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Martin Benjamin

 

The Spirit Lives On
By B.A. Nilsson

Chez Sophie Bistro

2853 Route 9, Malta Ridge,
583-3538, www.chezsophie.com.
Serving dinner Tue-Sat 5:30-closing.
AE, DC, MC, V.

Food: *****
Service: Personable
Ambience: Charming

"Are you here for business or pleasure?” asked Cheryl Clark, one of the owners of Chez Sophie Bistro.

“It’s always for pleasure,” I said, effectively sidestepping the issue.

“Good,” 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 beer.

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 of disapproval.

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.

TABLE SCRAPS

Like to try cooking bison yourself? How about ostrich, rabbit, alligator or hormone- and antibiotic-free beef? Joe Messina’s 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 you’ll 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.

—B.A.N.

(Please fax info to 922-7090)


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