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Photo by: Ellen Descsiciolo

Grabbing the Three Rings
By B.A. Nilsson

The Circus Café
392 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. Serving daily 11:30 AM-10 PM, Fri-Sat til midnight . AE, D, DC, MC, V.
Cuisine: varied and accessible
Entrée price range: $10 (Caesar salad) to $20 (New York strip steak)
Ambiance: festive, of course
Clientele: in August? Anybody’s guess!

Theme restaurants typically are the province of chains, causing someone else’s market-researched and predigested sense of gaiety to drop, Athena-like, fully formed into your community. The Wal-Mart- and Starbucks-loving crowd moves, with robotic reliability, into their embrace, but those with more discrimination (which category naturally includes you) prefer to perform their own intellectual peristalsis.

Visiting the Circus Café in early July, I found a restaurant in flux. Open for but a few weeks at that point, it delivered in wildly various ways. The food, for example, included a quesadilla appetizer (then $7, now $8) that was an entrée-sized portion delivering nothing less than you’d expect, except for the warning not to order anything else substantial. Crab cakes ($9) were also a very good example of what crab cakes should be, but with the exceptional addition of a ginger aioli.

The “3 Ring Circus Shepherd’s Pie” ($14), on the other hand, was dreadful: a soggy dish of flavorless ground beef served over the mashed potatoes that are supposed to be on top. But, without any urging from me, that item has disappeared from the menu.

Similarly, service was a jumble. We were quickly seated and then annoyingly overlooked. We explained that we had a concert to see, and asked that the entrées be paced somewhat more quickly. They arrived seconds after the appetizers were served. We got out, for the first time in my experience in this situation, too early.

And so I revisited in August, mindful that track season can take its toll on any Saratoga restaurant, old and new. It turns out that those four interim weeks made all the difference. The Circus Café was up and running, with splendid service and fine, consistent food. It was like going from an early rehearsal to a polished performance.

We were greeted on the street, as is true of most Broadway restaurants, but our hostess was more than mere shill: She exuded a seductive warmth that would have lured me inside had this not been my destination. My threesome was escorted past the bar area, a lively concourse, to a back room occupied by only one other diner. But that hardly mattered. The ambiance is festive enough to make any space in the restaurant seem like the proper one to inhabit.

My daughter, who is 7, was fascinated by every aspect of the decor. She studied the chandeliers, the wallpaper, even the sugar holders on the tables. The circus theme, which to my eyes flirts with the far end of being overdone, was wholly appropriate to her. She also liked the fact that the kids’ menu carried forth this design, and, despite my entreaties to order off the grown-up list, she latched onto an entrée of pizza bagels ($6.50) for herself.

She did throw me a bone, so to speak, by ordering chicken wings off the regular menu ($8 for a dozen), and then agreeing to share them only after the most persistent parental persuasion. Chicken wings remain chicken wings, no surprise here, but it’s a meal-in-itself portion served on an attractive plate that makes room for the requisite celery and blue cheese dressing.

Entrées include a few salads, of which the cobb ($13) features grilled chicken, hard-boiled eggs and an avocado purée to make it more interesting, and it’s a goodly sized dish, too. One of the winners both visits was the pan-roasted salmon ($16), set off by a pungent red onion jam and served over a cooked-right portion of jasmine rice—although a companion on the early visit requested and served mashed potatoes as a substitute.

There’s no better comfort food than meat loaf, and it’s available here ($15) in a large portion with just enough breading to keep it moist and flavorful—and to resist a gravy that adds little to the dish. Not surprisingly, there are potatoes, mashed, of course, served alongside, as well as veggies sautéed to still-crunchy doneness.

Also look for pasta dishes, a chicken pot pie ($14), barbecued short ribs ($16) and even fried oysters ($15) among the entrées, and there’s a list of sandwiches (leading off with the $8 Circus burger) for the less ambitious appetite.

Although the staff is almost embarrassingly young, they’re enthusiastic and even seem downright happy to be there. And they look out for one another, which also speaks well for morale.

You’ll know owner Christel McLean from her tenure heading Hattie’s, which she bought from Hattie Austin and expanded “until Colin and I saw that it had reached its expansion limit.” She and her husband wanted to duck out of the business for a while, and even went so far as to return to Manhattan. “But during that time we kept talking about the kind of restaurant we wanted to have, and the Circus Café came into view more and more.”

Their goal was to bring something unique to downtown Saratoga, and at that they’ve succeeded. The theme is borderline goofy, but they pull it off because there’s no lack of sincerity. And the ever-inventive McLeans promise even more surprises as Saratoga eases into its postseason doldrums, so let’s keep an eye on the place.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.

We want your feedback

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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