Saturday, May 13, 2006

Mezzo Marketplace and Eatery

Mezzo on 340 Hamilton Street, near the intersection with Dove, is a fantastic find. If I lived in downtown Albany, I'd probably be there a lot. They'd get tired of seeing my urbanite face every week. As it is, I have to settle for when I get to Albany and can actually find street parking.

Mezzo has absolutely top-notch deli foods as well as amazing baked goods (when I was there, I saw but didn't try what looked like a giant pie-sized lacy pecan cookie smooshed sandwich-like with some really yummy-looking creamy frosting stuff.) You can treat it like a mini gourmet shopping mart and pick up your fun fruit-shaped marzipans to brighten up someone's day; you can go there and forget you're in Albany for a moment while you sip your European espresso (or latte, chocolate, tea, etc) with baked delicacy of choice; or you can actually do lunch there and sit inside or in the courtyard. The staff is friendly and enthusiastic, and they also do catering and cooking classes.

I sat in the courtyard and had a little plate with crab cakes and roasted vegetables, picking and choosing from their deli counter. The crab cake I ate there was one of the best I've *ever* had anywhere: fresh lump crab meat with a minimum of the other stuff or breadcrumbs that seem to weigh down even the best-intentioned crabs. (I like to think of myself as a crab with only the best intentions!) I saw, but didn't pounce on (yet) their salmon (not sure if it's baked or poached) filet, some great looking pasta salads and chicken salads. Pestos, people! They actually have pestos in Albany, and it's only, what, 25 years after the gourmet food revolution?!?

Did I forget to mention that they also have sorbet and gelatos? These people know how to please.

They sell unusual ingredients (extra-fine sugar, marzipan, specialty seasonings and the like). My hope is that they will be hugely successful and have to buy out the whole block and then just work their way up the river to Troy.

Holmes and Watson, briefly

Holmes and Watson on 450 Broadway is an old Troy standby. Their cottage fries are fantastic, and they have an extensive list of beers; you can usually get some kind of stout on tap, which is my idea of beer heaven. The location couldn't be better for downtown dining.

Holmes and Watson consists of a nice bar in front with a few tables, and more tables in the rear. Since I'm not a drinker, I usually sit in the back. The steps down to the rear tables can be a bit tricky, but the restaurant has the atmosphere of a down-home English pub, which can be comforting especially come mid-winter around these parts.

They have sandwiches, steaks, fish, and soups, like the *excellent* Manhattan fish chowder I had when I was there with a group a few weeks ago. The food is good quality, with fine fish and chips and burgers (although not much by way of vegetarian fare: I think there's one veggie wrap option, or a grilled portobello-cum-burger. Just like England!).

The service when we were there was scattered; the waitress didn't want us to move two larger tables together, and so instead we had to move to a bench with two non-fitting tables, even though practically no one else was in the joint.

This competes with Brown's Brewing Co. on River Street for brewpub dominance. While Holmes and Watson has reliably good sandwiches and beers, Brown's has a much classier atmosphere (although it still feels like a pub) with many more tables, and a bigger menu with a great veggie burger. Holmes and Watson does fish really well, though, I think better than Brown's.

Brown's is where you take your out-of-town family visitors, while Holmes and Watson is where you hunker down for some down-home Troy lounging.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Karavalli makes me grateful to live here

Karavalli just keeps getting better and better. My husband noticed that they raised their prices; I was too busy chowing down to see. Besides, I think they are totally worth it. (NB: Their web site, while informative, makes the dining room look like a musty cave, which it is NOT, so just ignore the lame photos and instead get mesmerized by the psycadelic Hindi goddess cartoon).

You’d never know that a world-class Indian restaurant is hiding in the sleepy little plaza where Comfortex window treatments and an Arthur Murray dance studio do business. It’s off of Route 9, near the Ford dealership: official address is 9B Johnson Road, Latham, telephone 518-785-7600. I can’t say enough good things about this restaurant, but let me start off by asserting that I think Karavalli is as good if not better than Dawat, the only other really authentic Indian restaurant I’ve been to. Dawat is on the East Side in New York City. The fact that we have a restaurant here in little Latham that rivals that is news indeed.

Karavalli specializes in dishes from India’s southern region, Kerala, which is known for its heavenly food. Some of the dishes are your standard Indian restaurant fare (Aloo Gobi, or cauliflower potato dish) but a majority of dishes are unusual, like Okra Masala or Avial Malabar (with green bananas and yams in coconut sauce). Or Chicken Kashmiri in a cashew and almond sauce. This past weekend, I went with my mother and husband, and my mom got the More Kozhambua, listed as a Tamilnadu specialty, and it was AWESOME!!! It was okra and lentil dumplings in a tangy buttermilk sauce that was out of this world, yet somehow also managed to taste healthy at the same time. Karavalli food doesn’t succumb to the bane of many Indian restaurants in America of adding too much grease. Spicy dishes are clearly labeled, and you can find things here that are mild (and you can ask them to turn down the heat). Not that I would do that. I love spices. The other great thing for us vegetarians is that they have two separate vegetarian sections on their menu: one is vegan, with no dairy or animal products.

The appetizers alone are outstanding and diverse: Calamari Cochin (fried masala squid with red onions and pepper), tangy shrimp, Uttapam (a lovely potato pancake), Idly, which is steamed rice/lentil patties served with sauce, and tamarind eggplant. Running at $6-8 dollars per appetizer, this is more than reasonable for the high quality you're getting. The service is also very good and attentive here, and the place is always hopping. Reservations are a good idea for weekends.

