Monday, December 15, 2014

DOING DISHES: Capital Area Calamari

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calamari Fritti at Tesoro's in Guilderland, NY

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

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

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

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

Zena, Goddess of Fire

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

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Crab Stick: Asian Tea House Sushi Meetup

The only thing I hate more than fake superheros is fake food, and I don't mean those plastic grapes that the people I work with would eat if I put a bowl of them in the break room.

No, I mean stuff like Crab Stick - pulverized fish (usually Alaskan pollack) that is reformed with "meat glue" (transglutaminase - an enzyme that reforms the puree into a solid), and maybe starch from wheat and tapioca or corn and vegetable oils and MSG and salt and it's dyed red and then shredded to have the texture of crab. It's the Chicken McNugget of sushi, and is decidedly a cheaper alternative to real crab (or real fish for that matter), which is why we often see it being served in our sushi restaurants. And it's crap.

Which is why the Crab Stick-in-my-throat overload at the Asian Tea House last week was such a disappointment. I was with a group of over 50 people organized by the Sushi Lovers Meetup here in Albany, NY - a lively group of folks who actually LIKE eating sushi with others that LIKE eating sushi and we don't need to listen to your weird "bait" jokes. We arrived and were seated at 6:30, and had our first dish at 7:15 - (45 minutes to chew on fried won tons): a lovely bowl of Hot & Sour soup. It was a bit gooey for my liking but warm and dense with mushrooms, egg, water chestnuts and tofu. It had a sneaky heat and was actually slightly sweet - a first for my tastes - but good.

The hot and sour soup was rich and tasty
Then came the first crab-attack. This dish they called their "house specialty" - Sushi Pizza. It was triangular nacho chips covered in Crab Stick "salad" (tossed with mayo and chili oil [I'm guessing] so it was bright orange), topped with fried panku flakes. It was pretty and also pretty disgusting.

Sushi pizza was pretty and pretty disgusting
Next came a platter of pan-fried spicy won tons filled with chicken. These were salty and garlicky, served with a warm, slightly sweet chili sauce laced with curry powder, which was kind of weird but OK.

Fried won tons filled with chicken
Next was another round of fried things - pork filled dumplings that were really chewy and cold and tasted like garlic. So were filling up on fake crab and fried things. Where's my sushi???
Fried dumplings filled with pork
Two salads arrived at the table - seaweed standard laced with sesame oil and topped with cucumber (actually very tasty) and more of that Crab Stick salad mixture (the salad was exactly what came on top of that "pizza" served earlier), and also topped with fried panku. Yuck.

Above - seaweed salad, and below the "crab" salad. The plates themselves were very attractive.
Aha! Finally a platter of sashimi - tuna (albacore), creamy salmon, red snapper (this was the best of them), yellowtail, and something they call "white tuna". This was NOT tuna, IS NOT tuna: this was Escolar, tasty, greasy, and one of the reasons you might want to avoid it is because it makes you want to go poo. It is cheap fish and not something you want to eat too much of.  Note it is banned for sale in Japan because it is considered toxic. A fish they won't eat but we will??? OK that's a new one.

Red snapper (front) and then from left to right: tuna, salmon, "white tuna" and yellowtail
This was promising, but the next platter was not sushi as I had hoped, but a plate of "rolls", and there was more of this Crab Stick in or on everything. I thought the mortals we were sharing the table with were more discerning about their sushi, but they dove into this stuff with gusto. Or maybe they were just really really hungry. By this time I'm picking out the Crab Stick. I asked myself, Self: what were they hiding under those mounds of Crab Stick salad??? It's like Uh-merican food buried under cheese. The presentation was shoddy and gooky looking.

Crab stick in the roll on the left and mounded on top of the rolls on the right. Who knows what's under there.
Then "jalapeno shots" - a bit of raw tuna, fresh jalapeno, vinegar, sweet. I liked it very much.

