Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Pho Journey Continues: Pho Yum Pho and My Linh Pho Bo

The pho journey in the Capital Region so far has included Kim's and Van's. My Linh and Pho Yum are the next step on the trail, and then two more stops are coming up.

My Linh Pho Bo

The most obvious new and different feature of the My Linh Pho Bo in my pho series is its modest size. The photos show how the condiments dish also is more modest, allowing one to develop different flavors, but none to an overwhelming degree.  To me this is a welcome difference and I did not have to feel badly about  being too full to finish the bowl.  At My Linh there is not a special soup menu, although there is a great menu on the whole.  There is a delightful Teaser Plates menu and I was eager to try at least one, so the smaller pho bowl was  perfect.

I had the "entree" size which is mentioned in the description of the soup.

The "kit" effect of the Pho Bo is also a bit different than my other experiences in the series so far.  The condiments in the form of fresh jalapenos, basil leaves, sprouts, lime, sriracha and hoisin sauces arrive at the table, then a steaming bowl of broth and noodles and a separate plate of thin raw surloin with paper thin onion.  There are also cilantro and scallion in the noodles. The server begins the soup experience by putting the surloin and onion into the broth, then you can take over and finish composing the soup according to taste.  The beef is cooked in the broth within a minute or two. The My Linh broth is less robust than Van's or Kim's , but it stands up to the other features of the soup very well.  The surloin was deliciously flavorful and tender. While it's a more simple version with fewer options than the other restaurants' offerings, it's a good pho experience in my opinion. So if not everyone in your party wants soup, but you have a craving, My Linh will accommodate all.

Pho Yum Pho

Delicious fresh summer rolls with nuoc nam sauce were my appetizer at Pho Yum.  I recommend these highly. They're substantive but not so heavy that they make finishing one's soup impossible.

Although Pho Yum restaurant is owned by the same family as My Linh, the experience is very different.  On a cold rainy April night the place was busy when I arrived around 6:30. It is much more casual than My Linh and has a menu with a distinct pho focus. There's a good starter menu and also a bahn mi list and a dessert list.

There are many more choices for customizing the soup on the Pho Yum menu than anywhere else on the journey so far, including a double-strength broth option. I had the regular broth and went full bore with all three beef options: meatballs, brisket and eye round. Each meat added a different flavor of beef, all with positive influence on the soup. No one spice stood out in the broth, but the range of spices made for a satisfying aroma and rich flavor.  The modest size of the soup bowl makes it easy to taste the non-pho parts of the menu in a single visit. This is definitely a place to return again and again to taste one's way through varieties of pho. The good prices are an incentive to try as many varieties as possible!

What I'm gaining from going through so many types of pho is the sense that this soup has a world of things going on inside it. It's not just that there's more than one kind of pho, it's that there's supposed to be a unique quality to the bowl of pho that you are about to slurp down with great relish. The overarching idea is that everyone can make it their own, so a place that specializes in it such as Pho Yum embellishes that idea in as many ways as possible, starting the customer with something very basic and also providing ingredients to make it a complex heady bowl of hot goodness that warms body and soul.

One piece of equipment that will enhance any pho experience is a hankie.  Take one with you.  A large bowl of hot spicy soup requires a "be prepared" attitude. Your inevitable sniffling and snuffling will be politely quieted and you and your companions will have a much more pleasant time.

There are a few management issues with this restaurant that leave questions in my mind, such as a women's washroom that was appallingly dysfunctional. I hope this was a very temporary condition. This sort of thing unfortunately takes away from the experience, even though it doesn't have anything to do with the food. If it was just that perhaps it wouldn't be worth mentioning, but there was also only one wait staff person trying to take care of all nine of the tables. Several times during the dinner car headlights became problem as cars pulled close to the front windows nearly blinding me, being about 8 feet from my eyes.   A shade would eliminate this issue.  So there are a few things that the management should do to make the customer experience much less awkward. I consider this type of thing to be a sort of "skimping" that helps them keep their prices low.  Frankly, I'd rather pay more and be less annoyed.

