Thursday, May 29, 2014

Wine and Food from the Hudson Valley and Berkshire Mountains

There something about a local wine and food festival at a charming county fairgrounds in the middle of spring.  It’s just full of delight.  For your thrills and chills you need to get a goddess to go with you.  I chose Zena, Goddess of Fire to go with me for the 2nd Annual Hudson Berkshire Wine and Food Festival 

We flew down to Chatham in the Fire Mobile, ready to taste the best that the Hudson Valley and the Berkshires have to offer, and we weren’t disappointed. Zena, GOF, has a real talent for watching the Groupons and getting a couple people into places for deep discounts.  It’s almost like that Jedi hand waving thingie and people at the gate are always very friendly.

At the Columbia County Fairgrounds  gate in Chatham we got a tasting glass and a bag with pockets for holding bottles and a whole bunch of brochures.  I’m glad we got the brochures because now, a few days later, I can actually tell you what we tasted and where it came from.  At first this looked like a small (well, dinky) event, but once we got into the hall it became apparent that there were lots of producers there with lots of great things on offer.  I’m hoping they’ll leave the list of vendors up on the website for awhile, because these are names you should look into. 

The various vendors are people who have put their hearts and souls into making lovely food and drink for us. They use locally produced ingredients much of the time and give the local economy life and vigor.  Please consider tasting their products and supporting their efforts.

One of the most memorable tastes among the dozens that I enjoyed was dandelion wine produced by Hummingbird Hills Winery in Fultonville, NY (photo of Ken, above). In my family dandelion wine along with various fruit wines made in the basements of our grandparents’ houses was the butt of many a joke .  Owner Ken bases his wine on an old family recipe and doesn’t produce much, but likes to keep the tradition going. I'm not sure I can describe the taste - Zena says, "grassy" and I'm sure it will provide interesting comments at any party.

Another highlight was tasting Cereghino Smith Winery “Bianca” Riesling, which took me waaaaay back to a wine from Grgich Hills Winery in the Napa Valley of Califorina. What a great wine and a great memory.  I do love a good after dinner wine to put a glow on the evening.

Zena and I thought this stainless cooler (with spigots) was the perfect cider conveyance.

I got into an apple jag because I want to learn all I can about New York apples, so I started tasting the various apple products on the floor, including apple mead from Helderberg Meadworks, apple vodka and applejack from Hudson Valley Distillers, and  Warwick Valley sour cherry and apple brandy.  It was yummers all the way.

Sugar Wash Moonshine from Dutch’s Spirits was meh – they put it in lemonade, which just seemed wrong because it was something like crystal lite lemonade – urk.

 Maple mustards from Hudson Chatham Gourmet and Ioka Valley farms were top notch – Zena, GOF picked up some for a gift, which is an excellent idea. Single malt whiskey from Hillrock Estate Distillery, black raspberry dessert wine from Clinton Vinyards and a pilsner from BarringtonBrewery all went down easy, but all put together tuckered us out. And heaven only knows how many times Zena saved the world while I had my nose in a glass of spirits.

 Carlo deVito wrote about the festival in detail here and did a great job of capturing much of what was going on:

There were a few other products besides food and drink, such as these groovey cutting and serving boards.

After we tasted all we could taste and drank all we could drink, we took ourselves to a bench outdoors to review all we had enjoyed and to wax philosophically about the joys and sorrows of life. All that remained was to fly back to Albany lickety split in the old Fire Mobile. And so we did.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Sometimes it's all about Having Fun at the Table

About a bazillion years ago I joined or created accounts to websites of all kinds just because it was such a strange world of opportunity.  One of those sites was MeetUps. The site has gone through a truly dazzling number of incarnations in the intervening years and suddenly a few months ago I began to receive emails about Albany meetups. Last week as I was absentmindedly nosing around the site I ran into the Albany Sushi MeetUp and something made me sign up for their upcoming event. I never do things like this. Well, I mean except that time I flew out to Denver to meet up with my 35 closest net friends that I had never met in person, but you know what I'm saying.

