Saturday, December 21, 2013

DOING DISHES: Part IV of V - Dinner at Provence

I've been eating out a lot, and eating a lot, these past two weeks. After a small but nasty virus took down the Goddess of Fire for Thanksgiving, I now have my appetite back, and my friends are less afraid of me now since I'm not hacking and spitting all the time. Tis the season.  A vos souhaits!, santé!

With a new menu after years of the same ol' same ol', it was a pleasure to dine again at Provence, located in Stuyvesant Plaza on Western Avenue in Guilderland, NY.  Foodie Friend and I took Subaru out to celebrate her birthday. So of course we started with the wine list. Voudriez-vous un autre verre de vin?
The bar near the entry at Provence

Provence offers up a varied selection of over 150 wines, mostly priced by the bottle but with enough to choose from to order up by the glass/es. I'd say they were very reasonably priced, most at the lower end of $7.00 to $12.00 each. I indulged in a couple of glasses of Georges Deboeuf Beaujolais nouveau 2014, a nice light, dry and sort of one-dimensional goes-with-everything kind of young wine, while Subaru enjoyed Santi Sortesele Pinot Grigio from Veneto, Italy. This was also rather light, not too dry or sweet (well balanced, unlike us after glass #2). Both glasses were a generous pour. FF decided on a Bombay Sapphire martini, sans vermouth. The server forgot to ask her what she wanted for a garnish when she took our first order, but returned promptly with a skewered snack of three fat green olives. It made FF shine. Elle brille comme le soleil.

Looking at the menu I'd say that now it is a little less French and a bit more Mediterranean, including a nice selection of a dozen or so tapas, including Petit Cassoulet and Assorted Spicy Olives. In addition to this were a choice of six appetizers (all very French except for Lobster Mac & Cheese, which I  thought was a weird item to find on this kind of menu), a raw bar selection, and five or six simple side salads. Also a nice selection of specials. If I remember right, in the same ol' same ol' good old days the emphasis here was on the entrees, and it wasn't AT ALL vegetarian friendly. With a couple of exceptions all of the entree items (these are still very French, actually) can be ordered as a regular or small portion, with quite a few meatless options.  Overall the new menu really gives the diner an opportunity to explore the menu and eat a nice variety without overeating. Which we did anyway. Est-ce que je peux respirer dans ces pantalons serrés?

We started with six oysters on the halfshell, shared three ways. Four were from north shore Nova Scotia, including Wallace Bay and Tatamagouche (which I had to pronounce properly for our server), and two were from Connecticut (we assumed Hartford, which was good for a quick giggle). They were served on a bed of ice with a garlicky vinaigrette and a classic cocktail sauce on the side, as well as several nice big hunks of fresh lemon (nicely trimmed back of seeds and skin so I didn't squirt anyone). The oysters were all pretty large, but the two from CT were the largest. Everything tasted clean and fresh, no sand, nice and cold, and the sauces were tasty. A very nice start. Délicieux.

The next course was, for me, the centerpiece, since it was Reason #2, after celebrating a birthday, for dining at Provence, and that was to try their mussels. This is Restaurant #4 and the last (for now) in our Doing Dishes series on mussels (see our previous posts for reviews of Garden Bistro 24, The Merry Monk, and The Bier Abbey). Next month we try our hand at making them at home (with wine by the bottle this time!). Maybe a sleepover.... Est-ce que je peux transmettre maintenant?

My mobile phone did me in again and the picture I took of the mussels, while I made everyone wait, is not in my gallery. I'm waiting for FF to send me a shot, if she has it. Merde. (You probably can translate that one without too much trouble). HA! She has the shot. Here it is:

The Moules Marinieres were "a la creme", sitting in a rich and decadent sauce made with the classic combination of white wine and shallots and a few herbs (and supposedly tomato). Served with a couple of slices of toasted cornbread, we dug in heartily. I can't imagine the chef cooking the mussels in this type of sauce - it would just water it down. Thick, creamy, and delicious, it clung nicely to the mussel meat and to our palettes. The serving was on the appetizer menu but it was a generous one-pounder with lots of sauce and would be a perfect entree for us petite superheroes. The mussels were tender, fresh, clean and absolutely divine. Hey, we found a tomato bit!!! Until we do our "official" comparison of mussels in our local eateries I have to say I thought these were really the best. Squirters!!! (There's no translation for this. Really.)

Following this I enjoyed a bowl of the Soup de Jour of the day, a thick concoction of potato, Manchego cheese, apples and bacon. Warm and yummy, a bit salty but that's to be expected. Why stop now??? I also enjoyed a Salade Maison - simple greens, lightly dressed, and a Goat Cheese & Sun-Dried Tomato Tartlette. The tart pastry kind of stuck in my mouth and dried it out, I don't know why, but it was rich and otherwise delicious. Puis-je boire plus de vin maintenant?

By this time things were a bit blurry - it's not you!

Foodie Friend ordered the Lobster Mac & Cheese and said it was really good - a nice size (small) serving, perfect for something that would be overwhelming as a large portion. The sauce was almost a Bechamel, not too cheesy, not too viscous, so the flavor of the lobster and the herbs really came through. Topped with a light crust of panko, she enjoyed it with her Salade Maison as her "main course". (In Nova Scotia please note that le homard sont des bogues.)