Friday, April 18, 2014

DOING DISHES: Tapas Part IV of V - Cella Bistro

Jim, the Garmin Guy, is an idiot. Good thing I have special powers, including an ability to find my way into and out of deepest Schenectady with only a few wrong turns and not onto those one-way roads going the wrong way again.

This week Foodie Friend and I decided to try the tapas served at Cella Bistro. It doesn't look like much on the outside - sort of small and plain, but on the inside it was very special. Maybe they are trying to protect their secret identity, too.

It was early and we were looking forward to settling in at the bar instead of taking a table in the back dining room, having a drink or two, sharing a laugh and of course, a few tapas. We had to find our way through 5 menus - I was feeling a bit lost but FF was already happily wandering her way through all the lists. There was a Tapas Menu, Cocktail List, Wine List, and Today's Menu Selections, as well as a chalkboard with today's specials, including a few additional tapas.

FF ordered a cocktail they called a Raspberry Truffle made from vodka, Kahlua, and Chambord, shaken and served in a martini glass ($8) that she found absolutely delicious. Eventually it made her giggle, but I digress. I took a little more time and tasted the Tamari Malbec Reserve from Argentina ($8) from a list of 10 wines available by the glass before ordering - it was strong and robust and perfect for sipping. The wine list was very nice, with selections from all over the world, running $20 (cheap) to $67 a bottle (still very reasonable). I noted a few Rieslings from New York State, in keeping with Chef Micheal's interest in going local when he can. We started our night out with a bowl of House Marinated Mixed Olives ($4) - a nice selection of both soft, black olives and meaty green ones, spicy, salty, lemony and simple. It was perhaps a bit too many for two of us, but we finished most of them by the end of the evening.

FF was racing ahead, careening around the menus, oohing and ahhing while I was just trying to find my napkin among all the paperwork and glasses and dishes. She was SO excited to be on another adventure, and by the promising choices on our menus!!! So I asked for Bread Service ($2), which was served warm with olive oil laced with black pepper, and an order of the Grilled Baby Artichokes in Caper Aioli ($7) for our next course. Both were fabulous - the bread was very tasty, soft and dense; the artichokes were deeply flavorful with just a touch of char served atop a bed of baby arugula. The caper aioli was out of this world wonderful - enough to slow us down. We loved this small plate - it was the best thing we ordered during our short visit.

FF was still zooming around looking at what we might order, but to be honest I really wanted to slow down and taste and think again what to have next. She was looking at the Starters on the daily selections and considered the Warm Mushroom Salad, Pate Campagne, or Roasted Red and Gold Beets. But we had earlier discussed ordering the Corn and Scallion Pancake, topped with cumin dusted shrimp and rajas, a sauce made with poblanos, onions, and crema. Not able to decide we ordered the White Anchovy Filets with lemon and parsley ($6) to tide us over for a bit.  Wowers, fellow eating-superheroes. This was NOT a dish for the faint of heart. Very fishy and actually served with finely minced chives. It was tasty assuming you are not prone to burping, and we thought tempering it with a piece of rye bread and a bit of cream cheese would have been nice, but it was a daredevil move for any foodie and well worth trying. FYI the lemon, served on the side to be squeezed fresh onto the plate helped cut through the intensity of this plate.

Then we enjoyed the pancake, which was thick like a regular breakfast style buttermilk pancake, fat and sweet, topped with four large shrimps. I lost the taste of the cumin from the grilling (it was a bit dusty), and the shrimps were slightly tough and overcooked, but the overall effect of the dish was rich and divine. It was a generous serving that for most mortals would be a meal in itself.

It was a pleasant crowd, mostly professional (Cella Bistro is near Ellis Hospital and not far from Union College, and there may be some GE folks around here somewhere). There were a lot of couples, too (the place is dark and warm and rich and cozy). It's not a student hangout and even though I felt like I was in a rather peculiar neighborhood for such a nice place to eat I still felt cool and trendy just being there. And we appreciated that tapas was just that: small, simple dishes to enjoy with a drink or two at the bar with a friend on a night out - small servings carefully crafted and meant to be savored with a sip or two.

