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Joe Putrock

Brewed to Distinction
By B.A. Nilsson

Malt River Brewing Company
Latham Circle Mall, Latham,

Serving Sun-Mon 11:30-9:30,
Tue-Thu 11:30-11, Fri-Sat noon-midnight.
AE, D, DC, MC, V.

Food: ***½
Service: Brisk
Ambience: Publike

With a new chef and an old brewmaster, Malt River Brewing Co. continues to flourish at its unlikely perch in the Latham Circle Mall. In the six years since Malt River opened, a bunch of chain-restaurant outlets have landed in the neighborhood like alien spacecraft, and Malt River has as its bumptious neighbor one of those buffet emporia that drives the RV set into a feeding frenzy.

Fortunately, Malt River is different. You can dine near the bar, where a row of booths is offset by a divider. There also are two dining areas flanking the bar. A list of menu specials greets you at the door; the beer list (beers are concocted on the premises) is written on chalkboards, one of which will be in sight of your table.

During a recent weeknight visit, my guests were two theatrical friends, Steven and Libby. Scott, our server, knew his menu, knew the beers and knew how to put up with our uncertainty. He started me out with an IPA (India Pale Ale), the recent batch of which was brewed with a slightly-higher-than-usual alcohol content; it was appropriately smooth and hearty. With Steven’s taste running more toward the English bitter style, he enjoyed an Olde Albany Pale Ale. Pints were $3.50 apiece.

The aforementioned “old” brewmaster isn’t elderly, just returned. Gary “Goose” Gossel was here when Malt River opened, at that time a recent veteran of the Boston Beer Works, the third largest brewpub in the country. He’s back now after some excursions to other breweries.

Owner Marc Weiss also has a new chef in place: Timothy Waddell, who’s been there since November and whose work has included some local kitchens as well as a stint at a North Carolina brewpub.

Not long ago, Malt River won a chili competition for spiciest brew, their secret the generous use of fresh habanero peppers. So I ordered a crock of the Texas Red ($4.25) and asked that it be fiery. It was. In fact, it was up there with the spiciest regular-menu items I’ve been served in the Capital Region. Which meant that, for me, it was terrifically satisfying. The chili boasts tender chunks of meat in a rich, sweet sauce.

My friends grew concerned, however, when they noticed the perspiration coursing down my face. I assured them it was a sign of happiness. Steven is a chicken-wings fan, so he started with the Thai peanut wings ($7), a generous platter of meaty wings, grilled and served with the classic peanut sauce—and he pronounced himself quite satisfied. Good beer companion, too, those wings.

Libby’s French onion soup ($4.25) reflects the classic preparation but uses red onions; the gooey topping of melted Swiss cheese seemed to have a mind of its own as she tried to tame it onto fork or spoon.

House salads are served with entrées, and we had no complaints on that course. I know mine certainly was useful to tame my palate after the chili.

By the time my salmon arrived, the numbness had subsided. Yucatan seared salmon ($15) sports a smoked habanero and mango-citrus cream sauce, but I can assure you that the sauce, while appropriately sweet, is so mildly spiced as to seem comparatively unobtrusive—but it served its purpose well. You don’t need much with salmon. I like mine cooked just enough to leave the outside firm and the inside creamy; this had gone beyond that, but that’s the standard approach for a dish usually considered the chow of oldsters.

Steven’s order of grilled Cuban pork tenderloin ($15) featured a nice cut of meat—good-sized, too—that had a light marinade with the appropriate seasonings. Again, nothing too spicy, but a welcome relief from the standard pork-with-fruit combo. Like the salmon, it was served with rice and also featured a serving of refried black beans.

Libby finished her meal with a salad, the Malt Riverside greens ($3.25), which is a magnified house salad and as such is a good-sized portion that is only as good as the component greens, which in this case had an admirable freshness.

And so for over an hour we forgot about work, forgot we were in a mall and enjoyed the pleasant surroundings, a blazing fireplace helping to maintain the mood of retreat. And it’s going to get even more comfortable, according to Weiss. “We want to work things to be a little lighter, both in food and in ambience. The menu has gotten too guy- oriented in the past, too heavy. We’re changing that. It’s going to be more health- conscious. There will still be items with strong flavors, but also things that are more subtle. We’ve got a Gold’s Gym going in across the hall, so I want to be ready for that.”

Dinner for three, with tax and tip and a couple of beers, was $76.

Metroland restaurant reviews are based on one unannounced visit; your experience may differ.

Food Rating Key: ***** An exciting, fulfilling experience; the food and service are everything they set out to be. Brillat-Savarin would be proud. **** Way up there with really good food, definitely worth your dining dollar. Julia Child would be proud. *** Average, with hints of excitement. Your mother would be pleased. ** A dining-out bogey; food probably isn’t the first priority. Colonel Sanders would be disappointed. * K-rations posing as comestibles. Your dog would be disgusted.

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