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photo:Shannon DeCelle

A Safe Bet
By B.A. Nilsson

The Artisan

38 Caroline St., Saratoga Springs, 226-6111. erving dinner Wed-Mon, 5-close. D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Fancy fusion

Entrée price range: $21 (vegetarian torte) to $29 (grilled Chilean sea bass)

Ambiance: Artsy


So I spent one day this summer baking in the sun at the Saratoga Racetrack, strolling the grounds, sipping overpriced soda and watching a couple of races at trackside. And performing my ritual loss of two dollars by betting on a pathetic longshot.

Although nobody loves to piss away money more than I, gambling has no appeal unless the odds are so much in my favor that . . . well, that it’s no longer a gamble. And so I watch with great puzzlement as so much money flows into coffers of those who administer the games; a puzzlement touched with frustration when I’m behind a Lotto-crazed lout slowly stocking up on tickets while I wait to pre-pay for my costly gas at a convenience mart.

But I enjoy the downtown Saratoga spirit, which seeks to pluck leftover cash and those infrequent winnings from the pockets of passers-by, offering all manner of gewgaws and comestibles.

Caroline Street is one of the most alluring byways, with so many bars and restaurants clamoring for your attention. The Artisan is set a few blocks down, and richly rewards your perseverance. It’s one of the nicer, newer fine-dining highlights in a city that still can’t make up its mind as to a culinary identity.

Everything about this restaurant is handsome. Design consideration obviously tilted in the direction of self-consciousness. That is, it doesn’t offer the kind of transparent dining experience in which the decor fades into the background; the background is an essential part of the experience, not only in its own appearance but also in the artwork that graces the walls, a changing display highlighting the work of worthy talents.

A spacious bar sits to the right; a divider separates it from the dining area but allows you to see over the top (and thus eavesdrop, as I did, on amusing amorous machinations). There’s also an attractive dining area outdoors, on a patio behind the Artisan.

Six appetizers and five entrées makes for a menu I like. Too much choice puts the customer too much in charge. You’re paying for a meal because you want to celebrate the skills of the restaurateurs; otherwise, find the nearest discount buffet.

A menu in which one of the appetizers is “flash-fried calamari tubes and tentacles with ancho chili powder and . . . wasabi remoulade” is even more to my liking, even if the dish is priced at 14 bucks.

But I was distracted from that dish by the fried eggplant Napoleon, a $10 starter that wooed me with its promise of a mix of veggies and cheese, including roasted red peppers and brie. And then a house-smoked tomato sauce to tie it together, and the whole thing worked; a delicate dance of flavors that used the frying, the smoking, and the roasting to give complexity to an otherwise retiring group of ingredients.

Also for the vegetable fan is a spring roll ($11) that offers a more interesting, intricate array of components and component flavors. Plenty of crunch between the flaky, deep-fried wrapper and the veggies themselves, cooked quickly enough to prevent them from going gooey. And the accompanying hoisin sauce has the extra flavor of raspberry to sweeten it nicely.

While we’re on the subject of things vegetarian, the entrée list, numbering but five, showcases one meatless item: a torte ($21) that will first arrest your eye with its layer of baby asparagus delicately arrayed in a row. Like the aforementioned appetizer, it features roasted red peppers and parmesan cheese, but it adds a layer of thinly sliced potatoes, lots of artichoke hearts and some tangy goat cheese, before wrapping it all in phyllo pastry. The cream sauce is touched with white wine, and it makes for a surprisingly formidable meal.

Back to the starters. There’s an ever-changing soup of the day, and we sampled the yin-yang ginger soup ($10), which mixes two different colors of creamy compotes, with a puree of different-colored peppers adding color and the ginger, of course, filling out the well-balanced flavors. As you may have guessed, it’s presented in a large bowl with the different colors forming the well-known yin-yang symbol.

House salads, which precede the entrées, feature a carefully chosen array of young greens with a balsamic vinaigrette. It’s pleasant to enjoy salads that aren’t an afterthought. And a sorbet intermezzo adds a fancy touch to the proceedings.

It was all I could do to resist the coffee bean-encrusted filet mignon served over brie ($28), but I veered over to the Chilean sea bass ($29) because of the caramelized fennel and leek that accompanies it. When the fish is cooked properly, as the Artisan grilling allowed, it pairs well with such flavors. The strawberry-mango salsa was an unnecessary luxury.

Seafood and pasta come together in a cream-rich mélange of scallops and lobster meat ($28), with the secret influence of bacon and chèvre rounding out a fantastic flavor. Unlike so many of the day’s bettors, it’s rich, rich, rich.

Service is attentive and there’s always a server available to help you.

We finished with an excellent crème brûlée and a nice, old-fashioned éclair, and rejoined the outdoor throng with a contrasting sense of calm well-being.

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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