The Epicurean, Latham Farms Mall, 579 Troy-Schenectady Road, Latham, 786-8272, epicurean-ny.com. Serving lunch 11-4 Tue-Sat, dinner 5-9 Tue-Wed, 5-10 Thu-Sat. AE, D, MC, V.
Entrée price range: $12 (Beggar’s Purse with ricotta & prosciutto, small portion) to $30 (pan-seared duck breast)
Ambiance: comfortably elegant
“We’re on exactly the same wavelength,” says Claire Pogue. “It’s been very rare to have this situation in my culinary career.” She’s in the unusual position of working for her own employee—in this case, the chef of her restaurant.
She and her husband, Sandy, own and run the Epicurean in Latham Farms, and you’ll often see her in her chef’s whites in the restaurant’s front kitchen. But the executive chef is Dominique Brialy, and I’m wondering how the chef-owner dynamic works in what can be an explosive situation.
“Oh, there are some very big egos in this business,” she notes with a chuckle. “We don’t have that. Also, I’m a very calm person who doesn’t need to be in the limelight.”
But her background points to a level of skill that easily could put her in the front of the line, so to speak. Meanwhile, her husband oversees wine and other front-of-house activities. Given the hotbed of emotions many restaurants can become, the Epicurean is impressively placid, welcoming and friendly. It’s been open for a year and a half, occupying the former Vin Santo space in a Latham strip mall. Before (and slightly concurrently with) this, the Pogues ran a restaurant in Brunswick’s Sterup Square, which was where they first worked with Brialy.
Claire, a Montreal native, worked in cosmetics and publishing when she wasn’t cooking, but her kitchen training came from intensive work at Manhattan’s Glorious Food. She then moved to Colorado and worked in or supervised several prestigious resort kitchens before giving up the biz for a while.
Then she and her husband found the Sterup Square spot and decided to open a small gourmet food shop. “We started offering invitation-only dinners there,” she recalls, “and they grew so popular that they always sold out.” The move to Latham finally gave them the space in which to spread their wings. It’s a large, comfortable space that includes retail products. Once you’re seated in the restaurant, however, you’re at a cozy resort in France.
The menu, which changes seasonally, sports what you’d expect to see when the features are French. Escargot ($8), pâté (as part of a charcuterie plate, $12) and a cheese plate ($15 for two cheeses, fruit and crackers) are among the starters; mussels, duck breast and a $19 steak tartare with Yukon Gold fries figure among the entrées.
But it’s the new-world, mixed-bag sensibility informing the menu that sets the place apart. Sure, there’s trout amandine ($26), but it’s finished with cranberries, capers and basmati rice. Sautéed veal liver ($27) gets a honey demi-glaze with a touch of lavender. Chicken breast stuffed with snails and mushrooms ($23) is accompanied by an apricot brandy cream sauce.
You’ll find snails in one of the preparations of risotto ($16/$24), but the other listed risotto is built around acorn squash ($15/$22).
“We feature recipes from different areas in France,” says Pogue. “Mouclade comes from the Atlantic coast, where mussels are served in a light curry sauce.” That’s a $21 entrée, a holdover from an Atlantic-themed special menu. A different regional menu is offered each month. November has been Bordeaux, with sweetbreads ($11), lamb chops ($28) and duck confit ($29) on the list. Next month, it’s the former province of Périgord, known for foie gras and truffles.
And duck, which may have been the inspiration for the currently available magret de canard ($30), which features meat from the Moulard, a cross between the Pekin (or Long Island, which is what usually appears on the plate) and Muscovy. “It’s a darker meat than what you may be used to,” our server carefully explained when my daughter placed her order. “I’m not trying to discourage you, but I don’t want you to get the wrong kind of surprise.”
This served, in fact, to pique her interest, even as it reinforced her pride in what’s become an instinctive ability to choose the costliest menu item. The meat was as described, its flavor as unique in comparison to Pekin as venison is to beef. The duck-fruit relationship is always worth exploring, and the depth of flavor here was well complemented by a raspberry demi-glaze. Fat spears of crisp asparagus garnished the plate along with a nearly hidden yurt-shaped serving of creamy, garlicky scalloped potatoes.
Sometimes I indulge the expense-account aspect of restaurant reviewing and let the price tag be damned. But if I walked into the Epicurean as a civilian, I’d be marshalling my francs. So I’m pleased to see that a $20 table d’hôte menu is provided after 5 PM. Three courses are offered (entrée, plats prinipaux and déssert) from which my wife and I both selected our meals.
Two types of pâté are served, on croutons, on the pâté plate. One is a smooth liver-based version, the other a chunkier mixed-meat blend, both excellent examples of the art. Simplicity marks the salade maison, on which the vinaigrette, made with 12-year-old Balsamic vinegar, is the star.
Of course Susan ordered chicken, in this case a sautéed breast served with an excellent mustard sauce, which is always a good accompaniment to this bird. The garnish of mashed potatoes made her life complete.
Sole is a tough-to-find fish these days; sole meunière is a classic preparation. You don’t do much beyond dredging it in flour, hitting the sautée pan and creating a lemon sauce with the fish-scented butter. It’s all in the wrist, I suppose. There’s a small window of perfect doneness, and my serving was perfectly defenestrated.
We finished with a cheese plate (not on the fixed-price menu), which is the only civilized way to go, and then left civilization behind (bingo, bangle, bungle) to top it off with one of the included desserts, a pot of iridescent chocolate pot de crème. Which made the strip-mall sidewalk all the more bearable as we eased away, revivified.