Distinctive cuisines with anything but ordinary menu choices are traits shared by the top 10 picks of the Gazette’s restaurant critics for 2010.
The restaurants singled out are not similar, however, in most respects. They range from an ethnic local dining spot run by a Peruvian and Salvadoran couple to a classic Greek restaurant with authentic Hellenic cuisine to a rehabilitated hotel in a once posh spa community in Schoharie County.
What the selected restaurants do have in common is their promise of a memorable dining experience for a reasonable price, especially important in the current economy.
You can order a toasted cheese sandwich or a hamburger in most of these places, but why would you want to?
What we LOVED in 2010
Here are capsule commentaries on the 10 by our critics.
IRV DEAN’S LIST
Flores Family Restaurant, 1427 State St., Schenectady
We were impressed by the freshly prepared dishes with Latin American spices featured at Flores Family Restaurant, which has a Latino feel to it even before you taste the food.
You can order Pescado Frito — a whole tilapia, including head and tail, lightly coated, fried in hot oil and presented with lime wedges arrayed on top. There are Peruvian and Argentine beers, and you can also get fried plantains, a Tamal de Elote (sweet, finely ground maiz steamed in a cornstalk wrapper and served warm with crema) and generous servings of red beans and rice, all for a moderate price.
Rubbin’ Butts Barbecue, 1599 Union St., Schenectady
A spinoff of an established and popular business in Cobleskill, new to Schenectady. The formula is simple: good barbecue served fast and moderately priced.
Try the Texas beef brisket sandwich with hickory red barbecue sauce or the pulled pork. Besides meats that they smoke on the premises, there are delicious sides like cheddar cheese grits, collard greens and barbecued beans. A bonus: the place is redolent of all those smoky sweet smells that signify good barbecue and pull patrons in off the street.
American Hotel, 192 Main St., Sharon Springs
Try the Sunday brunch at this grand hotel on a small scale in the formerly bustling spa community of Sharon Springs. If you arrive about midday, you can sample the brunch as well as the enticing dinner entrées created by chef Lee Wolver.
Partners Doug Plummer and Garth Roberts restored the hotel and reopened it, along with its little pub, in 2001. You can while away an afternoon or evening here, relaxing on the wood plank porch where Oscar Wilde once gave readings to well-to-do summer visitors or feasting on a multi-course meal in the formal dining room with its early American decor.
Cafe NOLA, 617 Union St., Schenectady
Authentic New Orleans Cajun cuisine landed in Schenectady this year, and seems to be winning over the hearts and stomachs of local diners. The food is well prepared and presented attractively, and service, after some early bumps, is pleasingly efficient.
The decor is pure New Orleans with an alligator here and there, little statues of musicians, masks on the walls and background music evocative of Mardi Gras, as are the beads that customers are presented upon leaving. It’s the food, however, that matters most at any restaurant, and Kevin Brown and family are doing it right.
Athos Restaurant, 1814 Western Ave., Guilderland
From cold pikilia (appetizers) to the full course entrées, Athos serves Greek food that is so authentic you’ll want to shout “opah!”
Try the fresh fish of the day, perhaps a Mediterranean brazzini, which will be grilled whole with head and tail intact and filleted at tableside. Side dish choices include lemon potatoes and rice pilaf. Entrées might be Macedonian Lamb, Moussaka or Rabbit Stephato, and you can sample classic Greek desserts like baklava and galaktobouriko, a flaky filo pastry filled with custard and glazed with honey, which you can savor with strong, sweet Greek coffee in demitasse cups.
Caroline Lee’s Picks
New World Bistro Bar, 300 Delaware Ave., Albany
You’ll find eclectic cuisine and imaginative, locally sourced food at this younger sibling of Ric Orlando’s venerable New World Home Cooking restaurant in Saugerties. There are old favorites on the menu, like the green bean appetizer laced with hot stuff, and enjoy dessert even if you’re full — there are small portions to give you just a taste. Have dinner and see a film — both the NWBB and the Spectrum offer fare that makes you think.
Katrinella’s Bistro, 123 1⁄2 Madison Ave., Albany
Get a reservation because the dining room is tiny and the word is out that the food is good. Katrinella’s offers three-course meals for a bargain, food that owner Joe Rogers “loves to cook.”
Try the chicken Katrinella and have a slice of homemade cheesecake for dessert. But hurry up so someone else can have your table.
Pasta Pane, 18 Park Ave., Clifton Park
The fine dining wasteland in Southern Saratoga county has improved greatly with the addition of Pasta Pane and a few other independents. Pasta Pane offers amazing value for the money, and the quality of the food is outstanding.
The bread is made fresh daily, and the entrées feature homemade pasta. Don’t pass up dessert, and get there early or be prepared to wait because they don’t take reservations.
Jumpin’ Jack’s, 5 Schonowee Ave., Scotia
I’ve gotten more feedback on this place than any other, and all of the comments were the same: a favorite family burger and shake place loved by folks who went as kids and now bring their own.
Don’t worry, the food hasn’t changed. The onion rings are remembered fondly by longtime regulars. Head next door for some nifty homemade caramel corn, fresh cotton candy, and soft-serve ice cream — kiddie heaven.
Village Pizzeria, 2727 Route 29, Galway
Full of flavor without being heavy, that was my summing up of the food here. The pizza is killer, especially the Buffalo chicken, and though the place doesn’t have the gloss of the fancier places in nearby Saratoga, it’s a lot less expensive and just as good.