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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Third Time’s the Charm

By B.A. Nilsson

The Van Dyck

237 Union St., Schenectady, 348-7999. Serving 11:30-10 Mon-Thu, 11:30-11 Fri, 5-11 Sat. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: easygoing American

Entrée price range: $7 (mozzarella panini) to $17 (steak frites)

Ambiance: upscale pub

Call it a ghost story. The restaurant rose from the dead. It was a murder victim, in fact, strangled by gothically bad management, a fate made all the more bitter by the Van Dyck’s legendary heritage. This was a place where Thelonious Monk performed. As a down-the-street neighbor in the ’80s, I saw Earl Hines here, as well as Tal Farlow and Red Norvo, but the place lost its founder, Marvin Friedman, and soon went dark.

It reopened on its own 50th anniversary in 1997, with a compelling reworking of the interior that moved the jazz room upstairs, but the aforementioned bad management made it a revolving door for chefs and managers. The second incarnation lasted barely a decade.

Once again, the place is open—as of late June, in fact. Again, the interior has been reworked, this time losing its intrusive center-hall staircase to a more sensible location. Dining areas have been enlarged. We’re even promised that the brewery will reopen soon, providing the restaurant once again with handcrafted beer.

Its new owners are putting together a bit of a dining empire for themselves. Cousins Jeff, Bill and Mike McDonald are part of a family of longtime Schenectady residents who now own and run Pinhead Susan’s and, just down Union Street from the Van Dyck, the Stockade Inn. Although I’d like to think of the Van Dyck as a fine-dining destination, I think the McDonalds got it right. The menu mixes pub fare with a few evening-only entrées, and allows you to enjoy a reasonably priced meal in very comfortable surroundings. It’s perfect if you have a nearby event to get to, and that’s precisely the strategy my family employed on a recent visit.

A prompt greeting means everything in a spacious place like this. Schenectady’s Stockade area wears its autumn colors well, and this was the kind of day when it’s pleasant to linger on the sidewalks. We were given the option of continuing to enjoy the outdoors with seats at a table in the backyard patio, but decided not to challenge a hatchet-faced grande dame seated out there with what seemed like a handful of cigarettes going.

We were happy enough at an indoor table, especially when I noticed that the old, scarred tables by the fireplace had been replaced with nicer models. We ordered drinks. We considered the brief menu: a well-chosen array put together by the owners in collaboration with Van Dyck chef Scott Carlton and Stockade Inn chef Doug DeMarco. Our server couldn’t have been more cheery and helpful. More on that in a moment.

Appetizers are such in name only; you could easily make a meal of one of them. Well, the $4 soup is only a cup, but if it’s along the lines of the unexpectedly delicious cream of mushroom we sampled, it’ll stay with you. Otherwise, the apps run $7 to $12, including a trio of dips with chips, Buffalo wings, beef satay, mozzarella sticks and homemade pigs in a blanket. One of the $12 items is a big portobello mushroom cap over a mound of good crabmeat, finished with melted cheese and, just to drive it all home, a butter sauce.

Salads also range from the simple to complex, the latter end including a $9 cobb, $11 teriyaki beef array, and a Caesar ($7) available with grilled chicken ($9) or grilled shrimp ($11).

I regret that we didn’t sample the pizza. We saw a couple of the personal-sized pies go by, to be perched on fancy high-rise holders so as not to dominate table space. They range from a simple tomato topping ($8) to a $15 lobster-and-tomato array, with most (sausage and pepperoni, Buffalo chicken, four cheeses and prosciutto, goat cheese among them) in the $10 range.

The (mostly) $9 panini list includes fillings of chicken, roast beef or smoked turkey, as well as mortadella and fontina or prosciutto and peppers.

On the sandwich end are some of the same, along with one featuring tilapia ($9) or a crab cake ($12). The grilled chicken ($9) also includes ham and gruyere, stacked with the right proportion of veggies and honey- mustard to keep it flavorful and moist.

And the Signature Burger ($9) sports a large patty of charcoal-grilled beef, topped with mozzarella and pancetta, and excellently finished with caramelized onions. The accompanying fries were top-notch.

After 5 PM, a half-dozen more complicated entrées are offered, including veal scallopine, steak frites, grilled salmon, and beef short ribs (all $16 to $17). We sampled the barbecued pork tenderloin, which was good of its kind, given a nice accompaniment of a chipotle-enhanced sauce and sweet potato fries.

As I noshed away, enjoying myself, I understood that part of my pleasure was in the realization that my sex appeal had kicked in. Oh, sure, you easily could see me as the middle-aged fat guy of cliché, and it’s true I had to be at least 30 years older than our waitress. But the way that she made eye contact with me and smiled let me know that my inner Casanova was shining through.

Didn’t she place a gentle hand on my shoulder to emphasize a point? Didn’t she lean in so our eyes were at a level as she recited the dessert list? Of course, and that’s when my inner reality mechanism took over with the reminder that this was, in fact, right out of classic server training—proven techniques to garner generous tips.

I passed on dessert, but I tipped more than 20 percent.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Halloween is just the prelude to All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, celebrated in Mexico as El Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead—an upbeat holiday in which departed loved ones are expected to visit their still-quick relatives, who honor the dead with an altar and special offerings. El Loco Mexican Café (465 Madison Ave., Albany) holds its fourth annual observance of the Day of the Dead with a traditional celebration from 4:40 to 9:30 PM on Sunday (Nov. 1). The altar will be decorated with sugar skulls, flowers, candles, and pictures and other mementos of the departed. Guests are invited to bring photos or other objects meant to honor their deceased loved ones (pets included); also honored will be those in the public eye who passed away in the last year. And there’s a culinary incentive: All who bring something to share at the altar will receive a complimentary piece of pumpkin-pecan cheesecake. More info: 436-1855. Web site: ellocomexicancafe.com. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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