Sunday, February 19, 2006

Ocean Palace: a mixed blessing

Ocean Palace, on Central Ave. about a block to the west of the Everett Road exit, used to be my favorite place to get authentic Chinese food in the Albany area. It still has a Biblical menu and there are always people there: a mix of Chinese folks and Caucasians. They have a very bizarre movie screen in the back that inoffensively plays inexplicable Chinese videos (landscapes and such), but this is easily avoidable, because there's plenty of seating at the front.

You really have to know how and what to order here, and it would help to know Chinese, but there are so many wonderful dishes that you really can't find anywhere else that it's worth wading through some of the not-so-great stuff. Highlights are a whole section of the menu is devoted to Chinatown Style Noodle Soups; there's also a hotpot section of the menu, as well as lots of salt dishes, like salted flounder; pepper w/salty scallop. There are, of course, the typical Americanized offerings like General Tso's chicken, fried or steamed dumplings, and spring rolls. You'll also find the more exotic-sounding Sweet Corn Soup with Fish Maw and Virginia Ham Soup with Fish Maw, which I've never ordered, but it's nice to know I could if I wanted to. I watched someone bring the soy sauce chicken (or maybe it was duck? hard to tell) to a young man, and it looked fabulous. That's the really good news.

Their dim sum is less impressive, with more of a greasy quotient. Another thing to realize about Ocean Palace is that their take-out menu contains maybe only half of the choices you'll find in the restaurant. You have to be there to know about offerings like Fresh Lily Bulb with Tofu in Special with Sauce [sic] (I think that one should win an award for most poetic entrée), or Blue Crab with Ginger and Scallion, as well as a range of lobster dishes and, the other night, Dungeness crab as a special.

Ocean Palace still rivals Emperor's for my number one Chinese restaurant. However, they seem to be experiencing some kind of change in management; the other night, the waiters seemed incredibly clueless (we were not the only diners who had to call our waiter over so we could order), and some of the dishes, like Chinese broccoli, were not as good as expected: the broccoli was cooked a minute or so too long, and they used to serve it with a garlicky sauce, whereas the other night it just came in blah oyster sauce.

Once we did catch the waitress's attention, she seemed bashful and overly attentive, and she made a valiant effort to answer my questions about types of sauce on various shrimp dishes. However, her attention to diners was still pretty erratic throughout the evening. And, at the end of the evening, she asked us if we wanted special "Chinese orange" slices; they're extra sweet. Um right; as opposed to those radically different American oranges?! Come on. I hope they get their service straightened out, but in the meantime, be prepared.

The other night, I ordered the Pepper with Salty Shrimp, which came with grilled onions, chives, and jalapenos and were quite good. The only problem (and you may feel less squeamish about this) was that all the yummy salt breading was on the outside, on the shell of the shrimp. I suppose I could have sucked it off, but I just didn't feel like it, so quite the struggle ensued so that I could de-shell the shrimp without losing all the flavor.

My all-time favorite thing to get at Ocean palace is the black-bean sauce sea bass, which used to appear with regularity on their specials board; it wasn't available the other night (although it might be the kind of thing you can ask for, if you can get through to the waitstaff, since they did have steamed sea bass available). My other favorite dish is the yellow chive chow fun; simple but heavenly. My dinner partner got the orange beef off the Schzechuan menu, which was more like your standard greasy spoon Chinese restaurant fare, although not so bad. Their noodle dishes (like chow funs and Singapore Chow Mei Fun) are pretty darn good most of the time, and they have a large vegetarian section with tofu and other dishes. I'll definitely go back and report on how they're doing; they have all the ingredients for greatness.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Justin's, Lark Street

Justin's is a sedate, tastefully decorated restaurant with upscale American fare right on Lark Street near Madison. They have jazz most weeks Wednesdays-Saturdays and also Sunday brunch jazz. It's a good place to take a date you want to impress. On the other hand, if you're already nervous about your date, go somewhere else; Justin's won't break the ice.

The menu was impressive, with appetizers like Salmon Cakes with aioli or a Coconut Scallop Tempura, which I am going to have to try the next time I'm there. Their fish chowder was excellent (although it was not as piping hot as I would have liked). One of my dinner companions got the Confetti Corn Fritters--they were okay, but not earth-shattering-- my other dinner companion ordered the Salad Chop Chop, which looked quite good.

Our main courses were the Meditteranean Ravioli, which were lackluster (tomatoes are now out of season, and the filling was somewhat bland); the Zuppe di Clams-- my quite pleasing dinner, which came with pasta al dente and nice, clean tender clams in a 'clammy' broth with garlic-- and the Jamaican Jerk Chicken, which was wayyy too much to eat in one sitting but gets a thumbs up. A gripe: not quite so much broth should go into the Zuppa di Clams; without it, it wouldn't really be a Zuppa, but I think that would be quite alright. A little clam flavor goes a long way, and with a lot of liquid, pasta can get slippery to eat.

Justin's seems strongest in the meat-and-fish department, with most main courses being hearty traditional fare like Blackened Sea Bass and Spice Rubbed Steak; if you're a veggie who doesn't eat fish, you basically have only one main course option, (when we were there, the ravioli) although you could do quite nicely here (veggie or no) to order two appetizers in lieu of a main course.

