Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Chicken Parm at Grappa' 72 Ristorante

It's been a full year since Zena had lunch at Grappa' 72 Ristorante and did one of her first reviews for AlbanyDish. What took me so long to return?  Maybe I missed my friend the fly.

Red and Pony and I took a seat in the outside patio area despite another one of those annoying little rain squalls whipping up. Fresh herbs were growing in the planters and the sights and sounds of the parking lot were happily subdued by lovely surroundings, including music. Nothing like a classy lunch out to make you glow.

Last year there wasn't any greenery around the fenced off patio section. August 2013
August 2014
The lunch menu is sort of an abbreviated dinner menu; both seemed designed for the meal to be served in courses. Minestra e Insalata held no surprises (all $10 and under) - classic salads, soups, calamari, etc.; the house cured salmon looked interesting.  Seven pasta dishes, or Farinacci ($10-$13), were listed, including a special ravioli made with four cheeses topped with artichoke hearts and sun dried tomatoes in a garlic cream sauce. The selection was nicely varied. Three Risotti offerings ($13-$15) were also listed (one with scallops that looked terrific), followed by about 10 or so Piastra Calde - or Secondi dishes ($8 for the omelet of the day, to $14 for a dish with veal scaloppini and mushrooms). Warm bread and tapenade were served while we made up our minds what to order (we had this last year and remembered enjoying it then as well). Very garlickly, not chopped up too fine. Delicious. Pony was hungry and dug in quick before I had a chance to take a virgin photo!

She ordered the ravioli special, which turned out to be generous, very creamy, served in a lovely deep bowl. She thought the sun-dried tomatoes made the dish, which was very good, but wondered if maybe some of that basil growing on the patio would have brightened the flavors just a bit.

Red ordered the Salmone alla Grillia, a simple preparation (perhaps underseasoned) - and one of the few on the menu served with seasonal vegetables. It was a nice size portion and the yellow squash, zucchini and asparagus were very flavorful. Her meal was nicely balanced by the bread service.

20 points if you can guess what Zena ordered???

If you said "WINE" that would be incorrect.  We had to return to work after lunch. (:

NO, I ordered the Pollo alla Parmigiana!!! It was very good. The red sauce was heavily laced with parmesan or Romano cheese, something I wasn't expecting, so it was salty, clingy and thick, yet still very tasty with the flavors of garlic and herbs. The chicken was served nice and hot - tenderful and toothsome, but not crispy like I want it. The only downside was the dish carb heaven - tons of ziti - and yes, thank you, I ate them all. I would have preferred half that portion of pasta and a small side salad instead.
We finished up by sharing a serving of tiramisu - sweet and creamy; the texture of the lady fingers was nice and gooshy. Service slowed down a bit after our meals were brought out, but the staff were professional and kind in all respects. Oh and I had a decaf as well, since going back to work was low on my list of things I really wanted to do after such a nice meal. What's another 10 minutes, right???

Keeping in mind that the three of us were celebrating birthdays (not that superheroes age, FYI), AND I had one of those MetroMarket $40 gift certificates that I got for $20, AND it was turning out to be a beautiful day, AND we were all hungry, none of us were feeling all that extravagant. Most of the plates on the menu as it is now (compared to last year, if I remember right) seem to be lacking in something - usually vegetables - that would make a single order what I would call a well-balanced meal (carbs, protein, vegetables). So if that's important to you, this "eating right" stuff, it will bring the cost up to what I suggest is beyond the kind of "casual eat out regulars" daily lunch budget, so just keep that in mind.

