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photo:B.A. Nilsson

Oasis in Chain Country
By B.A. Nilsson

Park 54

54 Clifton Country Road, Clifton Park, 688-1548. Serving dinner Tue-Sun from 4:30. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: innovative American

Entrée price range: $16 (steamed salmon) to $34 (grilled veal chop)

Ambiance: elegant

If this were a movie, we’d begin with a close up of an entrée plate, wisps of steam rising from the artfully arranged fish and vegetables, the camera following the plate as it travels, in a server’s hand, from kitchen to dining room. As the camera pulls back, we can see the high, dark walls of a restaurant dining room, large windows giving a view of the lighted malls and manses of Clifton Park.

The green and orange of asparagus spears and carrot slices gives vibrance to the image, radiant against the white of the plate. We now see some of the customers, looking handsome at their windowside tables, pale yellow window drapes adding swaths of color behind them. Conversation is murmured, punctuated by shotgun blasts of laughter from the bar, the nervous sound of people trying to unwrap themselves from the workday.

The Gospel According to Clifton Park is, of course, work, a religious force that persuades people to live in the soulless developments of the town with almost no sidewalks, where they’re surrounded by seemingly every chain store and restaurant known to man. Since this building opened in 1997 (as the Conservatory Grill), it has been a succession of independently owned restaurants.

Mike Pietrocola, who renamed and reopened the restaurant on Valentine’s Day, wants to stake his own independent stand against the chains, and couldn’t have picked a more auspicious location. The place is not only tastefully redecorated but also acoustically improved so that it’s no longer the echo chamber that used to drive me and so many others crazy.

We caught them at the tail end of an early menu, a nice two-page listing of everything you need to inspire a nicely arranged meal. Although in real life, my family is increasingly foregoing the appetizer-entrée route, we splurge on your behalf, and thus it was that I confronted a plate of sliced meats—the salumi platter ($12)—that presented three contrasting flavors. First and best was the duck prosciutto, made by Pietrocola himself. Duck meat is flavorful enough to stand up to many variations, and this method of curing it brings out its richness. Likewise, the dry-cured pork shoulder known as coppa had a nice bite and landed differently on the tongue. And some slices of spicy sopresatta rounded it all out, complemented by Dijon mustard, cornichons and pickled pearl onions.

The plate shared a handful of baby greens with the diver scallops appetizer ($10), featuring two plump, perfectly seared scallops resting atop swirls of crimson beet-flavored vinaigrette and a yellow pepper-based ketchup. Take the first bite solo, then experiment with the dressings (scallops are also available as a $22 entrée).

Butternut squash soup ($5) couldn’t be more seasonal or more deftly seasoned, emphasizing the sweetness and the earthiness of the meat, set off with a dollop of crème fraîche.

Crabmeat figures in a pair of appetizers: a crab cake with chipotle aïoli ($9) and a crab tower ($12) that turns the meat into a salad and accompanies it with cucumber and avocado.

Salad is an à la carte item, and there are two: a bibb lettuce creation with olives ($5) and a chop salad combining greens and celery with avocado, peppers and blue cheese crumbles ($6).

Back to that entrée we left in midair. It’s an order of sea bass wrapped in potato ($22), and artfully wrapped it is, the thin-sliced tuber a tasty glove, hiding sprigs of fresh thyme and, of course, the fish itself, moist and delicious. And it sits atop slices of braised fennel, giving the fish a whiff of that licorice-like flavor—and leaving the fennel itself to be enjoyed alongside the asparagus and carrots.

The plate is drizzled with a light sauce that gently suggests its origins in a more robustly flavored red wine—a syrah, in fact. This is characteristic of Pietrocola’s sauces. The roasted pork ($19), a meat that’s brined before it hits the oven, is served with its own juice, reduced and scented with thyme, and it’s fascinating in its lightness, making it a complement to the meat but by no means a crutch. The meat itself is surprisingly moist and tender, set off by apple slices roasted alongside. As if that’s not enough, potatoes au gratin and Brussels sprouts finish the dish, making an art out of comfort food.

The menu includes a couple of steak preparations, steamed salmon, duckling, and a clams and mussels combo. Chicken, too: roasted garlic glazed free-range chicken ($22) that puts a half bird in front of you and gives it a lemon-garlic glaze and accompanying asparagus and rice (a mix of white and wild).

The new menu adds a few old favorites from Pietrocola’s earlier, eponymous restaurant in Schenectady, items like an appetizer of tortellini and prosciutto ($7) and such entrées as veal with three cheeses (it comes bubbling out as you slice into the meat, $18) and chicken and shrimp with prosciutto over gnocchi in a Marsala cream sauce ($20). Because there’s a generous selection of wine, both in bottles and by the glass, the new menu suggests wine pairings as well.

Mike’s wife, Deena, runs the floor, supervising a young, enthusiastic crew. “We’re all still learning,” she assured me when I grumped that the person delivering our plates shouldn’t be asking who gets what. I have confidence in her ability to get what she needs out of her staff.

Look for the outdoor deck to open for dining, with its own pub menu, as the weather warms; meanwhile, there’s a companionable bar on the premises for socializing. Having this restaurant back at the top of its game is a wonderful thing; to have Mike Pietrocola back in the business is better still.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Last month’s storm hit Saratoga hard enough to delay work on the new home of Chez Sophie Bistro, which now plans an April opening at the Saratoga Hotel and Conference Center, 534 Broadway. Meanwhile, you still have time to say goodbye to the old steel diner as you enjoy a meal at the Route 9 location in Malta Ridge. Chef Paul Parker is trying out some of the new menu items, and hopes to gather the opinions of his friends before the move. The restaurant will be open at its current location until March 31; phone 583-3538. . . . Here’s a deft melding of drama and food: The hit play Fully Committed, which uproariously details the life of a reservations clerk, will be performed at New World Home Cooking Co. (1411 Route 212, Saugerties) at 7:30 PM each Sunday in March. Tickets for the show are $10, and you might want to arrive early enough to enjoy a dinner there as well before facing the struggles a popular restaurant has in fielding the demands of its needy clientele (that’s the show, not New World, which fields such demands quite well). (845) 246-0900. . . . 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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