It had been awhile since I dined at the Patron's Club in The Hall of Springs at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. My wife and I had been Patrons of the performing Arts Center for a few seasons in the '90's, but with growing children and increasing expenses, had to give that up.It was a great place to have dinner before a performance of the NYC Ballet or the Philadelphia Orchestra. The food was good and reasonably priced and the setting was beautiful and couldn't be more convenient for the show. As it was then, the Club is managed by The Glen Sanders Mansion.
The view from the dining porch
When I discovered from a friend, Chef Christopher Tanner, who was recently hired to be the Chef de Cuisine there this summer, that the restaurant was no longer just available to Patrons, my wife and I decided to try it again, especially knowing that Chef Tanner, a talented cook who makes all his own charcuterie and is a Culinary Professor at Schenectady Community College, would be cooking.
With our son in tow, we made a reservation for 7:30 PM, which meant that we would have the restaurant mostly to ourselves as the vast majority of diners, eat there before the 7:30 curtain. It was a beautiful time of the evening as the lowering sun cast beautiful light along the Palladian buildings of the hall of Springs and The Little Theater across he pond.
One is not likely to leave the restaurant hungry, as included in the price of a main course, they have a "Tuscan" Table with an assortment of dishes prepared by the kitchen including shrimp cocktail; various freshly smoked seafood items such as lobster,scallops, mussels, salmon and trout; corn and seafood chowder; grilled vegetables, composed salads and a seemingly endless array of other dishes, all freshly prepared by the hard-working two man kitchen crew. The Tuscan table by itself is $30, which also happens to be the price of the least expensive menu items (remember the TT is included with the main course). Nothing on the menu was priced at more than $39. The wine list is unremarkable, but not overtly expensive either.
Of course, the curse of a broad buffet such as this, is that it is very easy to fill up before the main course arrives. Despite trying to limit ourselves, that still was our fate, which was too bad, as we couldn't enjoy Chef Tanner's mains as much as we otherwise would have. The dish I ordered included braised chicken thighs with house-made Mortadella, dandelion greens, fingerling potatoes and a poached egg. One look at the plate and I cursed myself for eating even a relatively meager amount from the buffet. My wife had roast loin of lamb with house made thyme lamb sausage, house-made gnocchi and a potpourri of nicoise olives, summer squash and heirloom tomatoes. Our son had a pork shoulder ragu with house-made pappardelle pasta, Taggiasca olive sauce and Tuscano Olive Oil. The food was all very well prepared, but if I had to do it over again, I would either have severely limited myself at the Tuscan Table (to some of the beautiful smoked seafood items) or I would have ordered a lighter main course such as the pan-seared scallops. Regardless of how full I may be from dinner, my sweet tooth dictates that I always have at least a little room for dessert, which Chef Tanner graciously comped for us. These included black cherries in a kirsch liquor topped with a rainier cherry foam, house made Valrhona chocolate gelato and a "Study in Orange" which included a lovely orange panna cotta with some candied kumquats.
The Patron's Club at SPAC remains a superb choice for dining prior to the ballet or the orchestra. The food is expertly prepared (I still can't believe that all the food is prepared by only two individuals and that so much of it is done artisanally by the chef – he is not taking shortcuts with his food prep) and the setting simply lovely (although the mosquitos did make their presence known as the sun fell), but the underlying approach of the restaurant's management still leaves me less than fully satisfied. While the quality of the cooking and the ingredients are in fact quite good, there are two aspects that leave me wanting more… or less. I will start with the "less." While I appreciate the value and the quality of the Tuscan Table (I hate the name – what is "Tuscan" about it except for the presence of a panzanella?), I generally prefer to avoid buffets, because 1. no matter how good the initial preparation, they are almost never as good as what the kitchen could prepare to order (items like the smoked seafood an obvious exception) and 2. my ability to resist trying things is poor, so I have a tendency to fill up on things that I might have been better off not filling up on. I realize, that a spread like this is quite popular with many people, especially those who seek "quantity" when dining out and that this one offers "quality" to go with the quantity, but it is just not my preferred way of dining. The second aspect is perhaps a little more difficult to put my arms around. The restaurant is managed by one of the bigger, if not the biggest, restaurant management companies in the area, The Glen Sanders Mansion. They apparently use Sysco to source the vast majority of their product. Sysco is a large company and , in fact, they have done a lot to adjust to a changing marketplace and have an arm that offers excellent quality, artisanal product (their efforts here should be applauded). While the GSM management apparently utilizes these top-end Sysco products for this restaurant, they still don't take full advantage of the top quality product that can be sourced locally. The lamb, for example, from Catelli Farm in Colorado was tasty and of good quality, but it was of no better quality than lamb available locally from farms like 3 Corner Field or Elihu to name a few. I'm sure that as a business the GSM management looks at their bottom-line and the Sysco product line as a whole probably saves them money. It is difficult to blame them for taking that approach. In fact, I don't blame them, but I would rather support restaurants that support quality local farms as much as possible, especially when the quality of the local product is as good as or better than what a company like Sysco brings in from outside.
While the food sourcing may not be entirely consistent with my Slow Food ideals, Chef Tanner's approach to fod and cooking is and it goes a long way in alleviating some of my dismay. His work day starts at 6AM and continues until the end of service. He and one other person make literally all of the food served at the restaurant and they are not using Sysco pre-made products that just need to be heated and served. Chef Tanner is an artisan who makes all his own high quality charcuterie and pasta amongst other things. Ultimately, this leaves me with mixed feelings about the restaurant on a purely philosophical basis. I appreciate Chef Tanner's skills, efforts and results, but would prefer if they were applied in a restaurant more totally consistent with that same ethos. Perhaps with time, his influence can have greater effect on the buying practices of management.