Lunch for three with one dessert and one coffee was $48.87 with tax. A pretty good value.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS: I didn't miss the fly, but I did miss the veggies. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

First Impression of Texas de Brazil

After Steve Barnes mentioned the new Texas de Brazil restaurant in Table Hopping and received a long series of comments regarding chain restaurants I became curious. So recently I made my trip to Crossgates Mall, where I go less and less frequently, and finally recalled where the Macy's store was, sort of in the middle of the "old" part of the mall (yes, I'm going way way back to those days in the 1980s). The walk to the restaurant space involves a corridor between the restaurant and the Lord & Taylor's department store, which is brand new.  So one walks from the middle walkway toward the outer wall of the mall for 50 or 60 feet, then it's necessary to go all the way to another outer wall with a door to the parking lot - another 50 or 60 feet.   In downtown terms one has to go almost around the block to find the door to the restaurant.  I'm a bit puzzled about why they chose to do that, but it does give everyone a sense of the sheer size of the place - it's big.  There is a dining area outside the restaurant walls, which are mostly glass, that gives the impression of a patio, or dining alfresco. The entrance doors are huge.  So at this point one is impressed with (big) size.  The floral ornament on the salad area is about 8 feet high. The walls are about 20 feet high.  That in combination with the dark wood and dark red fabrics gives a feeling of unrestrained sense experience. And that is the point of the whole scene.  I sort of drew back, but then gave way to the pleasures of the place, and there are many of those.

As I was lead to my table I was recalling all the negative comments from the Table Hopping entry, and I know why people make those comments.  I've made just about all of them myself.  I loathe chain restaurants for the most part because corporate food is mostly just crappy food, and corporate restaurant service is usually mediocre at best - in other words, there's no soul in chain food.

A lot of the service in these early days for Texas de Brazil is just explaining how things work.  So the first questions must be: "have you been here before?" Since I had not, I was given good explanations of the peculiar service protocols: the salad area is a serve-yourself buffet with an enormous variety of foods. The meats are grilled by a staff of about 10 people who prepare them in the open grill area (which I found fascinating), and then they are served by that same staff who carry the skewers to the tables and provide custom cuts of what they have.  One is given a paper token to  indicate whether one is ready for a meat service or not.

So once one becomes introduced to all this, and drinks are ordered, one is in control of one's meal.  I ordered the Brazilian soda, which was a great blend of cherry and ginger and a few other fruit flavors. I really like it. I bounced over to the salad area and walked around the 15 x 8 "table" with a side board for soup, beans and rice, and potatoes.  I cannot even recall what I saw there was so much. What I do recall is that there was clearly attention to detail and an impressive selection that was more than one cut above the normal idea of chain restaurant salad bar.

 Unrestrained luxury is what it's all about.  I decided to make myself a tasting plate and took teensy servings of several things that looked more delicious than the others at that moment. I had an attentive server who catered to my every whim and was very enthusiastic about the food.  I was too, so we shared breathless reactions now and then as she came to the table to see if I was having a good experience. I took my time in checking out each of my samples.  Each one was indeed a delight, and the adorable little special cheese bread that was brought to the table complemented the cheese and capicola perfectly.

As always, it's difficult not to select  more of a first course than one needs, but I had practiced iron-fisted discipline about not taking too much for my first plate.  I turned my paper token to "green" for "go" and a server approached my table immediately with a top sirloin skewer.  He gave me exactly the size I described, which was less than 2 oz. - a taste. Before I could think about much, very attractive lamb chops were there on offer, poised on my table.  I took one, which again, was about 2 oz.  I remembered my token, turned it over to "red" for "stop" and spooned some of my mashed potatoes onto the plate.

The steak and lamb matched the best I've had anywhere. I think it's because of the grill setup and how much care is taken to sear and then let the rotisserie process take over, maintaining the juices and keeping them at perfect temperature.  If you are interested in these things you should definitely go and take a look. That and all the grill dudes wear great costumes.

But I digress.  Everyone is given fried bananas that act as an aspic, unless they are refused.  I enjoyed the novelty of it.  So I was humming along with the tasting process and turned my token back to green.  Immediately I was visited by filets wrapped in bacon - about 2 oz pieces.  Following that were the little Brazilian sausages, so I took one. I turned the token back to red.

Although there is actually a lot of hustle-bustle, what with all those hot skewers and other wait staff and people walking back and forth to the salads, the sheer size of the room mitigates it so that the general atmosphere is cheery and relaxed. After finishing what was on my plate I visited the grill with my camera and watched in fascination as the skewers were deftly moved from low to high and then taken off for serving.

