Friday, April 17, 2015

Heavenly Tasting: Cheese and Beer at City Beer Hall

Upstairs at the City Beer Hall is a great place to put some tables and chairs so that people can hang out and taste beers and cheese.  The huge windows and the view into the room below add a sense of expansiveness that sets a lovely scene for some great flavors. On a recent non-frozen evening a group of avid tasters tasted to their hearts' content.

We each were given a program for the tasting so we didn't have to take extensive notes. The beers and cheese were these, which I would highly recommend for paired tastings you should do at home:
Grimm Color Field farmhouse ale wth Perail de Brebis
Brouwerij Bavik Petrus Red Ale with Tome Rebelais
Birrificio del Ducato Chrysopolis with Saulnois Reserve
Dirrificio Montegioco Fumigant with Alchese Blauwe

Eventually the assembled plates  of two cheeses were delivered upstairs and the two beers were poured for everyone.

Our hosts from The Cheese Traveler and City Beer Hall each gave some background and we proceeded to share our experiences as we cheerfully explored some of the delights of basic food and drink.

The beers and cheeeses held one surprise after another.

And oh my.  Flavor was the topic, the stuff and the conversation of the evening. Flavor profiles had been carefully analyzed and matched so that the unfolding of complementary complex flavors, although in really just a few bits of food, was mesmerizing through the evening.

The second pairing of two brought the tasting to the four beers and four cheeses, which is a really good amount if one is to get the gist of each without covering up anything, rushing or spacing out.  While truly a tasting and not a meal, it was a great way to satisfy the senses without ending up too full or bored.

There was plenty of time to regale each other over our subjective experiences both at this table and at many others in past years. The time was used to slowly try each tidbit, but also to wait to clear one combination of flavors in order to fully experience the next. The beers and cheese were paired, but there were also little condiments to allow everyone to mix up their own tastes expand the range of what was happening.

The low lighting allowed the darkness from outside to eventually envelop the room and as we savored the strongest and most mind blowing flavors of the evening the room grew quiet and people said their goodbyes.

It was a satisfying way to explore new and traditional flavors and to share insights and opinions with convivial fellow guests.  I hope this tasting series will be ongoing for a long time to come.

Lorre Bob sez check out both the beers and the cheese and if you can taste them together all the better.

Friday, April 3, 2015

There's No Hole in My Doughnut - Nibble, Inc.

I have to say upfront that I have a love-hate relationship with the doughnuts at Nibble, Inc. in Troy. 

I love the shop, which is on the corner of 5th and Broadway, near Finnbar's, where apparently both of the main crew at Nibble did some time. It's tastefully appointed and has a gorgeous view of the street on two sides.  One cannot ask for more while having doughnuts and coffee.  

I LOVE the flavors, which I feel are works of culinary art.  I mean seriously yum. No, I mean you must go and try these extraordinary doughnuts.

They are based on potato flour, and that makes them different from the other doughnuts out there, so try not to go with the expectation that these are going to be just your common doughnut that you've had all your life.  Plus the fillings in their signature doughnuts are superbly crafted, and unlike any of the drek that ends up in most average doughnuts. For these fillings alone you should get yourself to the shop and see what I mean. I had the  local lemon and blackberry cassis signature style just to get started, and my recommendation is that you either go with several people so you can get a good sampling or get a dozen for the office and slice them up so you can get a variety of flavors.

And now to what broke my heart and  makes me want to rave - so I will. The most obvious difficulty is that they're too blinking big to bite. It's like trying to eat one of those 4 inch high hamburger sandwiches. In other words, I ended up wanting to throw them across the room, except they were too delicious. I tried to bite the lemon and it is tough and so I merely dragged it off the doughnut and slapped myself in the face with it while the unbelievably delicious lemon sauce (I can't call it curd) proceeded to run down my face and deposit itself on my shirt. I won't sing the whole litany of problems I had actually ingesting this fascinatingly delicious bit of fried dough. It would be long. Suffice it to say this is not the sort of eating experience I want to have. Do I REALLY have to get out a fork to eat a doughnut?  Especially in a place that just has disposable utensils and no real crockery? A doughnut that requires a plastic fork?  I'm not happy with it.  

When I asked for a re-usable cup one that obviously was fished out of an obscure location and hastily washed was produced.  I was suspicious.

I will go back because it's like a candle flame for a moth, but I'm taking my stainless steel knife and fork, my own real plate so that I can actually use the knife and fork, and my own mug for the coffee. I like them enough to do that kind of work to eat them.

