Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Mo Pho

After dwelling on Kim's pho for several visits during this brutal winter, I decided that it's time to move on.  The Capital Region is offering pho like never before. I remember when this was a town with a good Indian restaurant and a sort of weird Japanese restaurant and that was about the extent of our ethnic restaurants.  I am in absolute wonder about how it's all different now and there's more and more to try.  In other words: there's endless foodie adventure to be had. The down side is that there will be restaurants that will close before I have a chance to try them!

I discovered pho in a noodle shop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, so I must admit that I can't talk about it as if I've grown up eating it. I'm glad to keep tasting to get a sense of what is offered here in our region and to be happy when I get a delicious bowl of soup. A Google search rendered these possibilities for pho: Van's, Kim's, Pho Yum, My Linh, Saigon Spring, Goodnight Noodle, and Phila Fusion between here and Saratoga Springs, via Ballston Spa. Yelp tossed in Saigon, located in Williamstown, MA.  So it looks like my adventures in pho will take me all across the region and I couldn't be happier.

Please, dear readers, if you have another place to recommend, speak up!!! Put it in the comments.

My most recent tasting is from Van's.  Since the weather has been so cold the opportunity to have a great big bowl of soup is one I haven't wanted to pass up, and Van's is easy to get to on Central Ave. between Quail and Lake.  It's an area with scads of ethnic restaurants and Van's has been around for a long time, moving out to this location from the heart of downtown many years ago. My first visit included those lettuce-wrapped spring rolls and so I was blissed out on fried rolls with nuoc nam sauce by the time the pho came to the table and I felt like I didn't give the soup its due.  Going again for more soup was the only way to reconcile this error.

Van's dining room, just  before the noontime rush

The first time I was prepared to write that the broth had a stronger beef flavor than others I have tried, and that the symphony of spices was more subdued.  My second tasting revealed that the spring rolls prior to the soup had helped to mask the subtleties of the spices in the broth.  So my second tasting allowed me to sense these marvelous aromas and flavors.  They are definitely present in Van's offering.

With Van's pho, at the top of the list of soups, one chooses the meats to be included in the broth from three choices: tai - flank steak; bo vien - beef meatballs; or chien - well done beef brisket. This is the soup I selected ($8.99), leaving the list of other soups for future visits. I tried leaving out the meatballs the first time and included them the second time. The meatballs have a more complicated flavor, of course, and the chewey texture is one that I really enjoy. They also offer more of each type of meat as a separate add-in if you wish to make this a truly big and hearty meal.   A plate arrived at the table before the soup with a huge stack of sprouts, several slices of fresh jalapenos, fresh lemon, and fresh basil leaves. The soup came with generous sprinkles of both scallion and cilantro. So if one wants total control of the flavors, one might consider what's already added in the Van's version of pho, and ask for variations before it's served. This may be important for those who have cilantro issues.

What I like most about pho is the sort of "kit" idea. You can play with your food in a way that really counts. The chef only takes it so far, then you are the boss of what the soup is going to be - there's more to do at the table.  So I feel like it's important that the broth be robust and aromatic. Van's is both of these, but it's not the strongest that I have had. One is also in control of the type of beef and the amount. The plate of condiments at Van's is the largest I have seen, so they encourage you take the flavors in many different directions. This time I wanted to understand more about how much control I had over the flavor of the soup, so I piled all the sprouts on top and took very generous portions of the hoisin sauce and the sriracha sauce.  I have always used all the basil and all the citrus, because I really love the aroma of the basil and the citrus provides that tart thing that complements the anise and the beef in the broth. Next time I won't take that many sprouts.  It's a personal thing and has to do with the bitterness of the fresh sprouts.  I felt like the bitter element went out of balance, so next time I'll know what I want.

I recommend Van's pho not based on the idea of its authenticity, which I can't discuss one way or the other.  I recommend it based on the good broth, which I feel must comprise a very good soup by itself, and the generous plate of condiments.  

