Stars are on the Plates
Ave., Albany, 463-1945. Serving lunch 11-2 Mon-Fri, dinner
5-10 Mon-Sat, closed Sunday. AE, D, MC, V.
price range: $18 (cappelini with pancetta, oven-roasted tomato,
garlic and oil) to $64 (tempura lobster with prime New York
modern art deco
it’s related to that Brown Derby, the art deco Hollywood
café made famous in numerous old movies and Life magazine
shots, in which glam beings like Carole Lombard and Clark
Gable shared a cigarette, a cocktail and a plate of vittles,
all the while looking impossibly beautiful. This Brown Derby,
located in the old Salvation Army building at the bottom of
Clinton Avenue, is a magnificent renovation, completely and
lovingly evoking the spirit of the 1930s Hollywood original.
Copies of the original caricatures of what appears to be the
entire studio system festoon the walls, and provide customers
countless opportunities to jog their memories of whom this
or that long ago celeb could be.
The room is a soft heirloom yellow, with rich woodwork, corner
palms and, of course, those pictures. It’s largely comfortable,
but some of the tables for two butt up against a curving scrim
of wood, which gives one the odd sensation of being on a different
plane than one’s dining companion, as if you’re on one part
of an “S” and your partner’s on the other end. The tables
for four all face out into the crowd, which, depending on
your party, can make for awkward conversation. It’s more a
see-and-be-seen kind of thing.
Friendly staff, still a little raw. At an early visit, my
party all ordered the day’s special, a beer-battered soft-shell
crab with yellow tomato and pepper, on panini, and yet our
waitress still brought over bread. I know that this isn’t
the end of the world, and that if she hadn’t at least offered,
some one of us would have remarked on the lack of the starch.
In the interest of trying out more of the menu, we ordered
an appetizer of pierogi, featured on the bar menu, which came
with three sauces. The pierogi themselves, little half-moons
of noodle pastry stuffed with minced short rib, potato and
cheese, were tasty, not at all gluey as unfortunately has
become the norm, but their accompanying greens were wilted
and sad, and the extent of the description we got on the three
sauces was “this one is mild; those two are hot.”
The panini came out, like a behemoth from the ocean, a daunting
portion impossibly dwarfed by a mound of fries and a log of
a pickle. The crab was decent quality, but the batter surrounding
it was lackluster, as was the rest of the sandwich’s filling.
This just wasn’t the type of lunch that I was going to remember
with fondness the rest of the day; rather, it was something
that made me redouble my efforts to get to the gym the next
We each had a glass of a Chilean Santa Rita reserve cabernet
($8), which was lush and easy, and kind of made up for the
That said, subsequent visits have seen improvement in both
execution and service, although on a slow wintry night, where
we showed up without a reservation, we were made to wait a
few minutes while the hostess made sure she could squeeze
us in. When she eventually drew the curtain separating the
host station from the main dining room, we found that the
room was largely empty. This kind of pretension just doesn’t
work in Albany, not that it’s necessary anywhere.
But on to the good news. We ordered a couple of very satisfying
appetizer specials that night, one a trio of seafood—scallops,
shrimp and crabmeat—in creative, flavorful preparations that
did not disappoint. My main dish, succulent short ribs ($28)
that benefited from a rich stout marinade and featured a mellow
bite from an accompanying stuffed onion, was just what a carnivore
would want on a cold and blustery evening. My husband had
deliciously seasoned rack of lamb that was moist and meaty,
and nicely complimented by a ripe, velvety Coppola “Director’s
Cut” cabernet ($42 a bottle).
On my several visits, I’ve tried unusual offerings like the
duck taco ($13), presented in a crisp parmesan shell, the
rich, fatty (in a good way) flavor of the meat offset by the
sweet and tart combo of grilled peach salsa and pomegranate
molasses salsa. The rabbit spring roll ($13) with seasonal
chutney is a must for anybody who can’t get enough of that
One of the nice things about the Brown Derby is its bar menu,
an enticing combination of tapas-type offerings and more hearty
fare, such as a wild mushroom pizza ($13), which had a delicious,
earthy pungency with vibrant fondue sauce. It was a beautifully
accomplished blend of earthy and astringent—clearly, the kitchen
has a knack for such balancing of flavors and mouth feels.
In general, I’m not a fan of Cobb or chef salads, because
too often they are a plate of flaccid leftovers plopped unimaginatively
on a platter. The Derby’s Cobb salad ($10), with traditional
garnishes, however, was extremely fresh and well-executed.
Another go-to salad features peppery arugula, sweet roasted
peppers, meaty white beans and, for that bit of spark, andouille
By far the dish that keeps me wanting more, that makes me
want to go back even if I don’t have a full hour for lunch,
is the mussels ($15), which are amazingly fresh and are served
in a vibrant broth of coconut and green mango curry (this
may have changed; I seem to recall coconut with lemongrass
and ginger, but I’ll bet they’re just as good either way).
Without shame, I’ve poured this heady broth down my throat
the way a desert nomad, wandering for days, would quaff his
first ladle of well water.
As mentioned, there are many very good wines to be had at
the Brown Derby, and I particularly like that the bar features
solid wines by the glass, all very good values in the $7-to-$9
range. Desserts (all $9), like a butterscotch caramel budino
(think upscale pudding) and zabaglione gelato panino, are
lavish, their execution near flawless. I like to think that
I’ll take the time to go there some evening just for such
an intense dessert and perhaps a glass of champagne, but so
far, I’ve been too full to even consider the options.
Parking is a little tricky, which can be a problem especially
at lunchtime, but the Brown Derby is more than worth the effort
it might take you to get there. It’s a lovely addition to
what we hope is a burgeoning downtown arts and entertainment
scene, and with the beginner’s glitches worked out, another
excellent and dependable choice for a culinary night out in
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
a taste of historic food, historic drama and a
freshly crafted (but historically inspired) beer
when the New Old American Company previews The
Poor Soldier (George Washington’s favorite
operetta) with food from Troy’s The Irish Mist
and Poor Soldier Porter created by C.H.
Evans brewmaster George de Piro. Wet your
whistle as you whet your appetite for vintage
musical comedy at 7 PM, Jan. 15, at the Arts Center
of the Capital Region in Troy. Tickets are $30
and seating is limited, so call 377-3623 for more
info and reservations. . . . Book now for a final
dinner at JT Bakers “New Cuisine” (27 Main
St., Greenwich). Chef Jason Baker ruefully announced
that the place will close on Feb. 21, when he
starts a new position in the kitchen of The
Inn at Erlowest on Lake George. “We would
like to thank everyone who has supported us and
our business,” writes Baker, “and hope we can
look forward to seeing a lot of familiar faces
in the next month and then to follow us to the
Inn.” Call 531-2000 for that last reservation.
. . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.