Get their full menu and more at the site: 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Tomo Asian Bistro for a sushi lunch

In the wilds of Slingerlands is just where a casual sushi joint is needed. And to be fair, this really is more of an Asian Bistro than a sushi joint, with an extensive menu ( use the link below to see it on the web site).  I happened to be taking some vacation recently and so I had the time to mosey out to Slingerlands and enjoy a late sushi lunch. The decor uses dark colors and lots of wood and was put together with care to provide a bit of an upscale atmosphere, so it's a lovely place to enjoy a leisurely lunch or dinner.

There are often dishes that we use to judge the qualities of a restaurant, and for Asian restaurants, mine is the age tofu appetizer.  It's just fried tofu, so the chef has the opportunity to make it something special if they wish to do so.  This is the nice presentation with flavorful scallion and bonito garnish at Tomo. A lot of places just toss it on the plate, so the little extras and pleasing arrangement here told me that I was in for a nicely prepared meal.

I had chirashi because I like to see what chefs do with it - there are many different styles because the name basically means "scattered" and conveys the idea that the fish and the rice are not formally shaped. Until recently chirashi was most frequently served to me in a bowl, but now the trend seems to be to put it on a plate.  I like it best as a sushi preparation because it allows me to combine the amount of rice I like with each piece of fish.  And there are always delightful condiments and vegetables or mysterious (to me) things that are new and tasty.

Although the chirashi plate was for the most part delicious, I wasn't happy to see the problematic "white tuna" as one of the fish.  I haven't gotten into the habit about asking whether it will be there or not, so I simply didn't eat it this time and will continue to try to remember to ask first.

Service at Tomo was attentive and friendly. The staff checked in a number of times to check on drinks and how things were going.

There were takeout orders the whole time I was there, indicating to me that Slingerlands has caught on to their closest Asian location and like it enough to drive all the way to the Price Chopper Plaza to pick up their orders.

The full menu and hours are on their website:

LorreBob sez: go have a nice Asian dinner in the suburbs!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

DOING DISHES: Wrapping it Up for the Lettuce Entertain You Series: Salads from Fresh Market

Here is our final entry of the series.  The three other  ones are:

We thought we'd find salads at The Cheese Traveller, but by the time we got there for the series, they had decided to stop offering them for lunch.

This is the dish on our trip to The Fresh Market in Latham.

We're still taken aback at the sheer amount of candy that takes up a huge amount of real estate in the store. All that sugar in a store that has a name like Fresh Market makes a little cognitive dissonance for the Goddess and myself.

But they got salad.

In a case of great looking food that makes a hungry Goddess and her Foodie Friend companion want to take home a few delicious dinners are nestled the salads on offer.

Back in our perfessional tasting lab, we employed some of our analytic acumen to these samples.

Aren't they great colors? I think that is a good deal of the fun in salad.

Artichokes, tomatoes, green peppers,  feta, olives and fresh onion - this has a good olive oil dressing and is balanced well between bright flavors and more mild savory ones. The feta was less than optimal - the chef should use a better quality.
Broccoli cranberry: although a little on the bland side it has a good balance of cranberries, almonds and broccoli, and everyone likes the crunch. This was everyone's favorite.

Cucumber and onion with tomato.  This was a favorite and will go well with any dish - a light dressing makes it refreshing and fresh veggies make it crunchy and delightful.

Shrimp salad: expensive blah.  This was displayed on a separate stand with some other similar salads and gets a "looks pretty" but there's just not much there in the way of flavor, especially at $11/lb.  

Edamame: an odd combination of feta, cranberries and tasty little soybeans - no one could taste the feta, so we were curious about how it lost all its flavor.  Maybe the beans soaked it up after a few hours in the case.

In the lab we happen to have a small cadre of amateur tasters as well and the above is a summary of all the tasting notes.

All in all we have felt in our tasting across all the salads that the deli chefs should up their game, watch how long the salads stay in the fridge to avoid bland old worn out flavors, and everyone should take part in making sure that the same ingredients aren't used over and over in all the salads.  Mix it up!  Certain ingredients may be zesty for the first day, but change to meh over the succeeding days in the case.  We recommend continual tasting for quality and not letting salads slide into mediocrity or worse.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Lucas Confectionery: Wine and Nibbles

A few years back a wine bar was born in downtown Troy. They are even open on Sundays. Go figure.