Saturday, March 22, 2014

DOING DISHES: Tapas Part III of V - Aperitivo Bistro

Sharing. An act of kindness, a way to get along with others and connect. It makes you feel good to give someone a little of what you have, like a bit more room on the road for that cyclist, a buck into the little red pot during the holidays, or a bite of your last cookie.

Well, maybe not my last cookie, but you get the idea.

Foodie Friend and I went to Aperitivo Bistro in downtown Schenectady this week to share laughter, conversation, ideas, and, of course, food. The rules of eating out, and writing about it, are simple: we we get to taste everything that we order, we split the bill, and we behave ourselves as best we can so they don't throw us out. No kicking under the table, no pointing at each other under the table, and no action packed death defying feats during dinner. And that includes trying to finish what we order.

We started with cocktails while we looked over the Small Plates and Antipasti pages of our menu. FF enjoyed a Cider Mojito made with Bacardi Big Apple Rum, apple cider, club soda and fresh mint. Lovely, sweet, cold, served in a tall glass, and minty enough even though the leaves weren't muddled. I enjoyed a glass of Merlot from Gainey Vineyard in Santa Ynez, California - smooth and lush, soothing on a cold night of more ice and rain as spring approaches. Aperitivo offers 20 or so wines by the glass, mostly from California, running from $8 to $14 each, as well as over 6 pages of wines by the bottle ranging from $25 to $325, again, dominated by California selections, but there were many "old world" choices from Italy, Spain, France, etc. We noted they had only one bottle from upstate NY (Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards) on their list. Hmmmm. 

That's water on the left, FYI
Aperitivo's menu included 10 Small Plates and 10 Antipastis, and the latter included 5 different salads, so there were some fresh options. We asked our server if he had any recommendations and he suggested the 7 Hour Cherry Pepper Pork, which sounded to us like sophisticated nachos, so we decided not to take his suggestion. Instead we ordered four dishes in what they termed "all share service", i.e., they would bring things to the table when they were ready. There were little stacks of extra side plates on all the tables around us. My special powers told me that many diners like to share what this place has to offer. 
The middle dining area - side plates on the table encourage sharing
Our server, perfectly attentive, very friendly, brought us a generous basket of rosemary focaccia along with a sundried tomato pesto to munch on while we waited. The pesto was delightful, brimming with olive oil, just a bit salty, and the bread - surprisingly grainy, not at all chewy - soaked up the flavors nicely, making for a very tasty combination.

The first two dishes to arrive were the Sweet Potato Steak Fries with Salted Caramel, served with a bacon aioli ($6), and a bowl of Fried Brussels Sprouts laced with fresh basil and cherry pepper salsa ($7). The fries were big in every way - a very generous serving, totally delicious - tender but not mushy with a nice crisp coating, with a sweetness that was nicely complimented by the flavorful aioli. The sprouts were perfectly prepared - not burnt or overly oiled, and definitely spicy with vinegar and heat. We asked our server to hold off a bit on the next two dishes - we were quite overwhelmed by what we had, but in a good way.

Next to arrive was the BBQ Short Ribs ($15), served with mac n' cheese, and an order of Calamari ($11) topped with baby arugula and a sweet chili glaze (which I asked for served on the side). The beef was tender, maybe a bit burned to my taste (and just because I'm the Goddess of Fire doesn't mean I'm partial to charring). We only got one rib, however, on top of a generous and complex mac n' cheese that was also topped with these large, crunchy croutons. We liked it all but we just didn't feel that the ribs and the mac dish went together very well. They were both stand alone delicious. And please note we ordered RIBS (plural). What we got was mostly pasta. Anyway, the calamari was nicely prepared, salty for sure; combined in bites with the glaze and salad greens it was really delightful. We kept taking more tastes of everything because everything was so good, but there was no way we could finish what we had. In this case, food won, but of course Zena, Goddess of Fire, let it win.

