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Photo by: Ellen Descsiciolo

Le Bateau de la Mère
By B.A. Nilsson

Saratoga Lake Bistro
511 Route 9P, Saratoga Springs, 587-8280. Serving daily 11 AM-9 PM (later as necessary). AE, MC, V.
Cuisine: classical French
Entrée price range: $17 (chicken à la moutarde) to $29 (duck breast and lamb rack combo)
Ambiance: charming and busy
Clientele: savvy travelers

To say the escargot just about crawled out of their container still doesn’t do justice to the juicy tenderness of the snails; that each swam in a thoroughly unhealthy bath of herb-and-garlic butter was a frustrating fillip for a guy trying to cut out the fat in his diet. But they were delicious, an old-world recipe still able to assert itself in modern times.

Then there was the surf-and- turf combo of duck breast and rack of lamb . . .

Too often, the lake view is enough. You know how it is: An attractive destination persuades you to settle for second-rate tourist grub. At Saratoga Lake, we’ve been luckier, with fine restaurants like Panza’s and Cliff’s; add to that the newly refurbished and re-cheffed Saratoga Lake Bistro, giving the unlikely combo of a beautiful lakeside view and some of the finest French fare in the area.

That’s because it’s the new home of Eric Masson, former chef-owner of Ferrandi’s in Amsterdam. The Brittany-born Masson established a considerable reputation for himself at a location not very conducive to the kind of business needed to support fine dining.

The new location offers a more attractive setting, with outdoor tables during the summer months. And that’s where my party sat during two nice-weather visits, my only complaint being the resin chairs that wobble under my outsized butt.

Before examining the dinner menu, let me remind you that you can get a burger or a panini for around $7 for lunch, the menu for which also features luncheonized versions of some of the dinner specialties like chicken moutarde ($8) and haddock meunière ($9). But I’d go for a crêpe ($7-$8.50), which is offered with vegetables, chicken, or seafood as a filling.

Dinner gets more elaborate, of course, but stays in a reasonable price range—if you think $26 for a filet mignon is reasonable. I do, especially when it’s an excellent cut that’s been coated with peppercorns and served with a classic Cognac sauce. It’s not flamed at tableside, which used to be a feature of the classic “au poivre” presentation, but it’s got everything else going for it.

Masson and his wife, Kim Hoffer, met in Paris and carried on a correspondence courtship for several months before she persuaded him to join her in her native Amsterdam. They developed a number of shrewd marketing approaches at Ferrandi’s, and you’ll see them here, too: celebrations of French and American holidays, tasting dinners, and a three-course prix fixe menu in addition to the regular à la carte fare.

According to that plan, your entire meal (excluding tax and tip) is $28; add the chef’s wine selections and it’s $39. And you’re choosing among starters like shrimp bisque, the aforementioned escargot and a goat-cheese salad that features cheese-enhanced croutons, fresh mesclun and tomatoes, warm bacon and homemade vinaigrette—a salad we were able to order for a non-meat-eating friend without the lardons.

A second-course feature is chicken forestière, another classical recipe that pairs the bird with mushrooms, lardons and sautéed potatoes. The skillful realization placed sliced breast meat in a pretty pattern in and around the garnish, and all of the plates echoed this presentation. Of course, it’s the flavor that underpins sauces like these, and they set a very high standard, continuing to delight the palate long after the first few sensations have shimmered away. The kind of eating you’d want to do daily if it weren’t for all that butter that’s part of the mix.

Steak au poivre and salmon with tarragon sauce are the other prix fixe entrées, available also as à la carte items ($19 for the latter). Salmon also features in the appetizer list, with a duo ($12) of salmon rillette (cubed, pounded and potted) and smoked salmon served with a horseradish crème fouettée and plenty of breadstuffs.

A raw bar operated to one side of the outdoor deck, and that was the source of the oysters and littleneck clams that go into a broiled appetizer ($12) with a garlicky Pernod-laced butter.

Pernod shows up again in a shrimp entrée ($22) in which the seafood is sautéed with fennel and then flamed in the licorice-like liqueur. A delicate cream sauce smooths the flavors, and the texture of the shrimp was surprisingly tender. Another star of the entrée list, as hinted above, is the pairing of duck breast and lamb rack as a land-and-sea combo ($29), with sauces that raise this to the extraordinary: a not-too-sweet raspberry concoction for the duck, a cabernet reduction for the lamb, which managed to be both crusty and rare, as I like it.

We even threw Masson a curve ball with a fussy vegetarian friend who worried about this meat-rich menu. I phoned ahead, and we were promised and served a vegetable crêpe ($7) that pulled together the flavors of the seasonal filling with a perfect, restrained sauce.

As if we needed more convincing, the back of the menu features photos of the dessert items. They’re homemade, and they’re fantastic. Crêpes Suzette are listed ($7), although we tried only the strawberry-filled variety ($6) with an appropriate side of ice cream. Cheesecake, chocolate raspberry cake, crême brulée—you’ll be able to finish your meal in glorious style.

During both visits we were blessed with a whirlwind named Natalie who made sure we were never without all we needed. The staff is youthful and still learning the ropes, but look to be in good shape as the season explodes around them.

Classical French cuisine has been getting overshadowed by all the nouvelle American fusion that swirls around us—here’s a chance to visit the culinary mother ship.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.

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Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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