Monday, December 10, 2007

Organic Roots in East Greenbush

Where was I the other day? Near the corner of nowhere and Route 4 in East Greenbush. It doesn't look like much, but trust me, if you're living in East Greenbush, this is going to be heaven because you can get good clean organic food for lunch here: at Organic Roots. Apparently the place has been around for a while (like a couple of years) but I only found out about it a couple of weeks ago thanks to one of my sources.

Organic Roots is a cozy café with sandwiches, a soup of the day, coffee, and assorted health-nut drinks. Service was quick and attentive. There were two women in there when I was there, and they also commented that it was surprising they hadn't heard of the place until recently, in spite of one of the women living right nearby. Organic Roots needs better advertising (like better signage for starts). It also needs desserts. When I was there, they didn't even have chocolate bars by the register. Isn't it some kind of law that all lunch places must have chocolate? [Edited to add: the owner has written to me and expressed that they usually *do* have dessert but happened to be out the day I visited. She wrote, "I went to school for pastry arts and the day you came we hade no cookies or muffins but if you were a regular you would have known we usually always have cookies or some kind of dessert." Thanks for the clarification. Also, she says there are chocolate bars on the retail shelf.]

Chocolate appeases the masses.

I had a lovely sandwich with avocado and veggies plus a cup of broccoli soup. It was tasty; there was some kind of flavorful sauce (I want to say aioli) on the bread, and everything was fresh. They gave me a cup of bean salad (I could have also gotten something else-- I think pasta salad) and some croutons. I felt so healthy! I was then ready for sinfulness with dessert. See, this is the real reason to eat healthy: then you can feel so virtuous you don't mind being a little sinful from time to time.

Organic Roots is at 91 Troy Road, at the intersection of Route 4 with Route 151, just West of I-90. It's a bit far for me to go there often, but it's nice to know it's there.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Cella Bistro: If You Lived There, You'd Be Home By Now

Cella Bistro is for me a schlep. I define 'schlep' as anything more than about a 15 minute drive around here, especially if it's winter. Also, I define 'schlep' as anything taking place in the greater Schenectady area-- apologies to Schenectady folks. I'm sure you feel the same way about Troy, so it's even. The word also is appropriate here because, ultimately, I felt that this would be a fine restaurant if we lived nearby, but it isn't something I plan to go out of my way for again. And that's not just because I'm grouchy. If you met me in person, you'd never realize how grouchy I am. For the most part I hide it really well.

For your consideration is this wall of family photos that my husband and I had almost an hour to contemplate as we waited for our appetizers. It didn't make me feel like part of the family. It made me feel like maybe there is some kind of competition, and the people with bigger families win.

I had heard numerous good things about Cella Bistro from acquaintances and also from various reviews. Click here for Steve Barnes' review of them this summer. It's supposed to be a more contemporary Italian place than what we usually expect in the Capital Region, where old school red-sauce joints are King. So we schlepped, and then we further schlepped, because we parked about a block away on a quiet residential street that was full of cars. The parking lot there is small (although to our chagrin once we hoofed it in the cold to the restaurant we discovered there were, in fact, plenty of spaces right in the lot). It's in a building that looks like it was once a house, although it's been nicely redecorated, with warm-toned brown painted walls and new beadboard.

After our initial expenditure of schlep energy in the drive, we further depleted our patience resources by waiting for service that was creepingly slow. At one point, our waiter, who was of the more obsequious and frighteningly cheerful variety, apologized, saying there was a large party of 20 people that was slowing everything down. We were understanding, really we were. And then we realized that we had been sitting there for almost an hour and hadn't even gotten our salads yet. So that was count one against Cella Bistro, although as an experienced restaurant-goer knows, sometimes these things happen. Still, times like this I feel like saying, "Hey, will you just show me the kitchen-- I'll fix the salad!"

The food itself was uneven. The appetizers weren't that good: this spring roll
is an example of nouveau cuisine making too much of itself, with goat cheese and artichoke filling (artichokes should never be used to 'fill' anything. I have too much respect for artichokes). The endive salad we shared was mostly just that-- endive with a too-heavy dressing sitting inside a radicchio leaf. But by that time, we were hungry and grateful.

I had a lovely rosé wine from Provence. I wouldn't mind another right now.

Then dinner: my husband's bolognese was really good, with homemade wide pasta noodles; mine was mahi-mahi with a sauce that was too sweet. There's nothing that turns me off more than too much sweetness. Cloying and saccharine, too much sweetness is always trying to hide something. But the haricots verts were the real thing, which I appreciate because I don't have much luck growing them like that (nice, dark and skinny) in my garden.

The scene was quite the Niskayuna-Schenectady do-gooders scene. People at a table behind us were yukking it up in that way that people who function in society yet like to get drunk do. And our waiter seemed to egg them on by chatting them up. This loud group then moved to the bar area and it was remarkably quieter.

We opted out of dessert. It's probably a good thing because today alone I hate half a large farmer's market chocolate cookie (Placid Baker, I love you!) and a biscotti as well as a bag of Cheetos. 'Tis the season, folks. Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Chai Tea—Masala Chai, That Is

I tend to be something of an obsessive personality. I get fixated on a thing, and then I worry it like a dog worries a bone. I look at it from this angle and that. I gnaw. I ponder. Lately I've done this with Chai tea, which is inherently obsession-worthy: it's everywhere (Starbucks, restaurants) yet it's hard to find good, truly spicy Chai tea. Chai means 'tea' in many languages, but I'm after masala chai, which is what Westerners mean when they say Chai. Wikipedia has a decent entry on it. Go to a grocery store and you will find several different things claiming to be Chai: vanilla chai tea, even green chai (yuck), powder mix for Chai that includes the sweetener.

I do not drink caffeine, and so it became of the utmost importance in my life to find Chai decaf tea that didn't taste like cardboard water. Many of the teas purporting to be Chai (sold by Stash, Celestial Seasonings and the like) *smell* good and spicy but when you taste them they taste like nothing. Worse than nothing, because at least if you're drinking nothing, you expect nothing. When you expect spicy warmth and find nothing, it's disappointing. So I visited the India Bazaar, a great store on 1321 Central Ave., where I bought fresh ginger, cardamom still green in its pods, and peanuts coated with hot spices.

