Monday, October 31, 2016

Who needs a hug??? - Dinner at Il Faro

Eating great food and writing good reviews about really nice restaurants where you have absolutely no complaints is so sickly sweet I'm still reeling from this sugar high of good will and happiness and I'm now SO ready to hug everyone and genuinely love them too.
Outdoor dining in better weather - parking lot on the right
 Yes, this is really Zena. Now back off.

OK where was I. Oh, right - Il Faro, located just a couple of miles from downtown Albany in Menands, is small and family run, with experienced NYC Chef and Co-owner Christian LoFaro working side by side with General Manager and Co-owner Jennifer Lamoreaux, who is running the house. The space is open, dark, romantic and softly lit, a contrast to the artless exterior. Coming inside is like being enveloped in warmth - a perfect spot on a cold October night.
Romantic setting
The menu is traditional, appealing to most of what the locals find good about Italian food - better yet, it's in the neighborhood. But be prepared to enjoy your dinner just a bit more than you expect - no bottled dressings and cheap wine and rollatini still cold in the middle. The food is stepped up a notch - or I'd say two.  Think veal and pasta and calamari and lasagna, but with fresh pasta and really good bread and thoughtful ingredients and careful preparation, there to embrace your palate and your soul. The house white, Stella Pinot Grigio is only $5 at happy hour, even in the dining room. The hugs get longer with glass number 2.  
A simple salad to start
Red and I started with a House Salad that could have fed three ($8) - soft greens, red onion, tomatoes and olives tossed with a light vinaigrette - I could do without the canned black olives but it was simple and tasty. This, along with fresh warm rolls that were salty and sweet and yeasty with just a bit of chew was a lovely beginning. 
Fresh, warm yeasty rolls
Red almost polished off a generous serving of Penne Vodka ($14) - a dish I can almost always hate - but this one was smooth and rich and light on the tomato. Others can be harsh, or underseasoned - this offering was like the perfect cuddle - love in every bite. 
Penne Vodka - servers brought grated parm to the table
Yes, I had the Chicken Parm ($17) (now you KNOW it's really me!). A bit heavy on the sauce, but the taste of the breading came through with its parmy saltiness, lovely crisp edges, just the right amount of cheese on top - excellent. The red sauce was clingy but not thick, the tomato was bright but mellowed with cooking. The side of house-made capellini was amazing (with just a bit of water on the plate). I almost destroyed it as I clasped it to my bosom, slurping up every bite - delicious.
Chicken Parm. Yep, that's Zena alright!

A lovely dining area, Sinatra on low, attentive service, lots of promise - it wasn't busy on a Wednesday. Zena says Get out to Menands, eat more Italian, and getta hug!  

Oh, and congrats on one year in business - wishing you many, many more.

Love, Zena, Goddess of Fire

P.S. Yes, I have my soft side. Mostly it's inside but it's there, trust me. 

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Battle of the Buffet Continues: Spicy Mint

Normally I am the picture of restraint as anyone that knows me could tell you - a Fire Goddess, strong and proud, totally cool, not easily tempted into a fight, courageous. Oh, yes, tall and blond, young, 20s even, FYI.

Lots of parking, conveniently located near a head shop and a chapel in Colonie
And then I went to Spicy Mint and I totally lost it. The food was THAT GOOD. Tucked in the back of just another scenic strip mall on Wolf Road (Wolf Road Shoppers Park), the decor is simple with a touch of class. Staff paid attention throughout our meal to make sure that dirty plates were whisked away and water glasses topped. The manager (I think) graciously took the time to explain what some of the dishes were, which was very helpful.

We're off!!!  Oh, the glorious promise of a great buffet lunch. Who would pop first????
At the start of service, the buffet area is clean and well organized

The decor is simple with a touch of class

We all started with a bit of fresh salad (oniony). In addition, I piled on some Vegetable Upma, cooked semolina spiked with spice, including curry leaf, with a bit of tomato and coconut curry sauces on the side, a piece of Tandoor Chicken, the Vegetable Biryani, and a Spinach Pakora (fritter). Every bite was a sensation.  That was Plate #1/5.
From top going clockwise - spinach pakora, salad, tandoor chicken, tomato curry, upma, coconut curry, veg biryani with raita

Red polished off plate #1 before you could blink, but I went back five times, sure I would win.

