If you were to ask me what a restaurant called the Cape Cod might look like, I'd conjure up an image of a warped-wood old shack strewn with nets and tackle presided over by a lugubrious old coot in a yellow slicker. Instead, the establishment in question, a seafood joint in downtown Albany, looks like a midlevel Chinese restaurant with an interior decorator newly arrived from Shangri-La by way of Pier 39. A burbling terra-cotta fish fountain greets arriving patrons. Palm fronds, towering flora, and cacti divvy the dining room into plots of dimly lit napery and paper placemats. Seashell-encrusted mirrors and metaphysical paintings of slumbering dolphins adorn the wallpaper, and dominating the room is a large display case filled with trolls and Barbie dolls in a variety of subaquatic couture. This is not, in other words, your typical New England lobster shack.
A bit of rock-ribbed Atlantic cuisine would be a pleasant and exotic departure from our standard local diet of purple basil, fenugreek, and quinoa. A place where the sheltered Californian could sample Yankee-centric fare like clam fritters, scallop rolls, steamers by the bucket, honest-to-God chowder, raw cherrystones, a fried Ipswich or two, and freshly boiled lobster complete with bib and nutcracker, served, perhaps, the old-fashioned way with corn on the cob and potatoes and a sheltering blanket of imported seaweed, is a needed addition to the East Bay dining scene. Nothing could be further from the menu and ambience of the Cape Cod, which, despite its moniker, serves practically no dishes native to Hyannis, Provincetown, or even Mashpee. Crab cakes, calamari, shrimp cocktail, trout amandine, salmon fettuccine, blackened snapper, grilled petrale, scallops St. Jacques — yes; lobster roll, fries, and cole slaw — no.
The house cuisine's array of cross-cultural seafood is a mixture of the edgy and the institutional, the prosaic and the highfalutin', with an overall dominating trend toward the safe and inoffensive. These inclinations are especially apparent during the Early Bird Special hours of 5 to 7 p.m., when whitefish and steamed broccoli dominate the dishware and elevator-friendly renditions of the Lionel Richie songbook sedate the general milieu. This is the sort of place where you can hunker down to a perfectly filling and nutritious meal at a reasonable stipend (most entrées cost less than $13) with no surprises to contend with, negative or otherwise.
The Boston clam chowder, for instance, is a bowl of rich, creamy broth with no discernible flavor of clam or any seafood whatsoever (this despite the visual evidence of several floating chopped-up bivalves). The crab cakes were perfectly hot and crunchy on the outside, moist and lush within, but the dish was more about white, creamy, overpuréed stuff than crabmeat, spice, or sea spray. And that glory of Creole cuisine, trout amandine, arrived at the table perfectly boned, with a nice crisp skin and crunchy almonds accenting, but the fish itself was overcooked and lacked flavor and character.
Occasionally the kitchen ventures outside the tried and rudimentary, with mixed results. The grilled-oyster appetizer was delectable, juicy, and crisp with a glaze of mirin that brought out the bivalves' briny essence. The baked green mussels were less successful — the mussels were more chewy than plump — but their garlicky, Rockefelleresque sauce was a pleasant distraction. The stuffed sole, on the other hand, was just plain goofy. A fillet more or less devoid of flavor was wrapped around a mound of what's advertised as crab, shrimp, and mushrooms but which actually tasted a lot like a traditional Thanksgiving stuffing with a bit too much nutmeg. The result was unexpected and not particularly copacetic.
To our disappointment, lobster (one of the few Eastern Seaboard items on the menu) wasn't available during our second visit, so we sublimated our surf-and-turf hankerings with plain old turf in the form of pepper steak. Requested medium rare, it arrived well done with a tough consistency and a sauce that was peppery by reputation only. Two other non-seafood dishes fared far better. The stuffed chicken breast was moist and juicy with a sharp, lush dressing tasting of apples and Roquefort, and the Thai satay appetizer was the best dish on the menu: tender filets of chicken breast, marinated in coconut milk infused with pepper and spice, grilled until smoky and draped in a sweet, luscious peanut sauce with plenty of oomph.
Among the desserts, the raspberry almond torte was a standout: moist, dense marzipan-y cake accented with strawberries and blackberries and a nectar-like pool of raspberry purée. The key lime pie captured the tart afterbite of the Florida citrus in a sumptuous setting of rich custard and buttery crust. The house mud pie was an uninspired rendition of my favorite dessert — too much bland, bricklike ice cream, not enough dense fudge and almonds — but the chocolate mousse was a light, lovely conclusion to our meal.
Vegetarians won't encounter a whole lot of dining options at the Cape Cod. Three salads (spinach, tomato, and mixed green) are available as starters. There's a vegetarian pasta dish tucked among the entrées. Other than that the place is all about the fish, flesh, and fowl. The wine list, though on the limited side, offered a fairly ambitious selection of seventeen well-chosen local Pinots, Cabs, and Merlots, all of them in the $20-$30 range. (Only a few are available by the glass, however.) The beer list is more perfunctory, with Sierra Nevada and (adding a bit of Massachusetts verisimilitude) Sam Adams the only standouts.