Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"Dinner in Rome" with Chef Gio

Dear Chef Gio:

Thank you for your cooking school, Gio Culinary Studio in Voorheesville, NY.  You are offering lots of evening classes that appear to be aimed at us home cooks that want ideas and inspiration to make our Italian dishes rise above the ordinary. From the outside the building is quite plain, but inside it's simple and lovely; the layout is well considered.  The large open kitchen is brightly lit, clean and modern, and I appreciated the cameras and large screens positioned above the work area so participants can watch what you are doing without having to hover.
Small town Voorheesville has a surprise in store for you...

Chef Gio and his sidekick Robin - lovely space for workshops
That didn't keep us, I mean me, from asking lots of questions, but you are charming, answering easily with the "why" so it would be easier to remember, and you didn't give us recipes, just ingredients, and made us take notes, which is savvy teaching on your part. Anyway, I apologize for being so annoying, what with my flash going off, giggling over my wine, fooling with the KitchenAid even when you told me not to - honestly, there's one in every crowd, and I'm an effortless troublemaker in all respects. Your sidekick Robin was aware of my superhero status and I could sense her wanting to "POW!" "BLAM"! "BIF"! and "SOK!" me, but she was very nice. I've met other Robins in my day and they can kick butt, but I digress.
In three hours you demonstrated how to make several relatively simple regional dishes from Rome. I loved the bruschetta, toast scraped with cut garlic and topped with sliced grape tomatoes laced with fresh basil and best quality olive oil. Messy and crunchy, like me. Strawberry liked it too!!!

Making pasta with the troublemaker (me, not Strawberry)
You made handmade pasta seem effortless, but I will likely continue to make mine in the food processor. Thanks for the hot tip about 50:50 semolina (for elasticity) and no-purpose flour (for workability) - I'll try that the next time. I have one of those analog hand crank kneader/cutters and they are a fine substitute for those of us that mess around with appliances or that don't have any counter space, or both. The Carbonara that you tossed with the spaghetti was unctous, rich, salty and amazing. Again, seemingly easy but you stressed the importance of good quality ingredients (and yes, everyone should know about the Cheese Traveler!).

Carbonara with a big hit of real Pecorino Romano
Next was the Saltimbocca al Forno - boned skin-on chicken thighs, prosciutto, sage - very traditional - braised in chicken stock and wine, topped with garlic, in a large pan making it easy to prepare for a crowd. Tender and dreamy. And the class was full, it was a good crowd, friendly and happy to gather and talk about food.

Chef Gio demonstrates boning chicken thighs - the finished dish is below
We finished up with a demo on Zeppole, a cooked pate chou with only eggs for leavening, these were light and just slightly sweet, topped with a bit of sugar and cinnamon. I had two.

Making Zeppole
Dinner in Rome was a lovely event, and I see that you are offering this again in July. I didn't understand that we weren't actually getting dinner for our $65, just sample tastes, and that made the class seem a bit expensive, so maybe you just need to make this all clear on your website so your students don't leave feeling disappointed.  I hate to complain because I really enjoyed the evening in your studio and I learned a lot, so thank you again for bringing your enterprise to the Capital Region.
Rightfully proud of their work!!! Thanks, Chef!
I'll probably sneak back into one of your pizza classes (if I promise to behave)!!!

Yours truly,
Zena, Goddess of Fire

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

What's the BEST Restaurant in Albany??? Possibly Peck's...

Soft Serve is sweet, fun, familiar with the area but still new in her return, after many years away, to her Alma Mater city of Albany, where she belongs.

Excited and exploring, Soft Serve asked a bunch of us "What is the best restaurant in Albany?", to which I replied "What do you like?" - but that was not her question, the question was, what is the BEST??? Not your favorite, not your regular spot, not the recommended sushi joint or diner or happy hour specials or cheap eats or brunch joints or romantic or seasonal or perfect burgers or Italian or Greek or Thai or TexMex or BBQ or where you can eat outside with the flies or a pub where you can spill your beer and dance with abandon.

And I answered "Peck's".

Street parking only for Peck's Arcade in downtown Troy
It's not that big, we know that. The open kitchen is small, too. The space is kind of dark and the guts of the ventilation and heating and the structure itself are exposed like an inside-out umbrella, connecting to Lucas Confectionery (wine bar and small bites) and The Grocery, all windy like, and there's even a bar upstairs. I'll call it chic, trendy, divey, and very very cool. I felt cool, even though I'm not, I'm actually a Fire Goddess, not at all cool, especially since I hit 50, but I digress.
Open concept, noisy and it got noisier as it got busier, but very chic
We sat at the Chef's Counter so we could watch - three chefs/cooks, each with their specialties, whipped together small plates and mains with astonishing speed and grace. They made it look easy, but it's not, neither is fighting the forces of evil but we try not to sweat: each dish was graced with home prepared everything, thoughtful and seasonal additions, sauces and sides, all done well in advance of service. Not cheating: brilliant. OK they answered our questions but they had to focus on their cooking, so they didn't actually engage with those sitting close by (but then again, sometimes it's weirdos like me that won't shut up that's the problem).
Chef's Counter - be sure to make a reservation!
We started with the Mustard Green Salad ($10), baby leaves topped with a few thin strips of celery, a sprinkle of whole spicy sweet walnuts, and a few generous shaves of Pecorino Romano all tossed with a delicate egg vinaigrette that pulled everything together nicely, balancing the bitterness of the greens and giving the whole a lovely mouth feel. A generous serving, this was a great plate to share.
Mustard Green Salad was probably my favorite part of the meal - fresh and lively and seasonal
Charred Fava Beans ($8) were offered gratis (something they are known to do) - spicy and oily and salty. I was told that the entire fuzzy pod with the slippery beans inside are edible, so I took a bite.  Woof!!!  The flavorings were so heavy that what you get on your fingers is enough to satisfy as you suck out the beans. OK this dish was messy, both fingers and detritus, but delicious, a great snack. I do NOT recommend this one if it's a hot date. Oh, it's served at room temp, FYI.
Fuzzy, ugly little things can be conquered by sucking out the fava beans inside
Moving on to the Grilled Cauliflower ($14) - heavily charred, also just barely above RT, topped with nuts and seeds and a "salsa verde" of sorts (bitter), on a pile of whipped feta cheese (OMG!) and a large spoonful of heady tomato jam. I loved that jam with bits and bites of everything on the plate - great combos, very creative.
Grilled Cauliflower was pre-cooked then finished on the grill
Yes, Octopus ($17). Large thick pieces like serpents tongues, simply floured, deep fried, salted, these supertender temptations were served up with a thick oily emulsion laced with pickled peppers and paprika, a couple of slices of charred onion, and a few slices of creamy roasted and tender new potato. O is hard to do well - Peck's nailed it.
Large pieces of perfectly tender deep fried octopus 
And what is dinner without bread!??? The House Bread ($5) was light and airy, super crispy crust, a huge half a boule with a side of salted butter and garlic confit (roasted whole garlic cloves and pickled mustard seeds) finished with a sprinkle of rosemary. Were we stuffed by this point? Yes. This Soft Serve has real potential when it comes to eating ME under the table, and we enjoyed every single bite.

The bread was amazing!!!
Oh, yeah!!!  Softee enjoyed a "craft ale" - Alesmith (a California IPA, $5) - cold out of the can and into her glass. The Idlewild Wine "The Flower" rose ($13/glass/Sonoma CA, a bit steep) was bone dry, crisp and light and lovely and simple against those competing flavors of our feast. What??? Of course, I had two. And a free little chocolate chip cookie at the end, courtesy of the kitchen.

Great food, gracious service, chic but still laid back, Peck's Arcade is an adventure in eating. Don't miss it next time you go exploring.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS:  They forgot the bread and comped us on this with an apology, quickly I might add. Man, you can't beat that kind of hospitality and service.