I had found this recipe, which claimed that you do not want to use leaf tea to make Chai-- and right they are. Every time I made Chai using leaf tea, it turned out wrong. The tea leaf turned the tea too bitter, and the spices couldn't compete. I wanted to buy authentically Indian tea-- not the expensive leaf kind of tea, but just the everyday kind, hoping to find decaf. But apparently, people from India do not believe in decaf.

These are the right brands, but they all have caffeine.
I can really understand their point about caffeine (alas, I love things that are bad for me), and maybe next time I will feel brave enough to buy one of these boxes of tea.

So I started experimenting with the Chai recipe. At first it was not good. So I added more spice and made it again. And then, when I finally got it how I like it, I decided that it's no use to make just one cup of Chai. You want to have lots of it around, so you can easily reheat some for a midnight snack or early in the morning.

So here's what I came up with.

Big pot O Decaf Chai

You will need a sturdy mortar and pestle for this, as well as a strainer with fine holes, around the size that can fit over your standard tea mug. I found an excellent cup-size strainer at the Hannaford.

6 cups water
8 tsp. Orange pekoe tea (or tea from 8 tea bags) but DO NOT use leaf tea! I have used Tetley and Salada.
20-30 pods cardamom. Cardamom can make it taste bitter, so maybe more like 20, depending on your taste.
1 hunk of ginger (1-2 inch chunk)
15 or so black peppercorns
4 medium sticks of cinnamon (more if the sticks are thin)
15 allspice berries
15 cloves
some honey
2 cups milk or half and half

Place the cardamom and ginger together in your mortar and pestle and pound away until you are satisfied, and until the cardamom seeds, which are black, emerge from the pods and are crushed. (This part is very therapeutic). Then do the same with the rest of the spices, making sure you break up the cinnamon well enough that there is some powder as well as little bits of cinnamon bark. The more you break things up, the more surface area there will be = the more spicy your tea will be. Put it all in the water with the tea, and then simmer it for about 10 minutes. This part is important: too little time, and your tea won't taste like much of anything, but too much time, and it will be bitter. Add 2 cups of milk or half and half if you're feeling decadent, and heat through. Then add about 2 Tbs. honey (or to taste) and strain.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Harvest time!

September is well on its way and my garden is still giving forth tomatoes every day. I've also got eggplants, fennel, cabbage, squash (summer and winter this year! A banner year!), potatoes, carrots, chard, kale, and broccoli. Today I made a cold tomato soup--kind of a gazpacho with lime, cumin, and cinnamon. Tomorrow: what to do with the lovely tiny eggplants that squirrels keep taking little nips out of?

Above is a salad grown entirely from my garden this spring.

I don't believe that I can ever become self-sufficient. Unlike some writers who have argued for the locavore movement lately (I'm still really wanting to read Barbara Ehrenreich's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; and there was a really funny feature in New York Magazine by Manny Howard detailing his many failures trying to live off what his yard produced in Brooklyn), I don't think we will solve our many environmental problems by hunkering down by the campfire eating moldy but homegrown turnips through the long Northeastern winters. Every place has its own local food culture, and trading to mutual benefit is never a problem. It's not the 'where' as much as the 'what' and the 'how.' Do I really need to buy apples from Washington when I can get them from New York? No, but if I want pineapple, bananas, or green peppers in the winter, I'm going to have to get them from afar. Is this reasonable? Yes, but it's also reasonable to ask that these things be sustainably farmed and shipped with respect to the environment.

We are social creatures, and we need each other to survive. There is no such thing as truly self-sufficient. Still, my vegetable garden has become central to my life these past few years, changing the way I think about food, and I've gotten better at growing stuff. Mostly, I'm more organized than I was (my first year I had a tomato forest and total chaos! But it was beautiful) and better at spacing plants. I just never believe that such tiny seedlings will grow up into edible veggies. But look, a casserole of roasted garden veggies:

As a result of growing my own vegetables for a small portion of the year, I've come to realize how much sweat labor food takes. (Answer: lots.) From digging and composting to planting, weeding constantly, watering, and harvesting, it's pretty much non-stop work. It's one of the most pleasurable forms of work I know, however, and oh do those tomatoes taste sweet! Even at the farmer's market there aren't such juicy, flavorful tomatoes as I grow. My fav. varieties: Lillian's Yellow heirloom tomatoes, which really don't become ripe until September 1 or so, and Cherokee tomatoes, a dark winey tomato with dark green shoulders. Here is my little plot of earth.

The reason I called this blog "Dish and Dirt" is because I believe that what we 'dish' ultimately relies on the condition of our dirt. In plain terms, what we eat grows on this earth, and its quality depends on the soil. Despite a certain degree of cantankerousness (and the desire to keep eating imported chocolate), I do believe that we could all do a lot more local eating. I try to resist processed foods, foods that have traveled too far to get to me (except for chocolate), and especially foods that have been slapped together and shipped with no thought to quality, care, or health. So let's all get out and enjoy those farmer's markets, apple picking farms, and local honey while it's harvest season.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

River Street Café

My husband and I went out to eat at the River Street Café to celebrate our anniversary recently, and it was passably good. I had the cod with an avocado cilantro preparation, my husband had the pasta dish--noodles with vegetables--but I left feeling as I often feel at restaurants: my culinary life has just been made unecessarily complicated.

Simplicity is hard to come by. People think that once they've hit on a good thing, we all want more of it. Restraint is the natural companion of quality, but they are both so often missing in life. The stomach doesn't have to be overwhelmed with quantity nor the taste buds drowned in excess.

The River Street Café is located on 429 River Street, right next to the big parking lot where the summer Troy Farmer's Market takes place. Their telephone is 518-273-2740, and their hours are Tues-Sat. 5:30 until closing, but it's a good idea to call. There were several months this year when it seemed that the restaurant was just closed; perhaps the proprietor was on vacation.

I like the relaxed atmosphere at the River Street Café and its romantic candlelit tables with views of the Hudson River. It's a trustworthy spot, one that many RPI students and professors frequent and take parents and relatives to. Still, I see some room for improvement.