After the little trip to the grill I realized that my appetite was satisfied, and even though I let the new server go through the whole dessert routine with hysterical huge plastic models, I turned them away, and requested my check.

It's definitely an immersion, Disney World type of dining experience, with everything too much.  But it's a way to confirm one's ability to summon luxury when needed. I think Texas de Brazil does that in spades. I don't know if I'll ever go again, but if someone invites me as a guest I'll say yes with genuine enthusiasm, because for me the pleasure was being able to taste a wide variety of things new and things familiar, and to do so in an atmosphere of relaxed pleasure. I didn't have to choose from a narrow menu, and I didn't have to sit passively while the servers brought waaaaay too much food, then packaged what I couldn't eat - something I consider to be a drag.

There is a salad-only choice, and my impression is that one would have a delightful dinner from the salad area alone.

 I recommend that you go and try it for yourself. Post here in the comments about your experience - I'm curious to know if they stay consistently good, if I was wearing rose-tinted glasses about the whole thing, or if you agree that it's a restaurant chain that's trying to break the mold and provide a high quality experience.

LorreBob sez: if you want that big luxury experience for dinner in an expansive ambience, check it out.

Their Albany website for details, prices, etc. :

Monday, August 11, 2014

Tapas at Boca Bistro: Encore!!!

What is better than a few hours at the bar with a good friend and some great tapas? 

Is it

(1) Having a stretch limo and a chauffeur to drive you home;
(2) Winning the jackpot in anything;
(3) A cool breeze on a hot summer day while you lounge around in the shade;
(4) Discovering you have superpowers and that you are now cool; or
(5) Going back to that bar with another good friend and eating more tapas.

I won't profile if you selected any of the first four options. I will say, if you picked (5) - going back and eating more - you are officially a foodie!!!

To me, there's nothing that screams good restaurant experience more than wanting to return, and that's exactly what I did last week, to Boca Bistro in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Looking for a good Happy Hour speaks volumes about me squeezing nickels these days, but BB offers up a great deal. Everyday from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. there are $5 tapas and house mixed drinks, as well as 1/2 price wines, specialty drinks, Spanish cocktails, and draft beer. Both days I visited (Saturday, and again on Thursday after the ballet) there was still plenty of seating in the bar and the dining room, so the space felt open and yet comfortably social.  Yuppies, yes, but friendly ones.

The special wine list was short but thoughtful; I enjoyed a couple of glasses of the Rioja Vega. Foodie Friend tried the Saratoga Lager off a list of ten beers on tap - this one was medium bodied and malty. The draft beer list boasted four NYS offerings, which I was happy to see, including one from the Brooklyn Brewery, and another from the Newburgh Brewing Company. We settled in to decide what to nibble on while we took in our surroundings. The interior was somewhat rustic but still upscale - low lights, stylish accessories, and a few pigs. I liked that the front doors were open to Broadway with the sounds and air and excitement of racing season. I felt almost hip just being there.

We started with Farm Bread and Tomato, listed en Ingles at Boca but as Pan Con Tomate online. The bread was soft, not at all chewy, but dense and perfectly charred. It was topped with a pan sauce of yellow tomatoes then some halved grape tomatoes. Our server, one of many attentive folks behind the bar, offered us balsamic vinegar and olive oil to dress the dish with. A drizzle of the vinegar sprung the flavor of the out-of-season tomatoes and made the dish shine. The tomatoes should improve in the weeks to come. We could have added manchego cheese ($4) or Serrano ham ($5). The portion was generous and with these additions it would have made for a nice little meal in itself. Great olives!

Next we tried the meat plate or Embutidos, a combination of thinly-sliced chorizo (garlickly, smokey, with a taste of vinegar and paprika), a salami laced with peppercorns (intense and greasy in a good way), and fuet (another cured, dry pork sausage which was quite mild and fatty). Everything was delicious, but Foodie Friend and I would have liked some contrast to the selection, like a paté or dried beef, or even some of that Serrano ham. Another little serving of mixed olives scented with lemon peel, garlic, rosemary and bay leaf was a welcome accompaniment.