Our meal, including four tapas and one starter, two drinks, plus tax was $52.70, very reasonable considering the quality of the food, the terrific service, and the ambiance.  The restaurant was very busy by the time we were done and we suspected that to order tapas the way we wanted to, which was As Needed, would have been a problem seeing how busy the staff became as the restaurant filled. But without exception our server at the bar was friendly and gracious. The rush of rush hour was smoothed over by a great meal and a casual, comfortable setting.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS: There is parking for about 10 cars in the lot proper but you can go wild parking on the side street.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

City Beer Hall for Restaurant Week

The various area Restaurant Week specials are a nice way to try a new place. For Downtown Albany restaurant week a small group of friends and I tried The City Beer Hall at the corner of Lodge and Howard Streets. Since we were nosing our way into this neighborhood  and not sure of ourselves, we neglected to stop and take the good advice of the parking guy stationed uphill from the CBH and we ended up in the parking garage, which was waaaaaay too expensive.  Our smarter friends used the free lot and the street, so remember to take the free lot option or park on the street when you go.

Inside the stately old place are basically picnic tables with benches, which gets fairly difficult after awhile.  No backrests means discomfort. With no cushions either, we were ready to get out of there after dinner ended.

The Restaurant Week Menu at City Beer Hall is specials in three courses with starters, main dishes and desserts.  We wondered about the work flow of the week's specials in the kitchen because we noticed things like not getting our main dishes before two parties who arrived after us were getting their checks, and there were some foods that had noticeably cooled or warmed in an untimely fashion when they got to our table. 

Being a Beer Hall, it has a great beer menu with a few wines and ciders. The regular food menu has several categories of things that go well with beers, including refreshing takes on pub classics.
Each dish we had for restaurant week was playful and interesting, taking a basic pub or diner classic and zesting it up a little bit with modern sensibilities. Our party had fun talking almost the whole time about the food - there's a lot to notice in these inventive flavors and combinations.

Our party chose the BL Teezy My Neezy salad for one of the starters and there was a good deal of oo-ing and ah-ing over the slab bacon and roasted tomatoes.  With a touch of sriracha the creamy dressing is a great compliment.
Our other starter was the Oscar Della Hummas black bean hummus and charred pita.  It was beautifully savory with a perfect texture. It also had arrugula tangled up in it, I supposed to make it extra challenging to get it onto the pita, but it's hard to tell why. 

The Oh Miso Corny chicken with kimchee fried rice was a beautifully put together dish, however I'm not sure what was intended with this particular plating, which makes it look like something was forgotten. The tempura baby corn is to die for.  I want a whole plate of it. The chicken was the best chicken I have had from a restaurant in a very long time, being perfectly flavored and deliciously tender and moist. The balance of flavors in the kimchee fried rice with Korean bbq pork is smashing and makes an excellent foundation for the chicken and corn.

The BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich with fries got a hearty thumbs up and the report included ok coleslaw, which we all agree is apparently tricky for restaurants. While our friend didn't exactly lick the plate, there didn't seem to be much on it when she was done.

Three members of the party went for this handsome fish and potato combination called Spud and Salty Spheres.  This is one of the dishes that suffered, we guessed, from out of sync preparation in the work flow of the kitchen.  Since the plates had not been heated the potatoes were cold, and it seems to be the one element that wasn't dressed up with interesting flavors.  We definitely feel like no one was looking after the total plate and monitoring when it should get warmed up during the time when everything was getting prepared. The general opinion of the greens is that they were meh.  I got to taste the fish and it was lovely.


We chose the Nitro Stout Cream pie (above) and Boiler Maker Ice Cream (below) for our desserts and the ice cream seemed also to suffer from sitting around a bit too long - a significant amount of it was melted.  Once again, no one was watching what was lined up and waiting to see that the dish didn't fall apart before going out to the table. A suggestion that the bacon be in the form of crumbles rather than a thick slice also seemed to make consensus. I ordered the cream pie and it was a knockout.  Beyond the great flavor, the small size made it the best dessert I've had in a long time.

