The Right Ingredients
On AlbanyÂ¡Â¯s restaurant-heavy Lark Street, DeJohnÂ¡Â¯s more
than holds its own, both for its dÂ¨Â¦cor and inventive menu
by Ann Morrow
Opening a restaurant is one of the riskiest financial endeavors there is, with a failure rate that would give pause to a tech-stock speculator. For a young first-timer like John DeJohn, starting out in an area like Lark Street (already chockablock with good dining spots) ratchets the risk factor into the kamikaze zone. Yet little more than a year later, DeJohnÂ¡Â¯s Restaurant & Pub is not only holding its own, but is excelling as well. A casual-romantic eatery with a flexible, eclectic menu, DeJohnÂ¡Â¯s has weathered an extended rocky start to evolve into a neighborhood asset Â¡Âª meaning it has personable service, affordable prices, and enough unusual selections (shrimp-and-Andouille sausage cakes, Gorgonzola-stuffed sirloin) to keep us locals coming back for more.
Located in a Victorian townhouse that was previously a bohemian cafÂ¨Â¦ and art gallery, DeJohnÂ¡Â¯s began as an upscale pub with an ambitious menu Â¡Âª and shaky execution that created a reputation for long waits and burned entrÂ¨Â¦es. But one thing was right from the very start: the responsive service of the ownership and staff, which allowed the restaurant to develop a clientele even as it found its sea legs. One example is our visit several months ago, when an order of tasty pierogies in Portobello sauce ($7.95) turned out to be charred on the bottom. Genuinely interested in our opinion of the meal, our waitress whisked the plate away, returning promptly with a properly cooked replacement. Her solicitous attitude made a lasting impression, as did the soup of the day, a sumptuous cream of mushroom with scallions and roasted garlic. Although DeJohnÂ¡Â¯s has a new chef, making blackened pastas a thing of the past, soups continue to be a standout item.
The entrance of DeJohnÂ¡Â¯s steps down from the sidewalk and opens into the pub, a long, narrow room with a flagstone floor, gothic-frame mirrors, and a row of cocktail tables large enough for dining. But if you donÂ¡Â¯t want the hubbub of the pub, or if the charming outdoor deck is filled (or not an option), there are two more dining rooms to choose from, each holding seven or eight tables. The second floor is a vision in crimson, with burgundy drapery, scarlet tablecloths, and large mirrors and fig trees that give the salon-like room an open and airy feel. The elegant third floor has moss-green walls and dramatic candelabra twined with greenery, and usually serves as a private dining room for large parties. (It has its own service bar and patio.) The dÂ¨Â¦cor is by DeJohnÂ¡Â¯s wife, Monika, an interior-design buff who pays attention to detail. An especially nice touch is the small shaded lamps that illuminate each table. You could pay a lot more to dine in surroundings this attractive.
On our most recent visit, my dining companion and I found the restaurant nearly overwhelmed by its first-ever mob scene. Our waiter apologized in advance for the possibility of a wait (the staff is uniformly young and eager to please) but with a basket of warm crusty rolls and a side of herb butter to occupy us, we didnÂ¡Â¯t notice any delay.
And though the staff was harried, we didnÂ¡Â¯t lack for attention at any point. We started with the soup of the day (cup: $3.50, bowl: $4.50), this one a version of chicken and rice with a deliciously rich stock and ladles full of toothsome vegetables. The Caesar salad ($5.95), topped with herbed croutons and strips of sweet red peppers, was equally good, its creamy homemade dressing infused with anchovy paste Â¡Âª a great way to enjoy the flavor of a classic Caesar ingredient without having bony little fishes to contend with.
The house salad is also Â¨Â¤ la carte ($3.75), but since most entrÂ¨Â¦es come with ample amounts of vegetables, you could skip the salad in favor of the shareable appetizers, such as Brie bruschetta (a wedge of Brie with roasted garlic and raspberry melba sauce), mussels in brandy-cream sauce, or several quesadillas ($7.95 each). You could also build a cafÂ¨Â¦-style meal by mixing and matching appetizers and salads. In addition to the Caesar, thereÂ¡Â¯s spinach salad, soba noodle salad, and Oriental steak salad (small: $7.50, large: $8.95). Or sample the sandwich menu of burgers and wraps ($7.95-$9.95), or pastas such as smoked-chicken carbonara in sherry-cream sauce ($13.95) and seafood and basil primavera with pine nuts ($16.95).
We chose from the entrÂ¨Â¦es a duck special and the vegetable stir-fry. WeÂ¡Â¯d enjoyed the stir-fry Â¡Âª which can be ordered with tofu, chicken, shrimp, or scallops Â¡Âª before, but this time we had it with scallops ($14.95), which were lightly seared to perfect plumpness, becoming our favorite addition to the dishÂ¡Â¯s fragrant ginger rice, sweet soy sauce, and colorful medley of crisp vegetables. Passing up the festive, three-cheese tortellini with Portobello mushrooms in creamy tomato sauce ($13.95), another favorite, I went for the special of sliced duck in balsamic vinegar with roasted garlic ($12.95). Although the sauce was in need of some reduction Â¡Âª garlic cloves bobbed in a pool of sweetish broth Â¡Âª the duck was perfectly cooked and very flavorful, and was accompanied by excellent roasted red potatoes and almost as many vegetables as the stir-fry. Some other entrÂ¨Â¦es that piqued our interest were the pecan-encrusted trout with a sherry-thyme beurre blanc, and the pork tenderloin in maple-bourbon glaze with duchess potatoes (both $16.95).
A menu of single-malt Scotches and aged whiskeys augments the modest wine list, but we passed on a nightcap in the bustling pub in favor of dessert. Although I had a yen for something intense yet light, such as a chocolate glace or perhaps an exotic-fruit sherbet, DeJohnÂ¡Â¯s cheesecake offerings (usually Chambord-raspberry, BaileyÂ¡Â¯s-chocolate, and something seasonal, such as pumpkin) are quite good, made by a boutique bakery down the street.
In between courses, we marveled at how DeJohn managed to greet and inquire after just about everybody there Â¡Âª a throng that ranged from college students to older residents of the surrounding brownstone neighborhood Â¡Âª even while pitching in by delivering drinks and bussing tables. ThatÂ¡Â¯s the kind of service that insures many a mob scene to come. Â¡Ã¶
DeJohnÂ¡Â¯s Restaurant & Pub is located at 288 Lark St., Albany. Food is served daily 4- 11 p.m.; until midnight Fri.-Sun. Appetizers range from $5.95-$9.95, entrÂ¨Â¦es $10.95-$19.95, and desserts $5-$6. Call 518-465-5275, or log onto www.dejohns.com.