Monday, June 12, 2006

Dakota's in Latham: Comfortable Mediocrity

It's been raining so much here that it feels like the Pacific Northwest, and under such conditions, my husband and I hightailed it to Latham, that seat of all things comfortingly middle-of-the-road (and location to the only grocery store in the Capital District with a semi-decent natural foods section--the Hannaford). It's been a while-- like, a year?-- since I've been to Dakota, so it was worth re-testing, especially since they specialize in fish and meat, and I had an appetite for fish.

Dakota is a chain with other restaurants in Connecticut and Massachusetts. When you drive there you pass their wood-carved totem-like bears holding their sign up, and that's only a hint of the Adirondack-cum-American-Indian-pelted-carvings extravanganza that awaits you inside. The decor is an unholy alliance between Great Escapes amusement park style (carvings, fly-fishing wallpaper), an actual museum (they have real American Indian artifacts on display) and one of those stores that used to be on godforsaken highways everywhere that sell moccasins and papoose dolls. They have fireplaces in some of the rooms, which is a real bonus here in the winter. And they have real wood panelling in some areas, as well as life-sized stuffed bears climbing branches as a centerpiece of the main dining room. You have to be in the right mood, but sometimes that kitschy Adirondack style hits the spot. That mood may be psycho-- let's not forget that Humbert Humbert took his Lolita to many kitschy Pioneer themed motels and restaurants-- but I humbly admit that I am an American, and that kind of tacky faux camping stuff brings back memories. (That those memories are of being stuck in some cold smelly roadside campground or highway rest area only makes the restaurant experience seem comparatively better. These designers know what they're doing.) It's nice to imagine that you're in a lodge somewhere when really, you're in predictable Latham: it puts a hazy film over any disquieting reality.

Dakota is a large restaurant, and I've never had to wait more than about 20 minutes there on their busiest night. This time they were busy but we didn't have to wait at all, and it was a Saturday. They used to sell meat, fish, and lobster deli-style, but I don't know if they do that anymore. It seems there have been some changes and they're trying to become even more of a chain than they were, so quality is taking a kick in the pants.

Some things have changed for the worse: the Buffalo bread, to name one important one. It used to be that as soon as you ordered, the waitstaff offered you the Buffalo bread and the salad bar. The Buffalo bread *was* this malty, dark, rich and warm bread that was melt-in-your mouth good. Now, however, it is dry, lighter, and not nearly half as good as it used to be. Even if there were nothing formerly great to compare it to, I would have rejected this version. Another disappointment was that the salad bar is no longer compris: we had to order it separately, at $2.99. The salad bar is still, at that, a good deal: it's buffet style, and has many things to choose from, including some nice marinated vegetables (baby corn, broccoli). However, the carrots I chose with poppy seeds, while they looked spectacular, tasted like cardboard. No farmer's market here.

The choices on the menu are not as sophisticated as they used to be, with more things now surf n' turf style, and fewer types of fish. However, this is a meat-lovers paradise, and one can get things like crab cakes and shrimp dishes. (Forget it if you're a non-fish eating vegetarian, however).

I ordered the trout as my main course from their lighter Grill section of the menu (which they seem to be de-emphasizing: I don't know why, as everything else is overkill), and it was good, but not as good as it used to be. It's gotten heavier, and trout should really be the lightest possible fish, like a whisper. However, if I went back there, I would get the trout again; it did have nice grill flavor. My husband got the sirloin, which is like a hamburger without the bun, and it was good: "juicy and flavorful, better than it used to be. It used to be drier." So some things seem to have improved. "The side dish of onions was a bit-- much," he says, and what he really means is that it was lame. They were sauteed and liquidy, not caramelized as they should have been.

Desserts are still strong here, with a pie a la mode or, what we got, the falling chocolate cake with ice cream.

Overall, this is a good place to go when you know you want and it's fish or meat, and you're not feeling too fussy. It's a good place for a rainy (or snowy) evening, but I'm not going to be a regular there. It's too corporate, and they took away that awesome Buffalo bread.

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