There are so many good looking things on the menu I'm sure we'll be back to try more of what the CBH has to offer in the future. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Ciao Italia Ristorante, Schenectady NY

One of my favorite meals of all time is Chicken Parmesan. There are several reasons for this:

1. I've never met a fried food I didn't like.
2. Chicken can be diet food if you don't fry it and cover it with cheese, but it has potential.
3. Anything with cheese is good both for old ladies and Goddesses. It is also delicious.

After reading the FussyLittleBlog on red sauce I decided that I didn't agree with -R and think I could, because I have superpowers perhaps, eat Chicken Parm every day for light years without getting tired of it. AND, like everyone else, I have an experience in mind with red sauce that is also very personal.

The red sauce has to be GOOD.

So I'm dining out at some of the Capital Region's family run Italian restaurants, trying their Chicken Parmesan and their red sauces to see what I find. Just because I think I can do it well at home doesn't mean I shouldn't be able to get something as good, if not better, eating out. And I don't have to do the dishes.

Tall, blonde and beautiful (TBB) and Cookie joined me for dinner at Ciao Italia Ristorante, located  at 3770 Carmen Road, Schenectady for dinner on Saturday night. It's in a strip mall set back from the road so you may not see it driving by, and it doesn't look like much on the outside either. Neon doesn't exactly sing fine dining, if you know what I mean. But don't let this fool you. Or the fact that there's a few tables on the right when you first come in that looks like a place to wait for take-out. The dining room, to the left, is simple but dressed with linens, which was nice. It was quiet when I arrived - only one other large table was seated already. Just few others came and went through the course of the evening.

I was seated promptly, and given water and menus while I waited for my friends to arrive, so I settled in to have a good look at what they had to offer. In almost every respect this was classic what I think of as Italian American, with Antipasti such as Calimari Fritti, Caprese salad, and an Antipasto platter with cured meats and Italian cheeses. Pasta dishes were characterized by an Italian City (kinda cute), such as Sicilia (swordfish with egglplant, also in marinara), Piemonte (Fettuccini Alfredo), and Firenzi (steamed clams). Their "al Forno" dishes (lasagna, manicotti and ravioli) are made with homemade pasta and served either with bolognese or marinara sauce. Entrees included chicken or veal parm or Marsala, eggplant parm, Braciole alla Calabrese, and Saltimbocca di Pollo Vitello.  Ciao Italia also offers up five 12" pizzas, 3 of which are "white". Overall I would say the variety was very nice.

Once the gang had all arrived we looked more closely at the wine list. Vino choices were pretty limited and there was nothing that seemed interesting or familiar; prices ranged from $23 to $51/bottle. Most of what they had were Italian wines, about 20 in all, but some were not available, according to our server, as they were just in the process of creating a new wine list. We were allowed to test a few; the first two were really awful. TBB described one as "diner wine, made from the grapes that fell on the ground and got stomped by your toes." Not exactly NYTimes reviewing but it makes the point nicely. The third, Catena Classic Malbec from Argentina ($33/bottle), was passably OK. A new selection of better quality options is definitely in order.

TBB and Cookie wanted to eat light, and so chose off the Antipasti menu to share. They ordered Beans and Greens ($8), swiss chard sauteed in olive oil with cannellini beans, and the Insalata di Gamberi ($13), a green salad topped with grilled shrimp. The beans were delicious - creamy, thickened, and nice and garlickly, with a goodly ratio of greens. All of us thought it was one of the best we'd ever had. The Insalata was also delightful, with crisp Romaine lettuce, little fresh mozzarella balls, red peppers and sun dried tomatoes, although I could have done without the canned artichokes. The lemon vinaigrette was light and flavorful. Both servings were very generous, and it was really sweet that the kitchen split the bean dish without charging a sharing fee (something I spit at - honest to saving the world: if the servings are so large that people keep asking for splits then restaurants should offer smaller sizes).

