Monday, December 15, 2014

DOING DISHES: Capital Area Calamari

calamari. n. (Cookery) squid cooked for eating, esp cut into rings and fried in batter. [Fr. Italian, pl of calamaro squid, from Latin calamarium pen-case, referring to the squid's internal shell, from Greek kalamos reed]

PUBLIC NOTICE:  Cephalapods, probably Loligo and Ilex squid, are invading the Capital Region!!! Please don't be alarmed - Zena, Goddess of Fire, is here to help!!! I will start (along with my courageous friends) by eating my way through a bunch of calamari to try and reduce their population. It's a tough job and not for the faint of heart. If you feel there is still a squid emergency at the end of all this, no worries: I'll go out after dark and use my laser beam vision to do some squid-jigging (as required).

Goat Island Squid
It seems like EVERYONE has calamari on their menus - the Italian joints, Mexican restaurants, Pan Asian options and even seafood restaurants. I have NO idea why. It's ugly (think tentacles), has almost no flavor, and, if you screw it up, chewier than a Barbie doll head (not that I would know). I think they think that, like ahi tuna, if they put it on the menu it will sell.

OK OK - it's pretty healthy (high in protein, low in fat, low in mercury) before you add the batter and deep fry it and cover it in sauce. Oh, and it enjoys a healthy wild population here in the northeast, so its also relatively inexpensive compared to many other seafood options (more than half or our squid comes from Rhode Island), and that's good too. It IS mild and firm for something slimy looking, and that's also very good. 

But is it delicious? Versatile? How in the name of Zeus are we even going to whittle down this long list of places that serve it down to something manageable? We couldn't so we started with what was in or around downtown Albany and worked our way out.

This is what we found, with a score as follows:

5 - Excellent (Laughing Squid)
4 - Very Good (Baby Squid)
3 - Ordinary (WTF Squid)
2 - Poor (Is that a squid in your pocket?)
1 - Inedible  (Dead Squid)

Garden Bistro 24: Friday November 7, "happy hour" - A normal size appetizer ($10) of Crispy Calamari tossed in a tarragon chili aioli over a bed of lettuce. It was NOT served on a bed of lettuce, rather garnished with a sprinkle of microgreens, and we didn't taste any tarragon, but it was delicious. The squid (hand cut in-house, including tell-tale-tentacles) was crisp, with a nice tasty batter, and the sauce had a good balance of sweet and hot. My lips were tingling and greasy at the same time - divine. The sauce was VERY rich - a bit overwhelming maybe - so it was good to go splits on this one.  Next time - and there will be a next time! - I'll ask for the sauce on the side.  SCORE: 4.5 - Great but too much sauce.

NEXT TIME: I went back a second time on Friday December 12 with a couple of my favorite Bar Babes to ask them to "deconstruct" this dish for me. Alone this deep fried squid was flavorful, (especially with an added dash of salt), and very crisp and rich. The batter was a bit more traditional/heavier than many others I've had in the area. The dish was better this time because it wasn't drenched in that delicious sauce. Oh, and this time there was a bed of greens underneath.  SCORE II: 4.75. TBB pointed out that the crust was thicker than she might like.

Crispy Calamari with tarragon aioli at Garden Bistro in Colonie, NY - November 7
The same dish at Garden Bistro "deconstructed" with the sauce on the side - December 12

Tesoro's Italian Restaurant: Sunday November 9 "happy hour" - A generous antipasti of Calamari Fritti ($8.95), freshly prepared in a batter of (just milk and flour) served with a gravy boat of simple marinara sauce on the side. The squid was very plain but nice and crunchy, and the sauce was bright (almost lemony) and not too thick or gooey. The dish was served hot with a large fresh lemon wedge on the side. A classic. SCORE: 3.75 - Very good but the fish could use a bit more salt/other seasoning.

Calamari Fritti at Tesoro's in Guilderland, NY

Barcelona Restaurant: Monday November 10, lunchtime - From the Great Beginnings part of the lunch menu, this was a generous serving of Fried Calamari ($7.95 though it's listed online at $6.95). The batter was delicate and a very light golden brown but not as crispy as we would have liked. It was perfectly seasoned with salt and a sprinkle of fresh herbs. The sauce was thick and smooth, and served warm (which we loved!). We noted there was a "Special Salad Barcelona" that offered up fried or sauteed calamari so we may go back and try it. SCORE: 3.5- Nicely done but we wanted it to be crispier.
Fried Calamari at Barcelona Restaurant on Western Avenue in Albany, NY
Creo' Restaurant: Monday November 17, lunchtime - Kung Pao Calamari is on their list of small plates ($12.00), "crispy calamari tossed with a Thai sweet chili glaze". Having learned our lesson with the squid in sauce at Garden Bistro the first time, we asked for the sauce to be served on the side, which didn't do anything to pull this dish together with all it's disparate parts, but it did let us try the sauce separately from the fish. Good thing we did. The calamari (lots!) was nice and tender but flavorless; at least it wasn't greasy. The calamari was presented on a bed of those white fried rice noodles (the puffy ones) with a sprinkle of scallions, chopped tomatoes, and black and white sesame seeds - very pretty. But the sauce was way too sweet, barely spicy, and somehow on the cheap, so I asked the waitress to ask the chef was was in it and this was the reply: sugar, water, pickled red chili and garlic powder. After all that work to use a sauce like this is the type of crime I am here to save the world from. SCORE: 3.0 Work on that sauce!!!!

A very pretty presentation at Creo
Reel Seafood: Tuesday November 25, 6:00 pm - Three of us barely escaped traffic and entered the newly renovated space with a sense of awe and delight. The bar and dining room are really lovely, classy, and a welcome respite from the holiday rush. The Cantonese Calamari ($13) appetizer was another take on that fried squid tossed with a sweet/hot sauce that by now is getting to be old school. This one would be tossed with a bottled sauce called Mae Ploy: pretty tasty but still, to my super-senses, overly sweet and syrupy, so again I was glad that I asked for the sauce on the side. My dish, like at Creo, came "de-constructed" - with finely sliced purple cabbage and a bit of fresh pineapple presented in their own bowl. Alone the calamari (a very generous serving!) was tender but nicely brown and crispy - perfect actually, with a slightly heavier batter . No salt. (Wondering by now if the chef doesn't think to season calamari if it is being served "plain"). Together the combination was splendid. The fresh crunch of the cabbage, the juicy bright taste of tropical fruit, the heat from the sauce and the tender crisp calamari all came together and made me glow. SCORE: 4.0. A bit of salt is needed when a sauce is served on the side. Please, make your own sauce.

Deconstructed calamari at Reel Seafood.
Next: Milano Restaurant, located in Newton Plaza on Route 9 in Latham, NY. This was the first area restaurant that boasted an "open kitchen" - one where you can actually watch the chef do his magic from the dining room - and the layout is still true today, more than 20 years later. This time it was lunch on a cold December 8 (Monday) - not busy but enough tables to make it worth their while. I was seated so I could see some of what was going on with the cooking process. I heard the squid go down in the saute pan with a nice poof of steam, and I saw it being decorated with the fresh herbs, and then I watched it sitting there for our absent waitress for several minutes before being served- thankfully it was still nice and warm. This was Calamari alla Diavola, an appetizer-sized appetizer (for a change) - sauteed, not breaded and deep-fried, and for the first time I wanted the serving to be larger ($9.50). This was the most creative dish of calamari so far on my wild squid expedition, and instead of wrestling with it, I gave it kisses. Sweet, tender squid that tasted like squid, not batter, dressed with Kalamata olives and capers and topped with a nice handful of fresh basil, served with a side of warm Kalamata and caper infused marinara sauce that was spicy but not "hot" hot. Excellent!  SCORE: 4.75. Next time I hope I get a larger portion!

Calamari alla Diavola at Milano Restaurant
OK that's (6) and since I started this there haven't been any new reports of squid attacks (nothing major, anyway), so this must be working! I'm still concerned about the explosive squid population here in Capital Region restaurants,  so please know that I'm still fighting the good fight. I'll go try the calamari six more times in six more places and I'll do another entry, assuming none of those squids takes me out in batter. I mean battle.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

P.S. If you have a FAVORITE place for calamari please comment!!! We'll add it to our list and hope to get there eventually, unless of course it's an emergency, and then we'll get on it ASAP. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Crab Stick: Asian Tea House Sushi Meetup

The only thing I hate more than fake superheros is fake food, and I don't mean those plastic grapes that the people I work with would eat if I put a bowl of them in the break room.

No, I mean stuff like Crab Stick - pulverized fish (usually Alaskan pollack) that is reformed with "meat glue" (transglutaminase - an enzyme that reforms the puree into a solid), and maybe starch from wheat and tapioca or corn and vegetable oils and MSG and salt and it's dyed red and then shredded to have the texture of crab. It's the Chicken McNugget of sushi, and is decidedly a cheaper alternative to real crab (or real fish for that matter), which is why we often see it being served in our sushi restaurants. And it's crap.

Which is why the Crab Stick-in-my-throat overload at the Asian Tea House last week was such a disappointment. I was with a group of over 50 people organized by the Sushi Lovers Meetup here in Albany, NY - a lively group of folks who actually LIKE eating sushi with others that LIKE eating sushi and we don't need to listen to your weird "bait" jokes. We arrived and were seated at 6:30, and had our first dish at 7:15 - (45 minutes to chew on fried won tons): a lovely bowl of Hot & Sour soup. It was a bit gooey for my liking but warm and dense with mushrooms, egg, water chestnuts and tofu. It had a sneaky heat and was actually slightly sweet - a first for my tastes - but good.

The hot and sour soup was rich and tasty
Then came the first crab-attack. This dish they called their "house specialty" - Sushi Pizza. It was triangular nacho chips covered in Crab Stick "salad" (tossed with mayo and chili oil [I'm guessing] so it was bright orange), topped with fried panku flakes. It was pretty and also pretty disgusting.

Sushi pizza was pretty and pretty disgusting
Next came a platter of pan-fried spicy won tons filled with chicken. These were salty and garlicky, served with a warm, slightly sweet chili sauce laced with curry powder, which was kind of weird but OK.

Fried won tons filled with chicken
Next was another round of fried things - pork filled dumplings that were really chewy and cold and tasted like garlic. So were filling up on fake crab and fried things. Where's my sushi???
Fried dumplings filled with pork
Two salads arrived at the table - seaweed standard laced with sesame oil and topped with cucumber (actually very tasty) and more of that Crab Stick salad mixture (the salad was exactly what came on top of that "pizza" served earlier), and also topped with fried panku. Yuck.

Above - seaweed salad, and below the "crab" salad. The plates themselves were very attractive.
Aha! Finally a platter of sashimi - tuna (albacore), creamy salmon, red snapper (this was the best of them), yellowtail, and something they call "white tuna". This was NOT tuna, IS NOT tuna: this was Escolar, tasty, greasy, and one of the reasons you might want to avoid it is because it makes you want to go poo. It is cheap fish and not something you want to eat too much of.  Note it is banned for sale in Japan because it is considered toxic. A fish they won't eat but we will??? OK that's a new one.

Red snapper (front) and then from left to right: tuna, salmon, "white tuna" and yellowtail
This was promising, but the next platter was not sushi as I had hoped, but a plate of "rolls", and there was more of this Crab Stick in or on everything. I thought the mortals we were sharing the table with were more discerning about their sushi, but they dove into this stuff with gusto. Or maybe they were just really really hungry. By this time I'm picking out the Crab Stick. I asked myself, Self: what were they hiding under those mounds of Crab Stick salad??? It's like Uh-merican food buried under cheese. The presentation was shoddy and gooky looking.

Crab stick in the roll on the left and mounded on top of the rolls on the right. Who knows what's under there.
Then "jalapeno shots" - a bit of raw tuna, fresh jalapeno, vinegar, sweet. I liked it very much.

The next platter was........................ and we waited over a half hour for it.............................wait for it.....................  was more of what we just got (see the ones with the little dots of sriracha pepper sauce?), and a shrimp roll with avocado and Crap Stuck Crap   Crab Stick that was bready and even had a fried won ton in the middle, and bland, and weird. AND, TAAAAAAAA DAAAAAAAA --  FINALLY, 12 sushi (which is plural of sushi) also on this platter. The 6 of us at our table quickly devoured these and were left wishing there was more.
Weird shrimp roll had more of that Crap Stuck Crab Stick in it.
And we waited and waited and another platter of sushi eventually arrived and it was very good. Thick pieces of red snapper, silky smooth salmon, earthy yellowtail. No tuna. Nothing fancy. The rice was decidedly sweet but properly prepared. I would LOVE to have eaten more but we had now been there almost 3 hours, we were tired and I still had the forces of evil to deal with overnight, and we were hungry when we arrived and ended up filling up on fillers, and it was time to go. 
The sushi, when it finally came, was delicious
Bottom lines: the service was friendly but way too slow, and there certainly wasn't enough help to manage the room properly (dirty dishes were left lingering, water jugs needed filling, etc.). We were told that the restaurant was overwhelmed with such a large group (even though we were expected, albeit a few more than originally planned), but I am suspicious that maybe the long wait for the sushi and the cheap eats beforehand ensured we were full and too tired to eat much more than the sushi that was offered at the end. OR it could be they just didn't have enough fresh fish to go around. Or both. Anyway, they're bottom line goes chi-ching with cheap eats and fillers and long waits ($25 per person including tax and tip IS a deal, but that still doesn't meat I want to eat junk food). My unasked for advice?  Go and try the sushi and sashimi in the dining room proper but be wary if you are planning a group event.

And no doubt there were sushi snobs in that room full of Sushi Lovers, but nobody complained about the food, just a bit about the service (and online/later), and they enjoyed each others company. So I kept my big mouth shut, which for me isn't an easy thing, and I saved my valued opinions (HA!) for Albany Dish.

The Sushi Lovers Meetup really is a nice bunch of folks.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS: I hate plastic tablecloths except on a picnic table.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


In spite of being cautious and trying a restaurant several times before reviewing it, a writer can write a description of a really nice restaurant experience and then find that the restaurant just can't keep it up the quality. The Grille at 138 was a place that I wanted to be good,  have to admit.  It's a been a new addition in our neighborhood, and it'a always nice to have a place that isn't another pizza and wings joint.

For the second time in the last few weeks I've been sorely disappointed and felt like the service staff have been great, but the kitchen has totally lost its touch. Since I had good experiences with several areas of the menu in my first visits I was curious about the beef stroganoff, the true sixties throwback in this old school menu.  It was terrible. I know every restaurant has an off night, but this dish should never have been allowed out of the kitchen and the person who put it together should be sacked. Anyone over 15 would have looked at the plate and had an "eww" reaction. So … I have to think that things have gone seriously south.

Recently I decided to give the buffet a try to see if the beef stroganoff was a fluke and unfortunately the experience only confirmed my suspicions.  I have to withdraw my previous support of this place, and relegate it to the extensive mediocre-to-bad list of places that plague our city.  All it would take is an effort to get the back of the house on track again, so I'll watch and wait to see what others say about any new developments in quality.