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 Torront├ęs (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.)

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