Garden Bistro 24, 1839 Central Ave., Colonie, 456-4566; 5 Vista Blvd., Slingerlands, 439-3832, gardenbistro24.com. Serving 10:30-10:30 Mon-Sat, 10-9 Sun. AE, D, MC, V.
Cuisine: Fresh bistro fare
Entrée price range: $13.50 (bistro burger) to $23.50 (crabcakes)
Ambiance: comfortably casual
Let’s start (as we wish we always could) with the chocolate mousse. It’s one of Garden Bistro 24′s homemade desserts, and as such deserves our suspicion. When it’s not homemade it deserves more suspicion, of course, but in that case it’s never worth ordering. Good chocolate mousse has a short life because it’s based on captured air, and not only deflates over time but also absorbs refrigerator aromas. It can be stiffened with gelatin, but then you’re turning it into pie filling. Ideally, it’s leavened with air whipped into heavy cream and in egg whites. The art, as with so many things, lies in stiffness and proportion. In this case, the blend was superb and the flavor was dramatic in its simplicity.
The nearly four-year-old restaurant lurks in a Central Avenue strip mall, a setup I’m liking more and more as parking is thus made simple. Inside, the lighting and room design work together to create a pleasing atmosphere, made the more inviting by a pleasant staff.
Chef-owner John Grizzaffi opened the place shortly after he graduated from the Culinary Institute downriver. Although a Dutchess County native who has put in time working in New York City, he was drawn to the area because his then-girlfriend (now wife) was attending the College of St. Rose and he liked the small-town feel of the city.
“People call it Smallbany,” he says. “I don’t see it that way at all.”
From the beginning, his mission was to capture the sense of the bistros he found in France, where the food was better than the higher-priced fancy places and more generously reflected available ingredients.
“We use as much produce as we can find locally,” he explains, which includes items from area farmers as well as trips to the local farmers markets. And he designed a menu that’s brief and inexpensive, concentrating on a few items that will be cost effective and can be produced consistently well.
Heading the entrées list are mussels frites ($16.50), which have been on the menu since the beginning. These are brought in directly from Canada, gently steamed and served with one of a half-dozen sauces: white wine and shallots, basil-lemon butter, saffron tomato, Provençal, coconut lemongrass or the current special, which right now is a compote of roasted fennel, sautéed leeks and cannellini beans in a tarragon wine sauce and costs a dollar extra.We sampled the coconut-lemongrass sauce, which gives it a sweet Thai flavor and suits the plump mussels very well, although the bivalve itself requires little of it to enhance what’s already a rich flavor. There’s bread—home-baked—to help get rid of some of the excess sauce.
Fries—frites, in French bistro parlance—accompany the entrées, often presented in a European cone. My belief is that if you’re going to eat potatoes at all, you might as well have fries (although I reserve the at-home option of the buttery mashed variety). Here they’re done well, darkly golden and appropriately crisp.
Other items on the brief entrée list are a roasted half-chicken ($17.50), a grass-fed beef burger from Herondale Farm in Ancramdale ($13.50), flatiron steak ($19) and hangar steak ($20.50), the last two available with a choice of caramelized onions, blue cheese-shallot butter, herbed butter or red wine jus. And there are crab cakes ($23.50), which was my entrée choice and which rewarded me with a pair of fleshy cakes untroubled by an excess of breading, fried to the lustrous finish, topped with a shallot-cognac remoulade and baby greens, with a sautée of crisp green beans on the side and, of course, pomme frites. The flavors blended effortlessly, making this one of the most appealing crabcake preparations I’ve tasted, the coast of Maryland included.
Those crab cakes also are available as a $12 appetizer; other small plates include calamari in tarragon chili aioli ($10), pulled pork sliders in a chipotle Dijon sauce ($10), a daily fresh spread with a toasted french baguette and a flat bread of the day (both market priced). I started with olives and nuts ($6). Simple? Not so fast. The green olives are citrus cured, the (mixed) nuts are roasted and given a little glaze of truffle oil and a touch of cayenne-inspired heat.
And there are salads, each of them $9.50, including the GB24 (greens with green beans, egg, bacon, avocado); a salad with seasonal herbs, fruit and goat cheese; the Countryside, with asparagus, peas, sprouts and cheddar; spinach, with strawberries, almonds and bacon, and the ubiquitous Caesar. Dressings, needless to say, are homemade.
The specials list changes every two weeks, and even more reflects what’s in the markets. And lunch, served until 3, includes a roasted chicken sandwich ($9.50), smoked salmon sandwich ($10.50), a spinach, apple and brie sandwich ($9.50), french dip ($10.50), roasted chicken crepe or honey-cured ham and swiss cheese crepe ($9.50 each) and even a chimmichuri-marinated hanger steak crepe ($10).
Grizzaffi opened a second unit in Slingerlands last year, with the same menu; his longtime friend and colleague Donald Rogers is now heading the Colonie kitchen. Griffazzi sums up the approach they share: “I don’t want to be cooking fancy food. I’m not a fancy person.” He’s developed enough of a following to suggest that there are many for whom this approach resonates nicely, and I’m going to be one of them.