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  Steppin' Out
 
Top 10 Restaurants
By Bob Goepfert , The Record 12/31/2003
TROY- Earlier in the week my editor, grammarian that he is, quipped that in 2003 I found an unusual number of new "favorite" restaurants.


It might seem odd to have more than one favorite, but as parents know, it is not impossible.
The choice of limiting my favorites to a Top 10 for 2003 is made even more interesting in that two of my better dining experiences come from places that in the past, (under former owners), made my personal-worst list.
Indeed, four restaurants on the list benefited from new management, and three of those are places that radically changed an old image.
For instance, my second-best restaurant of 2003 is the Pearl Restaurant located in the Steuben Club in Albany. A couple of years ago, Night Owl and I had a meal at the old restaurant that was so bad it was laughable.
Thankfully, new management has changed the name, brightened the rooms, put in a great menu and hired an excellent chef.
The décor still needs some work, as the evening dining area offers the feel that you're eating in an attractive banquet room. But that's the only complaint. The Pearl is now one of the best eating places in Albany.
It would be the best restaurant in Albany if it weren't for McGuire's, which offered, without question, the finest dining experience in 2003. It even pleased super-critical Night Owl who could not find even a minor flaw with the food preparation.
Not only is the food phenomenal, the menu is amazing. McGuire's offers a number of exotic choices, as well as innovatively prepared classics. It's a sophisticated place, with our only quibble being that the back room space is a little too loud for easy conversation.
Another restaurant that I once had a terrible time at was Marissa's Old Dater Tavern in Clifton Park. The food was all right, but the kitchen just couldn't get its act together, and it took more than an hour for the food to arrive at the table. It is now the Old Dublin Inn, and like any good Irish pub, it understands hospitality.
Not only is Old Dublin Inn a wonderful place to quaff a Guinness or two (it has more than 50 varieties of beer available), it has an excellent kitchen.
Long Term and I had a wonderful dinner there, and I can compare the quality of their rack of lamb to that had at our number-one spot, McGuire's. I've eaten lunch at the Old Dublin several times, and I can assure you that eating from their pub menu is like having a full meal.
On the subject of lunch, I just had lunch at Riley's in Albany, and it was as good an experience as was the dinner I had earlier in December. In fact, I had the lunch portion of Long Term's choice, the Chef's Choice - shrimp, scallops, and chicken over linguine. It was large and delicious and cost less than half the dinner price ($7.95/$16.95).
Hacker had a huge build-your-own burger with fries that was also fantastic. For dinner or lunch, Riley's (which is at the site of the old Beff's restaurant on Watervliet Avenue in Albany) is now a classy, fine restaurant good enough to make this year's Top 10.
December was a very good month for eating out. Not only did I discover Riley's, later in the month I had an excellent meal at Barcelona Restaurant, on Western Avenue across from SUNYA. The meal was as interesting as it was delicious.
Long Term had a fish dish that was intriguingly subtle, while I had a Fra Diablo that was appropriately scorching. Our appetizer, dessert and Long Term's sides indicates that this Italian restaurant with a Mexican chef can do the in-between stuff very well also
The atmosphere is sophisticated, the prices relaxing. What better reason to give Barcelona a top rating? Sadly, a new restaurant that makes it on the list, Crabapple Farms in Jonesville, is no longer in business. We had a wonderful meal in an enjoyable environment, but for some reason the restaurant did not catch on with the public and Crabapple Farms closed within a year of its opening.
It proves that sometimes it takes more than good food to survive in the restaurant business. It also makes the point that if you have a restaurant you like, support it with your business and by word-of-mouth advertising.
Thankfully, many good restaurants do survive, as proven by a couple of venerable favorites that make our 2003 list. Two of them just happen to be Italian and they are completely different in style and in food preparation. Each is terrific in its own right and proves that longevity is not always an accident.
Sam's, near the last 787 exit in Albany, has been around seemingly forever, and it just keeps getting better. It's like dropping in at an old neighborhood restaurant where the menu is basic without being dull and the food is prepared with care and a bit of flair.
I reviewed Sam's last January, and I still savor their Clams ala Sam's and their phenomenal marinara sauce. However, this is not a sauce-and-pasta place primarily, as the quality and portions of their meat and seafood entrees belie their modest pricing.
To show how the term Italian does not completely define a restaurant, Café Italia has been around about as long as Sam's. However, it is more an upscale place that prepares highly specialized dishes that make you understand how Italian cooking can seem gourmet.
Whereas Sam's is neighborhood friendly, Café Italia is welcoming in a more formal manner. One of the many things they have in common is great food and a desire to please their customer - and they each do it well.
Another old favorite is Longfellow's Restaurant on Saratoga Lake. It is now has a motel connected to the restaurant and is used as a conference center that caters to conventions and groups. But growth has not diminished the quality of their kitchen.
The menu does not try to be exotic; instead, they prefer to find way to improve the basics. They do it with quality and touches of imagination. The entrée is always perfect, but the side dishes make an excellent meal even better.
I always try to include one sleeper on my Top 10 list, a place that because of its modest ambitions would not be considered a "best of" selection. This year that place is Gorman's Deli in Latham, where you can get a superior meal for well under $10 - complete.
The dining environment is what you would expect in the rear of a delicatessen, but the food is not. It's not gourmet, but the limited menu does offer some pleasant surprises - and dollar for dollar, Gorman's is one the best bets of the year.
Indeed, there is not a restaurant on the list that does not offer a good deal. Beyond the high standards of food preparation and comfortable surroundings, each place offers honest value and fair pricing for their meals. No wonder I have 10 new favorite restaurants.

1) McGuire's, Albany
2) The Pearl, Albany
3) Barcelona, Albany
4) Longfellows, Saratoga Springs
5) Cafe Italia, Albany
6) Old Dublin House, Clifton Park
7) Sam's, Albany
8) Riley's, Albany
9) Crab Apple Farms, Jonesville
10) Gorman's Deli, Latham

©The Record 2004