It was a sushi dinner at Asian Tea House in East Greenbush.  Basically all you can eat sushi in a private room with a whole bunch of other people who really like sushi. Just the promise of sheer enthusiasm was enough to sweep me into the spirit.  You all know how much of a drag it is to try to eat with people who are obsessed with how much they are not going to eat, or people who are squeamish about half of what is on the menu.  It's simply no fun.  Well, this promised to be a fun night full of delicious fish and rice for a fabulous discount to be consumed with all the warmhearted fellowship of sushi lovers.

All promises were delivered with wasabi and ginger.

We were shepherded into the private dining room in the back of the Asian Tea House after assembling at the bar and ordering our various cocktails, wine and beer, with cheery introductions. Our evening's host had made sure that we would get a good selection of appetizers and sushi, foregoing individual orders.  With 15 in our party trying to order individually would be a logistics disaster for the kitchen.  Two of the ATH staff made sure we had tea and condiments and then the platters began to arrive. As you can imagine at a Capital Region sushi dinner there were very good conversationalists, so as the talk became lively and people were taking photos and newbies were telling their stories, we began to nibble and relish the culinary offerings.

A lovely fragrant and tasty bowl of hot and sour soup was our beginning.  I don't usually eat this soup after many disappointments, but the ATH version was delicious. After platters of crab rangoons, "sushi pizza" and spicy fried wontons came platters of sushi rolls. The chefs draw scrollwork and abstract designs on the platters to make it an artful presentation, which I appreciate. I like the visual aspect of the sushi as much as anything. The talk among the group was just loud enough to make it impossible to hear the names of all the rolls, but we got a very good sampling from their menu.

The conversation took a back seat to a contemplative silence as everyone began to absorb the flavor combinations of the rolls. Then came gentle moans that generally signify "yummy".  My favorite is one of their house specialities called Kiss of Fire, with a delicate slice of jalapeno embellishing the top of each piece of the roll. I'll confess that I was not able to actually eat the jalapeno slice, but managed to make sure that enough of the juice provided a wonderful bright spicy flavor to the roll. The conversation level rose again as people wanted to praise or ask questions or generally fight over select the remaining pieces.  After the roll platters were empty the platters of nigiri and sashimi began to arrive and everyone began to settle in to the realization that there was PLENTY OF SUSHI. The strategizing dissipated. New rounds of conversation, jokes and general conviviality began.

Oh my.

Although my sushi intake remained modest, the experience  was very much enhanced by the company - I was in a sushi swoon and suddenly it was past my bed time. The Albany Sushi MeetUp page soon was filled with photos and comments about the evening - mostly "It was GREAT!!!!!" I agree.  What a pleasant and uplifting way to spend an evening at table.  I'm really looking forward to the next one.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Pho to the North of Us

Phila Fusion  is a Saratoga Springs purveyor of pho and since we have been having such a fine string of pleasant spring days I thought I'd journey up that way to taste what they have to offer.

The streets were buzzing with pedestrians promenading in the fine spring weather. Cafe tables lined the sidewalks on Broadway. Saratoga is in full swing. I got a great deal on some glorious summer yarn while shopping my way through the streets, and so to get back on track with my primary objective I walked on Phila Street down the geological fault on the east side of Broadway that is the reason why Saratoga Springs has springs.  Phila Street is home to many fine shops and eateries and Phila Fusion is the end of the row on the corner at Henry Street.

Once one has passed through the entrance doors there is a lovely dining room with huge windows looking out onto the street and a stylish and serene interior for such a big space. There are dramatic glass room dividers and a bold theme of red and black. The crowd was sparse due to my late lunch/early dinner arrival time, so I had a calm few minutes before the attentive staff approached the table to perform their duties.

Their extensive menu has selections from Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Korean, and Vietnamese cuisines, but this trip I was interested to see how they prepare pho.  I must say that, based on my not very extensive tasting around the Capital District,  they're calling it in.

I had the Crispy Roll appetizer, described as: "mixed veggies with a choice of grounded chicken or tofu wrapped in rice paper, fried and served with Vietnamese dipping sauce". I had the ground chicken rather than the tofu. The rice paper is often uncooked in Vietnamese appetizer rolls, but it is fried to a crisp in the Phila Fusion rolls, and unfortunately in this example the most distinctive flavor was the inside of a refrigerator.

