Saturday, January 28, 2006

Anselmo's: I wish I didn't have to say this

Anselmo's in Troy is on Ferry Street, easily accessible from many routes (Routes 4, 2, and 7). It's in a venerable building that, long ago, according to my sources, used to be an Italian restaurant called Volcano. Then it was a gay bar/club. Now it's Anselmo's, and I'm really disappointed.

It's usually lively there, which is a nice change. It's creepy to go to a restaurant where you're the only patrons. I'm trying to tell you the good news first, but I'm quickly running out. Okay, one more good thing: the garlic bread is really good.

The first time we went, the waiter was pretty scary. It seemed like old Anselmo, the proprietor, just kinda picked this waiter up off the street, and plopped him down in front of the eggplant parm. The waiter kept telling us "You will LOVE the garlic bread. I don't lie! I'm telling you: ask anyone. You've GOTTA get the garlic bread." He had intense eyes and he wouldn't leave us alone. "Now Anselmo's, they cook REAL good Italian food. It's authentic! They use the best ingredients. ANYthing you want, it's gonna be good. Trust me."

I felt like he was trying to sell us on a drug deal rather than wait on us. "Um, could we please have a little less waiter in the soup?" Later I overheard this same waiter talking about women problems (am I surprised?), while he was eating his own dinner with the other waitstaff. He seemed like an angry fellow, and since he looked to be over 6 feet tall and in good shape, we didn't want to make any false moves: we got the garlic bread. And it *was* good. The salad was also good (note to vegetarians: Anselmo's puts slices of bologna in its perfectly good salad, so if this offends you, which it does me, you should tell them "no bologna.")

Now the bad news: the eggplant parm was drowning in cheesy fatty sauce. I didn't get any of that nice smoky eggplant flavor. And on our most recent visit, I had another encounter with the waitstaff that left me feeling intimidated. This time, we had a waitress, and when I asked for the mussels, she just went silent, didn't write it down, and looked at me. She looked dubious but didn't say anything. "What, is that not good?" I asked. She was still quiet. "Um, I could get the shrimp..."I faltered. I quickly looked at the menu again and said I would get the calamari. She nodded, seemingly relieved.

But it left me with a disturbing question: what is wrong with the mussels?! I'm raising my right eyebrow right now, in case you can't tell.

Since the squid was not fresh (it was just the cut rounds, not actually whole calamari), and the pasta it was served on was not particularly al dente, I was disappointed. In my grief, I gnawed on too much garlic bread. Then I was displeased with my lack of self control. I was a cranky diner. And yet I kept trying to convince myself that Anselmo's might really be good: maybe there was something flawed in *me* and I just couldn't appreciate it.

A poor dining experience can put me in a delusional mood. You might not react so extremely, but still I think you'd be better off going elsewhere, even if you live in Troy and are craving Italian. In fact, you're better off cooking pasta at home. This is the trouble with Italian food-- it's easy to achieve great results in our own kitchens. Kinda makes you wonder why so many Italian restaurants, then, get it so wrong. Anselmo's, rather than focussing on fresh food, seems to get off more on its 'atmosphere' (a sort of a grotto in the back, with stucco-ish walls, Green Man heads and foliage, dark lighting), and its prominent bar, where Anselmo himself can be found most nights, insisting you have a drink, on him.

Yeah, whatever. This is Nosher, telling you you do NOT have to settle for mediocrity.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

You don't need Pancho's

Spike and I were debating on where to go for dinner (that eternal debate between partners: "Honey, what do you want to do for dinner?" "I don't know, what do YOU want?" "Hmmmm... I don't know" until someone screams or decides to plunk some pasta into a pot of boiling water), and it was between Pancho's, a chain-like restaurant that has just opened up in the Brunswick Wal-Mart Plaza (warning signs should have gone off, but a fearless chowhound is never daunted), or Ali Baba's. Spike voted for Pancho's, and I was game.

It started out innocently enough: the requisite colorful primitive Mexican-esque paintings on the wall, the stucco, the free chips and decent tomato salsa. The service was prompt, and the place was crowded, with a diverse bunch there (parents with kids, older folks, younger folks. Note to Brunswick developers: This would be a great place for a real restaurant!). However, it all started going downhill when the waiter professed not to know if they had herbal tea or not, and then came back with a definite no: all they had was decaf Lipton.

That would not have been so bad in and of itself if the food had any redeeming qualities, but except for the salsa and chips, the food was pretty awful. We would have been better off just microwaving some Amy's burritos at home. I ordered enchiladas: one with 'spinach cream,' which was really more like Campbell's cream of spinach soup in an enchilada wrapper, and one with 'cheese,' although it was distinctly like American cheese (which isn't cheese at all). The refried beans were REALLY re-fried (re-refried beans) and the rice was gummy.

