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Revisionary
By B.A. Nilsson

Justinís

301 Lark St., Albany, 436-7008. Serving lunch Mon-Sat 11:30-4, dinner Sun-Thu 5-10, Fri-Sat 5-10:30, brunch Sat-Sun 11-4. AE, DC, MC, V.

Cuisine: comfortably eclectic

Entrťe price range: $17 (jerk chicken) to $23 (lamb chops)

Ambiance: comfortably intimate

 

The Lark Street stalwart remains true. Itís always nerve-wracking when a successful eatery changes hands, but I have to confess I wasnít at all perturbed to hear that John DeJohn bought Justinís not long ago. DeJohn already put in place his eponymous restaurant across the street, and has proved heís hip to what makes such a place run well.

Justinís ups the ante a little, with a long history of fine and fascinating dining. It was the proving ground for Ric Orlando, now chef-owner of New World Home Cooking. It flourished after Orlandoís departure, each successive chef evolving new menus around signature dishes like jerk chicken and ropa vieja.

So DeJohnís challenge was to facelift the place without imperiling its well-earned appeal. He did so by targeting its weaknesses, particularly the fading look of the place, while shoring up its strengths, which have long flourished in the menu and service departments.

Despite some significant changes in personnel, the focusóbased on my recent pair of visitsóremains sharp without any sense of corporate control. Which is only to say that the staff is as accommodating as ever, their various personalities undimmed, while DeJohn himself is highly visible and eager to please.

That said, letís take a look at the menu. In fact, letís study it over a platter of chips and guacamole ($6.75). California style, the menu explains, which designates the addition of tomatoes to the avocado-based concoction.

I like mine spicy, and spiciness is never a problem at Justinís because youíll get a basket of four different bottles of hot sauce, allowing you to perk up an item with jalapenos, habaneros, or whatever the fire-source of a particular brew might be. I found the sauces fun to taste just dabbed by themselves on those chips.

Donít let such nibbling distract you from the warm rolls that also will hit the table, each day with a differently seasoned scoop of butter. A kind of maple walnut blend proved way too tempting, and I melted bits of it over various items that were served throughout the evening.

I try, with these visits, to be a good customer, which means Iím there to dine and enjoy myselfóand enjoy the company Iím with. And sometimes I get so caught up in the food-enhanced flow of conversation that I almost forget to apply the critical lens. Happily, Justinís didnít hand me much cause to be critical in the pejorative sense of the term.

You neednít follow the traditional appetizer-entrťe scheme, and the hot muggy days that recently consumed us made it impossible to consume too much. Thatís why I was delighted to find the salad chop chop ($7.50) which, its dubious name notwithstanding, is a cold plate of well-chopped greens tossed with peanuts, blue cheese, croutons and moreóall of it sized for easy forkfuls.

Another good warm-weather starter is smoked salmon ($8), which has a dill weed-laced sour-cream sauce and some insanely rich homemade cheese crackers. And the Caesar salad ($6.50) is as youíd expect, with anchovies if you wish, and not, as is too often the case, overdressedóalthough my server hurried extra dressing to the table just in case.

The $9 scallop cakes offer a good ratio of seafood to breading, and the lime-cilantro mayo that comes with it doesnít need any enhancementóbut those hot sauces are always tempting.

Chicken and beef and fish are menu regulars, and Iím happy to report that the signature Jamaican jerk chicken ($17) remains a winner, that incredible melange of flavors giving the meat a through-and-through kick.

Roasted half-duckling ($20), a standby on many a traditional menu, here gets a fresh idea of sweetness with a mint-infused orange glaze. Itís served on a bed of wild rice tricked out with colorful grains. Other menu items include a grilled rib-eye steak ($21), exotic mushroom ravioli ($18), Cajun peppered shrimp ($22) and Cuban ropa vieja ($17), a spicy beef stew.

A couple of specials we sampled included a shrimp-stuffed flounder ($20), which was very much as expected, and flank steak ($22), served London-broil style, with good mashed potatoes soaking up the juices underneath.

Service was exemplary. I was under the watchful eye of the dynamic Victoria during both visits, although the cheerful team spirit left me never neglected.

As you no doubt recall, Justinís sits near the corner of Lark and Madison, and its entryway takes you between a long bar and a row of small tables, an area that fills early and remains filled. A U-turn at the far end takes you to the dining room, which looks more handsome than itís ever been thanks to a recent refurbishment. Dark but muted colors on the walls with accents of splashy artwork, a scheme carried to the tables and the long banquette that lines each side of the room.

Toward the front: a new piano and, as is traditional, a reliable line-up of jazz talent to provide entertainment. Although my dinner visits took place relatively early each evening, I had to stop by later one night to retrieve leftovers refrigerated for me while I attended a concert. And the later-at-night bar scene at Justinís was an eye-opener for a long-married guy like me. Even I, who boast the sex appeal of Zero Mostel, got checked out.

So you have plenty of reasons to visit the place anew.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

The Gramercy Bistro in North Adams, Mass., recently was awarded a three-diamond rating by AAA, an honor given only to the highest-caliber restaurants. In addition to the new AAA rating, the restaurant was rated 4.7 out of 5 at Fodors.com and was given four stars (out of five) on NYTimes.com in 2004. Gramercy Bistro is a chef-owned and -operated restaurant that serves creative American cuisine with a focus on local, farm-fresh ingredients. The restaurant is located across from the MASS MoCA campus at 24 Marshall St. Call (413) 663-5300 for more info. . . . Brush off your palate for a dinner and wine-tasting event at Parisiís Steakhouse (11 N. Broadway, Schenectady) at 7 PM Monday (June 6). Featured are Wine Merchantsí Picks for the Summer, with Wine Merchants representative Joe Benny to guide you through the selections. Itís a six-course meal with five wines; they include blackened chicken with parmesan risotto paired with a White Haven (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc; grilled summer vegetables & chorizo with a Frei Brothers (Russian River Valley, California) Pinot Noir; and a Frei Brothers Merlot to highlight grilled swordfish with beef steak tomato and peppered vinaigrette. The event is $50 plus tax and tip, and reservations are required. Call 374-0100. . . . The New York State Department of Agriculture & Marketsí Pride of New York program kicks off a series of farm-to-table dinners tomorrow (Friday) at Howe Caverns Restaurant in Schoharie County, which will continue every Friday in June and September. Menus (created by Howe Caverns executive chef JoAnne Cloughly) will feature Pride of New York products while members share recipes and product samples with attendees. For more info, call 457-3136 or visit www.prideofny. com. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food@banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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* E-mail address not required to submit your feedback, but required to be placed in running for a Van Dyck Gift Certificate.

What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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