Saturday, January 30, 2016

Burger21 and Suddenly54

The front door that nobody uses
OK it's a burger and a burger is sometimes just a burger and it won't usually give you much to think about afterwards except for maybe yep probably I ate too much again. Except I keep going back to Burger21, including earlier this week when I got to really indulge at a Yelp event, eating lots and lots (tasting 10 different burgers!) and rolling home afterwards to plop down on the couch because I felt Suddenly54. 

It was good. 

These burgers are delicious, and the servings are sensible, even by superhero standards. I enjoyed a Burger 101 ($5.99), the basic, a thick burger but not so you could see my fillings when I went to bite into it. The burger fit the slightly sweet, dense yellow brioche bun perfectly, cooked until just slightly pink in the middle and served with a little crunchy romaine and pale pink tomato topped with a dollop of mayomustardketchup (optional at ordering). Juicy, slightly sweet, light and flavorful. The meat tasted like best quality beef, not at all greasy, fresh and inviting. I've also tried the Monterey Chicken ($7.49) - tender meat (not a breast - sort of deconstructed/reconstructed shreds, not ground, a bit odd, but OK) with a nice contrast of flavors. Loved the jalapeno - this was a slippery, fresh tasting sandwich that needed nothing more to make it shine. 
Monterey Chicken was slippery and delicious
BB enjoyed his Bacon Cheesy burger ($6.99) with American cheese and a side of fries. The burger was happily gobbled up with a slight sigh on his part that he could have eaten more (good burger/more burger wanted). The fries were delicious - crisp shoestrings, tasted like potato, reminiscent of the 'standard' at MickeyDees.
Bacon Cheesy burger. And fries.
The sweet potato fries (regular size, $3.29) were good, slightly soft in the middle of the shoestring and only slightly browned. Not as good as [insert your standard here] but seemed to come out darned nice for being so skinny, and they weren't at all greasy, um so much so that salt wouldn't stick (the tables have grinders of sea salt; it was too coarse so all the salt sadly sunk right to the bottom of my cup).

This basket of fries at the Yelp event had a sampling of (5) condiments. Chipotle Mayo was great. Marshmallow - not so. 
My silly friends joined me recently for a lunchtime burger run. Pony got very excited by the condiment bar. I think any kid would, too. She also enjoyed The Bacon Cheesy, suggesting it definitely needed more bacon (1 measly slice; $6.99), but a nice brown exterior to the meat, which she also thought was tender and juicy. FF had the Black Bean Burger and I agreed, it was pretty amazing - tender like a really good bean burrito, perfect texture (not gushy or grainy) and it held together nicely, rich with the flavor of onion and chili and corn. 

We ALL liked the brioche buns - just a bit toasted (who isn't?), soft, but with substance (like the perfect girlfriend).
Condiments. CLEAN. Impressed!
At the Yelp event we got five rounds of burgers, two quarters of a burger per round, with a small beer chaser. The first round included The Cobb, a turkey burger that was surprisingly complex and satisfying, round two had a Cinco Burger, infused with some kind of taco seasoning topped with thick cut jalapenos that packed some serious heat, round three introduced us to the Tex-Mex Haystack topped with finely sliced fried onion rings that was good but nothing amazing, round 4 brought us a BBQ Burger that was very yummy with plenty of sweet, spicy sauce, as well as a Spicy Thai Shrimp burger that promised exotica with a sesame Thai slaw that I thought tasted and looked and felt really weird, metallic even, and finally round five with a Black & Bleu (black and crisp added something but otherwise just salty), and a Buffalo Chicken burger that was kinda mushy/not so great. But the company was fun and the event was well organized. Thanks to the Professor and all the staff who took such good care of us. 

Two burger quarters and a beer chaser. 
I also indulged in a small chocolate shake with the whipped because shakes are also "crafted" like their burgers ($3.49). Natural, very sweet, thick and creamy, I was proud to add a serving of dairy to my lunch, but a bit more chocolate flavor would have made this one a bite above. The strawberry shakes are nice and fruity. Others sang the praises of a Bananas Foster Signature Shake ($4.99 for a large) - as Pee Wee Herman would say - "banana-ey! 