To begin with, there is my fish predicament, which isn't really a criticism of the River Street Café alone, but keeps coming up. Since I'm a vegetarian who eats fish, all the many meat dishes there (the duck, the lamb, the beef) were not options for me. I didn't feel like eating pasta, since I can easily make that at home. That left salmon, Chatham cod, or swordfish, and swordfish I know has high levels of mercury, so that's automatically out. Salmon is everyone's favorite 'safe' fish choice, but unless it's wild Atlantic salmon, chances are you are ingesting PCBs (farmed salmon are fed some fairly vile things, and according to this web site, can be toxic). That left the Chatham cod, and, well, it sounds safe and New England-ey, but it's not much better than salmon. The Oceans Alive guide to fish claims Atlantic Cod is not such a great choice, although this isn't as much because of high chemical levels as because it is not sustainably fished. When I asked the waitress what "Chatham cod" meant, she just said it meant it was from Chatham. Hmmm. Well, it's what I got, but I didn't feel that great about it. These days, restaurateurs need to reassure their patrons about fish. We need all the information we can get.

The food we got was good-- it began with a huge plate of tangy tomato noodles that I remember from other times at the River Street Café (but it was a huge plate, too much really). The cilantro-avocado preparation on my fish was wonderful, and the butter homefried potatoes that came with our main course were divine. But it was *WAY* too much food, which made me feel uncomfortable: after an appetizer (a pita pizza with tomato sauce, cheese, and mushroom), a salad that comes with the meal (delicious 'mock' Ceasar), main dishes, and dessert (a triple layered chocolate and coffee-buttercream confection that was also a bit overpowering), I actually felt kind of disgusted with myself, and with American restaurants.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

This is sad: Vanilla Bean closing

After many years being an important business for Troy, the Vanilla Bean has announced it's closing.

The story is here.

What I don't understand is why. I mean I know there are financial difficulties. But given how much people around here love it and how successful they've been, surely someone can come along and salvage it.

I prefer European style baking (read= less sugar, more chocolate) but I do have a soft spot for the Vanilla Bean's peanut butter fancies, and they've often saved me a lot of hassle when I have to bring something to someone's open house/pot luck/birthday and don't have time to bake myself. The donuts are good, the bread is good (although several years ago I stopped being able to find the sandwich loaf I used to like there). And the Cookie Factory is no match.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Ethnic food festivals

This is a brief post to say that I'd like to get out to more of the wonderful ethnic food festivals in the Capital Region.

I've read signs that advertise for an Armenian food festival on Sunday, August 5, from 11-4 on Spring Ave. in Troy.

I think it's here.

If I do go I'll post with pics. Also there are Italian and Greek festivals, not to mention Lebanese, Ukrainian... if anyone has tips on other good festivals to go to, please post and let me know.

National Ice Cream Month

Hi, my name is Nosher, and today I'm confessing that I'm addicted to ice cream. Not just any ice cream: it has to be Moxie's. Moxie's has five-- count 'em, five!!!-- different kinds of vanilla, based on where the vanilla bean came from: Tahitian, Mexican, Indonesian, Venetian, and Haitian. They have a Cajun chocolate peanut butter that is out of this world, not to mention the coconut with chocolate almonds, Horchata, an intense rum raisin, and many other unusual home made creations (orange-pineapple, red wine sorbet).

There are two kinds of people in the Capital District: those who like ice cream, and those who like Moxie's.

The servings are rational (not the ginormous pig-o-rama portions we Americans have gotten so used to). The ice cream is not too sweet. Way way too many people put too much sugar in their desserts, until you can't taste the real flavor anymore. Not Moxie's. The business has been around since the 1930s and runs out of an old dairy building, complete with the screen windows where you place your order. Moxie's will even sell you 1/2 gallons -- larger for parties if you call ahead. You can read more about ice cream stands in this great article by the Business Review.

July is National Ice Cream Month, and tomorrow (Sunday the 15th) is National Ice Cream Day, so I'm going to go do my patriotic duty and head to Moxie's again. Moxie's celebrates by having the most flavors of the season on National Ice Cream day. Tomorrow, they will add 17 more flavors to their already impressive list. There will also be face painting, free pens, and lots of people.

The only thing I have to object to at Moxie's is that some of the flavors are just... odd. For example, I tried banana walnut today, and it was pink, and didn't taste much like bananas. Or walnuts. Other flavors have just been strange. But there are so many great flavors here, and you can always taste test before you make a commitment. AND you can get a special vanilla-around-the-world sample dish; some day I will do that.

Diehard Moxie fans often buy gallons of ice cream to last through the winter, because the stand closes at the end of August. As I support seasonal eating, I think it's great that Moxie's is seasonal. But I'm certainly not above stocking my freezer with stores for the winter.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

My New Addiction: Roma Importing Co.

Roma Foods Importing Company is in Latham in Cobbee Road, in the shadow of the Price Chopper plaza. It's one of those great secret places you can live here for years and not know about, because it's on one of those little side streets off Route 9. It's awesome and you must go, now and again! I didn't have my camera with me, but here's a pic of the booty:

If you want to skip reading this blog and just go there to get delicious food here is their info:

Roma Foods
9 Cobbee Rd., Latham
tel. 785-7480
hours: M- Th and Sat: 9-6
Friday: 9-7
Sunday: closed

There is also a location in Saratoga.

Although they are a deli, there is a whole separate meats shop next door, and "deli" doesn't even begin to explain the nummyness here. (It will take a meat eater to go there and report on their salamis, but they looked really, really good. They also had things like chicken sausage and whole turkey).

There is an entire aisle of different kinds of pastas: imported types from Italy, Farro pastas, and all different shapes and sizes. There is a frozen foods section with raviolis (plain as well as things like lobster ravioli), and spinach pies that looked wonderful. They have those homemade Italian lemon cookies with icing. Sauces galore, both Italian and salsas (I got a bottle of mango salsa). Greek tarama and taramosalata. Relishes, every size and shape of caper you could possibly want in large or small bottles, about a dozen types of olives in their deli section (plus others in jars). There are hard-to-find baking ingredients like marzipan and chestnuts. There are chocolates, panettone, biscottis, Italian cookies (the typical American kinds that are outlandishly colored pink and green and such, in a glass case) and a whole selection of packaged taralli, those heavenly little donut-shaped Italian crackers I became obsessed with two years ago after finding them at the Italian festival in Schenectady.

