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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

The Big Easy Ballston Spa

By B.A. Nilsson

 

51 Front Wine Bar and Bistro

51 Front St., Ballston Spa, 727-2089. Serving lunch 11-3 Mon-Fri, dinner 5-closing Mon-Sat. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: innovative American

Entrée price range: $16 (fried chicken) to $24 (New York strip)

Ambiance: very comfortable

Get a few chefs together, and you’ll learn how to better the restaurant business. In the case of Scott and Carolyn Frances, who have independently helmed kitchens at a variety of places, a get-together with friends prompted an inspiring dream of what kind of place the duo jointly could run. And wouldn’t it be nice if it were in Ballston Spa, where they live?

“It happened at the time that I heard about a building that was being renovated,” says Carolyn, “and I called the owner, who was very interested in having a restaurant come in.”

After eight months of work, including a complete redesign of what had been a consignment shop, the two opened 51 Front Wine Bar and Bistro, with the aim of providing excellent, affordable food with a wine list to match.

They tried to look at it from the point of view of consumers, which led me to ask: How do people make those dining-out decisions? In my house, the first consideration always, always is price. We have evolved a complicated formula over the years that enables us to set a budget for such meals, which we then ignore with bursts of extravagance. “We can’t afford anything more costly than (such-and-such),” my wife will say. “True,” say I, “But don’t we deserve a meal at (so-and-so) tonight?” Thus does our MasterCard tremble.

Next comes cuisine. Representative entrées from meals gone by are suggested. For me, cuisine trumps ambiance, but I do enjoy the pleasant feeling of a well-appointed dining room. That’s why the room at 51 Front was a delight to discover. In fact, it took me by surprise. Ballston Spa struggles to maintain its own quirky identity, even as Saratoga threatens to subsume it, so there’s a mix of small-town rusticity with unexpected sophistication.

Front Street itself is a pleasant, old-fashioned village thoroughfare with an array of shops struggling to remind us of the pre-mall environment. The restaurant’s facade is austere enough to suggest austerity inside, but that’s not at all the case. Thanks to Scott’s skillful work in moving walls and dressing the place, the inside is cozy and handsome, a very comfortable place in which to spend some quality dining time.

Not surprisingly, this artfulness spreads to the menu, where 10 entrées are enough to show the chef’s wide-ranging taste and versatility. He draws much inspiration from time spent cooking in New Orleans. “He loved it there,” says Carolyn. “He loved everything about that city. But the third time he was mugged, he said, ‘That’s it,’ and packed his car and drove home.” He brought with him the temerity to term one entrée “The best fried chicken you have ever had anywhere, ever,” and it was a provocative enough declaration to persuade my wife to order it.

It certainly has New Orleans written all over it, given that the $16 dish is lusciously, lovingly fried, with a seemingly nonstop depth of crispiness. You’ll also find that heritage in the crawfish-and-smoked-sausage cheesecake ($9), which has a brown butter sauce built on a dark, gumbo-like roux that sparkles with gentle spiciness. The cheesecake itself is a terrific vehicle for its components, something that’s not always the case in this savory twist on a sweet treat. Sausage and crawfish do well enough in their own duet, but the enhanced context adds a nice richness.

The plate is decorated with a small serving of salad, finished with a tangy house dressing. It’s good reason to order the $6 appetizer of salad alone, which puts fresh baby greens in a mix of tomatoes, cucumbers, croutons and more.

Other salads—the menu is all a la carte—include traditional Greek ($9), roasted fennel and goat cheese with a citrus and caper vinaigrette ($9), and a classic Caesar ($8). Other appetizers include brown butter BBQ shrimp with three-cheese polenta ($10), wild mushroom ravioli ($9), baked brie in phyllo with apricot preserves and toasted almonds ($9), and a sherried lobster bisque ($7). One of the appetizer specials we sampled was a root vegetable hash (beets, turnips, carrots), with a deliciously dark flavor, topped with grilled shrimp ($10).

You won’t be surprised to find blackened catfish on the entrée list ($18), but there’s also an Asian influence in a dish like grilled breast of duck with a hoisin teriyaki glaze and jasmine rice ($20). Grilled salmon is served with braised fennel ($19), and crab-encrusted grouper is finished with a lobster cream sauce ($22).

I enjoyed a generous (14-ounce) pork chop given a prosciutto wrapping and finished with a mix of charred tomatoes and fresh basil ($23), while my daughter went all traditional with a New York strip steak ($24), beautifully grilled and dripping with a compound butter, served between creamed spinach and fried onions. Spectacular. All of the plates were finished with excellent mashed potatoes and a crisp string bean sautée.

Carolyn oversees a floor that works as a well-oiled machine, a personable team of knowledgeable servers who helped make the dinner a joy. And so we lingered, indulging ourselves with a traditional crème brûlée ($7) and flourless chocolate cake, absorbing a few more pleasant moments of relaxation before slipping back into the night.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Take an armchair tour of France and Italy through a wine and cheese tasting at 6 PM tomorrow (Friday, May 8) in the Fennimore Room at Proctors Theater in Schenectady. Eight wines—four apiece from each of the two countries—will be introduced by Todd Yutzler of Delaware Plaza Wine and Liquor; the cheeses, similarly distributed geographically, will have Honest Weight Food Co-op’s Elizabeth Woodbury Kasius to speak about them, with much emphasis on pairing food and wine. And you’ll get a beautifully etched wine glass for your tasting to take home as a memento. This is a benefit for the Language Learning Institute, where the French and Italian languages are specialties, and a silent auction will be held to raise money for the Institute’s scholarship fund. Tickets are $45 in advance and $50 at the door; call 346-7096 or visit languagelearninginstitute.com. . . . Don’t know much about art, but you know what you like? Ever think of a painting as good enough to eat? Chefs Michael Hinrichs and Jason Baker present a Jackson Pollock Dinner at the Inn at Erlowest (3178 Lake Shore Drive, Lake George) on May 29, serving food that will be plated to echo themes of his greatest works. Not only that, but the food also will be paired with beverages from some of New York’s best microbreweries as well as wine from the Adirondack Winery. The property is beautiful, so you might want to see about staying over. Call 668-5928 for more info. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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