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.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Local Lamb With the Farmer and the Professor

On a recent cold winter night I found my way to Creo to meet with a Goddess of Fire and about 50 other folks who signed up for the 2015 Lamb Dinner. Dee Woessner brought her lamb to Chef David Gibson and we all got to enjoy the results.

As well as eating local I got to drink local since the bar had Hudson Rye from Gardiner New York's Tuthilltown Spirits in a positively lovely Manhattan cocktail.  So by the time we were escorted into our group's dining area I was in the mood for a really great evening.  I wasn't disappointed either.

Dr. Gary Kleppel, the author of  The Emergent Agriculture: Farming, Sustainability and the Return of the Local Economy  biologist and a farmer himself, kicked off the evening by emphasizing the importance of the knowing the people who produce our food, and introduced our farmer for the evening, Dee Woessner. 

Dee gave us a sketch regarding the farm and how the lambs are raised, and Chef Dave gave us an introduction to the first course.

The Lamb Agnolotti  was topped with a bright tomato jam and sat on a bed of white beans.  It was a beginning that promised a skilled hand at lamb dishes. The sauvignon blanc was a bright and crisp complement.

Zena did that goddess thing she does and we sat with Brian White and his mother and two other couples that made up a great table.  Have her use this superpower when you go out with her and you'll be assured of superb conviviality.

After the first course had time to settle and we were ready to try something new the Lamb Loin and Rib Chop course was brought to the table.  Chef Dave wanted us to taste the lamb with no special seasoning, which took the shape of the lolly pop shaped chop, right alongside a marinated loin made utterly delicious with garam masala and dusted with fennel pollen.  All this on a chick pea pancake. A beaujolais  beautifully brought out the savory goodness of the simple and complex lamb pieces.  Zena had to use her super powerful fingers to actually get at the loin, which had tough silverskin that she couldn't pierce easily with a knife.  We have to think that the kitchen overlooked this during  moments of rare carelessness in preparing the  meal.

The final lamb course was Lamb Leg with figs, foie gras, fingerling potato and tarragon jus. Zena's not a fig fan, but I relished the combination of the beautifully tender lamb and the rich gentle sweetness of the figs. The rioja made it the perfect mediterranean course.  By this time we were telling our life stories to each other and enjoying every moment.

The blood orange trifle with pistachio brittle was a light and fitting finish.

Such special dinners are an ongoing series at Creo and are happening more and more frequently at regional restaurants.  They give chefs the opportunity to explore beyond the restaurant's daily menus in a setting that provides diners an opportunity to meet new people while sampling special and unique preparations.

What I hope to see is more nights like this that celebrate our region's fabulous producers and their delectable products!

Monday, January 26, 2015

DOING DISHES: Take Away Meals - U Mundu E Ca

One of the stupidest excuses other singles have for not cooking is that they can't be bothered with it for just one person, even when that one person is YOU. If you are anything like Zena, you are the center of the universe, and you don't have to be a goddess or superhero to appreciate how special you are. Ask your dog if you don't believe me.

You don't have to cook to eat real food.  You could easily make yourself a tuna sandwich if you are organized enough to have bread and mayo and a can of tuna around the house (and you can share your repast with the cat, who may not appreciate you, but they do like it when you feed them). Red's go-to on a lazy night or during an overly busy time is popcorn. Both go quite well with cardbordeaux (that's wine in a box in case you didn't get it), and while it ain't fine dining, it's certainly better than fast food. Or you can eat out somewhere decent, solo is fine, if good food and the world is what you need.
Parking is better on the Wolf Road side of this strip mall.
But apparently "The World is Here", which is what U Mundu E Ca supposedly translates to in English, although the closest I got online was underpants something. Anyway, this is an Italian specialty store with a small grocery selection, a well-stocked deli where you can order by the pound, a fabulous selection of sandwiches and take-away meals. Everything is homemade with best quality ingredients: these treats are totally worth stopping in for any day of the week, whether it's lunch or dinner for numero uno, or just you and a friend, or a family of four. Mundu is hidden away in a strip mall in the Hannaford's Plaza on the corner of Wolf and Sand Creek Road in Colonie. Happily, they post their daily creations and specials every single day on Facebook so you can plan accordingly (and if you LIKE Albany Dish on Facebook you will get their announcements as part of our news feed).

