A recent newcomer to Union Street in Schenectady is Malcolm’s – just down the road from the fine dining experience at Chez Nous and part of a nice cluster of restaurants in that neighborhood. The premise of the restaurant is classy farm to table cuisine, with an ever changing menu and a slightly elevated price point. There is a four course prix fixe option for $45, or you can select a la carte from a larger list of entrees and small plates. A few sample menus that I saw online looked interesting and creative, and I always like an excuse to support local farmers, so I was happy to have an opportunity to check it out this past weekend.
The rotating menu at Malcolm’s is presented to customers at the table via small tablets, rather than being printed each day. I thought this little high tech detail was a nice touch, although it seems like it would be expensive to be fully outfitted for a busy dinner rush. Another unexpected part of the experience was being delivered little sample plates directly from the chefs while we waited for our meals – a tiny plate of fresh bread with a squash compote, and two little bowls of beet soup. It was a nice way to start off the dining experience and get a feel for the kitchen’s style.
We then moved on to our two selected appetizers – a carrot salad and lamb ravioli. The carrot salad came out with a nice presentation of colors and textures, but the first few bites were a little bland. The carrots had a lot of bite left in them, and were mixed with pieces of red kale, strips of apple, and one pretty little curled slice of radish. Once we got to the bottom of this plate and started to taste the herbed goat’s milk dressing, I felt like I enjoyed the plate a lot more – I just wish the dressing was applied more generously and mixed evenly over top of everything.
The lamb ravioli small plate was $10, so I was disappointed when it came out with just a single piece of pasta. The filling was primarly made up of crumbled pieces of lamb and a golden egg yolk that spilled out when the shell was pierced. The flavors worked well together, especially with the very rich and meaty sauce that accompanied the dish. If only there were two or three pieces of ravioli on this plate, even for a slightly higher price, I might have felt better about it.
Luckily, both of our entrees made up for some mild disappointment with the early courses. A plate of arctic char was perfectly cooked and seasoned, and served perched atop some root vegetables and a butternut squash puree. An earthy side of sorrel sauce added a balancing touch to the plate.
My favorite dish of the evening was the kabocha squash gnocchi, served with pumpkin seeds, arugula, and fresh herbs. The gnocchi was beautifully airy and tender, but with some nice crispy edges. The sweetness of the squash was offset by a surprising sauce of meyer lemon and serrano chili butter. It was tart and spicy and light and just kind of fascinating – I can’t recall having anything like it before. This dish was perfectly portioned and interesting, and I find myself still thinking about it even a few days later.
A lot of restaurants pay homage to the “farm to table” idea with varying degrees of success. I like it best when a restaurant is directly linked to the production of its food, such as when the owner also has a family farm on the side. But I think places like this can still do justice to the concept if they make smart choices, like rotating the menu to really highlight whatever is seasonal and high quality at the moment. I noticed a lot of squash and root vegetable elements in the menu, which probably reflected what was available at the time. And those elements were showcased in the best possible way to add some fresh flavors to the dishes without feeling like they were overplayed.
My other observation about Malcolm’s was that the space didn’t lend itself to a very peaceful meal. The main dining room is a small collection of tables in front of an open kitchen, plus additional seating on the second floor. On a very busy weekend evening, all of the tables were packed, and wait staff were rushing around to bring plates up a steep set of stairs right in front of the doorway. Plus there were a lot of people standing around waiting for tables or at the bar. So it felt like things got a little cramped and noisy and possibly could have been arranged better. At times there was literally someone from the staff running back and forth behind my chair, which just felt hectic and uncomfortable. I’m hoping that in nicer weather the patio space out front will be utilized for tables to open things up, and once the restaurant has worked out some of its opening kinks, the service might feel a little more relaxed.
Overall Rating: 8/10. There is definitely a lot of promise at Malcolm’s, and I would love to see another successful farm to table establishment in the region. A lot of the menu was creatively designed, and the fresh produce really stood out. The squash gnocchi in particular was an excellent and unique dish. But I felt a little let down by some of the smaller plates (and I don’t think I will ever be convinced that a plate of one single ravioli is ok – I would rather pay more or have multiple small ravioli or something). I’d be curious to come back after a couple months once the restaurant has been on its feet for a while to see how things are leveling out. And to see what great local products they are highlighting next.