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.