Always watching my nickels because I need what little I have to invest in saving the world from the forces of evil (and believe me, a new cape ain't cheap), I've been lucky enough to snag a few DoubleTakeOffers deals over the past few months for $20 worth of goods for only $10 at Mundu. So don't tell me that fast food is cheaper. It isn't. Ain't. NOT. On Friday night Foodie Friend and I stopped by for a procured meal to bring back to Chez Zena's. For $8.95 plus tax each we ordered Chicken Parm with ziti (no surprises there, if you've read our posts before) and a special dish of Crab Lasagna, each served with garlic bread and a salad, bringing us in just under our $20 coupon, so I bought a candy bar for dessert and handed over an extra $0.14 as we headed out the door. I win.  (:

They will heat your meal or package it for reheat in a microwave or conventional oven.
They can heat your meal or package it for reheat in a microwave or a conventional oven. We opted for aluminum and oven reheat at home (we replaced the plastic lid with foil before drinking anything), and sipped on the first of two bottles of beaujolais that would start our weekend off right. An hour later at 350 degrees F we split the main courses and set ourselves a nice table. The garlic bread, wrapped tightly in foil at Mundu and which we only heated for 10 minutes or so, was toasted to just the right color. The bread was dense and chewy and buttery, although I'm not crazy about the taste of garlic powder/salt when fresh is always SO much better. Speaking of which, the salads were very fresh, with carrot, grape tomatoes, pimento stuffed olives, and mixed greens (including a healthy dose of romaine), served with a homemade balsamic vinaigrette packaged on the side. It was very tasty.
Two lovely side salads with a homemade balsamic dressing on the side.
The ziti, even with an oven reheat, was the perfect texture (toothsome but not tough), telling me it wasn't Prince spaghetti night. The sauce was bright, tart and generous with the flavors of black pepper and garlic. The chicken cutlet, topped with the sauce and a few thin slices of provolone (?) was tender and juicy, a bit crispy still, and the whole dish held together nicely. But the Crab Lasagna was the show-stopper: rich, creamy, cheesy, and totally decadent, and if I could take myself out on food (defying other forces of evil) this would be the way to go. The crab flavor was subtle in a totally decadent ricotta filling layered between perfect pasta. The texture was so lovely I closed my eyes and groaned with pleasure. Not out loud, of course, maybe a slight woo woo sound or something, but I'm afraid it was still audible.
The Crab Lasagna was delicious. Next time I'm not sharing it.

U Mundu E Ca is one of those little hidden gems that are worthy of attention. They are busy, and, I hope, they will just keep getting busier. They deserve the repeat customers more than anyplace I've been to in a long time. It smells DIVINE in there, and the staff are genuinely friendly and seem to care deeply about what they serve. I'll keep an eye open for more of those groovy coupons, for tonight's special, for this and other ways of being good to myself, and for cars zooming through the parking lot as I head home with my booty.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

P.S. Let me make a suggestion, if you value your Batmobile or whatever vehicle you are driving these days - park on the Wolf Road side of the parking lot. The Sand Creek side, in front of Mundu, is on a busy through road in the mall and it's hard to pull out without feeling like getting T-boned is in your horoscope for the day. Just saying.  

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Lunch out at Treviso by Mallozzi's

I've been at the University at Albany for almost 14 years (by day I'm a librarian), and never ONCE has Treviso bleeped Zena's superpower radar as a lunch option, even though it's only a few miles up the road. Like a good night's sleep, I've clearly been missing something for a very long time. No wonder I'm cranky.

