Asian and Italian cuisine dominated our restaurant reviews in 2011, but there’s also a cross-section of contemporary American, pub and barbecue selections among our choices for the tops in dining out this year.
Here, in no particular order, are our reviewers’ most memorable experiences at Capital Region restaurants in the past 12 months.
IRV DEAN’S PICKS
Park Place Blue Spice restaurant, 19 Clifton Country Road, Village Plaza, Clifton Park. 557-2116, www.bluespiceny.com.
Modern Thai food is what you’ll find in this disarmingly inviting oasis in a strip mall. An excerpt from the review: “The Basil Rolls were almost too pretty to eat — almost — consisting of fresh basil, raw julienned vegetables and rice noodles wrapped in delicate rice paper and served with a honey tamarind sauce.”
Maestro’s at the Van Dam, 353 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 580-0312, maestrosatthevandam.com.
Comfortably settled into its new home at the former Rip Van Dam Hotel, Maestro’s is no longer a little bistro on Broadway, but its popularity has not waned. Now known as Maestro’s at the Van Dam, the bistro is offering a full menu of American contemporary cuisine, a respectable wine list and a 90-seat dining room, spacious outdoor terrace seating and separate, full-service cocktail lounge. An excerpt from our review: “Before our appetizers arrived, our server brought out warm bread — crusty white and corn varieties — and a dish containing a slab of butter dotted with caramel-colored crystals of Hawaiian sea salt. I know that sounds a tad precious, but the butter with the crunchy grains of salt was delicious smeared on the warm bread.”
Ala Shanghai, 468 Troy-Schenectady Road, Latham. 783-8188, www.alashanghai.net.
We called this one our new favorite Chinese restaurant. You might pay a little more here than at other Capital Region Chinese eateries, but the food is so superior, cost shouldn’t be an issue. You can find the usual stuff you’d expect at Chinese take-aways — like won-ton soup and lo mein noodles — but you’ll also find genuine Chinese cuisine here like fish belly with chili sauce, fish head casserole, Wuxi-style spareribs (in a brown sauce), Shanghaiese pork shoulder and scores of other authentic dishes from the kitchen of chef Jian Hu.
Scotti’s Restaurant & Pizzeria: 1730 Union St., Schenectady. 393-7440.
On a cold winter night, what’s better than a steaming bowl of minestra — beans and greens in a flavorful broth?
We found the delicious Italian staple — and a lot of other good food — at dinner at Scotti’s Restaurant & Pizzeria, the upper Union Street restaurant, which is itself a staple of the neighborhood. Gaetano “Guy” Sementelli, owner of Scotti’s since 1994, is also the chef, working the front as maitre d’ but also in the kitchen during and after hours.
Brown Derby, 22 Clinton Ave., Albany. 463-1945, www.thehollywoodbrownderby.com.
There are several reasons it’s a good idea to dine at the Brown Derby in downtown Albany, but the most important is the food. It’s exceptionally good, which should come as no surprise considering the place is owned by the Mallozzi family, the people behind the Villa Italia Pasticceria in Schenectady, among other noteworthy food enterprises.
And there’s also the casually elegant ambiance, the excellent service by well-trained and smartly dressed staff, including valet parking if you’re so inclined, and the wonderful celebrity caricatures on display. Besides the regular menu, there are daily specials — a risotto du jour, appetizer du jour and entrées like Grilled Bone-In Veal Sirloin with roasted garlic mashed potatoes, horseradish rub and brandy peppercorn sauce ($32) and Grilled Pork Chop with prosciutto-wrapped pear, herbed goat cheese and pork jus ($24).
CAROLINE LEE’S CHOICES
Garden Bistro 24, 1839 Central Ave., Colonie. 456-4566, www.gardenbistro24.com.
This modest, French-style bistro is hands-down the best new restaurant in the Capital Region. Garden Bistro 24 serves authentic French-style food like mussels, steak frites, and crepes. Desserts are homemade, service is friendly, and the food is delicious. On top of all this, prices are reasonable, so don’t be surprised to see a long line at the door.
Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, 377 River St., Troy. 348-0400, www.dinosaurbarbeque.com.
Dinosaur is worth the visit whether you are a barbecue fan or not. It’s lively and fun, and you’re sure to fall in love with something, whether it’s the pulled pork, the brisket, the jalapeno mac and cheese, or the view of the Hudson River right under your window. Ribs are serious business here. You still might have to wait for dinner, but lunch is a better bet —the same serious barbecue in smaller portions at smaller prices, and the wait for a table is shorter.
Shanghai Grill, 590 New Loudon Road, Loudonville. 785-2626, www.shanghaigrilllatham.com.
The Thai basil shrimp at the Shanghai Grill was one of my favorite meals of the year. The pea pods were de-stringed, the shrimp cleaned to a fault, and whatever Thai sauce is, I love it. Slivered basil and sliced red pepper made it beautiful. Every part of our meal that night was extraordinary. Service is understated and very capable, and the dining room is handsome and serene.
Recovery Sports Grill, 98 Wolf Road, Colonie. 591-0001, www.recoverysportsgrill.com.
I am the last person you would find in a sports bar, but I enjoyed my meal so much at this place that I’d go back any time. The televisions are overwhelming, it is true, but the crispy chicken wings made me forget all about them. The menu is all sports bar, but is priced to leave you something for next season, and there are even a few healthy selections. I really enjoyed my spring salad, but if that’s not what you have in mind, you can still get a big steak or a slab of ribs.
Elephant Bistro, 64 Church St., Canajoharie. 673-6700, www.theelephantbistro.com.
The delightful Elephant Bistro serves hearty, tasty sandwiches for lunch, and dinners on the weekends. The high-ceilinged space has wood floors and warm exposed brick, with tall windows at front and back and a counter in the middle. The lunch menu is uncomplicated, with a few sandwiches, salads, daily soup and quiche, supplemented by Saranac beverages made locally at the Utica Brewery.
Irv Dean and Caroline Lee review restaurants for The Sunday Gazette.