Sometimes a dining experience exceeds expectations, as ours did on a visit to A Taste of Europe on Route 145 in Cobleskill one recent fall evening.
Except for the sign at the beginning of a walkway and ramp flanked by low culinary sage bushes, the pale yellow building with brown-and-green trim looked like an ordinary house in the country. Friend Gail and I were greeted by a tall, graying gentleman at the door who introduced himself as Janis Balins.
We entered a large room split by a staircase. A dozen or so tables were covered by ivory linens, gold charger plates and merlot napkins, and were surrounded by chairs covered in off-white. Deep red tapestry drapes with gold fringes obscured much of the windows. A fireplace flickered at the far end of the room with tiny satellites gracing each table. Water glasses reminiscent of Hungarian cut crystal sparkled at each place setting.
A Taste of Europe
WHERE: 3630 State Route 145, Cobleskill. 296-8000, www.atasteofeurope.com
WHEN: 4:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, closed Monday and Tuesday, reservations recommended
HOW MUCH: $85.50 without wine, tax and tip
MORE INFO: accessible, parking in private lot, all major credit cards accepted
I felt as if Scotty had just beamed me up to old Europe.
Tempted to order a bottle of red Egri Bikaver (“Bull’s Blood” translated from the Hungarian), we settled instead for glasses of Riesling and merlot.
And then we settled down with A Taste of Europe’s menu: appetizers and entrées from a dozen European countries including Greece, Italy, the Czech Republic and Latvia. Overwhelmed by the selection and descriptions, Gail and I sipped and studied until she arrived at Vegetable Pancakes prepared with fennel and baby spinach, served with Spanish saffron and mustard seed sauce ($8) for her appetizer, and Belgian Abbey Chicken Tenderloin flambéed with gin and finished with a cream sauce laced with dark Abbey Dubbel Ale ($26) as an entree.
Mistaking Latvian Piragi (made with yeast dough) for pierogi (noodle pockets), I ordered the cardamom-scented crescents filled with sautéed diced bacon and onions and freshly ground pepper as my appetizer, and Romanian Rhapsody (Lamb Ragout) with a kiss of honey, simmered with tomatoes, bell peppers, olive oil, garlic and a pinch of hot paprika ($29) for an entrée.
Gail’s trio of vegetable pancakes were light green, decorated with slivers of red and yellow peppers, tiny sprigs of parsley, and dollops of pale yellow mustard seed sauce with the consistency of mayonnaise. They were savory, thin, light and slightly crispy. A hint of garlic was gentled by the mustard sauce.
Chicken, especially the white meat, can be nearly neutral in flavor. But the accompanying white sauce, flambéed with gin and dark ale, was brash enough to convert even the most timid of meats to flavorful bites, not merely by coating it, but by penetrating it. The plate was artistically adorned by crisp-tender broccoli florets, green beans, small coins of carrot shaped like flowers and white rice.
My Latvian piragi were initially a surprise. Reminiscent of miniature samosas, they were served at room temperature.
Host Janis, husband of Chef Jeannette, related a time when he was a little boy and his grandmother served him the savory crescents right from the oven. “For breakfast?” I asked. “Any time,” he grinned.
I warmed my leftovers for breakfast the next morning, and found the heat intensified the flavor, though the cardamom was undetectable.
Ah sweet Romanian Rhapsody! With attitude. The honey and hot paprika in the lamb ragout dueled for the love of the lamb and the result was a tie. It was the kind of dark brown sauce you could eat with a spoon and without shame.
When efficient and congenial Gina delivered our entrées, Janis overseeing the grand event confessed that we had ordered Jeannette’s two favorite dishes. Understandable. It would be difficult to imagine
“Dessert?” asked Gina. “They are all made by Jeannette.”
Gail chose the palachinky ($6), two crêpes filled with strawberry jam and separated by a slim stripe of whipped cream. My dessert was a Slovenian masterpiece consisting of small squares of pastry similar to baklava layered with poppy seeds and chocolate between sheets of phyllo ($8).
Each dessert was decorated so it would delight the eye as well as please the palate. Gail and I decided that next time we might try the French Mousse au Chocolat. Janis suggested it was a winner.
Somewhere in the middle of this fine meal, we decided the only missing element was music. Janis was blamed for the omission, a role he seems to accept with resignation and a smile. Quiet classical music magically appeared.
In addition to regular dinner, the Balinses cater special events and once a month host an evening dedicated to the wine and cuisine of a special geographical area in Europe.