Sunday, December 2, 2012

A pleasant surprise at Salty's Pub -- and memory lane

Cauliflower soup with crab meatball.
CLIFTON PARK -- I recently arranged a dinner at Salty's Pub & Bistro for a group of us who get together at a different venue every couple of months for some catching-up and, we always hope, good food.

Constant Companion and I, whose turn it was to select the restaurant, knew we would have a good experience after I chatted with owner/chef John Marzilli in advance and asked him to come up with a few dishes of his own devising rather than have us order strictly from the menu. Nothing against the menu -- we eat at Salty's with some regularity, but giving a chef creative license always pays dividends.

As fate would have it, CC and I had to opt out at the very last minute, leaving the remaining six culinary adventurers on their own and with no knowledge of Marzilli's background. They probably would have been thrilled in advance had they known Marzilli won an astounding 12 consecutive AAA Three Diamond Awards when he was executive chef at the Marriott in Colonie, presiding over the now-vanished Ashley's before the Marriott chain dropped fine dining in favor of more pedestrian fare.

One of the group e-mailed me photos of the various dishes and reported thus:
Not the type of meal you expect at a pub.
The opener was a "rabbit" over glazed carrots.
That was followed by a creamy cauliflower soup with a crab meatball.
The rosemary bread and garlic butter was fantastic.
A beet salad came next, with a duck with sweet potato ravioli -- wow!
Then sorbet to cleanse our pallets.
Ice cream and a cookie over a cappuccino pudding.
A happy crowd, indeed.
And an envious party arranger who has to have better luck attending what he arranges.

For those who haven't yet had the pleasure, Salty's Pub & Bistro is located at 215 Guideboard on the east side of Route 9. Phone: 371-1120. Here are some photos of some of the other dishes Marzilli's daughter, Erin, supplied.

And, just for fun, what follows -- for fans of ancient restaurant history -- is a review I wrote for the Times Union of Ashley's when Marzilli was in charge:

March 14, 1993

By William M. Dowd
COLONIE -- Spring officially will arrive on Saturday, bringing with it many wonderful things. But it also will mean the end of Ashley's winter menu, and that's a shame.
The plush restaurant at the Marriott hotel complex on Wolf Road offers four menus each year, changed the day each new season emerges. The winter menu leans toward heartier fare, although there is plenty of variety, including a selection of "spa cuisines" such as grilled free-range chicken, fish and so forth.
It's all done under the direction of executive chef John Marzilli, a veteran of hotel kitchens who has been in charge locally for three of the Marriott's eight years here.
The decidedly upscale Ashley's is on two levels above the more casual restaurant area. The two are separated by a wall decorated with frosted swans on windows. Ashley's offers upholstered high-back chairs, delicate mood lighting, large mirrors on ceiling and walls, good table linens, and formally attired waiters. The arrangements of tables and the sound-absorbing qualities of good carpeting and fabrics help create a mood of intimacy.
Our waiter, whose expertise belied the fact he is a veteran of only several months on staff, handled our visit smoothly, the only notable faux pas being the absence of a wine list or mention of one.

Over cocktails and a basket of crusty sourdough bread, we perused the ample menu. Appetizers range from $6.25 to $7.50, or $14 for a duck/lobster/shrimp concoction for two. Soups are $4.25 or $4.50, salads $4.75 to $6 and entrees $18 to $22 for "spa cuisine" and $18.50 to $28 for the others, many of the entrees mesquite grilled.
I opted to begin with the Harvest Soup ($4.25), a heavenly puree of butternut squash simmered with cream, garnished with grilled apple slices -- a smooth, richly flavored concoction. Constant Companion selected the Scampi Berardi ($7.50) appetizer: three gulf shrimp stuffed with provolone, wrapped in very lean prosciutto and broiled, then served in a pool of Dijon butter. Excellent -- much better than the more common bacon wrapping, and a much lower fat content.
 Our entrees, served after palate-cleansing sherbets, were just about as pleasing.
CC's rack of lamb ($23) was the most generous serving we've seen in quite some time -- delicately pink, moist, accompanied by assorted julienned vegetables, a small spanikopita (the Greek phyllo pastry/feta cheese/spinach delicacy) and a robust mushroom demi glace that complemented the lamb. 
My filet of beef ($24) was large, lean, nicely aged, stuffed with prosciutto and smoked gruyere, and grilled over mesquite. The stuffing is an interesting touch, definitely a legitimate coupling of flavors. The filet would have been better cooked a little less. A tad disappointing in that I'd purposely left the decision on rare to medium up to the kitchen, assuming they'd know the best cooking time for this combination. 
A delicious roasted, skinless potato with rosemary, florets of steamed broccoli, and a small stuffed tomato showed that Marzilli's staff pays attention to entree accompaniments, an important trait anywhere, but especially so when prices are top-end.

The generosity of servings should have made our common sense kick in, but we nevertheless decided on desserts. Ashley`s Chocolate Concorde ($4.50) was a tower of rich, dense mousse and firm meringue. Double crisp apple pie ($4) was moist, tasty and accompanied by a bit of butter pecan ice cream.
 Our bill, before tax and tip, was a $87.37, about $44 each. That's hefty, well above the norm in the area. But Ashley's is providing atmosphere, service, imaginative food preparation and a certain gentility that also are above the norm.

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