The pho is described as: "Vietnamese soup noodles in an aromatic broth, garnished w/ scallions, onions, and cilantro. Served w/ bean sprouts, basil, mint and lime."; offered with a choice of  options for $11.95-12.95:
sliced beef
sliced chicken
sliced pork
mixed seafood
mixed vegetable

I chose the sliced beef and decided to compare it with what I had tasted at Pho Yum, My Linh, Van's and Kim's. A very modest dish of the traditional sprouts, citrus, basil and jalapenos arrived at the table first - no mint in sight, and there was lemon, no lime. Then came a charming tray of hoisin sauce, two kinds of hot sauce and sugar in tiny crocks with adorable small wooden spoons. I had irresistible urges to play with all of the tiny crockery because each had a miniature lid  along with the tiny spoon.  I faked needing to taste the hoisin sauce several times in order to appear grown up enough to play with all the little pieces and not be overly obvious about it.

The broth was aromatic, and had scallions and paper thin onion slices with lovely fried garlic slices as a garnish, however I did not see any evidence of cilantro, but the most noticeable feature was an almost complete lack of salt. There was plenty of beef, and once I stirred up the pile of noodles from the bottom it was apparent that it's a hearty bowl of noodles.  The only thing is that the noodles were almost paste because they had been overcooked or wet for too long. That and the lack of  a robust broth gave the impression of rice paste used to mend books - heck yeah, I've dipped my finger in and tasted while I was mending books, so I should know. I made a major mistake by trying to raise the saltiness with soy sauce.  Please don't try that yourself, ask for salt instead if you should also find the broth lacking. With noodles that have no tooth, it would take more than salt to bring this bowl up to a level above "meh".

So while you may find many delicious and interesting dishes from their extensive menu, I would not recommend the Phila Fusion pho. I could possibly go back to see if this visit's pho was a fluke, but why drive 30 miles on the off chance that they are capable of preparing a more interesting bowl of soup?

Coming up! The 2nd Annual Hudson-Berkshire Wine & Food Festival

Go and taste and find out who is making the good stuff in our region!

Hudson-Berkshire  WINE & FOOD FESTIVAL
Sat., May 24 11am-6pm • Sun., May 25, 11am-5pm
Columbia County Fairgrounds, Chatham, NY

From the website [click on the link below to go there]:
The 2nd Annual Wine and Food Festival will feature the five beverage trail members plus other regional wineries, distilleries, cideries and craft breweries.

There will also be delicious foods for sale and sampling including gourmet cheeses and creameries, baked goods, grass fed meat producers and more! Throughout the weekend there will be special guest appearances and book signings, seminars of wine and food pairings, home brewing, and cheese making by some of the region’s foremost experts.

Tasting Ticket Includes admission, souvenir tasting glass and all the wine, beer and spirits you care to taste for one price.

One Day Tasting – $25.00

The Hudson-Berkshire Beverage Trail is the premiere beverage trail in New York State and the Hudson Valley. The trail extends from Southeast of Albany down to Hudson, New York and features handcrafted, award-winning and celebrated wines, beers, and spirits.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Winter Brunch Bunch at New World Bistro

Sunday brunch is for mortals and superpowers, including churchgoers, gym junkies, and folks that sleep in then wake up starved with a hangover needing something rich and salty with potatoes and a cocktail to help them recover. New World Bistro Bar is hallowed ground for folks that like to eat, casual enough for the sweatpants crowd, and with spaces dark enough for those of us you wondering what that bright yellow thing is in the sky.

We arrived around 11:30, only a half-hour after opening, to a full parking lot and a busy restaurant.  But we did have a reservation and so were promptly seated in a large wooden booth in the front near large plate glass windows letting in lots and lots of that bright yellow stuff. There is also a nice room in the back on the main level where a couple of families had gathered for a late morning meal, as well as an upper level bar that was funky and a bit more cozy.

Shortcake and I opened the meal with a couple of special beverage concoctions. I had a Kickass Bloody Mary ($7) which was so spicy with horseradish that I almost developed a new superpower: breathing fire. No wonder the waiter raised his eyebrows at me when I ordered it. Even the garnish had a hot red pepper! It was better when the ice had melted a bit. Shortcake had a St. Germain Cocktail ($8), an elderflower liqueur served with Cava (a Spanish sparkling wine), club soda and a lemon twist. It was tart and refreshing, and sort of grassy; the presentation was lovely.

