Along the Mohawk
New Amsterdam Diner
State Highway 30 (just south of Thruway Exit 27), Amsterdam,
842-1522. Always open. AE, D, MC, V.
Dineraunt, but especially good.
Entrée price range: $8 (Baked eggplant rollatini) to
$22 (surf and turf).
Follow the Mohawk River west from Waterford and you encounter
a string of dying cities, a tribute to the boom and bust wrought
by the Erie Canal. Even after canal trade was superseded by
over-the-road (and rail) shipping, cities like Schenectady,
Amsterdam, Little Falls, Utica and Rome continued for several
decades to thrive as business and manufacturing centers. Now
they cling to whatever vestiges of economic opportunity they
can summon. Amsterdam’s former rug factories are shells, and
downtown Amsterdam’s most visible entity is a failed mall
that confounds traffic.
Take the Amsterdam exit (27) of the NYS Thruway, turn left
on Route 30 and make a quick left into the parking lot of
Super 8 Motel and you’ll see the sprawling New Amsterdam Diner,
reopened not quite three months ago after many years dark—and
with a terrible reputation even before that.
Right now it’s one of those gems where the food is far better
than the location and appearance would suggest.
friend showed me the place,” says chef John Papis. “I had
restaurants in Manhattan and I wanted to get away from there.
Too much excitement. Here you have fresh air, a beautiful
view. . . .”
The history of diners in this country begins with portable
carts parked in familiar locations, soon giving way to shacks
and converted railroad cars. It was acknowledgment, as cars
moved faster on ever-more-accommodating roads, that people
on the go always need to stop and eat.
Regional specialties have been eclipsed by standardized fast-food
joints, but a diner-cum-restaurant such as the New Amsterdam
gives you a shot at something cooked for you right then and
Smokers congregate at the bar; I head left for the nonsmoking
room and its dozen or so tables and booths. The local radio
station, country, of course, plays in the place—relying on
such aging stars as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, which is
fine with me.
You’ll pass a display case with revolving displays of pies
and cakes. When I see key lime pie and rich New York cheesecake,
I know not to eat too much dinner.
White-linen restaurants seek a niche in which to flourish;
the diner approach tries for total culinary coverage. The
New Amsterdam Diner’s multipage menu features two pages of
always-available breakfast, with plenty of omelet variety
(including a vegetarian frittata) in the $5 to $6 range. Similarly,
the pancake and waffle variety is unique—a $7 tutti-frutti
waffle sports bananas, strawberries, apples and raisins.
The core of the offerings are the entrées, which is where
I put in the most exploration. Each time I discovered a soup
that was homemade and nicely balanced between stock and ingredients,
from a simple (but chunky) chicken noodle to minestrone, Yankee
bean and some commendable chowder.
Of course it’s arrogant to term a dish “the best baked meat
loaf,” but it’s an arrogance I find endearing. The $10 entrée
includes a house salad (soup is offered as an alternative)
and potato and vegetable (my daughter had french fries, of
course, and ignored her peas). The dish itself features a
mix of meat and herbs that ranks it extremely high in the
meat loaf pantheon. It’s irresistible.
It’s not just roast chicken: It has an apple-walnut stuffing
($10). Greek moussaka ($10), although not served en casserole,
obviously was prepared in one, because the flavors of the
ground beef and thin-slice potatoes had plenty of opportunity
to mix with the eggplant and crusty béchamel sauce. The portion
I sampled was a little saltier than I prefer, but the balance
was otherwise terrific.
More ambitious is the chicken breast Milanese ($15), which
sports a huge portion of chicken surrounding a center of prosciutto
and spinach, topped with fontina cheese. Not what I think
of as diner fare, yet it was presented with accomplishment
(and real mashed potatoes). Likewise, an order of broiled
scallops in a lemon-butter sauce ($13), which typically gets
way too much heat, was cooked and presented just right. The
only entrée disappointment I’ve had was with an order of spanakopita
($10), and only then because the phyllo pastry didn’t suffer
reheating very well.
Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” adorns a booth-adjoining wall;
Raphael’s cherubs overlook another. Yet the artwork seems
almost haphazard, and contrasts amusingly with the simple
wooden tables and booths. Chairs, by the way, are sturdy and
comfortable, but the place would benefit from a more thorough
refurbishment. Still, these are cosmetic issues that fade
once the food is put in front of you.
And the food will be put in front of you. I haven’t seen the
same servers twice during a succession of visits, but as long
as Mercy is on the floor, you’ll be taken care of. Not only
is she a genius at selling you on menu items, she’s also genuinely
concerned with your satisfaction and isn’t bashful about checking
in—the kind of service that is all too rare these days, even
in the fancier joints.
With any luck, others on other shifts will copy her techniques.
Right now, business is slow and the staff can support. With
any luck, the place will get busier (I pass it regularly and
thus have a selfish wish to see it remain open), and I’m hoping
the current level of good customer care will be maintained.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.