Subaru ordered a small portion of the Steak Frites. The sauce, a bordelaise, was delicious served with her perfectly cooked hanger steak. The meat was tender and the serving also came with a side of veggies. The small serving was still ample, more than enough for most mere mortals, I think. The frites were a bit soggy, however, but they tasted good. Je n'ai jamais rencontré un français fry je n'aurais pas manger.

Why stop now!!! We finished with a dessert of Chocolate Marquis, a semi frozen layer cake with both dark and milk chocolate mousses with an almond shortbread crust. Beautiful, avec candle, and delicious. (What is the plural of mousse???)

It's a busy time of year in the restaurants and our Friday night at Provence was no exception. At 5:30 we checked our coats and settled in - the place was still pretty quiet. Two hours later the bar was 8 people deep and most tables were occupied. It's a professional crowd, kind of classy, a drink after work sort of feeling, but with a few tired shoppers there was still a casual presence to the place. It's very pretty, nicely decorated, large, low light. Around 8:00 we were entertained by a lounge lizard two-man band. That was a bit loud for conversation, so on music night if you are trying to communicate with other humans without waving your hands a lot and shouting you might want to ask for a table in the back. Unless you are French, then waving your arms a lot and shouting are just fine. (Quelles ??? Veuillez répéter!)

Yes, ate out again. It was good. Merveilleux!

Zena, Goddess of Fire

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Fantasies of Good Restaurants

Recently the owner of a couple of restaurants on Lark Street closed them and added a bit of snark about trying to operate in a hostile neighborhood that wouldn't let his businesses stay open until 4am, so he couldn't make any money.  Or something like that.  In my opinion, the reason there was no good money  flowing into his restaurants was because there was no good food. Honestly, the last time I ordered a cheese plate in the semi-classy place, I got something that was a couple pieces of sliced baguette that was more like styrofoam than bread, a 1/2 lb. pile of orange "cheddar", chopped into random teensy pieces and dumped into an unappealing pile and some hugely dirty-looking ugly grapes.  There was enough to feed a drunken party of four, who probably wouldn't have noticed how ugly it was because drunk.

In any event, when Steve Barnes over at the Table Hopping blog posted the notice about the closing and asked people what kind of restaurant would be a good replacement on that block, the regular angry commenters got into their regular tedious fight over Lark Street bars and neighborhood weenies, and so the question was left largely unanswered by decent thoughtful folks who want the street to be a good place to hang out.

Since I live in the neighborhood, I'm very interested in what kind of restaurants and bars are starting up here.  The places vacated are big and I heard they have a shared kitchen between them, which may have a weird impact on what kind of business can survive there. So I'm trying to let my fantasies blossom and have some interesting ideas that could take up a space with multiple stories, multiple fronts and a shared kitchen.

What I see is nooks for seating and at least three different styles.  I think Albany has probably seen our little heydey of shushi, but we definitely need to see a lot more Asian cuisines, so I think the next thing should be noodles.  There are way too many kinds of noodles we haven't experienced yet here in the Capital Region and the kind of spaces in this business complex would be good. I'm beginning to look at pho myself, so of course I'd like to see that, but there are too many other kinds for me to leave it at just pho. After recently indulging at the new dumpling house in town I'm thinking dumplings as well.  There can never be too many good handmade dumplings.

It's  surprising that Lark Street doesn't have a good big deli.  I mean deli. I mean Jewish deli with blintzes and knishes and whitefish salad and matzah ball soup and huge cakes of halvah. Maybe some imported smoked meat. So along with the noodle shop I can see a big deli counter. The deli could also be where people start  the morning with coffee and breakfast bagels.

A brewery wouldn't be a bad thing. Lark Street could use one, in my not so humble opinion. Especially if it's combined with a deli. Beer and killer deli sandwiches is an unfilled niche.

And we could see more ideas from the Middle East like those offered by the Oasis Cafe, which needs a better home.

So perhaps what I'm proposing is that somehow a group of chefs and owners work it out and use the space to intermingle or to design it so that each cuisine has space.

What's your restaurant fantasy for Lark Street?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Pho at Saiguette

One would think that a hick from Albany wouldn't end up at 106th and Columbus Ave. in Manhattan eating pho, but I had help from The Village Voice.  Thanks to Google I entered "pho upper west side" and got a Village Voice article about the 10 best restaurants. Apparently it's not a neighborhood known for good eating, however the food writer in question waxed enthusiastic. With that tip I took off walking to Saiguette, determined to try this little seven-seater joint.  I'm soooooo glad I did.

It comes as a kit.  I ordered brisket and eye of round.  This time I squeezed the lime juice over everything before pouring the broth and it was a good thing to do.

The broth is served plenty hot enough to cook the beef.  I rhapsodize over this broth because it is robust and delicious.  As you may guess, if you haven't eaten a lot of pho, it's the broth that determines everything. This had an aroma of anise and ginger with a good balance of salty fish sauce. Otherwise pho is just a list of very plain ingredients and some chilis. This broth is on the salty side, which I find to really bring everything together and not leave the noodles behind as a pile of plain rice starch.

After slurping off the broth, this final group of meat, sprouts and chili is ready to devour with the last of the hoisin and sriracha.

Then one waddles out, wholly satisfied and warm into the December afternoon.