I've enjoyed many excellent tapas restaurants in the U.S., including The 9th Door in Denver, Emilio's Tapas in Chicago, and Cafe Madrid in Dallas. Memories of a dish with a couple of nice pieces of cheese, some olives, olive oil, and bread; another dish with a fried thing and always a few little olives; a bowl of simple beans in cream; several skewered mushroom stuffed with little shrimp, a couple of bites of tender chicken in a spicy tomato sauce. Simple, three/four/five bites, a snack, usually enough to share, and you might order a number of dishes over the course of an evening, one at a time, to make a light meal. There was nothing small about the small plates at Aperitivo - each one was big, bold, flavorful, spicy, greasy, and lovely to behold, but everything was rich, heady and perhaps a bit overindulgent. FF thought the chef had a childhood issue with cherry peppers, but we didn't find any of it too spicy.

The dining rooms are lovely - chic, spartan, nicely lit. It wasn't a busy night - with their proximity to Proctor's (practically next door) you might want to check their schedule before you go if you mind crowds or don't have a reservation. Or wait until after the show starts.

Tapas for two was $63.70 for two drinks, two small plates and two antipasti, plus tip. If you go, go hungry, and plan to share. It was really a wonderful meal.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

(I gotta give her credit, FF still had room for those puffy mints at the front door on our way out.)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Farm Film Fest 6 in Chatham

Farm Film Fest 6 at the Crandell Theater in Chatham made for a very nice late winter afternoon filled with thinking about farms, farmers and farming.   I called Zena, Goddess of Fire and we were all over it. The fest is a collaborative effort between The Chatham Agricultural Partnership, The Chatham Film Club, and The Columbia Land Conservancy. Two 60 minute works were the bookends for a small group of short pieces and there were food and drinks at the pub afterwards.

The lineup:
Growing Cities
Crafting the Cider Comeback
Community Garden
Hopped Upstate: The Rise of Local Hop Farming in New York
Locust Hill Farm
Trowbridge Farms - Angus Cattle
Cow Power
The Beekeeper is on the program, but it was not shown at the festival due to technical difficulties with the sound. It's on vimeo - just follow the information on the festival website.

There are summaries of the films on the site, so I won't go over each one.

I was very excited to see a nice and cute documentary of urban farming in "Growing Cities" and thought immediately of our urban farm here in Albany: Radix . I was great to see all the ways that urban farms have become an important element in the social fabric in San Francisco, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, New Orleans and even Omaha. The celebration of cider in "Crafting the Cider Comeback" made me all excited to participate in the Hudson Valley Cider Week coming up in the fall. This link is for the 2013 information, which will likely be set up for 2014 sometime in the summer.

The others were all good little documentaries that pack a lot of information into a couple hours of entertainment.

I'm sure the Goddess and I will be looking out for this festival next spring, while we're waiting for the lettuces and garlic scapes to break the soil's surface.  Yum.

On the way home from Chatham we stopped at The Berry Farm to  see what they've been growing in their greenhouses and Tierra Farms, both on rt. 203 between Chatham center and Kinderhook.  The Berry Farm never disappoints, so we picked up a few delights.  Tierra Farms is worth a trip from Albany when you are looking for all organic nuts, nut butters, dried fruits and their well-known coffee.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Gastrointestinal Neutrality

Yeah Yeah Yeah, I know that “gastro” is a prefix that is neutral, but go ahead and call me old fashioned, I don’t care.  Put gastro in front of any restaurant name and I’m going to think of intestines.  The part of food that most interests me is what happens in my mouth.  So when I made my visits to the Capital City Gastropub it was a bit of an uphill battle.  Not that the name is as bad as, say, Mugs and Jugs, which I was sort of glad to see crash and burn.  And I know that you can’t have a name like Capital City Pub-but-the-food-is-really-good. So there we are. I think the name is problematic.

One of my favorite parts of the CCG experience is the service, which I found to be attentive and polite without being overbearing.  I was greeted promptly and seated quickly and all through the meal I felt like the staff was interested in making the meal a pleasant experience.  The room is what I would call austere industrial, with no soft surfaces, but it’s not so big that the noise becomes overwhelming.  There’s a deep sage green over most of the walls, with a deep brown-gray tile and exposed duct work painted black around most of the ceiling. The kitchen is all open, and I always like that. I think it’s a perfect addition to a neighborhood that has a little concentrated commercial area to serve local college students, medical school students, hospital residents and other young professionals as well as the settled in residents of the New Scotland Ave. area.