Our next dish was ordered off the Tradicional tapas menu - not the bar specials - a list with what were likely larger, richer selections like meatballs, stuffed peppers, and ham croquettes. We decided to try the Garlic Shrimp ($10), which was served up with warm bread and an even larger serving of olives than the last one. This dish was incredibly flavorful - loaded with roasted garlic slices, with a slight char. The shrimp were so fresh and perfectly prepared they were almost sweet. I thought it was a bit salty (so the olives didn't compliment) but excellent. I was actually getting tired of the olives at this point. Anyway, I caught FF actually eating the garlic from the broth, it was so mellow! When I went out by night to protect the innocent from the forces of evil even the bad guys commented that I was sweating garlic. Not that I sweat, of course.

But I digress. There were a few specials on the board behind us, and we decided to wrap up our little meal with a tapas of Grilled Yellow Watermelon ($12), topped with a blue cheese fondue made from both cow and goats milk cheeses and a bacon marmalade and sprinkled with chili lime salt, as well as a "microsalad" (a.k.a. watercress) and pine nuts. The whole combination of flavors was amazing - nothing took over and even the watermelon held up against the bacon flavor. This was a perfect ending to our meal - not exactly light but a bit of freshness was a welcome addition to the menu offerings. We got away with four drinks and four tapas for $51.90 plus tip, which we thought was incredibly reasonable.

Encore! It was easy to talk Cookie into bar food after the Bolshoi just a few days later. I ordered the Brooklyner Weiss ($3) from the Brooklyn Brewery - it was served nice and cold, and she had a glass of the house chardonnay, Bodega Norton (Argentina) - always a good choice for inexpensive quality wines. With this we ordered two dishes from the special Happy Hour tapas menu - shishito peppers that were simply blistered and sprinkled with sea salt, and the fried potatoes mixed with salsa brava and topped with aioli. The peppers were amazing - a nice char, slightly crisp, slippery and delicious with beer, ahem ahem. The potatoes were good - not spicy like we imagined, and definitely greasy. So far though, no olives, for which I was a bit disappointed.

Then it was Eggplant Fries scented with thyme, flavored with sesame seeds and a honey drizzle, and the Sauteed Mushrooms, which ended up being a beautiful mix of wild ones served nice and hot - ooooh! these were rich and slightly bitter and meaty and really special. The eggplant was a bit bland, I thought, but the texture was good/not too mushy, also flavored with a sprinkle of fresh thyme. No olives again? But I think I'm just nit picking.....

At this point Happy Hour had ended and the restaurant was getting busy, but we decided on one more dish from the Tradicional menu - the Octopus and Beans ($12). Two large tentacles grilled and tossed with butter beans, chopped olives, citrus zest, thyme and a saffron vinaigrette with a little handful of arugula on top. It proved to be a delicious combination of flavors; the octopus was tender and charred to perfection. Delicioso!!! From the two visits I would say the food was creative without being weird or overly trendy. Boca is offering up a beautiful selection of Spanish style foods that really are Spanish style. Tapas2 was $49.35 plus tip - also a good deal.

And the service? Excellent. Everyone on the floor was attentive, genuine, and on their toes - professional and smiling. The turnaround from the kitchen was really quick. I felt very welcome and comfortable being there.

