In cooking, as in any art, you have to know the rules—the more profoundly the better—to break them. While en route, appropriately enough, to Albany, I heard a radio interview1 with the manager and the chef of a new restaurant near the University of Albany. As I threaded my way through the rolling hills and forests that separate the capital of New York State from the Berkshires, slowing in all the notorious speed traps, I found this interview unusually absorbing. The chef, Nicholas Armstrong, was impressively articulate about the science of cooking and the way the changes he was making in the physical structure of animal flesh and plants, mostly through heat and fire, fit into a sensual effect he wished to create. He not only had specific goals in mind, it seemed that he liked to experiment as well. He also seemed to be aware that the people of Albany may not be the most adventurous diners in the world, and he was savvy about what kind of dish could survive on a menu and what would go over better as an occasional special. He fully understood the importance of pleasing the customer, saying that he would lend a customer the keys to his motorcycle, if they asked for it. That showed not only that he understands his business, but how important his creative standards are for him. His favorite children all seemed complex and ambitious. I lost no time in booking a table.
The restaurant is called Rascals and it is located in the Crossgates Mall. I think this may be the first time I’ve gone to a mall to dine in a serious restaurant, and Nicholas Armstrong’s inventions are definitely serious…as well as nourishing, satisfying, and fun. The owners, Philip and Linda Lama, have discreetly called Rascals a steakhouse as a subtitle, and you can indeed order a 24 oz. Porterhouse, a 22 oz. bone-in ribeye, or a 16 oz. sirloin there, but the excitement lies elsewhere. Before I venture into these more exotic territories, I should point out that these massive portions of prime beef are served with a choice of classic sauces: Bordelaise, Béarnaise, rosemary jus, au poivre, herb butter, mushroom demi-glace, and pesto. Chef Armstrong may have a vigorous imagination, but he also knows his classics, honored here straightforwardly in themselves, but also glowing at the heart of his more innovative inventions. On one visit I ordered the superb roast rack of lamb. The accompanying garlic-herb bread pudding, roasted sweet potato purée, white asparagus, and Brussels sprouts may have been original in their combination and treatment, but the rosemary jus was absolutely classic, perfectly executed, with its hearty stock foundation and vigorous rosemary perfume. On another visit my companion had the rack of lamb, and by his enjoyment I could tell that it will remain a favorite in our circle.
The braised pork shank with spiced tomato chutney, roasted squash, Hasselback potato, coconut foam, and natural jus is another one of Chef Armstrong’s robust masterpieces, in which he finds a harmony between extremely different ingredients. The spiced tomato chutney, roasted squash, and coconut really sing very sweetly together, not that sweetness is a major theme in the preparation. He says that he likes to include an element of sweetness in savory preparations, but it is only one voice among many, and fortunately a subdued one. In this recipe it is the natural jus that brings the many flavors together. It’s worth noting at this point that, while this dish is substantial, one of the richest on the menu, it is not overly fatty. If, say, I worked in the neighborhood and dined at Rascal’s once or twice a week, which one could happily do, given the variety of the menu and the seasonal changes, I would concentrate on the salads and the seafood. One of the most intriguing recipes is the pan-seared scallops with sweet potato mash, brown butter, leeks, heirloom carrots, roasted parsnip, sage, red sorrel, chive coulis. The ingredients themselves are irresistible, but the essence of the dish is in the cooking of the scallops at very high heat. Chef Armstrong discussed this in the radio interview. The kitchen is as new as the restaurant, of course, and designed for him, so that there are virtually no limits on what he and his staff can achieve. There is also an equally exciting swordfish with beet risotto, romesco, herb-roasted parsnip, chard stem, fried basil, and chive coulis, and rock shrimp vermicelli in brodo, cremini mushroom, carrot, leek, parsley, scallions, asparagus…and a fried egg, lest the happy person dining on this dish suffer from malnutrition!
The equally varied salads include an endive salad with pumpkin, roasted shallot rhubarb, honey yogurt, patty pan squash, red sorrel, pumpkin seed, thyme vinaigrette and a beet mosaic with carrot, butternut squash, red oak leaf, goat cheese, pistachio, and maple cider vinaigrette. These might even work as a main course for some regulars concerned about their waist line.
Some of the treasures of Armstrong’s repertoire are listed among the starters. The pimenton glazed duck drumettes with pickled squash and roasted red peppers, candied lemon peel, sriracha aioli, micro greens, and bleu cheese dressing are magnificent and addictive. This shows his penchant for complexity at its extreme, with an original take on a sweet and sour treatment of duck wings combined with bleu cheese and an emulsion sauce. This could be horrible in lesser hands, but, as one of the most popular dishes on the menu, it is consistently executed to perfection. I have also enjoyed the “Belly of the Beast,” house-cured maple-smoked pork belly, carrot jam, house-made greek yogurt, pickled red cabbage, baby radish, cumin, and port wine jus. Referring once again to the radio broadcast, Chef Armstrong lovingly described the process of curing and smoking the pork belly. Pretty much everything on the menu is prepared from scratch and to the highest possible standard, including sourcing at local organic farms, when possible.
