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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

A New Destination

By B.A. Nilsson

The first culinary hint that something different is going on here comes with the guacamole, which sounds like I’m heading into Tom Robbins territory. In any event, the guacamole is tomato free. I add tomatoes to my own recipe; I’ll bet you do, too. (Or did, before we discovered that factory-farmed tomatoes can be just as filthy as is factory-farmed meat.)

Here, however, the avocado—which undergoes only a cursory mashing—is enriched only with lime juice and cilantro, some onion and chiles. And it’s served with tortilla chips prepared in-house. In other words, thanks to nothing more than simplicity of approach—and careful choice of ingredients—it blows most any other guacamole out of the water.

Destino occupies a corner spot in the center of Chatham. My wife, who grew up near there, remembers when passenger trains still stopped in town, back when it was a charming rural village. As an outpost for downstaters who can afford to spend time away from the city, it has evolved a new identity over the past 20 years.

So it’s no surprise that what once was the Chatham Bakery should be much trendier, offering a different kind of conviviality. The restaurant also styles itself as a margarita bar, and one taste of the fresh mint margarita ($7) sold me. I try to be a button-down traditionalist where libations are concerned, and thus I’ve resisted many a fruity drink concoction. But the mint-spicy slush with the hit of tequila behind was a nice way to ease out of a Saturday afternoon.

They don’t take reservations unless you’re part of a five-top or larger, and it’s a hopping place mid-weekend, but I had no trouble getting my people in on a pair of visits. And if you do have to cool your heels for a while, there’s a big, blond-wood bar where the margaritas flow.

Once you’re seated, a basket of tortilla chips with a mild homemade salsa appears; don’t be afraid to ask for hotter sauces, because jars of habanero- and jalapeno-based heat await. With a margarita or a Negra Modelo within reach, it’s time to study the starters.

Fried plantains are here served as crisp ringlets, enhanced with the ubiquitous (and pleasingly so) flavors of lime and chile peppers ($4). Brochetas de camarones ($7) present fat, skewered shrimp, this time with chipotle and ginger the dominant additional flavors. And if you’re a fan of the stringy, almost sweet Oaxacan cheese, try it as an appetizer fondue ($6), served with tomato salsa and chips.

The cheese also shows up in a quesadilla ($6), a format that also can be ordered with three cheeses, spinach and mushrooms, sausage and cheese, and grilled chicken ($7.50 each), as well as citrus-marinated grilled shrimp ($8.50).

Several salads are available, and if the basic house salad ($5.50) is any portent, they’ll be terrific. The array of mixed greens, pickled onions and roasted pepitas are tossed in the lightest of vinaigrettes (citrus-flavored, no surprise) and presented in a generous portion.

Carrying vegetarian-friendliness to an amusing extreme, Destino offers a tofu burrito ($8). I have nothing more to say about that. You can still satisfy a meat-free diet with a black bean burrito ($7.50) or a burrito with mushrooms and garlic ($10)—and there’s much more in the menu’s pages, each vegetarian item marked with a Huitzilopochtli eagle.

Like so many Mexican eateries, Destino sells the sizzle along with the steak if you order fajitas. They emerge still crackling on a blistering platter, with the meat of your choosing (chicken, shrimp or beef, $9.75-$13) or just vegetables to fashion into sandwiches with the accompanying soft tortillas.

If you like crispy tortillas, the taco selection includes tasajo tacos (grilled hanger steak with roasted chile de arbol, $12.50) and the classic fish tacos, made with mahi-mahi ($14).

I’ve yet to sample the El Toro burger ($7.50) or any of the culture-clash pizzas (around $9 apiece)—but chunky tomatillo salsa with charred corn and queso fresco sounds like a toothsome topping.

Mole, from a Nahuatl word meaning “sauce,” has come to denote a purée of chiles, nuts and seasonings finished with a small amount of chocolate. Recipes are varied and many, with the greatest concentration in Oaxaca, a state in southern Mexico. It’s a labor-intensive process that requires separate, careful processing of the chiles and nuts, with a resulting paste that’s smooth, dark and shiny. Destino’s chef, José Ortiz, is Oaxacan, and so brings a native expertise to bear upon the process.

Although the menu boasts a tempting variety of selections, find the pollo con Oaxacan mole ($15) on the “Specialties” page and give it a try. The flavor is spectacularly unique, mixing savory and sweet with just enough heat to keep it lively, with an earthiness that lets it linger on the palate.

Chicken, being chicken, makes a good palette for the sauce. Like the bird itself, the meat never gets too intrusive. Brown rice and black beans finish the dish, and also garnish most of the other entrée plates.

Other entrée specialties include chile relleños, a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with spinach, mushrooms and goat cheese ($12.50), an excellent combination of flavors, or a version with shrimp, onions and Oaxacan cheese ($13.50). Salmon tostados ($14) and some enchilada variations also are offered, in addition to which are daily specials.

Youthful, black-clad servers provide the attention you’ll need. Although you’ll be assigned a particular server, any of them are willing to help.

For dessert, the flan ($4) has some flavor enhancements, with coffee and ginger versions (we stuck to the traditional); if you’re a kid, or traveling with one, the ice cream-topped Mexican brownie ($5) is a marvelous concentration of chocolate and chile. I tasted it; its sweetness bookended that earlier margarita.

Besides offering superior food, Destino is reasonably priced and, if you’re in the Capital Region, surprisingly close. It’s certainly worth the drive.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Saratoga Arts Fest has a full weekend ahead of dance, music, theater and more, celebrating the city’s long history as haven for artists (the horses sometimes obscure the bigger picture). Tonight (Thursday) is a kickoff event: the ArtsFest Prelude, an evening of wine tasting, good food, and art previews, running from 6 to 8 PM at Universal Preservation Hall at 25 Washington St. Sponsored by Putnam Wine and Putnam Market, the event features hors d’oeuvres and a dessert table crafted by the market, as well as a bounty of fine wines from around the world, including California’s Cartlidge & Brown and Ridge Vineyards, Murphy’s Law from Washington, South Africa’s Mulderbosch Vineyards and Graham Beck Wines, Australia’s Long Flat Vineyards and Madfish Wine, Baby del Rey from France, and such renowned French specialties as Taittinger champagne and Château La Tour Haut Brion. It’s priced at $75 per person, which also lets you buy a weekend ARTSPASS at a $5 discount. For reservations or more information, call 580-5618. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (food at banilsson.com).



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