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B.A. Nilsson

Springs of Renewal
By B.A. Nilsson

The American Hotel

Main Street, Sharon Springs, 284-2105.
Serving lunch Wed-Fri 11-2,
dinner Wed-Thu 5-8,
Fri-Sat 5-9, Sun 5-7;
brunch Sat-Sun 8-2.
AE, D, MC, V.

Food: ****
Service: Easygoing
Ambience: Handsome

We sat on the American Hotel’s wide veranda, enjoying cocktails as the sunset reddened a halo around the nearby buildings. It could have been a resort hotel anywhere you might find a warm, lilac-scented breeze, but it was in Sharon Springs, way out west on Route 20 where it’s crossed by Route 10.

Long known for its healing waters, the town of Sharon Springs enjoyed a postbellum boom that saw it crowded with 60 thriving hotels to accommodate the health-seeking downstate social elite. And then Saratoga Springs beckoned and loyalties shifted, although a core of devotees kept Sharon Springs alive through the 1950s. Then the Thruway delivered the coup de grâce. Thanks, Ike.

Neglected enough to keep many of its old buildings intact, the town won a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, but it remained a faded Miss Havisham of a village. Then revivification set in.

Doug Plummer and Garth Roberts quit the New York City rat race to open the Rockville Café and Bakery in Sharon Springs, which is why they were in place to buy the shabby American Hotel in 1996. “We just wanted to keep it from falling down,” says Plummer. “Then we got the insane idea to try to open it again.” To say that they refurbished it hardly does justice to its current handsomeness.

The American Hotel reopened a year ago, and now offers nine guest rooms as well as a 65-seat restaurant. We visited on a recent weeknight, expecting to have the place to ourselves, but it was a-bustle with guests, including a party of physicians there to hear a drug-company sales pitch.

That’s why we sat outside for a while. Not that we couldn’t have been seated—but who wants to eavesdrop on a dull litany of case studies and contraindications? I used to think that physicians were way too beholden to the drug companies, but now I understand differently.

Seeing the cadre of docs clustered around the drug detailer’s banquet table, two things became apparent: They were getting a good meal, which means they’ll work more happily; and the drug company was supporting this restaurant, helping to keep fine dining alive. The ever increasing price of my blood-pressure medication has some justification, then, and the cycle is completed when I overeat, remain fat, and keep that hypertension humming.

Soon we went in, took seats at a comfortable table and studied the concise menu. We went off service-sync briefly, watching as a more recently seated party got welcomed with bread and crudités. “But I’m hungry,” my daughter whined in her it’s-not-fair voice. And then our own arrived, and what a nice idea: biscuits topped with a buttery, maple-flavored spread; baby carrots and cauliflower florets left raw but dressed with a sweet, vinegary marinade.

Appetizers arrived soon after. The creamy asparagus bisque ($7) had none of the bitterness that the vegetable can impart, and the woody flavor of the puréed spears was well complemented by the crabmeat essence in the crunchy croutons. Good-sized serving, too.

More crab, this time a festival of it, formed the basis of two classic Maryland-style cakes ($8), with the right breading-to-crab proportion to impart the seafood flavor but also prolong the effects of a good balance of herbs.

Working with local produce is important to the restaurant, as Plummer explains, and all the cheese comes from the local Palatine Cheese company. An unusual but entirely fitting offering is the appetizer of beer-battered cheddar with a tangy apple relish ($6). The dish seems to be simplicity itself, although achieving the flavor and consistency of the batter is tricky and shows off the chef’s deft hand.

House salad includes romaine lettuce, grape tomatoes, shredded carrot and toasted soybeans with a locally made wild chive balsamic vinaigrette.

“We’re not trying to compete with New York City fine dining,” says Plummer. “We’re offering something simpler, more in the line of comfort food. To the locals, it’s still fancy; to people from New York, it seems refreshingly simple.”

Eight entrées were offered when we visited: seven on the menu and one special. Beef tenderloin ($24 as filet mignon, $19 as tenderloin tips) and strip steak ($18), of course; pecan chicken with peach beurre blanc ($17), a novel and enjoyable blend of flavors I sampled on an earlier visit; rack of lamb ($23) and smoked salmon (their own) with linguine ($19).

Susan ordered the seafood enchilada ($21), a plate-filling tortilla wrapped around a huge serving of shrimp, scallops and crabmeat, with a bonus of rice and cheeses and some vegetables within. Seasoning included fresh cilantro, always a good sign, and a confit of corn off the cob and tomatoes was served alongside.

I chose a special for the evening: roasted duckling with a ginger-apricot glaze ($19). Although duck is susceptible to fancified preparations, this one was straight-ahead and commendable: cooked just right, grease content low, the glaze offering just enough sweetness without going heavy on the spice. Alongside were rice and grilled squash.

Service is easygoing, but that’s also a reflection of chef Lee Woolver’s style: “He gives a lot of attention to each individual dish,” Plummer explains. “And he doesn’t do a lot of prep. Everything is as fresh as possible. The menu changes often, especially when fresh produce is in season.”

Desserts are few, but the maple cake Susan ordered was an exemplary piece of work, showing Roberts’ skill as a pastry chef. Dinner for three, with tax and tip, desserts, wine and cocktails, was $115.

TABLE SCRAPS

“North by Northwest” pairs food and wine from the Pacific Northwest at Jack’s Oyster House (42 State St., Albany) at 7 PM Tuesday, June 4. Ray Fox from Canandaigua Wine is the guest speaker, and Certified Master Chef Dale Miller will offer the following menu: caramelized diver scallops with a macédoine of grapefruit and avocado paired with a Columbia Winery Pinot Gris; Copper River salmon with a basil pine-nut crust and a Columbia Winery Wyckoff Chardonnay; beef tournedos with a hodgepodge of bacon, tomatoes and thyme drizzled with a merlot demi-glaze and served with both a Columbia Winery Milestone Merlot and a Columbia Winery Syrah; and an almond-scented gâteau with fresh spring berries, paired with a Covey Run Riesling Ice Wine. It’s $65 per person, tax and tip included, and you can reserve seats by calling 465-8854. . . . Ferrandi’s French Restaurant (Route 67, Amsterdam) presents a spring wine-tasting dinner June 6 through June 9 that includes a four-course dinner paired with three glasses of wine. Appetizer choices are coquilles St. Jacques, pâté and escargot; entrées include poached salmon Marcel Prevost, filet mignon and duck confit. Third course is cheese, and there’s a chef’s surprise dessert. Chef Eric Masson, a native of France, also has wine recommendations to accompany each course. It’s $38.95 per person and you can make reservations by phoning the restaurant at 842-6977. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.

—B.A.N.

(Please fax info to 922-7090)

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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