The next platter was........................ and we waited over a half hour for it.............................wait for it.....................  was more of what we just got (see the ones with the little dots of sriracha pepper sauce?), and a shrimp roll with avocado and Crap Stuck Crap   Crab Stick that was bready and even had a fried won ton in the middle, and bland, and weird. AND, TAAAAAAAA DAAAAAAAA --  FINALLY, 12 sushi (which is plural of sushi) also on this platter. The 6 of us at our table quickly devoured these and were left wishing there was more.
Weird shrimp roll had more of that Crap Stuck Crab Stick in it.
And we waited and waited and another platter of sushi eventually arrived and it was very good. Thick pieces of red snapper, silky smooth salmon, earthy yellowtail. No tuna. Nothing fancy. The rice was decidedly sweet but properly prepared. I would LOVE to have eaten more but we had now been there almost 3 hours, we were tired and I still had the forces of evil to deal with overnight, and we were hungry when we arrived and ended up filling up on fillers, and it was time to go. 
The sushi, when it finally came, was delicious
Bottom lines: the service was friendly but way too slow, and there certainly wasn't enough help to manage the room properly (dirty dishes were left lingering, water jugs needed filling, etc.). We were told that the restaurant was overwhelmed with such a large group (even though we were expected, albeit a few more than originally planned), but I am suspicious that maybe the long wait for the sushi and the cheap eats beforehand ensured we were full and too tired to eat much more than the sushi that was offered at the end. OR it could be they just didn't have enough fresh fish to go around. Or both. Anyway, they're bottom line goes chi-ching with cheap eats and fillers and long waits ($25 per person including tax and tip IS a deal, but that still doesn't meat I want to eat junk food). My unasked for advice?  Go and try the sushi and sashimi in the dining room proper but be wary if you are planning a group event.

And no doubt there were sushi snobs in that room full of Sushi Lovers, but nobody complained about the food, just a bit about the service (and online/later), and they enjoyed each others company. So I kept my big mouth shut, which for me isn't an easy thing, and I saved my valued opinions (HA!) for Albany Dish.

The Sushi Lovers Meetup really is a nice bunch of folks.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS: I hate plastic tablecloths except on a picnic table.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


In spite of being cautious and trying a restaurant several times before reviewing it, a writer can write a description of a really nice restaurant experience and then find that the restaurant just can't keep it up the quality. The Grille at 138 was a place that I wanted to be good,  have to admit.  It's a been a new addition in our neighborhood, and it'a always nice to have a place that isn't another pizza and wings joint.

For the second time in the last few weeks I've been sorely disappointed and felt like the service staff have been great, but the kitchen has totally lost its touch. Since I had good experiences with several areas of the menu in my first visits I was curious about the beef stroganoff, the true sixties throwback in this old school menu.  It was terrible. I know every restaurant has an off night, but this dish should never have been allowed out of the kitchen and the person who put it together should be sacked. Anyone over 15 would have looked at the plate and had an "eww" reaction. So … I have to think that things have gone seriously south.

Recently I decided to give the buffet a try to see if the beef stroganoff was a fluke and unfortunately the experience only confirmed my suspicions.  I have to withdraw my previous support of this place, and relegate it to the extensive mediocre-to-bad list of places that plague our city.  All it would take is an effort to get the back of the house on track again, so I'll watch and wait to see what others say about any new developments in quality.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Rocco's (rak-ōhz)

I hate November. It's dark out and getting darker and it's been unbelievably cold and I get cold in these dumb tights and there's been snow and one minute your sitting on your back porch "getting outside" with a cocktail and the next we're scraping ice off the windshield. Even the dark forces of evil are hibernating already, and even though zombies have been out since late October, they're no fun. Bored bored bored. Sigh. I guess you should know this: even superheroes get the blues.

What better remedy for Zena than to go on an adventure and eat out!!! Foodie Friend got out the Mini and we fought our way along trafficky roads into a sea of oncoming headlights like two salmon moving upstream (in our case, upstate) to try dinner at Rocco's, located at the corner of Main Street and Longkill Road in Clifton Park, NY. The parking lot was almost full at 5:30 on a Thursday - a good sign for a new restaurant (only open since October 2014). We raced inside, out of the wind, to a warm and warmly lit sanctuary of small tables and low laughter. Not at us, I don't think - everyone seemed to be enjoying neighborly conversation, and a couple of good drinks at the bar. Reservations a must (the dining area filled up quickly as the evening came on), we were welcomed at the side entrance (by a zombie - I can tell) and promptly seated away from everyone at the dozen or so tables that make up the dining area and put on display like a couple of mannequins in a shop window under bright lights near the front of the restaurant. Not easy to be cool and blogging undercover but good for taking pictures and notes. Kinda odd, that front space. And did I mention I also look better in low light???

Our waiter was attentive, sort of green but not a zombie, I'm not sure what though, a bit sweaty, but good at his job. We looked over the wine list and found about 13 by the glass. The list was organized "by style" - e.g., "Full Bodied", "Sweeter", "Full Bold Rich Flavors", etc. Very weird but it could by typical of Zombie organization. There was a lot of California wines, a few from Italy, France, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina, but no NY wines. Tsk tsk. Oh, and ALL the bottles were $30 each. OK not sure what that was about - maybe trying to appear affordable (which it is!)??? FF was driving and opted out, so I ordered a glass of the Spellbound Merlot ($7.00) - a generous pour was delivered in a big crystal glass. The wine was rich, smooth, not complex, tasting of dark fruit (cherries), a bit of oak, and with a sharp edge that I really loved - very nice.

