Grillmasters, take note: If you’ve had enough of sweating over your backyard charcoal or gas furnace this summer, you’re in for a treat in Downtown Saratoga Springs. Former Druthers chefs (and husband-and-wife duo) Mike and Michelle Spain have opened Seneca, whose menu focuses largely on inventive grilled dishes and locally sourced ingredients.
Located at 17 Division Street, behind the Downtowner Hotel and just steps away from Broadway, the restaurant officially opened its doors on August 1 and features an array of starters, appetizers and entrees that make use of an eight-foot, wood-fired Grillworks grill. “The creative wheel is always spinning for me,” says Mike Spain about opening his first restaurant. “I don’t ever stop thinking about new ways to create a dish or to learn new culinary techniques.” And it’s that thought process that Spain sees as the factor that sets Seneca apart from the rest of his competitors in Downtown Saratoga: “For the most part, everyone can source the same ingredients. The equipment, experiences and approach are what elevates our dishes.”
True to that creative philosophy, there’s a little something for all types of foodies: starters such as grilled peaches and honey with watermelon, pistachios and burrata; and entrees that include seasonal, wood-fired hangar steaks, Korean short ribs with cucumber kimchi and sesame carrots and wood-fired swordfish in citrus butter served over Himalayan red rice. Spain’s personal favorite is one of the menu’s most simple dishes, a staple of the Polish cuisine: the pierogis, which are filled with farmer’s cheese and potato filling and served with caramelized onions, sour cream and fried leeks.
Says Michael of his pick: “Michelle’s Polish heritage has influenced a lot of dishes in the past, but when her mom and grandmother—’babcia’—make pierogis, they fill the freezer for the holidays,” he says. “Her mother was just in for dinner, and we got her approval for the dish!” Seneca also offers an extensive wine list, including eight draft lines dedicated to wines by the glass (four reds and four whites), as well as a number of beers on draft and hand-crafted cocktails with daily squeezed juices and fresh garnishes.
Spain credits his more than four years at Druthers, where he held the position of Executive Chef, for pushing him to develop Seneca’s similarly seasonal, eclectic menu. (Michelle was a sous-chef there.) In fact, even though he’s no longer in the kitchen there, Spain still puts in hours at the local brewpub, working with the kitchen team there on refining existing menu items. “My time at Druthers proved to me that I could run a from-scratch operation that could serve 1300 people a day,” he says. “As great as the food is at Druthers, I couldn’t help but wonder how good the food could be if I put all of my energy into making meals for just [around] 100 people a day.”
As noted above, the new lunch-and-dinner spot, which takes its name from Roman statesman (and noted stoic) Seneca the Younger, is the Spains’ first-ever standalone spot, but the couple are longtime veterans of the culinary industry. Both are graduates of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (or CIA) in Hyde Park, NY—whose alumni include the late, great Anthony Bourdain and Iron Chef Cat Cora—and both have worked in restaurants as far north as Maine and south as Connecticut, and of course, right here in the Spa City. “We’ve been working in kitchens together for 12 years now,” says Mike. “And Michelle and I are always going out to eat; we love to travel to find new culinary destinations for inspiration.”
In addition to grilling, the restaurant’s also constructed a charming and intimate atmosphere (there’s seating for around 55, plus ten more at the bar). The red-brick interior boasts a startlingly smooth mix of rustic and chic aesthetics—big plushy chairs and bar stools surrounded by an understated, urban decor—all the work of Saratoga design firm Sensory Six.
For those already curious to give it a try, Seneca’s open Wednesday through Sunday, 5pm to midnight, save for Fridays and Saturdays when the restaurant stays open until 1am.