I enjoyed a wonderful afternoon at the Troy Music Hall last weekend with Carol Jantsch of the Philadelphia Orchestra playing tuba with the Albany Symphony Orchestra. I never imagined the tuba could be so amazing (so now I think she's in fact a superhero, too). Despite pressure from the large lady to my left, who was very nice, and the hard seat which aggravated me even more, it was an amazing concert. I closed my eyes and let it take me where I wanted to be, and, my friends, that was to be a light dinner at Lucas Confectionery, just a few skips away, following the performance.

We had a reservation for 5:30, but it wasn't needed. I couldn't help wondering why this place wasn't packed with post-musica artsy-fartsy doctors and lawyers.  It doesn't look like much on the outside, and maybe those regulars have their routine and Lucas wasn't on their radar yet. Zena, Goddess of Fire, and friends, ventured in.

We asked to be seated with feet on the floor; many of the tables in the front of the house had barstools, so they put us on the end of a long table in the "garden", which was absolutely lovely. Twinkly lights, exposed brick, rough hewn tables, little candles, simple unmatched small plates and napkins - very homey and romantic.

I ordered a glass of Sauvignon Blanc (Loire Valley, France, $8), Jag asked for a glass of the Chardonnay (from Split Creek in Napa, $9), and FF wanted a glass of Nine Pin Cider Signature Blend (a six ounce pour, $4). The menu was mostly wine and beer (uh, yes, I get it, it's a wine bar). The food offerings were really just nibbles, including a short list of cheeses (many noted prize winners), charcuterie, a few dips, and small dishes like salmon with cabbage and caper aioli. There wasn't a whole lot on the menu that was fresh, or vegetable, or fruit for that matter.

Our evening repas was slow in coming. I was a bit hmmmmmm'd that we were already being asked for a second drink order when our food had yet to hit the table. It finally started with a slaw of shaved brussels sprouts flavored with horseradish and hazelnuts, a bright, tasty salad with a touch of sweet and salty to even out the bitterness of the raw veggies. We were hungry, and managed to put away a little bowl of sliced baguette in record time, but the friendly staff were quick to offer more. The bread was chewy and tasty and not too crusty and a must under everything we enjoyed that night.

We ordered 3 for $13's: 3 charcuterie items and 3 cheeses. These included the Country Pate from Three Little Pigs (Washington D.C., I think) - holding your attention with an intense porky goodness, herbs and onion in a spread that wasn't at all greasy; the Finocchiona from Molnari & Sons, a fennel salami that could only be described as smooth and mellow; and Smoked Duck Breast (also from Three Little Pigs) - tender and delicious. Our cheeses (each a 1.5 ounce portion) were the Middlebury Blue from Blue Ledge Farm in Salisbury, VT (with a side of candied walnuts), which I thought was slightly rubbery, stinky, grainy then smooth, and really quite delicious; a tart and creamy Cremont goat and cow cheese (Websterville, VT) topped with sweet, crunchy cocoa nibs; and Invierno, a raw sheep and cows milk hard cheese from Vermont Shepherd, this one sided with candied ginger. We tasted and talked and smiled and gushed. Delicious. Every bite was worth savoring - special, divine, memorable.

What I can't understand, with bread and cheese and wine and spreads and pickles and dips and smoked fishes abounding, why Lucas isn't offering anything a bit more substantial to it's guests, like a gorgeous sandwich creation. Me thinks they are more intent on liquor sales, but I could be just being bitchy, which happens, even to superheroes. But the food WAS amazing, and I intend to return. 

Make a date at Lucas. Put it on your radar. If you love to nibble on a few guilty pleasures and sip on a nice glass of wine, then trust me, you won't be disappointed. 

A light meal for three, including 5 drinks, came to $76.68 including tax plus tip.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS: Lucas is not a good choice if you are avoiding coffee, sugar, alcohol, gluten, meat, salt, or dairy. Just saying.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

McGuire's is Baaaaaaack

Black Manhattan

If I were Queen of Everything I would order all the folks in the Lark Street neighborhood to go to McGuire's now that they are done with their 2014/15 renovations. Steve Barnes has kept close to McGuire's in his blog Table Hopping, so if you want background do a search on the restaurant name. I think people should go and  try this new incarnation and see what they think.  I wouldn't have painted the ceiling black, but there's no accounting for taste.

Of course the bar is always going to be fun, because of its unique view of Lark Street.