I'm looking forward to re-tasting local pho and trying what I haven't yet tasted to see where the good stuff is in our region.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Harvard MOOC

When I'm not out saving the world from the forces of evil, working, keeping the house tidy or spending too much time at my local Y trying to stay fit enough to keep the world safe from the forces of evil, avoiding work, and making sure I still have the energy to keep the house tidy, I am taking a course, a MOOC, through Harvard University called SPU27x Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science. It is harder than saving the world from the forces of evil, working, keeping the house tidy, and working out at the Y (uh, not that superheroes NEED to exercise, of course). But I  know that our BRAINS need to workout, too, so we can save the world from the... well, you know. Whatever. So I'm getting old and puzzles are supposed to be a good thing.

Like many superheroes, Zena has a background in art, chemistry, and information science, as well as being half Greek and loving food and wine and eating. I am taking the "food challenge", and except for my arch-enemy, MATH, it's been a great ride. I'm halfway through this 10 week course and I'm clearly spending way too much time ruminating over how to flip an equation around to solve for E (Energy, something the Goddess of Fire has too much of these days. Don't offer me caffeine unless you have some kind of death wish). Anyway, it has been incredibly interesting and challenging - I've learned a lot, some of it really useful to mortal home cooks and mostly very fundamental to superhero chefs. This is what we've done so far.

Unit 1: Introduction. I calibrated my oven by melting sugar only to discover it was running 44 degrees F below the set point, that I didn't know how to change my scale to metric (got it by now, thanks), and that I can now calculate the number of molecules of glutenin in chocolate chip cookies. This was all very useful.

Unit 2: Understanding the concept of "specific heat" and calories (too many equals large butt, FYI), what sous vide cooking is (little portions of food cooked in a vacuum pack in a water bath set at a precise temperature), and that the perfect egg sets at 64 degrees C. Oh, and how to make ricotta cheese, which has a lot to do with temperature and pH. I am now officially a superpower because I can transform milk (and vinegar) into cheese, which I transformed into an amazing lasagna dish, which has specific heat that can enlarge butts unless you are spending time saving the world or burning excess Joules at the Y.

Unit 3: Phase changes, like being a Librarian by day and Zena, Goddess of Fire by night. I learned what a rotovap was, but who cares, that adding salt increases the boiling and decreases the freezing point of water, and how to make ice cream in a baggie because you've had to much to drink to go to Stewart's for a chocolate depression fix. NOW you can make it using a few simple ingredients ON HAND. It was really delicious. Zena, Goddess of Fire, plays with ice. Served that up with wild blueberry syrup, frozen blackberries, and walnuts. Yes, went out and did overtime in the field that night!

Unit 4: Elasticity. Think squishing things, like the vermin that contribute to crime in our nation, or the doneness of steak. When you cook things using heat their "elastic modulus" changes. I calculated how cooking tofu effects its elasticity. But let's face it - tofu is just plain squishy. Next unit.

Unit 5: Gelation, Spherification and Diffusion: L equals the square root of 4Dt. It took me 2 hours to figure out that the solve for t the easiest was to do it was to square both sides of the equation. I tried the scrambled egg technique for making "wobbly" eggs and they were as good as anyone with a hangover can appreciate. The lab was to make ceviche and to measure hydrogen ion movement via lime juice into the protein. This is not interesting. But the ceviche that I made (see recipe, below) was amazing. Thanks, Cookie, for again being a willing victim of my food prowess.

Unlike most of my MOOC classmates that are also finding MATH to be their arch-enemy and a lot to take on, I have taken the extra zillion hours to refresh my skills and solve for x. And I don't mean my X, FYI. I am determined to get my certificate from Harvard and brag that I not only work hard to protect the world but I can also make the perfect steak AND figure out how many hours I need to spend at the Y, or saving the world, in order to work off those extra calories.Next lab: molten chocolate cake. Very dangerous. I'm ready!

1/2 pound saltwater fish, sushi grade, cut into 3/4" inch cubes (cod is good) [Fin is the place to go for quality fish in the Albany area]
1 cup fresh lime juice (from about 6 limes)
1/4 cup finely diced red onion
1/4 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped
1/2 cup fresh chopped tomato
1/4 t salt
1 T chopped jalapeno pepper
1/2 avocado, diced 
tortilla chips

Denature the proteins in the fish by soaking in the lime juice for 1-2 hours. Drain. Combine onion, parsley, tomato, EVOO, salt and jalapeno pepper in a medium size bowl. Gently stir in drained fish. Top with avocado and serve with chips. Open a bottle of wine and enjoy, preferably with a good friend like Cookie, who puts up with my foodie thing, who agreed it was OMG delicious!

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS: We also learned about chocolate having a temper, or something along those lines. Nice to know it isn't just me. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Ladies and Sea Dogs

We tasted salt.  We had fancy schmanzy salt and regular table salt.

If you google salt tasting you can get a whole bunch of really good ideas regarding how to go about this.  Of course with Zena, Goddess of Fire as your tasting companion you’re going to do it with a little bit of flare, so we mixed it up with our regular appointment and did a pop up tasting at our hair stylist’s salon.

Just a moment about our Hair Stylist at High Maintenance Hair Studio:  She’s top notch. We recommend her for all your hair styling needs, manicures, pedicures – the whole shebang.  And she does a mean salt tasting too.

Of course salt is salty. But when you do your salt tasting you’ll realize that there’s more to it than that.  That’s why you do a tasting.

