Unusual Turf

Rare earth signAs I walked the downtown streets of Glens Falls on a cold winter afternoon, there were cranes and construction vehicles on display in front of a large vacant building on Glen Street. Windows covered with paper and grime advertised the promise of a new cafe soon to join the ranks of the downtown business sector. Walking past Sterling and Company, a prominent home goods store that has been open for 7 years, I couldn’t resist taking one last stroll through before they close their doors for good in a few weeks. The shelves were all but empty, and it looked like a ghost town. It would have been completely depressing if it weren’t for the fact that the space is so beautiful—-brick walls, tin ceilings and polished hardwood floors. I sent a wish out to the universe that this space will soon be filled with some vibrant and successful enterprise.

This is an example of the commerce cycle that I have witnessed for the last 35 years in my hometown.  One store opens, and another store closes. Yet, something seems different right now. Though tenuous, there is a spark of hope that things are getting better here. There is a palpable momentum in the energy of the town. People are living downtown. There are fewer vacant storefronts. And everywhere you look, construction and building rehab projects are sprouting up. And if that doesn’t give you hope, then take a walk over to the newly opened Rare Earth Wine Bar.

photo(1)Two weeks ago, Rare Earth Wine Bar on Glen Street opened their doors to the general public for the first time. Following this establishment on Facebook, I have been waiting for them to obtain all the necessary approvals from the state so that they could begin serving. The anticipation was building on the Facebook page. You might ask what the big deal is? That answer is twofold.

First, the owners of this establishment, Paul K. Parker and Michael Belanger, are first-class foodies. Parker, with deep roots in his family-owned business (now closed) Chez Sophie, and Belanger, a passionate wine authority, make up the dream team that manage Rare Earth. The food and wine, I predicted, were going to be fantastic.

Second, Rare Earth has taken over an important space on Glen Street. They are highly visible near the traffic circle between Raul’s Mexican Restaurant and the newly opened 166 Glen storefront. Filling this space helps to cement the feeling of vibrancy that is coming back in Glens Falls. Clearly, there are people who are taking on risk, working hard to cultivate a new downtown, and they should be applauded and recognized. The commitment these folks exhibit to downtown inspires me, and I’m eager to support them.

After just one visit to Rare Earth, I am compelled to talk about these guys. Just to be clear, I am no food writer. The proprietors of this restaurant truly deserve a serious critic’s review. What I hope to share here is the excitement of a new place and the experience of finding something of great value in Glens Falls. I hope that the regional media and local food lovers will flock to this place, and give Rare Earth the attention that they deserve for the years of experience and expertise of the ownership.

photo(2)The evening of our dining experience, we arrived at peak dinner hour and were greeted by a friendly hostess who quickly got us a table near the bar. The place was bustling. Surveying the scene, the vibe of the place immediately felt different from anything else in Glens Falls or Saratoga, for that matter. The walls were completely covered with paintings—so many in fact that one could make multiple visits and notice something new each time. There is a lounge area at the front of the room near the door so that patrons can relax in soft leather chairs and watch the crowds on Glen Street. (OK, I am being optimistic about the crowds.) There are tables in the middle of the room for larger groups and bar tables lined up against a wall near the bar. The whole place feels cozy, friendly and intimate.

Probably the most unusual aspect to this place is the use of iPads on all the tables. The menus are displayed on the tablets. In the near future, patrons will be able to order food right from the iPad and the request will go straight to the kitchen. Visiting Rare Earth Wine Bar before the official opening, not every bit of technology was working yet. The iPads displayed the menu but were not interactive and the credit card system had not been implemented, so we were asked to use cash. Not a big deal in my book. I was happy for the privilege to vet these proprietors out during the “soft opening.”

photo 3Philip and I settled in quite easily and started exploring the menu. Rare Earth is one of those places where you want to try everything. Fortunately, they make it really easy to explore a range of wonderful food options. The wine menu is priced on three levels: taste, glass and bottle. This encourages sampling and pairing with all of the food options available. Belanger is a Saratoga acquaintance, and his reputation for growing grapes, making wine, and investing in the wine industry precedes him. We put our wine choices in his capable hands and sat back to enjoy.

Now sometimes, you go to a place where the staff knows a lot about wine and you can’t trust them to pair all of your food courses for you without breaking the bank. That is not so here. The wines are all reasonably priced. Three of the choices (Riesling, Chardonnay, and Prosecco) are offered on tap. Belanger explained that Parker and he spent months trying thousands of wines to find the most interesting, affordable, drinkable ones for their customers. It was evident that the time invested in the research has produced some very fine and affordable choices. We tried some really super wines from Spain and France that neither Philip nor I had ever had before.

Getting right into the food and wine pairing, we explored the menu thoroughly. Each plate ranged from $9-$16. Hoping to find a great meal at a relatively moderate cost, Rare Earth Wine Bar did not disappoint us. Starting with raw oysters and a French white wine, we slurped down two briny little numbers from the coast of Massachusetts followed by two sweet and fresh little guys from Nova Scotia. Oysters were priced per unit and there is a special price when you buy 6.

It’s hard to follow such a wonderful opening, but the rabbit terrine was just the thing to transition us into the warmer, richer choices awaiting us. The terrine was perfectly seasoned and wonderfully moist. I was also happy to see that the bread being served with the terrine was from Rockhill Bakehouse, housed around the corner from Rare Earth. Seeing local businesses collaborating is important to me as a customer, and I am sure that there are others like me who appreciate the importance of building community between merchants.