Pony dared the Curd Rice (mostly yogurt and rice with spice) - kind of odd - hers was a heroic tasting. This little palate cleanser is a savory but it had some hard bits in it that I didn't really like (seeds? dal? - not sure......).

Library Lady smiled quietly and cleaned her plate, seemingly effortlessly.
Masala chai tea (not sweetened), condiments, salad and rice

Chicken dishes, vegetable options, and dal - lots to choose from
Spicy Mint gave us her best - great food, lots of variety, attentive service, and a good price ($9.98/person for lunch). The colors were bright and varied, as were the spices - complex, not too much heat but always there in the background. There were plenty of vegetarian offerings and dal, which is good, and nothing, absolutely nothing greasy or bland. The labeling was a bit inconsistent (some were labeled, some were not), and the post-it note look has got to go back to the refrigerator door where it belongs, but the manager was almost excited to answer all my annoying questions so it wasn't a problem.

The Spinach Pakoras (deep fried fritters with chickpea flour) were the biggest hit - Red ate four or five and just about knocked me out - crunchy, spicy, powerful, almost addictive. The Chicken Tikka Masala was a head shot - creamy sauce, super tender chicken.  I want to go back and just eat myself silly on this dish alone, but they do change their offerings, so don't be disappointed - embrace change!!! I liked that they brought a big basket of buttered naan to the table (delicious!), and that the chai tea was gratis.

Two desserts - mango custard and carrot halvah

Carrot halvah is almost good for you........

Carrot halvah??? Very very sweet, scented with cardamom - this took my breath away with its simplicity - a lovely finish. The mango custard was a bit gluey, and very mild, but a smooth finish to a spicy meal isn't a bad thing.

Red definitely ate me under the table this time, but I fought back with gusto. I'm sure the next time I will demonstrate immense self-control, now that I know what I'm up against.


Zena, Goddess of Fire

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Zena is Smokin' at the Warehouse Grill and BBQ

Zena, Goddess of Fire, loves smoke. But you knew that.

The aromas as you walk in the door are amazing - spice, garlic, burnt wood, and meat. Both visits I've made this month I was greeted at the door and promptly seated. The service staff was always very patient taking our orders (as we all tend to talk too much and not look at the menus), plus it can be hard to decide. Should I order something small, or pig out on a platter???

Bright open bar area
There are salads, yes, but even the strongest superhero would be hard pressed to skip the pulled pork in favor of lettuce. The first time through I tried the Warehouse Wings ($10), asking for them "extra crispy" with mild sauce (thanks, Prof. Fussy), and a simple side salad with ranch dressing (heck, it's BBQ territory - ranch, of course! - $5). All the dressings are made in-house, which really shows. The wings were very spicy, could have been crisper, but were big and juicy and delicious. I loved the house BBQ sauce - complex, not "Franks", sticky but not sweet. But the best part was the absolutely delicious, decadent, thick rich blue cheese dip - normally I don't get into this stuff except to taste it. This time, I think I licked the cup clean. Oh, yes, and I ate all my veggies.
Small side salad ($5/ a bit pricey) - fresh!

Hot wings are "hot". Mild are spicy enough, even for me
Big Sis got into a Southern Hash entree ($14) - pulled pork AND brisket, sweet peppers, onion and mashed topped with two sunny-side up eggs. She put a few extra dollops of the house BBQ sauce on at the table and proceeded to eat the whole thing. I was impressed. She has great potential, this sibling: I had to take half of mine home for later.
House BBQ and a mustard sauce table side

Southern Hash - a big plate, gluten free...