It's a "new concept" with a new menu, but I did not become familiar with any of their old menus, so I'm not the one who is going to write a comparison review. I have tried several of their dishes and enjoyed them. Here are my impressions:

The small plates are where all the flashy stuff is.  Combining a small plate and a salad could make a good light dinner. The salads are given some attention and are thoughtfully composed.
Further down the menu, the tried and true entrees of beef, pork, foul and fish look solidly good - unless the cooks are clods they will be reliable staples.

I had the delicious frisee salad with blueberries and candied nuts.  It was fresh and a refreshing start to my dinner on the night that I had the sliced steak. I love steak and fries, and this one really hit the spot.  It was small and sauced nicely.  So next time I'm in the mood, I know where I want to go. I had the key lime pie that night and both the wait person and myself thought it was cheesecake.  But pie, cake -- no matter, it was a great creamy citrusy finish for the meal.

Bread and a nut butter come with the table.  I'll go for any sort of butter over olive oil, which I consider to be an unhappy aberration in restaurant trends, and the nut butter makes a good spread.

The bread also served as a nice alternative support for the chicken liver mousse with fig and mustard.

The cute mason jar service with jelly on top and a sprig of thyme was entertaining for about a minute, then I realized that having to go back to the jar and scoop out each dip of mousse is tedious, so once I scooped it onto the plate I got into serious tasting of various combinations of flavors.  I could go on eloquently, because I save chicken livers for special occasions, and the mousse was nicely done. The low-key sweetness of the figs and the sharp mustard are truly excellent condiments to this treat.  This dish and a salad also make a great light meal. 

The night I tried the fish was also a happy night.  The combination of Asian flavors was wonderful on the perfectly tender and moist mahi mahi. I got a spoon for the broth and used it well. The noodles were an overcooked loss - something a 15 yo would know better than to do, but I didn't even care. 

To sum up the food, there are probably going to be things you like about the place and things you don't like, but I highly recommend trying what they are offering and making up your own mind.  I happen to like it and will return.

To finish up I have a few things to say that I would like to tell all restaurant managers and owners, like when I write pleas to floor managers who allow their staff to spray everything with cleaner spray:  don't conduct your business in the dining room.  I'm sure it's comfortable, probably more comfortable than your office,  so renovate or redecorate or get yourself an office where you can do business.  I don't want to hear it while I'm trying to enjoy my steak.

And if you're going to admonish an employee, don't do it in the dining room(s).  Just don't. Don't make a bunch of phone calls to confirm reservations for a special holiday night. I want to hear the music and the dishy conversation of my near neighbors and I don't want to keep hearing you tell everyone that it's a $xx dinner with x courses. That is a definite drag and I hope the manager gets the word on this: take it to the office.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Pizza Love: DeFazio University

Back in December Zena's online superpowers made her a winner of a little contest with All Over Albany to attend DeFazio University for a pizza or pasta class for four. Saving the world from the forces of evil is fun, but not nearly as much as playing with food. And eating it. And loving every greasy, salty, happy blimpifying bite in order to graduate.

DeFazio's Imports in Troy, NY
Which I did, with honors, during their pizza workshop last weekend because our instructors at DeFazio's Pizzeria in downtown Troy were such an amazing team. Rocco DeFazio and his son Matt are passionate about their work (two time winners of the Capital Region's Tournament of Pizza, which I understand won't be continuing for some reason but probably because DeFazio's is hard to beat), proud of their family's history establishing DeFazio's Imports back in 1951 (and their pizzeria in 1991), honored at being a part of their neighborhood, and excited by the prospect of expanding their business in a nearby property to include a restaurant/bar, banquet hall and a real culinary school.  But nothing says love more than being in that original, cozy pizzeria, it's story part of every nook and cranny that surrounds you, a space imbued with the smells of yeast and tomatoes and wood smoke, laughing with friends, and listening and learning from the experts how to make these dishes at home. Which I did. Later in this blog. Wait for it.

Rocco DeFazio making Stromboli
Now these aren't cheap seats: I'm not going to share everything I scribbled in my notes, because YOU should sign up and experience DeFazio's yourself. But here's how our afternoon unfolded.

