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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Masterly

By B.A. Nilsson

Dale Miller

30 S. Pearl St., Albany, 694-3322. Serving lunch 11:30-4:30 Mon-Fri, dinner 5-10 Mon-Sat. AE, D, MC, V

Cuisine: American gourmet

Entrée price range: $15 (miso-glazed salmon, European portion) to $30 (rack of lamb, American portion)

Ambiance: understated elegance

He learned to bake when he was 5 and was catering parties before he’d achieved double digits. Dale Miller discovered his affinity for food—design, preparation, service (the gamut)—early enough that he’s still a young man, even as he enjoys the status as one of 61 Certified Master Chefs in the country, a notoriously difficult level to achieve.

“Growing up in Montgomery County helped,” he says. He’s a native of Tribes Hill, a tiny community on the Mohawk River west of Amsterdam. “Part of the certification process was a mystery box meal, and one of the components was fiddlehead ferns. I grew up with fiddleheads, and knew that you have to wash them thoroughly. The fellow beside me was disqualified because he left grit in his ferns.”

His professional journey has taken him from the Stone Ends in Delmar to Albany’s famed Jack’s Oyster House, where he spent several years, then to the Inn at Erlowest in Lake George. But he jumped at the chance to return to Albany’s downtown. And why not do it in an eponymous way?

Albany’s State Street/Pearl Street area is architecturally uninspiring, and the approach to the arena mixes a startling variety of buildings. But you approach the restaurant through the subdued lobby of Omni Plaza, so you’re already a little calmed when you swing open the welcome-to-Oz-like door. Inside is a careful array of earth tones and curves, high-ceilinged rooms that nevertheless encourage hushed conversation, and abstract wall decorations that give comfort through color and shape. It seems of another era, but that may be more of a psychological effect. It’s an effect that’s shattered when the first cell phone goes off and the first self-involved jerk at a nearby table launches into too-loud chatter. But that’s not the restaurant’s fault, and, of course, cell phone jammers are illegal. (But available.)

The sommelier will chat with you. Your server is delighted to go over the menu. You’re a guest at a lavish party where the host really does make sure your sense of well-being is soothed.

Be as careful or extravagant as you like when assembling your meal. The latter most certainly would be a trip through the Discovery Menu, a $90-per-person extravaganza (it must be ordered by the entire table) that takes you through eight courses and a breathtaking array of preparations. One such menu featured a first course (but ordinarily your post-amuse second) of Champagne-poached oysters with a lobster-and-brie frittata and a caviar dollop, pan-roasted foie-stuffed quail with a strawberry fig glaze and a choice of pan-seared strawberry grouper filet or charmoula-crusted rack of lamb.

But why not ease into the starters? First impressions, they say, are important, and there’s a so-headed column that kicks off the carte du jour. The night we visited, it ranged from crisp calamari with lemon pepper yogurt, to salmon cake with lotus chips, to pan-seared foie gras with a vanilla-poached pear, each priced from $9 to $16.

You could almost study the plate itself under my serving of beef carpaccio ($11), so translucent was the meat. It curled on the fork like a paste, bringing with it the Mediterranean flavors of the truffle oil and capers that accompanied the meat, slices of Reggiano cheese balancing the flavor. Lobster bisque ($10) was dark, nutty, tangy with lime and jalapeño, served (poured at tableside) over a light, tasty dumpling.

Even smaller plates are the mosaics, which are priced from $4 to $7 and encourage you to combine the treats. So my wife chose an array of three vegetable preparations: fried egg-battered asparagus, Asian veggie rolls in ponzu sauce, and a grilled “vegetable tapestry,” layered like little Napoleons. Each was its own intricate masterpiece; together, they found flavors I never thought to associate with the garden.

A further example of Miller’s inventiveness was shown in a course he sent out as a surprise: a tomato-based medley that put a small serving of cold sherry-laced gazpacho alongside tomato slices, with fresh mozzarella and an espresso cup of rich, hot tomato soup, topped with cappuccino-style froth. Such a wide-ranging journey with that ubiquitous fruit!

This is also the first time I’ve seen a mojito shooter as a menu item, but, as it accompanied a single, fat, salsa-enhanced shrimp, I’m glad I tried it ($7).

Many of the main plates are offered in American or European portion sizes, and we ordered the latter where possible without feeling the least unfulfilled. Yes, I’ve celebrated great hulking portions in reviews past, but I’m paying the poundage price.

Not much you can do to reduce the porterhouse-cut pork chop ($24), but I did take most of it home. A simple preparation, it was perfectly cooked, served with a peppery apple glaze, accompanied with rosemary-enhanced roasted potatoes. I already knew that Miller likes scallops, and you can count on a good presentation, so the pan-caramelized version here ($26/$16) fulfilled, even exceeded our expectations. A gremolata of pine nuts was the novel accompaniment, and, as if it needed more, there were eggplant-and-artichoke-stuffed ravioli.

Of course, the favorite meatstuffs are here—salmon, lobster, beef, beef, beef. But espresso-seared duck breast ($30/$18) sounded so contradictory that my daughter, a contrarian-in-training herself, chose it as an entrée. The coffee flavor was subtle and well-blended, set off by the lemon-shallot sauce. Alongside was a pilaf of farro, that spelt-like granddaddy of all grains.

And the fellow who started baking at age 5 is still doing so, offering desserts like a warm chocolate tart with chocolate malt ice cream and a cherry port compote that now has become my kid’s dream dessert, not to mention a hazelnut-filled brioche with coffee-praline ice cream, and a banana cake and coconut flan with banana sorbet and warm caramel bananas ($8 each).

The menu changes daily, although many courses recur. You can’t help but find something to intrigue and delight your palate, and you’ll enjoy it in a space that whispers contentment.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

The Mill on Round Lake (2121 Route 9, Round Lake) has unveiled its newly renovated outdoor bar and fire pit, and if that’s not enough to persuade you to spend some al fresco hours here, there’s also a new bocce ball court. The indoor portion also has seen improvement, with the addition of another dining room, fireplace, more restrooms, and an expanded warm-weather menu soon to come. Call 899-5253 for more info. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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