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You Can Still Get French Fries Here
By B.A. Nilsson

The Cat’s Meow,
14 Karner Road (Route 155), Guilderland, 456-1895. Serving Mon-Sat 11:30-11. AE MC, V.

Cuisine: Burgers, sandwiches, pizza
Entrée price range:
$5 (omelette) to $14 (sirloin steak)
Ambience:
long-settled bar
Clientele:
neighbors

Drift near the bar at the Cat’s Meow once you’ve finished your meal, and it’s not hard to ease into conversation with Jane Martin, who owns the place. She’s not going to impose any chat upon you beyond a comment about the weather, but if you’re not in a hurry and you’re inclining to talk, you’ll soon start trading stories about the restaurant business, the neighborhood, family life—the kind of low-threat post-prandial discussions you’d have at home.

The bar is nothing very fancy, but then the restaurant as a whole isn’t fancy—at least not in the way we’ve come to expect, thanks to the designer bars that erupt within the chain restaurants that continue to surge into this area. At the Cat’s Meow, it’s simple, homey. Which isn’t surprising: After 21 years, it looks exactly as it needs to look—the product of history, not market research.

A two-level dining area holds a scattering of small, informal tables. A gas-fired fireplace glows nearby. Decor is a mix of planters, wrought iron, cheerful artwork and the various gewgaws that accumulate during so many years in business.

While pubs by definition are public, some tend to become the focus of a neighborhood to the point where they become exclusionary. Walk into one of those and you instantly know you’re in a kind of enemy territory. It’s generally up to someone—bartender, server—to break the ice and therefore set the tone.

The Cat’s Meow definitely has the stamp of a neighborhood hangout, but it’s suitably welcoming without being in-your-face fawning. You’re there to escape the cold and refresh the appetite, and a good conversation or two mightn’t hurt. It may sneak up on you, as when an older woman at the bar turns a few weather-related comments into a reflection on a recent Las Vegas vacation. Then she goes behind the bar and reveals herself as owner Jane Martin, whose vision of the restaurant pretty accurately reflects what it has become.

“It’s not a kid’s place,” she explains. “We don’t have pool tables or anything like that. I’d say it caters to an older crowd, but we do get people of all ages in here.” Office groups like the place for parties, and summer finds neighborhood ball teams celebrating their triumphs here—“Especially on the deck, out in back,” Martin explains.

Big, inexpensive sandwiches are a draw, but you also can splurge on a dagan ($9), a huge grilled garlic sub roll on which roast beef, fried onions, melted Swiss cheese and a horseradish sauce crowd the proceedings. “People call that one in a lot for takeout,” says Martin.

You can get an omelette here. It’s made less breakfasty by the side of fries, but $4.50 gets you a plain three-egg version, and for an additional quarter per ingredient, you can add cheese, mushrooms, bacon, ham, peppers and the like. Try walking into one of those prefab saloons and getting an omelette with your beer.

Although it’s a versatile kitchen, food isn’t fussed over. Gourmet dining is splendid in its place; this isn’t that place. Prices wouldn’t be this low if the kitchen demanded too much time. But a cup of the soup du jour ($1.65, bowl for $2.65) proves that homemade fare is a priority—even if the crab in the cream of crab and broccoli is the whiting-based surimi seafood, the flavor is terrific. Add a salad ($5) or half sandwich ($5.25) to turn it into a meal. French onion soup ($3) is a regular menu item.

No pub would be complete without an active Frialator, and you’ll find the usual array of fried stuff among the starters. Potato skins ($4.45), breaded mushrooms ($4), mozzarella sticks ($5) and chicken wings ($5) are popular, and the wings prove to be one of the better examples of this staple, because they’re fried hot and fast—the place is small enough that, during a quiet moment, you can hear the oil frisking.

Served in an undistinguished plastic basket, the wings nevertheless are presented attractively, with the orange of carrot sticks adding color to the celery, the sauce shining, the blue-cheese dressing flecked with parsley. This is deliberate, as subsequent courses show.

“We try to make things look appetizing,” says Sharon Henderson, under whose hand those wings were cooked and plated. “You put in enough effort to make it taste good. It doesn’t take much to make it look good, too.” Henderson is Martin’s daughter and has been involved in the restaurant almost from its inception (“She wasn’t here for a couple of years,” laughs Martin. “That’s when she was becoming a Henderson.”)

The half-pound Black Angus burger ($6.75) is an upscale alternative to the $4.65 cheeseburger deluxe. Better-quality beef makes a tastier patty, and the presentation is handsome—a wedge of tomato-enhanced lettuce towers to one side, fries on the other, a thimble of macaroni salad between.

Take away the burger and substitute a wedge of fried fish and you have another $6.75 platter that defines the essence of pub fare. Served with tartar and cocktail sauces, it defies full consumption at one sitting.

“It’s very popular,” says Henderson. “And we’re flexible. Somebody wants something and we have the ingredients, we’ll make it.”

“The meatloaf,” says Martin, “is always popular, too. We’re not much of a baked potatoes and vegetables kind of place, but if it’s something you can put fries with, we’ll probably make it.”

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)

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