Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Emperor's gets another A: dim sum this time

Emperor's has a quiet but persistent way of making its excellence known. Its location and design are unassuming. It's in a small building on Wolf Road, and the decor is comfortable but not flashy. They don't have a huge dining room. But the food is quality and authentic, with fresh ingredients and an extensive menu. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's as good as Shun Lee in Manhattan-- it's not upscale or gourmet--but it does honor to traditional Chinese dishes and has enough variety to please everyone.

This weekend we had dim sum for three, and just about every dish we ordered was excellent: the sticky rice in lotus leaf was one of the best I've had; Chinese broccoli with garlic was good; and the sesame balls were awesome. We also had a variety of dumplings (shrimp, vegetable, etc). I had a hankering for mini-custards, but they were unfortunately out of them. The sesame balls were a deep-fried dough concoction with a bean paste inside that tasted chocolatey and smokey. I'm going to get cravings for those again soon! The spring rolls were filled with fresh vegetables. While we had to wait a while for our order (instead of the various dishes being paraded on carts as they are in big-city Chinatowns), everything was fresh and delicious, and the waiters were helpful and answered all our questions.

Let's be truthful: dim sum is all about heavy, greasy foods (unless you're really virtuous and order from the menu, which you can do here). Yet the food we had wasn't limp or soaked with fat as greasy food can sometimes be. It was crisp on the outside and light and heavenly on the inside. And what better way to start off a new week than with that repleteness that comes from the right combination of salty/savory/oily plus scads of hot tea?

It was slow at 1:30 pm on a Sunday, but the friend we were with said that he's been there at noon and it was more crowded.

Dim sum is such a wonderful ritual, and this afternoon felt like time off from the grind and the worries of life. I'll definitely be going to Emperor's more often.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Latham: Seat of Ho-Hum-ness

I don't know what it is-- maybe all the rain-- but something's been pushing me towards middle-of-the-road experiences lately. I've been burning myself out a bit with an article I'm working on, so that might be it. Anyway I needed a beer, so we went the other night to the Malt River Brewing company in the Latham Circle Mall. The restaurant was eerily quiet for a Saturday night, but that might be because they were about to close for two days of renovations, and we did go on the late side (around 8:30 or so).

They have excellent beers on tap, but I always order a stout, because it's always good. They have fine appetizer selections and bar food like Thai Peanut Wings that have won a Metroland award, and the sweet potato fries, which we got and that come with spicy dipping sauce. I have to stick with Bomber's Burritos as the place for best sweet potato fries in this area, but Malt River's are quite good. Other times I've been there I've gotten their black bean nachos for my main course, and it is just what you'd expect from a huge plate of nachos piled with beans and cheese: it's good but not great, and it loses its appeal when it starts getting cold and congealed.

You can also select from a couple of soups (onion soup, Texas red chili) and salads (they do have a caesar you can get with either chicken or grilled tuna, which is nice to know for dieters). Entrees are heavy on the meat and chicken, with strip steak, Cuban Pork Tenderloin, and Buffalo Meat Loaf. For vegetarians there is a pasta primavera or a tomato sauce and pasta. I got the Caribbean salmon, which came with an orange fruit salsa (really not very spicy, just more like some chopped fruit on the side); it was decent but not anything to distinguish itself. They also have a tuna-steak sandwich that I've gotten before. I've never been tempted by their desserts.

They have pizzas, too, although from the looks of it not that many people order pizzas there. Perhaps it's more of a bar food thing. My dining partner got the Red Barn Burger, which comes mixed with red onion and sun-dried tomato; he wasn't too impressed, since his came less well-done than he likes.

As my dining partner said to sum it up, it's the kind of place you go if there's a group of you all trying to meet somewhere convenient, but it's really not anything to get too excited about. Unless you're up for some beer-- and meat.

Dakota's in Latham: Comfortable Mediocrity

It's been raining so much here that it feels like the Pacific Northwest, and under such conditions, my husband and I hightailed it to Latham, that seat of all things comfortingly middle-of-the-road (and location to the only grocery store in the Capital District with a semi-decent natural foods section--the Hannaford). It's been a while-- like, a year?-- since I've been to Dakota, so it was worth re-testing, especially since they specialize in fish and meat, and I had an appetite for fish.

