Karen Bjornland, Beverly Elander and Caroline Lee ate their way through the year, sampling fare from fine restaurants and cozy diners. Each chose their top dining spots.
Boca Bistro, 383 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, 682-2800, www.bocabistro.com, Facebook
This Spanish restaurant and tapas bar is numero uno for food explorers. The odyssey begins with crusty bread, fruity olives and Spanish cheeses and then sails on through more than two dozen tapas, from anchovies and octopus to garlic shrimp and stuffed dates.
Paella, enormous fragrant platters of it, enough for four to six to share, is another specialty.
David and Roslyn Zecchini dreamed up this unique bistro after a trip to Barcelona.
Morgan & Co., 65 Ridge Road, Glens Falls, 409-8060, www.morganrestaurant.com, Facebook
Rebecca Newell-Butters, a winner of TV’s “Chopped,” and her husband Steve Butters, who has appeared on “Sweet Genius,” another Food Network show, are the chefs at this informal restaurant in a 1891 mansion in downtown Glens Falls.
Among the fun and eclectic menu items is the weird and wonderful Inca Bowl, filled with quinoa, roasted veggies and other surprises. Warm and satisfying, it’s one of the best vegan dishes around, but you can also order it with chicken kabob, steak, shrimp, salmon and swordfish.
In the summer, you can dine outdoors on the wraparound porch.
Restaurant at 62 Beekman, 62 Beekman St., Saratoga Springs, 584-1022, www.62beekman.com, Facebook
One of the best places to dine outdoors in Saratoga Springs. In the summer, veggies grow inches away from the spacious patio and front porch. Indoors, there’s artwork by local artists on every wall. The cuisine is “creative New American” with imaginative pasta dishes, an exceptional crab cake appetizer and interesting desserts like root beer floats, chocolate chip ice cream sandwiches and award-winning sea salt caramel bars.
Three Vines Bistro, 32 Congress St., Saratoga Springs, 306-5881, www.threevinesbistro.com, Facebook
Meatballs! At Three Vines, the first meatball bar in the Capital Region, they call their creations “meet balls” because you can mingle while you eat them at extra-long tables near the bar.
For $10, sample five hefty meatballs from a menu of 10 that includes vegetarian, lobster, sausage/broccoli rabe and Buffalo chicken.
From every corner of the restaurant, you can watch the chef toss pizza dough and shovel those pies into a big, wood-fired oven. Their personal-sized pies (gluten-free and whole-wheat available) are another speciality. For dessert, try their cannoli chips with ricotta dip, napoleons or tiramisu.
Steininger’s, 191 S. Main St. (Route 22), Salem, 854-3830, www.steiningers.com
This modest restaurant on the main drag in Salem is reminiscent of visiting your German grandmother’s kitchen. Chintz on the tables and walls and friendly wait staff are second only to the homemade cooking. The Wurst Sampler, with Bavarian fried potatoes (prepared with bacon and onions) was a winner with a hearty portion of the prize to take home for the next day. But the loving cup went to their desserts. House made puffs filled with fresh berries, sundaes of ice cream topped with real whipped cream, berries and Steininger’s own hot fudge.
Worth a trip from anywhere.
Ninja, 11-13 N. Broadway, Schenectady, 377-5800, Facebook
“Fusion” is the recent fashionable word to describe creative Asian cuisine, which blends some combination of Chinese, Japanese and Thai. Ninja in downtown Schenectady features owner Jackie Chen’s take on creativity. Chen adds unusual seasonings to tradition sauces, and the result is his own brand of fusion. Some of the standouts on the menu are lettuce wraps, pad Thai, a large assortment of sushi and red curries. The sleek red, black and white décor is inviting whether for a quick lunch, a leisurely dinner or a wind-down cocktail after work.
Nonna Maria’s Italian Kitchen, 1505 Route 9, Halfmoon, 952-7201, nonnamariasitaliankitchen.com
A kitchen open to the dining room brings a heady waft of garlic to the patrons and a sense of visiting Nonna (Grandma) Maria herself. Chef Geraldo (“Jerry”) cooks “from the heart,” as evidenced by the packed dining room. My giant bowl of haddock, large shrimp, clams, mussels and calamari had been simmered in a white wine sauce with basil and other Italian herbs and was served over linguini.