Foodie Friend, Cookie and I were all very impressed by our visits to Boca Bistro, the fourth restaurant to be opened in the area by DZ Restaurants (Forno Bistro and Chianti il Ristorante are also in Saratoga Springs; Pasta Pane is in Clifton Park). This past year DZ took the next big step in local, sustainable, organic, healthy living by starting up their own farm in Galway, DZ Farm. My impression from reviewing their web sites is that they are smart, thinking, growing, interested in good food and good cooking, and that they will be giving much to our community in the years to come. Thank you. I've got your back.
Zena, Goddess of Fire

P.S.:OK if you chose (4) discovering you have superpowers you ARE cool!  (:

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Chicken Liver Adventure Concludes Happily

Part 2: In which beautiful chicken livers are obtained and prepared as a small supper

Our dear readers, you may recall last fall's post, in which I told of my unsuccessful attempt to secure fresh chicken livers due to the staff of a certain meat store's inability to grasp my expressed needs. This dish, as you will soon see, is not something one eats every day, like salad. So although I've fried up a couple batches since last fall and have not felt like taking photos due to various reasons, at last I have found the organic chicken livers at Whole Foods to be plentiful. Unlike at the coop, where  to get organic livers one has to be ready to go the store on Tuesdays, call ahead, to make sure they hold some for you, etc…and unlike my other nearby favorite shop where they were $9.00 per pound and I had to order them and wait an indefinite amount of time ( I mean… really!) ...the organic livers at Whole Foods seem to be in store every day, never frozen and just, well, easy at $3.99 per pound.

So the reason I've wanted to write about chicken livers, as you may recall, is that a lot of people hate them.  I don't think that should be so.  My claim is that the way they are commonly prepared makes them into hard, bitter  bits of yucky. I'm stamping my foot and saying this just isn't right!!

My preparation does require that the livers be fresh and never frozen. I emphasize this because I have never had frozen livers that don't get mealy and end up on the dry side, which is not what I'm looking for.  Fresh livers will be a very tender and moist texture after cooking, almost creamy in consistency.

Getting them fresh means that once you get them from the store you should be ready to cook them within a day. They don't last long. My preparation also implies that this is an infrequent treat.  This is not the sort of thing that you're going to want to eat often, or in large quantities.  So they are nice for a family treat when everyone is not very hungry or when they can be served as a small starter or canapé for a party.

With those things understood, here you go:

At least a 9 or 10 inch frying pan or larger

1 small onion
4 strips of bacon

1 pound fresh chicken livers

1/2 cup of all purpose flour for dredging, seasoned with:
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Fry the bacon until there's enough bacon fat to help fry the onion.  Slice the onion and add it in. The slices of onion in the photo are on the large size.  They can be much much smaller and still be very good. I like to see them and taste them, but if you like them to dissolve into the general yumminess of the pan by chopping them until they are small pieces, that's good. 

Continue to cook over medium heat until the bacon is fairly crisp and the onions are golden and tender. Remove the bacon and chop it so that it will spread through the dish and put it back in the pan (or start with it chopped).

Season the flour with salt and pepper and dredge the chicken livers to prepare them for cooking. Over medium heat, add the livers to the onion and bacon . Allow the first side to brown 8-10 minutes, turn and continue to cook another 8-10 minutes and partially cover the pan. Turn the livers again, then reduce the heat to medium-low for the last 8-10 minutes (covered) so they don’t overcook (24-30 minutes total).

Here is a breakdown of some details:

My dredging technique involves really thoroughly coating each liver, so it takes a little time to get the flour into the many nooks and crannies.  If you don't skimp on this process you will be rewarded with an amazing bacon and onion flavor that clings to each liver in the coating. Over medium heat the coating will slurp up the bacon fat and  the livers will cook gently, yet you will still get a slight crispiness and good browning of the flour.  

These are a bit snug in the pan, but each liver is touching the bottom, which allows each to brown. Keeping them a little on the snug side helps them retain some moisture, which is good.

This is the first turn, with the browning beginning to happen.  Turning three times helps keep them tender and cook evenly. 

Putting a lid on with a bit of a gap (on the left side of the pan in this photo) keeps them from drowning in water and losing all the great flavor and color from browning. Put the lid on after you turn them the first time.

After they've been cooking for 15-20 minutes they will be seeping a little blood and the coating will be browning. 

It's not an especially handsome meat, so you can take out a little piece to check for a color that has just barely turned from pink to gray after 20-25 minutes.  I don't mind little dots of pink here and there, but not much.

If the cosmos deigns that you deserve good chicken liver, this should do it. Otherwise, I can't help you.

