How to exist on tapas, wine and chocolate alone
Overall rating on a scale of 1-10
Service 9 • Food 9 • Ambiance 8 • Price – $$$
When I first started hearing the buzz about Cella Bistro in Schenectady, I simply assumed that this was another restaurant in what was the revival of the downtown area. In fact, up until my visit, I had no idea the restaurant was actually located in a mostly suburban area, close to Rotterdam, off Route 146. "I hope the trip is worth it," I remember thinking, as my dining companions and I navigated the residential neighborhoods of Schenectady County on a recent rainy night looking for our dining destination.
Located in a standalone building on a neighborhood street with its own small parking lot out front, Cella Bistro is nothing special from the outside. However, the interior space is modern and inviting, with exposed brick walls, warm wood floors and post and beam ceilings. My only suggestion would be to add a fireplace, elevating "inviting" to downright cozy.
The inclement weather prevented our party from arriving at the time of our reservation, but that was no problem. The hostess was happy to welcome us and led us into the dining room, past the bar area. Our server was immediately at our table, ready to take our orders. However, once seated, we learned that the tapas menus was only available in the bar area. So, we uprooted ourselves and moved to the bar. After all, it was the adventurous, seasonal tapas menu that we had heard so much about and were excited to sample.
It’s not that the regular dinner menu wasn’t appealing. In fact, the small, but thoughtful menu was incredibly tempting. Chef Michael Cella has a reputation for preparing creative versions of classical and ethnic dishes. His menu included traditional pasta dishes like lasagna, innovative salads like warm mushrooms over wilted arugula with pancetta, asiago and parmeggiano cheeses, and European-inspired American entrees. On this night, the entrees consisted of seared duck breast with pomegranate wine sauce and a roasted crabmeat-crusted salmon filet. It was immediately clear that this was anything but another traditional Italian restaurant. Salads were reasonably priced between $6 and $12, pastas in the low $20 range and entrees were $21-$28.
Once re-seated at a small table in the bar, my companions and I got down to business reviewing the wine list. What a refreshing change of pace from the same choices I seem to run into at most restaurants in this area. The list was unique and creative and we were told it changes depending on the menu – what a concept! A nice touch was that the wines were categorized as full, medium or light bodied – making it easy to choose something new, which is exactly what I did, being the adventurous spirit that I am. I went with a medium-bodied white – a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Chardonnay from Devil’s Lair Fifth Leg ($7). Lip-smackingly good would not be overstating my opinion of this wine. This blend covered all the bases – it was slightly herbaceous with citrus notes and a nicely-balanced texture. Both my dining companions chose the Bonterra Chardonnay ($7) made from organically raised grapes in Mendocino County, CA. They said it was extremely "drinkable", with a fruit forward taste and a creamy texture that paired well with everything we sampled.
Next, we turned our attention to the extensive tapas menu, written on a chalkboard across from our table. Tapas, or "small plates", are a Spanish invention, but increasingly popular all over the world, as they allow you to sample many dishes and also encourage sharing with your fellow diners, making for a communal and enlightening experience.
We began our small plates feast with the House marinated olives ($2) and the intriguing Kale chips with sea salt ($4). The olives not only included your standard mix of kalamata and manzanilla, but also niçoise and picholine among others, all marinated in a delightfully potent olive oil and herb blend.
The kale chips were a mystery when we ordered them. Kale seems to be all the rage lately, yet this was the first time I’ve seen kale chips on a restaurant menu. Curious, we were sold immediately, and we were not disappointed. The "chips" were lightly coated with olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt and baked until light and crispy. They absolutely melted in my mouth. And just like potato chips, I could not eat just one. But that’s okay, because hey, they were "healthy," right?
Next, we ordered something more indulgent, a small cheese platter. We selected brie and fontina from the list of nine cheeses offered. The platter came with a substantial amount of cheese, especially for the price ($4 each) and plenty of light and crusty French bread, all on a bed of peppery arugula. The brie was smooth and appropriately pungent, while the mild and extremely smooth fontina was a nice counterpart.
With our appetites satisfactorily stimulated, we opted for a more substantial dish next; the artichoke-goat cheese spring rolls ($7). These crispy fried spring rolls were beautiful on the plate and heaven in our mouths. Each delicate and crisp roll was filled with a mixture of artichokes, goat cheese, potatoes and parmeggiano reggiano, and served with a green herb sauce. The spring rolls were rich without being heavy. I would have liked the herb sauce to have a little more punch though, maybe some heat or acidity to complement the rich filling.
We ordered two more plates to round out our tapas experience. The first of these was the roasted collard greens in sautéed brown butter ($3) which were from a local farm. Chef Michael is a member of the Farm to Chef program and works closely with the nearby Roots & Wisdom Farm. Although not as fun to eat as the kale chips, the collard greens had a wonderful earthy and roasted flavor making them satisfying and nutritious.
Lastly, we unanimously chose the fried green tomatoes ($4) served with sweet pickle remoulade (an aioli based condiment, similar to a tartar sauce). This just sounded good, and it was. The firm green tomatoes were lightly breaded and fried to a perfect golden brown crisp. The tangy and creamy sweet pickle remoulade elevated this simple plate from delicious to addictive. Sure, the collard greens were nice, but give us anything fried and it’s sure to be devoured.
With our server thoughtfully spacing out our dishes so we could enjoy a few at a time, this meant that at the end of our meal we were not too full to contemplate dessert. And we didn’t have to contemplate long. We ordered the carrot cake ($7) and the dark chocolate cake ($9), after seeing all 14 layers of this decadent monstrosity pass by on its way to another table. (I had to wonder if this was planned. If so, it worked.) Again, I was pleasantly surprised as I had been throughout the meal at Cella Bistro – the desserts were some of the best I’ve sampled at a local restaurant, and decidedly not an afterthought on a dessert plate. The carrot cake featured visible shreds of carrot, raisins and pieces of walnuts, all topped with a thin layer of traditional cream cheese frosting. The cake was moist, not too sweet, but definitely "over the top" rich in a good way. The chocolate cake, homemade by the bartender’s mother we learned, was even better. Imagine a dark chocolate cake that actually tastes like good quality dark chocolate. The frosting was an outrageous chocolate ganache, obviously only made with the highest quality ingredients. No lard or other fillers here. The cake, sometimes forgotten under a layer of frosting, also boasted an intense dark chocolaty experience. Yes, there were leftovers, but we had to restrain ourselves.
To wrap up, I’ll share this lesson learned: it’s incredibly easy to eat a satisfying, innovative and healthy meal from the tapas menu alone at Cella Bistro. No small accomplishment, as the chef clearly put thought and consideration into every part of the dining experience. My dining companions and I walked out with stomachs happy, and horizons expanded. I swear, I’m learning how to make kale chips this weekend…
Cella Bistro is located at 2015 Rosa Road in Schenectady. Hours are Tuesday-Thursday from 5pm-9pm; Friday & Saturday from 5pm-10pm. Closed Sunday and Monday. For more information call 381.2081 or visit www.cellabistro.com.
Christina DeMers is an online marketing manager, food blogger and amateur cook who lives in Troy, NY but eats just about anywhere.