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Photo B.A. Nilsson

Star Quality

By B.A. Nilsson

New World Bistro Bar

300 Delaware Ave., Albany, 694-0520. Serving dinner 5-9 Sun-Thu, 5-11 Fri-Sat; brunch 10-2 Sun; tapas 3-5 Sun. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: “global comfort food”

Entrée price range: $8 (tomato flatbread pizza) to $26 (Big Yucatan Fishbowl)

Ambiance: casual and comfortable

A talented, creative artist develops a style. The first moments of a Chopin piece reveal the composer’s signature; a story by J.P. Donleavy could have been written by nobody else. So it is with Ric Orlando’s cooking. Not content merely to explore existing cuisines, he developed a recognizable style, not only in the fusion of flavors and ingredients, but also in the way the plate is dressed and presented and the menu is designed.

After a successful 15 years running New World Home Cooking Co. in the Saugerties area—to which he decamped after gaining renown locally at Justin’s—Orlando returned to Albany a year and a half ago to open New World Bistro Bar on Delaware Avenue, not far from the Spectrum 8 Theatres. No coincidence there: His partners in the restaurant are Annette Nanes and Scott Meyer, two of the theater’s co-owners.

Orlando has helped lead the trend away from formal, course-sequenced dining, offering dishes large and small, hot and cold, at a range of prices that allow you to nibble an appetizer tapas-style, or indulge in a gustatory bacchanalia of comestibles exotic and familiar.

Familiars include beef, and the Latino steak frites ($24) features a 12-ounce strip steak from a grass-fed, grain-finished critter, served with steak fries. It veers into the exotic by way of broccoli rabe, leading to chimichurri (a piquant green sauce featuring parsley and garlic) and banana ketchup, which is a surprisingly pleasing variant on the bottled red stuff.

My sister, a taxidermist who lives and works in the Chicago suburbs, was visiting. She has a far doughtier palate than mine, having dined on muskrat and bear, so I figured she’d be better served by this restaurant than my cooking. She considered the steak. She had her doubts. “It can be really bad,” she noted.

“Not here,” I promised, hoping like hell I’d be right.

She declared it the best steak she’d ever eaten in a restaurant. Whatever other context she had in mind probably involved a campfire. I didn’t ask.

What made the steak so good is Orlando’s not-so-secret primary secret: getting the best ingredients. He’s always been well-in-tune with what’s available locally, but even the harder-to-find stuff is carefully selected. “There are a lot of choices of sustainable meat and seafood,” he says. “So I can be picky about what I bring in.”

Orlando shuttles between his two restaurants, although he spent more warm-season time overseeing the catering operation tied to the Saugerties unit. The personality that informs the food down there also extends to the floor, where the staff is welcoming, friendly and a little quirky. Individuals, in other words, are en couraged to ex press that individuality in service of the meal. It’s a good sign that this also informs the Albany location, although during my recent visit, on a Monday eve ning, the service seemed comparatively colorless and perfunctory—which is only to say that it was on a par with what I expect from other area eateries, and not as joyful as that experienced during earlier Bistro Bar visits.

“Mondays are tough,” Orlando says. “We’ve just come off the weekend, and it’s often a slow night, so it’s hard to kindle that spark. But, really, there’s no excuse.” He sounds distressed, so I veer away from the subject, lest I should provoke a staff-meeting tirade.

Monday is also not much of a night for specials, he notes, but my visits are infrequent enough to give the regular menu great appeal. New World recently changed to a fall menu with a heartier theme well worth exploring.

Old favorites like jerk chicken ($21) and ropa vieja ($21) endure, as they should. Look also for hemp-nut-crusted salmon ($25) with Hudson Valley corn pudding, and, in the “forbidden pleasures” section, sautéed sweetbreads ($9) and roasted beef marrow bones ($8). Vegetarian choices are abundant, like the popular Tandoori tofu ($19), which may be the best thing ever to happen to that benighted curd.

Whither the gluten wrenched from all that gluten-free fare drugging the market? I have a whimsical picture of seitan trucks taking on cargo. Seitan is often offered as a meatless substitute, served in the style of that for which it’s standing in.

Blue-corn-sautéed seitan medallions ($19) are served with tomatillo salsa, black beans and brown rice, and it proved a tasty dish, lacking only a more handsome on-the-plate look. The combo of papardelle with Panang Bolognese ($14/$19), whimsically named “Thai- Italian Love,” pretty much presents itself—a bowl of pasta—with a truly Orlando-defining flavor mix. And my entrée also was a signature dish: the brined and barbecued pork chop ($23), which I ordered with a blistering habanero-based dirty-blonde sauce that nevertheless presented a balanced mix of components.

From the tapas list, we sampled a $13 sampler that puts an array of olives, dates, mushrooms (truffle scented!) and beet salad across a serving board that also sports a baba ganouj variant. And even if you’re not a huge fan of anchovies, the $5 plate of an array of white anchovies may persuade you into that camp with their more delicate, less salty aspect.

But the foregoing probably is moot: New World Bistro Bar has established itself nicely in a fairly short time. “The numbers have been fantastic,” Orlando says, “and we already have a loyal customer base that keeps us going through the slow times.” He’ll be spending more time at the Albany location during the winter months, but celebrity seems to be overtaking him. He recently won a prestigious Santé magazine award as well as a Food Network cook-off, and he’s working to develop a Food Network project. So look for him while you can, but be assured that his unique restaurants will continue to pursue his vision.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

New World Bistro Bar (300 Delaware Ave., Albany) was one of only 16 restaurants in the United States to win a 2010 Santé Restaurant Award in the Innovative Food category. The 13-year-old Santé Awards program is the only peer-judged national restaurant competition in North America. Chef consultant Ric Orlando previously won a Santé Award in 2006 at his Saugerties restaurant, New World Home Cooking. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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