Bringin’ it To the ’burbs
Upscale dining without downtown traffic at Guilderland’s Cabernet CafÃ©
By Ann Morrow
Cabernet CafÃ© is a new, upscale-casual restaurant in Guilderland (Albany) that aims, according to owner Henry I. Klein III, to provide a downtown-style dining experience with the convenience of a suburban chain restaurant. Since this roomy and soothingly appointed cafÃ© is located on Western Avenue, a main thoroughfare, and has a large parking lot in back, it satisfies all requirements for convenience, and comfort, too. But can it hold its own with the finer downtown establishments (the best of which are notoriously difficult to get near in an automobile)? After a couple of recent visits, the answer is: almost. And with a little fine-tuning (already in the works), Guilderland may have a destination other than Crossgates Mall.
Gal-pal dining companion and I arrived early on a chilly Monday evening and immediately warmed to the place. The small lobby, tiled in the style of an Italian palazzo, is divided from the lounge by a two-sided fireplace, providing a welcoming hit of firelight and heat. The lobby leads to a handsome lounge, which is painted in damask rose with oak window frames and four well-upholstered booths along the back wall.
Though the dining room was nearly empty (as expected on a Monday), the bar was full and giving off sparks of lively chatter. While admiring the cafÃ©’s lustrous, Brazilian-cherry hardwood floor on our way to the dining room, we were surprised to see a glass panel in the floor that reveals the cafÃ©’s wine cellar. It was a kick to watch the top of a waiter’s head as he procured a few bottles, and oenophiles will be delighted to know that the cellar is set up with tables for that special dining-and-wining evening (by reservation).
Rose drapery accents the moss-green walls of the softly lit dining room (another room for large parties was visible through its glass partitions). But my pal had eyes only for the wine list, and she oohed and aahed over its globe-spanning offerings. The 300-item list (to be expanded to 600 by May) includes pages of by-the-glass selections, most of them $7, with a top price of $18 for a white Burgundy from France. Although she appreciated having more than one white Zinfandel to choose from, she went with the Bin 2 Shiraz-Mourvedre Blend ($7) from a section devoted to Penfolds, the venerable Australian winery. Noting its hints of black cherry and oak, she described it as “lovely.” I ordered a glass of Reisling from the Finger Lakes ($7). It was thin rather than crisp, and sharply citric rather than peachy. If either of us had been on an expense account, we might’ve indulged our curiosity and ordered the featured dessert wine, Inniskillian Vidal 2002 Ice Wine from Niagara, Canada ($134).
But unlike the other diners that evening, who lingered over bottles of wine, we were there primarily for the food. And considering the generous portions, the cafÃ© is certainly suitable for sating an appetite. Monday through Thursday, the kitchen presents several theme specials that come with appetizer and house salad for $20. As usual on Mondays, the main ingredient was prime rib. Out of four choices, I decided on the surf-and-turf, an imposing slab of beef served with shrimp scampi. The included appetizer was steamed clams in Corona-lime butter. Though the melted butter was a bit heavy on the lime, the clams were tender little morsels. Per request, my salad came with the house dressing, a refreshing pomegranate vinaigrette (other dressings are available).
For an appetizer, my companion ordered the vegetable terrine ($10), “oven roasted with a balsamic reduction and extra virgin olive oil with focaccia crisps.” It was terrific, with perfectly roasted layers of vegetables including zucchini, carrots, and onion. Other starters that caught our attention were the petite pork shanks “braised in red wine with winter root vegetables” ($13) and the imported escargot “broiled with Pernod hazelnut lemon butter” ($13).
My prime rib was very tasty, and done to just the right degree of rareness. Mixed with diced tomatoes, the scampi was fine but unremarkable. More notable were the sides: excellent smashed red potatoes and crisp, well-dressed green beans.
After deliberating over a couple of vegetarian entrÃ©es — grilled vegetables over penne with melted provolone and balsamic basil aioli ($18), and stuffed eggplant cabernet with four cheeses in charred tomato sauce ($18) — my pal decided on pan-roasted sea bass with tear-drop cherry tomatoes and herbs and a side of roasted garlic-and-basil polenta ($25). The fish was firm and mildly flavorful, but it was the polenta that most impressed her; she pronounced it superior in both taste and texture. The modern-American menu also has plenty to offer more carnivorous appetites, such as a New York strip steak in Madagascar green-peppercorn sauce ($27) and rack of lamb in apricot Dijon mustard and rosemary-garlic crust ($29). For dessert, we split a slice of dense, triple chocolate cake ($6), regretfully passing on a tempting-looking tiramisu cake that was part of the dessert tray presented by our cheerful and efficient waiter.
On a return visit later that week, while I was deciding on wine over a plate of pork and shrimp spring rolls (a tad too deeply fried, but with a delicious radicchio and pickled-ginger salad, $9), and enjoying the jazz duo playing in the lounge, the personable Klein stopped by to introduce himself. He was showing customers a mock-up of his new, improved, and user-friendly wine list. Klein also runs Sutter’s Mill, an Albany institution for burgers and beer that was established by his father 33 years ago, and it’s his knowledge of distribution, he said, that gives him an advantage in finding “lower priced, high-end wines” and procuring fresh, quality ingredients.
Klein has lots of ideas still to come for his less-than-year-old venture, including wine flights and special wine events. “People who enjoy it now will really enjoy it six months from now,” he told me. Considering his attention to detail, that’s a promise that just might give the downtown eateries a run for their money.