Every restaurant visit I make is built upon a level of expectation I try to fashion from clues that lurk in menu and decor. Which is why a humble diner can receive a rave akin to that earned—usually with more difficulty—by a higher-end, white-linen place. It’s this damned year’s end wrap-up where everybody has to mingle on some kind of equal footing.
But they’re still going to be segregated by the velvet rope of paragraph breaks, and we’re starting with the fancier joints. There’s a lot of sentiment behind putting Jack’s Oyster House at the top of the list, because the place has thrived for a hundred years—but it thrives because the Rosenstein family has made shrewd choices over those years about chefs and style of service. Jack Rosenstein, the founder, was an oyster-shucker at another restaurant and parlayed that skill into developing a place of his own. His grandson, Brad, now steers the business, with renowned chef Larry Schepici helming the kitchen. Oysters remain a specialty, but Schepici’s menu mixes his own take on Italian and French items with other Jack’s classics. Service remains top-notch, and Rosenstein insists that the customer is always king. “As we always say here,” he notes, “the answer must always be ‘yes.’”
As we watch the farm-to-table movement continue to boom, one restaurant remains a longtime leader. We visited John Andrews Farmhouse Restaurant in late August, so the local bounty was profound, not least in the restaurant’s own garden. This bucolic Berkshires eatery has been under the aegis of chef Dan Smith for 23 years. “I started out by visiting the farms nearby to see what was available,” he says, “and the menu has evolved over the years as I got to know more and more about what’s available.” The flavor of a basic ingredient is only enhanced by his preparation; the combinations of ingredients are similarly serendipitous. And the simple, rustic elegance of the restaurant offers further enhancement still.
The ambiance at Athos has a nice touch of formality about it, if that’s what you seek; the ambiance is also casual, especially in the Taverna section near the bar. But the food, although hewing to the traditional Greek recipes beloved by founding chef Harry Hatziparaskevas, has been developed by current chef Louis Agostinello into a contemporary-minded menu that also offers a fresh take on the whole idea of fine dining. You’re choosing items that may seem unusual—veal with spinach and tomatoes, feta and leeks simmered in a clay pot, for instance—but they’re served with an elegance that comes from the excellent floor sense of manager Rob Gavel, who understands that customer service is equally important.
Down the river in Hudson there’s been a glorious efflorescence of innovative dining. At Helsinki Hudson, the former Great Barrington nightclub has found a space that suits both the eclectic music programming and a reinvented menu in which fried chicken or Porterhouse frites sits cheek by jowl with a pork chop that’s rubbed with coffee and chili. Chef Hugh Horner’s journey took him from Atlanta to Charlotte to Brooklyn (where he co-founded the Williamsburg Café) before hitting Hudson, and he’s brought with him something from each of those stops, if things like shrimp and grits are any indication.
The best dining-out experiences have a feel of what it might be like breaking bread with that rarity, a happy family. During our visit this year to Schenectady’s Cella Bistro, the sense of being welcomed into Julia and Michael Cella’s home was profound and reassuring. And chef Michael offers both a casual tapas menu in the restaurant’s bar area and a more formal, Italian-inspired listing in the comfortable dining room, where duck breast in pomegranate wine sauce, roasted poblano peppers stuffed with rice, tomatoes and jalapenos and an unbelievably delicious slow-cooked pork shank.
The mothership for so much of this hovers in New Hyde Park, where the Culinary Institute has turned out generations of chefs, servers and other hospitality-industry virtuosi. The flagship restaurant there recently evolved from the Escoffier Room to the Bocuse Restaurant, saluting one of the avatars of a revised way of looking at classic cookery, and the bistro atmosphere welcomes you to enjoy the work of students in training working alongside their teachers. We enjoyed a beautiful plate of scallops in a mussel-saffron sauce, an imaginative farro and quinoa salad and an old-fashioned chicken fricassée with leeks and morels complicating the flavors.
A standout among the more casual eateries is Shining Rainbow Restaurant on Albany’s Central Ave., where an unprepossessing space is the place to go for Szechuan hot pot (also called steamboat or shabu-shabu), which you’ll have to ask for, and, if you want it truly spicy, which is as it should be, you’ll have to persuade your server of that, too. There’s plenty else offered, however, on a menu that includes both Chinese and Japanese items, including more than 70 varieties of fish.
How is it I never visited Ralph’s Tavern in Colonie before this year? Lousy timing—I made a couple of attempts when the place was full to bursting. I got in on a Sunday night, and discovered what the neighborhood has known for 75 years. It’s an old, old-fashioned menu of sandwiches, pizza, Italian entrées and down-home fare. And when current owner Joe Fagan took over the place a decade ago, what did he change? “Absolutely nothing,” he said. “You don’t change something that works.”
We finish with a couple of stops in Troy. What makes Finnbar’s Pub, at the former site of Holmes and Watson, so memorable is the ease with which they turn out a menu of from-scratch items that rarely are made from scratch in a casual-dining joint like this. The rationale is that with more than 30 craft brews available, the food should be similarly constructed, and thus it is you can enjoy cottage pie (their version of shepherd’s), an amazing half-pound burger and some amazing mac and cheese.
At the Charles F. Lucas Confectionery & Wine Bar, the emphasis is slightly more upscale, with a well-considered wine menu and the small plates to go with it, with a dynamic selection of cheese and charcuterie among the offered items. It’s also a brilliant use of space, as owners Vic Christopher and Heather LaVine preserve a sense of Troy history even as they spin out a commendable vision of what downtown Troy ought to—and could—become.