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

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Chicken Liver Adventure

Part 1: Fresh and Frozen

My chicken liver adventure is not turning out the way I imagined. I’ve been writing a chicken livers post in my mind for a few weeks now, ever since I cooked a batch of them and realized that not too many people eat them anymore outside of pate, which is a shame. And it would be nice to write about how I prepare them, because I think it rocks. I’ve tasted plenty of preparations that make me understand why a lot of people really hate chicken livers.

I have been to Guido's since I started wanting to write the post, but they had no fresh chicken livers.  I went to Honest Weight, but they apparently sell them out within the day they get them.

Tonight was going to be the night.  I went to The Meat House in Stuyvesant Plaza a couple evenings ago, thinking they’d probably be able to scare up some fresh ones for me.  I spoke with two of the staff members, emphasizing several times that they must be fresh - I wanted fresh chicken livers.  They have painted their window in two-foot high letters:  Our meat is always fresh, never frozen.  I figured we were on the same page.  I ordered two pounds.  I said they need to be fresh a couple more times while they wrote up the order, explaining that they are easy to mess up - one of the elementary ways to mess them up is to freeze them.  I explained that when they are frozen they end up mealy and grainy and absolutely the wrong texture.  Most of the unusual nature of liver, which makes it a different kind of experience, is the texture.

They appeared to be listening.

So today when I went to pick them up and the staff member who had stood there and nodded and said ok several times a couple days ago while I explained that they have to be fresh said, “they popped them in the freezer”...  I couldn’t believe it.  It was like one of those moments where they sound track does the record scratch sound.  Time stopped for a moment.  Whuuuuuuut?

I tried to be nice.  I suppressed the Hulk transformation.  They had just proved themselves to be completely untrustworthy.  I stifled when the staff member said, “yeah, they only last a couple days.”  As if I didn’t know anything about them - the person who had just bent their ears about cooking livers for about 15 minutes two days before. Although I would never do such a thing the words “pimp slap” came to mind because I read them on facebook just this morning. All of my explaining about fresh had only been so much high-pitched noise.

So I simply said I’d think about what I want to do.  They assured me that they could have more by Monday. The only thing I can imagine is that  I would order them today and some staff member or another would think: "why should we get fresh ones when we can use these?" and they would take the chicken livers out of the freezer, thaw them, and sell them to me Monday. Their credibility is utterly demolished.  I’ll never be able to ask them for fresh chicken livers again.  

So this is the post I have to write today.  I’ll wait until I can get fresh livers either at Honest Weight or at Guidos again and  then I can write about how I cook them to make them delicioso.