Saturday, June 4, 2011

Special Occasion? Make the trip to one of the area's best restaurants: the Black Watch

The Black Watch, Glens Falls, NY: Erudition, Refinement and Polish without Pretension

Overall rating on a scale of 1-10

Service - 9 Food - 9 Ambiance - 9 Price - $$$

Glens Falls may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of a highly sophisticated culinary experience. You are forgiven, while clearly this town is full of charm and history, it has not always been the home to upscale and innovative dining establishments.

You just got lucky. Enter The Black Watch. Having just opened in May of 2010 in the center of town at 21 Ridge St., this restaurant fills a need in the city for an upmarket steakhouse with impeccable service and an inventive menu featuring local produce and locally raised beef from Washington County.

On a lovely early spring evening, friends Hilary and Mike joined me to make the trip to Glens Falls and investigate what all the recent buzz has been about surrounding The Black Watch. The small storefront brick building is charming with a decidedly historic feel. The space is small, without being confined. The restaurant opens at 5:30 for dinner, and we got there shortly after it opened to find several tables and stools in the bar already occupied. A friendly hostess greeted us and led us past the stairs to the second floor dining area, through the narrow bar area to the main dining room in the back of the building. The d├ęcor was impeccable and if first impressions mean anything, we would be in a for a memorable evening. Everything about the space said “classic”, the wood tables and wainscoting, the crisp white and taupe linens, the exposed brick wall and the racks of wine bottles along the wall. The environment could be stuffy, but the modern touches like the framed black and white photography on the walls lightened things up and gave the space a ‘modern classic’ vibe.

This classic part of this vibe was echoed in the service we received from our wait person. From our first drink to the time we left, we experienced a level of service absent in most restaurants today. Our server was helpful, polite, friendly and above all, professional. Our server started by guiding us through the classic cocktail menu and wine list, making winning recommendations. With her assistance I ordered a glass of Isabel Mondavi Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, Oregon ($8). Mike decided to test the claim that the bartender made the very best Sidecar ever ($10), a concoction of Cognac, Cointreau, lemon juice and simple syrup. Hilary went old school with a twist, ordering the “Mitch-hattan” ($10), consisting of a house-made cherry/whisky syrup and two types of aromatic bitters along with whisky and sweet vermouth, (and yes, you guessed correctly, the bartender is named “Mitch”).

My wine was delightful, medium bodied, fruit forward and slightly earthy, Mike had to agree, his Sidecar was one of the best he’s had, not too sweet, mixed to perfection, and Hilary enjoyed the rare addition in her drink of Peychaud's Bitters, popular in New Orleans, which is sweeter and floral than the more common more Angostura bitters.

Nothing sets the tone for a meal like the service and a good drink – so naturally we were all encouraged and ready to contemplate the menu. It was a concise and well thought out compilation of appetizers, salads and soups, followed by entrees and side dishes. Resisting the urge to order the crab cake (as I always seem to) I chose instead the Classic Caesar Salad ($7) with white anchovies. Always adventurous I had to try this anchovy variety from Spain, which are milder and have a lighter texture than conventional anchovies. (Plus, they’re salty, and who doesn’t love that?) Mike and Hilary started their meal by sharing the Chilled Root Vegetables and Goat Cheese ($8) with fennel vinaigrette and hazelnuts.

When our first course arrived I thought I had died and gone to food porn heaven. These were some of the most exquisitely plated and presented dishes I had encountered. I’m talking front cover of Bon Appetite here… the plating was breathtaking. We almost (almost) didn’t want to disturb the beauty by plunging our forks into this mini-masterpieces. Well, that didn’t last…

I wasted no time going straight for a forkful of intense yet pleasing white anchovy. I think I could eat these delicious little fishes on dry toast and be happy (note to self, good idea for midnight snack). The salad itself was a testament to the classic Caesar salad, no bacon bits, not drowning in cheese and not overly dressed. The crisp leaves of Romaine lettuce and the homemade croutons were delicately tossed in a delightful roasted garlic vinaigrette and modestly topped with shavings of pungent parmesan cheese.

If this wasn’t a pleasing enough way to start a meal, it turns out the real showstopper turned out to be Mike and Hilary’s root vegetables with goat cheese. It’s hard to get this excited about a vegetable dish – unless it’s this extraordinary. The vibrantly colored cooked spring vegetables: fennel, carrots, parsnips, and beets, were gently coated in a citrus dressing and tossed with bites of creamy goat cheese and crunchy toasted hazelnuts and topped with crispy fried parsnip strips. The level of sophistication in this dish was mind blowing. It was a perfect balance of delicate vegetables, tangy cheese and toasty nuts. And the fried parsnips were the hit of the night – unbelievably tasty and as addictive as potato chips, none of us guessed what vegetable they were made from and had to ask. These could have easily stood on their own as a bar snack. Something for the chef to think about! Although, as Hilary perceptively pointed out, you’d have to call them something else – who would actually order a basket of fried parsnips with their pilsner?

It was hard to imagine the meal getting any better, The Black Watch had set the bar very high and we were all eagerly awaiting to see if the entrees delivered. The menu offered included standards like steak, pork and seafood, but all with an innovative twist: an exotic sauce, an imaginative preparation or unexpected ingredient. I was drawn to the Butter Braised Haddock with basmati rice, lemon fried shallots, and wilted greens ($19). (Sure I love seafood in all forms, but regular readers will know that I picked the dish solely because I am a sucker for “wilted greens”). Hilary chose one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, the New York Strip Steak ($21) and Mike had the very interesting sounding Cider-Brined Pork Rib Chop ($19). The steak, unlike the other entrees, does not come with side dishes; instead diners choose from a selection of a la carte items, including a variety of potato and vegetable sides. Hilary ordered the Brussels sprouts with bacon and the homemade gnocchi, all sides are $6.

