1839 Central Ave.
Lunch & Dinner Monday through Saturday
On our weekly travels from the Hudson Valley to the Adirondacks we frequently find ourselves in the Albany area around lunch time. For many years we have looked (without success) for a family owned bistro style eatery with easy Northway access to frequent. I was intrigued by Daniel B.'s comments about a new place called Garden Bistro on FussyLittleBlog. My interest was piqued when an e-mail from Table Hopping's Steve Barnes at the Times Union confirmed that we should give it a try. Garden Bistro is just two miles west of Interstate 87, in a strip mall on Central Avenue (Route 5). It is without question the type of location that I try to avoid like the plague. My experience with strip mall dining is right up there with airports. When we ventured inside the restaurant, I had to stop myself from leaving. It has all of the charm of your high school cafeteria, but with nicer furniture. The dining space is one room set with a few dozen tables that look to seat around 60 diners, deuces and four-tops cheek by jowl with no booths or even a plant to provide a little privacy. A single lonely water color hangs on the back wall near the bar. A half wall topped with the requisite ivy planter hides the rest rooms in the opposite corner. I should mention here that the place was also packed, and it was obvious that people were not coming for the atmosphere.
We nestled into two seats at the bar, and were immediately greeted and given menus and a wine list. Daniel B.'s hanger ($15) and flat iron ($14) steaks were on the list, along with a roast chicken ($14). Specials included variations on the chicken theme - a sandwich with roasted peppers and mozzarella ($8.50), or a savory crepe ($14) with bechamel sauce. (On a subsequent visit I tried a chicken crepe with sauteed mushrooms and spinach.) The lunch specials are offered with a choice of french fries or mixed green salad.
We ordered a glass of Conti di Buscareta Lacrima, from Morro D'Alba ($8), and a Circa Pinot Grigio ($6), to go with our hanger steak and chicken. As our server poured our wines (neither of which I had ever heard of) I was questioning our decision to come here in the first place. Another waiter soon arrived with our lunch platters. I looked forward to finally seeing what all of the fuss was about. What happened next is hard to properly describe. I can only compare it to seeing Susan Boyle sing for the first time.
The chicken they serve at Garden Bistro is among the best that I have ever tasted. It is simply but expertly broiled and served with pan juices. It is perfectly cooked, with a crispy skin, savory succulent breast meat, and accompanied by seasonal fresh garden vegetables. It is not highly seasoned or dressed with anything at all. It just tastes like chicken - like chicken should taste. The dish is elegant in its simplicity. On subsequent visits I tried the french fries instead of the veggies, which were also among the best I have ever tasted - shoestring cut, and fried to a perfect crispy golden brown. They will make you want to smuggle in some really good sea salt to sprinkle on them. The hanger steak is another classic bistro staple that the kitchen does a great job with. It is my favorite cut of steak, with a most unique and pungent flavor, due to its proximity to the kidneys. More info that you need probably, but it is a dish worth seeking out, especially the way they prepare it here at Garden Bistro.
Finish with a very nice creme brulee and a cup of espresso, and you can almost forget about the space. If you close your eyes you can make believe that you are in France. OK, maybe not, but it's still well worth the trip.