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John Whipple

Fry Me a River
By B.A. Nilsson

Ninety Nine Restaurant & Pub
107 Wolf Road, Colonie, 446-9909. Serving Mon-Wed 11:30-11, Thu-Sat 11:30-midnight, Sun 4:30-11. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: bar food, fried stuff, beef
Entrée price range: $7 (burgers and sandwiches) to $13.49 (prime rib, when available)
Ambience: faux antiques and loud music
Clientele: lovers of potato skins

Look at the Web site presented by Boston-based chain Ninety Nine Restaurant & Pub and you’ll see that its restaurants have spread like measles across a New England map. The Wolf Road location marks its first incursion into New York, with more to follow.

What sets it apart from all the other chain outlets crowded into a few square miles of prime Capital Region shopping land is . . . nothing. It’s another high-
volume, sensory-assault eatery distinguishable from Applebee’s or Ruby Tuesday’s only by the background music, which is louder.

TV screens surround you, tuned, of course, to sports channels; faux antique gewgaws hang on the remaining wall space. It took only a couple of minutes of trying to study the menu while shutting out the noise for my wife and me to reach a simultaneous conclusion: We’re too old for this place.

We’re the youngest tier of baby-boomers, which still makes us relatively ancient. I leave it to you, kids, to decide if this is your kind of place. I noticed clusters of young single females at the bar as I passed, one of whom gave me the lingering eye—so you may benefit from such obvious desperation.

Because there’s so little difference among most of the chain places, let this notice serve as an all-in-one look at what’s here and what’s to come. Market research has smoothed any variables and maximized profits; chain restaurants promise safety and mediocrity, twin salves to that nervous majority of diners who rear back in horror at the threat of such exotica as Dijon mustard.

The Ninety Nine Restaurant’s lemon-crusted salmon, for instance, is “served with caramelized onions, garlic red-skin mashed potatoes, vegetables and a sesame pineapple dipping sauce” ($10), but the menu quickly adds, “Want it plain? Just ask.”

To be sure, there are matters of degree among chain restaurants in such things as decor and cuisine. Some of the places manufacture their “antiques” (Ninety Nine is one of them); some, like the Cracker Barrel, maintain warehouses of cutesy old sleds and saws and such. Some restaurants actually cook their own food; others are giant reheating stations.

Ninety Nine seems to have a for-real kitchen, but it’s not at all challenged by the recipes the restaurant has evolved. The grill and the fryolator do the bulk of the work: Even such fare as chicken parmigiana, a classic sautée dish, is deep-fried here. Buffalo-style chicken wings, a classic deep-fried dish, turn into “boneless Buffalo wings” ($7)—chicken “tenders,” in other words, those McDonald’s-inspired morsels of mincemeat and mucilage.

We sampled them in an All-Star Sampler ($8.49), which adds selections from other stand-alone, $7 starters: Ultimate Nachos, a stack of tortilla chips on which melted cheese is a subsidiary label, the top given over to cold salsa and sour cream; and Outrageous Potato Skins, which merit the adjective only insofar as these little sacks of starchy cheese are palmed off as comestibles.

Your best bet for a beginning (or perhaps the whole meal) is the Southwestern Quesadilla ($7.79—there’s pricing to the penny!), which, although smothered in cheese, at least isn’t fried.

The salad list includes many salads to which chopped entrée items have been added (chicken, sirloin tips, “Buffalo wings,” and such). A Caesar salad ($5) is of the mass-produced variety, a commercial-grade dressing dulling the original recipe’s flavors, with commercial-grade croutons.

Seafood and butter are longtime culinary friends, but still the amount of butter (and cream) worked into the New England Scallop Pie ($10.49) is astonishing. It’s a pie only in the sense that a handful of scallops are covered with buttery breadcrumbs, in a sauce flavored with lobster. Among the other seafood options are baked scrod ($9), Fisherman’s Feast ($12, a mélange of fried scrod, fried calamari, scallops, shrimp), fish and chips ($9) and a $13 lobster roll, a big sandwich with fries and slaw.

Burgers and other sandwiches are in the $7 range for a plate with fries and slaw, and the chicken dishes include several preparations of those damned “tenders,” as well as more reasonable-sounding items like Apple Bourbon Chicken Skillet and Teriyaki Chicken (both $9). As noted above, chicken parmigiana ($10) is deep-fried, a huge portion of three breasts over ziti, topped with an acceptable marinara and plenty of cheese.

Among the steaks are top sirloin ($10.49) and London broil ($9), but I went for the best: Supreme Royal Sirloin ($13), a 12-ounce cut that was about as good as a $13 steak will be: I missed the flavors of a true, hot grilling, but appreciated the generous side of garlicky mashed potatoes.

Picking on chain restaurants is too easy and ultimately unrewarding, but they’re a major force in the food-service industry, drawing money and attention away from more deserving local talent. However, if you’re a family with noisy kids, by all means dine here. Nobody will hear your progeny over the din.

“We Treat People Right,” the restaurant boasts, “by offering great food at great prices.” No question that it’s a fairly economical dining destination, but in the end you’re getting rich fatty food for poor fatty people. And that’s no way to treat them.

 

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Schenectady’s Van Dyck Restaurant (237 Union St.) enters a new era as Peter Olsen drops the “co-” from his former co-ownership status. Having finally dissolved an untenable partnership, he’s freer to address the problems in both financing and the actual running of the place. And the first thing he did was install new chefs: Gavin Mahoney, who comes from the Glen Sanders Mansion, and Neil Battista, formerly with Carmine’s and Mallozzi’s. There’s also a new pastry chef in the kitchen: Megan Battista, from the Villa Italia. “I’m scared for my waistline,” says Olsen, describing the new menu that’s in place. “There’s a pecan-encrusted chicken breast that’s just to die for.” The nearly 60-year-old restaurant has been a jazz mainstay for most of its years, and Olsen continues to offer a schedule of worthy performances. The Van Dyke is open Tuesday through Saturday from 4 PM, but Olsen plans to add lunches in a week or two and Mondays by November. For more information, call the restaurant at 381-1111. Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (food@banilsson.com).

(Please fax info to 922-7090)

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