This is our tasting list:

Morton fine table salt 
Balene  coarse sea  salt – France
Morton fine iodized salt  
Alea coarse red Hawaii
Morton fine sea salt  
Guava lime smoked - Hawaii
Potassium Chloride
Gray coarse sea salt [unrefined] France
Saharan Desert  fine salt
Fine rock salt [unrefined] – Utah

fyi Morton Salt has a map of where they get salt:

We added bread, butter and cucumbers to get a sense of  what the salts taste like with various foods. You can add as many foods as you like, but since we were doing a pop up tasting in a salon we kept it minimal. I think we had more than plenty of salts for one tasting. Since we only had three people I put all the little salt piles on the small square plate and set all the bags and containers with labels around the plate to show what was what. If you have a lot of people you probably want a much more spacious arrangement so that everyone can reach everything. I’d recommend that if you’re going to taste this many salts that you give yourself plenty of time and something to eat and drink in order to give your mouth a rest. Salt is strong.

Once the tasting began it was all exclamations of various kinds and speculation regarding how we’d  use each one.  Everyone was interested to find out how differently the salts taste from one another.  This is why you want to get your friends to bring over some different salts and have a tasting yourself.  Be adventurous. Since salt doesn’t spoil you can try some of those really expensive ones and divvy them out one sprinkle at a time for special occasions. Invite a goddess because that always makes the event special.


The biggest surprise for me was the potassium chloride – woah.  That is some potent salt.  Definitely taste before you use it because it will easily ruin your food if you apply it like ordinary salt.  It is often used as a salt substitute for people who don't want to use sodium as an additive to food.

We all liked the Alea Red Hawaiian and would use it for all kinds of things. In the photo you can see how we sprinkled it on a little bread and butter.  I liked trying them with both the bread and butter and then the cucumber. The moisture in the raw cucumber produced a specific effect.

Zena, Goddess of Fire, recommends the guava lime smoked salt for margarita glass rims.  To me the coarse salts provided a more intense experience and the fine salts spread across my tongue very quickly. You will find out for yourself the very interesting effects of each kind, so get out there and get tasting and let us know what you find.

Monday, November 18, 2013

From the Garden: Take Two

With a nod to the Profusser, I agree that one pass at a restaurant isn't enough to really get a feel for what it has to offer, even if you are a superhero (or a paid critic with an expense account). So I accepted an invitation to return to From the Garden on Lark Street here in Albany to see if I had any more thoughts about the experience compared to my first posting.

We made a reservation. All they had on Saturday night was 5:30. There was no one there when we arrived. They opened at 5:00. That was curious.

My friend Cookie agreed that the dining room was dingy.

When we got seated the waiter asked if we had been there before. Cookie said it was her first time. The owner, manager, host, sommelier and server asked us the same question as he poured our first of what would be three wine pairings for tonight's menu. I was glad they offered that right away, unlike the first time, when we ordered wine when we sat down because nothing came to the table until we were served a first course.

Not that we had a clue yet what was being served. This is what they had online for the week:

Anyway, the first wine was a Vermentino from Sardinia, although I didn't see the label. I was spared the long lecture about the wine - he was informative but not verbose. Spicy, crisp, very floral, served cold, it was quickly followed by a potato and leek soup (all ingredients from the Eight Mile Creek Farm in Westerlo, NY - a USDA Certified Organic farm that also won the Agricultural Environmental Management award in Albany for it's "outstanding stewardship of the land", which is cool). A nice size serving, easily three times what I got the last time, and it was very tasty, a nice texture, a bit salty but not too much so for most mortals. Hints of ginger and a new spice we couldn't place. The chef introduced us to a sample at table side of something called "braai" from South Africa, but I'm still not sure what it is. It's a blend of some sort and I'm sure there are many. She was very nice. This is what I found in wikipedia:
  • The word braai (plural braais) is Afrikaans for "barbecue" or "grill" and is a social custom in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Zambia. The term originated with the Afrikaans-speaking people,[1] but has since been adopted by South Africans of many ethnic backgrounds. 

I hate when I forget to snap a pic before eating. Yes, we were both hungry!!!

Next we got the artisan salad - a couple of big fat grapes, two thin apple slices, and a bed of romaine and red cabbage with a slice of white radish, a couple of small celery and carrot sticks on top plus a sprinkling of sunflower seeds. The dressing, were were told, was made with pear, apples and a Japanese mustard. A nice size salad, fresh and crunchy, but very plain,. There was too little dressing to coat the salad ingredients, and with no oil it didn't cling at all. Here a bit of salt would have been most welcome. There was none on the table. I forgot to take a picture, but it was very pretty.

We then got a couple of small toasts and a Greek olive tapenade with some black olives from Astoria, Queens that the owner, manager, host, sommelier, and server said he'd never seen before, but we didn't get a name. It was tasty. This was served with a Torrontés (Rioja?) from Argentina, a white wine again served cold; very aromatic and light, perfect with the salty olive mix.

The third wine pairing was a deep red Italian dolcetto. The owner, manager, host, sommelier, and server told us it comes from a special small grape made with its stems, making it very dry, and that this bottle was so good (again, I didn't get to see the label) that he had a bunch shipped over special (of bottles, not grapes) . It was DIVINE, dry, rich, delicious. It was, however, poured into a USED tasting glass. The restaurant by this time was filling up. Maybe they didn't have enough little glasses to go around. We ordered another glass each - the guy certainly knows his wine!