I bought the anise kind (for dessert) and the fennel kind (for snacking). They are dangerously addictive!

You can easily pick up dinner there, and the prices are very reasonable. I got the chef Paul caponata, which is just bursting with big juicy capers, olives, and pine nuts. The grilled eggplant and zucchini weren't as good, but still, who's complaining-- that you can *get* these things in Latham is a major achievement. I got a large jar of Maille dijon mustard for just $3.99, and a large jar of red peppers for just $3.49. I got a gorgeous bottle of unfiltered olive oil (the real thing, with smoky green olive sedimentation) for just $16.95 for a whole liter, where that would easily cost me $35 or $40 anywhere else.

The people who work there are efficient and friendly, and the woman behind the deli counter cut in half a big ball of fresh cow's milk (fior di latte type-- the kind in water) mozzarella* for me to take home. It's the best buffalo mozarella I've found around here. They had these intriguing antique wooden bins of salted chickpeas that are a snack I'd never seen before. They had bags of black melon seeds (also a snack). They have reassuringly large glass jars of spices (beyond cinnamon-- things like sumac) so you can get as much as you need (not like those stingy little dank pricey plastic or glass bottles at the supermarket).

They also do catering and parties.

I was so excited when I left that I forgot entirely why I was out on Route 9 anyway and had to backtrack to do my errands. I'm planning on becoming a regular at Roma's.

*Note that "buffalo mozzarella" technically means the kind made from actual buffalo milk: read the comments for more info. I often use "buffalo mozzarella" just to refer generically to "mozzarella in water" but usually the kind in the US is made from cow's milk.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Ambitiously funky: Ambition in Schenectady

The Ambition Café in Schenectady is disco-funky and cool, with user friendly food and hours. They even have a disco ball hanging in the center of their elongated dining area, which is also decorated by a wall of soda bottles. And while you are eating, pop-alicious songs by Janet Jackson ("My name aint 'Baby'! It's Janet. Miss Jackson if you're Nasty!"), her bro Michael, and Pat Benatar keep you feeling upbeat. (But are not too loud at all, for the disco-phobic.) I love a good vintage pop tune. Album covers decorate the walls and bar area, with an album of Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer together. I had no idea they collaborated! This valuable information is only one of the benefits of dining at Ambition Café. But you can take anyone here: your mom, boss, friend.

The food is quality lunch fare: lots of sandwiches, a daily soup (tomato rice was yesterday's option), and a daily special, which I ordered: salmon over greens. It was tender and just perfect for a healthy lunch. My husband got the black bean burger, which I had had the last time I was there, and it is scrumptious, served on herby focaccia style bread.
Next door to the café is Skinny and Sweet, a candy and gift shop with fun cards, chocolates, and gelato. We got gelato for dessert in the café: two chocolate peanut butters. It was only 1:30 pm and WHOA!!! Talk about sugar high. But it was so good-- it had a hazelnut tinge to it. The small, pictured here, was really large to me= 3 scoops! We could have (should have) shared.

What is also nice about Ambition is that they have ample space in the back for people to spread out and read or work. It's a bit dark in the restaurant, but the cheeriness of the decor and friendliness of everyone makes up for that. And both times I've been there, it's been pleasantly full of people enjoying themselves.

They are located at 154 Jay Street, which is on the pedestrian walkway in downtown Schenectady. They are open M-Fri 8 am- 6 pm and until 8 pm for Proctor's events; Thursdays until 9. Saturday 10-5.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Eat out tonight! Thurs., April 26

Check this out: you can dine out tonight and 25% of your bill will be donated by certain restaurants to an AIDS council.

Click here for WTEN promo

I just found out about it last night; hence the short notice.

Also, you can go here for discounts on dining and other things. Pretty cool!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Dazzlement at the Cheesecake Factory

Last Thursday, my husband and I went to the Cheesecake Factory because it was one of the few places we knew would be 1) open late and 2) near the Borders Bookstore, which is also open late. Plus we had heard the rumors about it and couldn't resist going.

The service was speedy and cheerful; it was a Thursday night, around 8:30, so we didn't have to wait at all. From what I have read online, though, be prepared for quite a wait on weekends. It wasn't packed, but there were plenty of full tables there, with people having lively conversations. Can I just say how lovely it is to be in a pleasantly buzzing place around here? Too many times, I've dined out and been the only diner in a spooky restaurant readying to close at this hour. It proves that there *is* a market out there, -- a *hungry* market!!-- for mid-to-upscale, late-night dining in the Capital Region. We are ready, restaurateurs!!!

The decor of the Cheesecake Factory is a cross between the movie set of "Cleopatra" with Miami Vice. There are palm plants, hugely lofty ceilings, and these faux columns with Egyptian-goddess-like heads on them. You forget you are in Colonie; which is mostly a good thing.

I don't usually like to promote chain restaurants, but I will consider returning to the Cheesecake Factory when I'm in the neighborhood of Wolf Road because the food was really good, the atmosphere is lively, and it's the kind of place you can take anyone: your mom, your colleague, kids, your internet date. It's convenient.

Their menu is intimidatingly huge: you can get just about anything from hamburgers of various stripes to pizzas, fish, steak, and pasta. The food is vaguely fusion style, heavy on American fare like "fried Macaroni and cheese" (appetizer), Nachos with cheese, and meatloaf. We shared the avocado eggrolls, which come with a tamarind dipping sauce that was truly addictive. Then, I got the fish tacos, which were also quite good; my husband got Evelyn's Favorite Pasta, which was essentially pasta with pesto and lots of fresh vegetables. It was much better than anything similar we've had down the street at the Macaroni Grill.

The cheesecakes were the least impressive part of the whole experience. Because of their name and the dozens of types of cheescake available (peanut butter, white chocolate, cookie dough... on and on) your expectations get pumped up. But I found both cheesecakes (a vanilla bean and a key lime pie) to be overly sweet and chemical tasting.

The other downer here is that the portions are HUGE!!! I mean they're really big. BUT they seem to know this, and they made it easy for both of us to go home with ample doggy bags. That one meal of fish tacos lasted me for two more days!

And it's hard to ignore the chirpy box-within-a-box feeling that is inevitable from a corporatized chain. Their menu is the first I've seen that actually has full-page advertisements (for things like jewelry) alongside the list of entrees.

