Hats Off to the Brown DerbyNovember 15, 2010
The original Brown Derby opened in Hollywood in 1926, and it became a regular hangout for people in the movie biz. Caricatures of celebrities adorned the walls, and it was a popular place to have a martini, a steak, and to simply be seen. A few other Brown Derbys have opened and closed over the years, but the only remnant of one in L.A. is the Derby nightclub in Los Feliz. A few years ago, another Hollywood Brown Derby opened up in the least likely of places – Albany, NY. Now called simply The Brown Derby, it offers a slice of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” right here in Upstate New York.
The décor and atmosphere are quite nice. Dark wood, white tablecloths, high ceilings and faux antique chandeliers create an airy, sophisticated setting. A giant wall of caricatures – some from the original Hollywood restaurant, and some of local celebrities – is the backdrop for the dining room, which also has large, plush half-circle booths. The bar area is beautiful, with dark wood countertops and shelving, warm lighting and an overall classy ambiance.
One oddity about the place is the location of the restrooms – two flights downstairs from the dining room (you can take stairs or an elevator). So if you’re in a hurry, it’s bit inconvenient.
The Brown Derby has an extensive wine list, but their beer choices were a bit disappointing, with Sam Adams being the most exotic one of the bunch. I felt like I needed to order something a bit more old school, and the Jack Daniels with ginger ale highball hit the spot.
Chef Larry Schepici’s menu ranges from classic American cuisine to modern twists on Italian staples, with a little bit of California fusion. Chef Schepici is passionate about supporting local farmers, and many of the dishes advertise that they are made with locally-bought ingredients. Starters include a shrimp crostini, pan-fried artichokes, a “clam tower” featuring clams stuffed with sausage, lobster, crab, herbs and spices (you can get a small tower for 2-4 people, or the large one for 4-8 people), and crab cakes. Entrees include beef short ribs, a prime rib trilogy, brick-roasted chicken, filet mignon, pork osso buco, and shrimp and sausage pomodoro.
Our party selected two appetizers: the Calamari Grandioso, featuring pan-fried calamari with arugula, cherry peppers, garlic and a mango chipotle aoli; and the antipasto tasting plate. The calamari was excellent – lightly breaded, tender, and the arugula and peppers were a great touch, along with the aoli. The antipasto was very good as well – with a dish like that, where nothing is cooked, its success depends on the quality of the ingredients. The salami and prosciutto tasted very fresh, the red peppers were nicely seasoned and the mozzarella tasted like they were milking the cows in the kitchen.
For main courses, we had the following: steak au poivre, lobster pie, rigatoni “Dom Deluise,” and one of the specials of the day, the mixed grill. The steak au poivre was very nicely seasoned – but our friend had ordered it cooked medium, and it was very medium-rare. But he did not send it back – it was still delicious. It was accompanied by some unfortunately bland potatoes and veggies. The lobster pie was very tasty – the crust was soft and flaky, and the sauce inside was hearty and comforting. The downfall of the dish, however, was the lack of lobster. There were about three pieces of the crustacean in there – a little lacking for a dish called “lobster pie.” The rigatoni left no question as to why Dom Deluise was, shall we say, so portly. Chicken and sausage were tossed with onions, tomatoes and garlic in a chicken broth-based sauce. It was very good – the sausage was especially wonderful. The mixed grill featured half a lobster tail, a petite filet mignon, and a few slices of lamb mignon. I had never heard of lamb mignon before, but if I see it again somewhere, I’ll order it. It was the tenderest lamb I’d ever had – I only wished they put more on the plate. The lobster was very good, but the filet was spectacular. It had a marvelously seasoned crust on it, and the meat melted in my mouth. Both meats had a basic bordelaise sauce on them, which was a nice compliment. But the best piece of food on the plate was the accompanying mashed potato croquette – crispy on the outside, velvety smooth on the inside; it was superb. One person opined that if they had known how good that croquette would be, they would have ordered two of those for their meal and called it a night.
The dessert menu looked very inviting, but adverse time constraints prevented us from sampling any. The desserts are brought in from Villa Italia in Schenectady, and include Tuscan Limoncello cheesecake, warm chocolate ganache tartlet with pistachio ice cream, and classic rice pudding.
For the atmosphere and food quality, the Brown Derby is reasonably priced – it’s a nice night out, but still reasonable for the portions and taste. With one or two drinks and tip, it worked out to just over $50 per person. The Brown Derby brings a touch of elegance and retro class to Albany; it’s worth a try.
The Mouse House Kitchen gives the Brown Derby 3.5 out of 5 stars!