Spike's meat chimichanga was okay, he said, but he agreed that next time, if we have a craving for Mexican, it's going to be José Malone's. And the price wasn't too different: together we paid $29 for two meals, drinks, and a cheese dip. The cheese dip was white, and they served it in a bowl (this seems to be a trend), but it had no real flavor.


By the way, speaking of José Malone's (which I seem to be doing a lot of lately), Maria Zemantauski, world-renowned flamenco guitarist, will be playing there starting 8 pm this Thursday, so make your reservations in advance! Visit for more information on her playing. You will be amazed!

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Bomber's Burrito Bar rocks

In Albany on Lark Street you will find the oddest combination of high and low: homeless people picking through the trash for cans betwixt and between state workers talking on their cell phones. Yet, there are not enough people to make this juxtaposition fade into the background, as there are in New York City, where high, low, middle, high-middle, bottom-low, upper-upper East Side, etc. all jostle each other as they march purposefully down the avenues, making for more gradations—more grey to help us swallow the black-and-white harshness of life. Lark Street always has this harsh, ghost street feeling about it, perhaps because of a lack of foot traffic. (Come to think of it, most of the Capital District feels this way to me).

One place where the high and low comfortably fuse is at Bomber's Burrito Bar, at 258 Lark Street. Today I had a soft taco with their amazing, spectacular sweet potato fries, and the whole thing was a little more than $5. I was more than well nourished-- the soft taco was practically exploding with beans and rice, not to mention the fixin's, and I challenge ANYONE to find sweet potato fries any better within a 100 mile radius of Albany. Maybe I'll give you a quarter to feed the parking meter in Albany if you win. I like to cover my fries with extra salt and ketchup, but these fries are NOT too greasy and not too crunchy. They are fresh fresh fresh!

One of the coolest things about Bomber's is that the people who work there are young kids who are hip yet not old enough to have become utterly embittered. They still have hope. You can see it in their quirky, fun decor-- a flat of wheatgrass propping up an Incredible Hulk action figure by their cash register would make even Gov. Pataki smile, that is if he ever left his Manse. A mirror by the tables sports all manner of band stickers people have pasted up there over the years, teenager's bedroom style. There are no napkins, but paper towels (practical!) hanging on a roll by the register. Service is strictly cafeteria style, and it's fast. A sign admonishes customers not to watch the young chefs flipping burritos, as it creeps them out (good point!), so maybe read Metroland while you're waiting for your stuff.

Now that Shades of Green is gone from Lark Street (where are you, Shades of Green?!?!) Bomber's is the best casual option for vegetarians. I thought about going to Taste of Greece (193 Lark) which is excellent, but the last time I was there service was slow. I'm glad I chose Bomber's. I felt right at home.

José Malone, part two

I ate at José Malone's again the other night, and it was still impressive, but the honeymoon is over (alas, it never lasts long for me, your discerning and spoiled Nosher). While the service was as good as before, and the ambience is still excellent, the relationship is now at the stage where I don't think they're perfect anymore.

I ordered the vegetable tamale, and while the sides (rice, beans, carrots) were awesome, the tamale was quite mushy. Maybe it's more difficult to make a vegetable tamale than a meat tamale-- I don't know, I've never made one. It was presented beautifully, but it lacked flavor. My margarita was okay, but next time I'm ordering it off the rocks.

However, the cheese dip is positively addictive. And I still recommend you go there; after all, this is what, only their third month of operation?

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

José Malone's? Si, lads and lasses

River Street in Troy is now quite the scene: I witnessed a young woman wearing stiletto-style boots there just this evening despite the slush on the ground. It could be the critical mass of pubs, restaurants, and entertainment venues : River Street Café, Brown's Brewing Co., Revolution Hall, Ryan's Wake, and now José Malone's. The young woman in the spiky heeled boots was hanging out with another young woman, whose fashion sense was questionable: low-riding jeans with belly and rear guard hanging out, and she was not one of the ten people in the country who can wear those without looking like a plumber. Okay, so it's not the Scene, yet, but it's a lower-case scene. When you see the fledgling fashionistas flocking, it's like seagulls before a storm: you know it's coming.

Yes, you heard right: I said José Malone's. You thought fusion cuisine was so yesterday. But here in the Capital Region, yesterday is-- er, well-- today.

I used to live in New York City, where Cuban-Chinese restaurants flourished alongside Brazilian, French, Italian, Israeli, Korean, and Ukrainian. So I'm a bit spoiled. In fact, I lived two and a half blocks away from Lombardi's, the city's best (and most authentic, dating back to the early 20th century) pizzeria, hands down. I lived near Céci-Cela, a patisserie. Any kind of order-out was mine, virtually 24-hours a day.