But the things I do like outweigh my dislike of the chain restaurant phenomenon. The Miami Vice: Cleopatra vibe is fleeting; the interior of the restaurant is mostly airy, modern, and clean feeling. You can select from a good array of salads ("Weight Management TM" meals on their menu), like a cold salmon salad served on top of mixed greens; shrimp and crab salad; and a bunch of chicken salads. This is crucial!! Everyone that I know is weight conscious, and in this day and age, a restaurant has to have healthy options.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Via Fresca: If You Lived There, You'd Have Lunch By Now

After the ferocious snows I had quite an appetite, so I decided to find Via Fresca, which has been given good reviews in the Albany blogosphere. It wasn't quite what I was expecting, but it is a respectable Italian lunch spot and deli with many tasty treats. Their panini especially have drawn raves (I didn't try the panini, but I believe it from their overall good quality).

Via Fresca is at 1666 Western Ave., on the left hand side if you're coming from Albany, past the entrance to Crossgates.

Let's get this out of the way: the building looks like an el cheapo location for the future manicurists of America to flunk out of beauty school. It is not at all attractive. From the looks of it, it might as well be a dentist's office or a skeezy pet shop with goldfish dying from unfiltered water or an insurance agent's office that will finance your drug habit. Okay maybe I exaggerate just a little bit. But. The entrance from the parking lot actually made me wonder if I was in the right place.

And it's not really the kind of place you can hang out or relax and have your meal. There are a few tables in the back for wastrels like me, but I was the only one using them. This is really more of a takeout place.

But if I lived nearby I'd go there regularly to stock up on their wonderful deli salads like artichoke, shrimp, and pastas. They had a nice lineup of meats, some hot dishes (the eggplant parm looked addictive), and some gourmet grocery items (mascarpone, chocolates). We need more places like this in the Capital Region so those of us who are busy can still do takeout and eat well.

And last but not least, they have excellent cookies. I went for the coconut rounds and the raspberry bars, which rocked my world.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Peruvian food in Troy!

This post has been edited (4/22/07) again. While a friend of mine said the other week that she had a pretty bad experience at Hotspot with bad service, she has returned with a better time of it, and she feels that all in all, it's worth supporting the independently owned Hotspot. Plus, the owner has posted a comment (below). I personally plan on returning.

After attending the first official Troy Night Out, we worked up an appetite, and murmurings from the crowd led us to Hotspot, which claims on its website that it is "Troy's best café." Well! Since we have what-- like about 20 cafés now?-- that's saying something! We had to check this out.

I hadn't brought my camera, and even if I had, it was pretty dark in there, so unfortunately no pix. However, I will be going back, with my camera.

I had papa a la huancaina-- described on this blog about Peruvian food-- and I am now an addict. This simple dish was just boiled potatoes served with a creamy yellow sauce made from yellow peppers and cheese. There was also a hard boiled egg. It was DELICIOUS! And I had it with their Greek salad, which was decent.

The menu here is a combination of Peruvian specialties (fish, meats, etc) and American bar food: pizzas, sandwiches, salads. The pizza my husband had was okay, but I'm interested in going back for the Peruvian food. The best news? They're open 7 days a week from 10-10pm!!! With breakfast all day!!! Yessssss! (Somewhat less good news: they're having music there, which means figure out if whoever is playing is someone you don't mind hearing, because it's a small restaurant).

Check it out, and let me know what you order!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Scratch That

I had heard about the Scratch Bakery Cafe from a few sources: online readers (thank you online readers! I really appreciate your comments!), the Times Union's helpful and frequently updated Table Hopping blog by Steve Barnes, and the Scratch Bakery web site, which enticed me with promises of "artisanal bread." But despite (or maybe because of?) this buildup, I'm sorry to report that my experience was an unininspiring one.

First off let me preface this by saying that I went on perhaps one of the most depressing days to be in Albany, with piles of dirty snow everywhere and February scowls on everyone's faces. Well, at least there would have been February scowls on people's faces if there were *people.* Mostly there was just a scowl on my face as I wondered, "how the hell did I end up in this blighted city?" I seemed to be the only person around midafternoon. It really wasn't Lark Street at its best.

Scratch is in an ideal location (unless you want to talk parking!), on Madison just west of the intersection with Lark Street. Near the park and shops and restaurants, this definitely would be a place I'd want to open a cafe if I were in the business. And their menu is nice, with lots of options for both meat eaters and vegetarians: salads with nuts sprinkled on top, a couple of soups each day (yesterday it was chicken noodle and cream of spinach), panini, and individual pizzas with options such as white or grilled eggplant. Sounds healthy and even a bit chichi for Albany, mais non?

But my experience was that Scratch is your pretty basic lunch joint, a small place with somewhat absent-minded service and yes, healthy food, but nothing to go out of one's way for. I ordered the grilled eggplant panini, and it was the bare minimum: grilled eggplant (it was dry like it had been grilled on one of those George Foreman grills without any oil), provolone (tasteless but nice melting cheese) and plain panini. The server assumed that I would be leaving with my food, and had to unwrap it and put it on a plate. The other traffic in there was from people doing grab and go, or locals just checking in to chat.

With my panini, I got a pickle and, inexplicably, a container of Pringles.

See the lack of scorch marks on the panini? It reminds me of those faux brick walks they create in cities nowadays by pressing lines into asphalt; they're just scored with lines to hide the fact that they're not real brick. Same deal here. No real grilling, just scoring. And no herbs in the bread, or anything fun or festive like pesto sauce or aioli or anything to liven it up. In February in Albany, we need *something* enlivening.

I should have known from the sign outside. It says "Flavored Coffee of the Day: Butterscotch." Gag! I do not do flavored coffee. And flavoring coffee doesn't go along with being artisanal. Nor do multicolored Rice Krispy Treats (one of their desserts). They also had butterscotch bars, cheesecake with blueberries (this looked pretty good, but the slices were huge) some cookies, and a bar that looked more like a candy than a pastry. I got an apricot bar for dessert, and it was okay, but none of the desserts struck me as artisanal.

