One might assume that on a drippy Sunday afternoon in Saratoga Springs, a restaurant might be quiet. Not so at Walt’s Café/Whitman’s Brewery.
The server met us at the elevator. “Are we in the right place?” I asked, discerning laughter around the corner. Absolutely, he responded.
It took a minute or two to locate a low-top table for two, but he managed to find one along the side in the first room (there were two rooms totaling about 20 tables, plus 18 stools at the bar and two sofas in front of a fireplace). The rear room included a floor-to-ceiling glass view of the stainless steel brewing tanks.
It took a while to become accustomed to the noise, but once it became clear it was happy noise, I wanted to tear the knees out of my jeans and join the laughter and merriment. I mean no disrespect. This was a lively college group celebrating vacation with family and friends, studying having been briefly set aside.
The menu was short (about two dozen items) but creative. Since Whitman’s is a brewery, one might expect a number of different varieties of craft beers.
But from where I was sitting, it looked like only one was being offered, with more varieties promised. Cocktails appeared to be pricier variations on the old themes. For example, my “Margarita” evolved into a “Que Pasa Doc?” for $13. But including alcoholic beverages is beyond the scope of our reviews.
We each ordered an appetizer along with something a little more substantial. The 24K (Carrot) Hummus for $9 caught the eye of my holiday guest, as well as a Fatty Melt ($16). The carrot hummus had a slightly sweet flavor with Za’tar seasoning, tahini, garlic and carrot oil, and served with pita chips, cauliflower, carrots, pitas and cucumber. With only a little help from me, guest scarfed down the entire platter of healthy food.
Less healthy but just as tantalizing was his Fatty Melt. Fashioned from a one-half pound LaFrieda patty on sourdough bread, smokey Gruyere, smoked bacon, local cheddar, onion marmalade and Thousand Island dressing were added to make the sandwich unique. Cooked to a near medium rare, my guest had no complaints.
I was in a cucumber frame of mind. While I had no idea what form the Persian Cucumber Salad ($8) with garlic chips would take, the cukes were dressed with white soy, sesame, lime, chili oil and tobiko. The cucumbers were presented as short spears, and with only slightly acidic dressing were quietly appealing as a salad.
I am saving the best until last. Having asked upbeat server Molly what she recommended on the menu, she immediately responded, “Pizza!” Whitman’s is a thick-crust Detroit pizza and is available in seven varieties. I’m not big on pineapple adorning pizza and passed on the Not So Hawaiian ($16). I also skipped the classic Margherita (I Need a Marg for $15) because I order it frequently at other venues. But the Cacio e Pepe (ditalini, parmesan, fresh cracked black pepper for $15) — pasta pizza??! — intrigued me. It sounded like an unorthodox combination. Too much starch. But the ditalini (“little thimbles”) were a convenient size to bite into atop a nearly 1-inch, fresh-baked golden crust.
Not only was the dough perfectly anointed with olive oil, but it was blessed with heavenly amounts of freshly cracked pepper. Eight puffy pillows of the pizza were served on a medium-sized tray. I ate two, guest ate one and I brought the remaining pieces home to heat on a skillet for breakfast the next day. It was one of those simple, elegant, rustic dishes prepared perfectly with relatively few ingredients and massive appeal.
At least two things should be noted about Whitman’s. First, it has an attached second venue for breakfast in the brick Saratogian building. Although we did not visit the first-floor eatery, we intend to. Second, taking the two names together, Walt Whitman, one might accurately guess that the venue has a literary theme. Portraits of artists of various media — visual arts, literature and music — danced around the walls about head height. An appropriate theme for a college town that offers a summer of the performing arts.
Za’tar (za’atar) is a Middle Eastern condiment made with ground dried thyme, oregano and marjoram, and mixed with toasted sesame seeds, salt and other spices like sumac. LaFrieda burgers are loosely packed and extremely flavorful patties fashioned from dry aged black Angus beef. Tobiko is flying fish roe.
Whitman Brewing Company
WHERE: 20 Lake Ave., Saratoga Springs 12866; (518) 682-3602
WHEN: Monday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-closing
HOW MUCH: $51.50 without alcoholic beverage, tax and tip
MORE INFO: Large parking lot, major credit cards, noisy but not offensively so, elevator, attached brewery, Walt’s Café on the ground level for breakfast/brunch.