Water is served in a Ball Mason jar (left from the last business?) next to the lovely wine glass. The decor is confused but still comfortable. 
Our server returned and gave us the rundown on a few specials, including Veal Oscar (topped with crab, asparagus and hollandaise [$22.95]), a pasta dish of rigatoni, sausage and roasted cauliflower ($18.95), and a crab rangoon appetizer that didn't appeal (I think they are crunchy and greasy and overrated as food). Other starters (10 total, including a House and a Caesar salad) included mussels (on our night out served with a vanilla basil cream sauce), clams, crab cakes and arancini, as well as a butternut squash soup topped with candied walnuts.

FF decided to try the just four oysters ($1.75/each), which were varied in size and all smooth, perfectly tender, and mild. The mignonette sauce had serious bite (vinegar!), but the bit of fresh horseradish was amazing. 

We ordered our main courses and were asked, at one point, if we wanted more bread. I pointed out that we hadn't gotten any yet, so with an apology our server whooshed out and someone soon brought over a basket of the loveliest bread I've had in a while - chewy but not tough with a good crust that wasn't so hard that it cuts - served with a mixture of sweet ricotta, flavored with lemon peel and black pepper. A little too sweet for me, but a nice surprise - I liked the taste of the salty bread with that spread.

We didn't feel rushed but also didn't wait overly long for dinner to be served. The menu, which promises to change with the seasons (this was their FIRST menu, FYI), offered up five pastas (including Tagliatelle and Meatballs and a Orrichiette di Rocco's for the meat lovers, and House Made Cavatelli with spinach and caramelized onions for the vegetarians out there), and on the back of the menu were seven entrees, featuring dishes with sole, duck, lamb and pork, each with sides that weren't all the same for everything (thoughtfully put together) ($21.99 to $28.99). Something for everyone but there were not a lot of choices, which I think is a good thing, as I suspect in such places that the few dishes they do are usually done well. I would have liked to know more about their sourcing - are they local? can they credit the farms if they are? that sort of thing.

FF ordered the Lobster Mac & Cheese ($22.99), topped with a Ritz Cracker crust. The sauce was amazing - not thick and gooey at all. In fact it was intensely and incredibly rich and silky. The dish was loaded with large chunks of tender, tasty lobster (unlike others we've tried where there are small bits of a bit of lobster lurking in there somewhere). The crackers were sweet and buttery and a fun compliment. She tried to finish it - the bowls are deep (keeping the food hotter longer, methinks) so the servings don't look large when delivered - but despite a valiant effort decided finally to take some home for the next day. One of the best ever lobster mac&cheese dishes EVER!!!

I ordered the pasta special of no particular name - the one with the roasted cauliflower, which sounded weird enough to try since it was married into a traditional pasta dish. That first bite was divine - good enough for ANY superhero, goddess, etc. The cauliflower was cooked up tender but not mushy, the sweetness balanced by just a tad of red pepper. The sausage (not too much - I would have liked more of this and the cauliflower, I think) was hot and spicy. The sauce was really garlicky but delicious and not at all gloppy. My only complaint was the rigatoni was a bit too toothy and really could have cooked for at least another minute. This was also a generous serving that was better on the reheat the next day for lunch (to cook that pasta). 

Rigatoni special with roasted cauliflower and hot sausage, topped by our waiter with a grating of fresh parmesan cheese
There was no printed menu but there were five desserts available - tiramisu, NY style cheesecake, lemon tarts, apple tarts, creme brulee and a flourless chocolate cake. Wait that's six. Anyway, we didn't order anything, but our server brought us two still warm gratis brownies to try and they were tender and chewy and chocolaty and all things good AND I forgot to take a picture, we just dove right in. Everything was special and we were SO glad we decided to try what could prove to be the "go to" destination restaurant for this northern suburb of Albany. It's upscale - not cheap by any means but not overpriced either - Rocco's is approachable, comfortable, and welcoming. It was a very nice night out.

Dinner for two with 4 oysters, two pasta dishes and two glasses of wine (yes, cheri - two!!!) was $68.42 including tax plus tip.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS: There may be more zombies in Clifton Park than I was previously aware of. Please keep me posted if there are problems. Thanks.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Pudding Echo from the Tour de Doughnut - er- Donut

Yes, we worked like dogs to determine the Capital Region's best cider donuts last Saturday for the 2014 Tour de Donut. I wanted to avoid the unpleasantness that comes from woofing several donuts so I pledged to only take enough bites of each donut to get the sense of it and bag the rest of it for donut bread pudding. They have been drying during the week so that last night I had some very crunchy dry half-donut pieces. I finally got all the pudding ingredients together and voila!

