A good restaurant is a special blend of food, service and ambience. Its name, color scheme, food descriptions — even landscaping — are ingredients in this culinary potpourri. Toss in the owner and chef to orchestrate, and you have a unique whole. Change even one variable and something different is created.
Veronica’s Culinary Tavern belongs to an ever-growing club of what I term “use-tabees” — restaurants that have undergone significant change, either in management, kitchen, intent or all three.
Veronica’s morphed from Mio Vino in Altamont a few years ago. With current owner Peter Blackman at the helm, and Johnson & Wales graduate Alex Carusone in the kitchen, the restaurant has become a venue for casual but fine dining.
About 20 tables were spread among three rooms, the largest being the tavern portion of the restaurant. There was enough space divided by walls to allow for conversation at the tables in the dining room. Quiet music took the edge off background noise.
Subdued hues also served to mellow the ambience. Barn wood dominated the room, and wood tables and chairs created a sophisticated rustic effect. Wall colors in dove tones of muted merlot and gray-green welcomed the diner, inducing him to linger.
My GPS had ushered me down the country roads leading to Altamont.
The earth was springing to life (shameless pun admitted), the same local earth which produces some of the ingredients of Chef Carusone’s creations.
Hostess/server Vikki greeted favorite RN and me, ushering us to the cozy dining room. The brick oven at the end of the bar evoked a feeling of hominess — a hearth burning “Welcome!”
Once seated, with drinks ordered, we looked at the menu.
From a half-dozen appetizer choices, all in the $9-$12 range, we decided to share the gluten-free red pepper hummus ($10) with house-made pita chips, and the zucchini and corn fritters ($9) with Alex’s chipotle aioli.
The five fritters were warm clouds of melt-in-your mouth flavor. While no one ingredient dominated, the result was enough to arouse the appetite without interfering with it.
The red pepper hummus consisted of white beans mashed with adobe peppers, which gave it a neon bright red-orange hue. Decorated with four quarters of marinated artichoke hearts and deep green sprigs of basil, the appetizer was a riot of color and taste.
Dinner Guest was having difficulty choosing between the barbecued baby back ribs ($19, an item recently added to the menu) and mac and cheese ($17). Vikki solved the dilemma easily. “Have a half rack of ribs with a side of mac and cheese,” she suggested. An additional side of smashed potatoes with whole peppercorns rounded out the meal.
The tumbled heap of tender pork, rib bones and house BBQ sauce stood like a bonfire in the middle of the large rectangular platter, flanked by the mac and mashed in their own small square dishes.
Nutritionally balanced? Maybe not, but the result was fit for a discerning king.
My pan-seared salmon ($26) in fennel-tomato broth with spinach and herbed brown rice was uneven. The fish was camouflaged with a sauce of what appeared to be pieces of tomatoes and onions with sprigs of baby spinach. A hint of rice peaked out from under the sauce along with what appeared to be an angular piece of salmon.
Rather than seared plain, the fish was encrusted with panko or bread crumbs first. The result was fine, though the preparation rendered the salmon a little dense rather than moist and tender, despite the abundance of sauce. The rice, however, was cooked to perfection, flavorful and al dente.
(On the phone a few days later, Peter explained that dinner guests had complained about the “undercooked” salmon, and so chef Alex now cooks it a little more than he might ordinarily.)
Out of loyalty to our readers, I almost always choose dessert. I’m not certain why we associate a sweet ending with guilt, but to assuage this flaw, my guest and I often share a single serving. So from a list of about a half-dozen items (most around $8), guest and I opted for Martha’s Carrot Cake.
Described on the menu as a “classic” carrot cake flavored with cinnamon and vanilla, and decked out with “a perfectly rich cream cheese frosting,” Martha and her crew might consider substituting “intensely sweet” in her description.
Sipping a demitasse of sturdy espresso helped alleviate the sugar rush of this miniature Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Speaking of girls’ names, I emailed owner Blackman inquiring about the origin of “Veronica.” Replying by phone, he said they chose the name because of the “V” above the open brick oven. The “Culinary,” I’m guessing, comes from his commitment to use fresh ingredients sourced locally.
Veronica’s Culinary Tavern
WHERE: 186 Main St., Altamont, NY 12009; 518-595-5095; www.veronicastavern.com/Facebook
WHEN: Tuesday-Thursday 5-9 p.m, Friday-Saturday 5-10 p.m., Sunday-Monday closed
HOW MUCH: $83.50 (for two appetizers, two entrees, one coffee, one espresso, one sparkling water, one dessert) without tax and tip
MORE INFO: Parking lot in rear, major credit cards accepted, noise level permits conversation, accessible (four steps in front, but a lift is available on the side), catering, outdoor dining when weather permits.