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B.A. Nilsson

Plaza Charm

By B.A. Nilsson

The Londonderry Café

Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, 489-4288. Serving lunch daily 11-4, dinner daily 4:30-9, brunch Sunday 10:30-3. AE, D, DC, MC, V.

Cuisine: continental-American

Entrée price range: $13 (fettuccine Alfredo) to $24 (strip steak with shrimp scampi)

Ambiance: charming

 

The café, as owner Marifrances Fahy terms the outdoor dining area, remains open through as much of the year as is possible; last year it didn’t close until mid-November. So you have an excellent chance of enjoying the same sense of an urban al fresco experience as I found during a couple of recent visits to this Stuyvesant Plaza eatery. It didn’t hurt that I lucked into a couple of clement days, but much of the charm is generated by the restaurant itself.

That said, there were contrasts. Service fell apart during my evening visit, but couldn’t have been better at a subsequent lunch. The food also was better the second time, which led me to suspect that something specific to that evening was at issue, a suspicion that Fahy confirmed.

Because it was a personnel matter, it’s not worth detailing here; what’s sufficient is to note that Fahy hurried in that night to rectify the problem, but only as my own visit was winding down. The long waits I experienced are not at all typical, Fahy assured me.

I want to get this part of it out of the way in order now to laud the place. Fahy bought it just over a year ago from former chef-owner Ron Furan, who won it a splendid reputation during his tenure. Fahy was a server in his employ for a decade, and leaped at the chance to take it over.

“This gave me the advantage of already knowing the customer base,” she explained, “and we preserved a number of Ron’s recipes. So it remained a familiar experience for our regulars.”

The restaurant is tucked into a short stem off the western side of the plaza’s northern strip, one of several eateries that dot the plaza. Conventional restaurant wisdom holds that a strip-mall location is the kiss of death; this is assuredly not the case here, says Fahy. Conventional wisdom also insists that the best thing for a restaurant is to be in an area rich with restaurants. This one, she says, holds true.

Inside is an intimate, cheerful space set off with artwork and mirrors; outside is an expansive patio area with umbrella-topped tables.

Dinner will be what you make of it, ranging from light fare that doubles as appetizers to an extensive range of inventive entrées. I like the fact that pasta is offered in smaller portions, $8 to $13 depending upon what meat you choose to top it with, if you so top it all. The five selections thus offered are $13 to $16 as entrées, and range from fettuccine Alfredo to a tortellini dish that mixes mushrooms, peas and prosciutto with cheese-filled pasta in a cheese-rich cream sauce.

This was an entrée I sampled, and its flaws were those of a rushed kitchen—the tortellini needed more time in its hot water, the sauce needed more time to reduce. Likewise, the veal and eggplant special I ordered, in which the items are Napoleonistically alternated and served over pasta, topped with tomato sauce, needed to hit a hotter skillet to assure a crisper finish.

But I’ve passed along these comments already, and Fahy insists that these, too, were problems of the moment, that she insists won’t repeat.

Although lunch may not seem so mission-critical a meal, I deliberately ordered an omelette to see what the kitchen might do. In effect, the kitchen shrugged and said, “No problem.” Anything good will automatically taste better with the addition of bacon and Swiss cheese, but this—a seemingly simple egg sauté—was as fluffy and flavorful at its edges as in the busier middle, worth every bit of its $8.

Lunch offers a panoply of sandwiches, from fancy grilled ones to clubs and burgers ($7-$9). The burgers you build yourself, which gave my daughter the chance to choose a veggie model (chicken breast and ground beef also are available) with smoked Gouda, sliced apples and a spicy apricot mustard on sourdough bread. The textures were excellently achieved: Where my omelette had a side of well-browned sourdough, the bread for this one had a lighter finish so that it wouldn’t be all about the crunch.

A varied salad selection is offered for both meals, with the Thai steak spinach salad ($10 or $13) one of the most popular such items. In the starters realm, the artichoke-spinach dip ($8 or $9) is one of the handsomest presentations of this dish that I’ve seen, a simple ramekin of a chunky compote surrounded by toast points garnished with feta and carrot shavings.

I’m going to have to go back for seafood: It dominates a page of the dinner items, and, with titles like pecan-crusted tilapia, lemon-pepper seared tuna, ginger-nut salmon and salmon Florentine, you know there’s a more original approach in progress. And there are daily specials, priced from $19 to $22.

Beef Stroganoff is one of the more unusual meat entrées, but it’s a house favorite; among the chicken dishes is jambalaya, although Jamaican jerk chicken is another one I’m happy to see and soon, I hope, to sample.

“We make it from scratch,” says Fahy, “and try to source products locally whenever possible. One of the changes I made when I took over was to get better meat products, so we’re serving Angus beef now, for example. Our food costs have gone up, but I think it’s worth it.” In partnership with her brothers, Robert and Stephen, she’s adamant about pleasing her clientele, which includes closing the place for special parties (she hosts, for example, monthly get-togethers of the lovelorn from cupid.com).

Too many restaurants these days present a market-researched, paint-by-numbers face that assures consistent blandness. Fahy is a restaurateur with a mission, and she has more than convinced me that my future happiness depends upon repeated visits to her café.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Chef André Begnaud, who served as executive sous chef at two of Emeril Lagasse’s restaurants, will cater the Ninth Annual Music Haven Community Gala celebration in Schenectady’s Central Park from 5:30 to 7:15 PM on Monday (Aug. 28). The menu includes smoked brisket, barbecued chicken, green beans with pecans, corn maque choux, Cajun/Creole potato salad, Louisiana slaw, and dessert beignets. The Gala marks the last concert of the summer series, which features zydeco master Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie on the Music Haven stage at 7:30 PM. The Gala’s $55 ticket includes VIP seating for the concert, the pre-show Louisiana bayou-style barbecue with dinner entertainment by the Ramblin’ Jug Stompers (Michael Eck & Greg Haymes), and post-concert café du monde dessert. The concert itself is free to the public as usual. For more information, visit www.music havenstage.org or call the Central Park office at 382-5152 or the Chamber of Schenectady County at 372-5656. . . . Chameleon on the Lake (251 Stafford Bridge Rd., Saratoga) is hosting a SPAC Food and Wine Fundraiser at 6:30 PM on Sept. 7 at the restaurant, which perches picturesquely on the northern inlet of Saratoga Lake. The event includes not only creative food and wine pairings but also Latin music and a complimentary dance lesson. The menu includes mushrooms stuffed with gorgonzola and sausage, paired with Sheldrake Chardonnay from Australia; coconut-crusted halibut with a Thai curry sauce, together with a Joseph Carr Sauvignon Blanc from the Napa Valley; and coulat steak with a morel cherry sauce paired with Joseph Carr 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon. The price is $110 per person, inclusive, and you can reserve a seat by phoning the restaurant at 581-3928. . . . 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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