I finished off the Yelp event with a strawberry shake. I skipped the whipped cream. After all that, why would I do such a thing???
The Latham location is clean and modern with a lovely front door that no one uses: enter from the parking lot in the rear so you actually see where to order your food. The service is friendly and the room is well attended by staff dropping off meals, checking to see if you are happy with it, cleaning up, etc. Consider joining the B21 club for marketing deals and specials. This is a burger joint that's a cut above the drive-thru.

Zena, Goddess of Fire. And silly friends.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Doing Dishes: The Caribbean Series - Hot Spot [And a Special Thanks to our Readers]

Thanks to the thousands of you who read our blog every month! After starting out solo in  2009, writing enthusiastically but sporadically, I invited Zena, Goddess of Fire to join in this study of our local food scene.  She was game and we've been attracting a larger and larger audience ever since. We're glad you like food as much as we do, and we'd love it if you'd comment!  If you use our restaurant reviews to choose where you are eating out, let us know about your experience - you might even want to link to your Yelp review.  If we're doing a series and you want us to write about a particular spot, don't hesitate to let us know. The more conversations we can have about food the better, as far as we're concerned.

And now on to the regularly scheduled Caribbean fare:

Hot Spot on Central Ave. in a row of international restaurants is worthy of its location. The menu includes many island classics and it is self-described as "Jamaican American". You can see the menu and order online here. I've tried the online order service and it works perfectly. Their in-store service is polite, friendly and efficient. I've also stayed in their small but nice dining space and enjoyed the bustle of Central Ave. - the place is always busy in my experience.

First, as a helpful suggestion, they turned me on to red plum Nantucket Nectar, for which I will be eternally grateful.

Next, tucking in to their delicious oxtail is a lovely treat! The gravy has a greater spicy oomph than the other two Caribbean places I've reviewed thus far, and it's truly delicious and not overpowering in the least. It seems to be typical for the meat dishes to come with a small selection of sides, and so I have been favoring the plantains over a steamed cabbage or other side. There is still a bit of a sweet tone to the oxtail, most likely from the vegetables added during the simmering process. Overall the gravy at Hot Spot has a lovely balance of thyme, peppers and vegetables culminating in that seductive rich dark gravy.  The plantains are more on the dry side which leaves them a bit less sweet, although still a great side dish.  All I can say about the rice and peas is that they are wonderful and perfectly executed, so that they are a fitting complement to the oxtail. Rice and peas always say "comfort" for me, and I always look forward to the way they seem to perfectly complete the dish in a nom nom nom sort of way.  I could have them every day and never tire of them, especially in the oxtail gravy! 

In the photo I have plated the small size entree onto a small dinner plate, so you can see that it's still quite a hearty meal. 

For those who haven't seen a Jamaican patty, I've put one at the back of the arrangement in the photo.  I adore them. Most of the places I have seen offer a mild version, and they come in a variety of meats and vegetables.  A bit more dry than a pot pie, they are a spicy and savory treat and can be carried in the hand. I would say they are very similar to an empanada, but with the distinctive seasonings of the Island.

LorreBob sez:  check out the Hot Spot for that ultimate comforting savory and spicy fare.

Monday, January 18, 2016

15 Church Services: I'm a Believer!

As dark November creeps into even darker December, when the nights get cold and the wind starts to howl, we look to friends and family and holiday cheer to warm our cheeks, our faith to warm our hearts, and food and booze for everything else.
15 Church is small and classy, seating maybe 60 people at one time. Get thee a reservation. 
Such is the life of a foodie. In my quest for truth I arrived at 15 Church a few weeks ago, having heard many fine stories of heavenly Crispy Oysters and a Zeppole that will lift your soul.

Usually lots of hype makes me suspicious. We entered cautiously through an understated doorway just off of Broadway to a room of golden light and merriment. The bar was packed. A pretty hostess smiled, checked off our reservation, and tucked us into a little table in the corner in the front room. Within moments we were greeted by two servers and the miracle of dinner began. I started letting down my guard.