If you're adventurous you might want to try for a crispier coating by frying them at a higher temperature and leaving the lid off for longer.  My experience is that if you don't get it right you will get a more bitter liver that may become hard and dry in places.  I consider these undesirable qualities.

A garnish is a good idea if you would like something pretty. Two livers with a small salad and a potato is a lovely little supper. That's what I did after taking all these photos.

The leftovers make a decent chopped liver if you like it. I haven't had bad luck warming them very very gently the next day, but after that forget it.  Make chopped liver and enjoy it at that point.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Save the Dates!!! Foodie Events Coming Up This Late Summer and Fall

Here is a selection of foodie events I found by nosing around on the google and they're coming up in and around the Capital Region.  Work up an appetite and go!! Let us know how it went and who the best producers are in the area.

I'm adding in new events as I find them, so stop back now and then to see what's new.

I combed through this many times trying to make sure there are no or minimal typos and have put a website link for each event (if it has one) in hopes that you'll go to the website to confirm dates and times.  My apologies if there are mistakes regarding the event you want to attend!

Hudson Valley Bounty annual dinner  August 4 in the evening, Chatham Co. Fairgrounds


Chef's Night out Dinners at the Longhouse Barn, weekends in August, Rensselaerville
Chef's Night Out Brochure


New York State Food Festival, Empire State Plaza, all day til 9pm August 13, 2014 - no link for this separate event but it's part of the Summer at the Plaza series


Hudson Valley Ribfest at the Ulster County Fairgrounds in New Paltz, Aug 15-17


Spa City Farmer's Market Farm to Table Dinner - National Museum of Dance, August 26, 2014 

Granby, MA tomato festival August 23, 2014


Cheese Tour, Washington County September 6 -7, 10- 4 p.m.


Saratoga Wine & Food Festival, Saratoga County September 5-7 The Saratoga Performing Arts Center 


 Hudson Valley Food and Wine Fest Sept 6-7, 2014 Dutchess Co. Fairgrounds


Capital Region Apple and Wine Festival, Albany County September 13 -14, 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. Altamont Fairgrounds


Berkshire Grown Harvest Supper, Great Barrington (Ski Butternut) MA Monday Sept. 15, 6-8pm


FarmOn! Friends of the Farmer Hudson Valley Food Lovers Festival Sept. 27, 2014


Chefs and Vintners Dinner September 18, Glen Sanders Mansion, Benefit for the Regional Food Bank

Hudson Valley Garlic Fest Sept 27-28 Saugerties


Chatham Farm & Art Tour - September 27, 10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.


6th annual Local Harvest Festival Washington Park, Albany, Sunday  October 5 12:00 - 4:00 [here's the 2013 site:  ]


Annual Apple Festival and Craft Show at Goold Orchards, Rensselaer County October 12 -13, 9 a.m.- 5 p.m.


Troy Chowderfest, Rensselaer County October ? Riverfront Park  check the website for the 2014 date


Franklin County Cider Days Nov. 1 -2 Shelburne Falls, MA

Cider Week Hudson Valley Nov. 14-23 2014

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Tesoro Italian Restaurant: The Chicken Parm Adventure, Agin'

The preacher said to the congregation "Do the best you can". REALLY, isn't that the problem? Isn't it OK just to be OK at some things?

Yeah, yeah, I get what he was saying - give it some effort and don't be discouraged and you will be rewarded. But we make ourselves nuts trying to get A's in school, working 80 hours a week to get ahead, pushing ourselves to run further/faster/better.

After about 20 years of thinking about it (no one said superheroes were supposed to be smart), I have come to believe that if all that effort is all about you, then give yourself a break. Who cares if your house isn't the neatest because you prefer to spend your time playing fetch with the pooch instead? So what if you suck at some things? If you are a Type A a gin and tonic may also prove very useful. You know - remember to stop and eat the roses, or something like that.

But, if you are a superhero, you really DO need to do the best you can. I know that the problem with the world is everybody else, but if what you do is in the service of others, then NO, it's definitely NOT okay to be just OK. And that includes restaurants, especially if they are striving to be a fine dining establishment.

