The challenge of putting together a series of restaurant reviews lies in presenting a series of places that vary in location, ethnicity and price. Put an endless succession of high-priced places in front of you and you grumpily remind me that you’re not made of money; greet you with too many cheap joints and you fear I’m not giving your more rarefied gustatory pursuits a fair shake.
It’s only when organizing this end-of-year best-of that I get a sense of how well I accomplished that. This is a distillation of reviews from the past 12 months and thus isn’t signifying an overall what’s best, nor does it survey what’s new very well. I’ve yet to get my butt into many recently opened places, and because we like to give a place at least three months in which to settle in, there are some I’m chomping at the bit to chronicle but haven’t hade enough time.
What seems to be characteristic of 2011 is that it involved a lot of driving. Fortunately, some of the most memorable stops were close to home. Top of that list is Sperry’s Restaurant in Saratoga Springs. It’s owned by visionary restaurateurs Christel and Colin MacLean, who had the good sense to bring in Dale Miller as chef. The vintage-Saratoga look of Sperry’s is well preserved, with horse racing, of course, the most characteristic theme. Subtle changes in decor and lighting serve to enhance it. The menu is a mix of the fancy and familiar, all delivered with Miller’s signature panache and presented by a staff of enthusiasts. Try the artichoke fritters with lemon aioli and the ribeye that’s marinated in Cajun spices for 59 hours.
The Epicurean (Latham Farms Mall) brought Claire and Sandy Pogue into the heart of the Capital Region—they made their mark outside of Troy—at an accessible gourmet French restaurant helmed by chef Dominique Brialy. It feels like a cozy resort bistro. Its menu specials pay homage to various regions of France, which is why you’ll find mussels in a curry sauce (a coastal recipe). Look for a $20 three-course table d’hôte menu after 5 PM.
Joseph Soliman built the Hidden Café into a busy destination, and has worked a similar magic at the larger Sage Bistro in Guilderland’s Star Plaza. Soliman incorporates the Middle Eastern fare he grew up with into a menu that also boasts continental and Asian influences. Shiitake lamb, for example tops the roasted meat with shiraz and shallots flavoring the mushrooms, while lobster mac and cheese mixes five cheeses, garlic and cream before it’s served over farfalle. But be sure to try the appetizer sampler of hummus, babaganouj, tapenade and feta salad—it’s the best I’ve had.
It’s easy to overlook the gems in our midst, so Blu Stone Bistro, located at the Hotel Indigo, where Wolf Road meets Albany-Shaker Road in Loudonville, was an impressive surprise. Sure, there’s meatloaf or a turkey dinner for the culinarily bashful, but there’s also yellowfin tuna with polenta cakes. And many of the entrées are available in two portion sizes: Sane and What’s Expected. A variety of salads, sandwiches and flatbread pizzas also are available. Service here is excellent, among the finest I’ve enjoyed in the area.
Now let’s travel. Lake Placid’s restaurants compete for tourist dollars on many different levels. At the resort end of things, The View at the Mirror Lake Inn is one of the best. Executive chef Jarrad Lang has been there just over a year, inheriting a kitchen that has won (among many other prizes) 26 consecutive years of the AAA four-diamond award. His cuisine, classically French deep in its heart, adds northern Italian and frames it all in a what’s-fresh context. Osso buco is made from Wisconsin veal, raised in a manner as humane as possible, with a rich, dark sauce that proclaims the magic of reduction. And the view . . . well, that’s why the dining room is so-named.
We found elegant ethnic fare at Hudson’s Ca’ Mea Ristorante, where we dined outdoors during a beautiful autumn sunset. Owners Roy Felcetto and Max Cenci offer a meld of food and hospitality from Tuscany, where chef Cenci also owns a restaurant. Homemade pasta figures into most of the pasta offerings, such as ravioli stuffed with eggplant and ricotta and gnocchi in pesto. Among the toothsome surprises was an appetizer of ceviche of dorado atop garlic croutons and peppers.
In the family Italian realm, we discovered Minissale’s Wine Cellar Café in Troy only this past December—some 33 years after it opened. The Minissale family makes this a wonderfully welcoming place where you can go for pizza or for something more lively, like the Pasta Capone, which features an arrabbiata—an “angry” sauce livened with chili peppers. Which is one of the sauces you’ll also find in local stores.
It looked to be just another Chinese restaurant, but when we visited Latham’s Ala Shanghai a year ago, we found a charming, unassuming place that happens to turn out spectacular food. The country’s many regions are represented, so you’ll find sea cucumber with shrimp seed, whole eel with garlic and duck both real and in vegetarian guise. Eighteen varieties of Shanghai noodle soup will serve you well and inexpensively.
We found ethnic variety out of town. Fez, a tiny (seven-table) establishment in Saugerties, specializes in chef Niels Nielsen’s fusion of Moroccan and Mediterranean cuisines. Thus you will find tagines, rich in olives and preserved lemons; kabobs of meats or veggies or homemade harissa-spiced merguez sausage, and pasta dishes. Even a Spanish zarzuela might be featured one night.
Over in Tivoli, Panzur Restaurant and Wine Bar specializes in the pig, in all its glory. Chef Rei Peraza sets a display table sporting the day’s types of ham; during my summer visit, they included jamon de pato, a cured duck breast; brown-sugar-cured Mountain Man Ham from Virginia and jamon serrano, a prosciutto-like dry-cured ham from Spain. The menu offers many small plates of cheese, soup, salad as well as full-scale dinners. Start with the crispy fried pig ears.
On a seasonal note, two warm-weather favorites: Kay’s Burden Lake Restaurant (Averill Park), which packs ’em in and feeds ’em excellent traditional pizza, and Saratoga Awesome Dogs (Saratoga Springs), where the dogs and burgers and kielbasa are smoked to perfection. Here’s to an even more delicious 2012!