“Everything old is new again,” the saying goes. The pleasant scent of freshly cut lumber was immediately detected as we climbed the gently curved sandstone steps of the recently renovated Manhattan Exchange.
I had dined at the venue years ago but did not remember many details, so this visit was as if I were starting from scratch. They had been open only a couple of weeks when we visited, but none of the recent-opening glitches were apparent. Given the pub atmosphere, food, service and ambiance were all more than acceptable.
The chief reason we go out to dine is to enjoy decent food. There are other reasons, of course: unexpected company arrives; no one wants to cook or wash dishes; your granddaughter received an A on her solar project; you are tired of working on your term paper.
Manhattan Exchange provides a harbor for all seasons and ages. The evening we were there, the comfortable wood chairs were occupied by diners from toddlers to grandpas. Eight tables of various sizes were set up for parties of two or more. The 14-seat bar was tucked away into the long, narrow room that had been recently added.
Because it is situated a few blocks from Union College, one might assume the restaurant would hang pennants and garnet team shirts on its dark gray and ivory walls. Names of offerings do include those with clever collegiate names, such as Campus Fries ($10), the Freshman Burger ($12), Pledge Burger($14) and The Dutchman ($14). However, the two-page menu appeals to a broader clientele with a variety of dishes from a classy French Onion Soup ($6) to Crispy Pork Belly ($9) to wings ($12) and Fish Sandwich ($14 for the market catch).
My guest ordered the French Onion Soup and gushed that it was the best he ever had. I urged him to temper his praise a little, since he had enjoyed many bowls of onion soup and may have forgotten one that was better. He agreed. It was indeed good. The Gruyere was thick, and pulled into smile-inducing strings when I lifted a spoonful. The crouton was properly toasted (nothing worse than a soggy, untoasted crouton) and the rich broth of braised sweet onions with a hint of what tasted of marrow bones made a meal of the soup.
“We’re off to a great start!” exclaimed my happy guest.
His Chef’s Salad ($13, roasted turkey, parma ham, roast beef, parmesan cheese, marinated peppers, cucumbers, red onions, tomatoes, black olives and lettuce blend) sported a dry parma ham that made the salad out of the ordinary. Crowned with bleu cheese dressing, he deemed his salad a “winner.”
My soup of the day ($4) was a tomato bisque with a Santa Fe flavor. Bright red with a sprinkle of cheese and parsley, the first spoonful caused me to sit up and take notice. A version the soup was a winner in the 2020 Schenectady Soup Stroll — and deservedly so. I would describe it as simple and elegant, but with a spicy nip.
We split an order of Chili Pepper Dumplings ($11) and still brought some home. These small pork-and-chicken-filled wontons had been boiled, then lightly sautéed and slightly over-sauced with ginger-chili-pepper glaze, soy, sesame and topped with green onions. After removing a little of the sauce, I found the dumpling quite delightful.
I’m not sure how the Pledge Burger ($14) got its name, but it was a manageable monster (burger, hot pastrami, Swiss cheese, fried egg, crispy onions, stone-ground mustard). Fearing an overload of cholesterol (which I doubt young, healthy pledges worry about), I asked pleasant server Lauren to hold the fried egg.
Still, the fillings inside the bun were too much for me to finish at the restaurant. The burger itself was large — I’m guessing a half pound — and grilled a perfect “pink-all-the-way-through” medium rare.
Although I prefer my mustard on hot dogs, the chef’s combination worked. The pastrami suffered from the heat and was cooked to the point where it resembled and tasted more like thinly sliced roast beef. The accompanying French fries kept their crispiness to the end of the meal.
Manhattan Exchange does not have a dessert menu. Whether temporary or permanent, sweets after our feast were not missed.
Despite what New York Times reviewer Pete Wells wrote recently, for me, noise matters in a restaurant. The five muted TVs and background music never raised the noise level to an aggravating pitch.
WHERE: 607 Union St., Schenectady; (518) 290 8897; www.manhattanexchange.net
WHEN: Monday-Saturday, noon-10 p.m.; Sunday, noon-9 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $57 for 2 soups,1 appetizer, 2 entrees, 2 coffees, but without tax and tip
MORE INFO: Parking lot, long ramp from parking lot in rear, major credit cards, reasonable noise level.