For courses three and four, we asked that they be delivered simultaneously. Our Hereford strip steak with Bordelaise sauce arrived perfectly prepared along with our escargot-filled turnips. Belanger sent over a glass of Spanish white to be sipped with the escargot and a French red to drink with the steak. I was absolutely in heaven! This is the kind of food experience that makes me really happy. For me there were no weak points or “just OK” moments. I was inspired by the thought put into the food and wine and the enthusiasm with which it was presented. By the time we finished our meal with chocolate mousse and bubbly, corks were popping in the chef’s kitchen and some of the customers were watching (and drinking) as Chef Parker worked his magic. Everyone in the place was having a great time.

On our way out the door, I stopped to speak with three gentlemen that I knew from Glens Falls High School. I could tell that they too were swept up in the energy of the room and shared in the hope for this wonderful establishment to succeed. What I thought was going to be a quick exchange of words with my fellow alumni, ended up being a long, laughter-filled conversation. The perfect way to end the evening. I guess that’s how it is at Rare Earth Wine Bar….the place just brings out the best in people.

photo(3)

Hanging out with friends.

From Left to Right: James Morrison, Michael Belanger and Philip Reynolds

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Pizza in Queensbury?

Harvest sign

View from the bar at The Harvest

For the first post in this newly-launched writing endeavor, I wanted to explore one of my old haunts that still appeals to me on many levels today, The Harvest restaurant. When I mentioned this to my Aunt (who lives in Glens Falls) she said, “Well, that’s not in Glens Falls. It’s in Queensbury.” So I asked myself if it was right to start this whole project by talking about a Queensbury business. After all, the Queensbury Spartans were the nemesis of the Glens Falls Indians in every way. Could I really do this? And the answer, of course, is yes and here is the reason. The “hometown” theme is more about what I hold dear in my heart in and around Glens Falls than the actual geographic boundaries. You, my reader, may find that I occasionally deviate and cross the line at to enter the 12804 postal area. Thank you in advance for understanding.

On to the Harvest…

A few years back Philip and I started taking up residence for a month each summer at Glen Lake about 5 miles north of the center of Glens Falls. One of the most convenient places to stop for dinner was the Harvest. I had not been there in years and had absolutely no expectations about it becoming one of my favorite places. However, on the very first visit (after decades of not dining there), I was smitten. Part of become a huge fan of this restaurant comes from being a kid and remembering the taste of the pizza. It is just so darned good and it possess a particular flavor and crispy crust that no one can replicate. This may be attributed to the consistency of ownership since 1972. The other reasons that I love this place are more about me as an adult and what I like today.

Reason #1: The bar. The atmosphere is super friendly and I like to look around to  see if there are any old familiar faces. Sometimes, I spot one or they spot me. This is delightful. There is also sport game on the TV at any given moment. In the summer we do not have television at the camp so it is especially appealing to see some baseball while we have our night out. But the best thing about the bar is that nothing has really changed. It is the same as I remember it from years ago. (This is also true about the restaurant area where families and bigger parties dine.) That aspect of the place touches a deep and nostalgic part of me. When so much in my hometown is lost or different, this place remains unaltered.

Reason #2: The pour. Although the wine and beer list is pretty standard, the Harvest holds the record (in my mind) for largest glass of wine. I mean this thing is filled all the way to the top! (see photo below) I usually order Kendall Jackson Chardonnay and if I can consume an entire glass, the staff are willing to sell me a half-glass to help me finish off the night.

Harvest bar (wine)Reason #3: The price. Philip and I have become accustomed to Saratoga and New York City prices as that is where we’ve spent the majority of our time in the last few years. Dropping $60 on dinner for two is the starting point at most restaurants, good or bad. At the Harvest, we can split a pizza for under $16 and feel totally satisfied by the amount and quality of the food. Add on the world’s largest glass of wine and a beer (for Philip) and we are out of there for under $35. As the family bookkeeper, this makes me very happy.

Reason #4: The bartender. Ok, I am not going to mention this woman by name but if you have ever stepped foot in the Harvest bar, you probably know who I am talking about. When this particular bartender is working, she is running the show. She never stops talking to everyone around her, bantering with coworkers and customers, and she never stops complaining. At first, Philip and I were pretty put off by her. We both wondered how anyone so boldly voicing such contempt for a job could keep a job. Did she own the place?

Then little by little she began to win us over. We started to notice that the bar customers liked her and that she knew just about everyone who came into the place. To our amazement, we started to find her amusing—the bar is her theater an she is the star of the show.  We also noticed that underneath all of the sassy-ness and saucy talk, she has a good heart and she is a efficient worker. This conclusion was confirmed the other night when Philip left his cell phone at the bar. When I called to inquire about it, she could not have been nicer and assured us that she would put it in a safe and secure place until we could pick it up. She also told me I could come by as early as 8:00 the next morning and she would make sure that someone in the kitchen got me the phone. We were really impressed. I love being challenged to give up what I think I know and find an unexpected twist to a story. Bravo, Ms. Bartender.

Harvest pizzaReason #5: The unflappable flexibility. When I go to dinner, I like to be able to have what I like, and I can be picky and unpredictable. I don’t want the same thing every time. So when Philip decides that he’s in the mood for the “Harvest Best” pizza with no mushrooms, and I am craving the “Rachel Ray” with extra hot peppers, that is no problem.They will do half a pizza with my special ingredients and half with Philip’s choice. When our Auntie and Uncle Bob join us for pizza they like cheese all the way to the edge of the pizza and the crust extra crispy. The response is always the same, “Sure thing. You got it.”  I have never been told by a Harvest employee that I can’t have something exactly the way I want it. In the end, for all of the special requests that we have mustered up, the attitude that gets served might be spicy sometimes but never rotten.