Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Justin's, Lark Street

Justin's is a sedate, tastefully decorated restaurant with upscale American fare right on Lark Street near Madison. They have jazz most weeks Wednesdays-Saturdays and also Sunday brunch jazz. It's a good place to take a date you want to impress. On the other hand, if you're already nervous about your date, go somewhere else; Justin's won't break the ice.

The menu was impressive, with appetizers like Salmon Cakes with aioli or a Coconut Scallop Tempura, which I am going to have to try the next time I'm there. Their fish chowder was excellent (although it was not as piping hot as I would have liked). One of my dinner companions got the Confetti Corn Fritters--they were okay, but not earth-shattering-- my other dinner companion ordered the Salad Chop Chop, which looked quite good.

Our main courses were the Meditteranean Ravioli, which were lackluster (tomatoes are now out of season, and the filling was somewhat bland); the Zuppe di Clams-- my quite pleasing dinner, which came with pasta al dente and nice, clean tender clams in a 'clammy' broth with garlic-- and the Jamaican Jerk Chicken, which was wayyy too much to eat in one sitting but gets a thumbs up. A gripe: not quite so much broth should go into the Zuppa di Clams; without it, it wouldn't really be a Zuppa, but I think that would be quite alright. A little clam flavor goes a long way, and with a lot of liquid, pasta can get slippery to eat.

Justin's seems strongest in the meat-and-fish department, with most main courses being hearty traditional fare like Blackened Sea Bass and Spice Rubbed Steak; if you're a veggie who doesn't eat fish, you basically have only one main course option, (when we were there, the ravioli) although you could do quite nicely here (veggie or no) to order two appetizers in lieu of a main course.

Our one complaint was that the service was too slow. We had a show to catch, and even though we ordered by 6:30 (having arrived at 6 pm), our main courses didn't arrive until almost 7:30. Admittedly, we should have told the waitresses about our show right away; but we thought we had left more than enough time. Regardless of the show, the tempo in there seemed glacially stoic; maybe most people go there for the music, and so don't mind waiting.

Justin's brings up my biggest gripe with Capital District dining: fine dining (or at least what is considered by the majority to be fine dining) around here feels stiff and forced. In New York City or Boston, going out somewhere nice doesn't mean having to sacrifice liveliness or simplicity of food. It's *okay* to order a risotto at a fine Italian restaurant as your main dish. You shouldn't have to order the duck-encrusted-salmon-with-truffles-and-marjoram-salsa-reduction to get wonderful food; the test of a great restaurant is that its basic and humble dishes (pasta, mashed potatoes, breads-- um, am I starch-obsessed much?) should be just as toothsome as its more flamboyant ones. I do like to be spoiled, but I don't like a fuss. Too many of the more upper-price-range restaurants around here tiptoe around as though really good food were an extraordinary event like a comet or an asteroid (note: I'm not talking about Saratoga, only the immediate Albany-Schenectacy-Troy triangle). Great food should be a daily affair; elegant but not pompous. You should be able to engage in conversation with your dinner mates and almost forget that you are at a fine restaurant. Justin's had a little bit of self-consciousness about the atmosphere and the presentation, as if to say: "Yes, I AM a good restaurant, even though I'm right next to the Dunkin Donuts and up the street from Lark Street's weekend drinking goobers."

Where are the simply damn good restaurants around here? I'm still searching.

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