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Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

The Right Ingredients

By Laura Leon

353 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 Grill Delmonico)
Ambience: cheerfully upscale urban grill
Clientele: well-heeled

‘May 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 demi-glace.

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 menu offering.

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 other.

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.

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