Girls night out, two birthdays to celebrate! The second visit I did the Pulled Pork Platter ($16), choosing as my two sides coleslaw and fries (which I asked for unseasoned). I got through half (agin') of that pile of delicious, tender, smokey pig. Delicious sauce - a subtle kick, just a bit sweet but not over the top. The slaw was nice, a bit underseasoned, but fresh, and the fries were good (the seasoned ones that Wonder Woman ordered were very good also, but definitely salty). Oh, and a big hunk o' cornbread comes with every entree - tender, sweet, not crumbly at all - most of which I ate the next day. The platters are generous meals for the price.
That's a pile of pig! The collard greens, bottom right, were very meaty...
TBB asked for a plain burger - no bacon, no cheese, no bun ($10). They were happy to oblige and she got herself a perfectly cooked patty with a nice char. Her collards were offered gratis (she didn't realize she was getting fries and the waitress kindly, and quickly, offered an alternative). These were VERY meaty - beef brisket flavored veg. Cookie thought she could eat a big bowl of it and make that a meal. M&M also loved the Southern Hash, and WW enjoyed her New Porker ($10), a brioche roll piled high with pulled pork and slaw (the slaw made this bite great!).
Just a burger is NOT on the menu but available for the asking

New Porker - pulled pork with slaw on a brioche bun
The only downer was the Pulled Chicken ($15) - white meat chunks, not shredded, with bits of gristle in almost every bite, and the veg of the day side green beans were almost room temp. Stretch's sweet potato fries, however, were amazing - thick, yet crispy on the outside and perfectly tender throughout, lightly salted - nice.
The chicken wasn't a big hit but those sweet potato fries were amazing
They've got a nice beer menu - lots on tap ($7 or $8/pint). I love the Chatham Hop Crop IPA, the De Brabandere white tasted of exotica and not too sour, and the New Belgium Pumpkick Ale was great - definitely not too pumpkinny. They offer a small variety of wines by the glass, including Josh Carr "Josh" Cabernet - a thoughtful selection for sure.

Faux warehouse is noisy
It's noisy with that faux warehouse design and decor, but at least there wasn't also loud music to contend with - just plenty of happy voices and conversation all around. Kid friendly, good quality grub, great service, affordable, NOT A CHAIN, nearby, with large booths as well as tables and a large bar area. Best BBQ I've had in the Capital Region to date. This place is SMOKIN!!!

Zena, Goddess of Fire

Smokin' hot tip: No reservations accepted but if you call ahead they will put you on the call list and you get to jump to the front of the line. xxx

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

An Apple a Day: Indian Ladder Farms

I don't do donuts (except in rental cars).

OK I take that back. If the line wasn't so long I think I would have LOVED to snarf one down. The air last weekend out at Indian Ladder Farms in nearby Altamont smelled delicious: sugar and cinnamon and hot oil and grass and damp and earth and a bit of fall spice. BigSis and I each took a deep breath, parked the Zenamobile across the street in the Pumpkin Picking lot, and started to explore.

Take out line for cider donuts. A picnic area is up the hill on the right.

It was only11:00 a.m. and already there were cars coming at the place in both directions, parked in the lots or on the grass.  I generally hate crowds, noisy kids make me cringe, as do doting parents, but still it was pretty exciting, like a fair almost, with bins and bins of squashes and apples and gourds and the band setting up for live music and BBQ at 12:30.  No zombies to worry about, so I could just relax.

Lots of pumpkins - you can also pick your own
The store was fun to poke around in, but the checkout line was pretty long. TIP: Go into the adjacent barn area with apples and dairy stuff and pay the cashier there instead.

Lunch bombed. We waited almost 15 minutes at the sit-down dining area, the Yellow Rock Cafe, and nothing was moving. There were folks all crammed around the entry way, yet no one came to the door to organize those waiting, and so we said forget it. Maybe next time.....

OOOOH but I DO love apples, and it IS apple season. Indian Ladder has a load of varieties to choose from. I bought a basket of McCouns - crisp, not too tart, white flesh, juicy (like me) - the best that fall has to offer for eating out of hand. BigSis got a small basket of Honey Crisp. We both crunched into one as we wandered back to the car.

