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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

A Bounty of Options

hobson’s choice

159 Water St., Williamstown, Mass., (413) 458-9101. Serving dinner nightly from 5 PM. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: American fare

Entrée price range: $15 (grilled chicken) to $24 (lobster pasta)

Ambiance: comfortably rustic

 

By B.A. Nilsson

Given the range of entrées and appetizers and the generous salad bar, “Hobson’s Choice” would seem to be an inappropriate name for this restaurant. But the aphorism, commonly taken to mean a choice between two undesirables, actually dates from 17th-century England and is equivalent to “Take it or leave it.” I’ll take it, thanks.

Chef-owner Dan Campbell was taken with it—the restaurant, not the name—when he visited Williamstown for a 20th-anniversary high school reunion and discovered the place was for sale. It had been shuttered for a couple of years, but the name lingered.

“It’s a moniker we were hung with,” he says. “One of my principal investors really liked the name.”

Which meant that he had to forge new relationships with suppliers who’d been stiffed by the previous owner. But that was 15 years ago. Campbell, who grew up in Williamstown but pursued his cooking career in places as far off as Montana, has given his hometown a restaurant whose popularity has been steady and sure.

It’s a warm and comfortable place inside, rustic-looking and decorated with oddball items like fly-fishing gear. The hot bread that hits the table makes it feel like an old-fashioned home.

It’s no insult to note that the menu is hardly innovative. It’s safe and, based on our brief incursion into its promises, reliable. A key to assessing a restaurant’s worth is to determine its intentions. Does it wish to offer high-priced, meticulously detailed plates of innovative preparations? Then you can adjudge a place like, say, Charlie Trotter’s as successful. Likewise, Olive Garden deserves kudos if you determine its intention is to sell tasteless mock-Italian fare at high enough prices to fund its high-saturation ad campaigns.

Thus with Hobson’s Choice. Clearly, the intention is to serve that part of the community seeking not-too-adventurous stuff. Chicken, for example, is offered five different ways: grilled or barbecued, blackened or teriyaki-marinated, or sautéed with green chilis and tomatoes and finished in a cream sauce (this one is $18; the others are $15 or $16). The last-named cried out to be sampled, and so it was. In fact, my wife, undaunted by the prospect of spiciness, opted for the dish.

And was rewarded with a mixture light on heat, rich with buttery cream. She availed herself of a shrewd and interesting feature of the place: a half portion ($15.50). “Americans expect such large portions,” says Campbell, “that we’re happy to wrap any leftovers for them. But we have a lot of tourists passing through, and that’s just not feasible for them. So the half portion lets them pay less for less food.”

Susan’s plate was garnished with an aromatic mound of garlic mashed potatoes; alongside, crisp snap peas glistened green with freshness. “A lot of our produce comes from nearby Peace Valley Farm,” Campbell explains. “I think I buy just about everything he grows.” It’s the shrewdest move any chef can make: Buy fresh and buy locally. No amount of fancification can gussy up mediocre ingredients to a point at all competitive with what’s fresh.

A list of appealing appetizers covers a page. The ubiquitous spinach-artichoke dip is replaced here with, of all things, an artichoke ($6), served with mayo and butter. Grilled Portobello-mushroom cap ($5.50), potato-crusted sea scallops ($8) and tuna carpaccio ($8.50) are offered, alongside standards like shrimp cocktail ($7.50) and fried calamari ($6.75). We resisted the starter lure, however, because Hobson’s Choice also provides an old-fashioned salad bar, $12.50 on its own, free with an entrée.

When you go up to assemble your salad, you’re facing the open kitchen, and you’ll probably catch a glimpse of Campbell. He and his staff are looking for you, because they fire your entrée when you start putting greens on your plate.

Campbell acknowledges that the salad bar is a costly option, “but we bite the bullet and say, ‘Hey. It’s a bounty.’ And the salad should be made your way. Still, I see people who are obviously aware of the price of things loading up on red peppers and cherry tomatoes.” He also likes the idea of getting customers out of their seats. “Your next-door neighbors could be sitting two tables away and you’d never see them if you didn’t get up. I like the social aspect this provides.”

And he likes it when customers talk to him. “This way, I can make sure we’re preparing their dinners just as they want them. Even though you already told the waiter that, say, you can’t have wheat, it makes the customer feel good to confirm this with the chef.”

There’s a tank in the kitchen where lobsters swim. The salmon is wild-caught, not farm-raised. And it’s available steamed or blackened or grilled ($24), the last of which my daughter chose as prep style. How nice to have the real flavor issuing forth, a bounty that seems to be provoked by the grilling. Beside it was a hillock of colorful rice pilaf and more of those delicious snap peas.

My plate, an 8-ounce portion of teriyaki-enhanced filet mignon ($23), was expertly finished to my specification and as tasty in its bright-red middle as on the crunchy skin. It was an end piece, tricky sometimes to get right, but this obviously was no problem.

Surf-and-turf combos, prime rib, a center-cut pork chop, lots more seafood and a page of vegetarian entrées complete the menu. Our server, who took excellent care of the table, determined at the start of our dinner that we were theater bound and got us out of there in plenty of time. And this is where we’ll return when we’re back for another show.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Don’t fight it—Bastille Day approaches, and, per tradition, Nicole’s Bistro (Quackenbush House, Clinton & Broadway, Albany) celebrates on July 14 with a four-course meal and entertainment. Start with an appetizer of vichyssoise, charcuterie or PEI mussels (among other selections); entrée choices include roasted leg of lamb, sautéed trout meuniere and semi-boneless roasted duckling. Sonny & Perley provide an evening of jazz and cabaret. The noninclusive per-person fee is $50 (465-1111). . . . Speaking of things Gallic, Provence Restaurant (1475 Western Ave., Albany) presents its first summer wine dinner on July 19 at 7 PM. With the theme “Napoleon’s Favorites,” the dinner will feature vintages around the world that Napoleon Bonaparte celebrated in his memoirs. Food, too, will be Napoleonic—meaning multilayered. Chef Michael Cunningham thus will be making towers of such dishes as ahi tuna Nicoise with heirloom tomatoes, torchon of foie gras, and sliced breast of duck with leg confit. It’s $75 per person (689-7777). . . . Several weeks ago, Gotchya’s Trading Co. and The Yawning Duck Pasta Co. combined to open the restaurant Gotchya’s Trattoria at 68 Beekman St., Saratoga Springs. They will host a Sicilian themed Communal Dinner—a multicourse event at one large table, featuring roasted lamb and grilled swordfish—on July 19, and all courses will be paired with appropriate wines. Dinners ($75 per person) are limited to 16 and reservations are required (584-5772). . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (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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