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B.A. Nilsson

And All That Jazz
By B.A. Nilsson

The Van Dyck Restaurant
237 Union St., Schenectady, 381-1111. Serving Tue-Wed 11:30-10, Thu 11:30-11, Fri-Sat 11:30-midnight. AE, CB, D, DC, MC, V.

Food: * * * *
Service: Youthful

Ambience: Charming

It used to be the fine-dining dowager of the Capital Region, back when you’d linger over a plate of pot roast or a turkey dinner—wearing a borrowed jacket and tie if you’d neglected to dress properly.

The Van Dyck opened as a restaurant on April 1, 1947, when jazz fan Marvin Friedman moved from Harlem to Schenectady, bringing a roster of friends like Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson to perform at his new venue. The building itself dates from 1820 (a wing was added in 1880), and it functioned as a private house until Friedman’s transformation.

It sits at the edge of Schenectady’s charming Stockade area (where remnants of the original Dutch settlement remain), and the gateway to the area, from Erie Boulevard, recently underwent a half-
million-dollar facelift that added decorative pillars and brickwork.

But that’s nothing compared to the renovation given the Van Dyck. For nearly two years, it had a going-over that included a new roof, new wiring, and the addition of central air and a brewery. It re-opened on its own anniversary on April 1, 1997, and immediately ran into problems.

Most troubling was the celebrity chef hired to kick things off. He went fancy in a big, costly way, and thus didn’t last very long. Meanwhile, the front of the house never achieved the cohesion needed to effectively serve a crowd scattered among the many dining areas.

Nearly six years later, the ups and downs have smoothed. Service is still a big variable, and the restaurant still needs to find the right manager to oversee front-of-house needs. The kitchen, however, has landed in the able hands of Anthony Daughtry, who started 18 months ago as sous chef and has proven himself more than skilled enough to deliver the Van Dyck’s every-which-way menu.

Comfort food remains, but it is way more refined than pot roast. And you never would have found teriyaki tuna steak on the menu in the old days. “It’s seasonally driven, eclectic New American fare,” says proprietor Peter Olsen. “It’s an evolving menu.” Which is in keeping with the restaurant. Even as he continues to book a varied and talented roster of performers in the upstairs music room, Olsen is working to improve the downstairs service.

Although we were placed in the formal dining room during a recent visit, a couple of large, loud parties prompted us to suffer the cigarette smoke in the tavern room. The smoke, it turned out, wasn’t a problem, and we were seated by a fireplace in a room that features a changing display of artwork by Van Dyck performers—in this case, portraits of Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and others by Commander Cody.

A bowl of French onion soup ($6) emerged quickly, hewing to the classic style of a dark, meaty broth teeming with sweet chunks of onion, topped with slithery cheese. Actually, cheeses, as a peppering of grated parmesan, browned nicely, covered the stringy gruyère.

Although it shouldn’t require emphasis, soups here are homemade, which means they can be fine-tuned to please the clientele. Certainly the onion soup has been a mainstay at the restaurant in its old and new incarnations, and carries all the expected comfort-food pleasure.

Indicative of a more imaginative menu direction is the appetizer of stir-fried mussels ($9), served sizzling, seasoned with ginger and a modest amount of pepper heat. Accompanying vegetables—snow pea pods, julienned carrots—pick up the teriyaki flavor that’s also added.

The appetizer list in general runs the bar-food route, with nachos and wings, fries and calamari among the $3-$8 offerings. But the fries are made from waffle-cut potatoes, and the calamari has a tangy sauce that’s different from the usual marinara—part of this kitchen’s wish to remain a little apart from the mainstream.

They’re good for light dining, as are the salads on the adjacent menu page. Each is available in two sizes, and range from unadorned garden or Caesar salads to elaborate concoctions with roasted vegetables, grilled chicken or the like; the Van Dyck salad includes gorgonzola and roasted garlic, and a fruit and cheese plate also is available.

Salads are served with entrées as well; ours were modest, fresh and dressed with restraint, with a basket of bread as accompaniment.

We caught the kitchen short of several items. The seafood special, stuffed scrod, already had sold out. Our next requests, lamb and tuna, also weren’t available. (“We’ve got a lot of stuff coming in tomorrow,” our waiter confided.)

Chicken scampi ($16) puts a generous amount of sautéed chicken breast in a garlicky white wine sauce over pasta (fettuccine is a good choice here) for a rich dish with an all-around spread of satisfying flavors.

Chicken also appeared, grilled this time, in a hard-roll sandwich ($7) with lettuce, tomato and no dressing. With only a side of potato chips, it seems a bit skimpy for the price. A selection of a couple of dressings and a snazzier garnish would add character to the dish.

The grilled New York strip steak ($20) was a beautiful thing. The meat was tender, slightly spiced with a tasty seasoning rub, cooked (at my request) just to the far side of rare. Served on mashed potatoes with a side of sautéed squash, it made my inner carnivore quite happy.

Service was good, if a little tentative, slowing slightly as the evening wore on. With homemade ice cream one of the Van Dyck’s strengths, we finished with a bit of vanilla.

Dinner for three, with sodas, tax and tip, was $81.

TABLE SCRAPS

Tonight (Thursday) it’s a tutorial on duck. Next Thursday: knife skills and other professional basics. Aubergine restaurant chef-owner David Lawson has announced a schedule of classes that run each Thursday from 10:30-2 and include a three-course lunch. They’re limited to 10 participants each, at $75 per person, and run a gamut from hors d’oeuvres to pasta, from entrées through dessert, with classes about wine and overviews of some of Lawson’s favorite regions of France. Aubergine is located in Hillsdale, and you can reserve space at any or all of these classes by calling Lawson at 325-3412. . . . Lake George still thrives in the off-season, which may be your best time to get A Taste of Poland (375 Canada Street). According to my correspondent, this is a unique chance to sample home-style traditional Polish fare, including white borscht, pierogies, blintzes, golambki and much more. They’re even open for breakfast. Call 668-4386 for more info. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland. . .Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (food@banilsson.com).

—B.A.N.

(Please fax info to 922-7090)

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


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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