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.