I’m a firm believer that food doesn’t need to be expensive to be good. I usually steer away from the highest priced restaurants in the area, not only because I often don’t think it’s worth the expense, but also because there are so many great places to eat in the Capital Region with a mid-level price point. I also tend to think it’s silly to pay top dollar for something I can make at home, like a steak. Unless it’s complicated and creative and completely different than what’s offered at another restaurant, I just can’t get myself excited to rack up a huge bill.
Chez Nous in Schenectady is an example of a place that’s been on my radar for some time now that has the potential to be worth its elevated prices. The menu isn’t astronomical, but most entrees run in the $30-$45 range, and most appetizers hover around $18. Throw in a few glasses of wine and dessert, and you’re easily over the mark where I feel comfortable on a normal night out. But I happen to love French food, and I had a perfect special occasion dinner around the corner, so I decided to take the opportunity to see if Chez Nous was worth a visit.
The old restored building and the general ambiance at Chez Nous is really exquisite. The building has a lot of charm, with several small rooms decked with beautiful artwork and plush armchairs. I liked that the place was broken out into more intimate seating areas, rather than one wide open expanse. It immediately gave the experience a special, personal feel.
Although I was tempted to order the rabbit in a white wine mustard cream sauce (one of my favorite new proteins to see on a menu), the description of “boiled potatoes and carrots” as a side was a little off-putting. Back to my argument about not paying high prices for things I can make at home, boiled carrots and potatoes is the epitome of something I make for myself quite frequently. It wasn’t exactly the most inspiring and enticing thing to see on a menu.
So instead I chose the magret de canard, a duck breast with a tangerine glaze, served with carrots, brussels sprouts, and turnips.
Duck is something that I don’t ever cook at home, mostly because I don’t think I would be able to execute the key aspect: perfectly crispy skin. Luckily, Chez Nous was able to deliver. The duck was cooked to a beautifully tender medium, just bursting with juices and flavor. The skin was crackly perfection, with a light hint of the citrus flavor. I had wondered if the tangerine sweetness would be overdone, but there was the perfect amount on the duck itself, and a pool of flavor surrounding it for extra dipping enjoyment. The sides weren’t stunning but they were well-executed, with simply roasted vegetables that were generously seasoned with herbs.
We also tried the chateaubriand, a beef tenderloin with a bordelaise sauce, green beans, and gratin potatoes.
The meat in this dish was also masterfully cooked, with a nicely charred and seasoned outside and a tender center. The sauce was flavorful and light, and it complemented the meat perfectly. The beans were just beans – nothing really to say there. But we loved the chunk of gratin potatoes, which was light and airy with a delicious creaminess and bright herb notes. It was the most complex side that we saw the whole night on our plates or others nearby, and frankly it deserves to be featured more. I could probably eat a whole dish just of that potato heaven.
My only gripe about the chateaubriand plate was that we only got three slices of beef, while other tables that ordered the same dish seemed to get nearly double that. Perhaps our slices were thicker (it didn’t seem like it) or perhaps they were running low, but either way we felt a little slighted, especially given the high price of the dish. It was delicious, don’t get me wrong, but it was hard not to contrast our portion with others that we saw the same night.
For dessert we tried the creme brulee and the tarte tatin. Of the two, we much preferred the creme brulee, with its quintessential glassy top that gave way to a light and creamy foundation. I would change nothing about it. The apple tart, on the other hand, was somewhat of a disappointment. The pastry bottom was soggy and didn’t hold up well to the heavy portion of apple filling above it. I wish the apples had been a little more distinct and closer to whole slices, instead of what felt like an overworked and overcooked mush. Although I’m sure a lot of work went into the preparation of this dish, it ended up tasting more like a generic apple filling that you could buy in a can, rather than something highlighting freshly prepared apples. It was topped with a heavy drizzle of caramel, but the resulting sweetness of the dish ended up being kind of one-note and unexciting.
Final Rating: 8/10. Chez Nous is the type of place where the ambiance adds a lot to your overall dining experience. There’s an inherent romanticism in the decor that immediately sets the tone for your meal, making this a really special place. The star of the menu was definitely the superb execution of the meats, but most of the sides and other dish components felt a little lacking, and the desserts were hit or miss.
This meal made me wonder if I could say definitively that Chez Nous is in the category of high price restaurants that are worth the price. Did I love the duck here more than the duck I tried at The People’s Pub for half the price? They’re close, but I might pick the Chatham version as the winner. Was it the best creme brulee I’ve ever tasted? Probably not. But I think Chez Nous is still worth a visit for the romantic setting and the opportunity to enjoy French cuisine that is the star of the show, rather than a menu afterthought. However, the price point makes it likely that our visits will be occasional only.