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A series of unfortunate events

The Upstairs Bistro

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Tiny catastrophes can put a restaurant off its stride: a new menu, new management, a late delivery or a shortage in the kitchen, the sudden and unexpected departure of the chef. Any of these could throw a wrench into the works of even the most seasoned of places. But when all of this happens at the same time, confusion is almost certain to follow. And that, unfortunately, is where the restaurant at the New York Wine & Culinary Center in Canandaigua finds itself at the moment.

Originally opened as the Taste of New York Lounge in 2006, the restaurant on the second floor of the NYWCC was something of a foodie destination. It was, as NYWCC Executive Director Alexa Gifford told me, a "special occasion spot" — the place where locavores celebrated anniversaries, graduations, rehearsal dinners, and (in this reviewer's case) milestone birthdays. It was, however, a victim of its own success, popular as a destination particularly during the summer and fall, but without enough of a crowd of regulars to sustain it through the long, fallow winter. Earlier this year, the Taste of New York Lounge closed down, and reopened in May as the Upstairs Bistro.

The new menu at Upstairs runs more toward appetizers, pizzas, and sandwiches than its predecessor, throwing in a handful of reliable-looking entrees to satisfy those looking for the restaurant that they had grown to love in the virtually unchanged dining room. In accord with the menu, the beer list now runs more toward the pedestrian Genny rather than the more rarified Ommegang. The wine list is a bit more approachable than it was in the past. The standard of service has become more casual — formal service replaced with jeans, long aprons, and a chattier style.

Despite the restaurant's attempt to go a bit more down-market, the price point on the menu has remained almost exactly the same, creating a sticker-shock-like disconnect between the food on the plate and the price on the bill. Even before the abrupt departure of chef Carlo Peretti in May, Upstairs Bistro was already struggling with its growing pains, trying to reinvent itself without visibly changing much of anything. The chef's exit added insult to injury.

My first visit to Upstairs Bistro started out inauspiciously: the hostess delivered us to our table, slammed water glasses in front of us (one I could understand as misjudging the weight of the glass or the height of the table, but five in a row seemed like a fit of pique) and then left us without menus. Our server, an affable young woman, did finally arrive with the menus, and then gave us about 20 seconds to think about drinks. When she finally returned with a bottle of cider and a flight of wine, we were long past ready to order appetizers, and were very disappointed to discover that our first choice of mussels steamed in wheat beer was already sold out — at about 6 p.m. on the Saturday of a holiday weekend. We settled on duck tacos ($9), a pizza with asparagus, spinach, and goat cheese ($12), and a cheese plate ($14).

The duck tacos were fine if a bit confused. The taco "shell" was a thick buckwheat pancake; springy, but a bit strong tasting for the mild-flavored meat it surrounded. The duck itself was scanty, heavily sauced with hoisin, and scattered with a bit of shredded cucumber and scallion. The pizza sat on a thin, crunchy, flavorful crust, but there was not a single asparagus tip on the pie, and the bits that were there were the woody bits of the spear that would normally get tossed out. Most disappointing, though, was the cheese plate. At $14 you expect a bit of polish to the presentation, but what came out was indifferently, even sloppily, plated – a meager assortment of goat cheese, cheddar, and bits of blue cheese served with a tiny ramekin full of what looked and tasted like jarred chow-chow, and a similar-sized cup of what may have been a rhubarb-ginger marmalade (the only redeeming item on the plate). I say may have been because our server didn't know what it was and didn't bother to ask the kitchen for us.

For my entrée I ordered the New York strip steak and frites on the assumption that it would be a lay-up. What came out probably wasn't a strip steak — based on the grain of the meat and the thick veins of fat and gristle running through it, I would guess that it was the fatty bit at the end of a rib eye. As ordered, one end of the steak was in fact medium rare. The other was nearly incinerated. Garnished with a bare handful of "house-cut fries," at $27 this was among the most disappointing steaks I've had anywhere.

The true crime, however, was the $26 plate containing three pan-seared Montauk scallops atop a beet and pea risotto. The scallops managed to be overcooked, rubbery, fishy, over-salted, and gritty all at the same time. And the risotto, despite its vivid pink hue, was completely flavorless and studded with hard, undercooked peas. If there was any asparagus on the plate, none of us saw it. We did, however, order some on the side for $5. What arrived were five limp, woefully overcooked spears drowned in butter.

It is infinitely sad to realize that what was once a true destination restaurant in our area has fallen on hard times. I fervently hope that Gifford's assurances about the arrival of a new chef and some serious changes in both menu and management come true sooner rather than later to a restaurant that was once one of the most exciting spots in the region.

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