Creating a Stir: A Master Chef with an artistic flair creates unusual entrées — such as this chorizo-stuffed veal mousseline with roasted
Photographs by Jennifer May
Fare with Flair: The soothing design of the dining room
The artistry starts with the design. The dining room is a square set in the center of a larger square, so that the bar area and walkways are at a remove. The kitchen is hidden behind an opaque glass scrim. No ambient noise, no distracting foot traffic, no flames leaping from the grill. The color palate is deliberately food-based: peppercorn, vanilla, pine nut, cider. “I wanted a sophisticated space, but not stuffy or intimidating,” Miller says. “People say it’s very serene and relaxing, almost spa-like.”
To me, it’s like a gallery. Those rectangular shapes on the wall suggest paintings. The tables are set in clean, white linens; with clean, white flatware; and clean, clear stemware. It’s all a blank canvas on which to paint an exquisite meal.
“I designed the menu so people can create their own dining experience,” Miller says. He divides the menu into three sections: first impressions (appetizers), mosaics (small plates), and montages (main courses). There are many possible sizes and combinations — mosaics can come bundled in threes, and montages are available in both American and European portions.
That creativity appealed to my dining party both times I visited. My first trip was in September, and Curly Haired Companion and I both left starry-eyed and awestruck. We agreed it was the finest meal we had ever had in Albany. We came back, with Little Pumpkin in tow, in mid-February. That turned out to be a mistake. The place was, uncharacteristically and through no fault of its own, dead.
First, it was school vacation week, so many of the area’s fine diners were seated beachside on their Caribbean getaways. Second, it was the first day of the restaurant-killing period known as Lent. (The Levine Party was not, until now, aware of this phenomenon.)
As a result, Miller was not at his customary station at the expediting window. He was in the office catching up on paperwork. And besides, the restaurant business isn’t fine art; it’s more like performance art. When there’s no audience, the performers understandably don’t always put on their best show.
Still, the food that night was mostly excellent. And since we had many of the same dishes at our transcendent first meal, I can faithfully describe the restaurant at its best.
The culinary stage is set (to mix artistic metaphors) with three rosemary crostini in a slender silver tower. After ordering, we are presented an amuse bouche — a small chipotle shrimp spring roll on a bed of purple cabbage slaw, served on a white Japanese soupspoon. My bouche was amused.
This is followed by freshly baked bread accompanied by a trio of toppings: European butter, olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and a delightful cranberry cream cheese.
Miller serves spicy sesame crusted ahi tuna with pineapple salsa and tamarind barbecue kim chee
Our wines then arrived, delivered by wine director Tom Lilly. He oversees a collection of some 350 bottles, including a sizable number of half bottles — again to allow diners to mix, match, and create. There are also two dozen or so offered by the glass. Suffice it to say, there is every choice and price represented here, and you can’t go wrong. CHC started with a Joseph Carr Sauvignon Blanc and Lilly chose for me a Slipstream Shiraz-Grenache blend.
For our first impressions, CHC ordered the roasted baby beet salad. It comes with three different beets — red, gold, and candy cane — each presenting a distinct color and flavor. They are halved, perched next to a bed of mâche (a sweet and nutty leaf lettuce), and dressed with sherry walnut shallot vinaigrette. Alongside are a brioche and a creamy, decadent goat cheese from Nettle Meadow Farms in Warrensburg. Each element was delicious separately, but when combined, they created a sublime mixture of earthy flavors.
I went with something called Crispy Calamari Fantasia. On our first visit, Miller used the calamari in a pan-seared chiffonade, which was crispy, delicate, and bursting with squiddy charm. The fantasia was less successful. The calamari were coated in chickpea flour, fried, and tossed in a harissa gastrique (a thick sauce of sugar, vinegar, and peppers). The calamari weren’t crisp enough, and the peppers were so overpowering even the lemon pepper yogurt failed to cool it off. The overall effect, CHC commented, was like high-end chicken wings.
For our mosaics, we ordered the three-for-$20 combination. CHC chose a confit of root vegetables with roasted garlic in extra virgin olive oil and a sauce of house-made V8, and a grilled, cold wild-caught shrimp with smoked paprika, horseradish cocktail sauce, and an organic vodka Bloody Mary shooter on the side. I chose a favorite from our last visit, champagne-poached oysters on a lobster and Brie frittata topped with American caviar.
Miller is one of just 61 U.S. Certified Master Chefs
The descriptions of these dishes alone tell the gastronomic story. The presentation reinforces the theme. The dishes are served together on a rectangular white plate, divided into three equal squares. This triptych of color, texture and scale is so beautiful CHC suggested we pause and just look before we tucked in. Wise woman. In fact, when you look around, you’ll see other diners looking at their plates as well. They take small bites. They think. They discuss. They look again. It’s that art thing.
We ordered another triptych for our main courses, choosing the smaller portions of diver scallops, filet of beef, and venison medallions. The scallops are dusted with pistachio and pan-seared, paired with an artichoke ravioli and Asian eggplant and set in a purée of caramelized yellow cauliflower. Sadly, on this visit the scallops and ravioli were overcooked. When they were done right last fall, the scallops were everything diver scallops should be and the ravioli perfectly complementary.
The other dishes were terrific. The filet is encrusted in horseradish mustard and char-grilled. When I first had it last fall it was an oh-my-God moment, meltingly tender with the perfect touch of spicy heat. It is served on a purée of golden potatoes and Sumac onions — a meat-lover’s dream. And the venison, which was not on the fall menu, was extraordinary. I love game, and know how hard it is to get right. This was right. Even CHC (who suffers from carnophobia) was won over by its tender, lean texture and woodsy flavor. She also loved the rutabaga hash it came with.
Before I cover desserts, I would be remiss not to mention another dish that I ordered last fall and still think about. It’s steamed Maine lobster, removed from the shell, poached in butter, served with potato gnocchi, and dressed with a citrus emulsion. If it’s on the menu, and you love lobster, order this. Don’t ask the price. Don’t think twice. Just do it. Trust me.
So, desserts. All are made on premises, even the hand-whipped ice cream. On my two visits I have tried the key lime tart brulée with fruit salsa and Chantilly cream; the chocolate glazed pumpkin gâteau with caramelized bananas and vanilla bean ice cream; and the apple almond crisp with cranberry compote and the ice cream. Yes, they are as delicious as they sound and as beautiful as, well, as a piece of art.
â–º Dale Miller: The Art of Dining
30 S. Pearl St., Albany
Open Mon.-Fri. for lunch and dinner; Sat. dinner only; closed Sun.
Appetizers $10-$16; small plates $6-$8 or three for $20; entrées from $18 (small portion) to $34. Six-course prix fixe menu $89 per person