Spirit Lives On
By B.A. Nilsson
Route 9, Malta Ridge,
Serving dinner Tue-Sat 5:30-closing.
AE, DC, MC, V.
you here for business or pleasure?” asked Cheryl Clark, one
of the owners of Chez Sophie Bistro.
always for pleasure,” I said, effectively sidestepping the
said she. “Then I’d like to try out a new server on you.”
With the I’m-here-to-review threat ostensibly lifted, the
folks at Chez Sophie Bistro swung into gear and served one
of their characteristically terrific meals. Terrific? Exceptional.
In truth, I was there to discover how the restaurant is faring
since founder Sophie Parker died last year. She held tight
reins in the kitchen, her perfectionism imbuing the food with
rarely found excellence. Hers was a menu based on fresh ingredients
and straightforward preparations, but each dish seemed touched
with something otherwordly.
The current chef, Tonya Mahar, worked with Sophie. Mahar also
studied at the New England Culinary Institute. She maintains
many of Sophie’s favorite items, and adds new ones. Is the
food the same? Of course not. Cuisine like this isn’t the
kind of assembly-line fare that can be handed off to the next
worker. But Mahar has deftly captured the spirit of Sophie’s
food and eased it into a direction that I think would please
Sophie, who was not an easy-to-please person.
You don’t want a clone in such a kitchen. You want an artist.
Mahar is an artist. And that’s not a term to use lightly in
a restaurant like this. Sophie’s husband, Joseph, is an artist
who works with paints and sculpture, and examples of his work
decorate the restaurant. He’ll also share with you a collection
of drawings he created that amusingly illustrate some of the
behind-the-scenes agonies and ironies of the restaurant business.
Paul Parker, Sophie’s son, is also part of the heart and soul
of the place, working all stations (he was in the kitchen
the night we visited) and masterminding the list of wine and
The silver diner that has housed Chez Sophie for seven years
was home to other restaurants that tried to play ironically
with the notion of a diner, but Sophie Parker and her family
brought the right level of wit to the task. Also, Chez Sophie
Bistro was for many years a gypsy, operating seasonally out
of a variety of locations. It takes a wanderer to know how
to settle into a home.
Like a local dialect, the Capital Region breeds into its people
a sense of inferiority and a willingness to accept oneself
and the area as perpetual also-rans. We’ve always insisted
that Chez Sophie was among the area’s best, but it took a
piece in The New York Times a few years ago
to clue the locals in to what a treasure sat in their backyards.
We visited on a recent weeknight and sat in the front room,
the diner part. It’s fun in a retro sense, as elegant as you
can get when you’re surrounded by chrome. There’s a back room,
too, a little more refined, but my wife and I had our 5-year-old
with us, and figured she’d dig the gleaming distractions.
The menu is simple and profound. Escargot, pâté, steamed clams
and poached asparagus are among the appetizers, priced from
$6 to $11. We started with baked goat cheese and goat cheddar
in puff pastry ($11), a simple, handsome display of the cheesemaker’s
art—in this case, the cheesemakers at the Coach Farm in Pine
Plains, who learned their craft from a Provence native who
tutored them for two years.
Wild mushrooms with papardelle, a thick pasta ($11), is a
riot of cream touched with sherry. The flavor of the mushrooms
eases through nicely, but the combination becomes far more
than that in a most generous portion.
Another appetizer, charcuterie and cheese ($8), arrived with
the entrées, by which time we’d sampled so much else that
it seemed superfluous—but it added nice grace notes of flavor.
Featured is culatello, a sliced meat that puts prosciutto
to shame. A Parma-based product, the meat is aged in a pig’s
bladder for several months until it’s half its original size.
Susan got the creamy parsnip-based soup of the day (you get
soup or a salad with an entrée); the superb blend of flavors
also chided us for neglecting parsnips so much. The house
salad is a perfect assembly of incredibly fresh greens (grown
hydroponically at Sunset Hill Farm in Newport, N.Y.) with
a house vinaigrette.
Susan first considered the pork tenderloin with pancetta and
ginger garlic sauce ($24), but decided it would cause too
much table controversy. She’d want it cooked to a fare-thee-well
and I would pretend to be magnanimous about that waste of
good meat, but I’d spend the dinner emitting little sighs
So she ordered the grilled vegetable strata with roasted garlic
cream sauce ($26). It was invented the weekend before by Mahar
as a vegetarian offering for the Skidmore grads and their
families, and it features layers of Yukon Gold potato, grilled
eggplant, roasted fennel, goat cheese, grilled portobello
mushroom and more with a roasted garlic cream sauce tying
together those flavors. Labor intensive and wonderful.
I went the exotic route with Canadian bison ($26), a top-round
cut grilled rare and served with an intense sauce mixing the
essence of a Belgian cherry beer (kriek lambic) and
balsamic dried cherries. It’s a delicious meat that could
woo you away from beef, and worked well with the sides of
mashed potatoes, carrots and sautéed fiddleheads.
Everything about the dinner was perfection, down to the chocolate
mousse ($8) and lemon cheese pie ($7) with which we finished.
Coffee and tea service was just right, by-the-glass wine selections
were on the money, and the service—Kelly’s newness notwithstanding—was
personable and just as attentive as necessary. This is still
one of the area’s absolutely finest restaurants.
Dinner for three, with tax and tip, desserts and a couple
of glasses of wine, was $150.
try cooking bison yourself? How about ostrich, rabbit, alligator
or hormone- and antibiotic-free beef? Joe Messinas Adventure
in Food Trading Company, which expanded its outlet at 84 Montgomery
St., Albany (behind the Albany Pump Station restaurant), offers
that and much more in the way of exotic game. And youll
find spices, grains and beans from all over the world among
the offerings. Hours are Mon-Fri 8-6, Sat 10-4, and you can
mail order by calling 436-7603. . . . Remember to pass your
scraps to Metroland.
fax info to 922-7090)