Wednesday, July 30, 2014

DOING DISHES: Tesoro Italian Restaurant - The Chicken Parm Adventure, Agin'

The preacher said to the congregation "Do the best you can". REALLY, isn't that the problem? Isn't it OK just to be OK at some things?

Yeah, yeah, I get what he was saying - give it some effort and don't be discouraged and you will be rewarded. But we make ourselves nuts trying to get A's in school, working 80 hours a week to get ahead, pushing ourselves to run further/faster/better.

After about 20 years of thinking about it (no one said superheroes were supposed to be smart), I have come to believe that if all that effort is all about you, then give yourself a break. Who cares if your house isn't the neatest because you prefer to spend your time playing fetch with the pooch instead? So what if you suck at some things? If you are a Type A a gin and tonic may also prove very useful. You know - remember to stop and eat the roses, or something like that.

But, if you are a superhero, you really DO need to do the best you can. I know that the problem with the world is everybody else, but if what you do is in the service of others, then NO, it's definitely NOT okay to be just OK. And that includes restaurants, especially if they are striving to be a fine dining establishment.

Puppy Sweet Cheeks treated me to a birthday dinner on Monday night at Tesoro Italian Restaurant, tucked away in the corner of the 20 Western Mall in Guilderland. There is a patio area to the left as you enter that didn't seem very appealing - sort of cramped and dark, and the tables weren't dressed - but that's for another blog series, I think. Anyway, we headed in, looked over the specials listed on the chalkboard, admired the simple elegance and gently lit decor, and were seated right away in the main dining room. It was early (before 6:00 p.m.) and there were just a few other tables already enjoying a meal. Ice water quickly appeared and we took our time looking things over and just generally talking a lot. We finally each ordered a glass of Pinot Noir - one from Bolla ($8.00), and another from Mark West ($8.25). They were very similar and pretty good. Overall I would describe the wine list as a selection of mostly inexpensive wines that are good value - Cavit, Simi, Woodbridge, Ruffino, Ravenwood, BV, etc. - if you buy them at a liquor store, since here we were looking at about a 200% markup by the glass. Not a terribly thoughtful selection but OK. Just OK.

The menu is lengthy with 15 or more Antipasti dishes, soups, vegetable side dishes, pasta dishes, as well as Secondi Piatti that are served with a side salad, bread and butter, and a side of pasta or Italian potatoes. We were encouraged to see that there were gluten free options available, as well as wheat and fresh pasta. A symbol for "vegetarian" was a bit odd, since we could only find it next to one selection, so I wondered why they would bother.  In addition, there is a July Special: $22.95 for a choice of 3 appetizers (Caprese salad, fried mozzerella, or Fettucini Alfredo), an entrée (Pollo Francais, Pesce al Forno, Bocconidi Bitello [veal and peppers], or Chicken Parm), and a choice of Dolce - chocolate mousse or tiramisu. Puppy ordered the Pollo with the chocolate mousse for dessert. I ordered off the main menu - Pollo alla Parmigiana ($20.75). 

Only once the order was placed were we offered bread at the table. It was warm, crusty, light, and flavorless - kind of cheap and commercial. It was served with butter and margarine as well as a nice dish of olive oil laced with roasted garlic and parsley that was very good.

Puppy was served her Caprese Salad - small, simple, maybe could have used a bit more basil in there - but we agreed it was tasty; the tomatoes were firm and delicious. The plate was plunked down sideways not in front of Puppy but off to one side. Kind of casual as far as the service goes.

We both got a side salad with our meals. There was a choice of the usual (like creamy peppercorn, ranch, raspberry vinaigrette, blue cheese, Italian, Russian), but only the last three were house made. WHY? Is it so hard to make salad dressing? Why not make three and leave it at that?  I went with the blue and Puppy did Italian. More wine was ordered. The salads were small but enough for us little superheros, but very predictable, with those awful black olives out of a can that taste like, um, can. The dressings were both very tasty. 

