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By B.A. Nilsson

It’s easy to see my prejudices at work when looking over the best of the past 12 months’ worth of restaurant visits. I like them plain; I like them fancy. Less obvious is that I like them to be original, to offer something nobody else provides. Or, if it’s the same old fare, to offer it in an appealing manner.

Consider first the fancy joints. What are they offering that’s so unique? In the case of the absolute best—Chez Sophie Bistro and the Cambridge Hotel—it’s a combination of food, service and ambience that makes dining a transcendent experience. And that’s usually the result of the personalities involved.

In the case of Chez Sophie Bistro (2853 Route 9, Malta), it’s the confluence of the skills of chef Tonya Mahar and owners Paul Parker and Cheryl Clark. As I noted in an earlier review, Mahar has captured the spirit of Sophie Parker’s food and eased it into a direction that I think would please Sophie, who was not an easy-to-please person. The food is inspired by classic French cooking, and the setting—a classic silver diner—adds a note of delightful incongruity to the picture. And the newsletter, e-mailed weekly, is always joyous, as anything to do with food should be.

Chef John LaPosta brings a hearty personality to the Cambridge Hotel (4 W. Main St., Cambridge), where he offers the complete hospitality of tastefully restored rooms in this 1885-vintage building and a menu that features familiar ingredients in zestfully original variations—like the green tea soba noodle primavera we sampled during our review visit. Preparation and presentation are top-notch, but he’s a host who understands that the business is not about serving food, but serving people.

Sargo’s, at the Saratoga National Golf Club (485 Union Ave., Saratoga Springs) was built to be fancy. It succeeds by excess. If, as I wrote earlier, the foie gras looks too intimidating (or too expensive), there are chicken wings. But they’re outstanding chicken wings. Chef Larry Schepici offers entrées that include a dry aged sirloin, the veal chop Michelangelo (with porcini mushrooms, eggplant, garlic and gnocchi) and chicken Lemonardo (with lemon zest, spinach and chanterelles), all served in a nicely appointed dining room with excellent service.

Having made a considerable reputation at the Olde Dater Tavern, chef Scott Ringwood found his own new venue at Lake Ridge (35 Burlington Ave., Round Lake), where he pursues an atmosphere of friendly elegance and where the terrific service rounds out a meal where terrific food is the norm. And the prices are accessible, with most entrées less than $20. Try the pork rack chop, in which the meat is dredged in buttermilk and coated with crushed pecans and served with a not-too-sweet cherry sauce; seafood and pasta are also nicely done.

Prospect Restaurant

You’ll need to travel a bit for the next two. The Prospect Restaurant at Scribner Hollow Lodge (Route 23A, Hunter) is only an hour south of Albany, in sight of a popular ski mountain. So settle into one of the rooms and enjoy the food and wine. Owner Guy Chirico knows how to bring together the necessary talent to make it all work. Austrian-born chef Eduard Lanzinger is one of those kitchen masters who can be both true to his heritage and also take any other culture’s cuisine and make it his own, like the stuffed tenderloin of beef, in which the marinated meat is wrapped around sliced ham and spinach.

In another direction, out west in the reviving resort town of Sharon Springs, is the American Hotel, a classic old building with a wide veranda for those who’ve just taken in the healing waters (mine tend to be grape-derived). Owners Doug Plummer and Garth Roberts quit the New York City rat race to open the Rockville Café and Bakery before buying the hotel six years ago. They’ve overseen an amazing restoration job. Plummer’s description of the food is best: “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.”

American Hotel

Now let’s consider the more casual venues. O’Leary’s Pub & Grill (153 Mohawk Ave., Scotia) is a family-run operation where you can get a beer and a burger—but it’s a family-friendly place where the emphasis is on dining and the fare includes salads and vegetarian entrées and even a tasty bison burger.

Family is also the watchword at Ferrari’s Ristorante (1254 Congress St., Schenectady), a neighborhood mainstay since 1974 when Francisco Ferrari abandoned his job as a GE steamfitter and, with his wife and four sons, went into this business. Now it’s run by two of those sons, Joey and Anthony, while Mama Rose is still very much a presence in the place.

Jake’s Round-Up (23 Main St., South Glens Falls) is a corny mishmash of a place in which it all works. Southwestern is the theme, reflected in the wild decor, as in the room with the moose head on the wall and the Guernsey-patterned chairs. Artist Jake Lehman co-owns the place with Elliott Heyman, who is chiefly responsible for the eclectic menu. Start with Elliott’s Electric Garlic-Roasted Eggplant and journey from there, pardner.

Finally, the place I can’t get enough of. The Hidden Café lives up to its name by being tucked in a corner of Delmar’s Delaware Plaza. Mediterranean fare is featured: deliciously, inexpensively. It’s an unprepossessing place, but wait’ll you try chef-owner Joseph Soliman’s falafel, kebabs, pasticcio—even the house omelette gets a treatment of garlic and mozzarella, seasoned with cumin and cilantro. It’s the kind of food that wakes up your palate and reminds you how much fun a good meal can be.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.

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