I had the Salmon Tikka, which was stupendous, and came served on a platter sizzling with onions and green peppers. We also had at the table a coconut chicken, which I heard was excellent, and Green Beans and Lentils, which sounds plain but is anything but. Other times I've had the Malai Kofta, which was excellent, and the only dish I've ever not adored was the Avial Malabar (but I will probably try it again, just because this was early on in their tenure). It had a strange woody tasting vegetable in it that I ended up spitting out.

One most amazing thing is that they now have two Calcutta Jewish specials. One is a chicken with raisins and cashew sauce, and another is a lamb with okra. I don't eat meat but these sound really awesome. It is obvious that a master chef is at the helm here.

Karavalli uses spices the way that I have learned to use them from one of my favorite cookbooks-- Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking by Yamuna Devi--so that you can taste five or six distinct sensations when you eat. The theory is that in order to be nutritionally satisfied, we need all the flavors represented in one meal, such as sweet, salty, bitter, tangy, savory. It makes a lot of sense to me. Why go around feeling bland all the time when so much color exists for the palate?

My favorite side dish to order here is the Hot Lemon Pickle. It is the kind of food that I imagine, if I really flip out for good (I wonder sometimes), and someone were to put a small dish of the Hot Lemon Pickle in front of me and I tasted a triangle, I would immediately come to my senses. Like smelling salts, only really really tasty. I have waxed ecstatic about it before, but I am a little concerned that it’s not as hot as they used to make it. However, it truly is delicious, and tastes like a lemon that is the Platonic ideal of lemon essence. The lemon from the Garden of Eden. It beats psychotherapy.

Karavalli has an $8.95 daily lunch buffet, which is an excellent way to get started on your addiction. Go ahead. I dare you to go just once.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Daisy Baker's: Hold the sugar!!!!!!!

I have news for food-loving Americans. We eat bad stuff, and it's showing in our health patterns. Today, the Associated Press reported that Americans are less healthy than even the English. Now, if you've ever been to England and seen how they live and what they eat (beer, beer, and greasy fried stuff), this should be cause for some major consternation. The study even excluded minorities, who would skew results. I think the reasons for our ill-health are two-fold. First, we have a government that relies on polluting corporations to police themselves, and we sell and use chemical stuff to clean our homes. So I think part of it is this chemical soup we live in.

The second reason, and the one I'm focussing on here is, we eat TOO MUCH SUGAR!!!! The British have poor eating habits, but not as bad as ours. Why? They may guzzle the grease, but they don't souse everything with sugar or corn syrup. Anyone who eats processed or pre-made food in America is imbibing quantities of sugar inconsistent with good health. Read the labels and see. The insidious part is that sugar is added in restaurants, and there, you can't read a label. But you can taste it.

Daisy Baker's is a case in point. First, the good news: Daisy Baker's is in a great location on Second Street in downtown Troy. It's in a historic building, and the restaurant is in a room full of beautiful woodwork, a cozy bar, and an original pipe organ. You don't see those around a lot! The lighting is romantic; the setting gets an A++. Worthy of taking your parents or out-of-town friends to in terms of ambiance.

The food is just okay. As usual, Nosher has higher expectations for our local purveyors of food. Daisy Baker has a really nice menu with appetizers like Crab Cake with Red Pepper Coulis; Escargot; Fried Calamari; Tuna Togaroshi, served rare; and Chinese Potstickers with pork and vegetables. Salads are also lovely sounding with one featuring poached apple filled with gorgonzola and prosciutto. So there's one thing Daisy's can do to make all this food that sounds so good also taste good. Lay off the sugar.

We got salads: mine was the mozarella and tomato, and would have been perfect if they had left off the excessive squeezes of balsamic dressing. It was like Jackson Pollock had suddenly taken a liking to ketchup bottles full of sugared-up balsamic. The design aspect is nice, but it goes downhill from there. If your tomatoes are good quality (and these were-- they served the decent grape tomatoes that seem to be the only sweet tomatoes around during our off season) you really don't need any sweet condiment on them. So why? Why, Daisy Baker, why all the fuss with sugared up sauces? Underneath all that sugar there's a gem waiting to shine.

The main courses don't leave much room for vegetarians, but there are plenty of seafood options, and I got the Scallops with an Orange liquor infused sauce. The scallops were tasty, but they were drowned by this sweet sauce. Again, I ask, why? Why not just let the scallops speak for themselves? When sugar talks, it drowns out everything else. My husband's pork dish was good but I believe it had a maple glaze.

We decided to pass on dessert for obvious reasons.

And here I have a story to supplement these observations about sugared-up Americans: Last year on our honeymoon, my husband and I had the pleasure of going to a fine restaurant in Venice (alas, I can't find the name of it! After spending half an hour looking through my files and bookshelves, I can't find the food-dominated diary I kept, either. I think this can mean only one thing: I MUST return to Italy, poste haste) run by an Italian man and his American wife. She's not just any American, though: she's Texan! She was such a nice person, and told me, while I was debating what dessert to try, that she had started baking when she was a transplant to Italy and felt homesick for American cakes. The cakes were so good that her husband wanted them for the restaurant, with one caveat: that she HALVE the sugar in her recipes!!!

I had two small slices of cake (because I couldn't decide on one) and even though she had halved the sugar, it was STILL really sweet; it was much sweeter than a genuine Italian dessert would have been.

So once again disappointed, I must give this restaurant a low grade because of the sugar addiction.