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Finger Lickin’ Good
By B.A. Nilsson

Hattie’s

45 Phila St., Saratoga Springs, 584-4790. Serving daily through the summer 5-10, then Wed-Sun 5-10. Buffet night Tuesday. AE, DC, MC, V

Cuisine: Southern/Cajun

Entrée price range: $13 (red beans and rice) to $19 (marinated flank steak)

Ambiance: cheerfully casual

Several years and one owner previously, Hattie’s Chicken Shack became, simply, Hattie’s, and, befitting its new-found shacklessness, the cuisine became slightly more formalized. This was a good and necessary change, because Hattie’s without Hattie needed a new personality.

Which makes this a good moment to salute Hattie, the marchioness of Phila Street since 1968, a Saratoga fixture beginning 30 years before that. Her reputation was based on a friendly restaurant serving an exceptionally toothsome fried chicken, but she also was a quiet humanitarian, serving the community even as she kept her friends and neighbors well-fed.

Hattie chose Christel MacLean as her successor; MacLean now owns and operates the Circus Café around the corner on Broadway. Beth and Jasper Alexander were her handpicked successors, acquiring Hattie’s in 2001, and the reassuring news is that they have preserved its charm and its menu even as they’ve made creative changes to freshen the restaurant’s appeal.

In sum, it’s still Hattie’s. The gallery of photos and clippings with which Hattie adorned her walls are still on display, but the place has been refurbished with paint and furniture and has expanded out the back into a patio that offers comfortable quasi-outdoor dining. Beth is an eager-to-please hostess, while Jasper wields the skillets, maintaining that excellent fried chicken recipe even as he has enhanced and added other menu items.

In the context of August dining, Hattie’s groans under the weight of the nonstop trade; like a ship burdened up to its gunwales, it still travels, but the journey takes longer and may have its perils.

Fortunately, the worst I can report on a recent pre-SPAC visit was a prolonged wait for my check. Many of my surrounding patio patrons had cleared out at that point, and our server either was diverted into the dining room or standing in the alley, clutching his forehead in relief. It had been one of those murderously hot days.

The core of the menu is a medley of Southern fare, fried chicken the centerpiece. And it really is something you need to experience. My West Virginia-born mom used to make it, and it gave me a reference when Kentucky Fried Chicken hit the scene with its greasy, salty approximation. But this was my mother’s rebellion against the Shake ’N Bake school gaining its foothold in the ’60s; now I wonder how many home cooks have a clue how to make the stuff.

No matter: Hattie’s chicken ($15) sets the bar very high, with its crunch and its well-seasoned finish and—look at that!—no grease! Barbecued spare ribs ($16) are slow-cooked and slathered with a spicy sauce that complements the meat nicely. Side dishes include mashed potatoes, the real thing, made with the red bliss variety; collard greens; cole slaw, and cucumber salad—and you can sample a broad array of these items during the summer at the Tuesday buffet.

At $18, the all-you-can-eat offering is an area bargain. Several chafing dishes line one wall of the dining room, with a nearby bin of fried chicken that’s kept off the heat but is constantly refilled. There, you’ll also get to sample the dark flavor of the cornmeal-coated fried catfish ($16 as a dinner), some good’n’evil chicken wings, salmon, salads, and much more.

Other nights, you have a choice (if you’re early, or lucky) of the main dining room (which is air-conditioned) or the patio; the latter puts you under a festive blue tent, with a bar close enough to promise a quick thirst slake.

Louisiana beer and creative mixed drinks are also hallmarks of the place, and there’s a short but satisfying list of reasonably priced wines.

I enjoyed a bottle of Crimson Voodoo with a dinner under the tent on the aforementioned hot August night, when the gumbo of the day ($18) was a jambalaya cousin that featured chicken and andouille sausage (the jambalaya is a thicker dish that adds shrimp). Gumbo starts with a rich, dark roux, the bulwark of soups and sauces, and is also thickened with okra or filé powder. It has a nutty, mouth-filling flavor accentuated by its heat, achieved both by temperature and pepper seasoning. There’s no question that Jasper does a superb job with the stuff, and I plan to stop back regularly—especially in cold weather—to see what else gets featured in the brew.

I’ve been tasting a lot of jerk chicken breast ($17) at a variety of restaurants; not surprisingly, Hattie’s offers a version that is excellently seasoned and gains even more flavor thanks to the free-range chicken underneath.

Chef Jasper is a Culinary Institute graduate whose real-world experience is even more impressive: He has worked locally at Siro’s and in Manhattan at Aureole, the Gotham Bar and Grill and the Gramercy Tavern. We’re lucky to have him here, and luckier still that this unmatchable legacy of Hattie Austin’s is being kept alive so well.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Schenectady Day Nursery’s fifth annual benefit Lobster & Steak Fest takes place from 5 to 8 PM Aug. 18 at the Picnic Pavilion in Schenectady’s Central Park. The menu includes a 20-ounce lobster or 14-ounce steak, potato, corn, beverage and dessert for $35—which drops to $30 if you buy your ticket in advance. A surf-and-turf option with both lobster and steak is available for $60 ($50 in advance). A children’s hot dog meal is $5. Participants may eat in or take out. Entertainment will be by DJ Dave Wilkinson, and there will be a Paper Bag Raffle and door prize. For info and tickets, call 377-3492, or buy advance tickets at the Open Door Book Store, Salamack’s, Marty’s True Value Hardware, or Lang’s Pharmacy. . . . The Basement Bistro is celebrating its 15th Anniversary with a special “Taste of Summer” event on Thursdays in August. Chef-owner Damon Baehrel is encouraging each patron to bring an ingredient, perhaps from a personal garden or farmer’s market, which the chef will incorporate into the menu. A portion of the proceeds from these evenings will be donated to the Wildwood School, which serves children with developmental disabilities. Cost per person is $39 (excluding beverages, tax and tip), and reservations are required. For more info, call 634-2338 or go to www.sage crestcatering. 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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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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