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The Stars are on the Plates

By Laura Leon

Hollywood Brown Derby

22 Clinton Ave., Albany, 463-1945. Serving lunch 11-2 Mon-Fri, dinner 5-10 Mon-Sat, closed Sunday. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: regional American

Entrée price range: $18 (cappelini with pancetta, oven-roasted tomato, garlic and oil) to $64 (tempura lobster with prime New York strip)

Ambiance: modern art deco

Yes, 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 morning.

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 food’s limitations.

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 undervalued meat.

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 sausage ($10).

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 Albany.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Grab 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.



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