Main course: "Tender Confit", this time made with both duck and chicken, a long cooking process summarily described but I missed why chicken, served over a big mound of rice, with two crispy potato chips (cooked in duck fat?), and a side of roasted veggies. Tasty, too much rice, but without it the plate may have looked skimpy. A bit too salty for my tastes, served with a liquid not unlike how the bratwurst was braised the first time I ate here, sans caraway seeds. It was good, tender, and again, not terribly creative or attractive. And it wasn't hot when it was served. Cookie said she would have liked it hot.

Finally, a chocolate sorbet for dessert. Cookie doesn't do chocolate late in the day so one of the servers (there were three by this time) offered her an apple pie sorbet (made from apples from Indian Ladder) and I got to eat both of the chocolate ones. Heaven. Really rich but dairy free. Gotta like that.

We had a Living Social coupon, $40 for $80 worth of food with the wine pairing. I emailed the Thursday before and asked how much it was for dinner and the reply was "alternates between $25 -30 per person". We were charged $40. When I asked about the price I was told that it's because the duck is a lot of preparation, and I'm thinking "Hey, I paid $40 for the bratwurst the last time I visited and no one can tell me THAT preparation is time consuming or that the ingredients are overly expensive". I kept my mouth shut. AND they knew on Thursday what they were serving on Saturday so they could have told me in the email OR when I sat down that the cost would be $40. But here's the clincher: there are NO PRICES listed anywhere - not online, not on a printed menu, not on a table card, not on a chalkboard, no where. So do they just charge what they feel like charging? Did we get charged $40 because of the coupon? I'm not sure, and I don't mean to e a bee-ach, but I think this is just a wee bit unscrupulous.

The food is pretty darn good, not great, not abundant (no leftovers possible, but that's OK - like the Profusser's posting noted above,  I don't want to waste my money on leftovers, which always suck the next day anyway). It is healthy, and local, and the wine is amazing. But until they clean up the dining room, find some linen napkins, buy a few more glasses, and print a real menu I don't think I'll be returning any time soon. Not even with the coupons.

Zena Goddess of Fire

(They hand-wrote "Suggested 18% Gratuity $18.27" on the bill. I think that's tacky.)

Monday, November 11, 2013

DOING DISHES:The Mussels Series, Part III of V: The Bier Abbey

I hate when I read "professional" reviews of bar food in the local paper. Bars are bars and we generally go there for beer and OK tasting eats which we hope are cheap, and we don't go in with high expectations. And if the food sucks no one really cares that much, they just won't order food the next time. Most bars aren't trying to impress us as much as fill our tummies so we don't stumble too much when we head out the door at last call. It's just a bar, OK?

On Thursday last week FF and I went to Schenectady, NY to try mussels at The Bier Abbey, and they fit my low-bar profile of bar food, though to their credit they are trying to give a Belgian twist to the usual fare of burgers and wings.

The Bier Abbey is located in a neat row of cool old buildings with bars and restaurants along one section of Union Street near Union College. There's a small parking lot on the corner - the lot was full, so even on a quiet night I had to park my hyperoverdrive superturbo Honda Civic on the street. Entering the restaurant through oversize rattley double doors led us into what was probably an old house, with the parlor on the right that can be closed off for a private party, and a large seating area to the left. You can move to the back of the restaurant through a corridor that also leads to the loo and kitchen, or through the busy bar, with a few booths nearby. The backity-back is set up  like a sports bar with a 10,000,000 square foot (approx.) flat screen TV. We took a booth because we like to eat with our feet on the floor. The benches were hard and the table was too far away from the bench to be comfortable - leaving us to lean into our food all through the meal. Overall the decor, look and feel of the joint was wonky and cheap. They did have real cloth napkins though, which I appreciated.No students, mostly guys drinking beer. No surprises there.

OK it's just a bar, right??? So we started with a beer order, of course. The Bier Abbey has a nice long selection of beers from all over the U.S. and we didn't know quite where to start, so we ordered a few created closer to home, then included one more that our server recommended. We had four 4-ounce beers so we could sample, with the price running $2.00 or $2.50 each. These included (reading left to right in the photo, below) New England Galaxy, an American pale ale from Woodbridge, CT (cloudy, tan, stinky, and bitter); Dales Pale Ale from Oskar Blues in Lyons, CO (my personal favorite - smooth, light amber); a Scotch Ale from Smuttynose in Portsmouth, NH (sweet - tasted like scotch!); and De Levende Doden from Rushing Duck in Chester, NY - a Belgian porter with cherries (rich and chocolatey with a smell of coffee off the top), which FF very much enjoyed. I wish I could find their beer listing online.

FOOD: FF and I ordered the "Classic Mariner" style mussels, prepared with shallots, garlic and wheat bier ($12 for 2 pounds). Also a spinach salad with candied walnuts (not too sweet), pickled onions (very interesting), fresh sliced strawberry (lovely color), and lumps of goats milk cheese (salty and creamy) all dressed with a raspberry vinaigrette. It was a really lovely salad, and a nice generous serving ($8). Our server brought the mussels then the salad. It's a bar, right??? But the food came quickly, so that tells me the kitchen and waitstaff are pretty well organized. I immediately asked for more bread to soak up the broth, and FF asked for spoons to taste it alone. The spoons were also handy for dividing up the salad. We got our extra bread right away and set to tasting.