The restaurant by this time had 8-10 tables - not bad for a Monday night, mostly an older crowd. It was quiet; there wasn't even any music playing in the background. Our entrées arrived. The Pollo Francais is battered and pan sauteed with garlic and lemon - it was tender and smooth, not very pretty to look at, but better than what she had at Jack's Oyster House the weekend before.  I liked it too and watched Puppy, like a hungry puppy, eat the whole thing. (:

My Parm was a thin cutlet, slightly crispy on the edges, tender (easily cut with the side of my fork), with salty, herby undertones and genuinely flavorful, but drowning in sauce. The sauce was very good but tasted too much to me like canned tomatoes; the thickness was just right. I thought it was almost tart in some ways. 

I had asked about the fresh pasta - gnocchi, ravioli, cavatelli - they aren't made in-house, but that's OK. The up charge was $2.00, but I think it was worth it. I am falling in love with cavatelli. Tender and tasty. Here the sauce tasted very canned tomatoey to me - it was a sauce better suited to the Parm dish. For a change there was actually grated parmesan cheese in one of those little containers on the table, something wanting in my previous parm escapades; fresh grated would be even better. I ate only half of what I ordered and was comfortably full.

We wrapped up - me with a cup of decaf and two spoons for the mousse, which was light and tasty. 

OK so we talked a lot and the waitstaff seemed busy (there were two in the room by the end of our meal with a few more tables than earlier), but the service after our main dishes were delivered seemed slow, with no coffee refills offered. The leftovers were bagged up and when they were brought back to us I asked if I could have the bread, and the waitress said I could take it if I wanted it, but didn't offer to package it for me. If you've read this blog in the past you know I don't like to over-order and I don't like waste, either. The bread should have been offered, in my opinion, and properly packaged to go. 

So dinner was pretty good, but not great, and I guess I expected more knowing the chef had come up the ranks in several good restaurants, including Lombardo's in downtown Albany (a place I have eaten at more than a few times and been underwhelmed by). It could have been better - better bread, nicer salads, home made dressings, real freshly grated cheese, a more thoughtful wine selection. And since dinner was not exactly cheap (although not pricey, either), I think these are improvements well worth making. It was a lovely evening out - very relaxing - and nice in many respects to dine out not so far from home, so I will probably return, but maybe later rather than sooner. 

Dinner for two, plus five drinks since Puppy was buying, was $96.06 plus tip.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS: Also, plastic plants. I checked.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Dan Barber's The Third Plate - a MUST READ

The Third Plate

I'm recommending that you read this book because I can't stand over you and demand that you read every page, which is what I really want to do.  Fortunately Barber is a good story teller, so it's not like I'm asking you to eat Twinkies every day for a  week.

Since Dan Barber is fairly local we should read this book in the spirit of supporting our home town boys, but there is a deeper reason. He's really got a perfect sequel to The Ominvore's Dilemma, not only in terms of the two books, but in terms of where food culture could go next. Pollan laid the groundwork for us to think about our food system being based on monoculture agribusiness and the dangers that underpin our current mainstream agricultural practices. Barber, a chef, discusses in fascinating ways the role of the chef (and I would emphasize also home cooks) in making diversity and organic methods in agriculture truly sustainable.

His thesis is that we've selected (he means chefs, but I think we're all culpable) a narrow range of foods and flavors as attractive and thus forced our  organic and sustainable producers into throwing away everything else or not bothering to produce foods that are unfashionable.  Small farmers have to make money too. He argues that our attempts to turn the ocean liner of modern agriculture around and into a system that will create sustainable food systems won't work unless we re-think what we are eating once again. We have to increase the variety of foods that are considered good, cool, hip and worth buying in order for our landscape to continue to be healthy. Diversity is essential to viable ecosystems. He especially charges chefs to take the lead and make unfashionable foods that are flavorful and nutritious into popular and attractive dishes.

For this book, he selects a few men (ahem)  who are basically dedicated fanatics. Each has taken the landscape, or perhaps more precisely, the ecosystem into consideration and with their full attention on flavor (something no large agribusiness corporation takes seriously) they have carefully cultivated and produced food that maintains a viable hearty ecosystem while producing food that Barber considers to be the world class standard of its kind in terms of deliciousness. The stories are engaging while being educational.  I bow to his knowledge and willingness to present his case.

Many of the stories involve farmers and producers who have looked back in time to older traditions and older varieties of foods, but a few involve modern breeders who are using contemporary techniques to produce varieties that are based on older stock, but that are essentially  new, expressing characteristics that have not been seen in the past.  Each man works with nature rather than attempting to dominate nature.

I think New York State is ripe for Barber's ideas. I hope the country will at least hear out his argument, although I know the power of huge agribusiness, and it's not like they are going belly-up any time soon. I hope you will see what he has to say, go to his restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, and start looking around for food that is grown sustainably, tastes great, and helps your local farmers sell the diversity of products they need to grow to keep our food landscape viable.

I've only captured a small portion of the valuable thinking in Barber's book.  So go buy it from a local bookseller and give a copy to all your friends.

Friday, July 25, 2014

We're baaaaaack

Dear readers, what with all that saving the world stuff that Zena, Goddess of Fire does and my couch potato   vacationing the blog fell to the bottom of both our lists of Things That Must Be Done. But now we are committed to getting back to our food writing and we have some great dining and posts lined up for your reading pleasure in the coming weeks and months.

My latest sushi adventure with the Albany Sushi Meetup Group was at Blowfish, a new all you can eat sushi place in Guilderland, at Johnston Road and Western Ave. in the Town Plaza. They have taken over some of the space for what used to be a Chinese buffet and started a small Chinese buffet and Blowfish.  The new Chinese buffet had just closed and is apparently undergoing a re-structuring according to the signs we saw as we entered Blowfish.

The advantage of the sushi meetup is that the host of the the meetup usually negotiates for a nice price, since the group can literally fill the restaurant for the evening. At Blowfish we had 42 group members and completely filled the tables in half the dining room plus three or four more in the other half.

It became apparent early on that the Blowfish staff and chefs didn't grasp the situation and had not thought out how to handle so many people at one time, so we had fairly spaced-out service to say the least.  Our table didn't get sushi for 90 minutes. Thank heaven that the company was excellent.  Both my outings with this group have been blessed with very pleasant company, and to me that is at least half of why I value a restaurant experience.

The service for the all you can eat choice involves filling out an order sheet that has two parts, one for the appetizers and one for the sushi. The staff brings out more sheets as they become aware that you have eaten most of the sushi on your plate. This way you can enjoy the meal at your own pace, which is what I like.

This is not flashy or exotic shushi, but will serve when your appetite for the delicacy is primed. I  appreciated their care in preparation, especially since they were under a lot of pressure, and I also appreciated that they didn't skimp in any way with the rice. For me, the rice doesn't complement the fish if it is too cold, or too dry, and they consistently take the time to make good rice in delicious combinations. The pieces were on the small side, which I prefer. They also take great care in design and presentation with each plate, even when they've got a full dining room, so I give them my admiration for not buckling to pressure and just throwing the sushi around. I'm not one to be hankering after more and more exotic sushi combinations, so Blowfish is a good match for my idea of a good sushi dinner that allows you to order a little, then order a little more, and then maybe a final couple of pieces.

The dining room is both very new and furnished in a minimalist style with light colors, so I kept expecting Hello Kitty to pop up at any moment on accessories or plates.  I like that sort of bare but cheery style, however others consider it a bit austere.

 Their facebook page shows menu items that are not sushi, so I will be heading back to see how they prepare and present other foods on the menu.

LorreBob sez check them out, then come back here and comment.