Saturday, December 21, 2013

DOING DISHES: Part IV of V - Dinner at Provence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zena, Goddess of Fire

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Fantasies of Good Restaurants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's your restaurant fantasy for Lark Street?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Pho at Saiguette

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

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

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

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

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

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