GUILDERLAND The restaurant owned and operated by Latham-based Marrello Restaurant & Catering that replaced Houlihan’s in Crossgates Mall about a year ago offers “timeless recipes with a classic/casual twist.”
You know the Marrello Group — they own Bellini’s (three locations in the Capital Region) and Jacob & Anthony’s American Grille in Saratoga Springs. This restaurant is different.
It’s not kitchen prep, but Ivy League prep, as in “preppy.” I am at a loss as to why “bringing back the Ivy League prep school tradition,” as it says on their website, is a restaurant concept. Ivy League cuisine has thus far escaped me, and I had some very good food but I don’t think it features fish tacos and pad thai chicken. I didn’t notice an “Ivy League feel” in the restaurant but it explains the coat-of-arms, kind of, in the logo.
On Monday nights you can get discounted movie passes with each entree, which helps to make a dent in the cost of entertainment.
J & A Prep Kitchen
WHERE: First floor Crossgates Mall, Guilderland. 869-8077, www.marrellorc.com/japrep
WHEN: 11 a.m. to midnight Monday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
HOW MUCH: $56.98
MORE INFO: Credit cards: Master Card, Visa, American Express, Discover. Children’s menu. Wheelchair accessible. Reservations recommended for larger parties.
You can be up close and personal with the mall traffic and eat outside in a wrought-iron fenced patio, or head inside for a comfortable, leather-upholstered booth. We sat in the front window and kept busy people-watching, across from the wooden bar with its understated blue lighting where a couple had parked a stroller.
And therein lies the danger of expecting fine dining in a shopping mall. The thing is, there are going to be shoppers. They will have bags and they often bring small, tired children. Just so you know.
We were warmly greeted and offered our choice of tables in the early evening. Our server brought menus and we put in drink orders, awesome diet Saranac root beer for me ($3), and blueberry lemonade ($3.50) for Lisa. Lemonade comes in several fresh fruit flavors at J&A.
You can get sandwiches and burgers, soups and salads, entrees, and appetizers, all priced for a casual restaurant. They offer small plates, like calamari Caesar salad and jambalaya.
From the appetizer section of the menu we’d ordered a plate of stuffed mushrooms ($8.95) that were way better than any I’ve ever had. These jumbo mushrooms were filled with silky goat cheese and coated in panko, then deep-fried. They were almost perfect spheres about the size of golf balls, and they were delicious. The thick panko crust kept the mushrooms juicy. Lisa liked the cucumber wasabi sauce.
Lisa had the chipotle cheeseburger ($10.95), featuring pepperjack and chipotle mayo and green chili salsa. The beef was cooked as requested; she said it was good, then added, “I don’t think they use salt here.”
J & A gets points for toasting the roll, and stacking it high for a formidable presentation. Crisp fries were flavored with a house blend of seasonings, including paprika, salt and pepper. “The more I eat, the hotter my mouth gets,” Lisa said. I took a few and confirmed the cumulative effect of the seasoning. Hot, but different, anyway. She didn’t care for the green chili salsa on the side.
I love fish tacos, but J & A Prep offers tacos in soft shells, which just didn’t have the integrity to hold the filling. No way could I pick these up without losing Napa cabbage slaw all over the plate. Tilapia is a favorite of mine, but the fillets in both tacos were a bit disappointing, with damp breading. The ingredients failed to come together but I had omitted the chipotle mayo, which might have made a difference. The accompanying salsa was fresh, and the nacho chips crispy and tasted just-made.
J & A has generous-sized homemade desserts, and Lisa and I chose the bananas Foster from a list that included a trio of mousses, a slice of cheesecake and an obligatory chocolate dessert, for $8 each.
You should definitely try the bananas Foster, although I was sorry to learn there’s no flame involved. The strong rum flavor in the caramel sauce made that clear. Half the fun is burning off the alcohol.
This dessert features a round piece of banana bread with walnuts topped with a scoop of coconut ice cream, surrounded by fresh sliced bananas in that wonderful warm, freshly made caramel and a garnish of paper-thin, crisp fried plantains.
We sliced the bananas with our spoons and ate banana bread soaked in melted ice cream and just-made caramel and rum, which is about one of the best things I’ve eaten.
The tab for our meal with the beverages, tax, and tip came to $56.98.
J & A is a dessert destination in a shopping mall. Who needs frozen yogurt when you can get fabulous homemade desserts?
The Marrello group is locally operated, which gives you another reason to pass up the chains.