The unmarked entryway and shabby awning shouldn't discourage you from venturing inside.
Located at The Italian American Community Center on Washington Avenue Extension, Treviso is one of five eating establishments managed by Mallozzi's. The exterior is a bit stark and uninviting, but with cold snowy weather we hussled inside hoping for warmth and good cheer. We were NOT disappointed. The entryway to the dining room is glowing and homey, and the staff were bright and happy to welcome us. The air was heavily scented with garlic. OOOOOOOH. Nice start.

Coming in from the cold the reception area is warm and inviting.
My first visit was in mid-December, just before the holidays, and the dining room was packed. How did I miss this place? One thing to know - Treviso is only open on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for lunch, and a reservation is recommended if you are going with a larger party (something they seem to do very well, as there were more than a half dozen large tables being served that afternoon). Luckily there were only two of us, and even without a reservation we were promptly seated and attended to. The booths are very popular - big, deep red upholstered things, but the tables are also sturdy and large, and red linen is everywhere. 

The decor is elegant but homey - all the walls are plastered with vintage photos.

The mid-day menu is limited but includes soups, salads, and sandwiches, as well as a choice of eight Italian classics. Jaguar ordered a Pesto Turkey Club ($8.95) and I asked for the Veal & Peppers with ziti (capellini was another option - $9.95). A basket of warm garlic bread sprinkled with parsley was delivered with our club sodas (no wine on these visits - gotta be a good Goddess and achieve amazing feats at work during the afternoon). The bread was good but tasted distinctly of garlic powder - not so good, but crunchy and buttery. The Club was huge - at least 3" thick - mounds of freshly roasted moist turkey thinly sliced on a lovely ciabatta roll, a few slices of perfectly cooked bacon, tangy cheddar cheese, and a flavorful sauce that complimented the whole. A side of parmesan fries were decidedly light and not at all greasy, and they didn't overwhelm the plate either. Less bread might have been better, practically speaking, as I watched my friend try to take a bite without opening her mouth like she was at the dentist to have a molar extracted. But she loved the dish so much she took half home to enjoy later, in private.

The bread was toasted and garlicky.
At 3" thick, Jag's sandwich required superpower heroes to bite into.
I was happy too. The Veal & Peppers, topped with freshly shaved parm, had lots of big pieces of freshly roasted red peppers, the meat was incredibly tender, and the sauce rich and luxurious, sporting garlic and wine and spices. Th textures were fleshy and sublime. And not too much pasta for a change. Half of this dish came back to work with me where one of my co-workers generously agreed to try it for the Dish. She was also wowed by the veal and the tasty peppers. Very nice. Well considered and presented.

Veal and Peppers topped with freshly shaved parmesan cheese.

The dessert menu offered up tiramisu, tartufo, gelato and cheesecake, among others ($3.95 - $5.95) but we were full and then some, despite holding back on cleaning our plates, which was pure willpower, trust me, because everything was delicious. Lunch for two, including two sodas and two cups of coffee, came to only $30.65 plus tip. The waitstaff were well tipped on this one, and they deserved it. Everyone smiles and is not playing by rote. Excellent service from start to finish.

In early January I returned, this time with Red, Pony and Foodie Friend to try Treviso's menu again and see if the food was as good as the first time. My friends remarked that the space had the feel of a family living room, and with that I agreed. Though not as busy as during the holiday rush, the room was still well occupied and lively, but not noisy by any means. We ordered simple beverages and each asked for different dishes so we could taste more of the menu. Our garlic bread arrived promptly, and it was relished by all while we waited for lunch.

Foodie Friend had the special - Shrimp Diavolo ($9.95) -served over a creamy risotto. The shrimps were large, sweet and tender, and there was a very spicy sausage in there laced with fennel. This one had some heat, and the sausage had a dense bite which we enjoyed, with lots of tomato but not drowning in sauce (though the image might indicate otherwise). Decadent and powerful, this was a hit, with more zing than anything else on the table.

Shrimp Diavolo with spicy sausage over risotto.
Red ordered the Eggplant Rollatini ($9.95), which tasted like................wait for it........... eggplant, not at all mushy, with capellini. The filling was a luscious seasoned ricotta, and the sauce was light and aromatic with plenty of herbs to keep it interesting. Perfectly seasoned, this classic was a hit with all of us at the table that day.True to form, Red quietly ate the whole thing. She's a superpower in the making, that's for sure.