Wait staff are always on the move. I had to reign in my defensive instincts in the aisles as I tried to take a few pics.
I'm not kiddin' - there were honest to goodness Seraphim and Cherubim waiting on tables that night who made me feel like a REAL goddess, which I am, but I don't think they knew that, despite their divine powers.  And I don't think my silly notes or pictures made any difference whatsoever in the quality of the service. EVERYONE at 15 Church is treated like a welcome guest with smiles and a genuine desire to make your meal a delight.

Homemade focaccia with red wine salted butter
A small wine/cocktail/draft & bottle beer menu, duplicated in the main menu, boasts 30+ wines by the glass. I sipped on a couple of glasses of Rioja Reserva, La Rioja Atta "Vina Alberdi" 2008 as dinner unfolded ($12 glass/$44 bottle) - rich, powerful, and heady (in good company here at 15 Church) but made friendly (like the folks at 15 Church) with a flavor rich in the taste of cherries. Foodie Friend ordered a Vietnamese Lime Soda ($5) - fresh lime and sugar and soda over ice - not too sweet, very refreshing.

The new menu (new to me as well) went from the adventurous (e.g., beef carpaccio with truffle emulsion, beets with horseradish and duck cracklings) to the tame (Chicken "Under a Brick') - a bit of pasta, some fish, hearty portions of beef, even a burger. Rather than thinking it was all over the place I suspect the staff have worked hard to offer something for every attitude and appetite - it isn't a big menu but very thoughtful.
The unwedge salad was rich and delicious. Yes, those are onion rings.
Being a superhero can mean that you've had enough craziness and you want something mellow and soothing. I started with an Iceberg Wedge Salad ($12) - fresh ground pepper was offered up before I could say "thank you lard for this amazing looking dish". Not a classic in the Chicago German restaurant sense - romaine surrounded by heirloom cherry tomatoes and smokey bacon crumbles, topped with a bit of pickled shallot, a rich, salty gorgonzola dressing and thin crunchy onion rings. This, along with a slice of homemade focaccia served with a butter mixed with red wine salt, was certainly a meal in itself. The bacon was cold and a bit flabby and didn't seem to add much, but I decided without deciding that it was over the top delicious - I ate the whole thing.

Butternut Squash Bisque topped with sage leaves and hazelnuts
Foodie Friend tried the Butternut Squash Bisque ($10): slightly sweet, flavored with pears and pecans, nutmeg and sage, this was a big bowl of saving grace - a perfect texture, shiny and slick, not foamy or gritty in any way. The manager even brought us an extra spoon without us having to ask so I could try it too. Close your eyes and wish you were there, too.

Seared sea scallops paired with blood oranges and parsnip puree was sinfully delicious
She had the Scallops as her main - perfectly seared and set atop a spread of pureed parsnips and plated with blood orange-hazelnut brown butter and brussels sprouts ($32). This was a lovely layering of flavors: the parsnips were incredibly smooth, mellow and earthy against the sweet nuts and orange. I loved watching her combine bits of this and that as she ate her way through with a smile that was pure serenity.
Chicken "Under a Brick" with brussels sprouts under the chicken
Chicken shit here went for the Chicken "Under a Brick" ($26) - I was told it was a customer favorite! - and it was almost the best thing I've ever eaten: whipped potatoes were perfectly prepped - not gluey or grainy - smooth and nicely seasoned with butter and pepper, bacon and onion roasted brussels (a bit too charred for my tastes [ha ha yes I'm a Fire Goddess], but I digress), and a beautiful nuclear sized chicken breast that was tender and juicy with a crackly crust that was almost celestial in its appeal, all with a half a roasted lemon on top. That bit of lemon was a truly delightful addition to the plate - very nice.

