15 Church shows how to make a good restaurant great

Fried Oysters at 15 Church

Fried oysters with liver pate at 15 Church, Saratoga Springs NY

Had Mother’s Day dinner at 15 Church in Saratoga Springs, NY, a place that’s been open just about a year and has recalibrated our definition of fine dining in this amiable but touristic destination. The pre-opening expectations were high: a centrally located but long abandoned historic building rehabbed at great expense (I remember walking by in the dead of winter as heated sidewalks were in the process of installation), a legendary chef in local icon Jason Baker, and a solid management team led by Paul McCulloch, a guy with a lot of big restaurant experience. 15 Church has not disappointed, and didn’t miss a step when Jason Baker departed for health reasons and was replaced by Brady Duhame, a locally raised chef who is a CIA graduate.

I’ve had a few meals at 15 Church at this point and none has been short of superb. This consistency is unusual in a tourist town where often crowds of transient diners, who may not ever come back, cause the house to scramble and possibly resort to shortcuts to ensure everybody gets fed. Tonight I found myself musing on why 15 Church has become a world class restaurant in an environment when even a little dedication would put them ahead of the many local places that charge almost as much for mass-produced food.

Empty butter dish at 15 Church

Cultured butter, now transferred to the house focaccia

Aside from the usual food excellence (why WOULDN’T you want liver pate with your fried oysters?) I took pictures of two telling pieces of evidence. First is the empty cup of cultured butter sprinkled with sea salt which is served (not empty at that point) with excellent focaccia as you sit down. This butter is at the perfect spreading temperature/consistency. A couple of degrees colder and it would be stiff; a couple degrees warmer and it would start to melt. But 15 Church has figured out the ideal temperature and the butter comes out at that temperature precisely, night after night.

Paul McCulloch tends to business

Co-owner Paul McCulloch setting tables at 15 Church, Saratoga Springs NY

My second piece of evidence is the picture of the gentleman setting the table, who happens to be Paul McCulloch. Everybody pulls their weight there and everybody supports everyone else; if a table needs to be prepped and Paul is nearby, why wouldn’t he help out?

Add to this the fact that Chef Brady Duhame has a hell of a lot of fun at his job. He effortlessly turns out the traditional dishes the high rollers demand (one of our party had a massive $50 NY strip that was worth every penny) while indulging a lively personal curiosity about rare and raw fish, Kewpie mayo and uni. His zeppoli (like donuts, but stuffed with ricotta cheese and served with a sweet cream sauce and caramel sauce) have become as locally prized as a winning ticket for a trifecta at the Saratoga Race Course.

I’m hardly the only one who has noticed what is going on at 15 Church. It’s very difficult to get a reservation (but not impossible, so try if you’re in the area) and many of the key dates during track season are completely booked months in advance. But they’re opening a patio next door where 50% of the seating will be first-come-first-served and the central attraction will be a raw bar. I’m there.

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