COBLESKILL — A culinary adventure was in order, and so my husband and I ventured far from home one recent night in search of dinner. But what we found at Justine’s in Cobleskill wasn’t far from home at all — in fact, it felt like we’d stepped into a neighbor’s home.
The dining room at Justine’s, accessed through the adjacent pizza parlor, is small but not cramped, and the architecture of the space, with its crimson walls and white wainscoting and trim, feels a lot like someone’s living room. We were seated at a small table in the center of the room and placed our orders from a menu consisting primarily of Italian specialties (the few exceptions were on the appetizers menu). Drinks arrived promptly, and the food started coming not long after.
First to arrive was the salad, which comes with all of the entrees. The salads were small but not skimpy, just enough crisp lettuce, halved grape tomatoes and onion slices to whet our appetites. We ordered them with homemade ranch dressing, and it was delicious, with none of the usually chemical flavors or oddly thick texture of the bottled stuff; this was the best ranch dressing I’ve ever had, a simple thing done really, really well.
We’d barely tucked into our salads when the appetizers came. My husband ordered the stuffed mushrooms, and he was pleased with the nicely spiced sausage filling, though I thought it might’ve been a trifle too mushy. I ordered the mozzarella sticks, which were enormous and also homemade, coated in a thick corn flake crust. The breading layer was a bit too thick, so that it wasn’t quite crunchy all the way through to the cheese, but it was still quite good, a really tasty and creative take on a dish that’s usually the same just about everywhere. They went nicely with the marinara sauce provided for dipping, which had a very bright, fresh tomato flavor.
WHERE: 399 W. Main St., Cobleskill, 234-3476; www.facebook.com/pages/Justines-of-Cobleskill-NY
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week
HOW MUCH: $62.65
MORE INFO: Visa, MasterCard and Discover accepted; wheelchair-accessible
Next to arrive, when we’d barely put a dent in our appetizers, was a plate of garlic bread, which proved to be the first stumble of the meal. The slices of Italian bread weren’t anything special flavor-wise, and they were presented in a way that showed no effort or care, thrown on the plate and topped with haphazardly drizzled olive oil and balsamic vinegar, some garlic and herb seasoning and a few Parmesan cheese shavings.
Some actual garlic bread, grilled with butter and garlic and perhaps some cheese, would have been much better. A basket of flavorful bread served alongside a dish of oil and balsamic for dipping would have been perfectly acceptable, too. Still, it was a small thing, and we set the bread aside. No harm, no foul.
The entrees came soon after — the kitchen was a bit overeager and the pacing of the food seemed a bit overwhelming. And by this point, that wasn’t the only thing that was overwhelming: we’d overestimated our appetites and underestimated the size of the entrees. The plates were heaped with pasta and meat, and we knew at once glance that we’d both be boxing some of this up to take home.
My husband ordered the stuffed chicken breast, two breaded breasts stuffed with ham and mozzarella and cooked in Marsala wine sauce with mushrooms, served over pasta. He thought that his food tasted good, but the ham and cheese got lost under the assertive flavor of the sauce. The result was a dish that mostly tasted like roasted chicken, which wasn’t bad but wasn’t what he expected. More ham and a more strongly flavored cheese, perhaps Gruyere, would have improved the dish, he thought.
I got the stuffed sole, two filets wrapped around a scallop and crab stuffing in a sherry cream sauce with sun-dried tomatoes, also served over pasta. The fish was nicely cooked and the stuffing was tasty, though the shellfish was a bit sparse. The pasta was perfectly done, but the sauce was a bit weak in flavor and a little watery in texture, though not offensively so. It was a pretty good dish.
We just barely managed to save a little room for dessert, since our server had told us that most of their desserts are homemade. We split an order of panna cotta, which was delicious, with a rich vanilla flavor and dense, creamy texture. It was served with a drizzle of raspberry sauce, a delicious accent, but it was also topped with a dollop of something that I strongly suspect was Cool Whip: it just didn’t have the right flavor or texture to be real whipped cream. It was disappointing that they’d make such a nice homemade dessert and then top it with something so artificial and mass-produced.
The total cost of our meal, with two appetizers, two entrees, one dessert, tax and tip, came to $62.65.
Overall, our dinner at Justine’s reminded us of someone’s home cooking. This place clearly puts an emphasis on from-scratch cooking, and the results are often superior to what you might get from a Sysco truck. But just like your mom’s cooking, sometimes something falls a little flat. Still, you know a lot of care and effort went into it, and any restaurant that embraces that philosophy should be commended.
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