The perfect fall breakfast

I'm terrible about following recipes, especially since most of the time one can pretty much fudge things by using a basic principle and not being very daring.  The bread pudding principle I followed was: one cup of milk and three eggs + bread + flavorings.

I have a nice little Mexican cazuelas (baking dish) that is about seven inches across, which was right for a total of about two and a half donuts and the custard. I preheated the oven to 350.

Then things got out of hand.  Barely keeping the principle in mind I came upon that little bit of leftover coconut milk that would be hard to use, so I put it in the ingredients area I was assembling. Then I got worried about the amount of volume I'd have, there being so little actual donut material.  My eyes ran across those apples that need baking that are sitting in the kitchen and I selected a nice big one and grated it. So now I had 1/2 cup of coconut milk and a half cup of cow's milk, the three eggs, about a cup of grated apple, and 2 1/2 donuts. I broke up the donuts in the cazuelas and mixed the custard with the grated apple and a half teaspoon of salt, a few dashes of cinnamon, a tablespoon (more or less) of brown sugar and a few  dashes of nutmeg plus a hearty teaspoon of vanilla.  The donuts also had a lot of spice and sugar so there was no use in making the spices and sweetness overwhelming.

The grated apple kept things very moist during the baking, so it ended up being about 50 minutes even with such a small dish. I made a little foil tent at some point and kept it on for about the middle 30 minutes and that allowed the top to carmelize then kept it from burning.

I'm not terribly fond of bread pudding sauces, so I didn't try to come up with one. But if you need sauce it looks like Deanna Fox has come up with a very lovely one in her bread pudding article.

This was my first attempt at donut bread pudding, and I admit that I assumed it would be way too sweet and sort of yukky.  Since I was able to monkey around with the balance of flavors I think I avoided that and got a rather moist, gooey pudding of apple cider deliciousness, due to the very moist grated apple and the addition of the coconut milk.

If you have a great bread pudding recipe, please share it.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

City Line Bar and Grill: Dos and Don'ts

I have officially visited City Line Bar and Grill and have a short list of dos and don'ts for this new bar, a from-the-ground-up replacement for the old Sutter's Mill pub on Western Avenue opposite the University at Albany entrance.

Do take in the surroundings, which are a welcome break from the usual sort of  cozy but moldering and somewhat sticky ambiance of Albany bars and pubs.  Sutter's Mill was bulldozed and a completely new building has been constructed and nicely appointed. Steve Barnes describes it as: "150 dining-room seats, room for 50 at the bar and another 75 seasonal spaces on the deck."  Did you see that?  Room for 50 at the bar.  75 spaces on the deck, which has a great big stone gas fireplace. The bar takes up half of the entire space and it's the coolest bar to come along to Albany in a while. All the natural light streaming in gives it a fantastic glow as the cocktails take hold. The bar and grill in total is one huge room with a very high ceiling that somehow makes the acoustics perfect. With good acoustics and the music volume low, the atmosphere is very refreshing. The entire back wall is glass panels that fold so that the back can be opened onto the deck. One very mild evening the back was open and for the duration it took to absorb a lovely cocktail after a hard day of work I was in an extremely pleasant place.  For more photos see the All Over Albany photo  spread:

Do visit the bar and go for drinks with friends and enjoy the crowd, which has been pleasantly at a low volume so that as you drink you can actually still hear all the people in your party. It's wonderful!!! 

Please, however, do not order any food. I've tried it for research purposes four times.  I've never experienced such consistently bad food in my life, except in a school cafeteria, which is actually what this food reminds me of. Believe me - I'm an education professional, so I've spent over 30 years of my life around institutional food. The names and descriptions sound good, but the food is almost always bad. The turkey burger above was the best thing I tried, but for the life of me I can't understand why the flat bread was rolled up on the left side of the burger and was tough - I mean it was tough to cut it  with a knife.  Was it for cuteness?

I won't go into the strange and inadequate service except to say that service there is a combination of disdainful and nice but bad. The time I went for just drinks my companion and I were treated to indifference, then condescension and finally shown a table in a half-empty area. They served us horrible hummus!!!  How can anyone over 18 years old screw up hummus?  It was watery and I have no idea if they even know what tahini is, not to mention that hummus has lemon in it. Whatever it was they served us didn't.

