Where to Eat? Three Years Later Edition

•January 17, 2017 • Leave a Comment

I started this blog several years ago with the noble intention of being one of those casual but excellent food bloggers. It turns out that I’m very good at being casual and not so great at being excellent when it comes to remembering to record my restaurant visits. I’m also very good at going to the same places repeatedly, which doesn’t make for very interesting blogging. That said, I’ve had a renewed interest in exploring some of the new and new-to-me restaurants in the area lately, and I’ve had the opportunity to eat some wonderful food in other cities as well, so I’ll be sharing some of that with you as well. In the last week or so, I’ve gone on quite the tear of trying out new restaurants and revisiting a couple that I haven’t seen in a while, so I have plenty of fodder for today.

Food Cuisine – 2035 State St., Schenectady

This kind of redundant name for an Asian restaurant suggests a certain authenticity that could be either delicious or terrifying. A fusion menu of Thai, Chinese, and Japanese dishes doesn’t necessarily lead one toward the former. Still, we took our chances and ordered an assortment of sushi to be delivered to the office for the staff to share. We maintain that this was a positive life choice, and as of yet, none of us have tapeworms. The vegetarian dumplings were tasty without being over-seasoned. The sushi tasted fresh, and the special rolls were delicious, especially the Volcano (spicy crab topped with a variety of raw fish and “special sauce” which seemed to be a basic spicy mayo). The Naruto also tasted very good, but suffered from poor construction which made it difficult to eat. My guess is that the sushi chef is not very experienced with rolling sushi, as most of the rolls had a tendency to fall apart, which was our only complaint about the food. All in all, this seems to be a reasonably priced place with standard Asian fusion fare, and they deliver up to five miles. Next time I’ll try the noodle or rice options.

Renaissance – 820 Eastern Ave., Schenectady

This brand new restaurant, banquet hall, and music venue is located in the renovated St. Mary’s Church on Eastern Ave. As a food and drink enthusiast who is also a minister, I love these kinds of places, and I was super excited to see what they had done with this beautiful old building. Unfortunately, the main restaurant is in the basement, which looks sadly like, well, a church basement. The ceiling is low for such a large room, and still covered with acoustic tile. On the positive side, that probably helped the band sound so clear without being overwhelmingly loud, which is not usually the case in large rooms with low ceilings. The room includes a stage facing a restaurant section with tables; outside of that area is a bar and a more casual space with pool tables and darts. We did get a look at the upstairs hall, which is the converted main sanctuary of the church, and it is beautiful. It will be a wonderful venue for banquets, receptions, and big band events. I suggested swing dance lessons, to a lukewarm reaction.

We only had drinks – kudos for a highly drinkable Cabernet at an affordable price point – but did take a look at the menu. I expected something leaning toward fine dining, but the current menu is more standard pub fare.

img_0052Jack fruit sliders are the only real surprise here if you’ve been briefed to expect a casual menu. They also had a prime rib special running, and the friendly and patient bartender (who was possibly also the manager) said that they planned to have weekly specials that sounded like more typical dinner entrees. He also mentioned a potential buffet, possibly with seafood…it sounds like at present, their plan is up in the air. That more or less captures my sense of the place as a whole: up in air. They don’t seem to know who they want to be. A classy restaurant? A casual tavern? A music venue? A banquet hall? Should I go there for a sophisticated meal or to relive my church youth group days? The space and the menu left me confused. I’m likely to return for events in the upstairs space, but unless they work out their identity crisis, I probably won’t be hanging out in the main restaurant anytime soon.

Pho Queen – 602 State St., Schenectady 

I drive by this place several times a week and every single time I think, “I should eat there,” but I am never passing it when I need to eat. If you have had similar thoughts, please do as I finally did and make advanced plans to have a meal at Pho Queen.

