Old World Is New Again
Bistro at Quackenbush Square
Quackenbush Square, Albany, 465-1111, nicolesbistro.com. Serving
lunch Mon-Fri 11:30-2:30, dinner Mon-Sat 5-10. AE, D, DC,
French bistro with international accents
price range: $15 (kobe beef burger) to $29 (veal medallions
with mushroom demi-glace)
the opening of a few serious-minded restaurants in downtown
Albany, it would seem that, finally, the area once deserted
by 5:30 PM is now back to being a destination for folks more
interested in food and wine than, well, two-for-one specials
and ladies’ nights. Places like Prime, Yono’s, Envy and Marche
glow in their relative shiny newness, and often deliver first-rate
grub, so it’s not surprising that old standbys sometimes get
forgotten in the rush to figure out where to make that reservation
for Saturday night. This is unfortunate, because sometimes
the standbys are well worth remembering.
Case in point: Nicole’s Bistro at Quackenbush Square. For
the past 10 years, Nicole Plisson and her executive chef Daniel
Smith have quietly parlayed the idea of the French-American
bistro into something recognizable, yet exciting. (Plisson
opened her first restaurant 22 years ago at a different downtown
location, and moved here 12 years ago.) In the summertime,
the backyard patio at Nicole’s remains a destination, not
just because it is a lovely if incongruous haven (you barely
notice the looming highway exit ramp), but because it opens
up what is essentially a very small building, defined but
also somewhat hampered logistically by the fact of its historic
nature. Indeed, colder weather finds newcomers jostling to
fit into the entryway and bar area, although the immediate
feeling is one of warmth and welcome. Still present is the
wall of fame, featuring photographs of Plisson with any number
of notable policymakers and celebrities.
On a number of recent visits, I have found Nicole’s Bistro
to be at the top of its game, a welcome return to a form that
on occasion in recent years had dipped slightly. There was
a time when diners braced themselves for long waits or inconsistent
service if they saw that Plisson was not present. It seemed
as if the gracious hostess was the only guarantor of excellent
service, and while Smith’s food, in Plisson’s absence, was
uniformly good, it sometimes arrived lukewarm at table. Those
days apparently are gone, as evidenced by a recent visit,
accompanied by many relatives. Not only was this an evening
without Plisson, but it was the eve of a major holiday, a
time when some restaurants get lax. Our experience that night
was marked by exquisite food and outstanding service from
wait staff who didn’t appear at all ruffled at the sight of
four small boys and a teenager in their midst.
Subsequent visits when Plisson was on hand were equally memorable;
it seems that the restaurant has, once again, found the perfect
balance of personality and technique when it comes to its
wait and kitchen staffs.
The menu at Nicole’s has shifted somewhat away from traditional
continental to a variant on French bistro cuisine with interesting
New World, Mediterrenean and Asian accents. Examples of this
new direction can be found on the appetizer menu, such as
a quesadilla featuring succulent barbecued duck and creamy
jack cheese ($12) and a tapas sampler ($15) that includes
spicy chorizo, addictively briny oil-cured olives, roasted
red peppers, nicely seasoned garbanzo beans and tender crab
cakes. Another winner is the wild mushroom ragout ($12), which
allows the earthy, slightly nutty taste of the main ingredient
to take center stage, complemented perfectly by a sherry cream
Escargots a L’Ancienne ($12) finds the tender mollusks baked
in an herb-garlic butter and served under a delectable puff
pastry topping. This dish is a natural fit for the crusty
fresh bread, which sops up the butter perfectly. Nicole’s
smoked salmon ($13) celebrates the beauty of simple, fresh
ingredients presented with a twist, in this case, combined
with crisp potato slices and served, as a Napoleon, with Coach
Farm goat cheese, crème fraiche and caviar. The alternating
bursts of salty, sweet and tangy tastes make this far more
pleasingly complex than might be expected.
Entrees at Nicole’s reflect a commitment to traditional dishes
served in the classic style, and using the freshest ingredients.
The presentation is never fussy. The cassoulet ($25), a bistro
favorite from the Languedoc region of France, is a slow-cooked
cold-weather favorite, featuring melt-in-your-mouth duck confit,
sausage and pork shank in a white-bean stew. It’s impossible
to worry about calories or cholesterol when eating a dish
like this, which honors a distinct past and a tradition in
which slow cooking results in something that, regardless of
what dieticians might argue, is good for the body and the
soul. So, too, the coq au vin ($21), which owes its essence
to the fat, usually bacon or pork, in which it is initially
cooked, before adding red wine, onions, mushrooms and herbs.
