Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Doing the Numbers at D'Raymonds

I love numbers. I love that they can be so precise and yet make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Welcome to 2017 - believe whatever you want as long as it fits into your world view.
Cute exterior - D'Raymonds is not a big place, so reservations are a must
For example, according to Yelp there are 563 Italian restaurants in Albany, only a couple boast Star #5, D'Raymonds pops up #8 when you filter "Highest Rated", with 111 reviews to date, (11 by my friends). Trip Advisor gave me 60 Italian places within 25 miles, 4 dots out of five is typical, no D'Raymonds, with NY Pizza listed as #1??? Gayot gave us 37 with D'Raymonds having 3 1/2 stars. Fodor's lists 9. There are NO Italian restaurants in Albany listed in Zagat. Actually Albany doesn't exist according to Zagat. The local Times Union had 28 listed in their Best Of for 2017 with D'Raymonds on top, and it's been there for 8 years straight!

OK that last stat, if you stayed with me, was compelling. I hadn't been to D'Raymonds in years. I've had a few good, and a few not so good experiences there and, heck, if All Things Yelp are worthy, that left me 562 other options for Italian food (including pizza, which, Yelp, I'd like to filter out from Italian, but I digress), so I've been in no rush to go back.
Crusty bread that I only ate for because of this blog.  (:
But when DD (Double Donut) was leaving the department we decided to go for lunch and D'Rays was one of his all time favorites. Five point six miles to Osborne Road from SUNY Albany, the menu has 7 apps and soups, 6 salads, 10 grilled sandwiches ("bananas" - ???), 11 Italian specialties, 8 pasta specialties, and 7 fish dishes. And a couple of specials that we were not told of but I used my superpowers to hear the list read to a neighboring table. Everything is under $15, which, in my books, for a sit-down meal is exceptional value.
Excellent salads!!!  
Especially for what ended up being a wonderful meal. The pasta and Italian dishes all started with perfect side salads of baby spinach topped with unique ingredients (compared to Albany Italian mainstream) - ricotta salata, dried cranberries, chickpeas, marinated artichoke hearts, pitted black kalamata olives, red onion, pale tomato with a light, flavorful dressing - terrific. The bread was a bit lackluster but fresh, served with whipped butter. We then shared a Bruschetta -  toasted garlic bread loaded with pale tomato and mozz and topped with fresh basil - decadent, delicious, served with a side of red sauce for dipping that made it even that much better. Mighty good.
Bruschetta. Four pieces was plenty as an app for four people
DD had the Rigatoni Ala D'Raymond, served with crumbled hot sausage and a pink vodka sauce ($12.95) - good, nice and creamy, generous meat that wasn't too spicy, but a bit salty. Red had the Chicken Piccata ($12.95 - she subbed that salad for the pasta) - OK, sitting in butter so it was soft, more butter than wine, missing capers, but very tender. Pony had a ginormous serving of Orecciette Carbonara ($11.95) - a winner - best ever - super creamy, so delicious she couldn't stop eating.
Rigatoni Ala D'Raymond - pink sauce???

Not a pretty dish but the best of them all - Orecciette Carbonara rocked the numbers

Chicken Piccata needed a bit more wine and capers to round out the sauce

No I did not order the Chicken Parm. I went for the straight Italian American classic, Spaghetti Con Polpette ($9.95) - spaghetti and meatball, singular.  The red sauce was the same that came with the bruschetta - thick, rich, simple but herbal, not bitter, not at all sweet. The pasta was a perfect al dente, though I wasn't crazy about the meatball - very garlicky garlic powdery, fine ground everything and a bit dense. A generous serving and a classic in all respects, and I DID eat my leftovers for breakfast the next day.

Spaghette con Polpette
D'Raymonds is a classy joint but still casual, with good service, ample parking, and it's usually busy, so make a reservation unless you like a long wait counting the minutes before you finally get to eat.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

D'Raymonds main dining room at the start of service

Tuesday, June 6, 2017


Everyone should have a creative outlet. Art, song, acting, balloon animals, bird house making, playing the spoons, teasing your sister, knitting, fly fishing, Yelping, fighting the forces of evil - the list is endless.
I always liked this comic
Lately I will lay there, up all night, fretting about zombies who just kicked my butt and a sick mom and deadlines at work and the stupid x and all the yard work waiting for a dry spell and money money money what I ate yesterday and today and what I might eat tomorrow and what I would like to eat right now and what I should eat more of or less of.

Yes, I'm thinking about food at three in the morning. It actually relaxes me, don't ask why.

And I'm not dreaming about a Blizzard. As a rule I don't do frozen prepared and take out and take away or dinner in a box - it's a waste of both time and money, and often it's worse than awful.  I want to know where my ingredients came from and what they are exactly and I want the best I can afford and I want variety in taste and color and flavor and texture, and I want to have fun in the kitchen and be a better cook, exploring new ingredients and combinations and testing my skills while I drink a bottle of wine.
Yes, it's upside down...

Sometimes there's dribs and drabs of stuff that stack up or I buy something and forget to use it and weird food combinations threaten and it's none of it is getting any fresher sitting around, just like me. No matter what you have at home, you can ALWAYS make a good meal for yourself - it doesn't need to be anything fancy (the cats especially like anything with canned tuna, but I digress) - without resorting to processed junk. I say BE CREATIVE - relax, and (note to self) - use what you have before you start buying more stuff that could end up in landfill.
Two jars of sun dried tomatoes started me thinking

Okay, so what's in the fridge? the pantry??? When was the last time you cleaned the freezer(s) out, all the way to the back?

The inspiration for dinner on Sunday night was the discovery of TWO opened jars of sun-dried tomatoes in the refrigerator, because I'm an idiot.

Did someone say "PIZZA"???

The tomatoes are in back, herb garden out front, all loving the rain, including vampires and their smaller cousin, the mosquito
I had homemade pesto in the freezer from last year (yes, you can be jealous), AND frozen homemade sourdough wheat pizza dough (actually, several more in store that I still need to use up), basil in the garden already needing to be pinched back, even had the Cappiello Fresh Mozzarella (on sale at PChopper last week, BOGOF - local and delicious), toasted pine nuts on the door of the fridge, and no veggies worthy of a savory pizza pie except onions.

Don't go heavy handed with your ingredients
No recipe: roll the dough out once it's at room temperature, top with a thin layer of pesto and thinly sliced onions, sprinkle around chopped sun dried tomatoes and top with mozz then an handful of pine nuts, bake in a hot oven (450 F) about 20 minutes until the crust is a nice deep golden brown, and finish with fresh basil. I ate half. It was good.
Cooking has become my creative outlet. So has working out, just by necessity, but that's another blog.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"Dinner in Rome" with Chef Gio

Dear Chef Gio:

Thank you for your cooking school, Gio Culinary Studio in Voorheesville, NY.  You are offering lots of evening classes that appear to be aimed at us home cooks that want ideas and inspiration to make our Italian dishes rise above the ordinary. From the outside the building is quite plain, but inside it's simple and lovely; the layout is well considered.  The large open kitchen is brightly lit, clean and modern, and I appreciated the cameras and large screens positioned above the work area so participants can watch what you are doing without having to hover.
Small town Voorheesville has a surprise in store for you...

Chef Gio and his sidekick Robin - lovely space for workshops
That didn't keep us, I mean me, from asking lots of questions, but you are charming, answering easily with the "why" so it would be easier to remember, and you didn't give us recipes, just ingredients, and made us take notes, which is savvy teaching on your part. Anyway, I apologize for being so annoying, what with my flash going off, giggling over my wine, fooling with the KitchenAid even when you told me not to - honestly, there's one in every crowd, and I'm an effortless troublemaker in all respects. Your sidekick Robin was aware of my superhero status and I could sense her wanting to "POW!" "BLAM"! "BIF"! and "SOK!" me, but she was very nice. I've met other Robins in my day and they can kick butt, but I digress.
In three hours you demonstrated how to make several relatively simple regional dishes from Rome. I loved the bruschetta, toast scraped with cut garlic and topped with sliced grape tomatoes laced with fresh basil and best quality olive oil. Messy and crunchy, like me. Strawberry liked it too!!!

Making pasta with the troublemaker (me, not Strawberry)
You made handmade pasta seem effortless, but I will likely continue to make mine in the food processor. Thanks for the hot tip about 50:50 semolina (for elasticity) and no-purpose flour (for workability) - I'll try that the next time. I have one of those analog hand crank kneader/cutters and they are a fine substitute for those of us that mess around with appliances or that don't have any counter space, or both. The Carbonara that you tossed with the spaghetti was unctous, rich, salty and amazing. Again, seemingly easy but you stressed the importance of good quality ingredients (and yes, everyone should know about the Cheese Traveler!).

Carbonara with a big hit of real Pecorino Romano
Next was the Saltimbocca al Forno - boned skin-on chicken thighs, prosciutto, sage - very traditional - braised in chicken stock and wine, topped with garlic, in a large pan making it easy to prepare for a crowd. Tender and dreamy. And the class was full, it was a good crowd, friendly and happy to gather and talk about food.

Chef Gio demonstrates boning chicken thighs - the finished dish is below
We finished up with a demo on Zeppole, a cooked pate chou with only eggs for leavening, these were light and just slightly sweet, topped with a bit of sugar and cinnamon. I had two.

Making Zeppole
Dinner in Rome was a lovely event, and I see that you are offering this again in July. I didn't understand that we weren't actually getting dinner for our $65, just sample tastes, and that made the class seem a bit expensive, so maybe you just need to make this all clear on your website so your students don't leave feeling disappointed.  I hate to complain because I really enjoyed the evening in your studio and I learned a lot, so thank you again for bringing your enterprise to the Capital Region.
Rightfully proud of their work!!! Thanks, Chef!
I'll probably sneak back into one of your pizza classes (if I promise to behave)!!!

Yours truly,
Zena, Goddess of Fire

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

What's the BEST Restaurant in Albany??? Possibly Peck's...

Soft Serve is sweet, fun, familiar with the area but still new in her return, after many years away, to her Alma Mater city of Albany, where she belongs.

Excited and exploring, Soft Serve asked a bunch of us "What is the best restaurant in Albany?", to which I replied "What do you like?" - but that was not her question, the question was, what is the BEST??? Not your favorite, not your regular spot, not the recommended sushi joint or diner or happy hour specials or cheap eats or brunch joints or romantic or seasonal or perfect burgers or Italian or Greek or Thai or TexMex or BBQ or where you can eat outside with the flies or a pub where you can spill your beer and dance with abandon.

And I answered "Peck's".

Street parking only for Peck's Arcade in downtown Troy
It's not that big, we know that. The open kitchen is small, too. The space is kind of dark and the guts of the ventilation and heating and the structure itself are exposed like an inside-out umbrella, connecting to Lucas Confectionery (wine bar and small bites) and The Grocery, all windy like, and there's even a bar upstairs. I'll call it chic, trendy, divey, and very very cool. I felt cool, even though I'm not, I'm actually a Fire Goddess, not at all cool, especially since I hit 50, but I digress.
Open concept, noisy and it got noisier as it got busier, but very chic
We sat at the Chef's Counter so we could watch - three chefs/cooks, each with their specialties, whipped together small plates and mains with astonishing speed and grace. They made it look easy, but it's not, neither is fighting the forces of evil but we try not to sweat: each dish was graced with home prepared everything, thoughtful and seasonal additions, sauces and sides, all done well in advance of service. Not cheating: brilliant. OK they answered our questions but they had to focus on their cooking, so they didn't actually engage with those sitting close by (but then again, sometimes it's weirdos like me that won't shut up that's the problem).
Chef's Counter - be sure to make a reservation!
We started with the Mustard Green Salad ($10), baby leaves topped with a few thin strips of celery, a sprinkle of whole spicy sweet walnuts, and a few generous shaves of Pecorino Romano all tossed with a delicate egg vinaigrette that pulled everything together nicely, balancing the bitterness of the greens and giving the whole a lovely mouth feel. A generous serving, this was a great plate to share.
Mustard Green Salad was probably my favorite part of the meal - fresh and lively and seasonal
Charred Fava Beans ($8) were offered gratis (something they are known to do) - spicy and oily and salty. I was told that the entire fuzzy pod with the slippery beans inside are edible, so I took a bite.  Woof!!!  The flavorings were so heavy that what you get on your fingers is enough to satisfy as you suck out the beans. OK this dish was messy, both fingers and detritus, but delicious, a great snack. I do NOT recommend this one if it's a hot date. Oh, it's served at room temp, FYI.
Fuzzy, ugly little things can be conquered by sucking out the fava beans inside
Moving on to the Grilled Cauliflower ($14) - heavily charred, also just barely above RT, topped with nuts and seeds and a "salsa verde" of sorts (bitter), on a pile of whipped feta cheese (OMG!) and a large spoonful of heady tomato jam. I loved that jam with bits and bites of everything on the plate - great combos, very creative.
Grilled Cauliflower was pre-cooked then finished on the grill
Yes, Octopus ($17). Large thick pieces like serpents tongues, simply floured, deep fried, salted, these supertender temptations were served up with a thick oily emulsion laced with pickled peppers and paprika, a couple of slices of charred onion, and a few slices of creamy roasted and tender new potato. O is hard to do well - Peck's nailed it.
Large pieces of perfectly tender deep fried octopus 
And what is dinner without bread!??? The House Bread ($5) was light and airy, super crispy crust, a huge half a boule with a side of salted butter and garlic confit (roasted whole garlic cloves and pickled mustard seeds) finished with a sprinkle of rosemary. Were we stuffed by this point? Yes. This Soft Serve has real potential when it comes to eating ME under the table, and we enjoyed every single bite.

The bread was amazing!!!
Oh, yeah!!!  Softee enjoyed a "craft ale" - Alesmith (a California IPA, $5) - cold out of the can and into her glass. The Idlewild Wine "The Flower" rose ($13/glass/Sonoma CA, a bit steep) was bone dry, crisp and light and lovely and simple against those competing flavors of our feast. What??? Of course, I had two. And a free little chocolate chip cookie at the end, courtesy of the kitchen.

Great food, gracious service, chic but still laid back, Peck's Arcade is an adventure in eating. Don't miss it next time you go exploring.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS:  They forgot the bread and comped us on this with an apology, quickly I might add. Man, you can't beat that kind of hospitality and service.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

What's the Buzz? Albany Craft Beer Festival 2017

A: The buzz is me and hundreds of other beer nerds on a recent Saturday afternoon at the Washington Avenue Armory attending the 2017 Albany Craft Beer Festival.
Once you're in you're in
So much beer, so little time. The Festival was only running from 100 to 400 pm on April 22, so CBM and I showed up on time ready to explore. And drink. She knows everything about beer, a real superhero in her own right, with almost 600 beers tasted on Untappd. I love my beer buddies, more with every beer, but I digress.
Not overcrowded, a casual hairy crowd of beer lovers
I wish we had planned ahead - I didn't know where to start - a few breweries we recognized but many we did not. A few ciders, lots of IPAs and double IPAs and bourbon aged beers, as well as sours, gose, scotch ales, and other delights, though not too many stouts. Many of the offerings are unavailable. Period. Except if you go to the festival or line up at the beverage store when there's a new release. And since there seemed to be no rhyme or reason for the arrangement of the space it was hard to find anything anyway. Drinking beer didn't help.
DD's get to drink excellent coffee from Stacks
And the offerings were not only heady, profound, unusual and intoxicating, they were a made for mindful consumption because, in addition, they were mostly highly alcoholic. We started with the Gogo's Shiso from Nine Pin, a light, dry cider developed in collaboration with City Beer Hall, laced with Asian mandarin, fresh shiso, and Matcha Tea from Short and Stout. That was lunch.
Gogo Shiso translates into "delicious"
The names were a hoot. Of course, being on the dating shit list for too long now, I had to try the C.H. Evans Handsome GuyPA (7.4% alkeehall).  It was handsome, hoppy, and shiny like some frog I may have to kiss to get my prince. 
Someday my prince will come
Finback (Ridgewood, NY) had Between the Sheets Dead Stout (9.5%) - it was a revelation, like tasting something amazing for the very first time, aged in bourbon barrels, it made my eyes open up and my brain say howdy, like the walking dead anyway, and I'm usually busy taking those guys out so it was interesting to feel for a moment what they feel like for a change, but again, I digress. This was a beautiful American double/imperial stout. 
The music was loud so I didn't feel like the walking dead for long
Gun Hill (Bronx, NY) was in on the barrel-aged thing as well, and their Void of Light (8.1%) was a stout for the stout at heart - cocoa, coconut, marshmallows, thick, and a subtle smokiness that always makes me happy. 

My favorite: the Schmaltz Brewing Company's Jewbelation '13, aged four years, 17 hops, 17 malts, and 17% alcohol. That little 3-oz glass suddenly made me feel all silly inside. Time to quit.
Friendly, knowledgeable brewers abound
Wait one more. Red Ale from Artisinal Brew Works (Saratoga Springs, NY). Always wonderful.
Proud of their work!
OK yeah yeah it was a $65 ticket to get in, but worth every nickel and then some. It kept the crowd serious, and kept the cheap zombies and even cheaper vampires away. It was, bar none (pun intended) the BEST beer event I've ever attended.
CBM and her little beer glass
And Zena, Goddess of Fire, was in need of quenching.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Charmed, I'm Sure: Scarboroughs Restaurant

Yep, another Friday, another tavern. A long busy week at work, head down, in bed late, up early, everything's good until someone ticks you off, you put on your cape and tights and run around trying to save the world then it's back to the mundane of cat litter and deer eating your tulips and really, how long has it been 3:00 o'clock???????????  Grrrrrrrrrrrr.  Traffic isn't moving, then someone cuts me off. Why is it that spring brings out the worst in drivers???
Large front patio 
Finally I arrive and find me a nice hard bar stool to set my bony arse and it's time to hang and chill with my good friend Stretch. Scarborough's Restaurant and Tavern, located just off Route 7 in Latham on the north side of the Albany International Airport, is almost charming, a word I don't use very often because it can sound snarky, but honestly, it's charming. There's a large patio out front with a view of the parking lot but you are actually surrounded by trees - very nice. Half of this large, wood frame building is a renovated home with party rooms you can reserve for free, and just inside there's a small bar area with a modest sized dining room off to the right with lots of booths. Business picks up as evening approaches, so be warned. The decor is homey, woodsy, dark, intimate and relatively quiet. 
Party rooms available - very homey
But for now, it's happy hour (4-7 p.m., weekdays). I got me a Brown's Brewery Vienna Lager for just $3/pint - sweet, clean, not too bubbly, just like me. The house chardonnay ($4/happy hour), Nathanson Creek, was a bit off, so instead Stretch went for the Seaglass Sauvignon Blanc ($7). The wine menu isn't much to rave about but there are a few good beers on tap, nothing fancy, as well as a appetizer specials ($5/each) - very budget friendly.
Attractive bar 
And the food hardly needs to be described if you think "tavern": predictable, nothing terribly creative, dynamic, exotic, themed, experimental, or high-end, but there are a few tasty spins and reaches worth exploring, and the food is pretty darn good. Fried mozz sticks, spinach salad, tasty burgers, some specialty sandwiches, and a few dinners - something for everyone, including gluten free pasta on request. Last week we just ordered apps. I had the wings (half order $6) - these were very tender, not crispy at all, nice sauce - lightly spicy, rich blue cheese dipping sauce, fresh celery sticks and totally carrot free (harumph). 

Good wings, could be crispier, carrot free
Stretch had the Mango Pork Nachos ($11) - light crispy fresh corn chips buried in smoky pulled pork and topped with melted real cheddar, a few diced veg like corn and red onions, and chunks of cold mango. It was NOT attractive, but tasty, though impossible to eat and be dainty. The corn chips couldn't handle the load on top, they just broke off onto the plate off the fork and onto the counter and my lap and the floor. Shoveling it into my mouth worked. There was enough here to feed two hungry girls for sure, even with drinkie poos. 
The Mango Pork Nachos were not attractive, but it was very tasty and there was plenty to share
An older crowd with money to spend, I think Scarboroughs can up the ante as far as the menu is concerned, but I'm not complaining - reliable, affordable, properly prepared.  As always, the venue and good service go a long way toward ending the work week right. 

Zena, Goddess of Fire
Charmed, I'm sure