Review: Scarlet Knife classy, pricey, worthwhile option
Impressive in size and ambition, Scarlet Knife is a luxurious restaurant in a former Kmart. Our critic says it offers an accomplished fine-dining experience.
There’s hardly a trace of the former Kmart in the elevated parking lot off Route 2, between Latham Circle and Watervliet. The brand new Scarlet Knife has radically reimagined 15,000 square feet, taking a flagship position in big-box space left vacant since the store’s closure in 2014 and more recently filled with mixed businesses from Vent Fitness to Bunker indoor golf, since Bill Lia of the LIA Auto Group snapped it up.
Scarlet Knife owners James Warren, of Troy’s kW Mission Critical Engineering (recently sold to a global engineering firm), and his brother-in-law Paul Dimm, a veteran chef from New Jersey, conceptualized the restaurant from the ground up, securing local design team SWBR Architects for the physical execution and believing this level of dining theater is something the area needs.
I’m inclined to agree. It’s hard to overstate the details or evident costs of a bar curved like the blade of a santoku knife that seeps a scarlet glow; richly upholstered banquette booths dividing the dining room before a sea of tables stop short of a chef’s counter, arched for optimal viewing of the open kitchen and where solo dining might be the way to go. People spend money on pleasure interests from travel to sports, but pricey dinners can get a bad rap, and there was much gasping at previewed menu prices — with swift adjustments in the opening week. Dimm and General Manager Alexandra Sisca acknowledge Scarlet knife may be a special-occasion restaurant for some or a multicourse experience for those who dine more frequently. The bar crowd will soon have the pick of a new menu with a Scarlet Knife burger, and brunch featuring lobster scrambled eggs and poached egg and crab hash that starts later this month.
The glamorous interior is daunting in size yet still inviting and positions the open kitchen as the star of the show. That’s literal, since the team offers tours of the kitchen like upscale Eleven Madison Park. Wine walls partition off private rooms with their growing cellar collection in floor-to-ceiling racks. Somewhat remarkably, the Gallery Room features local art and sculpture curated by Albany Center Gallery, while the Reserve Room, with AV equipment and gorgeous boardroom table, seats an intimate 16. Even the exterior has been wood paneled, and a side patio with oversized bar is primed to be this summer’s fun in spite of its unlikely location. But let’s get stuck into the soon-to-open Dessert Room, inspired by Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa Bay, Fla., and Warren’s affinity for Roald Dahl’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” It’s smart to have guests adjourn to the dessert room, though I’m equally impressed by plans to accept reservations only for dessert.
On that topic, the Wonka connection is picked up in the desserts by pastry chef Jenny Carter. The Violet B. — named for the character Violet Beauregarde — is a shiny violet almond dacquoise cake filled with huckleberry jam, the sweetness of meringue offset by the tang of cream cheese mousse and subtle nuttiness of almond ice cream. I recognized Carter’s signature style from Mrs. London’s Bakery in Saratoga Springs, where she was executive pastry chef, having trained with former Culinary Institute of America instructor Frank Volkommer at the former Chocolate Mill (Glens Falls) and at Salt & Char (Saratoga Springs) when Michele Hunter was its executive pastry chef. Carter’s LBD is an oversized treat — a great slab of cocoa genoise cake soaked with ganache, whipped fudge and vanilla bean ice cream. If a dessert could capture the decadent chocolate fudge cake in “Matilda,” another Roald Dahl tale, it would be this.
Dimm, with chef de cuisine Joshua Herring, have put together a refreshingly different menu. Yes, it’s driven by farm-to-table, sustainable ingredients and anchored by impressively topped steakhouse classics, but the menu is peppered with surprises like crispy, thick yucca fries in Parmesan with garlic aioli. I doubt I could sit at the bar without ordering a bowl of these.
We’re given front-row seating and brought plush padded menus, cocktails and housemade bread. Our server is in full swing, spouting appetizer details of Ecuadorian pink shrimp in a tomato broth with house-made chorizo, while a trainee server tags along. I order oysters that arrive impeccably shucked, full bellied and brimming with briny liquor. The mignonette is little more than diced cucumber without vinegary tang, so I’m glad for the citrine pearls of quickly squeezed finger limes.
Those Ecuadorian pinks swim into view, the broth comforting and rich with griddled bread. The $18 price is steep for four shrimp, though it’s a filling bowl to happily sop up on a cold winter’s night, with an Old Fashioned in hand. I ordered the carrot Old Fashioned, a familiar farm-to-table twist in upstate bars, but this is too thickly sweet, the carrot simple syrup dominating the bourbon. Dialing it back should do the trick. I’m also surprised to find strawberry and prosecco, but no gin, in the Bees Knees, a classic gin drink.
We watch kitchen stations at work, delicately arranging crispy potato, shaved leeks and Collar City chestnut mushrooms in a jumble beneath the hefty crossed bones of roasted bone marrow. It’s the only dish that takes a while to arrive, but it is worth the wait once we scoop its fatty riches on toast. The braised Angus short rib is perfection, collapsing effortlessly under gentle fork pressure. This night it’s paired with weisse-beer jus, root vegetables and on-point risotto made with Whitney cheese, a raw cow’s milk cheese from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont. Though some menu items change weekly, the braised ribs will stick around for winter in varying presentations, perhaps next as Korean barbecue or with evolving sides.
Only the French duck cassoulet underwhelms with vaguely combative flavors in the cast-iron pan. Rather than a bubbling soupy peasant stew, the pan is nested with thick smoky beans and sliced Toulouse sausage. (Cutely misspelled as Tellouise. Tell Louise what?) Hard to say if its blandness came from sauce or sausage, traditionally made with pork, black pepper and garlic. Though the confit duck skin was a lovely, lacquered crisp, the meat edged to dry, and duck-fat roasted Brussels sprouts, raved over by our server, felt spongy, as if quickly warmed up.
We’re happy sipping the recommended wine pairings printed on the menu under each course. Such touches occur throughout the night, from taking our coats upon arrival to smooth service, acoustic live music, no maddening upcharge for the house whipped butter and bread, even curated art to view on the way to the bathroom. Still, at this price point, I’d wish for crumbs to be swept between courses and bread removed before desserts arrive, but it’s early days so perhaps this will come.
Someone later asked me, “Will they make it?” I firmly believe they will, even with dinner easily hitting $150 a person after drinks, tax and tip. Scarlet Knife has created a fantastically stylish space while doing something too many high-end restaurants overlook: Keeping a clear focus on the theater of the kitchen and the pleasure of a well executed, and sometimes costly, dinner out.
For the original article & more photos, visit the Times Union website.