Yes, the farm was overrun with visitors - Indian Ladder is THE place for many families to return to year after year, and ILF has tried to keep up, including a new brewery and a tasting room (very cool!), and there are plenty of staff on hand to help out. Right now they are doing U-pick pumpkins and raspberries, as well as apples. Loud and lively.
U-Pick Raspberries
So much for finding peace in the country. But it's still a lovely place, and not far from the big city (of Albany).

xxx Zena, Goddess of Fire, Devourer of McCouns

The squashes were $1.29 a pound, which I thought was expensive - we WERE at the farm, FYI...

Monday, October 3, 2016

Get Outta Town! - Downtown Bistro, Coxsackie

Downtown Coxsackie (pronounced "Cook-saki"): why would you go there???  

The first time Data invited me down I whined. I didn't want to drive ALL THE WAY to Coxsackie on a "school night", so we made plans for a mid-afternoon meal last Sunday. 

She wanted me to find out for myself what makes this small town so enchanting.

A riverside park on the Hudson River
At first glance I'm like "this is terribly quaint" [boring], and "Who built all those nice houses on Mansion Street?" [heh, probably old and drafty, too], and "what's a sturgeon?" [A: it's where caviar comes from]. I walked around the riverfront park and took in the mighty Hudson, and, being a river rat myself, it filled me with joy and wonder because it really was beautiful. Coxsackie looks like Hudson did 15 years ago: run down and quiet, but it appears that it, too, is being bought up and gentrified and repaired, with a gallery and a few artsy folks drifting about. Oh, and now they have Downtown Bistro.  
Cute little downtown storefronts I hope they preserve

Stone Mocha IPA and some mysterious clear stuff I didn't drink but I should have
They had about 8 or so beers on tap, none from NY (tsk tsk) but I enjoyed a Stone Mocha IPA ($6) - aromas of coffee and chocolate, not sweet at all - I loved it! The space is classy yet casual, with a few "regulars" at the bar (I'm assuming it's the only place in town to go watch the game and have a brew, at least for now). There's a back patio with a water view although it was a bit too breezy the day I visited so we sat inside on wide comfy stools at a high top. The vibe was neighborhood, laid back, but still elegant in its way. Really nice staff, young but very professional.  

Bar area, high tops with wide comfortable seating, including a foot rest

There's lots of variety on the menu - a nice list of starters, crispy pizzas, mussels, mac n' cheese, pasta, roast pork, amazing desserts - American traditional, for the most part, with a few twists. I think they are doing some high end, creative things for your dollars, even when it comes to wings (blood orange and habanero!? - wow!). Most dishes are about $20 and under, steaks more, burgers (including bison and duck) start at $10 - very reasonable prices too. The entrees all start with salad - this one was simply dressed with a house vinaigrette.
Data enjoyed one of the special entrees, Lavender Balsamic Glazed Chicken ($18), topped with prosciutto and a brown sugar glaze. Although there was hardly even a floral scent to the chicken, it was still tasty, definitely sweet, perfectly cooked white breast meat with a load of spinach hiding underneath.   

And turned - Lavender Balsamic Glazed Chicken
I went small with an app that was really a lunch portion - the Spinach Roll ($9) - a generous serving of garlicky greens wrapped in fresh pasta and baked, topped with red sauce and shaved parm. Delicious, sublime, simple -  though the pasta had dried out more than it should have, I still ate and genuinely enjoyed every bite. 

I didn't share more than a bite, it was so good!
Data finished up with a Chocolate Peanut Butter Mousse Cake ($6) - creamy, rich, with a touch of salt, perfectly balanced flavors that melt in your mouth. 

Dessert - who can go wrong with PB and chocolate???

There were quite a few folks calling ahead and picking up to-go dinners, as well as assorted pastry and a few high-end grocery items, so DB is doing what it can to give the community what it needs, including trivia night, if you are game!!!
A few staples in case you forgot your truffle oil

Downtown Bistro is only 30 minutes from downtown Albany so really, get outta town: buzz down, explore, take a deep breath, relax, and enjoy.

Zena, Goddess of Fire