Natalie Conover sat Friday afternoon at a bar in Scotia, the smooth surface beneath her elbows lit up bright neon orange.
She had just ordered an eggnog martini from a newly renovated restaurant that, for the past 37 years, served Chinese food and was popular for its buffet under the Dragon Garden name.
But the Scotia woman wasn’t in Kansas anymore. She wasn’t even in a Chinese restaurant. The buffet was no more.
“I’ve been waiting for you to open,” she told Joe Chan, who opened Dragon Garden at 120 Mohawk Ave. in 1977. “I’m just so shocked. I just can’t get over the difference.”
“Big change,” Chan said. “Total change.”
“It looks lovely,” Conover said.
Then a bartender handed her the drink, made with fresh eggnog, vanilla vodka and amaretto. She took a sip.
“Mmm, mmm,” she said. “Delicious. Oh my goodness. Of course, I like eggnog, so this is a treat.”
Dragon Garden reopened Sunday as Jade Bistro, an Asian fusion restaurant and bar, after being closed more than two months for extensive renovations. The updated look and menu overhaul come as Chan retires and his niece, Xiau Wu, becomes the owner. A grand reopening is planned for Jan. 1.
“I will always accept change,” Chan said, “but I cannot catch up that fast.”
Chan’s reason for retiring — he’s 75 years old.
“That’s why I’ve got to go,” he said.
Even so, he continues to greet customers — new and old — at the door. He just doesn’t have any of the responsibilities that come with running a restaurant. He and his wife, Nancy, have no plans to move out of Scotia, however.
“He loves his customers so much that he doesn’t really want to step away from them,” said Bill Chow, Chan’s nephew and a family spokesman who helped with the reopening and will be a part-time host at the restaurant.
Chan said most of his returning customers like the changes, though some weren’t happy to see the buffet go.
“How can you please everybody?” he said. “No way.”
The restaurant, which served only Cantonese Chinese food for nearly four decades, is now serving Cantonese, Mandarin and Sichuan dishes, as well Japanese and Thai food.
“That’s what’s popular now,” said Chow, who lives in Troy. “And with Asian fusion restaurants, it gives people a choice of many different types of Asian cuisine.”
Chow said the buffet food had to go because it “wasn’t what we wanted and didn’t meet customers’ expectations.”
“It just wasn’t fresh,” he said. “The trend is going away from buffets and toward a healthier eating experience.”
No MSG or trans fats are used in the food’s preparation, the soy sauce on the tables is low-sodium and the menu offers vegetarian and gluten-free options, he said.
Fifteen people were hired with the reopening, bringing the restaurant’s staff to about 20, Chow said. Three chefs who were working in New York City’s Chinatown were hired to prepare the new menu items, which include Peking duck, a variety of sushi creations, pad Thai and lobster, among many other offerings, he said.
The bar, which features flat-screen TVs showing sporting events, serves a variety of sake, mojitos, exotic island drinks, martinis, wines, beer and nonalcoholic beverages such as Chinese tea and coffee. There’s also a party room for private events, weddings, birthdays and anniversaries large enough to hold 40 people.
Chow said the name change was necessary to give the restaurant a “new identity.”
“We hope to cater to a more diverse crowd,” Chow said, “the younger generation, the sushi lovers, to offer Scotia, Glenville, Schenectady really something that they hadn’t had before.”
As for the physical upgrades to the restaurant, Chow said work entailed knocking down the interior walls to make way for one large dining room, adding a 360-degree bar at the center of the restaurant, replacing most of the kitchen equipment, renovating the bathrooms and a complete makeover of the exterior. The cost of the renovations was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.
Sipping her eggnog martini as she waited for a takeout order of soup and fried rice, Conover said she didn’t expect such a change but will get used to it in no time. She’s been going to that location, right across from Scotia Cinema, for Chinese food for more than a decade.
“I look forward to coming here for many dinners,” she said. “I like the idea of a bar. I’ll bring my girlfriends down here some night.”
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