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PHOTO: B.A. Nilsson

Small Wonders

Vin Santo

579 Troy Schenectady Road (Latham Farms), Latham, 786-8272. Serving lunch Mon-Sat 11:30-3:30, dinner Mon-Wed: 5-11, Thu 5-midnight, Fri-Sat 5-1. AE, D, DC, MC, V.

Cuisine: innovative continental

Entrée price range: $5 (black bean soup) to $13 (wild boar chop)

Ambiance: sociable

 

By B.A. Nilsson

 

Giving an Italian name to a Spanish-inspired restaurant-wine bar with French- and Asian-inspired cookery is about as all-American as a restaurant can get these days. The old models, while sturdy, have been explored to a fare-thee-well, and people seem to enjoy taking more charge of their food choices.

Which you can do when the plates are smaller and the prices are lower. And the wine keeps flowing.

Vin Santo opened a few months ago in Latham Farms, not far from owner Craig Allen’s other enterprise, All Star Wine and Spirits. With former Justin’s chef Chris Sisinni helming the kitchen, it was a safe bet that the varied menu would be nicely crafted, and I was even more pleased than I expected.

Expectations play a crucial part in a restaurant like this. After all, what is tapas? Better to ask, what was tapas? It’s a Spanish word meaning “cover,” thought to have originated as a covering to keep bugs out of drinks—or to cover the aroma of lousy wine.

Tapas evolved into a handful of small garlicky dishes offered alongside the drinks in a Spanish bar or restaurant. As the concept spread, particularly into this country, it grew to mean just about anything presented on a small plate. But the essence of tapas, to my palate, at least, is piquancy. It’s a small amount of food that needs to work quickly and satisfyingly.

At Vin Santo, the menu is broken into three categories of tapas: traditional, Vin Santo and “small plates menu.” The last-named is the most ambiguous. Think of a typical restaurant entrée—entrée item itself, vegetable, starch—and divide the plate into its components.

Although you’re dining in a strip mall, which isn’t always regarded as a classy destination, once the heavy double doors of Vin Santo close behind you, you’re in a different place entirely. The place has been designed and furnished with an Italian flavor, with a wall mural suggesting a Venetian byway and earth-toned tables and room dividers.

The rooms, or sections, really, divide between a main area and a cluster of tall bar tables. I tried them both, and can recommend that any ambitious eating be conducted in the main area—plates pile up quickly on the bar tables, even though the empties are quickly cleared by the attentive servers.

There’s also raw-bar seating, although nobody took advantage of these during either of my visits. That may be because the primo spot is a long table that faces the kitchen area, the seats of which seem always full. And which give you a good view of Chef Sisinni at work, overseeing the little sculptures he and his staff send to the tables.

Like the ahi tuna tartare ($13), an easy-to-eat compote pairing sushi-grade tuna with pickled ginger, topped with a pleasing combo of avocado and wasabi. And there are apple slices and crisped wontons to complete the dish. Not enough to satisfy a person with my appetite as a complete meal, but a terrific companion to a glass of wine, which is how I used it, pairing it with a Spanish blanc de blanc.

With about 400 wines to choose among—including half-bottles, giant bottles, sake, sherry and wines by the glass—not only will you find something to enjoy but you also can (and should) design your own tasting.

For me it was a sparkler to start, and a bowl of assorted olives ($5) along with a plate of romano-pepper crackers topped with tapenade ($4) to inspire us to choose more. Something to go with a glass of sturdy Capestrano Trebiano ($7).

Certainly the tuna was satisfying; to that we added chorizo and seafood paella ($12), where the rice truly was the star ingredient, rich with juices, dressed with calamari bits and a couple of rich sausage slices.

But I wasn’t destined to spend much time with that dish. My daughter ordered rillette of duck ($10), expecting to see a familiar leg or wing. But it’s a kind of pâté, a creamy paste of duck confit and fat that finishes with a concentrated flavor, contrasting with the port-laced aspic that tops the ramekin. We traded. It’s a rich, rich dish, and even a small portion on a small plate goes a long away. So I went on to a red wine, a glass of Taurino Salice Salentino ($7). It supported that richness.

On another visit, sitting among the throng that gathered at the bar, we sampled deviled eggs laced with salmon ($4), a trio of too-familiar egg halves with an unfamiliar but far more interesting flavor. Tempura-fried acorn squash ($7) is a nifty concept, with chipotle maple syrup bringing out the sweetness of the vegetable—but it needs to be peeled before gaining its fried-batter jacket.

Sisinni’s food features such contrasts that even the shaved Serrano ham ($10) gets its match in zucchini pickles. The grilled wild-boar chop ($13) verges on a complete meal, with sides of braised red cabbage and a squash-potato croquette.

Getting back to the name of this restaurant: It comes from a dessert wine native to Tuscany, made from two local varieties of dried, sweet grapes. Not as sweet as an ice wine and therefore not as cloying, it’s a perfect finish to a meal, and I sipped a good glass of vin santo to finish mine.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Preview the new year with New World Home Cooking Company’s 10th annual Champagne Dinner, which takes place at 6:30 PM on Dec. 14. Chef Ric Orlando and Michael Weiss, wine instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, join forces to present a seven-course meal paired with seven wines. Start with a clam foursome—raw littlenecks with mustard sauce, cherrystone ceviche with cilantro, razor clam spicy Asian barbecue, and Manila clam paella with peas and chorizo—and continue through a meal that includes a trio of lamb (lamb filet mignon, sweetbreads with strawberry-chipotle sauce, and crepinettes with tomato jam) and much more. It’s $79 per person, plus tax and tip, and you can reserve seats by calling (845) 246-0900. The restaurant is at 1411 Route 212, Saugerties; check out newworldhomecooking.com for more info. . . . 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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