Puppy Sweet Cheeks treated me to a birthday dinner on Monday night at Tesoro Italian Restaurant, tucked away in the corner of the 20 Western Mall in Guilderland. There is a patio area to the left as you enter that didn't seem very appealing - sort of cramped and dark, and the tables weren't dressed - but that's for another blog series, I think. Anyway, we headed in, looked over the specials listed on the chalkboard, admired the simple elegance and gently lit decor, and were seated right away in the main dining room. It was early (before 6:00 p.m.) and there were just a few other tables already enjoying a meal. Ice water quickly appeared and we took our time looking things over and just generally talking a lot. We finally each ordered a glass of Pinot Noir - one from Bolla ($8.00), and another from Mark West ($8.25). They were very similar and pretty good. Overall I would describe the wine list as a selection of mostly inexpensive wines that are good value - Cavit, Simi, Woodbridge, Ruffino, Ravenwood, BV, etc. - if you buy them at a liquor store, since here we were looking at about a 200% markup by the glass. Not a terribly thoughtful selection but OK. Just OK.

The menu is lengthy with 15 or more Antipasti dishes, soups, vegetable side dishes, pasta dishes, as well as Secondi Piatti that are served with a side salad, bread and butter, and a side of pasta or Italian potatoes. We were encouraged to see that there were gluten free options available, as well as wheat and fresh pasta. A symbol for "vegetarian" was a bit odd, since we could only find it next to one selection, so I wondered why they would bother.  In addition, there is a July Special: $22.95 for a choice of 3 appetizers (Caprese salad, fried mozzerella, or Fettucini Alfredo), an entrée (Pollo Francais, Pesce al Forno, Bocconidi Bitello [veal and peppers], or Chicken Parm), and a choice of Dolce - chocolate mousse or tiramisu. Puppy ordered the Pollo with the chocolate mousse for dessert. I ordered off the main menu - Pollo alla Parmigiana ($20.75). 

Only once the order was placed were we offered bread at the table. It was warm, crusty, light, and flavorless - kind of cheap and commercial. It was served with butter and margarine as well as a nice dish of olive oil laced with roasted garlic and parsley that was very good.

Puppy was served her Caprese Salad - small, simple, maybe could have used a bit more basil in there - but we agreed it was tasty; the tomatoes were firm and delicious. The plate was plunked down sideways not in front of Puppy but off to one side. Kind of casual as far as the service goes.

We both got a side salad with our meals. There was a choice of the usual (like creamy peppercorn, ranch, raspberry vinaigrette, blue cheese, Italian, Russian), but only the last three were house made. WHY? Is it so hard to make salad dressing? Why not make three and leave it at that?  I went with the blue and Puppy did Italian. More wine was ordered. The salads were small but enough for us little superheros, but very predictable, with those awful black olives out of a can that taste like, um, can. The dressings were both very tasty. 

The restaurant by this time had 8-10 tables - not bad for a Monday night, mostly an older crowd. It was quiet; there wasn't even any music playing in the background. Our entrées arrived. The Pollo Francais is battered and pan sauteed with garlic and lemon - it was tender and smooth, not very pretty to look at, but better than what she had at Jack's Oyster House the weekend before.  I liked it too and watched Puppy, like a hungry puppy, eat the whole thing. (:

My Parm was a thin cutlet, slightly crispy on the edges, tender (easily cut with the side of my fork), with salty, herby undertones and genuinely flavorful, but drowning in sauce. The sauce was very good but tasted too much to me like canned tomatoes; the thickness was just right. I thought it was almost tart in some ways. 

I had asked about the fresh pasta - gnocchi, ravioli, cavatelli - they aren't made in-house, but that's OK. The up charge was $2.00, but I think it was worth it. I am falling in love with cavatelli. Tender and tasty. Here the sauce tasted very canned tomatoey to me - it was a sauce better suited to the Parm dish. For a change there was actually grated parmesan cheese in one of those little containers on the table, something wanting in my previous parm escapades; fresh grated would be even better. I ate only half of what I ordered and was comfortably full.

