Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen
By Laura Leon
State St., Albany, 463-2100. Serving Mon-Sat 5-10 PM. AE,
D, MC, V.
Cuisine: Progressive American
Entrée price range: $15 (Filleto di Pomadoro) to $32 (City
upscale urban grill
I suggest the lobster and shrimp turnover?” the waiter asked
with easy confidence.
Normally, I’m not into such appetizers; they tend to be a
lot of appetite-killing pastry surrounding a morsel of filling.
But I had been stumped—what to have as a prelude to the chocolate
venison? It was refreshing that the waiter had an informed
opinion to my query (as opposed to the standard “Well, we
sell a lot of . . .”), and I have to hand it to the management
of McGuire’s that such service and input was not merely a
case of putting on a good show in the early days of the eatery.
Subsequent visits have found a similar knowledgeability from
servers, about both the menu and the wine list.
And the turnover was a stunning surprise. Luscious and plentiful
chunks of Maine lobster and shrimp had the consistency of
velvet, if velvet were edible, and married exceedingly well
with the slight smokiness of the accompanying roasted corn
salsa and chipotle cream. The dreaded pastry itself was light
and airy—as it was with my husband’s wild mushroom tart, a
recipe that emphasized the earthy goodness of wild mushrooms
without tasting gritty or gamy.
McGuire’s, at the corner of State and Lark streets in the
heart of Albany’s lively Center Square neighborhood, is that
rare place where the excitement conveyed by the menu is carried
over into the preparation and execution of the dishes. Chef
Andrew Plummer, formerly of the dearly missed Allegro Café
in Troy, seems to have an intrinsic understanding of how to
blend ingredients in such a way as to coax out complex yet
subtle flavors. Case in point: the aforementioned chocolate
venison. On paper, a nonepicure might gasp: Chocolate with
deer meat? Plummer’s version features first and foremost an
exquisite cut of pan-seared venison; the dry spice rub provides
piquant flavor points, which are complemented nicely by the
more mellow, smoother cinnamon and chocolate flavorings of
The opening of McGuire’s late last summer neatly tied up two
loose ends in the Capital Region restaurant and bar scenes.
The closing of Allegro a few years back left area diners without
access to Plummer, one of the region’s most creative chefs;
and the space that once was the State Street Pub, a cozy and
popular neighborhood hangout, had been dark for nearly a decade.
A little more than a year ago, Plummer, who knew that owner
Tom Despart was planning on redoing the bar, approached him
about teaming up on a new restaurant. Soon they were off and
running: They knocked out the wall that separated the pub
from the former jewelry store next door; that room now encompasses
the semi-open kitchen and several tables with a view to the
street. They completely renovated the bar area, matching new
pieces to existing woodwork. The result is a room that is
both cozy and handsome, with a half-dozen wood-paneled booths
opposite the stately bar.
Initially, Plummer intended to keep the menu light—“a tapas-type
place”—but then “the buzz” started, and he and Despart began
hearing feedback from former Allegro patrons who were excited
about Plummer’s return to fine dining. Ultimately, they decided
to do a full menu emphasizing creative American cooking with
shades of Asian—and to downplay the bar, often a staple of
restaurants catering to the Lark Street scene. “What we wanted
is exactly what we’re getting: a higher-end restaurant where
the food is very important, and the service is very important,”
Plummer says. “The idea was not to be a slammin’ bar.”
Consistently excellent seafood can be hard to come by in these
parts. Then again, I’ve become quite a fish snob due to the
fact that we have a fisherman friend who occasionally delivers
us fresh tuna, cod and bass from the Atlantic within hours
of having nabbed it. It can be difficult to find this quality
of seafood at a restaurant that isn’t located near the shore—even
farm-raised fish can taste a little, well, unreal. So I was
a little nervous about ordering Plummer’s Ahi tuna—could it
stack up? Rest assured, this was the very best, flakiest,
sweetest slab of fish I’ve had outside of my fisherman friend’s
bounty. We were similarly impressed with the chef’s treatment
of salmon, pan-seared and encrusted with a tahini-and-scallion
paste; sea bass, a carryover from the Allegro days, with ginger
and lime notes; and an appetizer of succulent tuna springrolls.
Another dish from which I generally refrain is the crab cake.
Too often it’s breaded fish pieces, either bland, overly crumblike,
or outrageously “fishy” in execution. Happily, the appetizer
Tobiko Crab Cakes are a delightful combination of first-rate
meat with a frothy scallop mousse, spiked nicely by touches
of lemongrass and wasabi. Again, this is a seemingly simple
preparation that nevertheless underscores Plummer’s ability
to develop unexpected grace notes to a seemingly standard
People often bemoan Albany’s lack of a good downtown steakhouse.
Indeed, any restaurant worth its salt should be able to deliver
a first-rate cut of beef, cooked to perfection, on any night
of the week. And yet, this, too, proves an elusive quest.
McGuire’s passes this test easily, typically featuring excellent
preparations of City Grill Delmonico finished with roasted
garlic and Maderia demi-butter and a filet mignon topped with
a wild mushroom demi-glace.
Too often side dishes are relegated to, well, the side of
one’s plate, being neither interesting or cooked properly.
How many times have you received your entrée to find a decent
looking cut of protein accompanied by cold mashed potatoes
and a wan, barely parboiled side of veggies? No amount of
perpendicular herbal garnishes can hide the fact that the
kitchen clearly doesn’t give a hoot about anything other than
the mains. In this area, too, Plummer excels. Not only does
he utilize underrated veggies like bok choy and broccoli rabe,
but he delivers them with their essential goodness intact,
cooked just enough to bring out their distinctive flavors
and paired masterfully with their main, so that they’re an
intrinsic part of the entire dish, not just an afterthought.
Plummer’s use of seemingly mundane kitchen-garden vegetables
like leeks and scallions almost borders on the ubiquitous,
but who can find fault with flawlessly executed preparations
that remind us how tasty these veggies really are?
McGuire’s is blessed with a very cozy, easy environment where
it’s easy to sit back and just hang out—remember, this was
the State Street Pub, scene of many a lazy, comfortable night
on the town. The comfort factor can be a problem, however;
on a couple of visits, our hopes to sit in the back dining
room overlooking the kitchen have been thwarted by earlier
diners’ refusal to give up their perches. The floor hasn’t
quite figured out the best way to deal with the resulting
delay in getting you to a table; nor does the long, narrow
room with the bar on one side and booths on the other contribute
to easy “hanging out” while waiting for that table.
Already a draw for former Allegro patrons who don’t live within
walking distance of Center Square, McGuire’s has had the forethought
to institute a valet parking system. Neighborhood snobs might
turn up their noses at the idea that any Center Square establishment
should have to resort to such a ritzy entitlement, but the
valet system certainly does help city-shy suburbanites overcome
their parking phobias. Clearly this policy is working, as
the restaurant is regularly packed with a variety of pols
and businesspeople, groups of friends in mohair sweaters and
hiking boots, and couples clearly dressed to impress each
Quite honestly, I’ve been so sated by dinner at McGuire’s
that I haven’t given proper attention to their desserts, aside
from a few delicious sorbets (like their other frozen offerings,
these are imported from Italy; the other desserts are made
in-house). The wine list is confident, daring in its exploration
of slightly off-track labels, but solidly in favor of the
non-millionaire’s penchant for good bouquet. Each visit to
McGuire’s has left me satisfied, and wanting to come back
for more—especially if it can continue its knack for balancing
style and atmosphere with exquisitely prepared food.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.