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Critic: B.A. Nilsson

Fine dining is a democratic institution: It can be offered badly anywhere and by anyone. Fine dining hit the Capital Region over the past 12 months in a succession of new restaurants that showed how possible it might be for this area to get it more consistently right, and we’re hopeful that such a trend will only continue.

Doing it right in a fancy setting are McGuire’s (353 State St., Albany, 463-2100) and dine (26 Henry St., Saratoga Springs, 587-9463); the latter has been open longer but we were sluggardly in getting there. McGuire’s is the much-vaunted new location for chef Andrew Plummer, and he’s back with his particular brand of Asian-influenced fusion cuisine that must be termed, in a wholly appropriate use of the label, American, as this finally seems to be how our native cuisine is defining itself. That is, it’s become the melting pot that in pre-Ashcroft days defined this country as a whole.

As American as wok-seared tuna with soy vinaigrette: McGuire’s. Photo: Leif Zurmuhlen

This thought is prompted by the fact that dine also presents an Asian-inflected menu, but with a healthy flavor of Mediterranean and French cuisine—in other words, an all-American approach that chef Ron Farber practices with surety. Both restaurants also excel in presentation of the food, which is one of those intangibles so necessary to the complete experience, and they both offer the kind of service that makes your experience seem effortless and worry-free.

We found a farther-flung example of that at the Cripple Creek Restaurant (22 Garden St., Rhinebeck, 845-876-4355), a small, gorgeous restaurant where chef Benjamin Mauk puts heart and soul into such items as slow-roasted halibut and grilled quail with avocado, tomato and corn salad, while manager Patrick Hays oversees the floor with a practiced hand. And a short-lived wonderful dining experience occurred at the Saratoga Polo Club (Whitney Field, Bloomfield Road, Saratoga Springs, 581-1085), which was open on weekends for the two summer months of the polo meet, and allowed chef Kim Klopstock the opportunity to present her specialties to an appreciative audience. For the rest of the year, she runs a catering service, the Lily and the Rose; look for her at the polo field again next summer.

Saratoga is also home to the Wine Bar (417 Broadway, 584-8777), which we revisited to see how it has fared in the four years since we last checked in. Chef Mark Graham offers an eclectic menu available in different portion sizes to allow you different dining options—and the wine selection makes this a complete culinary experience.

“Casual global dining with a twist” is the slogan at The Purple Pepper (3350 Route 9, Valatie, 784-5298), where chef Lisa Miller is able to draw from the varied selections she provides as a caterer (she runs the Good Food Company, which supplies, among other venues, some area libraries) and present them in a fine-dining context. Her restaurant’s decor encourages you to have fun while dining: It’s colorful, irreverent, and often sparked with live music.

Fancy is as fancy does, and while Pearl (1 Steuben Place, Albany, 433-0011) gives the amazingly talented chef Kevin Conway an excellent forum for his food, the makeover of the Steuben Club’s dining room can’t hide its cavernous unfriendliness, and the service leaves much to be desired.

In Schenectady, while we’ve yet to try the Stockade Inn, we’re pleased to note that The Van Dyck Restaurant (237 Union St., 381-1111) has a new chef, new lunch hours, and the brewery operating anew. In terms of food and service, it’s been a variable enterprise over the years, but with glorious potential. Here’s hoping it can be realized.

On another culinary front, fine dining in a café setting is what you get at Aromi d’Italia (2050 Western Ave., Guilderland, 452-9200), where you’re forced to pass a display of toothsome desserts before reaching your table. The Mediterranean menu allows chef John Fonti to go all out with the rich flavors of tomato and sausage, peppers and capers and so much more. The antipasto alone is worth a visit, but the gianduia, a chocolate-hazelnut mix that complements a hot espresso, is heaven.

Other ethnic specialties include another brave foray into Vietnamese fare, this one one of the best: Restaurant Saigon (307 Central Ave., Albany, 426-0203) looks like a cafeteria spruced with kitsch, and the menu is numbingly lengthy and difficult to understand. But the food is amazing, and the prices are low.

That search for a good Mexican restaurant seems to end more often than not in Manhattan, but now you need only travel to Great Barrington, Mass., where Xicohténcatl (50 Stockbridge Road, 413-528-2002) explores regional cooking not found elsewhere in our area, such as the molé oaxaca (spiced chicken with ground pumpkin seeds and Mexican chocolate) and even fancier fare like the wild-mushroom-filled crepas de hongos.

But dining out can’t and shouldn’t be all fancy all the time. And that’s why we should fall to our knees and be thankful for the type of place we visited last summer—two in particular, located not far from one another, with the Hudson River between. Famous Lunch (111 Congress St., Troy, 272-9481) and Gus’s Hot Dogs (212 25th St., Watervliet, 273-8743) serve similar diminutive hot dogs (both places get them from the Troy Pork Store), but each tops those dogs with a homemade meat sauce as well as onions, mustard—the usual array of what those tube steaks need. A quick and satisfying meal that you’ll continue to taste with each burp that follows. Happy dining in 2004!

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