Posted by Tegan O'Neill
Rich. Classic. Special. Splurge. Top-tier. These are the words that come to mind to describe 15 Church, Saratoga's newest dining establishment. From the hostess's initial greeting to the bill placed on the table at the end of the meal, 15 Church checks off all the boxes of a fine-dining experience, but, nevertheless, some of their practices feel outdated and the price tag feels unjustified.
From the moment we sat down, a battalion of servers, and even the owner himself, were at the ready to tend to our every whim and need. When we ordered two entrees to share, we were even spared the inconvenience of portioning out the dishes ourselves. It seemed ludicrous to watch someone else delicately spoon the veal cheeks evenly between two plates. On display for us was the epitome of full service. And yet, the well-intended effort felt awkward and wrong on some level to watch someone do this task for us. The deed seemed contrived when we became curious about the proper etiquette for other entree, the lobster thermidor; should we have waited for our server to portion it for us, and therefore, let it go cold, or should we have dug in and made a farce of our server's first effort? We decided to take the initiative to serve ourselves our own food, but no sooner had we done this were we chided by our server.
The ruthless attention did have its perks. Never did we have to use a dirtied fork for a fresh dish. The empty wine glasses on the table were whisked away in a flash and our water glasses refilled to the brim without us ever realizing a pitcher had been tipped. Our request for more bread was granted with no hesitation. My casual question, which was really more of an inquisitive praise of the herbs used in the lobster, resulted in a comprehensive list from the kitchen. This over-eager attention bordered on intrusive.
I wish I had not felt as uncomfortable under the gaze of the servers as I did. After all, part of going out to eat at a restaurant is about being waited on and not having to lift a finger.
However, the food really did shine, which is a fact that deserves more attention in this review. The gastronomic experience at 15 Church serves as a reminder of the magic that butter and cream can bring to the table, and of the wonderful phenomenon that comes with letting a chef add those ingredients to your food so that you can enjoy it without acknowledging just how artery-clogging it really is.
The fare at 15 Church is heavy and luxurious meant to be eaten on special occasions, not on a daily basis. We started with the sweetbreads, which were a good indication of what was to come. The sweetbreads themselves were mysterious; they are soft and light, but perplexingly similar in texture to scallops. Their shallow bath of cream sauce is rich enough to make your head hurt. Thankfully, a lovely slice of fennel, like a peacock feather underneath, provided a bright vegetal bite to the otherwise soft, cushiony dish. Bites of puff pastry spaced between sweetbreads provided important textural contrast. Saffron and pepper also livened up the flavor landscape.
If I were Catholic, I would go to confession after ordering (and eating) the lobster thermidor. The price tag alone is enough to throw one into a pool of guilty regret; then comes the trinity of cognac cream, lobster meat and gruyere. Sinful hints of cheese sneak up between bites of meaty, creamy richness. Fennel and chive at least provide some green to the plate's color palette. The best part of all was the unassuming marquez sausage crepinette. The first bite of lamb sausage with a slightly North African, slightly Spanish spiciness is alluring and undeniably delectable. Essentially, it is a huge meatball, and although I remain unsure as to how it fit in with the dish, I am glad that it was there. The spiciness cut the richness of the rest of the dish and provided some spunk to an otherwise more streamlined savory schema.
"They're like butter" a busser said to us in a low voice as he walked by our table. Our server had just placed shiny steak knives in front of us for the veal cheeks, but this effort, it turns out, was unnecessary. The 15 hours of braising leaves the cheeks so soft that teeth are hardly necessary, never mind a knife. The meat melted like chocolate in the mouth. Next to the veal cheeks sat a medley of mushrooms, sunchokes and artichokes that seriously delivered in the umami department. All together, it was a dish of high caliber and high quality, and was richer and better than anything you would eat at home or really anywhere else.
From my vantage, tucked into a booth near the back of the restaurant, I was limited in my view of the restaurant, but judging by the number of candles that passed by, many people were celebrating, which leads to my conclusion.15 Church is an exceptional place that is appropriate for special occasions. The prices make it impractical to frequent regularly, but the service and the food elevate it to the type of place reserved for a memorable night.