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PHOTO: B.A. Nilsson

Coveted Dishes

envy lounge

99 Pine St. (at S. Pearl), Albany, 694-3689. www.envyalbany.com. Serving lunch Tue-Fri 11-2, dinner Tue-Sat 5-9. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: inventive American

Entrée price range: $26 (lamb shanks with three-cheese risotto) to $45 (grilled NY strip loin)

Ambiance: techno-retro

By B.A. Nilsson

 

One of the goals set by the Envy Lounge is to encourage young (but not too young) urban professionals to patronize South Pearl Street. The restaurant, which opened in October, is on the Pine Street side of Jillian’s. You’ll see the big windows behind which the cooking staff toils, although they’ll give a friendly enough wave to suggest that they’re enjoying themselves in there.

Chef James Demers brings several years of experience at an exclusive Virginia golf club to the task at hand. He’s from Clifton Park, and happy to be back in the area—and happy to take on the challenge of updating our food sensibility. Given the challenge of wreaking something adventurous, he has drawn from classical roots to reshape the expected components into something that will surprise both the eye and the palate.

Like the braised lamb shanks with three-cheese risotto ($26). Once upon a time those shanks were garbage meat, selling for next to nothing; like a neglected urban neighborhood, they suddenly became trendy. And expensive. Braise them, especially in a sturdy stock, and they reward you with intense flavor. Demers presents a concentrated serving of boneless meat, giving added depth with an apricot-sweetened sauce. And the meat perches atop rice that’s also a-burst with flavor, the mixture of cheeses strong but not overpowering.

Early in this restaurant’s inception, Demers explained, it was going to focus on tapas. With the proliferation of that approach, Envy’s menu was steered in a somewhat different direction, although some of the small plates remain. Even the lamb shanks entrée has a touch of this approach: It’s a sensible-sized portion served in the well of handsomely accommodating plate.

There’s the lounge aspect of the restaurant to consider, although I explored it little. One of the two bar areas gives you a view of the kitchen; the other is more traditionally placed at one side of the dining area.

To describe the dining area itself as large is to do it little justice. It’s huge, with row of outsized booths at one end and a profusion of well-spaced tables elsewhere. The ceiling is high enough to have its own atmospheric system, and the warehouse-like look of the room was muted by painting the walls and ceiling black. On the positive side, this gives the look of a series of white tables floating in darkness. It’s comfortable, even intimate insofar as you feel isolated from the environment. But it’s not particularly attractive.

Booths can be a tricky proposition for an outsized fellow like me, but I had no trouble fitting into one here. “The owner is very tall,” one of the servers explained, “so everything here was designed a little bigger than usual.”

Service, by the way, was exemplary. We enjoyed the attention of Jason, who sparked his time with us with quiet wit, explained the menu well, and delivered what was promised.

Although I don’t see the term “tapas” on the menu, it starts with a series of small plates that can serve as appetizers or small meals. Or large meals, as in the case of the scallops: They’re available as a $14 starter or a $32 main plate. In both cases, black ruffles, white truffles and lavender honey are among the accompaniments.

Or start with a plate of cheese. Or olives. Each comes in three sizes; the middle-sized olive plate ($12), which I chose, was supposed to fly around the table—but none of my companions was in the mood to enjoy the warm, herb-dusted selection in which kalamata olives abounded. White anchovies provided a subtle contrast, and a glass of prosecco (not included, but worth the small investment) gave a nice finish to the dish.

An $8 plate of fried oysters is much more than you might expect. The oysters themselves are crunchy with masa, spiced with a subtle presence of chorizo and served with a pungent aïoli. While $8 may seem pricey for a cup of soup, the blend of potatoes, leeks and scallops was as effective a mixture as I’ve ever tasted.

Demers dry-ages the beef he serves; a grilled one-pound strip is $45, while pair of tenderloin filets (with lobster sauce and scampi) is $36. But why opt for those when there’s a bison hangar steak ($28)? Marinated in Thai seasonings, it’s a tender cut with a satisfying depth of flavor, served with blue-cheese-enhanced mashed potatoes on a very decorative dish.

My daughter chose another small plate for her entrée: Those seemingly ubiquitous scallops are worked into penne that’s topped with creamy sherry sauce ($9).

I can’t imagine more flavor that what’s rolled into a dish of twin quail ($27). The birds are glazed with apricot and served alongside caramelized oranges; inside them is risotto shot through with mushrooms and sweetbreads—insanely rich, immensely satisfying.

Although the fine-dining profile of downtown Albany has been getting steadily more up to date (we’ve long been lingering 10 to 20 years behind the more avant garde urban areas), what’s served at the Envy Lounge goes a long way to pushing us into 2007. And that’s good for all of the better restaurants in the area.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Chef Larry Schepici’s newest venture, the Tosca Grille (200 Broadway, Troy), recently added a gourmet Sunday brunch with live jazz and, as they roll around, holiday themes. Priced at $23 ($12 for kids 5-12; under 5 is free) and running from 10 AM-3 PM, the buffet features stations for omelettes, waffles, pasta, pastries and fruit, as well as a carving station for an array of meats. Entrées change regularly, but could include eggs Benedict with lemon hollandaise, cheese and blueberry blintzes, and much more. More info and reservations: 272-3013. . . . Jan. 23 is National Soup Swap Day, and a Schenectady-based potluck club called Almost Foodies will take part. Begun in Seattle as a way of bringing together people who celebrate food and their community, it’s going national with a blog (www.soupswap.com) and events planned in several key cities. Almost Foodies, led by Renée McAllister, will film the soup-swap event for a future program on Schenectady’s public-access station, channel 16. For more info, e-mail her (renee at almost food ies.com). . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (food at 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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