ALBANY — La Serre has gravitas. After 35 years, it is established, dignified, and has acquired a genteel patina. Now it just needs to tweak a few things.
The dining rooms are clubby, cozy, mahogany-paneled, with coffered ceilings and leather-upholstered furniture. Jazzy music plays softly and the carpet keeps things quiet. There are white table linens, pink orchid sprays and brass sconces.
My dining companion, Mary, liked the green leather banquettes that embraced the smaller tables in semicircles. They are comfortable if a bit low, but we had a good view of the dining rooms and the “serre.” It can be translated as greenhouse or glasshouse but La Serre uses its opaque-glass space with its diffuse, flattering light to good advantage as a separate space for parties and whatnot. There is an attractive patio with mature trees, but I was sorry to see the umbrellas closed. We put our pink napkins in our laps and took up our menus.
A bit of everything
La Serre, once French, now identifies as Continental, which means there’s a little bit of everything. First courses include spring rolls and fried oysters, and dinners are priced in the low $20 range for chicken and pasta dishes and up to the higher $30s for filet mignon and duck. Dinners include vegetable and starch.
La Serre gets points for serving excellent homemade warm French bread, with a crisp but delicate crust and an ethereal crumb. How this is achieved using only flour, water, yeast and salt is beyond me. Good bread is an everyday miracle we take for granted.
WHERE: 14 Green St., Albany. 463-6056, www.laserrealbany.com
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch Monday to Friday, 5 to 9 p.m. for dinner Monday to Saturday.
HOW MUCH: $98.11, with tax and tip
MORE INFO: Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, American Express, Discover, Diners. Reservations accepted. Wheelchairs are accommodated. Parking on street after 6 p.m.
Mary started with the French onion soup ($9) served in substantial crockery. Excellent soup, she reported. The Gruyere trailed long strings and the crouton was just right.
The spring salad ($8) was better than just right. The mesclun mix was fresh as could be, as were the brilliant ruby tomatoes. The balsamic dressing was served on the side in a little metal cup, and I used it all even though I didn’t need to. It’s outstanding.
Our entrees came out on the heels of the first course. They were beautiful. Mary had wild salmon ($27) with crumbled tortillas and a blood orange sauce. The deeply colored salmon looked gorgeous and the sauce was sweet and tangy, like marmalade, she said.
I had chicken limon ($24), a simple dish of sautéed medallions served with a buttery sauce. The aroma of lemon reached my nose before the plate was set on the table, and held out through dinner. The chicken wasn’t as tender as I would have liked and more care should have been taken to remove cartilage, but there was no doubt that it was delicious. “Like picatta, but without the capers,” said Mary.
About the sides: The broccoli was delicious, served with bits of red pepper for color, slivered toasted almonds, and tossed with a robust cheese that I loved. I’m going to try to make this one at home. The potatoes were light and rich at the same time, piped out just so, but lukewarm. Attention to details like temperature (see earlier reference to warm bread) make the meal special.
Service was reliable and our server was attentive and thorough. We weren’t rushed, but it wasn’t as leisurely as we would have liked; after three courses we were out in an hour and a half. We agreed that if you’re going to a fine-dining restaurant, you want to make an evening of it. Not the whole evening, of course. We noticed a nearby table was similarly paced even though the restaurant was not busy.
La Serre has a variety of desserts, some of them homemade, and Mary and I shared a piece of their chocolate raspberry cake ($8). There are two tall, light layers of chocolate cake with raspberry frosting of an unexpected consistency in between and on top. Perhaps it was cream cheese frosting, Mary thought. We liked the raspberry sauce on the plate and the fresh whipped cream, but we didn’t finish the cake.
I wanted La Serre to be extra-special, and it’s close. It has good bones, but attention to some details would add the final polish.
The tab for our meal came to $98.11 with tax and tip.