I was served the wrong meal one of my visits. The final insult was the full entree dinner I decided to try that was described as a steak dusted with peppercorns and set alight when served on a nest of potatoes and kale. It tasted like steak that was grilled and then dunked in cheap whiskey mildly flavored with maple - I mean like if you took the steak off your plate and dunked it in your cocktail. This is not a good combination of flavors. It had a different combination of veggies than was described on the menu and they were poorly prepared - one was overcooked and the other was undercooked. Knowing by that time that I was not likely to get a better meal, I sent it back and paid my check, which did not include the entree - at least both times the kitchen/serving staff completely obliterated my meal they didn't charge me for it. 

My recommendation is that the "grill" half of the place be revamped, meaning that the service staff be trained to welcome customers and serve food, and the kitchen staff be trained to prepare good food.  That would be sort of analogous to bulldozing the building and starting from the ground up, which the owners know how to do.

They have a basic web page with no menu: and a facebook page with a teeny bit more information:

LorreBob sez: Go and drink then have dinner somewhere that has good food.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

“We want people to come in and sit down and eat and be a part of the community.”

It's Albany's Soul Cafe, in Center Square.

In the fellowship hall (that most of us know from our church-going or synagogue-going childhoods if we had one) the evening unfolds. Volunteers have organized the food, the cooking and the serving.  Fantastic aromas are emanating from the bee-hive like church kitchen, there are seats for about 80 people and a long serving table.  It's not fancy, but it serves the purpose.

Suddenly at 6:00 the door opens and there's a line of people at the donation box, contributing what they can.  It's families from all walks of life who want to be together in the atmosphere of community and service.  It's wholesome food for anyone who shows up.  There's raucous donated piano music, trays of food and furor as everyone lines up and chooses what they'd like to try for the evening's supper.

When everyone has been served the group settles in, the children begin to race around the room or go to the play table, and there is conversation of the contented. Those who want to get up and move can join in the zumba. For each person it has a different meaning, and that's the beauty, I mean, besides the generosity and the kindness and the welcome and the community.

Go - I mean it.

Albany Soul Café Community Dinner 
Westminster Presbyterian Church 
262 State Street, Albany 
(Parking and Entrance at 85 Chestnut Street) 
All are welcome! 
Dinners are the last Monday of each month from 6 to 8 p.m. 
November 24 • Harvest Dinner 
Suggested Donation: 
$5 Adults / $3 Kids 
All proceeds go to support the Soul Café.

More about Soul Cafe

Monday, October 20, 2014

Zena Hosts: Sweet Italian Sausage Tasting

I like sausage.  I expect it to contain weird pig parts. We should be using every part of the animal if we can. Get over it.

Surely the origin of sausage in particular is connected to using the entire beast, and then learning to preserve it. Sausage is one of the oldest meat products in history (1500 B.C. by one account), and the world has many varieties to choose from.

Piglets at Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield MA -  May 2014
In particular I love fresh, sweet Italian sausage - meaning it's not cured or salted or smoked, and it has to be thoroughly cooked before eating. It's relatively inexpensive, versatile, quick if it needs to be, and usually very tasty. It can also contain a host of ingredients like stabilizers and binders and extenders (like starch-based fillers) and tenderizers, in addition to the necessary salt and added fat and spices and sugar.  When I buy locally I can hope that these additions are natural and necessary and mostly about taste, and that the quality of the starting meat product is humane and free of antibiotics. Unnecessary gook saps my superpowers, and I know the effects can be much worse for mortals.

I purchased my sausages from six area retailers and organized a blind taste testing with a dozen or so friends and superheroes. Here is the lineup (in alpha order descending):

6 sausages, three votes, funny stickers went on the place cards and comments onto sticky notes
OK so maybe we don't know exactly what the ingredients are, or where they came from, but one thing for sure - we were only tasting pork sausages today (no beef or chicken or turkey or vegan options). We expected salt (which does three things - it binds the meat, inhibits bacterial growth and gives the mixture flavor), black pepper, maybe some fennel seed, other flavors like wine or vinegar or mustard, and herbs & spices such as parsley (usually), paprika, garlic, oregano, basil, ginger, sage, coriander, red pepper flakes and/or onion. Uh, just about anything, actually.  It may have a bit of sugar, but "sweet" only differentiates this sausage from "hot" Italian, which would have much more red pepper. Fat is key: a ratio of about 80 percent meat to 20 percent fat is about your minimum - 30% would be typical. We need that fat for flavor but we don''t want gristle. We want our sausages firm but not too dry. We want it to smell good and be tasty. Sausages are ugly so today we won't talk about things looking delicious.

Sausages are laid out on the left in the aluminum pans. Our feast also included a lovely potluck of salads, bread and desserts

I cooked about a pound of each - sweet Italian only. No pre-boiling. No poking holes. No cutting or changing the shape of the links until it was time to check that the interior was cooked through.