Dinner arrived with much excitement. Just as with the appetizers, everything was plated expertly and was centerfold-worthy of any major food publication. The haddock was tender, moist and flaky, in other words, cooked perfectly. The filet was surrounded by a lovely spring-green olive oil drizzle and a rich buttery sauce. The greens, turned out to be baby bok choy, and were nicely “wilted”. However, overall the dish was a little on the mild side for me, not showcasing any intense flavors. While every component was executed satisfactorily, I do wish the greens were of a darker variety, offering more of a contrast to the mellowness of the fish and rice. A little acidity in this dish would have also helped to heighten the other flavors and brighten the dish up a bit.

Hilary’s steak was generally a very nice cut of meat, but a little grisly, (however that is not the fault of the restaurant). It was seasoned well, had good flavor and was cooked as she ordered it (steak lovers will know sometimes this can be an issue). However, it was the sides she ordered that stole this show. Sure, Brussels sprouts are fine, but cook them with olive oil until they’re slightly caramelized, and add some bacon and you’ve elevated them to a whole new level. Even those who don’t like this sometimes bitter cabbage-family veggie would be happy with this side. The gnocchi were even better. Not only were these little potato pillows homemade, they were deep fried. You heard me. And you thought gnocchi couldn’t get any better. We had to take turns physically restraining each other from wolfing down the whole bowl. First the deep fried parsnips and now the deep fried gnocchi. I guess it’s true that you really can fry anything – and it’ll be delicious.

Mike probably had the most sophisticated, imaginative dish of all of us. For a pork dish the meat itself was remarkably “pretty” and delicate looking on the plate, surrounded by a swirl of roasted apple sauce, and another of walnut polenta, with some red onion chutney on the side. This is one of those times I wish I had my digital camera with me. I would have forgone any amount of embarrassment to capture this dish on film. The best part? It tasted as good as it looked. The pork was brined, which means it sat in a nice bath of apple cider vinegar before being cooked, not only making the meat tastier, but tender as well. In addition to the roasted apple sauce and walnut polenta, there was a helping of maple spiced carrots. All three were perfect matches to the pork. Apple is a traditional companion to pork, so of course it worked well and the walnut polenta, although something new and unexpected, was divine in its nuttiness. And cooked carrots never tasted so good – they were like candy, but with enough spice to avoid being cloying. And then with the introduction of the red onion chutney you have a sharp, tangy-sweet flavor. This dish didn’t skip a beat, it had it all. Hopefully it will stay on their menu for others to enjoy, and devour happily.

Not wanting the evening to end, we decided to “look” at the dessert menu. Yeah, you know what that means; dessert was never really in question, based on the exemplary meal we had all experienced so far. Our server sealed the deal when she mentioned that all desserts were made in-house. Great. No turning back now.

We decided on the Carrot Cake and simply for balance, the Triple Chocolate Torte too, both were $6. To accompany dessert I ordered a glass of the refreshing Brut Mionetto Prosecco ($8), Hilary tried the Irish Coffee ($4) and Mike had a cup of deaf coffee ($2).

We shouldn’t have been surprised by the exquisiteness of the desserts, yet we were. The carrot cake was better than any I’ve tried. It was rich as expected, but the flavors were varied complex and yet all worked in harmony. The cake had lovely spice notes and was not overly sweet; it didn’t need sugar to fall back on with the cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg enhancing the intense carrot. Even the homemade whipped cream sprinkled with spiced walnuts was out of this world.

The triple chocolate torte sounded richer than it was. We were pleasantly surprised by its light and airy quality. This also meant we could finish it with feeling guilty...it was light! But being light didn’t mean it lacked chocolate intensity, for it did not. This dessert is for serious chocoholics who can appreciate the intense concentration of chocolate without the bother of flour or other ingredients that might hinder its essence. And just in case the torte wasn’t enough for you, it came with vanilla ice cream garnished with those delectable spiced walnuts.

Everything about this dessert was smooth, rich, creamy and decadent. I highly recommend it. The light, dry Prosecco was a nice accompaniment to both desserts and by all accounts, Hilary’s Irish coffee used a good quality Irish whiskey and was not unnatural neon green color, this is a plus.

For a restaurant in a town not known for sophisticated, inventive cuisine I found this dining experience to be a pure joy. The food is classic, but pushing the envelope of flavor combinations. It is by no means typical. I personally applaud The Black Watch for their professional service, pleasantly progressive menu, meticulously made cocktails and plating and execution worthy of a restaurant anywhere.
The total cost for two cocktails, three glasses of wine, two appetizers, three entrees, two desserts, and two coffees (excluding tax and tip) was $120.54.

The Black Watch is located at 21 Ridge Street in Glens Falls, NY. They can be reached at (518) 792-5225 or online: http://blackwatchrestaurant.com/.

Hours of operation are for Lunch: Wednesday - Friday, 11:30 to 3. For Dinner: Wednesday - Saturday, 5:30 to 9:30. Cocktail hour begins at 5 p.m.