It’s a small restaurant in a quirky location, but the interior is surprisingly cozy, with comfortable chairs and a general feeling of hospitality. The menu consists of starters, pho, and noodle and rice dishes. Lunches come with a dumpling or spring roll for a lower price than dinner. Since we were there for lunch, we started our meals with spring rolls, which were light, crispy, and flavorful, and presented beautifully.  My friend had the Pad See Eww, her favorite Thai dish, which she declared to be “everything it is supposed to be.” I ordered the Kuai Tiao Ped, a roasted duck soup that exhibited the perfect layering of flavors that is the reason we eat Pho at all. It’s safe to say that Pho Queen will be joining our regular rotation of lunch spots. They also deliver.

My week in food also included Chez Nous and Cella Bistro, both restaurants where I have had mixed experiences in the past and which I haven’t visited in a while, and a stop at Gaonnuri for upscale Korean in Manhattan, but I’m out of time and those deserve a separate post anyway. Eat well, friends.


Where Should I Eat?

•October 30, 2013 • Leave a Comment

I know, I’ve deserted the blog for a while. I’m not sure I really have a passion for writing about food, although I certainly enjoy eating it. But I’ve fallen into a habit of eating at the same places, and it doesn’t make for very interesting commentary. Meanwhile, I’ve been missing out on all the great restaurants in the area. So. I’m instituting a weekly meal out, to which I will invite a random assortment of my friends, and it has to be a new place every week. The question for you, therefore, is: where should we eat?

The Quest for the Perfect Nacho

•October 5, 2012 • Leave a Comment

My friend C loves nachos.  I mean, really.  LOVES them.  I eat a lot of nachos when I’m out with her, and almost never order nachos when she’s not there.  Anyway, sometime in the last year, we decided to embark upon the Quest for the Perfect Nacho.  This quest is usually accomplished one nacho establishment at a time, but C’s birthday recently gave us an excuse to visit multiple locations of nacho goodness and compare.  Some people have pub crawls; she has a nacho crawl.  

In the past we have struggled with a rating standard for nachos, so we created a rubric for the crawl, which is a 10-point scale for the following factors:

  • Crisptastic factor: freshness, crunchiness, and non-soggifiedness of the chips
  • Inclusions: what comes with the nacho
  • Cheese: flavor and texture
  • Topping ratio: topping to chips, too much or not enough?
  • Overall flavor

We started off at El Mariachi (289 Hamilton St., Albany), which scored 9/9/7/10/8.5, for a total of 43.5.  The chips were homemade and fresh, and the sour cream and quacamole earned them high inclusion points.  The topping coverage was superior, but it should be noted that there are very few chips involved.  This is a single layer of chips – about eight of them – with each chip well covered in meat and cheese.  They are truly an appetizer, and would not work well for our usual extended nacho noshing while sipping on margaritas.  We tried the chicken, beef, and chorizo nachos (don’t judge, it was a big group); the chorizo were by far the favorite.  El Mariachi gets an extra commendation for the margaritas.

Next, we trekked up the street to Cafe Hollywood (275 Lark St., Albany).  I need to preface this by noting that we went on the night of Larkfest, and the remains of the day were still pretty evident all over the area.  I’ve never eaten here before, so I don’t know if this is normal, but our chicken nachos were served in a styrofoam takeout box.  They were also cold, even though they were served really quickly after we ordered.  Someone else’s mistake order?  I have no idea.  We gave these nachos a generous 5/6/3/5/5 – 24 points total.  The chips were not homemade, but then, this is not a Mexican restaurant.  They get inclusion points for jalapenos.  The cheese was a major negative factor, as it was cold, unevenly distributed, and flavorless.  C insists that she has had nachos at Cafe Hollywood before and they were much better, so we may need to give them the benefit of the Larkfest doubt for now.

The third and final stop on our crawl was El Loco (465 Madison Ave., Albany), which happens to be my favorite Mexican restaurant in the Capital region.  It’s a small place, so we called ahead to make sure they had space for 10 for drinks and nachos.  By the time we walked around the corner, our table was ready.  The service was absolutely fantastic.  Really, really fantastic.  Okay, back to the nachos.  We tried both of the types of nachos from their menu – the Buenos and the Fantasticos – and scored them separately.  