Nicole’s version also includes tomato, and is served with
egg noodles. Another braised dish that is particularly well-suited
for these cold days is the osso bucco ($24), which features
lamb shank braised in red wine, garlic and tomato, and served
with garlic mashed potatoes.
For years, my husband has maintained that nobody in the Capital
Region does steak au poivre like Nicole’s. In fact, one of
our first dates was to the old Nicole’s, specifically to allow
me—at the time an au poivre virgin—to see for myself what
he was on about. These days, it’s still hard to find a perfectly
cooked steak au poivre, but not here, where it is a consistent
favorite, the perfect remedy—with a preceding martini—to a
stressful day. The steak ($28) is coated with cracked peppercorns,
sautéed, and finished with a brandy reduction using the pan
drippings, and like the lamb, served with garlic mashed potatoes.
Another steak dish ($28) features that other classic beef
pairing, Maytag blue cheese, in a fondue.
For all this talk of beef, Nicole’s Bistro does, in fact,
shine with its few seafood offerings, particularly an Atlantic
salmon filet ($25) served in a shaved potato crust with dill-mustard
aioli. As with other dishes, chef Smith shows a real knack
for balancing tart and sweet flavor components. A perennial
bistro favorite, trout meuniere ($24) is a refreshingly light
presentation, also often available at lunch, and served with
roasted new potatoes fragrant with rosemary. (Speaking of
lunch, Nicole’s is an ideal spot for a quiet, pleasurable
bite, with a menu that features a first-rate burger, classic
salads, and, if you’re lucky, quiche and/or omelets.)
The menu always features a few surprises, like the pomegranate-ginger
glaze that accompanies crisp roast duck ($26), or, for those
not inclined toward animal proteins, a vegetarian option,
such as a Greek spinach pie ($19). And the nightly specials
show Smith deviating a bit from the classic bistro/brasserie
formula, to take advantage of a fantastic ingredient. On a
budget? Consider the daily prix fixe menu, which gives you
three courses for only $26. And I’ve found, overall, that
Nicole’s is very open to working with you to ensure that a
dish is cooked the way you prefer.
The excellent wine list balances moderately priced bottles
with more expensive ones, and also balances thoughtfully chosen
Old World selections with a number of worthy New World ones.
Personally, I prefer a lush, well-rounded California cabernet
to most of the Bordeaux wines I’ve tried, but my husband will
tell you that Nicole’s list always features some superb French
reds. If you don’t want to order a bottle, you won’t be disappointed
with what’s available by the glass. And there’s a good selection
of ports and brandies with which to end the night.
Usually, we’re too sated to even contemplate dessert, but
it’s easy to succumb to the temptations of warm bread pudding,
chocolate cake or, in season, a bowl of berries with cream.
Whether or not you do dessert, you’ll want to linger, either
at table or at the bar, which by this time has thinned out
a bit. Nicole’s has the aura of a well-loved haunt where you
want to linger, and, indeed, are encouraged to stay awhile,
luxuriating in the feeling of being cared for and about. That’s
something that most of the trendy newer places haven’t quite
gotten right, but has long been a hallmark of Nicole’s Bistro.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
further we get from 1609, when Henry Hudson hit
Albany, the better the deal for Albany Restaurant
Week. This year’s event, sponsored by the Downtown
Albany Business Improvement District, takes place
April 9 through 14, and gets you a three-course
meal for $16.09 at participating eateries: Albany
Pump Station, Amo La Bella, Bayou
Café, Café Capriccio, Franklin’s
Tower, Hudson Harbor Steak and Seafood,
Jack’s Oyster House, Kelsey’s Irish
Pub at the Crowne Plaza, La Serre, the
Mansion Hill Inn, McGeary’s, Nicole’s
Bistro, Pagliacci Ristorante, Pearl
Restaurant, Savannah’s, The Comedy
Works, V & R Restaurant, Victory
Café and Webster’s Corner at the Crowne
Plaza. Reservations are a good idea: Call
the individual restaurants. . . . Sample the wide
range of dining offered at the resort’s many venues
during the Taste of Turning Stone, noon
to 8 PM on April 14, in the resort’s Event Center
(Turning Stone Resort and Casino. 5218 Patrick
Road, Verona). Along with cooking demonstrations,
food booths, ice carvings, gift baskets and more,
there will be a 2:30 PM Celebrity Chef Cooking
Show featuring Lidia Bastianich, who hosts her
own PBS show, Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen,
runs five acclaimed restaurants and has written
three cookbooks. Admission is free; guests can
buy tickets to sample the food. For more info,
call (800) 771-7711. . . . Remember to pass your
scraps to Metroland (e-mail food at banilsson.com).
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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.
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
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!
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..