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.Andrea Fischman

At the Races
By B.A. Nilsson

The Horseshoe Inn Bar & Grill
1 Gridley St., Saratoga Springs, 587-4909. Serving Mon, Wed-Fri 4-11, Sat-Sun 9 AM-11 PM. AE, MC, V.

Food: HHH
Service: Hurried

Ambience: Amplified

Saratoga’s summer entertain-ment options are ruled by a racetrack that draws an impressively diverse cross- section of visitors. So if you’re looking for, say, music, there’s a suitable variety that ranges from the Philadelphia Orchestra to folk and jazz performers to rock and blues bands of every stripe.

I can’t say what stripe distinguished the band (the Bad Boys of Blues) my friend Brian and I encountered at the Horseshoe Inn during a recent visit. We sat on the restaurant’s outdoor deck, with the band’s back to us—meaning the band’s speakers also were turned against us. Although the sound was very, very loud, it wasn’t clear enough for vocals to be wholly articulate. We gave up early on trying to talk to one another; I settled back to take in the mise-en-scène. It was a Saratoga in August experience.

The drive along Gridley Street puts you at the back end of the racetrack perimeter, where stables and support houses line the street. The Horseshoe Inn, located across from Gate 10, offers bettors a very close venue at which to unwind. The place is easy to spot thanks to the giant-sized plastic Molson bottle affixed to its roof; racing-specific Budweiser banners carried the theme to the outside walls.

There’s music each evening, and the band actually face the many tables arrayed under a large tent, contained within a high fence. Which didn’t dismay at least one gent, domiciled across the street, from setting out and sitting in a lawn chair to enjoy the tunes.

Restaurant seating is divided among a dark indoor table array, the half-dozen or so deck tables, and more than a dozen resin or wood tables under the green-and-white tent. I made a reservation earlier in the day, then realized en route that backed-up traffic would delay us. So I cell-phoned to beg a postponement, and was cheerfully accommodated.

Not surprisingly, there’s plenty of beer to choose from, although my order of Bass was somehow transmuted into a bottle of Beck’s. Brian ordered a glass of a Phelps Chardonnay, and we studied the fare options.

The menu goes in many directions, with appetizers and other light fare running the gamut from fries or onion rings or tossed salad, in the $3 to $4 range, to clams or sandwiches, from $5 to $8. There are also lots of grilled chicken sandwich varieties, and a wide array of burgers, of course.

Dinners run from $15 to $20, with such favorites as baked stuffed sole ($14.75), pesto chicken ($16), pasta primavera ($14.50) and shrimp scampi ($19.50). Also featured are smoked items, which drew my attention right away.

In the appetizers department, the crab cakes ($6.50) were exactly as expected: nothing fancy in the way of preparation and presentation, a reasonable blend of seafood and fillings, served with a tangy tartar sauce. A good-sized portion justifies the price, which has meal-in-itself written all over it if you’re looking for a quick, beer-accompanying nosh.

Looking for something to accompany a barbecue sampler, I started with garlic bread, an enhanced order ($3.75) draped with mozzarella cheese and accompanied by tomato sauce. Again, it was as I expected, although I wish I had expected real garlic to be employed. And, again, it was a lot—more than I let myself finish.

The smoked sampler platter ($10) was a terrific bargain, even when I added an order of garlic “smashed” potatoes on the side ($3). What puzzles me is why the smoked items aren’t as tasty and tender as they ought to be. An impressive-looking smoker sits to one side of the tent area, so it’s clear they’ve got the equipment. But the ribs were too chewy, and the pulled pork lacked that melt-in-the-mouth quality it achieves after many hours on the grill. The sauces—Tennessee bourbon BBQ sauce and roasted garlic BBQ sauce—were excellent.

Brian’s entrée, Caribbean jerk chicken ($15.50), showed an unfamiliarity with its progenitor. A spicy paste featuring allspice and thyme and a goodly amount of heat is rubbed on the meat, which marinates overnight and then is grilled. It’s often presented in pieces; sometimes it sits in a stew. Brian’s serving had a quick rub of not-too-ambitious spices and appeared to have lingered too long on the grill. It wasn’t particularly spicy or, for that matter, moist. Served over a pile of those garlic mashed potatoes, and with a side of impressively crunchy vegetables, it was yet another very hefty portion.

The band took their break just as it was time for us to go. Service was generally attentive if extremely hurried; although we waited quite a while for our entrées, we at least were able to get and take care of the check quickly. But I think our table was turned almost immediately. It’s that kind of place.

Dinner for two, with tax and tip, beer and sodas, was $63.

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