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.