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PHOTO: Shannon DeCelle

The Old World Is New Again

Nicole’s Bistro at Quackenbush Square

25 Quackenbush Square, Albany, 465-1111, nicolesbistro.com. Serving lunch Mon-Fri 11:30-2:30, dinner Mon-Sat 5-10. AE, D, DC, MC, V.

Cuisine: French bistro with international accents

Entrée price range: $15 (kobe beef burger) to $29 (veal medallions with mushroom demi-glace)

Ambiance: homey historic

By Laura Leon

With 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 sauce.

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.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

The 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).


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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