Despite long discussions about the need for perfect weather with other gods and goddesses leading up to this event, I can only figure someone was pissed at me for something, because the day of our party it was raining for the first time in a month, so we ended up being indoors instead of cooking on the grill. The sausages were simply browned and cooked through on the stove top in a skillet lightly seasoned with olive oil, then kept warm in tightly covered dishes in a 200 degree oven until we were ready to taste.

I have special powers and that included being the only one that knew which of the choices, A to F, were which. Each guest got three stickers to vote with, and comments were to be written down on Post-its for me to decipher later, but this crowd was boisterous and loud and really fun so we knew EXACTLY what was on everyone's mind, except Po, a puppy brought by the Mistress of the Hounds, who was quiet but probably thinking SAUSAGES the whole time.

Anyway, here are the results:

Cardona's (A) - $5.69/lb
These were small, red, compact links that LOOKED like hot Italian when I opened the container, but didn't taste like it. It had plenty of black pepper and fennel. This one got 6 stickers. Tasters, not yet silly on wine, because I could still read their handwriting, remarked "Tender and flavorful; nice consistency to the meat and not too peppery; nice flavor; moist, great flavor; robust - not just pepper but more; good sausage flavor; yum, salty."

Smaller, compact sausages from Cardona's
Falvo's (B) - $3.29/lb if you buy 3 pounds
These were large and lean (the lady behind the counter told me when I bought them that they were leaner than usual). When I was cooking them I got a lot of gray "gook" in the pan (blood?), which didn't appeal to me. They smelled strongly of sage. This sausage got NO stickers. Comments included "Bland; too dry; is this really sausage?; not a lot of seasoning - kinda plain; blah, dry; bland, not much flavor; good meat flavor but bland; and my favorite, 'As an Italian I am offended that this is called Italian sausage. I think it's neither.'" My tasters, neither sober nor professional, totally rejected this product.

This was the only sausage where we got "gook" in the fry pan
Garofalo (D) - $4.49 if you pay cash; $4.69 if you use a credit card (sheesh)
This went into the pan as one, large one pound plus link. It had lots of small fatty deposits seen through the casing. This choice got 13 stickers - a clear winner!!! This is what we thought: "Pow!; Can never have too much pepper cuz I like hot/not sweet - this is more like hot than sweet; great flavor; very flavorful; pepper and fennel is good - bit of a [huh?] to it; pepper! the best; hot black pepper, salty; too much pepper for my taste; and little spicier than (A); YUM A&D fave so far peppery LOVE" (assume wine assisted with the last taster's expert opinion).

Sausage from Garofalo's - lots of visible fat through the casing

Pellegrino (C) - $4.29/lb
This was also one large link that had lots of large bits of fat. These guys got 6 stickers, tying for second place with Cardona's, with friends saying "Mild by really nice; fatty, blah, had to spit out a hunk of fat; yum, fennel; and nice flavor." This was one of my "go to" sweet Italian sausages over the years and I still like it a lot, but it didn't go over as well as I thought it would, keeping in mind, of course, that there were mostly mortals at this tasting.

Our Store
This is a picture of Pellegrino's from the parking lot that I took from their web site because it seems I don't have a picture of their sausages like I do the rest. My apologies to all.
Roma: (F) - $5.19/lb
This one didn't have any visible fat globs, and was really pink. It was very wet and slow to brown, and there was a lot of excess fat in the pan, more than any of our other sausages. It got only one vote, with comments like this: "Weird texture, grainy, nice flavor; not a fan; not for me; dry - tastes too dry and bland; kinda plain - needs more seasoning; somewhat plain but tender, not fatty, needs more seasoning," and, to the point - "meh".
The sausages from Roma's took forever to brown. They were "wet".
Sindoni (E) - $5.49/lb - available from Hannaford's
This one was pretty fatty, with four stickers from our noisy testers. Comments included "Peppery and fennel?; this one is OK; little fatty but OK; too fatty, yeah, gristle." Nobody too excited over this sausage, but it did come in third. Too bad, because I really like the idea of a local outlet being sold out of our chain grocery stores.

Sindoni's sweet Italian sausages are available from area Hannaford's
These were all so very different - that was a real surprise to all of us - but the great variation made our sausage tasting a much more worthy culinary experience than we expected. I was SO impressed with Garofalo's that I'm now much more willing to set my GPS and drive into deepest, darkest Schenectady to get a stash of their sausages for the next time I'm dreaming up a batch of anything (spaghetti sauce, sausage and peppers, lasagna, etc.) that includes sweet Italian sausages. BRAVO!!!

