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Martin Benjamin

Look Homeward, Kristel’s
By B.A. Nilsson

The Olde Kristel’s Inn

654 Saratoga Road, Burnt Hills, 399-7398. Serving lunch
Mon-Sat 11-4, dinner Mon-Sat 4-9, Sun 3-8. Brunch buffet Sunday 8-2.
AE, D, DC, MC, V.

Food: ****
Service: Friendly
Ambience: Old World

By B.A. Nilsson

When Bill Clark reopened this long-standing restaurant in February, it was, as he puts it, the culmination of “chasing a dream”, he says. I was born and raised here. My father owned Cornell’s in Schenectady, and I always wanted to have a place here, too.”

Clark was executive chef for three Florida country clubs when he was told that the Burnt Hills property was available, and he had no trouble deciding to make the move. His uncle, Ray Crofts, ran Kristel’s Inn for 20 years beginning in 1977 and established a loyal customer base.

The business changed hands for five years before Clark took it over, but now that he’s running the operation, he’s brought back a lot of the items and traditions that customers associated with his uncle.

For example, you’re served a basket of warm rolls and corn bread soon after you sit down, and you get a crock of baked beans and a crock of warm applesauce, as well.

Beans and applesauce are best known out of their respective cans, but if that’s the provenance of Kristel’s version, the foods have been dressed up enough (and tastefully so) to hide it. Beans were warm, with more than the usual amount of meat mingled within. The applesauce had a cinnamon tang, so the two complemented one another nicely.

It was good settling-in food for us, because my family’s visit began with a tour of the grounds (soon to receive their summer landscaping), following the path that takes you to a picturesque waterfall.

This was during a recent weeknight, when we found the dining room very uncrowded, so we took a table with a nice window view. The menu, newly designed by Clark, has enough old favorites to seem familiar to former customers.

Susan’s appetizer, corn chowder ($3), shared the flavor of cream and corn with the smokiness of bacon. The thick brew was almost stewlike, and would make a rugged meal in itself. The portion is therefore suitably small.

Although my 5-year-old daughter is a fan of shrimp, she’s never had the traditional shrimp cocktail. Because she was still feeling unsettled from having nap-wakened at the restaurant, I portrayed this as an exotic, costly dish not usually offered to kids—and she demanded a portion. It does weigh in at $9, but you get a half-dozen fat shrimp arrayed on the rim of a decorative serving glass filled with the traditional cocktail sauce. This she polished off with nominal help from mom and dad.

Nobody wanted to help with my appetizer. My wife normally is a liver fan, but she was afraid of killing too much of her appetite. Sherried chicken livers are listed at $4, but I learned after ordering them that no such livers were on hand that evening. “Chef would be happy to make an appetizer for you with calf’s liver,” our server said, which sounded fine.

What I was served probably derived from the liver-and-onions entrée ($12), reduced in size but still redolent of sherry, under a thick sauce. It was on the rare side, as I requested, but suffered from a few tough spots. Great flavor, though.

The entrée list is headed by one of the restaurant’s old, old traditions: Ray Crofts’ chicken and biscuits ($10). “People love that dish,” says Clark, “and Ray has a very definite recipe, right down to where you buy the chickens.” We considered it, with distracting temptations from Chef William’s meatloaf ($11) and roast turkey with sausage stuffing ($12).

But I settled on chicken cordon bleu ($14), a classic whose origins I’ve been unable to trace. Of the many cookbooks I thought might yield a clue, only The Joy of Cooking offered a recipe; an Internet search also revealed no history but lots of recipe variations, among them preparing the ham-and-cheese-stuffed dish in a casserole, crockpot, pizza, sandwich, stromboli, with pierogies, pineapple and coated with cornflakes.

Clark hews to tradition, with the added touch of a hollandaise sauce topping the chicken. And he cuts and presents it with lots of eye appeal. The chicken is cut on a bias so that it can be served upright and describe some fancy angles.

Susan’s entrée, seafood strudel ($14), put a nifty spin on the casserole idea. It’s a phyllo-wrapped mixture of baby shrimp, haddock and surimi (an artificial crabmeat made from Alaskan pollock and flavored with crab extract), softened with cream cheese. A traditional Newburg sauce adds buttery sweetness.

Both entrées were served with sautéed squash and your potato choice. Hers was potato hash, made with grated spuds with added cheese and cream; I chose the sausage stuffing, a unique option (and, again, very traditional, the flavor of sage predominant) that further underscores the down-home flavor of this restaurant.

Pastry chef John Florence used to run the Pastry Pantry on Schenectady’s Union Street; here he offers a selection of desserts from which we chose the Toll House pie, and they don’t come much richer than this.

Dinner for two with extra appetizer, wine, dessert, tax and tip was $74.

TABLE SCRAPS

Celebrate spring (if there’s any left) with a special dinner at Nicole’s Bistro (Clinton Avenue and Broadway, Albany) that includes an international array of wines at 6 PM Thursday, April 25. Guest speaker Joe Carr of Beringer Blass Estates will talk about the wine selections, among which will be Beringer’s Knight Valley Alluvium Blanc, Wolf Blass Black Label Reserve and a Greg Norman Reserve Sparkling Wine. Chef Daniel E. Smith has put together a menu that includes smoked trout and salmon rillettes, grilled pencil asparagus with foie gras ravioli and charred loin of spring lamb with barley risotto. Dinner is $59 per person (exclusive of tax and tip), and you can reserve seats by calling the restaurant at 465-1111. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.

—B.A.N.

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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