So the Scratch Bakery web page is deceptive. If you're on Lark and Madison and you need something homemade, go to Debbie's Kitchen. Her Dream bars are out of this world, and there are also plenty of soups and sandwiches for everyone. And Debbie's has more table space, so you can go with a few friends.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Cookie Monsters Aloose and Hungry

You know that Vanilla Bean advertising billboard on Route 2 as you're heading from Troy towards Latham that warns "Don't be fooled! There's only *one* Fudge Fancy at the Vanilla Bean"? I always thought it was a joke. Like, yeah, right-- there are these high-stakes competitions between imposter Fudge Fancies around here? The Vanilla Bean has such a dominating presence in the grocery stores that I never really thought they should be worried about these supposed pretenders to the throne. Fudge Fancies are good, but they're pretty basic and very sugary; what's the big deal?

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that in fact the Vanilla Bean has something to worry about. Apparently other area bakers do try to copy the Fudge Fancy. Now at the Cookie Factory in Troy, you can find similar cookies called "Fudge Fantasies." How sad is that? They can't even come up with their own signature cookie, so they have to copy a cookie that's pretty mediocre to begin with.

The Cookie Factory is on Congress Street (aka Route 2), east of Prospect Park but before the intersection with Pawling Ave. I'm always up for trying out cookies, so I went.

One thing that anyone who knows me well knows is that I LOVE cookies. In fact, if I don't have "a little something"-- meaning, a bag of cookies-- in the house, I feel downright unsafe. My favorite place to get cookies is Dean and Deluca's cookies by the pound counter, where I go to salivate whenever I visit the city. I have been known to snarf down some Fudge Fancies (I like the peanut butter kind), but well, they're pretty fluffy and there is definitely shortening involved. And I'm sorry, but shortening just isn't what real bakers use.

So I even splurged, buying a box of the Cookie Factory's almond cookies. This was not because I wanted an entire box, but because you couldn't buy these particular cookies by the pound. I took them home to have my way with them but discovered they are so sweet that they are almost inedible. The consistency is right: a bit crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside. But there is no subtlety here. The marzipan flavor is overpowering, and then you're completely knocked out by the sugar blast.

The Cookie Factory had the usual collection of cookies they call "Italian butter cookies" but they are basically the particle-board of the cookie kingdom: fake and highly proceessed. You know, they're the kind of cookies you find at every office party piled high on a plastic plate covered in maraschino cherries and sprinkles. Dry, and depressing. The biscotti they had looked drier than the Sahara.

Some cookies they did sell singly: they had some ginormous hearts that looked like they were trying to be shortbread but were again mostly sugar and shortening, not real butter. Or, hullo, how about real eggs? The almond horns looked fairly saturated by sugar, and their jam cookies looked suspiciously pale (=too much sugar, no butter or eggs).

So I got a hermit and a chocolate chip covered heart.

The hermit was too sweet, without any of the fruity cinnamony flavor they're supposed to have. And the chocolate chipper was hard. The pre-mixed Tollhouse cookies you can buy at the grocery store are better! This is just sad.

I can't say that the Vanilla Bean is that much better, but they do have a passable chocolate chip cookie, some pretty good donuts, and OK pastries like Napoleans and eclairs.

It's really pathetic when we can't even get decent baked goods in America. What is "freedom" if it doesn't include good pastries? I honestly believe that if we had better baked goods, we'd be satisfied from eating less, and we wouldn't have an obesity problem.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Food, not nutrients

Michael Pollan did it again in this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine. His in-depth essay shows the many ways our "food science" agribusiness-fueled industry has created a sick country with unhappy, food-obsessed, unhealthy people.

"Our personal health is inextricably bound up with the health of the entire food web," he writes. One cannot eat healthy, be healthy, in other words, without considering the health of the soil, the planet, the ecosystem.


"Today, a mere four crops account for two-thirds of the calories humans eat. When you consider that humankind has historically consumed some 80,000 edible species, and that 3,000 of these have been in widespread use, this represents a radical simplification of the food web."

His recommendations? Eat real food, not polyhydrocarbonated high corn-fructose-crack. Eat more plants, less meat. Eat less food. And enjoy what you do eat.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Van's on Central Avenue is King!

This is exciting for me, because while I like to try out new places to eat, it's rare that I find one that will become a regular spot. Van's is going to be the place I gravitate to when I'm in Albany from now on. I wish I had known about it before! Van's is on 307 Central Avenue, on the north side of the street.

I had read about it, but it's always hard for me to trust the Times Union review, because the paper reviewers here haven't had a free meal they didn't like.

So it was after two friends spoke highly of it that I went. Their spring rolls in particular are a favorite, and with reason: I tried the vegetarian ones and they were out of this world. Fresh, not greasy, and yet deeply satisfying with a nutty mellow flavor, they hit the spot. The portion was a generous one, too, with I think 4 rolls served as an appetizer. My friend got the rolls with meat, and he ate his right up, too. They came served with nuoc mam and fresh lettuce and sprigs of mint that are just the right light complement to the complex flavors of the rolls.

The space is a bit odd, because it's so large, and the tables are spaced in such a way that you feel you are eating at a dance hall. It was a good thing that our waitress was energetic and filled our water glasses frequently, because to be abandoned in a space like that would be spooky. They should put a carpet down or something, or even put more tables there to make it feel a little cozier. But Van's filled up pretty well on a weeknight, as it seems to have drawn people like me who cherish its good food and helpful service.

For my main course I got salmon with ginger. It was quite good, tender and flavorful, with generous shreds of ginger on top and a light citrus sauce, but not too sweet or overpowering. My friend got the chicken-- they were out of the roasted chicken, but he got another chicken dish that was similar, and he reported that it was very good. They have an extensive offering of tofu/vegetarian dishes, noodle dishes, and soups of all kinds (but unfortunately not many that weren't beef-broth based).

It's worth going just for their dessert selections alone, too: this is the only place in Albany that I know of where you can get a Durian shake, a mango shake, or something called basil seeds with sugar. I tried the key lime pie, which was nice and light but not as tart as I like it. They also had turtle cheesecake and a few other typical American desserts. Their prices are reasonable; in short, in every way Van's rocks. Next time I want to try the basil with sugar.

