For our anniversary, my husband and I went to Nicole's Bistro at Quackenbush, a French restaurant that has gotten excellent reviews in Times Union among other local rags. It's in an old brick building (dating at least to the 1700s, perhaps earlier) with wide worn wood planks and a cozy feel. There's a narrow bar at the front. Nicole's Bistro is located at 25 Quackenbush House Albany, right off 787. They think the building was at one point a Dutch family's kiln and pottery building, and they also think the building served as a garrison during the French and Indian War.
All intriguing stuff, really.
But what really counts is food. And is it good?
I'm going to depart from the other restaurant reviewers and say that honestly, I think you can do better for the money.
I started with a mixed-greens salad, pretty standard, but in with the nice fresh greens were several rotten leaves. And I don't mean just slightly yellow. I mean almost composted, and slimy.
Now, come on!! Everyone knows that when you buy greens, some of them can go bad pretty quickly. But you clean them, and you pick out the bad ones, folks. Don't serve them to your clients at a supposedly fancy restaurant. Yuck.
My husband's tomato and mozzarella appetizer with basil pesto was quite good; they had in-season flavorful tomatoes (why does *he* always luck out?!)
My scallop entry was very good: diver's scallops with a lime-cilantro sauce that wasn't too overpowering. They were fresh and cooked to perfection, and came with slivered carrots and tender haricots verts. My husband got the steak au poivre in brandy sauce, which was quite good, although they did NOT cook it well as he had requested. He was okay with it but really was craving more of the poivre, the pepper flavors, that come with true steak au poivre.
Desserts were only so-so. I got the peach tarte tatin, which was flavorful but texturally disappointing (peaches kinda mushy, and ditto on the crust). Hubs got a slice of the chocolate polenta, which was really a kind of ganache with some polenta in it. It was good, but seems trendy (see: upcoming blog entry on the Ilium cafe!!). And this seems really picky, but they did not fill my one-cup teapot for mint tea with hot water; it was only maybe 3/4 full, and as we were the only ones there at the time, it seemed kind of-- stingy.
The walls are painted pink, there are some charming prints of Albany. But the whole effect of the paint, the somewhat shabby carpeting, the self-consciousness of the whole 'fancy dining' experience--was overweening. A fancy (read: expensive) restaurant should be classy and understated, so that you are made to feel that you are experiencing the ordinary elevated, as it really ought to be. The best upscale restaurants make me think: "Every night should be like this! This is how to live!" Not: "God, this is stuffy and expensive, let's go home and get more comfortable." True fine dining elevates the mundane until it feels beautiful, and makes the exotic comfortable.
The rotten salad greens detail was bad, but oddly, not enough to make me overall nix on the restaurant. No: it was the combination of so-so food (for the price: we paid a total of $97 plus tip, and no drinks) plus the somewhat worn atmosphere more than anything else. There were a number of other parties dining when we got there, but we closed the place (at what, like 9 pm I think. Come on people, we can keep restaurants open longer around here!! This is a complaint against Albany in general, though, not this particular restaurant). Our waiter gave good recommendations, and they kept an eye on us, but something was missing (maybe excitement? Joie de vivre?)
Well, we need fine restaurants, and I wish Nicole's Bistro the best. They are close to something really good, and maybe it's gone downhill since the previous rave reviews. I think what they need is a revamping of the menu (less sauce on the whole, more simplicity, some more vegetarian/pasta entrees), maybe a vacation for the proprietors, and some better feng shui. It can't be good for your karma to be so close to 787 (Take out the old carpeting, paint it red instead of pink, play some soft music and replace those dorky vine-encrusted candle holders on the table with something simple and classic.)