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At the Table: Food is exceptional at the casually elegant Brown Derby

Sunday, May 29, 2011
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A valet parking employee awaits guests outside the Brown Derby in Albany. (photo: BEVERLY M. ELANDER/FOR THE SUNDAY GAZETTE)
A valet parking employee awaits guests outside the Brown Derby in Albany. (photo: BEVERLY M. ELANDER/FOR THE SUNDAY GAZETTE)

— There are several reasons why 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.

Among the other reasons are 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 — reproductions and some actual relics, we’re told, from the halcyon days of Hollywood, home of the original Brown Derby.

Prices at the Brown Derby are reasonable, well below where they started when the restaurant opened in 2008. Besides reconfiguring the menu and prices, they’ve dropped “Hollywood” from the name and made an effort to feature locally produced food to the extent possible.

The Brown Derby

WHERE: 22 Clinton Ave., Albany; 463-1945, www.thehollywoodbrownderby.com

WHEN: Lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday

OTHER INFO: All major credit cards; handicapped accessible; kids’ menu available

COST: $94.89

The current executive chef is Brian Molino, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who joined the Derby last December as sous chef to Executive Chef Larry Schepici. Schepici, who is credited with the emphasis on local produce, moved on in February and Molino moved up.

DAILY SPECIALS

The menu is a mixture of American contemporary and bistro-style dishes. 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).

On the evening we visited, the soup was a New England Clam Chowder — with applewood-smoked bacon, Connecticut clams and Yukon Gold potatoes — for $6 — and I settled on it immediately. Who can resist applewood-smoked bacon with clams in a creamy chowder? A warm basket of bread — no doubt from Villa Italia — arrived just ahead of the appetizers.

Beverly chose a small pasta dish, Mussels Puttanesca — steamed mussels with capers, olives and spicy tomato sauce served over hand-cut tagliatelle ($8). It turned out to be a generous dish that easily could have been an entree, but we soldiered on valiantly. She noted with pleasure that the flavors became even more pronounced as you dug deeper into the bowl.

Entrees run from $17 to $32. Beverly chose the American Lamb Steak ($25), consisting of sliced lamb with Miss Sydney’s Marinade, Roasted Garlic Derby Potatoes and a Spiced Raisin Demi-Glace. The lamb was medium rare, tender and flavorful and the demi-glace a bright accompaniment, not overly sweet as you might expect from the raisin component. The “Derby Potatoes” were a big hit with both of us, garlicky and buttery and the greens — broccoli rabe — provided a slightly bitter foil to the savory elements.

My dinner choice was the Braised Beef Short Ribs ($24), a very large and meaty rib along with the Roasted Garlic Derby Potatoes, Utica Greens and a “thyme-scented au jus.” The rib had a generous quantity of meat that was fork-tender and falling off the bone, which isn’t always a good thing but in this case was excellent.

UTICA GREENS

The Utica Greens were a pleasant surprise, a dish with upstate New York roots. It’s traditionally made with Swiss chard or escarole that is braised with garlic and prosciutto, then baked with Pecorino Romano Cheese, hot pepper bits and bread crumbs.

We finished our meal with coffee and espresso and a shared dessert of crême brûlée ($7) which was slightly disappointing because it didn’t have much crystalized sugar crust. Cracking through the crust is part of the fun of crême brûlée, but the custard was as good as any I’ve had in the past.

Our tab — for appetizers, entrées, coffees and dessert — came to $94.89 with tax and tip.

The Derby has a new spring menu out with some intriguing offerings like General Tso’s Sweetbreads, described as crispy veal sweetbreads, sweet ginger soy glaze, Szechuan peppercorn and toasted sesame seeds ($8), Crab Cakes with orange chipotle aioli, preserved lemon tartar sauce and celery root slaw ($10), and a Derby Clam Tower featuring whole littleneck clams filled with sausage, shrimp, garlic, herbs and piquillo peppers in a vertical presentation ($15).

Pasta dishes, which come in small and large plates, include a Duck Orecchiette, which is house-cured duck confit with roasted duck jus, sweet peas and Parmesan Reggiano ($9/$17).

The Derby is offering a new lunch buffet featuring assorted salads, soup, rolls, sandwiches, hot entrées and sides, desserts and coffee or soft drinks for $12.

NAPKIN NOTES

The Brown Derby describes itself as casual, but business casual is a better description of the prevalent dress, though you can spot a few jeans, especially at the long bar separated from the dining area by panels of frosted glass. The wait staff — our server was Michael, who’s working his way through college — is particularly well trained and attentive, keeping water glasses full, crumbs brushed away and customers well-pleased.

 
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