Restaurants in Schenectady are pushing up like mushrooms after an autumn rain. So it was with Maria’s Café & Catering, whose soft opening on the corner of Union and Yates streets in the Electric City was in May but whose official ribbon-cutting was in mid-October.
I had the impression that the café part of the enterprise was a showcase for the catering half: Sample what Maria can do, then hire her to replicate exquisite food in your own home or for a private event. A great idea!
Two steps into the front door (those with mobility issues should note) leads the diner to a small space populated with seven square black tables surrounded by four copper-colored chairs. A decorative copper-fronted granite counter, backed by large duplicates of the brief menu, lined one wall. Music played from one of two turntables (aka “record players” in the ’50s) with a volume low enough to permit conversation.
And talk we did — mostly about the menu. Maria offers breakfast from 7 a.m. and lunch/dinner until 6 p.m. Breakfast includes a half dozen mostly egg dishes from $5.50 (poached egg and avocado toast) to $8.50 (huevos rancheros). Breads include a gluten-free variety, and sides like cheesy grits ($4) and bacon, pancetta or sausage ($3) are also offered.
Maria offered two soups of the day that were more akin to stews of the day. Finding ourselves unable to choose, we ordered both. Each one, corn chowder ($5.50) or veggie chili ($4.50) would have been a meal by itself.
The corn chowder arrived steaming and ever so slightly sweet, creamy with corn, of course, cubes of potatoes still with their skins, carrots and celery.
Lunch and dinner blend together with categories like wraps/bowls, paninis, sandwiches, salads and extras. But it was the two specials listed on a small board propped up on the counter that caught our eyes.
Eggplant pizza ($15.95/8-cut) was enticing. What I expected was, well, a nice pizza with pieces of eggplant. But the eggplant was sliced thin and breaded as if it were to be used in eggplant parmesan. In fact, it was eggplant parmesan on a pizza crust — only better. Out server Chris brought out grated cheese and hot pepper flakes (which I always use), but using the condiments would have been like gilding the proverbial lily. The pizza was perfectly seasoned as it was served.
John ordered the fish and chips special ($12.95). He reported that the coating on the fish was light and crispy, and not at all oily. The fish (haddock, we were told) was tender and flaky. The fries were clearly hand-cut in a slightly irregular fashion, skin retained and lightly salted. We agreed we had not tasted better fish and chips.
We sipped ice coffees ($3.25 each) throughout the meal. Maria only serves organic fair-trade coffee and is proud of her commitment to environmentally safe agriculture. It was then that I noticed the dessert list.
The “bakery” offered muffins, cookies and scones at $2 each. But it was the variations of fried dough that made me dizzy. Except for the Northside (with butter and sugar for $5), the tempting array were all $7. Marinated balsamic strawberries, peanut butter and bnana, Nutella and bacon bits with melted brie, and lemon curd with blueberries competed with each other for our attention.
In the end, John chose the fried dough with lemon curd and blueberries, which threw a party for our taste buds. House-made, sweet-tart lemon curd graced the more neutral fried dough, while tart blueberries were calmed by real house-made, not-too-sweet whipped cream.
This delight was unlike anything we had ever tasted: simple, creative, addicting.
As we exited Maria’s Café, we noticed her white catering truck, gassed up and ready to serve. The holidays are coming up, and Maria’s offers Thanksgiving dinners to go.
Given Maria’s Café’s reasonable choices, $52.85 might seem expensive. But in an effort to cover a large spectrum of Maria’s offerings (and those of other dining establishments), I often over-order: appetizers, entrees, sides, desserts.
Even a relatively short menu offers an array of choices, and my duty to Gazette readers is to describe as many of them as possible.