Ambition Coffee House and Eatery
154 Jay St., Schenectady, 382-9277, ambitionbistro.com. Serving 8-5 Mon-Fri, 10-5 Sat, 9-2 Sun, and until 8 when there are Proctors shows, but call first. AE, D, MC, V.
Entrée price range: $4.75 (half deli sandwich) to $9 (crab cake sandwich)
Ambiance: coffeehouse funky
Marc Renson has seen and heard enough unusual behavior in his 13 years running Ambition, his downtown Schenectady eatery, to fill a book. And so he did. Is the Coffee Fresh?, his anecdotal history of his restaurant, did so well when he self-published it a couple of years ago that it was picked up by 23 House, which will be relaunching it in three weeks.
It needed updating. After all, since Renson first wrote it, he’s been personal chef to Bradley Cooper. This took place when The Place Beyond the Pines was filming in and around Schenectady two years ago, and is one of the many serendipitous happenings that Renson collects.
Such as the one that put him into this building. Stanley Karwan opened the Jay Tavern in 1945, a dark, narrow place where you could enjoy a bargain lunch of Polish- and German-inspired items. It became Little Henrietta’s in 1992 for an undistinguished two years before the Karwan family took it over again and, as the Olde Jay Tavern, ran it until 2000, when it was sold to Renson.
“I decided that I wanted to open a casual restaurant,” he says, “and I was walking along Jay Street and dropped my keys. As I picked them up, I was looking at a ‘For Sale’ sign. I knew this had to have happened for a reason.”
He has retained much of the old-fashioned feeling of the place, preserving (and restoring) the booths, maintaining the bar, painting the tin ceiling and more. But where the old ceiling was black, he’s lightened it to white, dispelling the old sense of gloom. You’ll see the booths as you enter, with signed theatrical posters on the wall above them. Across from the bar, which is in the center, are a few larger tables with chairs. Beyond that, in what once was a storage area, there’s a very comfortable living-room-like space. And the restaurant now extends into what was an adjacent storefront, where you’ll find more tables and, most importantly, a freezer case of many flavors of homemade gelato.
Breakfast is served until 11 and includes croissants ($2.25), muffins ($1.75) and bagels ($1.99, with cream cheese, of course). If you want egg and cheese on that bagel, it’s $3.49; on a croissant, it’s $4. Add meat for a dollar. Pancakes or French toast are $5.75 and are served with real maple syrup. A three-item omelette runs $7.
As lunchtime arrives, you’re encouraged to build your own sandwich for $7 (or $4.75 for a half-sandwich, but why bother?) with a choice of several types of bread, meats such as smoked turkey, honey ham, roast beef, corned beef and more, a half-dozen popular cheese types, toppings like lettuce, tomato, roasted red peppers and alfalfa sprouts and, not surprisingly, dressings like mayo and mustard, but the mayo has a cranberry option and the mustard has three degrees of Dijon (plain, horseradish or honey).
I have yet to attempt such a construction because the specialty sandwiches list has too many toothsome options. The Crabby Marc is a crabcake sandwich ($9), the Ambition ($8) gives you grilled chicken on pesto-topped focaccia with roasted red peppers and mozzarella, Lox 8 ($8) is constructed from smoked salmon, red onions, tomatoes and more with a horseradish-dill rérnoulade.
It was the cranberry pesto that sold me on Jeremy’s Package ($9) during one recent visit, a natural complement to grilled chicken and asiago with the ever-welcome bacon as a bonus. I was going to order the ale-burger special during another visit, but Peter, my dining companion, thoughtlessly selected it first. Which was fine insofar as it gave me a reason to get a Reuben ($8), a sandwich of which I never tire.
Let me first note that the half-pound burger was topped with Jack Daniels-infused ketchup, and they’re not fooling around: You taste it. To the extent that the ale with which the burger itself was treated got lost in the bursts of bourbon. An All-American Cheeseburger ($8) is a regular menu item, made with freshly ground black angus beef, or you can avoid the stockyard with the $8 Black Bean Burger, which, like everything else wherever possible, is made from scratch.
Corned beef and mustard enjoy an affinity no amount of Russian dressing ever will disrupt, so it’s good to see (and taste) a Reuben dressed with Dijon, alongside the traditional toppings of sauerkraut and swiss.
There’s no fryolater in the house, so sandwiches are served with tortilla chips. Lunch service is nicely streamlined: You’ll be in and out quickly, if that’s necessary, but there is some excellent coffee there over which to linger. It’s the kind of place where casual conversation can take an unexpected turn. A couple of days ago, another customer chatted with me about the anticipated snowfall and we discovered that she lived a couple of houses down from the Stockade-area house I used to own. So I invented a term to describe that: extra-temporal neighbors. Which I mention because this is also the kind of place that inspires such thinking.
Renson has achieved the difficult ambition of creating a gathering place as comfortable for newcomers as it is for the regulars, as good for coffee as it is for an easy lunch and run by a staff who truly seem to enjoy their work. Renson thinks the place deserves further publicity, and I agree. As he puts it, “Who doesn’t enjoy a success story?”