Eggplant Rollatini with capellini pasta.
After my own heart, Pony asked for the Chicken Parmesan, a large serving boasting a rather thick cutlet with a crisp breading and a dose of some nice stringy mozzerella on top. The meat was just a bit tough but it was very tasty. We liked the red sauce. It had some complexity and flavor, and the pasta was cooked to perfection. She thought it was one of the best she had had in a long time, and I agreed. Let me point out, too, that the sauces on these three dishes were all different - not just some red sauce dumped over everything leaving the kitchen. Kudos.
Pony had the Chicken Parm
Because FF beat me to the special, and Red beat me to the Rollatini, and Pony beat me to the Chicken Parm, I decided to order a the Classic Caeser Salad (sp.!!! - $7.95) topped with chicken (for another $4.95). This was a disappointment - no croutons (weird - usually I have to push them aside), with a dressing that was dense and garlickly and somewhat bland. I had our server bring me a few wedges of fresh lemon, which helped. The chicken was cold, and garlicky also, and salty, and the whole thing could have done with a bit of freshly ground pepper. Certainly virtuous, a nice "share" for the table, and I finished it, but can't recommend. At $12.90 total, it was a little overpriced for what it was.

 A virtuous salad after the holiday glut.
Lunch for four came to $52.10 for four entrees and two sodas plus tip, so a bargain, considering the stellar service and general ambiance. We felt welcome, appreciated and left feeling happy. So when Zena is feeling cranky from now on everyone is like, "Let's go to Treviso." Good idea. 

Zena, Goddess of Fire

P.S. The entryway sports a cool old motorcycle just beyond the reception desk. Men.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


It's the time to rummage into the back of your cabinets and get out those barely unwrapped gift jars of pickles. They're a fantastic winter time treat and they bring  the idea of seasonal menus to the forefront.

I'm on a campaign to bring pickles back as a celebration of last summer's bounty in a tart and tongue tantalizing incarnation.  This is one way we can keep eating local foods through the most brutal part of our year and the other is freezing (but that's another post).  Yes, it's old-fashioned, but it's also completely in tune with the contemporary spirit of sustainable local food.

Here are my campaign goals:  local pickles featured in restaurant meals as garnishes and side dishes, local pickles in area groceries that do those sorts of things, you and me making pickles out of everything - especially easy pickles like our CSA carrots and those gorgeous diakons at the Asian groceries.

I just opened my jar of The Berry Farm pickled brussels sprouts and gosh darn it, those are some amazing flavors.  My friend Lauren pickled her gigantic pole beans last summer and they are every bit as tasty and summery now with my turkey burgers. I doused my sliced daikon with sushi vinegar and voila - deliciousness on a stick! The pickled beets and pickled garlic in the fridge are looking appetizing too, not to mention the pickled red cabbage, which makes a ham sandwich sing. Pickles wake up sleepy comfort food meals. 

Pickles are a way that restaurants can add the unique touch. I'm remembering the days when Helsinki Cafe in Great Barrington used to serve dilled cucumbers with gravlax and dark rye bread and it was a meal you couldn't get anywhere else within 150 miles. 

They're great for potlucks where you know that everyone else is going to have the main dishes covered. Take the most odd ball pickles you can find and it adds to the entertainment as well as to the widening of people's experience of unique foods. One of my favorites is ocra pickles because they are just SO much better than people think they are going to be.

Pickles!!!  Get 'em, use 'em make 'em.

Monday, December 15, 2014

DOING DISHES: Capital Area Calamari

calamari. n. (Cookery) squid cooked for eating, esp cut into rings and fried in batter. [Fr. Italian, pl of calamaro squid, from Latin calamarium pen-case, referring to the squid's internal shell, from Greek kalamos reed]

PUBLIC NOTICE:  Cephalapods, probably Loligo and Ilex squid, are invading the Capital Region!!! Please don't be alarmed - Zena, Goddess of Fire, is here to help!!! I will start (along with my courageous friends) by eating my way through a bunch of calamari to try and reduce their population. It's a tough job and not for the faint of heart. If you feel there is still a squid emergency at the end of all this, no worries: I'll go out after dark and use my laser beam vision to do some squid-jigging (as required).