The pork special consisted of several thick slices of pork tenderloin surrounded by a moat of sage-tinted honey mustard sauce, and nicely balanced in color, texture and flavor by artichoke hearts and asparagus spears. This and many other Italian standards are served by friendly, professional staff.
A Taste of Europe, 3630 State Route 145, Cobleskill, 296-8000, www.atasteofeurope.com
The ambiance of this Cobleskill gem sets you in old Europe — from Greece to Latvia, Hungary and the Czech Republic — replete with fireplace, candles, dim lighting, sparkling glassware, ivory linens and burgundy tapestries. But it is the food that transports the diner: appetizers like vegetable pancakes with fennel and baby spinach, or Latvian Piragi (cardamom-scented crescents filled with sauteed diced bacon and onions.)
Entrees might be Belgian Abbey Chicken Tenderloin flambéed with gin, or Romanian Rhapsody (Lamb Ragout with honey, simmered with tomatoes, bell peppers, olive oil, garlic and a pinch of hot paprika). Add palachinky (crepes filled with strawberry preserves) for dessert plus a chance to chat with chef Jannette Balin and husband/host Janis, and the evening becomes a celebration of fine dining.
Puzzles Bakery & Cafe, 515 State St., Schenectady, 280-2620, www.puzzlesbakerycafe.com
Of all the restaurants I visited this year, Puzzles Bakery & Café lived up most closely to the clear goal set by its owner, Sara Mae Hickey. She has worked to create a place where all people, including those with special needs like her autistic younger sister, can help prepare and serve, and enjoy a meal in a restaurant.
The straightforward menu included items like Steak and Bleu Panini and Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches, all served at sleek white tables surrounded with crayon blue metal chairs. Puzzles promises to “harness the power of business to achieve social good.” And so far, it has.
Rocco’s On Main Street, 989 Main St., Clifton Park, 406-5251, www.roccosonmain.com
The same folks who brought you the excellent Halfmoon Sandwich Shop have opened a fine dining restaurant and it’s just as good. Rocco’s positions itself as fine American modern dining with an updated menu, using locally procured provisions. The menu includes just one of each kind of thing, but the best they can make. With a charming rustic dining room and polished service, I’m betting Rocco’s will grow into one of the best restaurants in the Capital Region.
Campagna Restaurant, 2452 State Route 9, Malta, 289-5693, campagna.restaurant
Campagna’s simply prepared, glorious rustic-style food is worth the trip from anywhere. Go hungry and take your time to appreciate the fine cooking. Their uncomplicated menu features homemade country comfort dishes like tagliatelle Bolognese and stellar, straightforward roasted Murray’s chicken.
Everything, from the rustic bread to the refined homemade desserts, which vary weekly, is homemade. The dining room is smart and upscale, appropriate for such elegant cooking, but comfortable.
Bella Napoli Bakery and Cafe, 672 New Loudon Road (Route 9), Latham, 783-0196, www.bellanapolibakery.com
When’s the last time you had a really good sandwich? It doesn’t hurt that Bella Napoli makes their own wide varieties of bread, and they use top-quality ingredients to ensure a delicious outcome. The cafe has friendly counter service, homemade soups, and a view of the sandwich-making. When you’re done, head over to the bakery for a delicious selection of fresh-baked pastries of every stripe and persuasion.
Marcella’s Family Restaurant, 517 Saratoga Road, Glenville, 399-1901, www.marcellas-restaurant.com
Marcella’s Family Restaurant serves Italian-style food for breakfast, lunch and dinner and offers pizza and food to go. Enjoy a variety of homemade soups, and hot or cold sandwiches, Italian specialties like fried calamari, lasagna or chicken Parm.
The small dining room is cozy, in warm weather dine al fresco on the patio or at a picnic table. There aren’t many places around like Marcella’s on Saratoga Road in Glenville anymore, family-owned and genuine and we need to support them.
Top Notch Tavern, 712 County Road 132, West Galway, 843-2333, www.topnotchtavern.com
Enjoy hearty comfort food and camaraderie in a restored 19th-century hotel and stagecoach stop. Famous for their prime rib, Top Notch also offers sandwiches, burgers, pasta and seafood at reasonable prices and boasts an expansive, appealing salad bar.
Three fireplaces and cozy dining rooms provide a romantic backdrop for date night, and thoughtful, professional service makes enjoyment effortless. The prime rib is tender and juicy, and be sure to leave room for the homemade desserts.