Our one complaint was that the service was too slow. We had a show to catch, and even though we ordered by 6:30 (having arrived at 6 pm), our main courses didn't arrive until almost 7:30. Admittedly, we should have told the waitresses about our show right away; but we thought we had left more than enough time. Regardless of the show, the tempo in there seemed glacially stoic; maybe most people go there for the music, and so don't mind waiting.

Justin's brings up my biggest gripe with Capital District dining: fine dining (or at least what is considered by the majority to be fine dining) around here feels stiff and forced. In New York City or Boston, going out somewhere nice doesn't mean having to sacrifice liveliness or simplicity of food. It's *okay* to order a risotto at a fine Italian restaurant as your main dish. You shouldn't have to order the duck-encrusted-salmon-with-truffles-and-marjoram-salsa-reduction to get wonderful food; the test of a great restaurant is that its basic and humble dishes (pasta, mashed potatoes, breads-- um, am I starch-obsessed much?) should be just as toothsome as its more flamboyant ones. I do like to be spoiled, but I don't like a fuss. Too many of the more upper-price-range restaurants around here tiptoe around as though really good food were an extraordinary event like a comet or an asteroid (note: I'm not talking about Saratoga, only the immediate Albany-Schenectacy-Troy triangle). Great food should be a daily affair; elegant but not pompous. You should be able to engage in conversation with your dinner mates and almost forget that you are at a fine restaurant. Justin's had a little bit of self-consciousness about the atmosphere and the presentation, as if to say: "Yes, I AM a good restaurant, even though I'm right next to the Dunkin Donuts and up the street from Lark Street's weekend drinking goobers."

Where are the simply damn good restaurants around here? I'm still searching.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Jack's Oyster House

Recently I was at Jack's Oyster House for the first time with a large group to celebrate a birthday. It's an impressive restaurant: wood paneling, tall ceilings, and gorgeous flower arrangements give it an air of Old New York luxury, a la Edith Wharton. I could just picture one of her dyspeptic characters, George Dorset, dining on terrapin here and complaining about it. Established in 1913, Jack's still draws in lots of customers; in fact, on a Thursday night it was jam-packed. The maitre d'hotel was gracious, and our waiter introduced himself-- but I have to say that after that, the service was less than impressive for such an old standard.

This is a great place to take someone you want to impress, but there are a couple of drawbacks. One is that it is extremely noisy. The floor appears to be stone or tile (with that lovely old fashioned black-and-white checkerboard pattern), and there is no carpeting; the ceilings are high, and so the sound reverberates. So don't take a date here if you want to be amorous; also, don't take grandma with the hearing aid.

The food was really good, but it's not as uniformly great as the restaurant wants you to think it is: I had the famous Manhattan Clam Chowder, which was okay; but it doesn't even approach the classic taste of, for example, Legal Seafood chowders in Boston. There is a tendency at Jack's to overdo dishes, which is a tendency of Old New York: one of the dishes on the classic menu is "Creamy Lobster Newburg Accented with Sherry Served in a Sourdough Bread Bowl," for example. A sourdough bread bowl?! Isn't that something you'd find more aptly at a Bagel Barn or Bounteous Bread franchise? That sort of thing seems out of place at a classic Northeastern seafood joint. Here's another one to accent your arteries: "Sizzling duck and foie gras fried rice with roasted pineapple, edamame, and scallion." That sounds just gross, in every sense of the word. Also, you'll find steak "bathed in a brandy mustard demi-cream," ($21.99), half a duck "lacquered with a pacific rim orange ginger glaze," and, most confusingly to me, lamb "with a garlic mustard crust and mint tomato jam" (also $21.99). When I used to eat meat, I remember being somewhat put off by overly fussy preparations. Garlic mustard AND mint tomato is a thicket of flavors, not a creative fusion. Pick one or the other, if you're going to be a classic restaurant.

We lucked out because during the month of January, Jack's had a prix fixe menu for $19.13, to commemorate their founding year. For that amount, I got a nice salad, plus the basil and pine nut encrusted salmon, and a dessert. (The chowder was a la carte.) The salmon was wonderful; it didn't taste much of basil, but the crust was buttery and crunchy, and it was 'day boat salmon,' (whatever the heck that means-- never did get to ask the waiter) which was really fresh and moist. Some of my dining compatriots got the oysters and the shrimp cocktail appetizers, which both looked fantastic. Another one of us got the sea bass, which also looked great.

The dessert was a real disappointment: I got the apple dumpling, which was a lackluster filo-type shell with boring apple filling. The chocolate cake was another item on the prix fixe menu, and it looked like a miniature bundt cake-- I couldn't tell if it was good or not, but there was nothing interesting about it.

The service was slow, and not particularly helpful; if the group I was with hadn't known about the prix fixe menu ahead of time, the wait staff never would have told us. With all the choices at a place like Jack's, you need wait staff who can explain things patiently and make recommendations. At least this one night, that was not the experience I had.

They said they do occasionally have prix fixe deals-- maybe twice a year-- so it's worth calling ahead and asking, because it's quite expensive a la carte.