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B.A. Nilsson

New Digs, Old Standards

By B.A. Nilsson

It seems so odd, so foreign in a way. A brand-new hotel in downtown Saratoga, occupying a site that’s been home to more than one such incarnation. And a brand-new restaurant therein.

It’s a smart-looking place, appointed with dark wood, a spacious, gorgeous bar, tables that grace two levels and also hide in private alcoves here and there. A courtyard; a garden. You’re struck with the expensive newness of it all, and then you see old friends: the cast and crew, so to speak, of Chez Sophie, lifted from their little silver diner a few miles down Route 9, transformed, as if carried by magic carpet, into one of the most elegant restaurants in the area.

Our table awaited in one of those alcoves, and it was something of a shock to be dining in the August downtown in such quiet and comfort. But Chez Sophie has always been a haven for the cognoscenti. Instead of discussions of horse at neighboring tables, I heard people talking—quite intelligently—about food and restaurants.

Studying the menu brought me home. I haven’t visited the place in a while, and was forced to realize how much I’ve missed it. Rack of lamb with red wine and marjoram sauce ($33) sounds straightforward, but I can already taste the blend of spices and know I’ll still be in for a surprise.

And there are the sweetbreads ($28), served in a buttery caper sauce, one of my all-time favorite dishes. Out of stubbornness I won’t order it tonight just so I can try something new.

As usual at this restaurant—in whatever location—our server becomes an integral part of the process. This isn’t a hi-my-name-is-so-and-so kind of place, where the servers recite from scripts while trying to push overpriced cocktails upon you. Andrée and I actually had a colloquy during which she helped me zero in on selections.

And it doesn’t hurt to have Cheryl Clark stop by your table. Co-owner of the place with her husband, chef Paul Parker, she not only knows the menu well but is likely to know your preferences once you’ve dined with her a few times.

Thus it was I was steered towards bouillabaisse ($35), a recent menu addition and one that, not surprisingly, sports its own personality. Fat shrimp and juicy scallops were surrounded by more than enough clams and mussels, all sculpted around a modest portion of a seafood broth seasoned with saffron and fennel, accompanied by a crouton topped with the traditional aïoli. It’s a simplified variation on a classic dish, which, let’s face it, has variations aplenty.

This stew originated in a part of France also celebrated in the Provençal vegetarian sampler ($9), an easygoing starter that combined two types of mushroom, baby leeks, artichoke hearts and red pepper, all marinated to a piquant, sometimes vinegary finish. Consider that you’ll get a basket of good bread with a white bean dip, and you have a good combo here.

Andrée urged my daughter to get the Raclette appetizer ($11), but it sounded so good that I ordered the dish, and was forced to surrender it only after I’d sufficiently tasted the gooey, salty stuff. Per tradition, it was served with cornichons; other pickled accompaniments were lotus and carrot slices. And that was it for our bread.

You can get oysters ($15), pâté ($11), escargot ($11) and crab cake ($14), and we got a taste of the pan-seared scallops ($14) when a small portion was offered as an amuse-bouche along with coconut-seasoned figs and dates.

Chez Sophie’s dependence on fresh ingredients can’t be overstressed. One menu page lists all of the local purveyors from whom meats and cheese and veggies and greens are obtained. So it’s no surprise to find an $8 frisée tasting crisp and gently bitter, with edamame and bacon sharing the balsamic vinaigrette.

Mahi-mahi is kind of a cross between swordfish and tuna (but more closely related to pompano). To grill it is to caress it with a high, fast heat and thus inspire it to release its terrific flavor without turning its texture too dry, and thus it was with this dish ($32), accompanied by a citrus vinaigrette.

Although Sophie Parker herself wasn’t much of a vegetarian, such items are now standard on the menu. And wildly inventive, like the vegetarian meatloaf ($24), a dish that mixes beans and bulghur and gets its surprisingly rich flavor reinforced with a brown mushroom sauce. Sides, as always, were tops, with rice or mashed potatoes as the starch and a crisp sautée of a mix of fresh vegetables where appropriate.

Simplicity was always Sophie’s watchword, and she increasingly refined her cooking (she once said that she’d spent 30 years simplifying her duck recipe). Her son Paul carries on the family legacy by keeping it a living menu, changed and improved as ingredients and inspiration suggest. He has a virtuoso staff to help in the kitchen, and the floor staff is second to none.

Now that they’re lodged in elegant, spacious surroundings—and in the midst of the city that always has been the restaurant’s spiritual home—we can enjoy fine dining at its finest in Saratoga Springs.

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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