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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Old Times Are New Again

By B.A. Nilsson

Other silver diners cling to menus guaranteed to keep the mean age of the clientele in the low three figures. Quintessence long ago understood that thriving in downtown Albany required a more freewheeling approach. Jimmy Scalzo opened the place in 1982, doing the impossible by offering a panoply of offerings that shifted with the time of day. Twelve hours after enjoying an easygoing lunch, you could return (or remain, I suppose) to a wall-busting dance floor.

This formula held up well until just a few years ago, when the steel-and-chrome, neon-accented building was shuttered. It reopened last August after the restaurant was sold to two former patrons. Joseph Zappone and Patrick Fiore were Albany Law students when they made Quintessence a regular stop. As owners, they see it positioned as a revitalization point of the neighborhood. Their refurbishment was shrewd, maintaining and, in some cases, improving on the original while being fiercely loyal to its longtime look and feel.

Noting the success of the several Inferno restaurants in the area, they tapped Nick and Gennaro Riggione, from the Inferno family, to actually operate the place, with Gennaro in the kitchen and his brother supervising the floor.

I visited with my family for dinner a few evenings ago, grumbling about the challenge of parking on that stretch of New Scotland Avenue, and discovered not only a nearby space, but also a free valet parking service now offered by the restaurant. Kind of a cosmic “so there!”

There’s a sentimental attachment at work here, too. My first visit took place on July 1, 1983, the day my then-wife chose to underscore her unhappiness with our marriage by moving out. My response was to schedule a date for that evening, forgetting that I had also lost access to the car. I soured what could have been a pleasant encounter by talking obsessively about my failed marriage, going on so long that I missed the last bus from Albany to my home in Schenectady. But I had a neighbor, radio personality Ellen McKinnon, who was a DJ at Quintessence, and there I went to beg a ride home. To call it fortuitous is to put it lightly—you’d otherwise never have found stodgy me anywhere near such a raucous scene.

I hid from it in the kitchen, where Ellen was installed, and around 2:30 in the morning I met a young woman named Susan, a friend of a friend of a friend, herself just back from an Eric Clapton concert. Two years later we married.

“Don’t remind me that that was 27 years ago,” said Susan, as we were seated at one of the tables toward the back of the building. A row of mahogany booths lines the length of the place, across from a long bar with classic swivel stools.

The menu, too, is familiar. A collection of time-honored breakfast items (served until 2)—three-egg omelets, pancakes, waffles, homemade corned beef hash, fruit, granola—cost from $7 to $10, with meat-based items like pork chops or sirloin or smoked salmon with eggs priced higher.

Most of the dinner items have lunch-portion pricing. Burgers are $9 or $10, club sandwiches $8 or $11. In the burger realm, a half-dozen varieties include toppings of Swiss cheese, mushrooms and bacon; barbecue sauce, bacon and American cheese; a Mexican burger with beans and avocado; and the Cajun burger, which we sampled, and which had a reasonably lively patty topped with provolone, served with a big pile of fries.

The turkey club was similarly familiar, the traditional four triangles of a thick, meat-rich, nicely dressed sandwich with its own mass of fries.

French onion soup ($5) is another regular offering, and again hews to tradition with a beefy broth clogged with onions and soggy croutons, topped by molten Gruyère.

Salad plates are a mix of romaine and leaf lettuce, with grilled or Cajun-style chicken or tuna in the mix ($7/$10). The Quintessential Salad ($9) adds a range of veggies with fontinella cheese, and a fruit and cheese plate ($11) is just that.

Chicken Pataki ($14) is another old friend, invented when the former governor was elected thanks to a Scalzo wisecrack that made it into The New York Times. It’s a blackened chicken breast with a three-bean sauce and melted Brie. Yipes. Good thing Spitzer wasn’t mentioned.

A number of teriyaki-enhanced dishes also have been longtime favorites. The sweetened soy marinade gives a bounce to any meat it encounters, provided they spend some time together, and Quintessence offers it with chicken, beef, shrimp or a combo ($14-$16). The chicken version I sampled was wrapped around a skewer of scallion and carrot, a clever and attractive idea, but the flavor had to compete with the dryness of the meat. The old classic side of spinach fettuccine is back, and welcome.

We saw plates of towering carrot cake go by but resisted the caloric call, this time at least. Other desserts are cheesecake and chocolate cake ($5 each).

Other favorite traditions also have returned, such as Wednesday’s German night and Sunday’s Mexican, and there are trivia contests on Mondays. A range of entertainment also figures throughout the week and weekend, and an up-to-date schedule is on the restaurant’s Web site.

Even without “Beat It” and “She Blinded Me With Science” blasting through the speaker system, it’s pleasantly nostalgic to revisit Quintessence. To have lost it forever would have been a shame. To have it back with so much of its tradition intact is a treat.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Schenectady Day Nursery’s 11th annual fundraising event, “A Little Bit of Jazz & More,” will take place from 5:30 to 8 today (Thursday, April 29) in the Fenimore Gallery at Proctors Theatre (432 State St., Schenectady). The “more” part of the proceedings includes a cornucopia of food, including a carving station with turkey breast and roast beef, a pasta station, an hors d’oeuvres display and, if you don’t want to fetch your food, circulating trays with even more hors d’oeuvres, including sesame chicken, a Mediterranean artichoke tart, shrimp Wellington, spanakopita and more. There will be complimentary beer and wine and Chocolates by Lindt. The jazz part is a performance by Colleen Pratt and Friends. The event includes a benefit drawing with a choice of a $500 gift card at either Town TV or Empress Travel, and gift baskets sponsored by the Schenectady Day Nursery Board of Directors. Reservations are $50 per person or $100 for honorary committee status, and may be made by calling Jim Kalohn at 894-6305. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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