Dakota is a chain with other restaurants in Connecticut and Massachusetts. When you drive there you pass their wood-carved totem-like bears holding their sign up, and that's only a hint of the Adirondack-cum-American-Indian-pelted-carvings extravanganza that awaits you inside. The decor is an unholy alliance between Great Escapes amusement park style (carvings, fly-fishing wallpaper), an actual museum (they have real American Indian artifacts on display) and one of those stores that used to be on godforsaken highways everywhere that sell moccasins and papoose dolls. They have fireplaces in some of the rooms, which is a real bonus here in the winter. And they have real wood panelling in some areas, as well as life-sized stuffed bears climbing branches as a centerpiece of the main dining room. You have to be in the right mood, but sometimes that kitschy Adirondack style hits the spot. That mood may be psycho-- let's not forget that Humbert Humbert took his Lolita to many kitschy Pioneer themed motels and restaurants-- but I humbly admit that I am an American, and that kind of tacky faux camping stuff brings back memories. (That those memories are of being stuck in some cold smelly roadside campground or highway rest area only makes the restaurant experience seem comparatively better. These designers know what they're doing.) It's nice to imagine that you're in a lodge somewhere when really, you're in predictable Latham: it puts a hazy film over any disquieting reality.

Dakota is a large restaurant, and I've never had to wait more than about 20 minutes there on their busiest night. This time they were busy but we didn't have to wait at all, and it was a Saturday. They used to sell meat, fish, and lobster deli-style, but I don't know if they do that anymore. It seems there have been some changes and they're trying to become even more of a chain than they were, so quality is taking a kick in the pants.

Some things have changed for the worse: the Buffalo bread, to name one important one. It used to be that as soon as you ordered, the waitstaff offered you the Buffalo bread and the salad bar. The Buffalo bread *was* this malty, dark, rich and warm bread that was melt-in-your mouth good. Now, however, it is dry, lighter, and not nearly half as good as it used to be. Even if there were nothing formerly great to compare it to, I would have rejected this version. Another disappointment was that the salad bar is no longer compris: we had to order it separately, at $2.99. The salad bar is still, at that, a good deal: it's buffet style, and has many things to choose from, including some nice marinated vegetables (baby corn, broccoli). However, the carrots I chose with poppy seeds, while they looked spectacular, tasted like cardboard. No farmer's market here.

The choices on the menu are not as sophisticated as they used to be, with more things now surf n' turf style, and fewer types of fish. However, this is a meat-lovers paradise, and one can get things like crab cakes and shrimp dishes. (Forget it if you're a non-fish eating vegetarian, however).

I ordered the trout as my main course from their lighter Grill section of the menu (which they seem to be de-emphasizing: I don't know why, as everything else is overkill), and it was good, but not as good as it used to be. It's gotten heavier, and trout should really be the lightest possible fish, like a whisper. However, if I went back there, I would get the trout again; it did have nice grill flavor. My husband got the sirloin, which is like a hamburger without the bun, and it was good: "juicy and flavorful, better than it used to be. It used to be drier." So some things seem to have improved. "The side dish of onions was a bit-- much," he says, and what he really means is that it was lame. They were sauteed and liquidy, not caramelized as they should have been.

Desserts are still strong here, with a pie a la mode or, what we got, the falling chocolate cake with ice cream.

Overall, this is a good place to go when you know you want and it's fish or meat, and you're not feeling too fussy. It's a good place for a rainy (or snowy) evening, but I'm not going to be a regular there. It's too corporate, and they took away that awesome Buffalo bread.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Francesca's in Troy hits the spot

Well I've been out of commission here for a while because I've been working my butt off on an article that I may actually be paid for. But yesterday I went out to lunch at Francesca's -- it was the rainiest dreariest day we've had so far this spring. It felt more like autumn than summer. And Francesca's made it all better with warm, nourishing soups: I had a mixed-bean soup with vegetables-- it was vegan based, although I had mine with a lovely sprinkle of parmesan on top-- and my lunch compadre had a chickpea soup that she also said hit the spot. Along with our soups we shared a toasted buttered ciabatta roll, which was excellent: fresh and full of that great sourdough flavor. Francesca is accomodating, and they keep a regular group of customers coming back for more at this family operated cafe. They also have sandwiches like turkey, veggie, and roast beef wraps that you can order on different breads, salads (chicken caesar, chef salad), and "gourmet sandwiches" with things like "The Approach" (named after the nicely restored stairway from downtown to RPI) with artichoke hearts and roasted peppers on focaccia.

Desserts are also on tap: we tried chocolate chip cookies and a lemon bar. Both were adequate although the lemon bar crust was bland and mushy, and the lemon part didn't have the tang I usually like. The chocolate chip cookies were of the dry, smaller kind.

Drinks are the usual but they do have an espresso machine where you can get cafe au laits or lattes and steamers.

I definitely want to come back here.