Saturday, January 26, 2013

Out of the Kitchen: Maestro's at the Van Dam

[Sorry, no photos... cozy, intimate restaurant lighting does not make for good picture-taking.]

Sometimes, when you're having a lousy day, the best way to make yourself feel better is by treating yourself to a good meal. So it was that after my husband came home one night recently from a rough day at work, we decided to go to Maestro's at the Van Dam in Saratoga Springs for dinner.

The place certainly gave the impression of a special-occasion restaurant as we were seated in the dining room, surrounded by dark wood wainscoting, intimately dim lighting and artwork on the walls. That impression was sustained when our server immediately brought us some flatbread crackers and white bean dip to nibble on while we perused the menu. The crackers were tasty, as was the dip, which included onions and balsamic vinegar to accent the flavor of the chunky mashed beans.

We placed our orders and finished up the bean dip, and our server soon returned with slices of two varieties of bread, white and oatmeal molasses, plus a large pat of unsalted butter topped with Hawaiian red sea salt. The bread was warm, and both varieties were delicious: the white was nicely yeasty, while the oatmeal had a faint aroma of molasses, rather like that of Boston brown bread, though its flavor wasn't nearly as strong. Our server told us that the breads were made in-house.

For appetizers, I got the crab cake, while my husband got the stuffed cannelloni. The crab cake was described on the menu as "The best you will ever eat!" -- and I have to say, based solely on the cake itself, they might be right. It was really, really good, stuffed with crab and almost no filler, nice and thick and crispy on the outside. But it was plated with a spicy sauce that was overwhelming -- the flavor went well with the crab cake, but there was just way too much of it. My husband's cannelloni, on the other hand, suffered a similar but worse fate: the meat stuffed inside was barely noticable except by texture, and the whole thing was drowning in bechamel sauce.

Our entrees panned out much the same way. I ordered the braised short ribs, and while the beef itself was pretty good (with an interesting flavor note in the demi-glace from the birch beer it was braised with), the accompanying garlic mashed potatoes weren't garlicky at all and were a bit watery. My husband, meanwhile, ordered roasted butternut squash and chicken risotto, which tasted like CHICKEN -- not just chicken, but aggressively chickeny and nothing but chicken, not a hint of the flavors of squash or the spinach and ricotta that were buried in there somewhere (the spinach was visible but flavorless).

After hearing so many great things about this place, we were a bit thrown by the amount of misses compared to hits, and so we decided to see if they'd redeem themselves a bit with dessert. We ordered the clementine torte, which turned out to be a somewhat bitter cake studded with almonds (which also tend to be bitter). The cake itself almost tasted like the pith of the clementine instead of the juice, which is weird considering that clementines are usually a sweeter citrus. And the clementine-vanilla sauce was even worse -- it tasted like a bit of clementine juice mixed with a heavy dose of straight vanilla extract, very bitter and almost astringent. This dish desperately needed some sugar somewhere, perhaps caramelized in the bitter, watery sauce.

But the end of the meal wasn't all bad. After we were finished, our server brought us complimentary dark chocolate bark studded with raisins and almonds, which was very tasty and left us with a much better taste in our mouths.

Still, while the meal started and ended well, we couldn't help but wonder on the way home what had happened. Why was this supposedly-great restaurant so inconsistent? Why were there so many letdowns in our dinner? We expected great, we wanted good, but what we got was hit-or-miss, with the misses dominating the night. And for that kind of money, that's just not right.

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