Karen Bjornland, Beverly Elander and Caroline Lee ate their way through the year, sampling fine fare from fine restaurants and cozy diners. Each chose their top four dining spots of the year.
Mingle on the Avenue, Pavilion Grand Hotel, 30 Lake Ave., Saratoga Springs, 583-6682
Noodle soup with pork belly or Buglokee, a sizzling barbecue plate, served in a restaurant that’s part of a swanky new hotel? Yes, Mingle was the talk of the town this year, and for good reason. Homestyle Korean recipes and American comfort food share an adventurous menu that also caters to vegetarians, vegans and the gluten-free. The soup broth is the best ever, made with a whipped egg and chicken or pork bones.
Tables and booths look out on Lake Avenue, and in the summer, you can sit outside. And did I mention watermelon and arugula? It's the perfect cool summer appetizer.
Next Door Kitchen & Bar, 51 Front St., Ballston Spa, 309-3249, www.eatdinnernextdoor.com
Ballston Spa has become a dining destination, with yet another restaurant that serves locally sourced food and beverages. Chef Jeffrey Strom’s menu is extremely creative, with a focus on unexpected combinations of farm-fresh ingredients and special attention to texture and presentation. The kale salad is divine, the hand-rolled butternut gnocchi is ultra-tender. Fans of fried chicken flock here, too, and some of them are saying that Next Door does it better than Hattie's.
Harvest & Hearth, 251 County Route 67, Saratoga Springs, 587-1900, www.harvestandhearth.com
A big friendly dining room with a blazing wood-fired oven on the shores of Fish Creek. In warm weather, munch your flatbread pizza on the deck while you watch people play on kayaks and SUPs. Kids love this place but so do adults because they can order personal pizzas topped with nitrite-free maple fennel sausage or organic mushrooms. Salads are fresh and bountiful, enough for two to share. Bread puddings and brownies are baked in the big oven, too.
Thirsty Owl Wine Outlet & Bistro, 184 S. Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 587-9694, www.thirstyowlsaratoga.com
The Cupp family grows grapes in the Finger Lakes and makes 20 kinds of red and white Thirsty Owl wine. At Thirsty Owl in Saratoga Springs, you can buy a bottle of their wine or enjoy a glass with tapas or a full menu of entrees. Their tapas plates are like edible art, with swirls of herb creams and thin spears of fruit or veggie accenting choice bits of meat or seafood.
The chef's specialty is “Vieras,” scallops with white chocolate chipotle sauce and wild mushroom quinoa. Daring diners will love “Paella Negras,” an aromatic dome of rice and seafood blackened with squid ink. Thirsty Owl inhabits the former Kimberly Inn, which was once a two-story home. The parlor-like rooms are cozy, and in the summer, you can sit on the porch.
E.K.’s Cibo, 1702 Chrisler Ave., Schenectady. 378-7213, www.eks-cibo.com
E.K.’s Cibo belongs to an exclusive group of restaurants where any occasion is reason for a visit: an anniversary, a visitor, you don’t feel like cooking. Small with subdued decor, Cibo’s appetizer Artichoke Francese was a star. Soups are house made and imaginative. Chicken Francese and Chef Scott Carlton’s crème brulee laced with Amaretto are also house favorites.
Euro Deli and Market, 231 Wade Road Ext., Suite 106, Latham. 785-0103, www.EuroDeliandMarket.com
This little gem, more market than restaurant, hidden in a nearly empty rear of a Latham mall, can be easily overlooked. A robust, mostly Polish menu is served as take-out or at two tiny dine-in tables. And ah, the garlic!
House made potato pancakes with sour cream, sauerkraut, pickle soup, pierogis, kielbasa and golumpkis. Also American subs and salads, but why would anyone pass up this heady assortment of authentic Polish soul food?
Persian Bite, 96 Jay St., Schenectady. 393-6093, Persianbite.net
Kebobs and wraps, warm Persian bread, yogurt with cucumbers, basmati rice with saffron, Persian tea and rice pudding — all served in a garnet-colored jewel of an establishment. The menu is available for lunch, dinner or take-out.
Across from City Hall in downtown Schenectady, the new eatery is operated by the Zand brothers, Rasul and Reza, originally from Iran. And the prices are reasonable.
Zen Asian Fusion Mojoto Lounge, 469 State St., Schenectady. 280-0388, www.zenfusionlounge.com
Zen’s ambitious menu reflects the philosophy that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. The cuisine includes Thai, Japanese and Chinese dishes.
There are 26 soups, salads and appetizers, an array of dinner entrees, hibachi and teriyaki preparations, sushi and sashimi, plus a half dozen desserts. Tie this variety of freshly prepared foods together with neutral wall tans and ivory round hanging paper lanterns and the result is a calming Zen experience.
Sam’s Italian & American Restaurant, 125 Southern Boulevard, Albany. 463-3433, www.samsitalian.net.
Sam’s, as many of you know, is an Albany fixture, since 1971 a family-owned fine-dining Italian restaurant in a converted two-story home in the south end. Sam’s marinara sauce is to die for: mild, a bit pulpy, cherry red, gentle without being sweet. I could eat it with a spoon. Sam’s delivers old-school satisfaction and authentic Italian dishes in a cozy setting that feels like someone’s home. Prices are friendly, and you’ll find some Italian classics that are hard to come by these days, the likes of which you won’t find at Olive Garden.
The Turf Tavern, 40 Mohawk Ave., Scotia. 393-3344, www.turftavern.com.
The Turf Tavern serves a proper dinner at a reasonable price, with snappy service and classic entrees like prime rib, surf and turf, and seafood fra diavolo. Get a seat in the front window and watch the world go by on Mohawk Avenue while you sip a glass of wine and nibble a crab cake appetizer.
Don’t miss the homemade desserts. I like the classic menu, the warm atmosphere, the snappy service, and the thoughtfully prepared food. You can tell Turf Tavern has been doing things right for a long time.
Reel Seafood Company, 195 Wolf Road, Colonie. 458-2068, www.reelseafoodco.com
Reel Seafood has gotten a facelift, and boy, does it look sharp. Aliki Serris has taken over from her father, LeGrand, who opened the restaurant in 1983 and she’s updated the decor with a sparkling clean Mediterranean theme. It’s reputation for the best seafood around is well-earned; where else can you choose from five or more varieties of fresh oysters? The well-trained staff know the menu and wine list inside and out. Also, they’ve got the best homemade rolls around, hands down.
The Memphis King Southern Smokehouse BBQ, 1902 Van Vranken Ave., Schenectady. 372-5464, www.thememphisking.net
Rob Canton learned proper barbecue during the ten years he spent in Memphis, and when he came back home to Schenectady, decided there was a need for Southern food. He was right. The modest storefront restaurant has got your standard chicken, pork, and beef, and specials include London broil and pork chops. Once I tasted his barbecue sauce, I was converted. The flavor of the smoke is never overwhelming.
The brisket has crispy edges with just enough fat to keep things interesting. Enjoy it with a Jarritos Mexican soda. I’m still dreaming of it.