The mussels were a disappointment. The sauce tasted a bit bitter and overly salty when tasted alone - there was NO sweetness as you might find in a wine sauce. Maybe we were also tasting the mussels more because the sauce was subdued, which meant I tasted more than a few mussels that were very fishy and that I superhero burped fishy as the evening progressed, telling me that they were NOT all that fresh when they were thrown in the pot. And the toasts ended up heavily doused in garlic salt, which, if I had known, I would have asked for the extra to be plain. It tasted like GARLIC SALT. So did everything by the end of the meal. And fishy. I'm glad we had strawberries to cleanse the palette. A lemon wedge might have been a nice touch on an otherwise boring plate. Next time I'll order the burger, just to be on the safe side.

If you read this blog to the end you are doing better than me. It's a bar and it was just OK. Who cares??? I don't know, but it was good to get out of Albany for a change. And heck, what superpower doesn't want to go on the occasional adventure to deepest, darkest Schenectady?

Zena, Goddess of Fire

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Into the Fire: Mio Vino Wine Bar & Bistro

I spent the afternoon of a half-rainy Saturday in Thacher State Park with my friend Cookie, hiking all over the place, eating hazelnuts we stole from the squirrels, and munching on pears fallen from long forgotten trees. We were feeling sustainable and green, which of course modern superpowers do ALL THE TIME.

And though our feet don't get cold and we don't wear out and we don't fall on slippery rocks and actually admit it, I was sure my mortal friend Cookie was tired and hungry so I suggested we go to Mio Vino Wine Bar & Bistro in nearby Altamont for an early dinner. I offered to send a telepathic message but instead she used her mobile to text Stretch, who met us at the bar just after 5:00. We couldn't get a table, since we didn't have a reservation, but that was fine. The bar area was very comfortable and it wasn't being used as an overcrowded holding pen for people waiting for a regular table. Warm and cozy.

Mio Vino is located on the corner of Main and Maple, across from the old train station in this picturesque rural upstate NY town sited just below the Helderbergs. Really charming. Opened in late 2011, Mio Vino is the only place in Altamont where you can go out and buy a drink.

And the neighbors noticed. This was a yuppie crowd - no beer in sight, a few cocktails, and WINE on every table. I looked through a few walls into the adjoining small dining areas and the same was true throughout. Voted "Best Wine List" in the Capital Region in 2013, Mio Vino has an upscale menu with a sophisticated following away from the low hum of downtown Albany.

When we arrived I noticed the street had the sweet smell of wood smoke - it made me feel really joyful, because I am the Goddess of Fire. I know, whatever. Anyway, their delightful offerings include wood fired pizzas, build your own or order one of the half dozen or so combos, some of which I tried last spring on a Friday night when it's FREE pizza at the bar from 400 to 600 p.m.

We felt relaxed after our afternoon of raw food, ready for something less virtuous. And a drink! Our server introduced himself and so did we - he was very sweet, professional and charming all at once. He messed up my name the first time but I told him he could call me Zena, Goddess of Fire, if that was easier to remember. We ordered a bottle of 2010 Belasco Llama Malbec from Argentina, but were served a 2012 Old Vine, also by Belasco. When I pointed out the difference our server told us that the vintages are subject to change by the purveyors, but I still think patrons should be forewarned. Anyway, the wine was delicious - heady, smooth and fruity. Not much of a deal by the bottle, however - $9/glass or $34/bottle saves you maybe $2 - but nothing to get all fired up about, I guess. We ended up ordering a second bottle of wine between the three of us. A lovely bottle for sure.

The menu isn't long but has a nice range of choices, including small plates, salads, fish, carne (the only part of the menu in Italian, which was kinda funny), sandwiches and pizza. The variety means that just about anyone can get what they want, even just a burger for you burger fans out there. The small plates included Seared Tuna Tacos, Spinach and Artichoke Dip, as well as Danish Pork Ribs and Risotto Cakes. I decided for my main meal to order the mussels ($12) from the small plates section of the menu. They were prepared with garlic, Pinot Grigio, pancetta, fresh basil and tomato in a light cream spinach pesto sauce. This with a few slices of sourdough was, for me, a perfect repast. The mussels (a full pound, I'm guessing) were sweet, incredibly tender (even soft!), garlicky and served nice and hot. Delicious. Not part of our official Doing Dishes tasting series but they could have been. Definitely a contender.

The garlic knots served in the bread basket were divine - warm, cheesy, greasy and truly addictive. By this time I had forgotten about the nuts in the park and concentrated instead on my nutty friends.

Stretch and Cookie both ordered sandwiches, served with a side salad. Stretch had the Curry Chicken Sandwich ($11), a masala spiced chicken with celery, raisins and walnuts in a curried mango chutney mayo between warm naan. She said it was good,  not too spicy (could have been spicier but assumed it was milder to hit more mainstream tastes). The chicken salad, however, was cold - which wasn't bad, it just wasn't expected to be. The menu didn't say anything. Not cool.

Cookie enjoyed the Seared Ahi Tuna Sandwich ($14), made with hoisin-glazed tuna encrusted with black and white sesame seeds on a brioche bun. The bun was dark like a pretzel, shiny, and delicious; the tuna was perfectly seared, still nicely pinky-red in the center, tender and tasty. 