We were talking too much so we were slow to decide what to order, but our waiter was patient and, of course, plenty busy with other customers. He competently listed off all the specials. The breakfast burrito was made with sausage and red beans, eggs and scallions; there was poutine (fries) with poached eggs, sausage and cider gravy; also cheddar grits with Smoke House of the Catskills ham and red eye gravy; and a warm vichyssoise with ramps and potato. Their Winter 2014 Brunch Menu wasn't long but what they did have looked pretty hearty, including "bennies" (eggs benedict, and yes I had to ask what "bennies" were and I understand now that there are no jets, fyi - but I digress), hash plates, and specialty omelettes, all served with home fries and a side salad. Sweet stuff was just a few varieties of House Made Belgian Waffles and French Toast. There is also an interesting lunch menu you could order from offering up snack plates, salads, burgers and pizza, but the four of us decided to stick to the brunch menu. After ordering we were nicely surprised to be served complimentary jalapeno rolls by one of the wandering servers. Cheesy, crusty, still warm, not too spicy, these were a pretty tasty treat. They had a few corn kernels and diced peppers in there. It all went nicely with a bit of olive oil.

Shortcake, not a surprise, since she's a sweetie, ordered the Well Dressed Waffle, served with a delicious compote made with mango and pineapple, as well as real maple syrup and a bowl of whipped cream. The waffles were a bit dry but still light and crispy. I thought the combination was divine.

SuzieQ ordered Gabe's Breakfast Bowl, a layer of hash browns below another layer of scrambled eggs, then bacon, spinach, and shrooms topped with cheese. Tasty, somewhat simple, and not as generous a portion as some of the other plates on the table, but still ample.

Shortcake and SuzieQ were yakking up a storm. Red, who has a pulled pork thing going, was digging into her Ropa Bennie, made with shredded Cuban Pot Roast topped with poached eggs and a guava hollandaise. She was pretty focused and somewhat blissful. The eggs were perfectly cooked - still runny in the middles, and the pork was plain but tender and tasty and married well with the rest of the dish's elements. The hollandaise was nothing special, but the brioche roll was wonderful and oh so much better than the old English muffin thing. I watched her slowly eat the whole thing.

I decided to try the burrito special, a.k.a. Tyler's Big Brunch Burrito of the Day, the one with the beans. It reminded me of red beans & rice, Louisiana style. I could taste Andouille sausage, I think, but I'll be dinged if I chewed on any meat, but that's OK, the flavor was terrific. I LOVED the beans. And the eggs were fluffy and tender all rolled up in an oversize burrito. The lightly dressed greens were a welcome accompaniment to what ended up being a pretty spicy brunch, and the hash browns were pretty good too, flavored with red peppers/not too salty or spicy (a bit oily perhaps)


To wrap up our meal SuzieQ ordered dessert - a blueberry, pineapple and peach crumble topped with ice cream (optional), along with another cup of coffee; I joined her for a decaf, since you don't want to see me on caffeine, trust me on that one. The crumble was warm and it smelled like heaven or even better, like that place where superheroes go when they retire - it was thick and sweet and decadent. We all had a taste and really loved the pineapple in there. Oh, and the coffee was excellent - and fair trade - it was a nice strong brew.

Other dessert specials sounded terrific, like a pink grapefruit sorbet, ice cream sandwiches made with soft ginger cookies filled with apricot and orange blossom ice cream, creme brulee with rosemary citrus, and sliced apples with dulce de leche. But I was too full to stand.....

The DelSo neighborhood is trendy and New World Bistro attracts a hip, professional crowd with an obvious appreciation of what good food can be. The service was attentive, the food well above average, and the prices fairly reasonable. But I found the space not so comfy -  the benches in our booth were hard and unforgiving, the light pouring through the plate glass was a bit harsh, the cool breeze coming through the cracks was chilly, and the noise level seemed unusually high. And I'm not blaming all this on how I felt from partying the night before, after protecting the city from the forces of evil, of course.

This won't keep me from returning, though, and in a short time their semi-enclosed patio should be open, so there's another choice of seating, depending on what type of Sunday brunch bunch you happen to go with.

Our meal was $86.40 for four brunch offerings, two cocktails, two coffees and a dessert, plus tip. 

Zena, Goddess of Fire

Thank you, Daniel, for putting up with us. I hope I got your name right this time. (:

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Hollow Bar + Kitchen : the front + back

Since The Hollow's burgers have a good reputation according to local surveys it was high on my list when  my personal burger-o- meter started to drift into the "need" zone recently. I also wanted to try someplace new, but I didn't feel like going out of town. Even though I now know the streets of Albany's "downtown" business area, I don't venture there very often, so I went up and down the block a couple times before finding The Hollow on the corner of North Pearl and Columbia St., across Pearl from Legends and The Merry Monk.

I  appreciate "Please Wait to be Seated" signs when I enter someplace, and when there isn't one, I am left wondering what to do unless someone greets me.  On my first visit I was left wondering as well as wandering around the bar and the warren of various dining rooms and music hall before getting the attention of any of the staff.  One particular member of the staff seemed to be studiously avoiding looking at anyone in the front of the house, and others appeared to be indifferent.  My second visit was a few moments before opening on a Saturday night due to my desire to have a nice dinner before going to a concert in Troy, and that was even more mystifying.  All the doors were unlocked and no staff were present in the front of the house at all. I didn't feel like walking into the kitchen, so I went across the street and had a lovely dinner at the Merry Monk, which can always be counted upon for a tasty meal. I was greeted there with a smiling staff member who was happy to see me.  My third visit to The Hollow was normal, with someone there to greet me who was cheerful and welcoming. So...the front of the house needs work, both in staff training and also in renovation.  What is up with that skeezy ceiling in the bar?  Ick!

One side of the menu is lovely beers, ales and cider, so I tried a flight of four.  We had to negotiate a little while regarding which items they actually stocked, but I was delighted with the selection. The days when  eating and drinking establishments stock what's on the menu seem to be over.  I grieve a little, but not once I begin to imbibe good food and drink.

There are specials recited by the wait staff.  I had the gazpacho special as a starter before my Surf + Turf burger. Oh my stars and garters! The chef and I have complete harmonic convergence on the subject of gazpacho, and his is better than any I have ever made.

Under that garnish of a mound of parsley was a fabulous and wonderful gazpacho!  It was a wild ride of tomato, olive oil, garlic, vinegar and heat with cucumber and onion underneath.  Although the cucumbers were in the form of puree, the other ingredients were chopped, so that the texture had a gentle bite and was not merely all liquid. I was not only thanked for ordering but got to talk about the joys of gazpacho with the composer of this outrageous bowl of summer.  I want to go back when he has ripe summer tomatoes to work with.

I had the Surf + Turf burger which set my burger-o-meter back to "happy" and then some. The shrimp element was a very good balance with the beef and not overdone, so the tender shrimp were a delicious bite mingled with the beef.  The size of the burger was a little big for me, because I'm more like a midget, but I'm sure it would be a sufficient meal for anyone, and the consistency and flavor were right up there in the "perfect" range of the scale. It comes with a choice of fries so I had the sweet potato choice and they were a good complement.

On another visit I had the signature salad, which is a simple blend of shaved asiago, greens, shiitaki mushrooms and truffle oil. I happen to really enjoy both asiago and shiitaki and this salad, with the touch of truffle oil elevated them both to create a superb dish. After scarfing the salad I was ready for the gnocchi special and it didn't disappoint.

The gnocchi special was shrimp, asparagus, roasted red pepper and shaved cheese with a choice of gnocchi sauces.  I chose the pesto and once again the chef and I are in harmonic convergence concerning pesto. Pesto is about the basil and garlic, not the oil. There should be just enough pepper to provide a zippy undertone but the basil must be the top flavor. This pesto flavored the chewy little gnocchi bites but did not make them swim in too much olive oil.  It was a thing of beauty.  I wanted to hug his neck and nibble gnocchi with pesto all night long.  But I didn't, because I have developed a bit of self-restraint in my old age. I asked to have about half the gnocchi wrapped because I wanted to have a dessert.

There wasn't any. It was all gone. The back of the house needs to be able to get through a busy weekend and think about how there are going to be customers on Monday too.

To sum up, I want to go back and enjoy food at The Hollow, but it is one quirky restaurant that needs  polish in the way of management. I will always have to overcome that bit of me that wonders why I should put up with the quirks, but that's the case with most Capital Region restaurants. It's the way we roll here.