I highly recommend this place. In fact, as I type this, I wish I could go there right now. But there's a 'winter weather advisory' up and we're stuck here for now.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Tosca Grille Fills a Niche & our tummies, but empties our wallets

We splurged and went to Tosca Grille. My husband and I are re-instituting 'date night' as a way to remember to really be together instead of falling into our habitual and antisocial reading-internet-surfing evenings. So to inaugurate date nights, we went to Tosca, which I've been so curious about since they opened in December. Ever since last summer, I've seen Chef Larry Schepici pacing the intersection of Broadway and Second Streets, watching over his new domain (Tosca joins Illium as Schepici territoire) like a restless papa bear watching over his bear-lets, and now all his hard work is paying off.

He's done a distinguished job renovating the interior of the building. It's warm but open and spacious, with dark wood floors and paneling and a bar and a pleasing aquarium. I didn't see into the "Victorian Ballroom," but it's nice to know an upscale space in Troy is available for people to host weddings and conferences. Tosca is going to be the place RPI takes its prospective profs to impress them, and it already seems to be the place lawyers are clinking their glasses. BUT: there is NOTHING vegetarian on this menu, except for salad appetizers. Nada. Zippo. I can swing it with fish just fine, but I was thinking of my friends who do not eat fish and picturing them destitute in the midst of Tosca's plenty. Really, it's 2007; every restaurant should at the very least have ONE vegetarian entree. My other hairy-armpitted hippie granola-eating gripe is that there wasn't much local produce emphasized on the menu, except for the Berkshire Farms pork rack and one dish with something called "Honey Bee Farms" wildflower honey. Tosca is a restaurant of the globalized age: there is Dover sole, flown in from Dover; chilled Wellfleet oysters; and Colorado lamb.

We started off on the entirely wrong foot when we were seated at a dirty table. We alerted the waitstaff to the issue, but they were noncomittal. I said we could easily wait until they re-set the table, but they sat us at the bar and we waited for 5 minutes or so. The restaurant was pleasantly full for a Thursday night, but it wasn't busting out at the seams, and while we waited we could see a couple of set empty tables available. Finally a woman came over and seated us at one of these tables and apologized for the wait.

I'll chalk that up to just new-restaurant syndrome.

The bread came but was just okay, and they only brought us two pieces. Considering we ended up paying $96 for dinner for two with a shared dessert and no beverages, they could have put out a basket.

The next annoying pretentious thing we noticed was that the menu, instead of printing prices as numbers, show them written out as letters. So instead of seeing $28 you see twenty-eight. Which makes it seem both more and less expensive, because your brain doesn't readily interpret letters as numbers and yet it looks a lot fancier and therefore costly, like fancy script or written-out dates on official documents.

The appetizers we got were good, chosen with difficulty from an impressive and hubristic list ranging from salads to Hudson Valley Foie Gras and Calamari. My "In-house Made Mozarella" with tomato and basil was pretty good, although I couldn't detect any specialness about the mozarella, and in fact I've had much better (more buttery, probably fattier) imported. My husband got the pear and gorgonzola salad, which was quite good; it came with bacon. Actual bacon, as in two strips of the stuff. On the menu it said 'pancetta' so I was picturing smallish bits of crispy ham, not *bacon.* But he gobbled it up.

My entree was swordfish, but only after I agonized over the Oceans Alive Best and Worst list of fish. However, as I've pointed out before, once I cancel out the fishes that are high in mercury (most shellfish) or PCBs, I'm left with only about three fish that I like: Atlantic salmon, freshwater trout, and catfish. Anyway basically nothing on this menu was ecologically friendly (and veal turns up in several dishes). Since I was going to sin anyway, I might as well enjoy myself, so I got the swordfish. Only later did I discover that it indeed is one of those fish that not only has high levels of mercury but is caught using environmentally unfriendly methods, at least internationally. I don't know where this swordfish came from. Click for a handy list of the mercury and environmental fish lists combined!!

It was good, though, mercury or not. In fact, it was cooked to perfection: not a minute too long or a minute too soon. Served with a nummy puddle of pesto sauce and "wilted greens with lobster and roasted corn cake." I totally polished off my meal, leaving not a crumb. Only now as I'm typing did it register that there was lobster in that cake thing. I mean the cake was good, but except for mild corn, and the intensely comforting knowledge that I'm eating carbs, nothing else really stood out to me. So overkill? Definitely. But good? Indeedy.

My husband's entree was excellent: Sirloin encrusted with Truffle and sage & c. Cooked exactly as he likes it and with a side of potatoes, it has probably been one of the best steaks I've seen him eat around here.

And for dessert we got cheesecake. Geez just recounting this meal I'm starting to get calorie guilt! The cheesecake part was good, but the cherries on top tasted like Robitussin.

So my verdict is that Tosca is a great thing for Troy. I'm not going back any time soon, mostly because my wallet and my belly need time to recuperate. And Tosca is not vegetarian-organic friendly, or particularly environmentally friendly. And to me, that's a health as well as a political issue, so I do take it seriously. But I'm going to get off my grandstand now.

Tosca is also now serving Sunday brunch with live jazz, 10-3. They're open Mon.-Sat. 5-10; reservations are recommended. Chef Larry Shepici used to be executive chef at Sargo's at Saratoga National Golf Club, among many other tony places. He's also won lots of impressive culinary awards. According to this web site, he gave a wine dinner at the James Beard house in 2005. Not bad, Troy.

Monday, January 15, 2007

I have earned the chowhound merit badge (warning, gross ahead)

I have sworn to be honest to my readers (well okay, I never swore, but I did sell my soul to the chow gods); therefore, let it be known that for the first time that I've ever been aware of it in my 30 plus plus years of life, I had a form of food poisoning. I figure this should earn me true blue membership in the chowhound club, even though has gotten pretty lame lately, and their posts on Albany are way out of date.

And I'm ashamed to admit that my case of the sick-as-a-chowdogness was because of an otherwise great experience at Saso's in Albany. Saso's is on 218 Central Ave., in Albany near-- uh, well, it's near nothing really! It's not too far from Ristorante Paradiso, on 198 Central, which we stepped into to check out and quickly exeunted when we saw how gloomy and dark it was inside, with a waitstaff who ignored us.

