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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Master in the House

By B.A. Nilsson

 

Maestro’s

371 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 580-0312, saratogamaestros.com. Serving lunch daily 11:30-3, dinner daily 5-9:30. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: fresh American

Entrée price range: $15 (smoked chicken pasta) to $38 (Angus beef tenderloin)

Ambiance: cheerful bistro

 

It’s a homecoming of sorts for chef John LaPosta. What he’s doing at Maestro’s is the culmination of the path he’s taken through several area eateries, pursuing fine and casual dining. His culinary skill has always been beyond dispute. What he’s needed is a small-scale place of his own. So while Saratoga may be his new home, visiting his restaurant feels like you’re being welcomed into something that’s been there forever.

The restaurant is new to him, at least as of two years ago; it ran for several years under the same name but different ownership, and not always well. “We rushed into this deal,” LaPosta explains. “We didn’t do any research about the place. Looking back, we should have changed the name, but I liked it.”

And he’s already made it his own. His secret? “I cater to the locals. I’m open year-round for them. We don’t live or die by the six weeks of track season.”

Maestro’s is tucked to one side of the Adelphi Hotel, about as downtown as you can get in downtown Saratoga. During the warm months, outdoor tables provide more see-the-world seating, although I’d just as soon sit inside and listen to the jazz that’s piped into the dining room.

The reservations desk is also outside, where Tina Kruger, LaPosta’s partner, greets you. You can make reservations through the restaurant’s Web site, which links you to opentable.com’s easy-to-use system. And with a printout in hand, you’ll get free parking around the corner on Washington Street.

Don’t fill up on the seed-encrusted flatbreads and bean dip you’re served while contemplating the menu. There will be house-baked bread and a dish of butter decorated with Himalayan sea salt arriving shortly.

The menu changes often, tied to whatever the chef gets from his suppliers, many of them locally based. “And we get seafood in every day of the week but Sunday,” he says. “Those scallops you had, they came right from Nantucket. They were beautiful. I cook them like they’re supposed to be cooked, medium-rare in the center.”

Those scallops I had perched in the midst of a big bowl of seafood cassolette ($32), an excellent name for it, both meanings of which refer to a small container. LaPosta’s preparation is reminiscent of bouillabaisse, starting with an aromatic fish stock scented with fennel and saffron and poaching within it a seafood array. But this is a different array, with chunks of wild striper flanked by puffy clams, outsized shrimp and the aforementioned scallops, and large pieces of lobster hiding in the rust-colored broth. A rouille-topped baguette slice sits on top.

Fresh ingredients and careful prep make this dish what it is. The chef busies himself with decor, then stands back and lets the fish do the work. Individual flavors present themselves in a satisfying succession as you ease your way through this brew.

As the appetizers list makes clear, dramatic flavors are the order of the day. LaPosta learned a traditional approach when he was executive chef at Jack’s Oyster House many years ago; his own personality began to emerge when he helmed the Conservatory Grill during its first years of operation. Here he’s come into his own.

A $17 charcuterie plate demonstrates his skill at pâté in an assortment served with cornichons, cipollini onion, saucisson and more. Duck pâté shares a plate with Coach Farms goat cheese ($15), and is one of the three featured players in the Study of Duck ($17), which arrived on a long, rectangular plate that isolated each study in its own terrain. Confit, that time- and labor-intensive result of curing leg meat in duck fat, is served, shredded, on a buckwheat blini. House-smoked breast-meat gets a fan of glazed pear slices, and the pâté (you’ll do a double-take) has a sunny-side-over quail’s egg on top.

We also enjoyed the summer ravioli ($10), fresh pasta with a smoked-mozzarella filling, which LaPosta gets from Fior d’Italia Pasta in Manchester, Vt. It’s served with broccoli rabe, always a good thing, goat cheese, and shavings of grana padano.

Salads range from a classic Caesar ($8) to an arugula salad with Old Chatham Sheepherders blue cheese and cherries ($12) and a yellow-bean smoked-chicken array ($12).

The entrées should have been more difficult to choose from. After all, there’s wild mushroom polenta ($23), Moroccan poussin with apricot olive relish and chickpea croquette ($33), Copper River sockeye salmon served with sweet pea risotto ($32) and, for the faint of palate, Angus beef tenderloin with sweet corn succotash ($38).

But I was with a kid who wanted to try a different cut of beef, and ordered the flatiron steak ($28), second only to the tenderloin in tenderness, grilled to creamy medium-rare doneness, served atop sweet, buttery Yukon gold mashed potatoes. That there’s a shallot-enhanced veal jus over top is, almost literally, icing on the cake.

And, of course, the cassolette for me. We finished just enough of the entrées course to get a good taste, requested the rest wrapped, and turned our attention to dessert.

I’d seen the French press head toward other tables, and thus knew my coffee order in advance. A dish of lemon cream, artfully layered in its serving glass, added a fitting sweetness. My child, however, blew aside all pretense of refinement and ordered a slice of a chocolate-peanut butter cake to go with her pot of tea. Such is youth.

Service here is excellent, and we were attended by a waitress who’d worked with LaPosta at the Conservatory Grill. There’s one more surprise that awaits you during dinner, but I’m not going to reveal it except to murmur that it has something to do with chocolate. Be assured, however, that you couldn’t leave this place more satisfied.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Albany’s Honest Weight Food Co-op is joining 70 other co-ops around the country to host an “Eat Local America” challenge—challenging people to try to consume 80 percent of what they eat from food grown or produced locally. The challenge begins tomorrow (Friday) and continues through Sept. 15, and all you have to do to participate is sign a large poster at Honest Weight Food Co-op and keep track of your own progress. The Co-op defines local food as that which is produced within 100 miles of the Capital Region, and the store itself denotes the local food it stocks with a blue ribbon. Jessica Allen-Hayek, the Co-op’s outreach coordinator, notes that eating locally produced food is “good for the economy, because money from each transaction stays in the region.” It’s also good for the environment “because the food doesn’t travel far, thereby reducing carbon dioxide emissions.” Best of all, it tastes better. You can learn about Eat Local America initiatives at eatlocalamerica.coop; to learn more about Honest Weight Food Co-op, visit honestweight.coop. . . . Grilled steaks and steamed lobsters are the culinary centerpieces, along with music and drawings for prizes as Schenectady Day Nursery holds its summer benefit from 5 to 8 PM on Aug. 21 in Schenectady’s Central Park. John and Karen Mantas, proprietors of Mike’s Hot Dogs, are catering this event for the eighth year. Advance tickets are $40 and get you a choice of a steak or lobster dinner that includes potato, corn, cole slaw, beverage, roll and dessert. A surf-and-turf combo is $65, and the children’s hot dog menu is $5. Tickets are available at the Open Door Book Store on Schenectady’s Jay St. Takeout will be available and you can refresh yourself at the cash beer and wine bar For more info: 370-4662. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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