Art à la Carte
Albany chef Dale Miller creates visual and gastronomic masterworks at his eponymous downtown restaurant
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Creating a Stir: A Master Chef with an artistic flair creates unusual entrées — such as this chorizo-stuffed veal mousseline with roasted
Photographs by Jennifer May
There are 16 tables, and at the center of each table is a small, square, orange-colored pedestal, and on the pedestal sits a round, ripe, perfect clementine orange. And that tells you all you need to know about this restaurant. Here, food is art.
The restaurant is called Dale Miller: The Art of Dining. That’s right — it has a subtitle. If someone else’s name came before, that could seem a bit precious, if not downright pretentious. But when the titular chef is Dale Miller, and the restaurant epitomizes everything his career has built toward, it makes sense. Because everything about this year-old, downtown Albany establishment represents who Miller is and what he does.
Miller, first and foremost, is a master chef. In fact, you can put that in capital letters. He is one of just 61 U.S. Certified Master Chefs and one of 300 Global Master Chefs worldwide. He’s won a full Web page-worth of awards since he graduated with high honors from the Culinary Institute of America in 1979. He has been arguably (though I’m not sure who would argue against it) the premier Capital Region chef for more than two decades, from his days running the Stone Ends in Glenmont, through his tenure at Jack’s Oyster House and, most recently, at the Inn at Erlowest in Lake George.
He’s also an aesthete, a perfectionist who obsesses over the smallest details. He bought and arranged the flowers himself at Stone Ends. Setting up his new place, he would sit for hours staring at the abstract shapes painted on the wall of the dining room, looking for the perfect distribution of pattern and color.
And yet, Miller is refreshingly down-to-earth, the antithesis of the archetypal arrogant, hot-tempered chef. He didn’t even want to name the restaurant after himself. His partners, attorney Jim Linnan and his wife, Maura Gannon, insisted on it. “But I didn’t like the sound of just ‘Dale Miller,’ so we came up with the art of dining idea,” Miller says.
Fare with Flair: The soothing design of the dining room
The artistry starts with the design. The dining room is a square set in the center of a larger square, so that the bar area and walkways are at a remove. The kitchen is hidden behind an opaque glass scrim. No ambient noise, no distracting foot traffic, no flames leaping from the grill. The color palate is deliberately food-based: peppercorn, vanilla, pine nut, cider. “I wanted a sophisticated space, but not stuffy or intimidating,” Miller says. “People say it’s very serene and relaxing, almost spa-like.”
To me, it’s like a gallery. Those rectangular shapes on the wall suggest paintings. The tables are set in clean, white linens; with clean, white flatware; and clean, clear stemware. It’s all a blank canvas on which to paint an exquisite meal.
“I designed the menu so people can create their own dining experience,” Miller says. He divides the menu into three sections: first impressions (appetizers), mosaics (small plates), and montages (main courses). There are many possible sizes and combinations — mosaics can come bundled in threes, and montages are available in both American and European portions.
That creativity appealed to my dining party both times I visited. My first trip was in September, and Curly Haired Companion and I both left starry-eyed and awestruck. We agreed it was the finest meal we had ever had in Albany. We came back, with Little Pumpkin in tow, in mid-February. That turned out to be a mistake. The place was, uncharacteristically and through no fault of its own, dead.
First, it was school vacation week, so many of the area’s fine diners were seated beachside on their Caribbean getaways. Second, it was the first day of the restaurant-killing period known as Lent. (The Levine Party was not, until now, aware of this phenomenon.)
As a result, Miller was not at his customary station at the expediting window. He was in the office catching up on paperwork. And besides, the restaurant business isn’t fine art; it’s more like performance art. When there’s no audience, the performers understandably don’t always put on their best show.
Still, the food that night was mostly excellent. And since we had many of the same dishes at our transcendent first meal, I can faithfully describe the restaurant at its best.
The culinary stage is set (to mix artistic metaphors) with three rosemary crostini in a slender silver tower. After ordering, we are presented an amuse bouche — a small chipotle shrimp spring roll on a bed of purple cabbage slaw, served on a white Japanese soupspoon. My bouche was amused.
This is followed by freshly baked bread accompanied by a trio of toppings: European butter, olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and a delightful cranberry cream cheese.
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