That evening we had almost made it to see the movie "Dreamgirls," but it was so crowded we decided to forego the long line and parking hassle and eat somewhere instead. We were cruising up Central Ave. and after rejecting Paradiso, I said "Hey! I think that's Saso's, the place Albany Jane loves! Let's go!" I'm a fan of Albany Jane's blog and, while we have different tastes, so does everyone, and I trust her judgement.

Saso's is a cozy place on Central Ave., and it was pleasantly busy, but they were able to seat us right away on a Saturday night. I wanted tea and they had barley tea, which was excellent; sort of like tea Guinness, heavy and oaty in a hearty winter warming way. The sushi I had was also great: I got the ume shiso (sour plum) rolls. I didn't feel confident enough yet to order raw fish sushi, because this was my first time at Saso's, but (despite what I'm about to tell you!) I would feel confident doing so in the future. You can watch the sushi chefs doing their thing at a bar where a number of other patrons were sitting.

My sense is that Saso's really is a sushi joint, and their other main entree type food is a bit more uneven, although they have an impressively inclusive menu. You can get more than just the standard tempura here, if you're not in the mood for sushi: they have 20 different kinds of appetizers alone, from shumai (dumplings) to stuffed squid and grilled beef. Entrees range from noodles (ramen, udon and soba) to teriyakis and specials. My husband got the Yakiudon (noodles with veg. and tofu), which was a heaping helping of food, but somewhat bland with noodles a bit overdone. I got the special fish dish of the evening which was a MISTAKE!!! Bad news. But I have been educated. The fish was called "Escolar," which the waitress said was like "white tuna." I wish I had paid more attention to her "like," because white tuna it was not.

At first when I tasted it, it was good: tender, white, flaky salty fish. But after a few more bites it became too salty. And when I got home I had the Revenge of the Chowhounds. Yep, I got the major runs. But it turns out that this was almost certainly something having to do with this strange fish. According to wikipedia:

"The escolar is dark brown in colour, growing darker with age until it is quite black. It is a fast-swimming fish with a prominent lateral keel and multiple finlets. It grows up to 2 m in length.

Like its relative the oilfish, Ruvettus pretiosus, the escolar is consumed in several European and Asian countries, as well as in the USA. Neither fish metabolises the wax esters) naturally found in their diet, which causes an oil content in the muscle meat of the fish amounting to 18–21%. These wax esters may rapidly cause gastrointestinal symptoms following consumption; however, these effects are usually short lived."

I also read that this disgusting oil stuff can be tamed through proper preparation, but honestly, the fish looked fine to me and, despite my bad experience, I would try Saso's again (but with an emphasis on sushi!)

We had the fried ice cream for dessert, which was like a total fattening lard ball covering dollops of ice cream and good in a completely junky bad-for-you kind of way that left us both feeling like bloated pigs afterwards.

We hear that Okinawa in Wynantskill is pretty darn good, and we're likely to try that out next when the craving for Japanese food hits us. Here is a review of Okinawa by the Times Union in their inimitably dorky, provincial style that doesn't actually tell you anything informative. Anyone have recommendations of what to get (or more relevant, what NOT to get?!?)

Your faithful, sometimes suffering


Saturday, January 06, 2007

Ali Baba and the 7 Side Dishes

Ali Babi, on 2243-15th Street near RPI, is one of our standbys. We go there usually once a month because 1) they're nearby 2) the food is good 3) the food is cheap. Plus it's mesmerizing to watch them make lavash bread in their brick oven.
The menu consists of Turkish influenced Middle Eastern fare, with an emphasis on deli-style items like kabobs, pizzas, and dips (hummous, yogurt sauce). They have a huge schwarma rack roasting fresh meat.

By googling Ali Baba I found this excellent site, which I'm adding to my links:, which tells you about restaurants that are halal or Zabiha or not by region. Ali Baba is apparently halal in some respects but may not be entirely. Since this is not my area of expertise, I'll leave it up to readers to help me out on this one. I also found this web site: Never Mind the Ramen. It has a great name and some lively exchange on Troy food, but it doesn't seem updated.

Anyway their food is usually really good, even though there are only two vegetarian dishes I get there: the Mixed Plate (pictured), which gives you a selection of deli things like grape leaves, humus, and eggplant salad; or the veggie gyro, which comes with their excellent and addictive yogurt sauce inside a hot-from-the-oven lavash.

Last night, my husband got his usual Pastrami in paper, which he loves. But this time he did not love it, and he looked so forlorn as he picked his way around it! The pastrami was obviously a different brand, and not as thin or flavorful as the one they usually have. I encouraged him to send it back and ask for another dish, but he was too shy.

I got my usual Mixed Plate, which was the same as it always is, but for some reason didn't really satisfy me (I think I was craving something warm, instead of this which had all cold things). But overall, Ali Baba is someplace I will continue to go, and it is a favorite of RPI types, although they too admit that sometimes it can be uneven.

Thunder Mountain Curry: on vacation for now

This is a fond farewell, for a short time, to Thunder Mountain Curry. Proprietor Mike Gordon is bound for Southeast Asia for a month, but he reassures his devoted fans that he will be back in February.
Here he is at the Farmer's Market. If I had to elect a "Best of 2006" of all dining categories in the Capital Region, Thunder Mountain Curry would tie with Mrs. London's. They are pretty different, though.

Thunder Mountain Curry is a Southeast Asian gig run by the energetic and enthusiastic Mike Gordon, who is Culinary Institute trained, yet chooses to ply his ambrosial meals from a sidewalk stand. Weekdays find him at the corner of Peoples Ave. and 15th Street near RPI or, on weekends, from the Troy Farmer's Market. The menu offers superb vegetarian as well as chicken and sometimes lamb and a wonderful seafood curry. My husband and I often go to the Farmer's Market just to get the divine Buttercup Squash Curry or Palak Paneer (pictured) for brunch. Meals come with basmati rice, papadum (thin, spicy large crackers) and home made chutneys such as, recently cranberry apple, mint, and tomato onion. Thunder Mountain Curry puts out a menu, and you can become a regular by signing up with your email. This is not the kind of food I would attempt to make at home: Gordon told me once that about a dozen different spices go into one of his dishes. Below is a photo of the variety at Thunder Mountain Curry, including fried pakoras.

Have a great vacation, Mike! You deserve it. And we'll be here when you return.