Monday, March 27, 2006

Provence- Yawn, Etcetera

"Bon soir," the coatcheck girl greeted us. How nice! I thought-- someone actually using French in a French restaurant. But after that, it became obvious that Provence lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. You'd never find a restaurant like Provence in France: the food is way too fussy (Red Leaf, Duck Confit, Toasted Almonds, Brie and Raspberry Vinaigrette salad?). The French are, if anything, excellent editors and know that less is more. Provence is an ambitious restaurant, but I fear they have bitten off more than they can chew (pardon the pun).

We went to Provence on a Friday, to celebrate an accomplishment of mine. I got all dressed up, and--honest!--I was ready for some fine dining. I had hopes for Provence.

But both my husband and I were disappointed, at first in small ways, and then, upon reviewing our experience, as a whole. First of all, for an upscale restaurant, diners don't seem to have enough elbow room, especially where we were seated, up on the platform area. (There were some nice banquettes below, which seemed reserved for larger parties-- if you insist on going, even after you've read my review, you might want to ask for a quieter table if you want a romantic-- or even simply coherent--evening here). The volume was bearable but fairly high, and we were quite close to the neighboring tables, so the overall effect was that we were on stage taking part in a show. This can be enjoyable when the show is, say, Paris nightlife, but when you're in Stuyvesant Plaza-- I don't think so. In an upscale restaurant, the interior should be interesting but ultimately should put the focus on the food. By the end of the evening, we knew all about our neighbors' new business plans. (And, in case you're reading, no, we don't think you'll do well with your dog grooming place in Troy. You need to do more research, both on dog services and on Troy).

Provence is in Stuyvesant Plaza, the upscale outdoor shopping strip mall on Western Avenue; and let me not be the one to judge a restaurant by its location. After all, Karavalli is in the most unassuming strip mall in Latham. But Provence's location is reflected in the dining experience, both with the offerings and in terms of expense. We spent a little more than $100 for two salads, entrees, one glass of wine, and one dessert, including tip.

The space is pleasant and large, and there were plenty of people there. A pianist played unobtrusively. There are faux wood beams on the ceiling, and a nice chandelier in the center of the main room. The menu is lovely, with plenty of Continental/Fusion appetizers like Seared Tuna Sashimi and Smoked Salmon with Asian Slaw and Soy Ginger Sauce or Assiette de Charcuterie (assortment of patés and gourmet cold cuts), or Tart á la Forestiere (Potato, Wild Mushroom and cheese tart). They also have Butternut Squash and Sage Cream soup or Provençal Seafood Chowder.

Both of us ordered the Endive et Betterave Roti (Roasted Beet and Endive Salad with Toasted Pistachios, Pears, and Mustard Vinaigrette-- phew-- again with the long titles!) and the greens were lovely, but the beets were cut into cubes and served with a creamy dressing, which had the effect of making them look rather unappetizing. More thought overall could have gone into this salad (where were the endives of the title? I saw maybe three leaves).

The main dish offerings are prodigious, with everything from Fennel Seed Crusted Tuna on Gorgonzola Soft Polenta (etc.) to Steak Frites, Venison, Roasted Rack of Lamb, and Hommard á La Portugaise (Lobster, Shrimp and Chorizo Sausage in Charred Tomato and Roasted Fennel.. etc. sauce on linguini). They seem to have only one vegetarian entrée, which is Julienne Roasted Vegetables over Fettucine (etc.). On such a large menu, this is a real flaw.

I ordered the grilled trout, which bills itself as, in French, Truite Grillée au Champignon Sauvage, and translates, oddly, as Grilled Trout Filet and Citrus Caper Buerre Blanc with Exotic Mushroom and Roasted Red Pepper Risotto-- take your pick.* The trout was good, (watch out for some bones, though) but not the best I've had (I've had better at Emperor's Chinese on Wolf Road). It tasted a bit overfed and was a rather large specimen. The risotto that came with it was quite good. My husband got the Filet de Boeuf au Roquefort, which he said was too fatty, and not worth the $25.95.

For dessert I ordered the Lemon tart (I refuse to type out the long name!), which had an oddly deflated puff-pastry type shell. The filling was good, but needed to be offset by a more traditional shortcrust. The wait service was high quality while we were there, although, again, the noise was an issue: another waiter had a protracted conversation with our neighbors, and we now also know a lot about popular views on real estate.

The verdict is: overpriced, and too fussy. I doubt it will change, because it's too popular the way it is.

*It's one thing to have fussy, long names for your dishes, and quite another to insist on them both in French and English. And, yet another issue when the two do not match up. I've been wondering if the long titles are a way to force hapless reviewers like me to spend precious word counts on the inflated hype. Fortunately, this is a blog, and I don't have a word count. But, on principle, I'm refusing to type them all in. So there.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Albany Pump Station

The Albany Pump Station has become one of the most popular restaurants in the Capital District. With a huge brick building (according to the information on their web site, it began as two buildings with the first built in 1874) of 8,000 square feet floor space, there's plenty of room to get comfortable. There is an ample fireplace in the main dining room with cozy couches around for lounging. And, for beer aficionados, C. H. Evans has won awards for Kick-Ass Brown Ale and Hefeweizen, among others.

