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LAST CALL AT THE HOTEL BAR
By Joe Brancatelli
October 1, 2009 -- I don't care much for what passes as French food in America and I don't tend to hang in hotel bars. As we all know, there are better things to eat and far better places to be on the road.
But there I was at the Saratoga Hilton in upstate New York last weekend, sitting at the bar of Chez Sophie with my frequent-flying wife and watching one of the last best hotel places go through its final paces.
"It's like the theater of the absurd in here," said Cheryl Clark, one of the owners, as she raced from the baby grand, where she'd been singing a Gershwin tune, to a ringing phone at the back of the bar.
"More like Grand Guignol," I said to my wife, who'd insisted we come by on Friday night, which was pitched to Chez Sophie's large local following as the last guaranteed shot at the bistro's full menu. We had such a good time that we went back on Saturday night. By then, however, the scene at Chez Sophie, especially at the bar, had turned into a manic, often unfunny, sitcom.
But before I tell you about what it's like to be sitting at a hotel bar that had run out of vodka and a French bistro that was essentially out of wine, let me tell you a little of what the sitcom writers call the backstory.
For a generation, Chez Sophie was a terrific little French joint that bounced around several locations in or near Saratoga Springs, a charming town best known for its mineral springs and six-week summer thoroughbred season built around the Travers Stakes. In 2003, however, Paul Parker, the son of the restaurant's founders, moved Chez Sophie into the lobby of a hotel then known as The Saratoga.
Parker, the chef, and Clark, his wife, a singer and former journalist, made the new Chez Sophie into a stunning example of what a great hotel restaurant could be. The dinner menu changed daily and fused classic French techniques with innovative flavors and styles. The wine list was superlative. The dining room had the convivial bar, a double-sided fireplace, artwork from Joseph Parker, the restaurant's founder, and a contemporary look and feel that could be the textbook definition of casual elegance.
Locals loved the place. The restaurant critic of The New York Times drove almost four hours up the Hudson River to Saratoga Springs and dubbed Chez Sophie "a tiny bit of France 3,500 miles from Paris." Jazz fans came to hear Cole Broderick play the baby grand piano in the corner. Horseplayers, tourists, business travelers and hotel guests who found their way into Chez Sophie were seduced by the food, the bar and the ambiance that was most definitely un-hotely.
But the business climate turned nasty after last fall's global financial meltdown and, earlier this year, Parker and Clark decided life was too short to run a hotel restaurant that served breakfast, lunch and dinner every day, weekend brunch and room service, too. They decided they'd relocate with their two children to the south of France. On the grounds of the Monte Lauro Vineyards, Parker and Clark will soon launch the Chez Sophie Cooking Experience.
Meanwhile, Chez Sophie began to wind down over the spring and summer. But a surprising number of the long-term kitchen crew and wait staff decided that they'd stay to the bittersweet end. And a lot of new folks found the restaurant, attracted by the publicity in food circles noting the imminent closure of Chez Sophie.
"If we'd had this kind of business earlier, maybe we'd have made a different decision," Clark said to my wife and me last Friday night.
We were perched at one end of the bar watching the show as many of Parker and Clark's friends and best customers stopped by to say one last goodbye and grab a photo. At the other end of the plank, Steve Barnes, the food blogger of the influential Albany Times Union, was snapping pictures of the dishes coming out of Parker's kitchen. His post gives you a great idea of the quality of the cuisine at Chez Sophie.
All through the evening, we had a running conversation with Mitch, Chez Sophie's lead bartender. He showed us a sheet of paper cataloging all of the booze the bar no longer had in stock. He did a brilliant job improvising. When four young things arrived looking to do shots of tequila, which he didn't have, he convinced them to have a Lemon Drop, a cocktail made of lemon juice, sugar and vodka.
By Saturday night, however, Mitch's weekend replacement, Beth, couldn't even make a Lemon Drop. All the vodka was gone. So were the light beers. I personally polished off the last of the Lillet. Even Chez Sophie's once-impressive wine cellar was nearly tapped out. And when a patron asked for a Stinger, Beth had to tell her there was no white creme de menthe.
"I can make you one with green creme de menthe," she said. "It'll look funky, but it'll taste about the same."
After a moment of hesitation, the woman agreed. She took the oddly colored concoction to her table and seemed happy enough.
I scanned the bar back to check what was left. A few fine single malts. A bottle of Frangelico, several rums and gins, a couple of brandies, the last of the flavored vodkas, some Benedictine and a bottle of Drambuie.
"What can you make with Drambuie?" I asked my wife, who long ago went to bartender's school.
"A Rusty Nail," she said without missing a beat. Then she and Beth started discussing old classics. Beth mentioned the last time she made a Brandy Alexander. My wife drove Beth to her dog-eared bartender's guide by mentioning a Ramos Fizz.
But something about Saturday night was off. The fun was gone somehow. Or maybe it was just that Chez Sophie was one day closer to meeting its end. That was last night, on September 30. Eighteen hours later, a new place called the Union Grille with new owners had opened in Chez Sophie's space.
Hotel joints, after all, aren't about hitting the standards that Chez Sophie once set. Hotel restaurants, especially restaurants in chain hotels, are simply meant to be there. No one expects them to be special.
And even as Chez Sophie was fading away last weekend, some incoming hotel guests weren't interested in the restaurant's history or quality. "We got 300 people coming for a conference this week," said one of the folks who wandered in for a Saturday-night cocktail. "We got a lot of big drinkers. They better find us some vodka."
My wife and I left shortly after. The magic, like the vodka, had disappeared. And, now, so has Chez Sophie.
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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.