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General Tso’s Bistro

by B.A. Nilsson on July 5, 2012

Panza’s 28 Tables Restaurant, 17 Maple Ave., Saratoga Springs, 226-0126, 28tables.com. Serving dinner 5-10 Sun-Thu, 6-midnight Fri-Sat. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: continental fusion

Entrée price range: $14 (short rib burger) to $29 (pan-seared scallops)

Ambiance: clubhouse

From the start of summer until the last week of July, Saratoga builds and can barely contain an antic energy that’s suddenly released when track season starts. At Panza’s 28 Tables, the energy has an added kick as the restaurant adjusts to a new regime.

After the business’ former chef-owner bailed late last year, the owners brought in Tony Panza, who has put in more than four successful decades at his eponymous place on Saratoga Lake. He had a place in downtown Saratoga even before then, and is happy to be back. “We’re trying out some different things,” he says, “making it more accessible and affordable. And we’ve brought some menu items over from Panza’s.”

He also brought a chef: John Ireland. Ireland is eager to share his enthusiasms, which range from the rarefied (pumpernickel cured halibut with raw beets and elder flowers) to the absurd. “I love bad Chinese food,” he says, “and bring that into the menu with things like sweetbreads General Tso style.”

That’s a $9 starter on the current menu, in the company of items like seared foie gras with chili-bacon jam ($9), tuna nachos with avocado ($14) and the one I couldn’t stop myself from ordering, Bleu Chips ($9). Although I can’t agree more with Steve Barnes’ recent Table Hopping rant about the stupid use of “bleu” on an otherwise-English menu, I give Ireland the benefit of the doubt here because of the high pun-and-irony content of the name.

The dish consists of homemade potato chips—an item born, you may recall, in Saratoga Springs—with a ramekin of pancetta-punctuated gorgonzola fondue. Commercially produced chips haven’t a patch on the just-made stuff. And the cheesy sauce makes it a beautiful combo that’s addictive as hell.

There’s an old-boys’ club feel to the interior of the eatery. Dark-paneled walls are hung with racetrack art; the tables sport high-backed, dark-cushioned chairs. A party from Global Foundries was clogging the bar area as we entered on a recent weeknight, which often is enough to impel me to leave (the number of people, that is, not their origin), but we were scooped up by the affable host and seated just far enough away from the throng to not mind them. That kind of welcome makes a big difference, and the host knew it. He’s Chooch DeVille, and he was brought in by Panza to put together and train the floor staff. He reminded me later that he and I first met in 1994 when I reviewed Siro’s in Saratoga, where he was our waiter.

Back then I noted that “regular customers request him a year in advance. He’d never seen us before, but we immediately felt like old friends. He took us through the menu with practiced ease, touching on favorites, extolling the talent in the kitchen, inspiring us to new heights of hunger.”

He’s still plying the same well-practiced technique, and it was reflected in the work of Michelle, our server. She’s one of only a couple of people rehired when Panza took over, and seemed like she’s been part of the team for years. As Susan and I selected items, she made us feel like culinary geniuses ferreting out the absolute best.

Not that we encountered any clinkers. Alongside the starters, the menu offers selections “from the garden,” which are based on locally obtained produce. Thus, strawberries are offered with a balsamic reduction and goat cheese ($10), peaches with a black pepper herb reduction ($10), wild mushrooms with a parmesan custard ($10) and, as Susan selected, Brussels sprouts with pickled scallions, braised bacon, cilantro and a Thai vinaigrette ($9).

It’s a dish I would deem fairly difficult to display, but the color array inspired my daughter (viewing my memory-jogging photo) to dub it “Kandinsky on a plate.” We already know that bacon enhances everything, but adding cilantro complements bacon’s salt. And the sprouts, like eager puppies, are happy for any companionship.

Two “from the hearth” spreads come in three sizes ($9/$14/$19). The charcuterie board gives cured meats alongside bread and olives, while you get a choice of artisan offerings on the cheese board.

Entrées range from a $14 burger of ground short rib to a plate of pan-seared scallops ($29), although the scallops also come in a $15 appetizer-sized portion, which Susan decided would be just enough. Two fat scallops were served on pumpernickel bread with a compote of English peas and a big dollop of butter alongside. Flavors tended toward the sweet side, with an accent of parmesan cheese to stoke the savory side.

Pan-seared chicken is served with a lemongrass glaze ($21), a crispy half-duck gets a fig-and-honey sauce ($25), pork chop ma Panza gets vinegar peppers and a white bean ragout ($25), and there’s even a traditional eggplant parmesan ($20). But I went against habit and ordered a steak. They’re so easy to do, and so easy to do badly that I tend to avoid them, but this was described as charred rib-eye with radish salad, so I took a gamble. Saratoga, right? The $25 entrée sported a thin slice of meat that got a good char on its outside while remaining fairly rare within and had an exceptionally full flavor on its own. Drag a slice through the spicy black bean paste and the rewards redoubled. Sweet roasted fingerling potatoes complemented the serving, and those paper-thin radishes, touched with an Asian sweet-sour flavor, wittily confounded my flavor expectations.

Panza’s aim is to keep the menu varied and its pricing reasonable and to emerge, after the August onslaught, as a worthy addition to the city’s culinary scene. “We’ll be open year-round,” he says, “so it’s important than we can appeal to the locals.” I think, if you’ll pardon the phrase, he’s on the right track.