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Photo by: Ellen Descisciolo

Welcome to the Club

By B.A. Nilsson

The Stockade Inn
One North Church St., Schenectady, 346-3400. Serving lunch Mon-Fri 11:30-2; dinner Wed-Sat 5-9, Sun 3-8. AE, DC, MC, V.
Cuisine: American fancy
Entrée price range: $16 (chicken with pappardelle) to $27 (blue-cheese-crusted beef tenderloin)
Ambience: Old World fancy
Clientele: upscale

Back in the day, in the old days when Schenectady throbbed with GE-inspired eminence, back when it was the city that lighted the world, your Mohawk Club membership signaled that you had arrived. You belonged. And you gathered—men only, of course—in the large stone building at the corner of Church and Union streets in the city’s Stockade area. It was built as a bank in 1818, became Union College’s Classical Institute in 1872, and was bought by the Mohawk Club in 1904.

Lunch and dinner were available to members, who eventually were allowed to bring spouses to dinner; upstairs rooms were available for social functions and overnight accommodations.

It rode on the fortunes of the city, which meant an eventual, slow decline. And so last year it was sold to Jack and Jeff McDonald, who started and run the successful casual eatery Pinhead Susan’s not far away on North Broadway. With the Stockade Inn, they’re aiming at the fine-dining populace, and they’ve got two-thirds of the equation splendidly correct.

Ambiance is one of those thirds. The building always has been imposing, as befits a vintage bank. It has been extensively refurbished to bring out its elegance, and, once the upstairs rooms are restored, will be functioning as a full-fledged inn. The Mohawk Club—or what’s left of it—still has a portion of the building available for private assembly.

And there’s so much room that you’re unlikely even to glimpse them. The foyer is flanked by a banquet room and an overlarge waiting area, with a host’s station nearby. Beyond that is the bar, and beyond that the main dining room.

Such sweeping spaces also call for vigilance in service, which is the third in which the Stockade Inn weakens. And it’s not unique to this restaurant—mediocre service is a Capital Region epidemic, perpetuated by owners, food writers and even customers who don’t understand how to spot and respond to the problem.

The most basic problem is that you can’t entrust a table’s fortunes to a single server. Other issues—know your menu ingredients, don’t clear a course until all parties are finished—pale in comparison to the problem of keeping the food traffic flowing.

Like a diner, the Stockade Inn divides its dining room into stations, each attended by a single server. A busperson delivers bread and refills water glasses throughout the room. The host station is far enough away to maroon that fellow in the hallway, although he made an effort to cover some of the dining room needs toward the end of both of my visits.

The staff is young and eager and easily could be redirected to work cooperatively, following the classic captain-waiter system that ensures that courses flow quickly and no table is neglected.

Chef Danny Petrosino is a Culinary Institute of America grad whose cooking has clean lines of flavor and whose presentation is unfussy and effective. A 13-item menu geared toward cold-weather fare is supplemented by nightly specials. It’s meat-rich cooking, in which the chef turns a homely pork shank into a mouth-watering roast ($20) with flavors of apple and vinegar in the sauce and an old-world side dish of spaetzle to pick up and prolong those flavors.

Another winning dish was a lamb loin special ($25) served with a white bean ragout and a portobello napoleon, another example of side dishes chosen to enhance the flavor of the meat.

I’m a big fan of the stealth salad such as is served here. It arrives with no warning and no fanfare—and without a lot of painful dressing deliberation—and it’s a fresh, crisp mixture of greens and other salad veggies, with crumbled blue cheese and an agreeable vinaigrette.

Consider this when making an appetizer choice, but try to resist those appetizers. I was blindsided my first visit by a foie gras special—which, at $14, was priced way out of proportion with the other apps. Nevertheless, it was a low-intervention preparation and presentation, the liver lightly seared and amazingly tender.

Crispy calamari ($7) lives up to its promise with a crunchy, clean coating and the added bonus of a garlicky beurre blanc as accompaniment; the $4 daily soup was a superior Manhattan clam chowder one recent Friday, maintaining a very old restaurant tradition. “Hog wings” have been a recent special, a $10 preparation of pork morsels coated in a delightfully spicy chipotle sauce.

I give especially high marks to the chilled beef tenderloin ($10), an entrée-sized portion served with a tomato confit and an amazing parmigiana gelato.

Beef, veal, swordfish and salmon head line the entrées. Chicken appears both as a butterflied breast seasoned with rosemary and lemon ($16) and served with mashed potatoes, and alongside wide pappardelle noodles in a cream sauce with prosciutto and tomatoes ($16). Both are excellently finished, and we were pleased that the kitchen had no problem with an annoying substitution we requested with one of the entrées just to see if we could get away with it.

In short: the food should provide no disappointment. Desserts, most of which are made on the premises, arrive as obscenely large portions. Although the cheesecake and the coconut cream pie ($6 each) were both fine examples of pastry art, to serve such Brobdingnagian portions is decidedly déclassé.

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