The Buenos (we had the chorizo; they are also available with beef or turkey) resembled the nachos at El Mariachi, with few chips and lots of toppings, and scored a 6/5/9.5/7/9 (36.5).  The scores for crisptasticness and the topping ratio were reduced because we could barely find the chips, let alone crunch them.  I’m a big fan of toppings, but this was just way too much.  You have to pay extra if you want anything in addition to the meat and cheese, and while their guacamole is worth it, this cost them in the inclusions department.  The cheese was by far the most flavorful of any we tried that night, and had the most appropriately melty texture for nachos.  The flavor was very good, and I would order these again…although I would order a basket of extra chips and guacamole to go with them.  

The Fantasticos are more like nachos you normally see at a bar: a huge pile of chips and toppings.  These scored 8/9/7.5/13/9 (46.5).  They come with beans, multiple salsas, sour cream, onions, jalapenos, and tomatoes, and you can get them with your choice of meat.  By this point in the evening we had developed an addiction to chorizo, so that is what we had again.  The best things about these nachos is the topping ratio and distribution (hence the 13 rating).  These are not those annoying nachos with things poured over the top and a dry, tasteless core of untouched chips within.  These are layered with the perfect amount of topping per chip from top to bottom.

In my book, El Loco also gets all the extra points in the world for their margaritas, which are simply good tequila and lime juice (plus whatever flavor you may want; I drink mine plain, on the rocks, with salt).  My advice is to take it easy on the margaritas or bring a DD.  The warning on the menu is no joke.  

Overall, I’ll still take El Loco every time, but I think C preferred the nachos at El Mariachi.  And so the quest continues…       

Marotta’s Bar-Risto

•May 3, 2012 • 2 Comments

First of all, “Bar-Risto?” What is that? It makes me think of “bistro,” but clearly isn’t really meant to be that, and then they have an espresso machine so maybe it’s related to (male?) makers of coffee…but really, what?  I am puzzled.

Aside from the peculiar name issue, which yes, is still bugging me, I think I like this place.  It’s kind of overly dark, the music selection was eclectic/schizophrenic, and the wine was not great (more on that later), but it has a nice, classy vibe that I enjoyed.  Marotta’s seems to be picking up the clientele from the old Wine Down; seriously, all kinds of people I used to see there were at Marotta’s last night, as though they had scheduled a reunion.  Those of us who used to frequent the Wine Down have missed having a place in downtown Schenectady that is upscale enough to bring a date or client, but still relaxed and friendly, and it seems this place could step into that gap.  Even without great wine.

Let’s just get this part over with: the menus are on iPads.  I love me some gadgets, and I can see this being really convenient for making quick menu changes, so that’s cool and all, and it enables me to tap a selection and see a giant picture of what I might be eating, which is totally fun and makes me want to order EVERYTHING.  However, Change Resistant Me found it kind of heavy (as compared to standard menus) and unwieldy, and I was constantly nervous that I’d whack my wine glass with it.  At the tables they have stands for the iPads, but then that means you have to share the menu with whomever is dining with you, so here’s hoping you both want something in the same category.  It’s clever and novel, but I do wonder about the practicality of having electronics in close proximity to liquids and klutzes/drunk people.

The endangered glass of wine in question was a Trivento Malbec, and it was not great.  I drink a considerable amount of Malbec, and either it’s kind of hard to screw it up, or I’ve gotten extremely lucky with my choices…until now.  It was pretty thin for a Malbec, and also rather sour.  Bleh.  I also tried the Pinot Noir, which was more drinkable but unusually full-bodied for its type.  I have questions about the palate of whomever is choosing their wines.  On the other hand, a friend who was there said that her Chardonnay was fabulous, so maybe the whites have hope.

I intended to have one of their entrees, but I was in a sandwichy mood and settled on the Pollo Griglia panini, with grilled chicken, pancetta, red peppers, and remoulade, served with a side of waffle fries.  It was unremarkable in a pleasant way – nothing fancy or unexpected, just goodness.  The pizzas being ordered around me looked fantastic, and that is after all how Marotta’s began.  Not much to say about the food yet, apparently.  Some other time.

