Quiz: This restaurant is owned and operated by a Culinary Institute of America graduate who has wide-ranging restaurant experience. Everything that comes out of his kitchen is fantastic, made of locally procured ingredients when available, with a menu that changes seasonally. The food is outrageously, seriously top-notch.
Are you at a legacy restaurant long supported by political fat cats in downtown Albany? A seasonal, pricey Saratoga gem? Surprise! You’re in East Greenbush.
Chez Mike’s stylish signage above its narrow storefront distinguishes it, especially at night, from the nail salons and fast-food shops in the long row of stores in its unassuming location in the Hannaford Plaza on routes 9 and 20.
Chez Mike Restaurant
WHERE: 596 Columbia Turnpike (routes 9 and 20) in Hannaford Plaza, East Greenbush. 479-4730, www.chezmikerestaurant.com
WHEN: Tuesday to Saturday, lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday dinner 5 to 9 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $105.51 with tax and tip, not including wine.
MORE INFO: Wheelchair accessible. Reservations accepted. Children’s menu. Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express, Discover.
Inside, the dining room is warm and pleasant as such a space can be, with mustard and cayenne paint, wooden tables, and a row of six booths opposite a long banquette lined with tables for two. Large wood-framed blackboards proclaim the daily specials. There is a full bar with seating in the back. It’s just the right size.
We were seated along the banquette, and while the tables are close, we didn’t overhear others’ conversations even though there was no music. The background noise was just a buzz, and not a noisy one, either.
With all the eclectic, intriguing appetizers on the menu to pick through — house-made pate, grilled Romaine hearts with peaches and bleu cheese, Thai salad, and seared scallops, husband Eric chose a Caesar salad ($5.99).
A good salad, to be sure, with crisp sliced Romaine, tangy dressing and salty fresh grated cheese, but I thought he could have made a more inspired choice. Like mine: bruschetta with heirloom tomatoes ($9.99). It is August, and the tomatoes are soft as ripe peaches. The slices, maroon and yellow and dark green and purply, were fleshy and soft and minimally dressed, piled casually over two carefully browned slices of airy ciabatta brushed with olive oil. It was summer food heaven.
“Can I bring you like more tomatoes?” asked the server. I made an attempt at protesting, but she returned shortly with a soup cup filled with more precious slices, all the colors jumping out at me at once and, of course, I ate them all, summer being as fleeting as it is. The ciabatta I took home and it was wonderful right out the refrigerator the next day.
I compared the ciabatta with the sliced baguette served at the table, and though both delicious, they were distinctly different. Chez Mike serves tidy pats of sweet butter with chopped kalamata olive and clearly cares about the quality of the bread.
We chose a bottle of delightfully chilly Matua Valley Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand ($24), a grassy and tart wine we both enjoy. Most well-known varieties of wine are available by the bottle or glass and with a few exceptions prices for bottles are mostly in the $20 to $30 range. We declined the ice bucket and the staff left us to pour for ourselves, a choice that says something important about Chez Mike: Their food is top-drawer, but they want you to be casual and relaxed while you eat it.
The menu changes seasonally; current entrees include one or two choices each of beef, seafood, chicken and pork prepared the way Mike deems best. Trust him, they’re all good. Filet mignon with cheddar polenta, watercress, and smoked tomato bacon butter ($27.99) but you can also get a hamburger for $9.99, and not just any burger but Angus beef, with rosemary and sea salt seasoned french fries.
My dinner, the jerk-seasoned swordfish ($23.99), was all about the fish. Swordfish is tricky to cook because it goes from done to dry in an instant; this swordfish was perfect, juicy and flaky. It lay on a bed of risotto studded with bits of pineapple and a neat pile of steamed spinach. The red onion chutney sweet, tart and tasty. Its color made it a pretty plate as well.
Eric ordered Chez Mike’s New England-style seafood chowder ($22.99), what you’d get if you magnified the best things about chowder and minimized the soup part. There were giant shrimp, plump scallops, haddock and clams in their shells along with diced potato and crumbled smoky bacon in a creamy sauce, more seafood stew than soup, and very satisfying, Eric said, (despite some small broken pieces of clam shell in the soup).
Eric chose the creme brûlée ($6) for dessert, which came in a wide dish to maximize the amount of glassine browned sugar topping. The custard beneath was fluffy and yellow, and he said it was wonderful. I chose the warm grilled pineapple ($6) in a caramel syrup topped with a scoop of fast-melting vanilla ice cream. It was a bit too sweet for me, so I just ate the pineapple and left Eric the ice cream and caramel sauce.
Service at Chez Mike is dependably good. Our server was knowledgeable and quick to make suggestions to improve our experience. She walked by our table to check on our progress several times; if she thought we didn’t need anything, we weren’t interrupted. When I said I liked the bread very much, she packed up a large order with butter for me to take home.
We were very pleased with our dinner. Portions here are about quality, not quantity, something some people will never understand. Even with dessert, we were full but not stuffed. Owner Mike Cohen has created a pleasant environment to enjoy good food and each other’s relaxed company. We felt treated well, appreciated even. There was a signed paper tucked in one of the leftover boxes, that read in part: Thank you very much for your patronage. Sincerely, Chef Mike.
The tab for dinner, not including the wine but with tax and tip, came to $105.51. The name — Chez Mike — comes with an implied wink. It could be Chez Michel, but it’s just Mike. No fuss here, just great food. I hope he doesn’t ever change a thing.