So the Capital District seems a bit behind the times. But it is catching up, and José Malone is leading the charge with its warm, understated decor. We went on a Tuesday night in January-- not a very inspiring evening-- yet several tables of people were there, and candles were lit in wine-colored glasses. The building is one of Troy's great old brick edifices, and José Malone's proprietor had the good sense to highlight the warmth of the brick walls by leaving them alone, refinishing the lovely wood floor, and adding good lighting. The place is pretty big: tall ceilings help, but it's also long, which allowed space to build a bar separated from the main dining room by a partition. They have excellent beer, wine, and alcohol (Margaritas seemed to be a speciality) but they don't shove it in your face. If you are like me, you want good quality alcohol available but not central.

Mostly, José Malone is Mexican, with a few inspired Irish highlights: taquitos with portobellos and cheese with a side of spicy mashed potatoes. Guinness stew. Lamb as the meat in some of the Mexican dishes. The food is terrific: fresh, styled with panache, and plenty of wonderful choices for vegetarian and carnivores here. For appetizer, we had nachos and cheese; the spicy melted cheese was served in a small bowl, and now I must tell you that *every* restaurant should start doing this, because the cheese stayed warm and didn't get our hands messy. Chile rellenos queso was my main dish (although I was tempted to order the vegetable tamale-- next time), and it came with flavorful, fresh carrots prepared with tequila. I couldn't taste the tequila, but I could taste the carrots, which seemed bolder and darker orange than your usual restaurant carrot. (Maybe José is ordering from an actual farm and not a biotech company!) The chile relleno was beautifully served whole with the cute little stem still on top, fried, but not greasy. The sides were black beans with a smidge of queso dusted on the top, and rice, but not just any rice: it was more like a pilaf, with lots of good healthy brown grain in there. Not just any black beans, either: these were obviously cooked from whole dried beans and had a lovely smoke in their flavor.

I highly recommend this restaurant, but there are a couple quibbles: The chile had a spicy tomato sauce that was just a bit too spicy for me, and I usually like things moderately spicy. So you might want to ask if you have preferences for heat one way or the other. Also, they are still developing their menu, and things might change (you, reader, can impact this if you want to go, try it out, and make suggestions!) Also, there was more food than I could eat, but we're not talking disgustingly huge portions here: just generous. In reality, I could have been full on the beans, rice and nachos, without the chile and carrots. But I gave it my best college try, because damn, it was good, and I was excited to find such a unique restaurant in Troy. For an appetizer, one mint tea, and two main courses, it was about $28.

According to this Times Union review, Ray Wall is the proprietor of José Malone's; he used to be involved with El Loco Cafe in Albany, but he also plays Irish music. Hence the fusion.

The great thing about José Malone's is that you can take anyone there: a date, your mom (although I don't think mine likes Mexican, and that's a topic for another post), your buddies. This promises to be a good music place, too; there's plenty of room, and what with the dulcimer-playing owner, it's bound to happen.

I had no room for dessert, but I noticed the words 'key lime' on the menu (I think maybe cheesecake, too?), and that's one of my top 5 desserts (stay tuned for the other 4).

Tomorrow, I have to go to the gym.

Details: 405 River Street in Troy

(It looked like they were open until around 9:30 on weeknights. I will post specifics once I call them. The article I listed above states hours, but I don't believe them, because I swear I saw 9:30, but the TU says they're open until 10. )

Monday, January 02, 2006

Carmen's Cafe

Update on Carmen's:
Carmen's cafe is open from 7 a.m.- 3 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. The cafe sometimes plans events for dinner/tapas nights-- she announces this usually through the Washington Park newsletter. I'll post again here if she decides to open regular dinner hours. (Updated 5/26/06 by Nosher).

Well, I haven't actually been out to eat in the past few days, because I've been too busy munching on holiday chocolates and the like at home.

So this will be a post about Carmen's Cafe, which I visited for the first time around Dec. 24th. Carmen's is located in Troy on the corner of Adams and First Streets and used to be called Isabel's.

Well, Carmen has taken over, and is changing things, all for the better. The venue is very local and very humble (probably no one who doesn't live or work in the immediate vicinity really knows about it-- *yet*), but s has a lot of potential. I believe this is only her second week or so with this new format.

Carmen's is open for breakfast and lunch, 6am - 2pm, and now also open for dinner (Isabel's was not) Tues-Sat. Call first before going for dinner just to make sure: 272-3011.

When I was there, I had lunch: Cuban eggs (eggs on top of rice) with a wonderful small avocado salad and plantains. For dessert, my lunch companion and I had a homemade creme caramel. Can I quote Rachael Ray and say: YUM?!

The menu is a combination of American-style comfort food, and Carmen's own mix of Cuban-Puerto Rican influenced home cooking. You heard it first here on dish and dirt.