Goat Island Squid
It seems like EVERYONE has calamari on their menus - the Italian joints, Mexican restaurants, Pan Asian options and even seafood restaurants. I have NO idea why. It's ugly (think tentacles), has almost no flavor, and, if you screw it up, chewier than a Barbie doll head (not that I would know). I think they think that, like ahi tuna, if they put it on the menu it will sell.

OK OK - it's pretty healthy (high in protein, low in fat, low in mercury) before you add the batter and deep fry it and cover it in sauce. Oh, and it enjoys a healthy wild population here in the northeast, so its also relatively inexpensive compared to many other seafood options (more than half or our squid comes from Rhode Island), and that's good too. It IS mild and firm for something slimy looking, and that's also very good. 

But is it delicious? Versatile? How in the name of Zeus are we even going to whittle down this long list of places that serve it down to something manageable? We couldn't so we started with what was in or around downtown Albany and worked our way out.

This is what we found, with a score as follows:

5 - Excellent (Laughing Squid)
4 - Very Good (Baby Squid)
3 - Ordinary (WTF Squid)
2 - Poor (Is that a squid in your pocket?)
1 - Inedible  (Dead Squid)

Garden Bistro 24: Friday November 7, "happy hour" - A normal size appetizer ($10) of Crispy Calamari tossed in a tarragon chili aioli over a bed of lettuce. It was NOT served on a bed of lettuce, rather garnished with a sprinkle of microgreens, and we didn't taste any tarragon, but it was delicious. The squid (hand cut in-house, including tell-tale-tentacles) was crisp, with a nice tasty batter, and the sauce had a good balance of sweet and hot. My lips were tingling and greasy at the same time - divine. The sauce was VERY rich - a bit overwhelming maybe - so it was good to go splits on this one.  Next time - and there will be a next time! - I'll ask for the sauce on the side.  SCORE: 4.5 - Great but too much sauce.

NEXT TIME: I went back a second time on Friday December 12 with a couple of my favorite Bar Babes to ask them to "deconstruct" this dish for me. Alone this deep fried squid was flavorful, (especially with an added dash of salt), and very crisp and rich. The batter was a bit more traditional/heavier than many others I've had in the area. The dish was better this time because it wasn't drenched in that delicious sauce. Oh, and this time there was a bed of greens underneath.  SCORE II: 4.75. TBB pointed out that the crust was thicker than she might like.

Crispy Calamari with tarragon aioli at Garden Bistro in Colonie, NY - November 7
The same dish at Garden Bistro "deconstructed" with the sauce on the side - December 12

Tesoro's Italian Restaurant: Sunday November 9 "happy hour" - A generous antipasti of Calamari Fritti ($8.95), freshly prepared in a batter of (just milk and flour) served with a gravy boat of simple marinara sauce on the side. The squid was very plain but nice and crunchy, and the sauce was bright (almost lemony) and not too thick or gooey. The dish was served hot with a large fresh lemon wedge on the side. A classic. SCORE: 3.75 - Very good but the fish could use a bit more salt/other seasoning.

