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Martin Benjamin

Neighborhood Comforts
By B.A. Nilsson

Carney’s Tavern
17 Main St., Ballston Lake, 399-9926. Serving Sun noon-9, Mon 11-9, Tue-Sat 11-10. AE, D, MC, V. www.carneystavern.com.

Food: HHHH
Service: Bustling
Ambience: Pub-lik
e

Carney’s presents itself as nothing more or less than a neighborhood tavern, and succeeds admirably at fulfilling the expectations raised by this aspect. It’s the kind of place that exists to satisfy two types of hunger: physical, with food and drink, and social, with the conviviality of staff and friends.

“Try our hot spiced cider,” the specials menu advises, “with or without rum.” There’s the holiday spirit. Although I declined cider in favor of a pint of Bass ale, I appreciated the comfort of that extra step that Carney’s takes in offering such things. And plenty of other comfort foods are available, like the French onion soup ($3 or $4), a sure-fire palate-warmer as promised by the cheese-crusted crocks I saw go by. Soup of the day when I stopped in was a seafood chowder ($2.25 for a cup) that had a thinner broth than I expected but no lack of flavor, with a variety of vegetables to support the seafood potpourri. Nothing subtle in the flavors here: It was a brassy, Ethel Merman kind of mixture.

Carney’s began life as a grocery store. In 1887 it blossomed into the 10-room Shenendehowa Hotel, serving passengers on both the D&H railway line and the Schenectady-Saratoga trolley, as well as a loyal following of locals. It became the Ballston Lake Hotel as the century changed, retaining that name until 1971, when a series of owners gave it a series of monikers ranging from Rendezvous to the Main Street Tavern.

Bob and Rosemary Carney bought the place in 1982; as Carney’s, it adds an Irish identity that promotes a lot of corned beef consumption even when it’s not St. Patrick’s Day. The menu offers a traditional mix of steaks and seafood, pasta and the obligatory lighter fare, with sandwiches and burgers for a more lunchlike repast.

Appetizers include an array of bar food like potato skins, nachos, wings, chicken tenders and mozzarella sticks ($5-$7); the roasted red peppers ($7), a recent menu addition, sports a generous array of garlic bread, while the peppers themselves are sautéed in basil and garlic and finished with grated romano cheese.

The word “garlic” appears so often on this menu that at first I mistook it for “Gaelic,” assuming more Irishness than actually is there. One of the specials, presented on a separate menu that changes daily, was a combo of sliced zucchini and tomatoes, sautéed in garlic, finished with grated cheese, served over fettuccine ($15). A simple answer to the ever-nagging question of what to do with all that zucchini when you raise a garden, and a palate-pleaser with that confluence of flavors.

My wife noted that the garlic is the preminced stuff stored in oil, recognizable by the uniform size of the bits. “There’s a different flavor,” she insists, “when the garlic is smashed and chopped just before it goes into the pan.” True enough, but my formative cooking years were spent learning from an Italian chef who made his own garlic-in-oil, liberally laced with chopped parsley, and I wouldn’t mind making my own someday when I don’t mind having garlic-scented fingers for the next fortnight.

But what, you ask, about Carney’s steaks? To this end I ordered the Gaelic (not garlic) steak, a 12-ounce slice of sirloin ($17) excellently seasoned and grilled, topped with mushrooms and onions, softened in a creamy whisky sauce. This sauce would have worked equally well over fettuccine, so robust is its flavor, which nicely balanced the dramatic taste of the beef and found its way onto the garlic mashed potatoes as well. Other steak variants are a sirloin grilled with “spicy fajita seasoning,” Jack Daniel’s steak (sweet bourbon sauce), Cajun or teriyaki seasonings, or simply sirloin slices with garlic butter (each $16-$17). Prime rib of beef was also on the specials list when we visited.

House salads, served with most entrées, are a welcome but subdued course. Standard mix of greens and other vegetables, with a wide array of dressings that includes, not surprisingly, creamy garlic.

Roasted turkey, apple brandy pork, garlic chicken—Carney’s has the meats well represented in $13-$15 entrées. On the seafood list you find shrimp sautéed with feta cheese and olives (Greek shrimp, $15) or with sausage and tomatoes in rice (Shrimp jambalaya, $17); scallops are available broiled, fried or served with Provençal accompaniments of garlic, basil, tomatoes and such ($14-$15). The breaded and fried variety we sampled gives a handful of big sea scallops with just enough of a coating to pick up a good color and impart a delicious crunch, and that crunch keeps coming at you with the accompanying hand-cut fries.

A modest but thorough wine list is reasonably priced, and the selection of beer will quench any thirst. Although we didn’t stay for dessert, the list includes homemade bread pudding, apple crisp, cheesecake and more. Service is reassuringly friendly, bustling between the ground-floor dining area and a party in the big upstairs room; our entrée service was delayed, however, while our server collapsed into a seat at a table with patrons to chat for a while—something that seems to be verging on an epidemic, unless it’s just that they see me coming and want to thusly salute me.

Dinner for three, with tax and tip, sodas and beer, was $78.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS


John Bove’s My Way Café (Routes 9 and 67E, Malta) has long taken its cues from the Chairman of the Board, with original menu items and, lately, all-in-one pricing that starts at $17. This Sunday (Dec. 8), you can help celebrate Frank Sinatra’s birthday with a dinner-concert at the restaurant. Singer Brian D performs at 4:30 and 7 PM, and is so steeped in the Sinatra repertory that he’ll take requests. Order off the menu, and there’s no extra charge for the music. Call 899-4196 for more info and reservations. . . . The Springwater Bistro (139 Union Ave., Saratoga Springs) plays Santa during December with Toys for Tapas. Bring in an unwrapped new toy and receive a tapas item in return. And there’s no limit: Bring several toys if you’re hungry. Tapas are samplings of food items in a Spanish tradition similar to the Chinese dim sum. Toys will be delivered to the Saratoga Center for the Family, Community Hospice, Franklin Community Center and similar organizations. Call 584-6440 for more info. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail to food@banilsson.com, where, in an annoyingly appropriate pun, I’m already getting spam).

—B.A.N.

(Please fax info to 922-7090)

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