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A Fresh Perspective

By B.A. Nilsson

333 Café

333 Delaware Ave., Delmar, 439-9333. Serving dinner 4:30-9 Tue-Sat. 333cafe.com. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: inventive continental

Entrée price range: $17 (pan-fried chicken livers) to $28 (beef tenderloin)

Ambiance: intimate

Good seafood speaks for itself. I like the bold flavors that can be assembled around interesting meatstuffs, so I tend to opt for seafood only when I’m physically near a large body of water. At 333 Café recently, the evening’s special of sautéed cod with chive and crab broth ($24) sounded so much like everything I try to avoid when dining out—essentially, a dull piece of fish in clear soup—that I elected to go against my own grain and order it. After all, what good am I to you if I don’t try something different?

This is how I discovered what chef Chris Dangerfield can do with the seemingly unremarkable. The plate was assembled with such panache that . . . let me put it this way: There was no need for him to fashion a carrot purée as garnish. However, the fact that it lurked as one of several contrasting ingredients gave the plate an extra fillip of excitement. Alongside the fish were grilled slices of squash and rings from a roasted onion. Crabmeat abounded in its own small pile as well as on top of the cod. Most importantly, the two fat slices of codfish had a glorious crunch and tenderness, an irresistible sign of its freshness.

A grilled pepper also adorned the plate.

“I found a bunch of different peppers at the farmer’s market,” explained Thomas, “so we decided to put it on the plate and call it a mystery pepper. Might be spicy, might not.” Mine, which looked like a yellow New Mexican pepper, was temperate and crunchy. I got extra heat by stealing jalapeno slices from my wife’s entrée.

“I got in six pounds of the cod,” Dangerfield said later. “It was so good I didn’t have to do much to it.”

He has earned the right to be simple. As a high-school kid, he worked at Zwicklebauer’s in Berne. “By the time I graduated, I’d been at every station there.” A relative persuaded him to move to California’s Napa Valley, where he soon found work in the kitchen at Domaine Chandon, a place where the fine dining standards were so rigorous “that [I was] only in charge of one or two entrées.” He also worked at the renowned Tra Vigne, alongside chef Michael Chiarello.

When he returned to the Capital Region, he made his way into one of the best kitchens around, at Ogden’s, where he met Paul G. Hall.

Hall opened 333 Café about 11 years ago and soon brought in Dangerfield, as well as another Ogden’s chef, Libby Thomas. Just over a year ago, Hall left to pursue other projects, so his two associates took over. Thomas moved to the front of the house, although she still serves as pastry chef, and Dangerfield has been joined in the kitchen by Liz Bollard.

Thomas is a whirlwind on the floor. The dining room is small, seating just over 40, and the front of the kitchen is separated by a wall low enough to see the occasional sautée-pan flare-up. Dining on a Saturday night, table after table were given to a succession of regular customers, and I watched in awe as Thomas worked them all, explaining the menu, selling the specials, taking orders, and talking folks into exploring a tasty dessert. She had assistants who kept the plates moving and the glasses filled, cooperating in a clocklike manner to keep each party free from the dead time that makes diners nervous.

Although the menu hasn’t changed drastically since Dangerfield and Thomas took over, there’s a revised sensibility to offer enough variety to keep regulars intrigued, without unsettling the faint of palate.

Appetizers run from a $6 soup of the day to a signature dish of crab cakes (served with fruit and sauce Louis) for $12. Along the way are such items as cheese-covered knish, chicken and ginger wontons, and pesto-stuffed brie ($11 apiece). When we visited, a special appetizer of three grilled lamb chops with a cumin demi-glaze was offered for $13. I asked the chef his rationale for not making it an entrée.

“I had some nice lamb,” he said, “and wanted to do something different with it. I want to get people to think differently about the appetizers, and this seemed to be a good way to do that.”

Thomas talked me into the chicken gumbo as a starter with its promise of spiciness; the spice was reasonable, well integrated into a brew that was obviously built on a dark, classic roux and excellent homemade stock.

Fresh beets are a local bounty, so Dangerfield fashioned them into an appetizer in which they’re roasted—“That really concentrates the flavor”—and served cold as a salad, with blue cheese and a sherry and shallot vinaigrette ($10).

The house salads arrived without fanfare, but they were the best house salads I’ve tasted in a long time. Fresh baby greens, toasted sunflower seeds, colorful vegetable strips and a citrus vinaigrette rounded out the serving.

Entrées include pan-seared veal flank with a lemon-and-caper sauce ($25), seared scallops with a tomato, ginger and tamarind coulis ($27), prosciutto-and-fontina-stuffed pork loin ($25), jambalaya ($22), and pan-fried chicken livers with sauce Robert ($17), which Dangerfield calls “a surprisingly popular item.”

But chicken, the entrée meat without which my wife wouldn’t be able to make up her mind, doesn’t sell well. “Add something like shrimp to it, and it sells,” he said.

So that’s what he did. The chicken in the sautéed chicken and shrimp dish ($22) is cut to a size that matches the shrimp, and it’s tossed in a key-lime-and-jalapeno sauce that gives some depth to the otherwise easygoing components. The plate was dressed with a similar garnish as the cod, and proved to be a formidable portion.

That devilish Thomas nevertheless talked us into enjoying a slice of her homemade chocolate and raspberry truffle cake ($6), and we left with the comfortable feeling that we’d been coming to this restaurant for years.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

We’re in the midst of a weeklong self-guided Garden of Eating driving tour of some of the best independent local farms and restaurants in Albany, Rensselaer and Columbia counties. Through this Sunday (Sept. 21), you’re invited to follow a trail of artisan cheese, vegetables and fruit, meat, bread, wine, beer and many specialty dishes. Also, take advantage of the chance to pick your own produce and shop at country stores for an array of honey, maple syrup, baked goods and more. Full information, with farm and restaurant listings, maps, suggested itineraries and even lodging suggestions, are at gardenofeatingtour.com. . . . Ever sample garlic cotton candy? The annual Hudson Valley Garlic Festival takes place at Cantine Field in Saugerties on Sept. 27 from 10-6 and Sept. 28 from 10-5. It’s a nonstop party of lectures, workshops, music, entertainment and plenty of pungent food. Learn the secrets of growing great garlic from Rose Valley Farms’ David Stern, sample Ric Orlando’s pan-blackened string beans and roasted-garlic bread pudding, dance to the Zydeco Moshers, and make yourself unsuitable for the company of any but fellow stinking-rose enthusiasts. USA Today named this one of the top 10 regional food festivals in the country. Tickets are $7 at the door. You can get schedules and more info at hvgf.org. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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