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Ellen Descisciolo

A World of Comforts
B y B.A. Nilsson

dine
26 Henry St., Saratoga Springs, 587-9463. Serving dinner from 5:30 Wed-Sun. AE, D, DC, MC, V

Cuisine: Global comfort food (it’s their motto)
Entrée price range: $16 (pork loin) to $30 (filet mignon)
Ambience: Fashionably understated
Clientele: Upscale foodies

Those favored dishes your grandmother used to make now seem to be best represented in the more expensive restaurants. Such recipes typically are simple preparations of inexpensive items—peasant fare—but the peasants and even the patricians aren’t cooking this way these days. We’ve been packaged and convenienced into a culinary tailspin in which any meal that takes longer than 30 minutes to prepare is deemed abnormal.

“Global comfort foods,” reads the motto of dine—the all-lowercase name suggesting more pretension than you’re actually bound to encounter. The brainchild of childhood friends Steven Knopf and Ron Farber, dine is one of the region’s finest restaurants, and, because it’s situated in Saratoga Springs (the region’s hippest city), it stands a good chance of flourishing.

A former Freihofer’s outlet, dine has been thoroughly and tastefully redesigned. The decor is spare, and all the more attractive because of that spareness. Recessed ceiling fixtures and skinny, vase-like wall sconces illuminate neutral walls; a large mirror across the back adds an illusion of light and breadth.

Following this motif of spareness, tables are draped in white linen with a flat-folded white napkin at each place. Wine and water glasses are set, but cutlery is provided per course—extra work for the servers, but it gives you those extra server visits that can make all the difference in your meal’s success.

Bucking what seems to be a current trend, the bar doesn’t dominate the dining room; it’s a pleasant area set off by a display of lit-from-below bottles behind the bartender.

Pinning down the menu here is tricky. It changes daily, and is presented both on a towering blackboard and a printed page. (For the restaurant’s address, phone number and hours of service, pick up a postcard by the door.)

Knopf is nominally chef while Farber supervises the floor, but don’t be surprised to also find Farber in the kitchen. “He’s from the classic French cooking school,” explains Knopf, “while I’m much more Asian- influenced. It makes a good combination, because the common theme we’re searching for here is comfort food, and it crosses all cultures.”

For example, there’s the meat loaf Wellington ($18), a wonderful melding of haute cuisine and peasant fare. Substitute a good slab of meat loaf for the slab of beef tenderloin, coat it with mushroom purée and wrap it in a pastry crust before baking, and you’ve got a just-as-valid take on a classic combination of flavors.

“Growing up here, meat loaf may be your comfort food,” says Knopf. “If you grew up in Vietnam, say, your comfort food might include duck slices with lemongrass.”

The peripatetic Knopf worked his way through restaurant kitchens beginning in childhood, and soon was cooking in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Among excursions to work in Jamaica, Australia, Micronesia and other exotic ports of call, he finished the program at New York’s French Culinary Institute, cooked in Saratoga at the Gideon Putnam and opened the White Swan Café in Greenwich (now the restaurant One One One).

“I spent six months in Sydney, where some real cutting-edge food stuff was happening,” says Knopf. “They called it Modern Australian cooking; it’s what we think of as New American Cuisine.”

It’s reflected in dine’s menu makeup, which typically runs a third Mediterranean and two-thirds Asian, with French and American influences squeezed in here and there. No bread and butter—“That’s for Italian and French restaurants,” says Knopf—but you’ll be treated to an amusée that might be a carrot-cumin compote served on a cucumber slice, a diminutive wild mushroom sandwich, puréed beet on a wonton or any of a couple of dozen similar preparations of vegetables and beans.

Eight or nine appetizers ($6-$11) cover a vast geo-culinary range. It can include a simple leek-and-potato soup featuring a coarse rendering of the components, about as far from the classic potage parmentier as you can get while still featuring the excellent flavors; thin slices of Hudson Valley foie gras served on wontons with a tangy orange marmalade; and a sweet serving of the Filipino potato known as ube.

“It’s just a grilled cheese sandwich,” Knopf says of the lobster-chèvre sandwich, but the flavors of goat cheese and lobster meat combine brilliantly, and the chewy Rock Hill Bakehouse bread is an excellent vehicle.

Entrées are typically based on familiar ingredients—chicken, beef, various kinds of fish—with a vegetarian high-rise ($17) among the meatless fare. And the treatment can range from the simple, such as the Chilean sea bass that gets a coating of panko, lemon and lime juice and orange zest ($28), to the more complicated rendering of duck breast in a red curry sauce ($24), with just enough sweetness to give the meat its classic complement.

Penne with chicken and scallops also included shrimp and baby spinach ($20), untypically tossed in the lightest of sauces so that the component flavors shone through (“That’s Ron’s dish,” says Knopf), and pan-seared chicken breast with prosciutto ($20) will satisfy more conservative palates with its light basil cream sauce set off by the sweetness of roasted red peppers.

Desserts are made in-house, including fantastic preparations of ice cream: The chocolate-tamarind ice cream will make a believer of you. Get your chocolate fix from the chocolate espresso cake or chocolate hazelnut torte; there are lighter confections as well, like the ginger-plum galette.

Service is exemplary. It’s a youthful staff, as attentive and conscientious on a busy Saturday night as on a slow midweek evening. This is probably the rarest of fine-dining attributes in the region, and completes the excellence of fine dining at dine.

TABLE SCRAPS

Look for a new restaurant at the former Steuben Club in Albany. With chef Kevin Conway (the Conway of Conway’s) at the helm, Pearl Restaurant & Lounge opens Saturday, June 7, for lunch and dinner six days a week (closed Sundays). Look for an elegant dining atmosphere, martini lounge, patio dining, even a late-night dance club. Call 433-0011 for more information, or check out www.pearlalbany.com. . . . The Ginger Man Wine Bar and Restaurant (234 Western Ave., Albany, 427-5963) has received a 2003 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence and is a winner of the Santé Magazine Wine and Spirits Award. The restaurant is featured in Santé’s March/April 2003 issue, and will be listed in Wine Spectator’s August issue. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail to food@banilsson.com). 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.


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