We wrapped up - me with a cup of decaf and two spoons for the mousse, which was light and tasty. 

OK so we talked a lot and the waitstaff seemed busy (there were two in the room by the end of our meal with a few more tables than earlier), but the service after our main dishes were delivered seemed slow, with no coffee refills offered. The leftovers were bagged up and when they were brought back to us I asked if I could have the bread, and the waitress said I could take it if I wanted it, but didn't offer to package it for me. If you've read this blog in the past you know I don't like to over-order and I don't like waste, either. The bread should have been offered, in my opinion, and properly packaged to go. 

So dinner was pretty good, but not great, and I guess I expected more knowing the chef had come up the ranks in several good restaurants, including Lombardo's in downtown Albany (a place I have eaten at more than a few times and been underwhelmed by). It could have been better - better bread, nicer salads, home made dressings, real freshly grated cheese, a more thoughtful wine selection. And since dinner was not exactly cheap (although not pricey, either), I think these are improvements well worth making. It was a lovely evening out - very relaxing - and nice in many respects to dine out not so far from home, so I will probably return, but maybe later rather than sooner. 

Dinner for two, plus five drinks since Puppy was buying, was $96.06 plus tip.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS: Also, plastic plants. I checked.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Dan Barber's The Third Plate - a MUST READ

The Third Plate

I'm recommending that you read this book because I can't stand over you and demand that you read every page, which is what I really want to do.  Fortunately Barber is a good story teller, so it's not like I'm asking you to eat Twinkies every day for a  week.

Since Dan Barber is fairly local we should read this book in the spirit of supporting our home town boys, but there is a deeper reason. He's really got a perfect sequel to The Ominvore's Dilemma, not only in terms of the two books, but in terms of where food culture could go next. Pollan laid the groundwork for us to think about our food system being based on monoculture agribusiness and the dangers that underpin our current mainstream agricultural practices. Barber, a chef, discusses in fascinating ways the role of the chef (and I would emphasize also home cooks) in making diversity and organic methods in agriculture truly sustainable.

His thesis is that we've selected (he means chefs, but I think we're all culpable) a narrow range of foods and flavors as attractive and thus forced our  organic and sustainable producers into throwing away everything else or not bothering to produce foods that are unfashionable.  Small farmers have to make money too. He argues that our attempts to turn the ocean liner of modern agriculture around and into a system that will create sustainable food systems won't work unless we re-think what we are eating once again. We have to increase the variety of foods that are considered good, cool, hip and worth buying in order for our landscape to continue to be healthy. Diversity is essential to viable ecosystems. He especially charges chefs to take the lead and make unfashionable foods that are flavorful and nutritious into popular and attractive dishes.

For this book, he selects a few men (ahem)  who are basically dedicated fanatics. Each has taken the landscape, or perhaps more precisely, the ecosystem into consideration and with their full attention on flavor (something no large agribusiness corporation takes seriously) they have carefully cultivated and produced food that maintains a viable hearty ecosystem while producing food that Barber considers to be the world class standard of its kind in terms of deliciousness. The stories are engaging while being educational.  I bow to his knowledge and willingness to present his case.

Many of the stories involve farmers and producers who have looked back in time to older traditions and older varieties of foods, but a few involve modern breeders who are using contemporary techniques to produce varieties that are based on older stock, but that are essentially  new, expressing characteristics that have not been seen in the past.  Each man works with nature rather than attempting to dominate nature.

I think New York State is ripe for Barber's ideas. I hope the country will at least hear out his argument, although I know the power of huge agribusiness, and it's not like they are going belly-up any time soon. I hope you will see what he has to say, go to his restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, and start looking around for food that is grown sustainably, tastes great, and helps your local farmers sell the diversity of products they need to grow to keep our food landscape viable.

I've only captured a small portion of the valuable thinking in Barber's book.  So go buy it from a local bookseller and give a copy to all your friends.