptively light, is to underline a superb meal with a vision of gustatory heaven touched with dietary hell. And that’s what fine dining should be.
Sperry’s Restaurant, 30½ Caroline St., Saratoga Springs, 584-9618, sperrysrestaurant.com. Serving dinner 5-11 daily, brunch 11-2 Sat-Sun. AE, D, MC, V.
Cuisine: gourmet continental
Entrée price range: $18 (Kobe chopped steak burger) to $34 (filet mignon)
Ambiance: classic Saratoga