The service was great; all the employees were very friendly and courteous and seemed to know the menu well, which isn’t always true of a newly opened place.  I will definitely be going back soon, and probably often in the summer when their patio opens.

Marotta’s Bar-Risto is located at 611 Union St., Schenectady NY  (518) 377-5100.  They are currently website-less but can be found on Facebook.

The Van Dyck Restaurant

•April 29, 2012 • Leave a Comment

The Van Dyck is just a couple of blocks down the street from where I work, so I used to go there frequently for lunch…until they stopped serving lunch.  In May they will start serving lunch again a couple of days a week, but I always have difficulty keeping track of restaurants with irregular schedules, so we’ll see.  On the other hand, their cheddar beer soup in a bread bowl is out of this world, and that alone might get me down the street.  Anyway.

I went on Thursday night for dinner and drinks with friends, and we sat at the bar.  It was really quite busy with happy hour drinkers as well as diners, and the wait for a table was about a half hour.  I ordered an old reliable, the grilled chicken panini, with bacon, brie, and tomatoes, and the regular fries.  For an extra $2 you can get the truffle fries, which feel like a really decadent treat, but I’m trying to avoid too much fried food these days and knew that I would polish off the truffle fries even though I wasn’t hungry enough to eat them all!  The panini was a little skimpier on the chicken than usual but still creamy on the inside, grilled to just a little crispy on the outside, and delicious.  One of my friends ordered the Stockade Salad, a basic dinner salad with greens, olives, bleu cheese, and balsamic vinaigrette.  The other had the Bourbon Chicken Panini; the apples make it a little sweet for my taste, but she reported that it was great.

The atmosphere is probably my favorite thing about the Van Dyck.  It’s classy without being too stuffy, with lots of dark wood in open spaces with lots of light, especially in the main dining room.  It’s a great place to grab a drink or meal when fine dining seems like a bit much and pub grub not quite enough.  They also brew their own beers and now have quite an extensive and ever-varying list of reliably good beers.

My not so favorite thing: the service.  If you get one of the managers, members of the family that own the restaurant, they’re friendly and helpful.  A couple of the other bartenders are also okay, but I have yet to have a positive experience with any of their servers.  I’m not sure if they’re just not trained well or what, but I now just expect that if I’m sitting at a table, it’s going to take forever to be greeted, get our drinks, order our food, and get our check.  Water and soda refills seem a foreign concept unless you can manage to chase down your server and plead.  I’ll be lucky to get a smile or a check back on how the food is, and outright sullenness isn’t unheard of.  On Thursday, although we were at the bar, this “service standard” held true.  The bartender was barely cordial and we had to flag her down and ask for EVERYTHING.  But I will continue to go there for consistently good food and microbrews, decent wines, and good atmosphere, while hoping that the service will someday not be quite so lacking.

The Van Dyck Restaurant and Lounge is located at 237 Union Street  Schenectady, NY 12305  (518) 348-7999.

Winery Roundup

•April 17, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I’m back in Schenectady now, so rest assured that my Sonoma ravings are soon to end, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight some of my favorite winery stops from the trip to California.  So, here we go.

Roche – This was the very first tasting room we visited, and almost our entire group joined the wine club.  When my first shipment arrives, I’ll let you know whether the wine was really that good or we were just giddy with joy at being there.  It’s also where I tried my first Viognier, which is closely tied to my joining of the wine club.  Warning: the tasting guy, Harry, makes you sing, and makes a lot of odd references to “God whose name is Howard.”  Particularly odd if you happen to be a group of clergy, but that’s another story.