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS: I'll share my recipe for Pickle Soup - one way to use up leftover cooked sweet Italian sausages - in the very near future.  (: 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Dinner Guests and the Art of Being a Good One

When Megan Gordon wrote her five ways to be a great dinner guest on The Kitchn blog I had an emotional reaction that made me sit up and take notice. I think about manners and considerations between guests and hosts quite a bit, so when Megan put up her preferences, I thought I might as well throw mine into the ring.

At the bottom of this posting is a list of several web pages about dinner party manners - there is some overlap, but some of these things bear repeating.

Here are my opinions about being a good guest when someone invites you for dinner:

Feasting together is an ancient tradition that is a celebration of life - bring a whole hearted attitude; this is a time to celebrate being together, so if it's possible let go of life's common irritations, or the trouble you're having at work, and try to be joyful for the duration of dinner.  This will not only spare your fellow guests from having to bear your burdens but will also be good for you. A good dinner party nourishes everyone's soul and that's why we ask our friends to join us for dinner.

If you want to boil it down to one principle so that you don't go crazy being self-conscious about your behavior: Be Considerate. Your consideration should be for your fellow guests and your host/hostess.

Show up when you say you will - making the host/hostess hold dinner and having everyone waiting around until you arrive isn't chic - it's extremely bad manners and a drag. If you're really hung up with something, text  or call the host/hostess and tell them what is going on. Expect them to start without you.

Take something interesting that is either a discussion topic or an actual thing. If it's a discussion topic, try your very very best to make it something to talk about while eating.  This means excretions, blood, gore, guts and veins in your teeth are not good.  Save this for beers and movie night.

Make it clear that you're enjoying the food -  a lot of silence at the table might be nerve wracking.

Be gracious! This is a time to show your best manners.  See below for more tips on taking a gift, sending a thanks text and other behaviors that tell your hosts that you liked being invited and enjoyed the dinner. Don't make them guess! Be kind and considerate of their efforts. They're trying to make a little oasis of happiness - tell them they succeeded. It's a way to extend the jolly feelings.

This is not the time to get sloppy drunk, but a time to enjoy the company of others while having a great supper. Stay coherent and able to manage a knife and fork - giggly is great, slobbery and knocking over the crystal or dropping the meat platter is very, very bad.

Unless your host/hostess has arranged for entertainments that go into the wee hours, leave. They have been working on making this a great DINNER party all day - don't keep them up all night.

If you really like doing the former two activities - invite people over to your place and let 'er rip.

* * *
Zena, Goddess of Fire, let fly on her opinions regarding potluck manners:

WARNING FROM ZENA: This is a rant!!!

I think some of these blogs on being a good guest are well worth summarizing and sharing on AlbanyDish. Thank you Foodie Friend. When asked for my worthless opinion on the subject, I just had to twist the scene a little bit, since when I host a party, it's usually, at least in part, a potluck. Friends LIKE to bring a dish of their own (most of the time) and really LIKE to contribute somehow to the feast.  
When I throw a potluck I usually say “bring anything” but sometimes I have suggestions – very general ones: salad, dessert, appetizers. I don’t think these gatherings should be orchestrated – that misses the point. I clean the house, I set up a bar, I arrange the table/house for sit down or buffet depending on how many are coming, and I expect (and look forward to) a meal that is a bit more casual. Usually I prepare several dishes, including the main course/s. I do as much as I can in advance so I can enjoy my company. The point is to get together with friends and talk and laugh and share for a few hours. The eating thing is a bonus. A good potluck hostess helps guests get their own dishes together and ready for service. 


Please bring your own damn serving dishes and utensils. I hate when people show up with a grocery bag full of stuff and no way to put it out. And if your contribution requires some last minute prep please do it yourself. Don’t give me directions!!! Oh, also, unless I know you for who you are, and love you anyway, I expect guests to bring something more than a bag of chips. If you aren’t a cook that’s no excuse not to bring something delicious for the table. And seriously, if you’re picky about what you will and won’t eat, please eat before you come. At least bring a dish to share that you WILL eat. Kindly keep your restrictions to yourself unless you are going to keel over and die from a peanut or something.

Oh, and if you are coming late for some reason don’t bring a stupid appetizer. That was two hours ago, and so are you.

A few other things about etiquette for ANY party or gathering:
  • Take off your shoes if its wet or mucky outside. Bring “indoor” shoes if you need to, ones that won't scuff up or mark or scratch my immaculate as always floors.  
  • No one should get wasted. Exceptions if your host/ess is a goddess or something.  (:
  • Everyone needs to respect the furniture/surroundings.
  • Please discreetly tell the host if something needs attention, like there’s no TP or we’re out of ice.
  • Please don’t stay too late. If I’m cleaning and packing up, you should too. Note that I always appreciate some help in the kitchen, and I like when I can go to bed (because I might be trashed) without the kitchen being trashed (as well).
  • Put your f&#*@%g phone away. Thank you.
My question to you, good reader, is this: What makes a good POTLUCK??? We'd love to hear your comments here on Albany Dish!