They have  Happy Hour, which every pub should do, and each time I’ve gone there have been happy people at the bar, which I enjoy very much. It gives the room a very lively feeling.  There seem to be all the things a pub should have in the way of drinks, with special attention to local offerings.  I ordered cider on my visits.  One time it was because I thought it would be lovely with what I was eating, and the other time because I wanted to try our very own local Nine Pin.  I can see gradually working my way through the beer list and into the cocktails.

The menu is not large, but contains everything a pub menu should contain and more. As soon as I began to run my eyes down the lists I knew it was going to be special.  It is.  Poutine;   Poutine with foie gras; Out of the ordinary salads and appetizers;  Local meat for the burgers and steaks; and all special without being extreme.  This is still very down to earth pub food, it just doesn’t all come out of the fryer.

I had to try the Foie Poutine, the pear and arugula salad, the turnips and almonds and the Club Steak. I was quite happy with most everything, but the critic in me wants to make comments because that’s why I’m here!!!  


The pear and arugula salad is brilliant, and if you’re going to have it before you dive into a bowl of poutine, necessary. I was struck by the especially tart version that I got, which probably is not that tart every time.  The sourness was a bit over the top, and it’s hard to tell if that’s on purpose or whether it was just a bit of heavy handedness on the vinegar that particular night.  The pears were not up to it due to the season and they would probably have mitigated the vinaigrette, so the salad wasn’t balanced but had an overall sour tone. All the sourness disappeared into Foie Poutine which I unabashedly scarfed.  I mean, poutine. You can’t be very pretentious about it, can you?  You can do it well, which is the case at CCG, and it’s just the best comfort food EVAR!!!! The scallions added a wonderful bite to the savory mess of gravy, foie gras, cheese and potatoes. I had the small portion and I still could not manage to plow my way through the entire bowl, so if you’re going out with someone smaller than a very large lumberjack, you might think about sharing. It had the squeaky curds, which I consider essential, and they gracefully melted as I stirred them into the general malaise. 

  The turnips and almonds dish suffered only from being more raw turnips than any human is going to eat in a sitting. It could have used a garnish, but I'm not sure CCG does a lot of garnishes.  Definitely share this one, which I highly recommend, even if you think you don’t like turnips.  The vinaigrette along with the paper-thin slicing takes care of any fear that you may have of unpleasant turnip taste (although I find turnips to be wonderful), and the almonds add a special soft crunchiness and toasty flavor that is a perfect foil.

From Ask.com:
club steak
a beefsteak cut from the rib end of the short loin, or sometimes a porterhouse or T-bone steak from which the tenderloin has been trimmed.
CCG does a club steak with a root vegetable mash and Bordelaise sauce.  I loved this dish. The steak comes from Tilldale Farm, which specializes in grass fed organic beef.  I don’t enjoy the idea of melt in your mouth steak, and this cut has some tooth, but is quite tender, so to me it was a perfect texture.  I didn’t think to try just cutting it with my fork, but it would likely have been possible.  I could have done with less of the Bordelaise, as it was everywhere on the plate, but it actually wasn’t annoying, even in that amount. I did dunk several bites of the steak into it, and was very pleased.  It’s the vegetables that I want to praise in regard to this dish.  They are really, really good.  You know how you get a great steak and then the vegetables are just a disaster most of the time?  These veggies on the night I had them were potato, carrot, kohlrabi and turnip blended into a heavenly mash that perfectly complemented the meat.  This is my new place to go when I am jonesing for a good steak.
Prices are on the high side for Albany.  The menu is available online so I won’t go down the price of each item, but this is not cheapo cheapo food.  If one chooses well, one can get a very very good dinner for a decent price, and that includes sharing with companions.

I’ll definitely be going back to try more of the drinks and food.  I’m hoping that the menu is seasonal and we’ll see more interesting takes on traditional dishes.