We were really really full, even though I hardly made a dent in my chicken, but were offered a complimentary dessert of their popular Zeppoles - cinnamon dusted ricotta doughnuts served warm with a vanilla custard and a salted caramel sauce. It was mostly cheese with just enough flour to hold it together - light and airy like an angel singing. Wonderful finish.
Zeppoles with two sweet sauces were like heaven on earth. This is a half order, FYI.
But the best thing about the entire evening was the gracious, over the top perfectly teamed service - everyone stepping in to take care of every detail to ensure that our time at 15 Church was not just dinner out, but an amazing experience in all respects. This is service like it was meant to be - truly outstanding. Thank you, everyone, for a wonderful meal.

Dinner for two with tax was $119.85 plus tip. Five stars, the moon and seven planets.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

Oh yeah and a couple of chocolate truffles gratis too. I ate two. FF only got one.  (:

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Sunday Breakfast at Wellington’s

Woah. There are probably some beautiful breakfasts lurking around in my checkered past that I don’t recall, but today’s breakfast is certainly the most beautiful one I can think of in my blissed out state. I’ve been hearing bits and pieces about Wellington’s.  They say they’re into sustainably produced food, and they’re interested in local.  All these things sound good to me.  What I hadn’t realized is the extra added Renaissance Hotel piece and all the corporate moolah that entailed.

So what kinds of beauty?  It’s like Gideon Putnam beauty. Remember those unbelievable buffet tables of well-prepared breakfast and lunch dishes in a setting that is just about Roccoco if it weren’t Victorian? The Renaissance hotel, which is at Eagle and State Streets, has been renovated by pulling off all the dismal drywall and other crap that covered over some of the most delicious paneling and molding in the city. So just stepping inside is a wonderful little trip back a century or so. (I would let go of the obnoxious blue lighting at the check in stations, but no one asked me about it during the construction.) 

The dining room of Wellington’s has been styled to suit the more modern architectural features of its exterior and it’s done in just about perfect mid-century modern, with irresistible post-modern tweaks here and there. I sat in a booth along the State Street side and was immediately impressed by the view, which I highly recommend.  Even though it was a rainy Sunday morning in January I have to say I was put in a spell by looking into the statehouse lawn.  Over my right shoulder was the clock tower and carillon of City Hall. I can’t recommend this place for a Sunday breakfast highly enough.  Just do it.

Notice how I haven’t mentioned the food yet. It might be the best part. There are the typical eggs, waffles and pancakes with a few standouts. I was ready for something hearty. The corned beef brisket caught my eye as I scanned down the list. The word hash is in the description, and so my muddled early morning mind had a dish of corned beef hash envisioned, with all the typical things that might go on that plate. When the brisket arrived at my table I was taken aback a little bit by the grilled tomato and scallion, fingerling potatoes with scraps of acorn squash, a poached egg and four or so slices of corned beef. I was a little bent out of shape. 

Then I began tasting. The urge to describe it as an OMG moment is strong, but it was beyond that. Sitting in a lovely space with this beautifully prepared, simple but intriguing food was uplifting in a Sunday morning special kind of way. Each bite was a new opportunity to blend together the veggies or poached egg or the squash and potatoes with the brisket, which was tender, juicy and flavored with a subtle briny corning like our ancestors never had. The cook obviously knew the precise moment to take the veggies off the grill, just kissed with the right amount of carmelization to bring the flavor to peak.  The potato and squash hash had the perfect amount of squash to bring the fingerlings one step forward from nice or good to extraordinary. No sauces were needed.  And I'm a person who usually goes out for breakfast specifically to have goopy sauces.

I didn’t think I had my phone with me, so I don’t have photos, but I’m going to be happy with telling you to just go and look for yourself, or check out the photos in Steve's post. My breakfast, which was the most expensive on the menu, with coffee and orange juice, tax and tip, was $30.84 - equivalent to a Gideon Putnam Sunday brunch.

Get a seat with a good view. This is definitely a gorgeous Sunday morning breakfast opportunity right here in our little town and I advise you to take advantage of it as soon as possible and as often as possible.

I would include more links, but they don't seem to have much of a separate web presence from the hotel, and the information about the restaurant is fairly stingy.

LorreBob sez: Sunday breakfast in Albany can be awesome.