Love to all, 
Zena, Goddess of Fire

Short list of web articles on dinner party manners;


Basic Essentials of Dinner Table Etiquette

Modern manners: the dinner party guest Felicity Cloake

Should I bring a hostess gift?

Party manners 101

Friday, October 10, 2014

Meeting Up at Samurai Sushi

The Albany Sushi Meetup made a special evening of gourmet sushi at Samurai Japanese Restaurant after one of our organizers had an extraordinary experience there during the summer. With some advance planning and a decision on the prix fixe the group of 20 allowed the chef to serve his choice of delicacies.  This is a group that has been eating sushi together for several years, so there were high expectations and high spirits as the crowd gathered in the sushi bar area. Going to dinner with a group of 20-40 other sushi lovers truly enhances the experience, especially once the introductions are made and people warm up and the sushi starts arriving at the tables.

The hibachi grill in the next room was in full swing and announced the entrance of Zena, Goddess of Fire with a huge ball of flame.  Once the Goddess was seated and introductions were made, the evening's banquet unfolded, course by delightful course. Our table companions were a great young couple who are new to the Meetup and who love sushi - so we had a great basis for conversation.

I, like most of the sushi lovers in the room, have found myself going for the same sushi flavors after awhile, and so handing the choice over to the chef was an adventure worth taking.

Below is the lineup of courses:

Tom Yum Soup

Crab, seaweed and octopus salads - wakame with the octopus and a delightful salad.

Fresh scallop with fresh wasabi and lemon - adorable lights under the shell cheerfully twinkling and changing colors.  That is FRESH wasabi on that slice of scallop and the curled darker pieces are the membrane.  This had so many things going on that the four slices were gone before we knew it, but each slice allowed us to experience this dreamy shellfish in a different combination.

Sea urchin - one serving of uni per table was enough to give us all a plentiful taste.  I had not had uni for about 20 years, so it was a great walk down memory lane.

Hamachi collar with the most wonderful fish sauce in the world.  This was a great cooked course and provided a whole treasure chest of flavors.  Then there was the sauce.  Oh my.

The man in the photo below is JP giving us the rundown on the platter, which served as the "main" course.  We were almost defeated at that point, but when the party is all about sushi, one soldiers on for the cause.  

In spite of having to serve 20 sushi lovers the same sushi dishes at the same time all evening, the wait staff was very cheerful and helpful. They were prepared so that even the platters could all arrive at all of the tables at the same time - that's an organized staff. They didn't rush, and they did their best to keep up with drinks and sundries and to explain and introduce what we were getting. There were breaks between courses that allowed for conversation and a pause to recover one's palate and prepare for the next course, and that gave the staff time to clear dishes, refresh drinks and keep on top of what everyone needed.

We should all definitely start demanding fresh wasabi with our sushi instead of the paste, by the way. We all saved our little dishes of wasabi in order to dip and slather it over various kinds of fish and I for one will seek it out in all future sushi evenings. It's funny how over the decades of sushi in America the range of what is served has narrowed to a few standards.  This dinner was a great reminder that sushi exotica is still possible.

Sushi and Sashimi Platter of classics:
The shot glass in the middle is an oyster, quail egg and scallion with a heavy drop of srirachi.  After the staff poured a thimble full of hot sake on top it was ready for shooting.  We did.  It was a burst of about fifteen separate and combined flavors.  The oyster was magnificent and the last flavor.

Ice Cream and Bananas

After groaning that we couldn't eat another bite, we caved in to the ice cream and bananas dessert. Zena, Goddess of Fire had to save several overwhelmed diners. It was a light ending to an incredible night of foodie adventure.  There were enough delights to tweak even the hardened sushi veterans in the group, and the crowd dispersed among exclamations about one course or another as people talked over their favorite dish of the evening. We groused about how much there was, and if I could do it over again I'd give the customers more control over the quantities of what was served. 

As we wandered into the night Zena took me under her protective cape to make sure I got into my ride safely, although the poor darling was like one of those bees that drinks all the sweet pickle juice from the picnic table.  I don't know what exactly got saved later that night, but I think she might have taken one of the fire chariots instead of taking off to her next destination a la Wonder Woman.

Bryan Fitzgerald reviewed the hibachi side of Samurai in the Times Union: