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Critic: B.A. Nilsson

George Mann Tory Tavern

Photo: B.A. Nillson

Best of 2004

What is it about a good restaurant meal that causes you, days or even years later, to look back upon it with a sense of pleasure, of accomplishment even? The meal itself, in the sense of food, is demonstrably transitory; its physical effect already has tolled. Challenged to choose my favorite 10 of the past 50 or so visited in 2004, I called upon a foolproof source of information: my wife.

Without looking at the list, she quickly recalled several places that stood out. The defining characteristics? “Hard to say,” she said. “There was just something about them.”

There it is: It’s intangible. It’s the pleasant combustion of hospitality and cookery, and it doesn’t require tuxedos and fancy fare. We winnowed the following 10 from the year’s list, and I’ll try to pin down at least a few of those hard-to-define elements that distinguished them.

The Appian Way Restaurant (1839 Van Vranken Ave., Schenectady) reopened under its original ownership, which is to say that sisters Anna and Gina Ferrera came out of retirement again to present an insane array of homemade Italian fare that ranges from the fresh bread to the Ferrera’s own ice cream. Try the puttanesca and you’ll understand: olives and capers and anchovies attack the sauce’s tomatoes and, as I noted earlier, “force them into dark, savory crannies of the palate.”

Daniel’s at Ogdens (42 Howard St., Albany) was another reopening, this time both of the old Ogden’s and of the Mediterranean menu of brothers Gabriel (“Daniel”) and Alex Atsilov, who gypsied around area restaurants for a while before settling in here with co-owner Ruth Wallins. Although the menu includes original twists on familiar favorites (sea bass with saffron lemon cream sauce, spinach-stuffed veal with chanterelles), I find the falafel and hummus and baba ganoush irresistible. And the elegant surroundings are the crowning touch.

Thanks to Schenectady’s “Little Italy” project, Cornell’s Restaurant moved to handsome quarters at 35 N. Jay St. It’s actually the neighborhood in which Nicholas and Pasqualina Cornell opened their first eatery in 1943. Like any good neighborhood Italian bistro, it’s a welcoming, family- friendly place, but it raises the cuisine bar with simple but excellent items like chicken in the oven: The bird is baked with white wine, herbs, potatoes and a hot cherry pepper along what emerge as buttery, chicken-flavored potatoes.

Front-of-house and back-of-house talent need to meld like a marriage, and two area restaurateurs—front guy Richard Rodriguez and chef Dominic Colose—pooled their talents to revive a property on the north inlet of Saratoga Lake. Chameleon on the Lake (251 County Route 67, Saratoga Springs) now offers fine, original dining in a welcoming space. This is a place where the servers sing the praises of the menu items. It’s original, often exotic stuff, ranging from a simple salade à la niçoise to things like paella alla Valenciana and lime-seasoned bison filet served over bok choy.

Yet another Saratoga relocation brought chef Eric Masson of Ferrandi’s to Brown’s Beach, where he presides over the Saratoga Lake Bistro (511 Route 9P). The Brittany-born chef offers classical French cooking, like chicken forestière, as well as his own version of American fare, like a surf-and-turf combo of duck breast and lamb rack. A seasonal deck, live music, and lots of holiday specials (including, of course, Bastille Day) help make this a fun place to dine—and how better to cock a snoot at those anti-Gallic morons clogging the political scene?

Parisi’s Steakhouse (11 N. Broadway, Schenectady) went through a quick evolution to settle into its current character, and it got everything right. I’m still salivating over a sirloin I enjoyed there one night, and I’ve grilled several at home in fruitless pursuit of duplication. Owners Michael and Lisa Parisi make you feel incredibly welcome in a space the decor of which I described as a “mix of warehouse chic and Son of the Sheik,” and they have chef Danny Petrosino in the kitchen, a master of bold flavor combinations.

Parisi’s Steakhouse

Photo: Martin Benjamin

The Raindancer has defined fine dining for Amsterdamians for many years. It’s good, but the real thing is just up Route 30: Michael’s Restaurant (4465 Route 30), and Amsterdam truly is closer than you think. Chef-owners Michael and Barbara Russo have plenty of restaurant experience, and there’s an emphasis on Italian fare that results in such items as the seafood medley, layered with shrimp and crabmeat, calamari, scallops and clams, in a white-wine butter sauce over a bed of linguine. And you’ll make the journey worth it by paying less than 20 bucks for sesame-encrusted yellowfin-tuna fry.

Some revisits reassured us that old favorites continue to prevail year after year. Saso’s Noodle House (218 Central Ave., Albany) has added a needed parking lot, and Kathy and Yasuo Saso continue to offer excellent sushi, a varied dinner menu, and outstanding bowls of noodle soup in their accommodating eatery. Watch the movie Tampopo and then hurry to Saso’s for a bowl of miso ramen.

The George Mann Tory Tavern (Routes 30 & 443, Central Bridge) is the breathtaking combo of an 18th century house lovingly restored by owners Ralph and Irmgard Buess and the Colonial-era-inspired menu that chef Ralph offers. It’s served in rooms dressed with antiques, and even the servers sport period garb. Not that the food is slavish to the period: George Mann’s Tavern Chicken gives you chunks of grilled chicken, shrimp, artichoke hearts and mushrooms in a tarragon cream sauce; my favorite was the classic osso buco, with slow-cooked veal shanks in a rich, dark sauce.

Finally, the top. Trillium, the Sagamore’s dining experience supreme (110 Sagamore Road, Bolton Landing). This was elegance in the extreme, where service is as good as it gets and the menu might offer something like the Argentinean-style mixed grill: a trio of filet mignon, breast of poussin and rabbit sausage garnished with chimichurri, a garlic sauce native to Argentina. Chef Tony DeStratis uses seasonal material and fashions it in a way that’s delicious and different. It’s the place to go when dinner has to be the best.

And so it’s on to 2005. Please continue to let me know where you like to dine, and have a good, safe and reasonably caloric New Year’s.

Critic: Laura Leon

Best of 2004

While the Capital Region is not generally known as a foodie haven, it does boast a handful of exquisite restaurants and chefs who strive for excellence, not to mention an ever-increasing interest—as witnessed in the growth in farmers’ markets and the evolution of supermarkets—in fresh produce and a variety of natural, organic and ethnic foods. It may well be that “regular folk” are more interested than ever in obtaining tasteful, healthy and, sometimes, exotic ingredients, and in preparing them well. I mean, hey, I can’t be the only Gourmet/Bon Appetit/Food Network addict out there, right?

Here are just a few of the highs and lows that we foodies experienced in the past year:

The growth of farmers markets throughout the Capital Region. During the summer months, there really isn’t a day wherein devoted shoppers can’t find the freshest ingredients available simply by availing themselves of the many farmers markets, from the big ones in Troy and Saratoga to the smaller gems, such as those found at a variety of churches throughout the midweek. Fresh food is alive and well and available very near you.

More trans-fat-free options at supermarkets. Some big producers are paying heed to consumers’ growing realization that they don’t want trans fats in their food.

More options at local supermarkets and cooperatives, including greater varieties of grains, pastas, marinated vegetables, etc., which make cooking—especially cooking on busy nights—much easier and more rewarding.

Increased use of locally raised vegetables at restaurants, which not only supports local economies and sustains longstanding traditions, but provides diners with a taste of what fresh food should be like. Having food that is of the minute, and the place, awakens taste buds and opens up new possibilities for both cooking and eating.

More options—beyond the dreaded Earl Gray—for tea lovers, something that is increasingly apparent at coffee houses as well as restaurants.

The continued excellence, (or in some cases, resurgence), of local faves. My favorites this year: Nicole’s Bistro, Café Capriccio, Parisi’s Steak house, Madison’s End cafe, the Wheat Fields, Jack’s Oyster House, Aegean Breeze, DeJohn’s, Justin’s, New World Home Cooking, Emperor’s, the China House, Xicohtencatl, Bistro Zinc, Caffe Pomo D’oro, and the Ginger Man.

That’s the good stuff; sadly, not all is so rosy. Here are the black marks:

The continued provision by restaurants of bland, pink tomatoes that taste either like cardboard or cotton, depending on the season. I mean, seriously, why is it that in August, when the vines of city gardens are trembling from sheer weight of the deep red bounty, that local restaurants (and I’m not just talking low-end dining here) persist in serving nonlocal, nonripe and certainly nontasty pseudo-tomatoes?

Providing inferior quality olive oil as a dip. If you’re going to do this, put out the good stuff. Better yet, provide both a sampling of oil as well as good quality, room-temperature butter, to allow for the fact that preferences on this tend to be split.

A subset of the above: inferior bread or rolls, whether served stale or stone cold, or, as is sometimes the case, simply a poor quality raft for complementing the sauces on your plate. Why bother?

Dirty menus. Dirty walls. Dirty bathrooms. I don’t mean to gross you out, but has it ever occurred to you that, for the prices you’re paying to dine out, the establishments could put a little effort into scrubbing the pictures that adorn the walls? Giving patrons a splotchy, grease-stained menu, or letting them view the same Jackson Pollack-inspired food specks that have been staining the walls for years now, sends a decidedly negative message.

Vegetable mélanges. Usually this means a trio of frozen vegetables sautéed quickly into an unholy, untasty mess. A few restaurants get this right, presumably by cooking each vegetable individually before combining them, but far too many don’t.

Uneven wine lists. You know the kind: There’s nothing, other than a cheap, dismal Merlot, under the $50 mark—and even those that hover around that point are so-so. Or, the wines by the glass listing are outrageously expensive, barring one from the kind of experimentation that makes for interested consumption, not to mention repeat business.

The continued dearth of good eats in the Lake George area. Granted, A Taste of Poland on Canada Street does a really good job with an unusual, hard-to-find cuisine, and Cate’s Italian Garden in Bolton Landing offers consistent fare, but trying to get fresh, tasty seafood, let alone locally grown produce, seems nearly impossible.

The increased inability to obtain certain foods (foreign cheeses, for example) due to international regulations, exemptions and public paranoia.

The overreliance on tasteless farm-raised fish, e.g., salmon.

Consistently inferior service. Unedu cated, undertrained waitrons who can’t answer questions translate to an unhappy restaurant experience. I’m talking about waiters who can’t explain ingredients or preparation methods, who have no knowledge of the wine list, and who are too unconcerned with your dining experience to advocate for you with the chef. Owners and managers, please help your staff to better serve both your own and your diners’ needs!

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp, authors of The Book Club Cookbook, will be at the Schenectady County Public Library (Clinton and Liberty Streets, Schenectady) from noon-5 PM Sunday, Oct. 17, to discuss and sign their book. The event is a fund-raiser for the Capital Campaign to expand the downtown library to include a new children’s center, gallery and performance space. Samples of food made by area restaurants from The Book Club Cookbook recipes will be offered for sale. Gelman and Krupp interviewed book-club members all over the country to see what they were reading and eating; the result is a collection of 100 entries, each focusing on a literary masterpiece. . . . The Hudson Valley Council of Girl Scouts will hold its third annual Cookie Cuisine event from 6-9 PM Tue, Oct. 26 at the Italian-American Community Center (Washington Ave. Ext., Albany). Honorary Chair Carmine Sprio, Ric Orlando and a host of talented culinary teams take on the challenge of preparing gourmet entrées and desserts using Girl Scout cookies. This year’s participants include the Arlington House, Aromi D’Italia, Capital District EOC, Carmine’s, Crowne Plaza, Magnolia’s, New World Home Cooking, Real Seafood, SUNY Cobleskill and 333 Café. Tickets are $35; pony up $75 and you’ll be part of the honorary committee. For reservations, call Sharon Smith 489-8110, ext. 105. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food@banilsson.com)


We want your feedback

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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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