We got a basket of fresh, homemade bread along with our meal. It was yeasty and dense, but the butter it was served with, "James Farm Butter", was almost rancid and incredibly salty. Little butter packets also sing Diner out loud at the top of its little yellow lungs - not a good idea if upscale is the goal. There is a bottle of herbed olive oil on each table that diners should be introduced to instead, and while not very herby it was still lovely, even sublime. FYI the restaurant will sell the bread by the loaf if you want to bring some home.

All entrees come with a side of soup or salad, so I ordered my Chicken Parmigiana ($18) with a house salad and their homemade balsamic vinaigrette. The salad was generous, nicely presented, had lots of variety, and was perty darn good for early April in NY.

The chicken was delicious! Each of four nice sized slices were slightly crispy, uniform in thickness, not overcooked, or at all greasy. The sauce was simple and light (diced canned tomatoes with a bit of garlic), although there was a bit more on the plate than I would have preferred, as it quickly made the cutlets soggy. Anyway the simplicity of the red sauce was the right compliment for this dish. It was served with just enough cheese on top to make it sumptuous without masking the taste of the bird. Cookie, from previous experience, knew that the fettuccini was homemade, so that's what I ordered on the side. It was very tasty, tossed with the same red sauce in the kitchen before serving. As a topper to plain pasta, however, I found the red sauce very bland and not at all interesting. No herbs that I could taste, no seasoning at all really, and a bit tinny, a sauce that was sort of like the single note fa without the la la la. The server never returned with parmesan to sprinkle, so that was too bad.

The servings were generous, so I got to take plenty home and YES, my theory was correct: I CAN eat Chicken Parm every night and not get tired of it. (:

We were full and happy, but did someone say dessert??? We ordered their tiramisu and three spoons. It was tasty, heavy with cinnamon on top (cough cough) and hard to finish. The coffee was also very good, but again those little diner creamers seem to detract.

Ciao Italia is a place to eat a nice dinner out with friends and family but neither the location, nor the decor, make it a cool or trendy place to be. But I thought dinner was really good - that was a nice surprise! Fresh ingredients seemed to rule the kitchen and that's all in their favor - good quality from the start always makes food shine. When I return, and I plan to return, I want to try their Osso Buco if I'm lucky enough to find it as the nightly special.

Dinner for three with two dinner-sized appetizers, one entree, a bottle of wine, dessert and coffee for two, including tax, was $89.00.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS: I am an admitted pasta junkie (no one can smell it on your breath if you get pulled over for singing behind the wheel).  

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Bread and Honey

On Madison Ave, tucked in the little block of business after the eastern most edge of the College of St. Rose, this little bagel shop is producing delicious bagels, pretzels and breads along with their logical extensions.

The modest size of the room and the selections is a shock at first for those who are used to overblown American business with too much going on.  This is more like a serene little space to enjoy without overdoing it. Nothing is too much, which makes it almost like a haven. The grays and browns of the interior add coziness to the dining area, where 5 tables allow for a leisurely absorption of bready goodness. There is also wifi if you want to do your social networking while munching lovely bagels. The huge windows into the kitchen are one of my favorite features because I love looking into all the machinery that makes food happen.

I've visited several times to make sure that the very good bagel taste is consistent and for real and it is!  I'm sure I'll visit to get to the other offerings as time goes by.  They serve Gimme! Coffee and a selection of juices and yogurts. Soups and sandwiches appear for lunch.

When I was there on a Sunday morning there was a brisk takeout business as well as a full house sitting at the tables and there were many comments about the good quality of what was being served.

The first couple times I wondered if the staff was a little more concerned with everything else but the customers, but they seem to be growing out of that and have moved on to a bit more responsive attitude as people enter the space and make their choices of food and drink.

Lorre Bob sez: check it out!

Like their Facebook page to keep up on developments.
Get the background from All Over Albany .