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B.A. Nilsson

The Do-Tell Hotel
By B.A. Nilsson

The Cambridge Hotel
4 W. Main St., Cambridge,
677-5626,
www.cambridgehotel.com.
Serving lunch Tue-Sun 11-3,
dinner Tue-Sun 5-9,
breakfast buffet Sun 9-1.
AE, CB, DC, MC, V.

Food: *****
Service: Deft

Ambience: Stunning-

The old Cambridge Hotel was built in 1885 and enjoyed many decades of success, but by the time we visited the place in the mid 1980s, it was clearly well past its prime. It had been long touted as the home of pie à la mode, but what we were served was only a miserable reminder of what that dish can be.

The place deteriorated further after that, and was on the brink of extinction when Tink Parrish got involved. Approaching his 80s, he wanted to give something back to his community, and spearheaded a group of local investors to renovate the place. Room by room, they fashioned it back into the beautiful, elegant structure it always was meant to be.

They also looked at various options for the restaurant. The first couple of incarnations didn’t work out, and they decided to look locally for a chef. “Do you know anyone,” one of the board members asked John LaPosta, “who’d be good for this job?”

“They caught me at the just the right time,” says LaPosta. He was founding chef at Clifton Park’s Conservatory Grill when it made its amazing debut; he went on to start what he hoped would be a chain of restaurants called the 1929 Soup Kitchen, but the plan foundered in Colonie Center, where his gourmet soups didn’t win over the McDonald’s mentality, and the usurious rent finally did him in.

He took over the restaurant at the Cambridge Hotel at the beginning of last year and reopened it in May. As innkeeper, he also fashioned a deal for Capital Region folk to spend a night at the hotel, with breakfast and a $50 dinner credit, for a mere $99. “We sold 1,200 of those,” says he. “People loved it, and they got to know the place. We’re going to do it again in the fall.”

Cambridge has been gaining a new vitality in recent years through the confluence of artists who are calling that area home, and the hotel, along with nearby Hubbard Hall, are helping tie it all together. When we parked beside the hotel, we could see the handsome trains of the Battenkill Rambler parked at the Cambridge depot, awaiting the next scenic trip to Shushan and back.

Inside, the hotel offers a mix of old- and new-world elegance. A tour of the rooms—they’re open if unoccupied—confirmed the skill that went into the refurbishment. By the time we reached our table in the elegant dining room, we’d already shed several pounds of daily stress.

LaPosta likes to circulate among the customers, so I asked him for an appetizer recommendation. “I’m torn,” I told him, “between the foie gras and the crab cake.”

“The foie gras is delicious,” he said. “But the crab cake is a signature dish. You should have that one.” Done. (Although I did get to taste the foie gras, and it was excellent.)

The crab cake ($9) showed what wonders are achieved with the right ingredients. A crab cake is about the filling, with a little crunch to set it off. By serving only one larger cake, you get to spend more time with that filling, which boasts more crab in the mix that I’m used to encountering, and a complement of salad and sauces that are almost unneeded.

Susan and Lily shared a plate of diver scallops ($8), given a very hot sauté and served with a mango black-bean salsa. Again, the scallops need to be good, which means getting the day-boat variety. The rest is merely finding the best way to enhance the ingredient without overpowering it.

From the pasta list, Susan chose green-tea soba-noodle primavera ($14), an amazing combination of flavors. Soba noodles have a delicacy that allows the flavor of the accompanying vegetables to shine through; among them were fennel, carrots, red peppers and yellow squash, with a nicely prepared serving of kale in the middle. And kale is a tough one to present well. A little spiciness, a little sesame oil set off those flavors well. (This became our daughter’s main course.)

House salad or a Caesar salad comes with the entrée; we tried one of each. Not surprisingly, these were as good as they come because the greens were so fresh. LaPosta tries to work with local growers whenever possible, and is one of the area chefs who has helped promote that kind of alliance with farmers.

Susan’s entrée was vegetable jambalaya ($14), which (obviously) omitted the shrimp and sausage and chicken in favor of artichoke hearts, peppers (red and yellow), squash and mustard greens, with a taste of thyme poking through. It was just the right consistency: Jambalaya should be a little soupy. Most of this came home with us as a leftover.

Sturgeon was a special of the day ($22)—not, as a customer recently worried, the endangered pallid sturgeon, but a readily available variety. It has a fleshy, firm meat that LaPosta marinates before grilling, which probably is the finest preparation. After that, the flavor speaks for itself. Smoked Gouda polenta gives a good texture contrast, with that smoky flavor carrying forth the essence of the grill.

Naturally, dessert had to include pie à la mode ($5.50), but this one is a monster, with a little goat cheese worked into the pie filling for added sweetness. Desserts are a festival unto themselves; don’t miss the succulent lemon tart ($5.50).

This also is the only restaurant I’ve visited that gets tea service absolutely right. I finished with an espresso and couldn’t have been happier. Dinner for the three of us, with all of the above, tax, tip and a couple of glasses of wine, was $125.

TABLE SCRAPS

Enjoy a pairing of fine food and Rhone wine at Provence (Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany) at 7 PM Tuesday (June 25), with a five-course meal created by chef Darren Alvaro, and wine presented by Rick Rainey from Winebow. Rosemary lamb chops are paired with a Domaine Charbonierre Châteauneuf du Pape Mourredes Pedrix, duck au poivre gets a Domaine de la Garrigue Cotes du Rhone Cuvée Romaine, and there also will be sautéed frog’s legs, quenelle of pike à l’Americaine (with a Chateau Trinquevedal Tavel Rosé) and profiteroles with caramelized peaches. It’s $69 per person (not including tax and tip); reserve seats by calling 689-7777. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.

—B.A.N.

(Please fax info to 922-7090)


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