Who isn’t worried about money these days? When the next special occasion comes along, or if you really need a great meal at a good restaurant, don’t deny yourself, because if you want to get more for your fine-dining dollar, you can head to the Winedown Lounge on Union Street in Schenectady.
The Winedown Lounge
WHERE: 613 Union Street, Schenectady. Phone 344-7039.
WHEN: Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Tuesdays to Fridays, dinner 4:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays
HOW MUCH: $100.16
MORE INFO: MasterCard, Visa, American Express, Discover. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Accommodations for children’s meals.
In the block between Barrett and Lafayette streets, a graceful, older, three-story brick building with a mansard roof has been painted and tastefully remade into the Winedown Lounge. A patio has been added in the front; along with the outside dining area of a nearby restaurant, it gives the block an urban, hip feeling. On a warm summer evening, most tables at both establishments were full.
Pass through the front hall and follow the sign into the restaurant. You’ll be in limbo, geographically, with a dimly lighted and masculine wood bar to the left, a bright creamy colored parlor-turned-lounge behind you, and a corridor that leads to the dining room straight ahead. We stood around awkwardly for a bit until a server rescued us and led us to a table.
The long, windowless two-level main room (originally a storage vault for the Beyer Furs store that once occupied the site) makes a better music venue than a dining room, I think, with high tables for two surrounding the lower area in the center and its more comfortable, standard-height tables for four.
My dining companion, Virginia, and I liked the dark red walls and smart sconces. We agreed that our table was a little too small, and weren’t surprised to find it barely accommodated the restaurant’s stylish, oversized dishes.
We had the interesting experience of being the first customers of a new server, a friendly young woman who was clearly just learning the ropes but anxious to please. Her mentor watched her carefully, and was able to answer all our questions, and like any good teacher, let the student take on as much as she was comfortable with. As a result, service remained attentive throughout the meal.
The menu features six appetizers and eight entrees, two salads and soups, but the choosing isn’t easy. I started with beef tenderloin crostini, ($10) three garlic-rubbed toasts with slices of medium-rare, slightly charred beef that melted the mild blue cheese beneath, topped with fresh tomato petals. The grilled beef was the star of this dish, but it was hard to bite the crostini and keep it intact. So I resorted to fork and knife. However, I’d order this again without hesitation.
Virginia ordered a tomato and mozzarella salad ($8) with a balsamic glaze and a bit of pesto. Winedown Lounge gets points for excellent red ripe tomatoes and locally procured fresh and soft mozzarella cheese.
Next, I had a bowl of chilled carrot soup ($8) topped with crème fraîche and greens, seasoned with something tangy that I couldn’t identify and didn’t like. After a few sips, I pushed the bowl across the table for Virginia to try. She loved it.
“You have to take the cream with the soup,” she said. “It balances out just right.” It had a lovely consistency and, though not my favorite, was clearly very good.
A two-top table on the upper level gives you a bird’s-eye view of the plates delivered below, which is fun, especially when they are as beautifully arranged as they are at Winedown. We spotted a gorgeous Delmonico steak and a bevy of seafood appetizers, all of them magnificently presented.
Virginia recommends the chicken roulade and so do I. For $18, you get a rolled and stuffed chicken breast served over rich seasoned rice with wild mushrooms and a big serving of slender, crisp haricots verts. The chicken breast is rolled up with roasted red pepper, garlic and spinach, and seasoned with, I think, paprika. The quality of the meat is what makes this dish outstanding. The rice is dark in flavor and color, moist and delicious. The green beans are perfect in their simplicity.
Prices are poised to rise everywhere, but the night we dined at Winedown Lounge the filet mignon was a reasonable $21, and from the tenderloin appetizer I can tell you the meat is top-quality. I expect that as prices go up, Winedown will remain competitive.
There’s always a version of homemade pasta on the menu, called “torn pasta” ($15), although it looks like fresh tagliatelle cut with a pizza wheel. That night it was made with mushrooms, roasted red peppers, smoky pancetta, and fresh spinach in a scallion-chipotle cream sauce, with emphasis on the cream. Yow!
The chipotle gives it a bite at the end, long after you’ve savored the vegetables, soft pasta, and cream. There’s nothing like fresh pasta, and these doughy ribbons were richly coated with the silky sauce. What a wonderful, satisfying dish.
Desserts hit spot
As good as our meals were, the homemade desserts were even better. After some hesitation, and encouragement from the server, Virginia ordered the chocolate ginger cake ($7), a flourless chocolate cake the color of really dark chocolate, with the understated but distinctive flavor of fresh ginger. The combination was unexpectedly wonderful, as was the puddle of crème anglaise dotted with fresh raspberry coulis, and a perfect pillow of whipped cream.
I had the cheesecake ($7), creamy and sweet with slightly tangy swirls of fresh raspberries. We admired the geometric presentation: a swipe of chocolate sauce across the bottom of the plate and three brilliant lines of raspberry coulis down the right side, balanced out by the perfect wedge of cake at left. The raspberries used for garnish were the best ones in the box, I’d guess.
“This is better than my mom’s cheesecake,” I said to Virginia. “Don’t tell her.”
I commented recently on the importance of the “wow” factor to a fine restaurant, and the thing about Winedown is the proportion of “wow” to price. That’s what makes this restaurant so valuable in these tough economic times. You can still have the bang without too much buck. I hope they thrive and prosper.
The tab for this incredible dinner with a coffee and soda, and leftovers, came to $100.16. We left wowed.