Francis Ford Coppola – Housed in a giant mansion with a pool (with changing cabanas!) and bocce ball course, the site itself is pretty impressive.  We oohed and ahhed quite a bit over the displays of bottles and the generally pleasing aesthetic of the place.  In addition to trying their general $7 flight of wines, I paid an extra $4 to try the Archimedes, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.  Although you can get perfectly drinkable wine for $10 a bottle, sometimes there is a reason why people pay more for something truly outstanding.  This wine is one of those reasons: velvety smooth, full and complex but perfectly balanced, pretty much heaven in my mouth.  At $58 a bottle I won’t be drinking much of this, but I wouldn’t rule out a future purchase for something special.

Sebastiani – Yeah, I joined this wine club too, after tasting their reserve list.  I loved every single wine on the list, even the whites.  Sometimes a winery just meshes with your palate.  For me, this was that winery.  Viognier! Viognier! Need I say more?

By contrast, we also visited Benziger Winery, which did NOT mesh with my palate.  Also, the guy doing our tasting kept reminding us that The Bachelor makes his wine there, which did not endear it to me.

Murphy-Goode – It’s a Minnesota-themed winery! With a pin board for Minnesota residents (or former residents like me)! And purple (Viking) labels! And they gave me a Viking hat!  Oh, and the wine was pretty good too.  Another day, another bottle of Viognier: this one was the only bottle that flew home with me.

Cline – The winery is really beautiful, with lots of spaces for picnicking, and the wine is reliably good.  I’m particularly fond of the Zinfandels, and got to try a few of their reserve editions that I can’t get here in NY.  I may be ordering them online.

Sigh, now it’s time to take my spoiled self back to normal life and mediocre wine.  Check back later this week as I venture out of my Schenectady sphere to McGuire’s in Albany!

A Very Brief Foray into San Francisco

•April 17, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Here’s my philosophy on seafood and travel (which is, for me, basically life): when you’re in a place that has good seafood, eat a lot of it.  I happened to be in San Francisco on my way back from Sonoma, and because I had no idea what to do with myself, I headed to Fisherman’s Wharf.  Why it seemed like a good idea to go to a place swarming with kitsch and tourists, I do not know.  Anyway.

I made an afternoon break stop at Scoma’s, based on the online reviews I read.  By “reviews” I mean that I looked up “best oysters in San Fran” and went with that.  Unfortunately I didn’t do any comparison shopping, but the oysters were very good.  My only complaint about them is that the bartender (since I was alone I parked it at the bar) wouldn’t just tell me what kind of oysters they were.  I got the vague answer – “It’s a sampler with three different types of oysters” – and the equally unhelpful “They are West Coast oysters” before he rattled off the specific types too quickly for me to catch them.  This is the oyster equivalent to drinking a great bottle of Sebastiani reserve Viognier (my new addiction) and being told that it’s white.

I didn’t stay at Scoma’s long, mostly because the bartender was somewhat awkward, the view was of the fish warehouses on the next pier, and the atmosphere made me think they haven’t redecorated since they were established in 1965.

Just before jumping on a harbor cruise, I grabbed a quick order of shrimp and chips from the Sabella and LaTorre crab stand.  If that’s their fast food option, I would definitely eat in the actual restaurant if I return to the area.

For dinner I went to the Crab House at Pier 39, which is renowned for their Dungeness crab, but which also appeared on the best oysters list.  Problematically, they don’t sell oysters there.  As I was about to get on a plane and wasn’t terribly excited about smelling like crab all night, I decided to forego the Killer Crab – which looked amazing…and messy – and had a crab caesar instead.  Nothing too exciting, but it was exactly what I wanted (after I gave up the dream of oyster comparing), and the crab was tender and flavorful.

Now, this might just be that I was coming from Sonoma, where the interior design tended toward the simple, clean, and natural nearly everywhere, but the decor here was tacky, tacky, tacky.  The walls look like they came straight from an institutional restroom, and they are festooned with plastic crabs and fishing nets.  I was swept in by the lovely view and a charming circular bar with a fire pit in the middle, but I probably wouldn’t have stayed if I had looked around the place a bit more.  Unless I’m eating with my nieces or nephews, I generally stay away from places with plastic sea creatures on the walls.