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Photo: Alicia Solsman

Picking Up Speed
By B.A. Nilsson

Fortune’s
Saratoga Gaming and Raceway, Crescent Avenue, Saratoga Springs, 581-5790. Serving dinner Tue-Fri 5-10, Sat 3-5. AE, MC, V.

Cuisine: meat ’n’ potatoes

Entrée price range: $16 (roast turkey) to $30 (twin filet mignons with crabmeat)

Ambiance: They’re off!

With a three-quarter-million dollar facelift, new chef, and revamped menu, the fine-dining option at Saratoga Gaming and Raceway improved dramatically, as was displayed earlier this year in a press luncheon in which the food and facility were introduced.

Let the crowds in, however, and you’re fighting a different battle. We visited twice in recent days, contrasting a busy Saturday with a slower weeknight, and witnessed the challenge the restaurant still has set for itself. But the difference between what’s there now and what we experienced a year ago is immeasurable.

Back then the place looked unattractive and the food was worse, with a buffet that seemed more apology than appetizing. Positioned as the best of the several restaurants within the gaming facility, it didn’t raise the bar very high.

But there was and is a built-in dilemma: Patrons at the raceway don’t seem to be looking for rarefied gourmet fare. I have no studies to support this theory, which springs only from personal observations made during my few visits. And because I’m not a gambler, I approach this restaurant with a narrower focus. Which is why I was frequently startled by enthusiastic yells from the crowd as the higher-stakes races finished.

Chef Kevin Philbin maintains a menu developed to meld fine dining with a meat-and-potatoes mindset, and it works out to be a two-part deal. Order off the menu, or pay a single price and cruise repeatedly through the buffet. Wherever you’re seated in the large, multi-tiered room, you’ll have a picture-window view of the track outside. The view is reinforced by flat-screen monitors at the tables. And you can place your bets with passing attendants. So, once you’re seated, you won’t have to rise until after you pay the check.

The fat guy in me loves the buffet concept, where endless food replaces that much-desired endless love. So I’m quick to succumb. And so I did during one of the visits, on that busy Saturday when we were awarded a table only because we promised to come early enough to miss the tsunami of the expected crowd.

And what a crowd! The service staff is energetic, generous to a fault—but quickly overtaxed when the place fills up. It’s the fault, as I’m used to ranting, of
station-based service, limiting a particular server’s responsibility to only a few tables. Not that you won’t be helped by any server you snag, but you may not be observed as attentively as needed.

Another factor is that this is a more demanding clientele than I typically encounter, but that’s a subject for a shrewder sociologist than I.

Provided the buffet browsers are all headed in the same direction and not taking time to stare quizzically at each item, you can quickly fill your plate with appetizers, salad, fruit, and entrée items. Oysters are not unheard of; shrimp abounds. Across the aisle, large heated bins with swing-open covers revealed an array of mixed vegetables, still on the crisp side; half-ears of corn; tender beef ribs; stuffed pork chops; mashed potatoes; broiled salmon, a little the worse for wear; and some manner of not-too-moist chicken. (The chicken improved tremendously during our second visit.) And there was a carving station for prime rib.

The items change from day to day, but the variety remains consistent. Small portions of a variety of dessert items also are included. At $18, the prime-rib buffet (a Saturday constant) is an extremely reasonable bargain; the kid’s price is $10.

Not surprisingly, the menu item labeled Fortune’s Favorite is a $30 serving of two slices of grilled filet mignon, served on portobello mushroom caps, and garnished with crabmeat and a just-right amount of Bearnaise sauce
(tarragon-scented Hollandaise). No complaints about its design and presentation, except to warn you that it’s a lot of meat and, what with salad and bread that also arrives, I wouldn’t flirt with appetizers.

If you do, however, there are some novel ones. The grilled calamari ($8), for instance, will prove if you truly enjoy the stuff. No breading, no grease. Just the chewy meat of the beast itself, with a tomato-basil vinaigrette for accompaniment. “I have to warn the customers,” our server said, explaining why she tried to dissuade me from ordering it. “They always think it’s going to be fried.”

A $9 tomato-and-mozzarella salad warranted the price with its fresh, ripe ingredients and generous use of pesto and vinegar. And there’s a Maryland crab cake ($11; $24 as an entrée) that really is all about crabmeat in a loose concoction served over baby spinach, dabbed with some pepper-rich mayonnaise.

For light dining, a three-cheeseburger is $11; a cobb salad wrap is $10.

A meat-free option is the vegetable Napoleon ($17), but, despite the presence of grilled zucchini, eggplant, and peppers layered with tomatoes and portobellos, it had a persistent blandness of flavor.

Grilled salmon ($20) and baked Alaskan cod with kalamata olives ($17) are other seafood options, and there’s a chicken breast stuffed with chèvre ($18). Die-hard traditionalists might enjoy the roast turkey ($16), which we were curious to try after hearing a neighboring customer complain about the sauce. It was, it turned out, a traditional turkey gravy, but he wanted something brown and nothing else would suit him—not even the array of other sauces the server schlepped over.

I don’t know if a facility like this can and should attempt something exceptionally fancy, but they’ve certainly established a high-end middle-of-the-road restaurant, if that makes sense, and it’s worth a visit even if you’re not planning to play the resident horses or machines.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

The Cappiello Festa Italiana takes place this weekend (Friday-Sunday, June 24-26) in Schenectady’s Central Park. It’s an annual celebration of Italian culture with food, children’s activities, bocce, cooking and wine demonstrations, casino games, children’s rides, strolling mandolinist and vocal musicians, several bands and dance groups. Featured entertainment is by the Tuscan Duo at 8 PM Saturday and tenor Michael Amante at 7 PM Sunday. Admission is free. For more info, check out www.festa-italiana.com, or call 372-5656. . . . The Van Dyck Restaurant (237 Union Street, Schenectady) begins brewing beer again this week. The facility was part of the Van Dyck’s extensive refurbishment eight years ago and welcomes back brewmaster Jason Furman, who was part of the original crew. He’s promising to start off with an amber ale, an India Pale Ale, a traditional German wheat beer and a raspberry wheat beer; the second week of brewing will produce the Van Dyck’s “Coal Porter,” a classic pilsner, the popular “Edison Electric Light” and a traditional English bitter. Furman will be brewing in the evenings, when customers can watch him at work. For more information, call the restaurant at 381-1111. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food@banils son.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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