She had been here earlier in the week and ordered a beet salad served with poached pears, gorgonzola and candied walnuts, with the dressing on the side. She and her buddy both thought the salad had a musty taste, and even though they deconstructed the elements and tasted each they couldn't figure out where the funny flavors were coming from. Tonight, the ladies each had a side of Mio Salad (mixed green), served with a house dressing. OK, simple, and guess what? YES, it still tasted musty to both me and Cookie, but Stretch didn't seem to mind the taste. We were wondering if there was some herb in the mesclun mix that wasn't complimenting the flavors overall. Although I am a superpower I apparently am missing some small ability to taste cilantro, so to me it tastes soapy. The mystery remains unsolved on the salad.

By 630 the restaurant was full, including the bar. Some folks were eating, some just having a mixed drink or a glass of wine. The setting is low light (too dark at the bar, though, to read the menu - we used the flashlight apps on our mobile phones to see by [well, I could see it because of my incredible superpowers but my mortal friends needed a bit of illumination and I was happy to use the latest technology to help out]). Open T, W, R, Sunday 500 to 900 pm and F, Sat 500 to 1000 pm this is not a place to rock the night away. The kitchen and staff are focused only on offering a good dinner and a nice glass of wine in a comfortable,welcoming environment and, I think, they have succeeded nicely.

We stayed for a couple of hours and definitely plan to return. Dinner for three was $130 including tax and tip, most of which was wine money well spent. And the waiter even remembered my name (see above ) - very impressive!

Zena Goddess of Fire

PS: Why is there a TV on in the bathroom???? That was definitely weird.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Food Snobs With Jobs

I was in a crummy mood, better known as feeling downright bitchy, and I needed a lift. I've been bored with work, my workouts, and fighting the forces of evil. But I had a Groupon coupon for From the Garden , a relatively new restaurant on Lark Street in downtown Albany, and was taking my Foodie Friend out to celebrate her unbirthday. I was really looking forward to our night out.

Down a few stairs to enter the restaurant. Albany seems big on these lower level dugouts.

From the Garden is the latest in a string of "farm-to-table" restaurants in the Albany area. They have opted to offer a very limited menu, changing it weekly and in tune with the seasons, and also changing around how it is available for table service. This week is their "Harvest Menu" - a five-course tasting menu with wine. Let me restate that. Uh, well, there's a menu online but none in the dining room, not even on a chalkboard or a tent card, and, uh, even the main course online was not what we had for our entree, and, uh, except for a vegetarian entree option there weren't any choices, and again, I didn't notice any PRICES anywhere, and, um, yes it was a "tasting menu" because all but the entree was but a taste, and, ahem, three 1.5 ounce wine pours that weren't offered when we were seated left us immediately ordering another glass of wine each to start. Water poured finally. A bug flying around FF because the door was propped open because it was hot in there because the kitchen is open right into the tiny dining room. Did I mention I was feeling bitchy to begin with???

The seats were hard, no linens, tap water with lemon, weird lady from the street wandering in to check out the "menu". After a pretty long conversation with our owner, manager, host, sommelier and server about the wine offerings (Italian Red, Full Bodied Red, Sweet White and Crisp White was all that was listed on the board) FF and I each chose a wine that we thought we'd like with the main course, bratwurst (not pork roast). I had a glass of crisp white, this night a Spanish Barbadillo , a viura white varietal. Not cold but cooler than room temperature, and tasty but featureless - just like me! That being said our owner, manager, host, sommelier came back to the table with the Full Bodied Red and asked me what I thought of my Crisp White. Apparently if you are a cool European you drink your white wine at RT and it's plain taste is what would make it a good wine with all food. Hmmmmm. But it was lovely. I guess the next time I open a magnum of Cavit Pinot Grigio, which I was told Italians DON'T DRINK, I will not wait to chill it, which I don't anyway because I need a drink NOW, and will just drink it warm. So will my friends so they can also be cool like me.

FF had a red blended wine from Ancient Peaks Winery in California that was also very nice - round, dense, opaque, and slightly tart and spicy (just like her!).

Great wines so far. The first course: butternut squash soup with ginger and pear - tasty, a bit too salty, three slurps.

A flight board with three glasses is presented to each of us and the owner, manager, host, sommelier and server poured our first wine tasting for between courses. This was le Salse, an Italian Verdicchio, a very light white, a Pinot Grigio style varietal but NOT so it was cool. Delicious. Perfect with the second course, a nice salad of delicate greens, sliced pear, cabbage slaw and a vinaigrette with apple cider and garlic. Fresh, tasty, pretty - very delicious also.

Wine #2: a Spanish Rioja, Cinastia Vivanco, a crianza (oaked for 12 months). Tart and a bit peppery. That's what owner, manager, host, sommelier and server said and we agreed. Very tasty.

Course #3: mini waffles with pumpkin, one savory, one sweet. Three bites each. Yummers. I ate with my fingers.

The entrees (Course #4) was a beer braised bratwurst from some dude in Newburgh, NY served with a pear relish and rice, topped with the braising liquid that included onions, caraway, raisins and, uh, potatoes. Very perfumey, the bratwurst was perfectly soft, silken, juicy and greasy and the relish and dab of grainy mustard were a perfect foil. The rice with the potatoes was a bit weird. The plate wasn't very pretty. These were served with a SeaGlass California Riesling that was sweet and cold, a nice foil to the richness of this dish.