Calamari Fritti at Tesoro's in Guilderland, NY

Barcelona Restaurant: Monday November 10, lunchtime - From the Great Beginnings part of the lunch menu, this was a generous serving of Fried Calamari ($7.95 though it's listed online at $6.95). The batter was delicate and a very light golden brown but not as crispy as we would have liked. It was perfectly seasoned with salt and a sprinkle of fresh herbs. The sauce was thick and smooth, and served warm (which we loved!). We noted there was a "Special Salad Barcelona" that offered up fried or sauteed calamari so we may go back and try it. SCORE: 3.5- Nicely done but we wanted it to be crispier.
Fried Calamari at Barcelona Restaurant on Western Avenue in Albany, NY
Creo' Restaurant: Monday November 17, lunchtime - Kung Pao Calamari is on their list of small plates ($12.00), "crispy calamari tossed with a Thai sweet chili glaze". Having learned our lesson with the squid in sauce at Garden Bistro the first time, we asked for the sauce to be served on the side, which didn't do anything to pull this dish together with all it's disparate parts, but it did let us try the sauce separately from the fish. Good thing we did. The calamari (lots!) was nice and tender but flavorless; at least it wasn't greasy. The calamari was presented on a bed of those white fried rice noodles (the puffy ones) with a sprinkle of scallions, chopped tomatoes, and black and white sesame seeds - very pretty. But the sauce was way too sweet, barely spicy, and somehow on the cheap, so I asked the waitress to ask the chef was was in it and this was the reply: sugar, water, pickled red chili and garlic powder. After all that work to use a sauce like this is the type of crime I am here to save the world from. SCORE: 3.0 Work on that sauce!!!!

A very pretty presentation at Creo
Reel Seafood: Tuesday November 25, 6:00 pm - Three of us barely escaped traffic and entered the newly renovated space with a sense of awe and delight. The bar and dining room are really lovely, classy, and a welcome respite from the holiday rush. The Cantonese Calamari ($13) appetizer was another take on that fried squid tossed with a sweet/hot sauce that by now is getting to be old school. This one would be tossed with a bottled sauce called Mae Ploy: pretty tasty but still, to my super-senses, overly sweet and syrupy, so again I was glad that I asked for the sauce on the side. My dish, like at Creo, came "de-constructed" - with finely sliced purple cabbage and a bit of fresh pineapple presented in their own bowl. Alone the calamari (a very generous serving!) was tender but nicely brown and crispy - perfect actually, with a slightly heavier batter . No salt. (Wondering by now if the chef doesn't think to season calamari if it is being served "plain"). Together the combination was splendid. The fresh crunch of the cabbage, the juicy bright taste of tropical fruit, the heat from the sauce and the tender crisp calamari all came together and made me glow. SCORE: 4.0. A bit of salt is needed when a sauce is served on the side. Please, make your own sauce.

Deconstructed calamari at Reel Seafood.
Next: Milano Restaurant, located in Newton Plaza on Route 9 in Latham, NY. This was the first area restaurant that boasted an "open kitchen" - one where you can actually watch the chef do his magic from the dining room - and the layout is still true today, more than 20 years later. This time it was lunch on a cold December 8 (Monday) - not busy but enough tables to make it worth their while. I was seated so I could see some of what was going on with the cooking process. I heard the squid go down in the saute pan with a nice poof of steam, and I saw it being decorated with the fresh herbs, and then I watched it sitting there for our absent waitress for several minutes before being served- thankfully it was still nice and warm. This was Calamari alla Diavola, an appetizer-sized appetizer (for a change) - sauteed, not breaded and deep-fried, and for the first time I wanted the serving to be larger ($9.50). This was the most creative dish of calamari so far on my wild squid expedition, and instead of wrestling with it, I gave it kisses. Sweet, tender squid that tasted like squid, not batter, dressed with Kalamata olives and capers and topped with a nice handful of fresh basil, served with a side of warm Kalamata and caper infused marinara sauce that was spicy but not "hot" hot. Excellent!  SCORE: 4.75. Next time I hope I get a larger portion!

Calamari alla Diavola at Milano Restaurant
OK that's (6) and since I started this there haven't been any new reports of squid attacks (nothing major, anyway), so this must be working! I'm still concerned about the explosive squid population here in Capital Region restaurants,  so please know that I'm still fighting the good fight. I'll go try the calamari six more times in six more places and I'll do another entry, assuming none of those squids takes me out in batter. I mean battle.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

P.S. If you have a FAVORITE place for calamari please comment!!! We'll add it to our list and hope to get there eventually, unless of course it's an emergency, and then we'll get on it ASAP.