A warm olive mixture with fresh lemons and a plate of Fontinella cheese and smoked meats, as well as freshly made focaccia and smiles from Rocco and Matt greeted the small group of 12 who braved more damn snow to participate. Rocco waxed poetic and told us his story, highlighting the quality of the ingredients and their grandmother's bread recipe (the basis of their delicious crusts), and the importance of their wood-fired oven in turning out wonderful products. Matt demonstrated how to make dough (um, starting with 25 pounds of flour, so it didn't translate well to home cooking), but getting the consistency right, varying how much oil or water you add depending on the weather and what other ingredients (such as herbs) you'll be adding, were critical to success. They did suggest King Arthur high gluten bread flour as a good substitute for what they get from their wholesale supplier. Rocco and Matt went around showing us how to roll up our pizza dough balls. Up with the right, close with the left. Zena got distracted how that move could be used against a giant attacking ball of dough, but quickly refocused as we moved on to our next lesson.

Their traditional white dough ready for portioning. Otherwise it will take over the world. Let your dough rest 24-48 hours before using.

Rocco cooked up their famous red sauce, surprisingly simple, starting with two large cans of tomato products, one called "California Super Heavy Concentrated Crushed Tomatoes". Not available retail but he suggested zapping crushed tomatoes in a blender and cooking it down would be a good start. The CSHCCT was thick like paste, but NOT paste, something they do not use, nor do they use sugar. Spices, a bit more water, cooking for one hour was all it took. Very informative. At the end of the day we all got to take home a pizza kit with the two balls of dough we shaped and wrapped up, a container of that lovely sauce, some Pecorino Romano (their not so secret secret ingredient - sorry about that), and a cool little pizza cutter.

Matt DeFazio making a Calzone
From here our instructors moved on to demonstrate how they make Stromboli, Calzone, and pizzas using their traditional white dough as well as their whole wheat and garlic and herb doughs. I LOVED the spinach and broccoli Stromboli - heavy with garlic and pretending to be healthy - just my style. Shaping the dough, the right amount of filling and topping, and baking in their traditional gas or wood-fired ovens was a real show - beauty in motion - but the best part was trying the different pizzas. The four cheese pizza topped with mozzarella, Pecorino Romano, Fontinella and Gorgonzola was culinary heaven. The traditional crust was crispy but with a nice chew, light, tender and flavorful. I had a couple of rotten pizzas in Chicago a couple of weeks ago with crusts that were hard and tasted like cardboard. The crusts coming out of the ovens at DeFazio's are the best I've ever had, and believe me, I LOVE pizza and eat it everywhere I go, and I can eat a lot of it (another one of my amazing feats). I was SO impressed with what we have just over the fence in our own back yard. What took me so long to finally get to DeFazio's? Even superpowers can be idiots. But let's get beyond it, shall we?
Whole wheat dough topped with walnut pesto, tomato slices and store roasted chicken
We wrapped with a demo on making Deep Dish Tomato Pie and a little reminder that this is a class joint, according to the Jersey Boys, and I agree:  (Frankie: This is a pretty nice place, huh? Mary: Yeah, They don’t sell slices. That’s how you can tell).  They don't sell slices, FYI.

Thanks AOA, Rocco and Matt, for your kindness, your generosity, your upbeat optimism in all things pizza, and for sharing the love with the rest of us. I mean it. You guys ROCK.

Zena's Stromboli

I love a good workout, but I've always said that I'd never win anything unless it was something like a hot dog eating contest. Or pizza. Or Stromboli, so I made one at home last Monday when I got trapped at home AGAIN (trapped today as well) because of more damn snow, to see how much I could eat and if I could win without anyone around to watch. Well, I didn't win, but I think I did a pretty good job. 

One 14-15 ounce ball of white pizza dough (you can buy it from DeFazio's and it's also available at the Honest Weight Food Co-Op [as Organic Joe's]) - at room temperature
Semolina flour for dusting
1/2 pound cooked sweet Italian sausage, crumbled (I like the sausage from Garafalo & Co. in Schenectady, if you are willing to put up with surly service, but DeFazio's also makes their own and it is also wonderful)
1 1/2 cups chopped fresh broccoli
1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
4 ounces mozzarella cheese
Extra virgin olive oil

Lightly flour your cooking surface and shape your dough into a rectangle. Evenly distribute your toppings. Roll it over three times to make your log and pat it lightly to seal the edges. Transfer to a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush with olive oil. Cut 3 or 4 slices into the top so it doesn't explode during baking. Bake at 375 degrees F for 40-45 minutes until golden brown. Slice and serve.
Zena's first ever Stromboli (a.k.a. "garbage bread")
Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS: Also thanks to Jaguar, Foodie Friend and the Mistress of the Hounds for a lovely afternoon. And to Pony for supplying our BYO "The Verdict 2009 Shinas Estate Cab Sav" from Victoria, Australia. After pizza and wine it's hard not to love life.