Vegetarians will love the sweet potato gnocchi with spinach puree, zucchini, acorn squash sage, crispy fried egg, brown butter, parmesan, and micro rainbow. There is nothing delicate about these gnocchi. They are, in keeping with the house style, robust and satisfying, with subtle highlights. This goes far beyond the usual half-hearted gesture most restaurants make towards vegetarians. I would also suggest that Armstrong take vegans into account as well, although I can imagine that he could make an excellent vegan dish on request. Still, it’s helpful to have that on the menu. I would want to know in advance if I could invite certain friends and family members too join me at Rascals.
One of my favorites was a starter of mussels cooked with wine, herbs, and a small dollop of cream, an outstanding personal variant on a traditional recipe for mussels. It was both fragrant and rich, but not excessively so. Armstrong knows where to stop. This was really pretty much the best preparation of mussels I have enjoyed. Bravo!
The chef takes desserts very seriously. In the spirit of the rest of the menu, they are substantial and complex. A dessert like the chocolate mousse semifreddo with graham cracker puree, creme anglaise, peanut butter powder, and raspberry coulis invites one to pick at it here and there to enjoy the vast range of flavors. Personally I don’t like peanut butter in combination with other ingredients, especially in desserts, but this worked. Again, what a combination of different flavors, which might well not get along together unless handled with consummate skill. I shouldn’t try to duplicate this at home, if I were you.
Another admirable quality of the chef’s work is presentation. Armstrong clearly is an artist in all the senses, except, obviously, hearing, and his designs are gorgeous, without being fussy. There is something refreshing in the energy and freedom of his designs on the plate.
Rascals is in my opinion more than reasonably priced for the quality of its food. Most entrees are below 30 dollars, and the exceptions are few, mainly the grandiose steaks on the menu. The odd Gothamite who strays up to the state capital will be amazed. The wine list is solid, with prices ranging from $25 for a bottle of Terrazzas Malbec from Argentina to $250 for an Opus One from Napa Valley. There is an Amarone for $95, which should go well with the style of cooking, but nothing unexpected. The wine list is certainly good enough to support the outstanding cooking.
Writing only about the food that comes out of the kitchen has given me a ferocious desire to make another visit to Rascals, but that won’t be possible for at least a week. (Oh, drat!) But what is it like actually to go there? You find your way to the Crossgates Mall, park your car in the lot, a typical mall parking lot, enter the sprawling building, perhaps passing by some other more typical mall eateries, take an escalator up to the second floor, perhaps taking in some typical and not so typical mall retailers, and you eventually find yourself in front of Rascals’ restfully dark entrance. If you are an Albanian—yes, that’s what you are called!—madly shopping for Christmas at this time of year, you will find it a relaxing oasis. Forget about young Herbie and have a drink! And a bite to eat! You immediately lose your sense of what kind of building you are in, as you settle into the rather vast space of the bar and restaurant, longer than it is wide. At the far end there is a partially separate space that is dedicated to performances. Here there is a forty foot stage, an enormous HD screen, and a bar. The Lama’s took special care of the acoustics, hiring a first-rate sound engineer to condition the space and to design the sound system, which includes subwoofers set in concrete enclosures. This is mainly used for rock bands and sports broadcasts at the moment, but I couldn’t help seeing it as a perfect venue for contemporary art music. Here is a perfect amalgam of three of my NYC favorites, The Kitchen, (le) poisson rouge, and SubCulture. David Alan Miller, take note!
The scale and professionalism of this establishment and its situation in a mall may lead you to expect something corporate and impersonal, but it is entirely the contrary. Whenever I have been there, the owners, Philip and Linda Lama, the manager, Sara Inman, have been on hand, along with Chef Armstrong, whose presence is a sine qua non. You may find Philip tending bar, and Linda looking after various things, including polishing a glass door at closing. As outstanding as Rascals is, I was delighted to meet these fine people, who are investing work as well as capital into their enterprise. The Lama’s in fact migrated to Albany from Arizona, where they were involved with a group of investors in a similar operation, but it was not up to their standards, and they left to start their own business in their own way, at the invitation of the Crossgates Mall, which is a very successful one. What an inspiring surprise to find such a charming mom ‘n pop business in such impersonal surroundings! And what extraordinary people in Sara and Nicholas they have brought on to their team! Their enterprise is all about quality.
If I were a Michelin reviewer, I would want to give Rascals two stars, but, in spite of the sophistication of the cuisine, it has its own characte4ristic informality, and that might keep it on the upper edge of a single star. I hope the Lama’s keep it that way.