Why is it called the Pump Station? Originally, it was a beer brewery run by the Evans family, who started brewing in Hudson in 1786. They've done a beautiful restoration of the building (you can see an enormous hook still hanging) and continue to brew beer here today.

Because this restaurant has become so popular (and the bar area is packed on weekends), I highly recommend making a reservation. Last weekend, we had an unpleasant experience of waiting for half an hour, only to give up when they said we would have to wait even longer to be seated.

But the other time we've gone, a bit later on a Saturday night, we were seated immediately, and found that the service and food were both great. My veggie burger was one of the best I've had, and the sweet potato fries were good (but not as good as those at Bomber's Burrito bar!) The bread pudding for dessert was also excellent. Don't expect to lose any weight here, unless you're really disciplined and can order the large salads (the Spring Medley salad features baked brie bruschetta; you can also get a Grilled Chicken Fajita or a Traditional Cobb salad).

Executive chef Gerard Fleck, trained at the Culinary Institute of America, has done a terrific job making the menu as crowd-pleasing as possible, with plenty of choices: appetizers include Nachos, Coconut Shrimp, Thai Peanut Wings, and Pale-Ale Battered Red Onion Rings. Sandwiches include a vegetarian option as well as chicken, pulled-pork, and The Gobbler (turkey on a baguette with all the trimmings). You can build your own burger; order from entrees like Chicken Sophia (chicken stuffed with ham and mozarella), Fish and Chips, Polynesian Mahi Filet; or have pasta.

It's really a bit overwhelming. And I don't envy them their heating bill come winter. But it makes for a most pleasant experience.

Let's Do Brunch: Peaches Café

This past weekend, we had a visitor, and she suggested brunch. The Miss Albany diner is great, but we were looking for something a little more service oriented (Miss Albany is small and can get crowded for brunch). So we went to Peaches in Stuyvesant Plaza, and it was a hit.

It was noon when we arrived, and Peaches doesn't take reservations, but they were able to seat us almost right away despite the line. The service was friendly and efficient, even with a lot of customers. Two of us got the eggs florentine (like an eggs benedict, but spinach instead of ham); the other got the New Orleans omelet.

The menu is like that of a modern diner menu; plentiful options include omelets of every stripe, sandwiches, quiches, and of course pancakes and waffles. The food is high quality without crossing over that invisible line into gourmet. They have 7 different kinds of burgers (all served with 8 oz. Angus meat); lots of clubs (including a vegetarian with eggplant and roasted pepper), and low-carb choices like wraps or a meat omelet. You can even get an egg-cream here.

The atmosphere is warm and homey; and it doesn't hurt that they have an impressive array of pastries and cakes (I tried an apple torte for dessert, which was quite good, although it needed to be heated). Everything about my eggs was great except the hollandaise, which seemed too sweet or perhaps from a mix rather than from scratch. The whipped cream is from a can, and they like to put it on everything; but that only seems to add to the diner-tude here.

And after you have your meal, you can peruse the many shops at Stuyvesant Plaza.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Koto's: No No

Last night, searching for something new and craving good Japanese food, I went to Koto's Japanese Steak House, which is located on Wolf Road (actually, it's right before you turn onto Wolf Road from the 87 exit). There were plenty of people there on a Wednesday night, which is always nice, and the decor was attractive, with a fountain and bridge as you walk in. It's also fun to watch the hibatchi cookers; we sat right next to one, and watched as the chef stir-fried shrimp, meat, and veggies. Those diners looked happy, and the food on the hibatchi looked good.

From there, though, I am sorry to report my experience was not a good one, food-wise. Other people have given poor marks to the service (a Metroland review, as well as anonymous posters on the Times Union review site), but my complaint is with the food. The service was fine for me.

I ordered the bento, a box which comes with all your courses at once: salad, in this case shrimp dumplings, crab sushi, and salmon teriyaki. The dumplings were okay but pretty flavorless overall; the sushi, ditto, with the crab (cooked) being pretty unspectacular and most likely frozen. The salmon was poor: dry and thin, with a lousy excuse for a brown teriyaki sauce that had a consistency of mucus or egg whites and was too sweet. That should just not happen with a sauce. It seemed like store-bought sauce, not fresh or homemade.

It was edible, but that's about all I can say for my meal.

Ditto my dining partner: he ordered the udon with vegetable noodles, and I tried some. They were overcooked and almost completely flavorless.

I tried to make up for all this by sucking on my hot sake, but we won't be going back there. Oh, and with tip, the meal cost us near $50-- not a bargain by any measure, and I ordered only the one drink and no dessert. It seems like the kind of place that gets a lot of business just by being next to the airport hotels, but frankly, you'd be better off further down Wolf Road at Emperor's Chinese or Bangkok Thai.