Last course: an apple pie sorbet with a slice of red pear. Sweet, heavily spiced, nothing subtle, very tasty.

OK dinner was a bit over-educational for my mood but I learned a bit about wines. I would have been happy to read a tent card if I had wanted all the details, but still interesting. All the wine was great. All the food was really good, maybe not exceptionally creative.

Small plates, three bitty glasses of vino, and a big price tag put an edge on what was otherwise a delightful experience. But trust me I was no longer feeling bitchy. PLUS I caught the bug that had been hovering over our table for over an hour in one swipe. It's still cool being a superpower even if I like my white wine cold.

At the risk of repeating myself, I love to eat and I want to eat good food, but I don't have big bucks to throw around these days. So the main drawback is the high price, especially for Albany area where the lettuce got picked next door. It's like we were paying for the CONCEPT. Hmmm.

Tasting menu with wine for two, two more glasses of wine ($7.00/each) plus tax and tip was $120 (I bought an $80 Groupon - tasting for two with wine, for $40, so that was a break). I think dinner cost way too much, for what we had, for the lack of polish, and for a dingy dining room.

It is apparent that their target audience is Food Snobs with Jobs. Each dish was carefully considered and crafted. Each morsel was delightful, and our experience overall was very relaxing and laid back. We were happy.

I guess I am now officially Zena, Food Snob.

Zena, FS

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Ravishing Ravioli

Last night I took my friend Mistress of the Hounds out for a birthday dinner at Cafe Capriccio in downtown Albany, N.Y. We were beautiful, but not as ravishing as the ravioli.

Tucked away on Grand Street, down a few stairs, in a small door that pushed in, not out, we found ourselves swallowed up by a small cozy dining room. It was lovely - low light, tablecloths, dark wood. Not overly formal and very comfortable. We arrived right at opening. We were greeted with a smile! We were seated at a round table in the back corner. Did I mention we were beautiful? We were, and we look even better in low light. Trust me on that.

We were ravenous, too. In celebration of the Mistress' special day we ordered Prosecco, which was served as two splits of Zardetto served cold with slender flute glasses on a tray. Dreamy. I like bubbles. So we sipped and looked at what was available on the menu. It isn't overly long but with a nice balance of offerings. The appetizers include a few lighter choices, with lots of vegetable options, and the pasta dishes offered up a couple of inventive looking risottos. Less than a dozen main courses featured everything from pork to beef to chicken to meatless, with a special of baked sole to round it all out. Something for everyone, even tiny superheroes on a diet, as I noted that several items were available as half-portions.Uh, but no pizza, which used to be a real specialty here, and no explanations, but the choices were still excellent and the wait staff careful to ask if we had any questions.

Zena ordered a simple house salad of mesclun greens, tomatoes, cucumber and carrots, nicely dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette that was a touch heavy handed but really tasty and fresh. The Mistress enjoyed a caprese salad - a very generous portion, I might add - which she topped with a bit more olive oil, balsamic and pepper. We ate heartily, enjoying thick slices of heavenly heavy warm bread dipped in more of the oil. The Mistress of the Hounds had the staff take the last half of her salad to take home with her later.

The room was filling up but the wait staff were cool. Our dinner came at a nice pace from finishing up our salads. Mistress had a half-order (still a good size portion) of the risotto with duck and caponata agrodolce.  The presentation was gorgeous - glistening, colorful, and piping hot. Maybe we missed the sweet/sour part, and it was a bit peppery, but very nice. The duck was crispy and greasy: yum. I had the.....wait for it....ravioli (surprise!) of the day, stuffed with ricotta cheese, provolone and broccoli rabe served in a tomato cream sauce. I ordered it off the appetizer menu instead of a full portion and was also very happy with the size of the serving. The pasta was tender but not mushy, the filling rich and tasty, and the sauce was divine - not too salty or garlicky, both of which really throw me off balance, even for a superhero. I soaked up every last morsel with more of the bread. It was RAVISHING. I felt fat and outdone by the dinner, but on the inside I was glowing and happy. Wow.

Dessert? Sì. The server (third of three that came to the table over the course of two hours, all kind and helpful, by the way) said their signature dish was panna cotta, this time served with a strawberry balsamic reduction. And a candle! And I sang, which made the couple in the next booth laugh because someone there had a birthday, too, so it was a special night for many of us. Anyway, the panna cotta was exceptionally smooth, creamy, and not overly sweet, with a lovely spike of vanilla and the sauce tasted almost chocolatey. A few slices of kiwi and a strawberry laced the plate. A delightful end to our evening out.

The room was kind of smokey, like wood smoke, as we finished up. I never figured out what that was. We peeked into the bar. Intimate, a few booths. Very nice. 

Oh and the wait staff gave the Mistress of the Hounds her salad on our way out. She told me today they included a nice hunk of bread in her container. That was really sweet of them. Really nice people. GREAT customer service.

Dinner with three appetizers, two drinks, one half portion entree and a dessert to share was $72.00 not including tax and tip. Of course, being Zena, I had a $50 gift certificate I purchased through MetroMarket to take the edge off my budget, squeezed like the fit of my favorite jeans, tights, and even my cape these days. In answer to the server's asking if I had any questions, it would be "Why don't I eat here every night?" A:  I would if I could!

Zena, Goddess of Fire