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PHOTO CREDIT: B.A. Nilsson

New Mexico

Catina

430 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 587-5577. Serving lunch Tue-Sun 11:30-2:30, dinner daily 5-10. AE, MC, V.

Cuisine: Mexican

Entrée price range: $9.75 (burritas vegetariana) to $19.75 (carne asada filet mignon)

Ambiance: old-world Saratoga

 

By B.A. Nilsson

You’ve noticed, of course, that each downtown vacancy in Saratoga Springs typically is filled with something more upscale than its predecessor. Eddie Bauer and the Gap have gotten in, and a new level of soullessness was achieved some years ago when a Starbucks appeared.

Professor Moriarty’s was a decades-old Broadway stalwart adjacent to the ever-full parking U and banjo-performance showcase bench. The latter two remain, but the building has been lightly redecorated within to accommodate its new incarnation, Cantina. Nothing south-of-the-border tacky here—same wood-paneled walls and comfortable array of tables in the airy dining areas. The nighttime dining ambiance is enhanced by the giant candles topping a room divider, with a row of smaller candles against one of the walls.

The just-opened restaurant is the brainchild of California transplant Jeff Ames, who brings a West Coast sense of materials and authenticity. And what’s most authentic are the ingredients, which start out as fresh as possible before getting combined into recipes that reflect an imaginative approach by much-traveled chef Joseph Cooper.

Cooper is a veteran of such world-class eateries as Manhattan’s Le Cirque, La Tour d’Argent in Paris, Venice’s Bauer Hotel and many others, so he brings a refreshingly international approach to a well-designed menu.

Order the $8.50 quesadilla appetizer, for instance, and you get a house-made flour tortilla topped with squash blossoms, farm cheese and a tasty Mexican delicacy called huitlacoche, actually a blight called corn smut that infects an ear by planting its spores in the kernels—at one point earning the sobriquet Mexican truffles, although huitlacoche is thought to come from an Aztec word meaning raven turds. Just thought you’d like to know.

Produce and meat are carefully sourced, much of it as locally as possible for this scratch kitchen that boasts a shelf of lava stone molcajete y tejolote—large mortar and pestle units used for making salsa, among many other things. And making those tortillas is a tricky process that bespeaks an almost insane dedication.

The Cantina menu has none of the busy pages of combo platters many another Mexican place features. Nine starters and 13 entrées cover all the ground you really need to cover. You’ll find tacos (although you won’t recognize them), burritos, tostadas, tamales and more, but they’re reimagined, sometimes lightly, sometimes at length.

Tacos de pescado ($12.75), for example, puts grilled snapper on a tortilla base, with a chipotle mayo among the other flavor-enhancers. A poblano-and-tomato-filled tortilla, laced with crema fresca, is your under-$10 budget entrée; at the other end of the scale are concoctions of lobster (enchiladas, with a toasted almond mole) or filet mignon (with a casserole of chorizo and beans) that still come in for less than $20.

At this point in my life I probably need to retire the description that “servers are youthful,” because you rarely find servers who even approach my age in the Capital Region. It’s not an area in which the career server easily can thrive, because the threshold for good service is such that candidates often are treated as interchangeable items.

Nevertheless, the youthful servers at Cantina provide consistent attention, even if they do seem to get easily distracted—or so single-focused that you’re overlooked. When our appetizer plate of house-special nachos arrived, we were so sincerely cautioned about the heat of the casserole that I wasn’t even tempted, as I usually am, to touch it anyway.

And what the hell was I doing, ordering nachos? It’s a terrible food, all crunch and cheese and calories. And therefore irresistible, especially when presented as a special ($8.75) and topped with fresh, cilantro-rich salsa and sprinkled with jalapenos. Damn that devilish sour cream!

Because my daughter was so keen on getting those nachos (she’s handy as a deflector of blame) I resisted ordering the baja ceviche (the cold-cooked fish changes daily, $9.75) or guacamole ($7.50). But my wife plunged ahead into corn chowder ($6.50), especially after our server noted that’s it not really a chowder and thus soon will enjoy a name change. It arrives in a capacious, broad-brimmed bowl; it’s a cream-rich purée; it picks up flavor from pumpkinseed oil and the minty licorice of epazote.

Fajitas were another special of the day ($12.50), but what arrived wasn’t the sizzle platter of chain-restaurant Mexicana. We were delivered a demure dish with tangy sautéed chicken at the heart of the compote (beef was the other choice), surrounded by the usual array of onions and peppers. And, of course, soft tortillas in which to wrap the stuff.

Soft cotija cheese is a standout ingredient of the crispy chicken tostada ($10.75), and arrives on a hard, flat corn tortilla with more of that chicken, along with a black-bean purée, shredded greens and salsa.

Organic pork figures in a number of entrées, so I ordered the carnitas burrito ($12.75) for a taste of it. And a worthy taste it turned out to be, reflecting meat that was marinated and then braised for a good, long time. A trio of toppings (including my nemesis, sour cream, and a welcome dollop of guacamole) and small sides of rice and beans completed the satisfying dish.

The evening maintained an August-like blast of heat; a glass of Mexican chenin blanc ($5.50) beckoned more compellingly than beer, but I almost went for a mojito ($7), another great hot-weather drink. There’s also a long list of tequila—blanco, reposado and añejo.

It’s a pleasant restaurant in a prime location, bringing to four the number of Saratoga-area Mexican restaurants, but providing a menu quite different from the others. Once they weather the other August blast, that of the racetrack crowd, we’ll be back for more.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

As the summer’s sticky heat inspires dreams of air conditioning or the beach, a toothsome, seasonally appropriate alternative will be offered next Thursday (Aug. 9), at New World Home Cooking Co. in Saugerties: a backyard hoedown! Chef Ric Orlando and his crew will cook up a Tennessee barbecue with smoked pork, grilled trout, white bean chili, corn on the cob, fried green tomatoes, salads, sweets and more. Beer, wine, root beer, lemonade, and mint juleps also are included, for $35 per person (plus tax and tip). Dinner runs from 6 to 9, and includes a set of live music. The restaurant is at 1411 Route 212, and you can reserve seats or get more info at (845) 246-0900. 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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