State Street was desolate and downtown Schenectady felt abandoned at dusk on a Saturday evening during the pandemic. The otherworldly clattering and clanging of ancient bells from somewhere nearby filled the damp air, making it even more eerie.
By contrast, The Nest was warm, welcoming and — within restrictions — bustling. Its home is the former waiting room for the Schenectady Railway Company, part of the the Foster Complex that includes three other buildings renovated by Sequence Development. A modern version of the original three-story arched window was recreated, making for a stunning restaurant space.
The bar takes up one side of the restaurant — with a line of those uncomfortable metal stools familiar to anyone who took chemistry lab — and there are high tables as well as low ones. Stairs opposite the bar lead to a smaller space above, a roost, with more tables and a lofty view over the first floor. The modern, spare style is softened by use of natural materials on floors and walls, so the overall effect is restful.
Takeout was a breeze. We’d phoned in our order earlier in the day and it was ready to go the minute we arrived, packed neatly in a carrier bag with handles.
Husband Eric tugged my sleeve. “Time to go,” he said, as he does when I dawdle. The restaurant’s homey feeling combined with a festive vibe beckoned. I didn’t want to leave.
Takeout is the middle ground between staying home and supporting local restaurants. There are concessions to be made.
For example, it falls to the takeout diner to ensure that the components are at their best when it’s time to sit down. So when unpacking, some things go in the refrigerator, some into the oven. It’s important to respect the food and the effort that went into making it.
The Nest’s menu offers American Southern standards such as shrimp and grits ($26), chicken fried steak ($26) and fried green tomatoes ($13). Grits, biscuits and sausage gravy are well represented.
An order of grit tots ($7.50) was a good start. The tots, with a substantial crust, were soft and steamy within, like airy cornbread. Someone shook hot sauce over them, much to their benefit. Eric called the sausage gravy “out of this world.” The homemade sausage was crumbled into deliciously seasoned pieces, luxuriating in the thick gravy. We scooped them up, we scraped the sides of the container. Eric vowed to get anything with sausage gravy on our next visit.
The provenance of chicken and waffles is unclear, but the dish probably came about after the post-Civil War migration of southerners to the north. It was first recorded as a staple dish in Pennsylvania Dutch Country at the end of the 19th century, where pulled chicken and gravy was served over waffles, but chicken and waffles as we know it today, with breaded fried chicken pieces, was popular at supper clubs in Harlem in the 1930s.
At heart it is Southern, as is all good fried chicken, and at The Nest they take it seriously. Their chicken and waffles ($23) starts with brined chicken, which guarantees moist meat, though there is a tradeoff in texture and sometimes saltiness. Their serving is a half chicken, cut into pieces and hand-breaded in crumbs.
It happened we had fried chicken leftovers, which allowed for direct comparison. The boxed frozen chicken was tough and skewed dry, OK in a pinch; the supermarket fried chicken was surprisingly oily but had better meat. The Nest’s tender, flavored breadcrumb coating and good-quality chicken put it head and shoulders above the others. It was like homemade, made by someone who’s a good cook.
The Nest has those good cooks, and this chicken is the giveaway of a scratch kitchen. That’s what I’m talking about when I say I respect the food: The accompanying fat waffles perked right up after a few minutes in a hot oven and with honey butter, honey hot sauce and bourbon maple syrup added; I could recreate the meal at home (almost) the way the chef would.
The juxtaposition of maple syrup and hot sauce was unexpected, pleasing to both sweet and tart taste buds. Chicken, breading, waffle, maple, butter and hot sauce all at once make for a big mouthful, so after a few large bites I took the components in parts, thus appreciating the qualities of each.
Eric enjoyed the drumstick. After hearing that brining produced such moist chicken he replied, “Whatever does it, it’s delicious.”
He savored the jambalaya ($26), a dish portable and amenable to holding. It went from container to warmed bowl, no extra work required. Jambalaya is a stew of protein and vegetables mixed with rice, usually Spanish and Caribbean-inspired. The Nest’s interpretation has, thanks to tomatoes, Creole influences. It also has pieces of boneless chicken, smoky and flavorful.
“It has some heat,” Eric said, “and the andouille is great.” The dish begins with the holy trinity of vegetables: onion, celery and bell pepper cooked together with the meat, then broth and rice are added. “It was really good,” he added later, reminiscing with some enthusiasm.
The tab for our food came to $61.03 and we added a hefty tip. Though it’s takeout, a lot of people work to get your food ready, even if they don’t carry it to the table. At The Nest, they go to a lot of trouble to get everything just right. We are happy to support restaurant workers right now.
The Nest is near the top of our list of restaurants to visit when we start eating out again. Eric wants to dive deeper into the menu. “There are a lot of strong candidates among the entrees,” he said.
And, of course, he’ll have anything with sausage gravy.
WHERE: 512 State St., Schenectady; (518) 672-3018; thenest518.com
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday; 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday brunch, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday dinner; 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday brunch
HOW MUCH: $61.03 with tax, before tip
MORE INFO: ADA compliant with ramps and elevator. Accommodations made for children’s meals. Credit cards: Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover.