Monday, December 31, 2012

My Great Winter Beer Hunt, Part III: Southern Tier's 2Xmas Ale and Magic Hat's Heart of Darkness Stout

It's New Year's Eve, so what better than the next installment of my search for a great winter seasonal beer?  Well, maybe a Champagne review, but that's not happening (though I do recall picking up a bottle of this very tasty Freixenet sparkling wine on sale at Whole Foods back in Ohio a couple years ago that I'd recommend), and my plan for this evening is to open a new beer.  At least it's a corked one.

Back to the winter beers.  This time, one very Christmassy one--Southern Tier's 2Xmas Ale--and a pretty standard, but still seasonal, stout--Magic Hat's Heart of Darkness.  In calling the Heart of Darkness standard, I don't mean anything negative (spoiler: I like it).  It's just that it pales in terms of seasonality, if you will, to the 2Xmas.  Just look at those label designs above.  One sings Christmas.  The Heart of Darkness?  Um, not Christmas.  But it does get bonus points for the literary reference in its title, even if I--as a former English major who was failed in his education of the classics--can't claim to have ever read the book.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Leeks and Cauliflower and Smoked Cheese, Oh My!

There are a lot of moments from Seinfeld that even now, almost 15 years after the show came to an end, I like to refer to, especially scenes from the early seasons or those surrounding George's time with the Yankees.  (The Yankees weren't bad then, but they also weren't dominant; seeing them now  losing out on free agents to the cheap Pirates, or having to turn to creaky old members of the Red Sox to patch holes, I'm personally excited at the prospect of a new era of making fun of the Yankees.)

One of the bits from the show that I never tire of referring back to is when George gets stuck bringing the same calzone to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for lunch, day after day after day.  As Steinbrenner says:
When I find something I like I stick with it. From 1973 to 1982 I ate the exact same lunch every day. Turkey chili in a bowl made out of bread. Bread bowl, George. First you eat the chili then you eat the bowl. There's nothing more satisfying than looking down after lunch and seeing nothing but a table.
I hate to admit this, but I can be a little like Steinbrenner, especially when I get into a routine.  Sometimes it's a good old PB&J sandwich for lunch, or maybe a nice smoked turkey and lite muenster one.  I can go a couple weeks like that.  And then it's on to a different sandwich.

But I live with someone who is on the complete opposite end of this spectrum.  The anti-Steinbrenner, if you will.  If one of us makes too much of a dish--even one she likes--I'll end up eating inordinate amounts of it so it doesn't go bad in the refrigerator, simply because she got tired of it. 

So when I got the request, only a couple weeks after making a pot of it, to cook more of Chef Carolina Fidanza's Cauliflower, Leek, and Gruyere Soup, which had been featured in an October issue of New York Magazine, I knew we had a really good recipe on our hands.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Very Vegetarian Holiday (from a box): Field Roast Hazelnut Cranberry Roast en Croute

We didn't set out to have a vegetarian Thanksgiving this year.  I believe it has already been well established, after all, that we're all meat eaters here.  For small gatherings during past Thanksgivings, K has made this roasted chicken recipe that I absolutely adore.  (Seriously, make that once and you'll be thanking me for the recommendation.) But this year we were hoping to celebrate with others and eat some fowl we didn't have to cook ourselves.

But as we all know, life doesn't always go according to plans.  K ended up not feeling well, so I took the reigns on Thanksgiving.  And instead of cooking the Zuni Roast Chicken, I decided to keep it simpler (read: manageable by my standards) and focus on the side dishes, including an excellent green bean recipe from The Meatball Shop Cookbook, one I really should devote another post to.

That's all well and good, but it still leaves a hole at the center of Thanksgiving dinner.  My solution to that problem?  Field Roast's Hazelnut Cranberry Roast en Croute

Yes, it comes in a box.  And it's not exactly cheap.  But I can't say I've ever eaten a meat-substitute product that is so satisfying, both in terms of its taste and its texture.  With Christmas only six days away and New Year's the following week, I know there are people out there--vegetarians and carnivores alike--looking for an easy and tasty centerpiece to their holiday meal.  This is where the Roast en Croute comes in.

Monday, December 17, 2012

My Great Winter Beer Hunt, Part II: Southern Tier's Old Man (Winter Ale) and Goose Island's Mild Winter

I'm going to have to face the facts here: most of the winter seasonal beers I've encountered on store shelves this year do not feature the Christmassy spices of my beloved Great Lakes Christmas Ale.  I've noticed this more in 2012 than in the past several years.  Maybe it's just a coincidence.

Maybe it's not such a bad thing.  The only seasonal I've tried this year that's been all spiced up is Southern Tier's 2Xmas Ale, and I need to try it one more time before I can give my take.  I like it, but I'm not sure yet how much.  The others I've tried?  They may not evoke the holidays or even winter all that much, but each one has been quite satisfying.

The two latest winter beers I tried came on tap at Bacchus, the wood-fired pizza restaurant located in the basement of Daisy Baker's in Troy.  I need to write more about Bacchus at another time, as we were very pleased with the food, atmosphere, and beer selection found there, but for now the focus is on the beer: Southern Tier's "other" winter seasonal, Old Man (Winter Ale), and Goose Island's Mild Winter.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Get This While You Can: Trader Joe's 2012 Vintage Ale (by Unibroue)

When you think about Gateway Beers--those that help kickstart a person's transition into the craft beer world--you're not likely to include Belgian strong dark ales anywhere near the top of the list.  I'm not exactly sure what my Gateway Beer was.  Maybe Newcastle Brown or Bass?  Obviously not craft beers themselves, but better than the mainstream American dreck that never held any appeal for me.

Others might give answers like Blue Moon, or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.  Maybe one of the big releases from Sam Adams.  Hoegaarden, anyone?  That, just like Blue Moon, is a Belgian style--a witbier.  A witbier is usually light and crisp and not too strong in its spicing, which is often highlighted by the taste of banana or orange, or spices like coriander.  For anyone who doesn't think they like beer, ones like these can certainly start to affect some change to that mindset.

But back to the possibly ridiculous idea of a Belgian strong dark ale, like the 2012 Vintage Ale from Trader Joe's, as a Gateway Beer.  This is a strong beer in the sense that it's got a pretty high ABV--9%.  But what's that to a wine drinker?  If you're not looking to down the whole bottle (750 mL for the ridiculously good price of $4.99), but just drink a glass or two and share with someone else--as you might with a bottle of wine--it's not going to leave you passed out on a floor (unless that's your preferred destination for sleep).  And maybe most importantly, it's a very masked 9%, nice and warming but without any cloying booziness. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Diaspora of Curried Goat: Dinner at The Dutch Pot in Albany

I can't claim to be an expert in Caribbean cuisine.  I've had jerk chicken at some point, and know I liked it.  And I've got some of the jerk seasoning from Penzey's getting stale in my kitchen cabinet (could use a refresh).  But I can't recall ever eating at an authentic Jamaican restaurant until my recent visit to The Dutch Pot in downtown Albany.

Despite that, I felt relatively familiar with some of the food on the menu at The Dutch Pot.  There's the jerk chicken, of course, but beyond that many slow-cooked stews--curried goat and chicken, for instance--none of which felt foreign to me.  Of course, that's because these dishes are so closely related to those of other cuisines, those of parts of Africa and India and other parts of Asia.  Each puts its own spin on the dishes (the use of the scotch bonnet pepper and allspice seems most notable for Jamaican cuisine), but if done right, they're all pretty much phenomenally good.

Just a couple days ago, for example, I got some tasty goat curry off the buffet cart at Shalimar in Latham. And I remember trying a goat stew at a West African restaurant in Columbus, OH, a few years back that blew my mind (also home to one of the more adventurous eating experiences I've had, pulling off pieces of a ball of fufu and dipping it into a peanut butter soup).  You look at some recipes of different goat curries/stews from across the globe--Ghanaian goat curry, Indian goat curry, Jamaican curry goat--and you can see the similarities, from some of the ingredients to the slow-cooking styles.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

My Great Winter Beer Hunt, Part I: Smuttynose Winter Ale and Blue Point Winter Ale

Artist's rendering of the author.
I've talked before about my beloved winter beer of choice (an obsession, I'll readily admit), Great Lakes Brewing's Christmas Ale, which is a so-called winter warmer (7.5% ABV) spiced generously with cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, with a backdrop of honey for fullness and sweetness.  Sure, some folks will automatically call a beer spiced like this (the same goes for pumpkin beers) a bastardization--and sometimes rightly say that it tastes like a scented candle--but I love the way the tastes of Christmas Ale come together; it feels like the perfect beer for cold weather and the holiday season.

Problem is, Great Lakes doesn't distribute their beer to the eastern half of New York, and even if I had a good reason to drive out to Rochester or Binghamton, Christmas Ale is traditionally snatched off the shelves with lightning speed once it appears.  If you're in Ohio, where Christmas Ale is native, that's not a problem at the start of the season.  But as I saw last year when living in North Carolina, pickings are very slim outside the Buckeye State.  I made the two-hour drive down to Charlotte last November--where Great Lakes is distributed--and visited one of the great Total Wine stores in town. When I asked the guys working there about Christmas Ale they just laughed.  "Gone in a day," they said.  "Two if you're lucky."  And guess what: no more shipments.

So until the day Great Lakes starts shipping their beer to the Capital Region, I've decided I need to find a replacement go-to winter beer.  It doesn't have to be spiced in a similar way to Christmas Ale, but of course there's a little bias in that direction (Natty Greene's Red Nose Winter Ale is the best alternative I've found--most brewers just can't get the spicing right--but they don't ship far from their Greensboro, NC, headquarters).  Still, I'm open to anything that's classified by the brewery as a winter or holiday seasonal.  Bonus points if it comes in a six pack and is reasonably priced.

Here are the first two candidates:

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Hop-Pickle: A Delicious Collaboration Between Brooklyn Brine and Dogfish Head

If I'm not mistaken, federal law requires that every article about a successful collaboration must begin with a list of legendary duets/duos from music or sports.  You know: Sonny and Cher, Simon and Garfunkel, Stockton and Malone, Gretzky and Kurri.  You get the idea.

In that vein, when I think of the great Hop-Pickle collaboration between the Brooklyn Brine Co. and Dogfish Head Brewery, I think of some of the great side projects from already-established musicians.  Temple of the Dog automatically comes to mind, though Pearl Jam hadn't even released their first record before that collaboration with the guys from Soundgarden.  There are also several comparable examples from fairly recent vintage.

The Hop-Pickle collaboration reminds me most of successful teamings of some unique musicians, like David Bowie joining Queen for "Under Pressure" or (on a lesser scale, of course) M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel combining for their She & Him albums.  Each had blazed a distinct trail on their own before these collaborations, yet after hearing the results of such teamwork you'd have thought they were born to play together--a phrase you could easily apply to Brooklyn Brine and Dogfish Head.

Enough music for now.  We need to talk pickles.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Weekend Drink Pick: Crabbie's Ginger Beer

I can safely say that none of my favorite beers have television commercials.  I don't recall seeing any, at least.  And in terms of other forms of advertisements, they're generally quite low-key (and don't make it beyond the doors of a beer store).

So it's kind of fun to promote a "beer" (more on the quotation marks later) that airs commercials like this:

And has its own double-decker tour bus:

Crabbie's Ginger Beer is Scottish and more than two hundred years old, so even though I'm often turned off by advertising, they get a free pass (plus the commercial is pretty good and don't even try to tell me you wouldn't love to get on that bus).  Though it's obviously big in the UK, Crabbie's is something of a novelty drink here in the States--a pretty good and interesting one, at that.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Home and Away: Beef Rendang at Flavors of Malaysia in Pittsfield and from a Prima Taste Box

Last week in my "white whales" post, I mentioned my love of Malaysian food and beef rendang, specifically.  As I said then, Malaysian cuisine is a brilliant fusion of native Malay, Indian, Chinese, and Thai culinary inspirations (among others!).  If you know the dishes of those countries, then you can only imagine how strong the flavors are when merged in one cuisine.  No, this is not food for the meek, for those who don't want things vibrantly spiced up.

It is the location of Malaysia--its proximity to those countries listed above and its usefulness as a trading hub--that enabled the spices and culinary influences of so many places to end up concentrated in this one location.  Just watch the Singapore episode of No Reservations and tell me there's any other place on earth that could compete as a culinary destination.

Okay, I'm hungry now.  Always does the trick.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the White Whales

We're all cursed with our obsessions.
It's been just over three months now since I moved to the Capital Region, though in so many ways it feels longer (you get past the first month in a place, the seasons change, and everything becomes normal).  So it feels like a good time to take a step back and consider the food experiences I've had here.

I'll begin by mentioning that there have been a lot of great little discoveries, some of which I've written about--fried chicken and pizza, for instance--and some of which I've neglected to mention.  I've become totally accustomed to having some really solid Asian markets right in town.  I live in a place where I can get pretty good xiao long bao (at Ala Shanghai).  There's no shortage of quality Indian restaurants in the area which serve up some satisfying buffet lunches.

I don't doubt that if I keep searching, keep digging, keep eating in and around Albany, I'll have a lot more positive posts to throw out there.  But...

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Highly Sessionable Long Trail Harvest Ale

It was a little stunning when I saw it, after I'd drained my glass: the ABV of Long Trail's fall seasonal, the Harvest Ale, is just 3.6%.  I had just a single of the Harvest Ale, picked up on the cheap at Trader Joe's, and the ABV wasn't listed on the bottle.  I'm glad it wasn't.

I mean, 3.6%?  We're in light beer territory here (in fact, most light or "lite" beers are a little higher).  For one, I might have never picked up the Harvest Ale in the first place had I known, worrying that it would be too weak, not a "serious" beer.  So many craft beers are in the 6-7% range, and being a fan of strong Belgians, I've become accustomed to beers in the 9-10% range where you can barely even taste the alcohol.

Well, I'm glad I grabbed a Harvest Ale.  This isn't an amazing beer, I'll say that, but it is good and at just 3.6%, it's not weak--but it is sessionable in the traditional British way of the low-strength pint.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Battle of the Rib Chains: Dinosaur Bar-B-Que vs. Shane's Rib Shack

Maybe I should have saved my braised greens post for after this one.  A sort of cleanse to make up for all this rib talk that's to come.

Yes, ribs.  What carnivores among us don't love them?  Despite that, ribs are one of those foods that I've become a little snobby about.  I had some amazing ones from Oscar's in Springfield, MO, several times between 2006 and 2007, these incredibly smoky, fall-off-the-bone tender ribs cooked in a cart in a supermarket parking lot.  Here's one way of explaining how much we loved these ribs: a few years back, when we were living in Ohio, K was having problems with a dental crown she'd had done in Springfield; she could have gotten it fixed for free if we made the 12-plus hour drive back to Missouri.  No, we didn't want to do that...but we could stop back at Oscar's if we made the trip.  It wasn't enough to sway our decision, but it was part of the conversation.

There are a lot of ways for ribs to be prepared--not to mention the different types of ribs themselves--so I'll admit, what I'm about to say about the ribs at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Troy and Shane's Rib Shack in Clifton Park comes from the mouth of someone who swears by hickory-smoked, dry-rubbed, St. Louis-style ribs.  But on my search for a second holy grail of ribs, trust me: I'm not going to leave a rib untasted if I smell smoke in the vicinity of a barbecue joint.  And if you don't trust me, I have a trusty rib-loving cat around to help judge.  We'll hear from him in a minute.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Eat Your Greens: Chris Cosentino's Braised Dandelion Greens

I'm guilty of it, and I know I'm not alone: I could stand to eat more greens.

More often than not, any excuse I throw out there is going to be lame.  Salad can be boring, meat and a side of carbs is always fun.  Vegetables?  Healthy, sure, but it can take effort to make something interesting of them.

I know these aren't good excuses, so I'm always on the lookout for ways to jazz up greens without that much effort.  My new favorite way to do this?  Braising greens, southern-style.  And since there are so many variations on this theme, my plan is to cook more and more of them and post those recipes here. 

There are--and I might be low-balling it here--around a million different ways you can braise greens, so I'm not about to try to list them all right here.  I just want to talk about one method courtesy of chef Chris Cosentino, who you might know as the newly-minted winner of Season 4 of Top Chef Masters or from the Next Iron Chef show on Food Network.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

In Praise of Brunch at City Beer Hall

It's safe to say that any praise of Albany's City Beer Hall would be, at this point, piling on.  The beer hall/gastropub has been open for about a year-and-a-half now, and huzzahs have come from all corners.  But one thing deserving of a little more attention at City Beer Hall is their weekend brunch, which just started up this summer.  Serious beer lovers who also appreciate good food will be hard-pressed to find a better deal than this one.

Here's the way it works: between 11-3 on Saturdays and Sundays, choose a salad ($9.99), sandwich ($10.99), or plate ($12.99), and with it you receive coffee and your choice of craft beer, mimosa, screwdriver, bloody mary, or freshly-squeezed orange juice.  Sometimes you run across restaurants advertising deals like this that seem too good to be true and, sadly, they are--the restaurant will cut corners in some way, cheap out and serve small portions or uninteresting food.

That's not the case at City Beer Hall.  The food offerings are plentiful and interesting.  The beer?  Full pints of high-quality stuff.  Almost everything on tap is eligible for the deal; sometimes a pint of the beer of your choice would be $7 or $8 at regular price.  If you think of it that way, a burger or other sandwich will only cost you a few bucks.  Like I said before: this is a real deal.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Weekend Drink Picks: Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale and Ithaca Country Pumpkin

Last weekend I wrote about my love for Dogfish Head's Punkin Ale and my frustration with some other pumpkin beers I've tried in recent years.  But you know, I'm here to serve, so when I saw a few different pumpkin ale singles on sale (cheap--a straight 1/6 of the cost of the six pack) at Trader Joe's the other day, I figured it was my duty to give them a fair shake.

The results were positive.  I'm not going to say that the Punkin Ale has been knocked out of my top spot yet, but I've got a couple new beers in the style that I'm certainly happy with.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

This is Good Stuff: Trader Joe's Kale Chips

I haven't been doing this blogging thing for too long yet, but I have learned that there's a fine line between trying to sound like you know what you're talking about and being an overconfident know-it-all.

I was reminded of this tonight when watching an episode of the TV show Party Down--which I'm about as late on as I was with Arrested Development--when the character Roman DeBeers (played by Martin Starr) said,
People care what I think!  I have a prestigious blog, sir!
I sincerely hope I never become that guy (for many other reasons, too), but the thing is, sometimes you want people to listen to what you have to say.  Today is one of those days.  I want to talk about the new Kale Chips from Trader Joe's, which I found to be utterly delicious and worthy of a little splurge.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Smoked Eggplant and Angora Throws: Dining at Depot 62 Cafe in Manchester, VT

It's a subject I've touched on before, one I'm curious about because of how unquantifiable it is: the way outside factors, other than the food, can muddle one's memories of a dining experience, elevate good food to magnificent (or the opposite). 

None of us are immune to this way of thinking, and I'll admit I could have fallen into this trap with the Depot 62 Cafe when we visited Manchester, VT, last month.  This is a restaurant we chose primarily based off of some positively glowing Yelp reviews.  We'd just wrapped up our Washington County Cheese Tour, and instead of heading straight home, figured we might as well swing by Manchester Center for shopping and dinner.  There'd been a threat of rain all day, but we were lucky on the farms--nothing more than a moment of drizzle while driving between them.  The sun even came out while we were at Consider Bardwell.

Things started to change while we were in Manchester, poking around shops featuring the quaint and overpriced.  We heard on the radio of a tornado watch, and soon a black cloud, the likes of which I hadn't seen since Kansas, crept out from behind a mountain to block the last of the day's sunlight.  And then, while we were looking around the Manchester Sports and Clothing Co. store, the skies opened. 

At the risk of ruining a rare moment of chivalry by talking about it, I'll mention here that I was the only one who had taken my raincoat from the car that afternoon.  K and her friend, F, who was visiting us, had left theirs behind.  So I ran from the store back to our car--which had seemed a lot closer in my memory--to bring theirs over.  The roads in Manchester were torn up, cordoned off in places, under construction.  I found myself leaping into muddy rapids of water that were filling the streets, and by the time I returned to the store, my jeans and sneakers were both completely soaked.

"You brought the car over, right?" they asked.  I said no, tried to explain that there was too much construction, watched as their faces fell. 

"It looks close on the map," I said of Depot 62.  "It's probably easier just to walk."  Of course, this was one of those cartoony, tourist-town maps, so nothing was drawn to scale.  

Though the rain had eased up a bit, we arrived at Depot 62 wet and cold after about a fifteen-minute walk.  Did we let this negatively affect our experience?  I like to think not--we were awfully hungry, after all, and just happy to sit down in a dry space.  And ultimately, we enjoyed most of what we ordered.  But was it as amazing as some reviews suggested?  I'm not sure about that.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Weekend Drink Pick: Dogfish Head Punkin Ale

One thing that's surprised me over the years is that my enthusiasm for pumpkin beers doesn't often translate into me liking these beers.  This is surprising because:

- I'm a fan of the typical pumpkin pie spices used to flavor pumpkin beers
- I've enjoyed a number of sweet beers (which many pumpkin beers are)
- I'm a sucker for limited-release seasonal beers.

For pumpkin beers--and the same goes for Christmas beers--it's all about finding a good balance with the spices.  A brewer has an array to choose from: cloves, allspice, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, brown sugar, and (though it's not actually a spice) pumpkin itself.  There are a lot of ways to screw it up.

Some pumpkin beers come out cloyingly sweet.  I get the idea of pumpkin pie in a bottle, but I'm the kind of guy who finds much of the frosting on cake or cupcakes to be too sweet.  There's a line, and just like those birthday cakes you might pick up at Walmart, pumpkin beers often cross it.

Dogfish Head's Punkin Ale was one of the the first pumpkin beers I tried, and I've kept going back to it because of how balanced and flavorful it is.  Hell, I even enjoyed it once on tap in a glass with its rim was coated with brown sugar, which I know is wrong--the beer equivalent of putting whipped cream on bacon, I think.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

For Your Consideration: My Tournament of Pizza Write-in, Roma(n) Pizza in Latham

Under the red neon light of Roman Pizza's window
When All Over Albany announced their extensive ballot for the 2012 Tournament of Pizza, I scrolled through, only recognizing a handful of names.  As a newcomer to the area, I hadn't actually tried any of these places yet (though I have tried DeFazio's in Troy, one of last year's finalists, and concur with much of the acclaim).  The pizza joint I do know and love didn't make the list: Roman Pizza in Latham.

I've certainly enjoyed exploring for restaurants all throughout the region in the two months I've lived here.  But when it comes to pizza, the best thing is having a neighborhood spot you know and trust, and I think I've discovered that with Roman.

Or Roma.  It's confusing.  The sign says Roman.  The front of the menu says Roman.  But inside the menu they refer to themselves, and a dish, as Roma.  And a trusted local food source, derryX, has informed me that the owners think of it as Roma.  But for the purposes of this review, because it's known as Roman Pizza throughout the interwebs, I'll go with the N.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Weekend Drink Pick: Long Trail's Double White Imperial White Ale

Yes, he is this creepy in real life.
According to weather forecasts, today will be my first day in the Capital Region in which the temperature won't make it into the 60s.  More than any other season, summer is often distinct in how swiftly it's whisked away, how quickly it becomes a distant memory, something to pine for.  Some of this might be related to our recollections--recent or otherwise, as student or teacher--of returning to school in late summer.

I mentioned briefly in my first post for this blog that this is the first year in several that I'm not teaching any classes come fall.  And if you count grad school for the three years prior, this is the first September since 2003 in which I won't be ensconced somewhere within the walls of academia.  And that, along with the lovely weather we've enjoyed for much of this month, has me feeling somewhat adrift.  Where am I?  When is it?

Earlier this week I was thinking of doing a "passing of summer" post centered around the fine soft-serve ice cream at On the Farm (logical, considering how many times I've enjoyed it since moving here).  But in many ways it feels more appropriate to mourn summer's passing with a beer review for Long Trail's Double White Imperial Belgian-Style White Ale.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

When Bad Service Trumps Good Food: A Conundrum with Ali Baba in Troy

A take-home dessert from Ali Baba
I want it to be all about the food.

I'll work hard to make it that way.  I'll make excuses for lousy service, pretend the wait for the food only seemed that long.  I am aware that such behavior on my part can be annoying.  But I can't help it--usually.

Ali Baba, a Turkish restaurant in Troy that serves some very good food, pushed me over that edge the last time I dined there.  This was our second visit; the first was shortly after moving here, when K and I drove her mother down that row of dilapidated housing on 15th Street.  Our expectations were modest considering the neighborhood and that I got myself flashed at and hollered at by a Troy cop while parking (for not signaling early enough; I assume the officer noticed my North Carolina plates).  Yet the lavash bread and the phenomenal ajuka to go with it all made the trip more than worthwhile.  My future mother-in-law, who knows her food, was still talking about it weeks after returning to Las Vegas.

So when K's Turkish friend, F, visited from Boston a few weeks ago, of course we had to take her to Ali Baba.  But while the food still mostly stood up to the tastes of our first visit, the service was so off-putting that K and I aren't likely to return anytime soon.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Korean in the Capital Region: Kinnaree in Albany and Kabuki in Latham

There's something inherently fun about the dining experience at a proper Korean restaurant.  Proper, at least in my mind, starts with a generous serving of banchan, which are basically a variety of side dishes/appetizers served prior to your entree and included in the price of your meal.

An example of banchan
It's a safe bet that there will be some kimchi--the item most associated with Korean cuisine--as part of your banchan.  And that's a good thing; I'll often forget just how much I love that fermented cabbage until I have some put right in front of me.  But there are a lot (trust me: click on that link) of different dishes that can be part of banchan, which is part of the fun.  Sharing them, you can basically have a complete meal--from the mung beans to the always-delicious sweet soy-braised potatoes--if the restaurant dishes out eight or more small plates of banchan. The best we ever had was in Springfield, MO, of all places, at a restaurant named Soo's, where the banchan was plentiful and delicious and the servers would come by and ask if you wanted seconds.

So when trying out a pair of Korean restaurants (or, I suppose, to put it properly, Asian-fusion restaurants serving Korean food) in the Albany area, Kabuki Korean Restaurant in the Peter Harris Plaza in Latham, and Kinnaree Asian Restaurant on Lark Street in downtown Albany, it's hard not to start rating the experience based on the quantity and quality of the banchan.

But in this case, the banchan wasn't so special at either restaurant; it was the entrees that allowed one to stand clearly above the other.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Weekend Drink Pick: Smuttynose "Finestkind" IPA (with a bit on the Montague Bookmill)

The IPA is a beer style for all seasons, really, but sometimes I wonder what season it's best suited for.  Some of the heavier, higher-ABV versions can be nice and warming on a chilly spring or fall night.  But maybe just because I drank more IPAs this summer than ever before, I think the IPA is a brilliant alternative to some of the lighter beers associated with steamy afternoons and stuffy nights: the wheat beers, the Belgian whites.

This especially goes for a pleasantly, but not overly-hoppy, IPA with some citrusy overtones, like the Smuttynose "Finestkind" IPA, which I tried for the first time in early August on tap at the Montague Bookmill's Lady Killigrew Cafe, and for the second time by bottle earlier this week (where it still fit nicely against the backdrop of cooler temperatures).

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Home and Away: The Splendid Table's Yam Tamarind Curry vs. Shanghai Grill's Thai Red Curry

I've mentioned previously how I was kind of sheltered as an eater for the first, oh, two-thirds of my life.  Stuffed cabbage was exotic.  Enchiladas were super-exciting.  This was small-town life in the '80s and '90s, and I didn't know anything different.

Just like my first bite of legit pastrami was a come-to-Jesus moment, so too was my first taste of Thai curry.  I remember it pretty clearly.  This was eight years ago to the month: I was in Pittsburgh, my first couple weeks of grad school, wandering through Oakland with a few of my new "colleagues," if you will, before attending a reading.  It started raining, and I, the foolish boy from California, was woefully unprepared.  I ended up sloshing my way into Lulu's Noodles, a cheap and decent Asian fusion place in between the Pitt and Carnegie Mellon campuses.

It was the perfect time to try a bowl of curry for the first time, and I seriously remembered thinking this was the best thing I'd ever eaten.  You know how some websites have "What's your favorite food?" as a security question?  Yeah, I had a new answer.  I assumed back then, and a long time after, that curry was impossibly complicated and difficult to make.

I was wrong.  Whether you're making the curry paste yourself or getting a good one out of a jar, it's not really that hard.  Which is why it feels particularly egregious when you get a lousy one out at a restaurant.

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Cheese Tour Addendum, or The Orange Ball

I mentioned this briefly in my first Cheese Tour post, but K and I weren't the only ones to come away with something splendid from our visits to the farms last weekend.  Mr. P (aka Peanut Aloysius J---) may not have partaken in our cheese eating (he prefers the low-fat cheddar sticks or string cheese from Trader Joe's), but he did get a new toy from the fine folks at 3-Corner Field Farm

And oh, what a toy it is.  Made from the wool from their lovely sheep on the farm, I knew this would have the smell, the taste, the texture that would drive Peanut wild.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Weekend Drink Pick: Woodchuck Private Reserve Belgian White Hard Cider

One of the best things about moving to a new place--and actually staying in that place a while--is having the little eccentricities of the area unfold gradually before you.  Now, I don't know that I'll ever spend enough time in Vermont to learn what it's really like up there, but I get the sense that it's a place with some real character.

The most recent example of that for me?  Reading on the website for Woodchuck Hard Cider that the name of the brand came about because "the Vermontiest of Vermonters are sometimes called 'woodchucks,'" and that seemed a fitting name for their small-batch, Vermont-based cider.  Two things: 1) I kind of like the idea of being called a woodchuck, and 2) What does it mean to be Vermonty?

We'll see if I ever learn the answer to that question, but for now I'm enjoying some of the fine products Vermont has to offer: to go with some of the Vermont-based cheese I picked up from the Washington County Cheese Tour, I drank a bottle of the Woodchuck cider.  And not just any cider of theirs, but a bottle of their "ultra-limited edition" Private Reserve Belgian White.  Sounds awfully special, eh? 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Lunch Box Special: Sushi Tei in Guilderland

It hasn't even been two months since we moved here, but K and I are already thinking about where we might live next.  Still in the Albany area--we're happy to finally settle into a place--but maybe not in an apartment complex like the one we're in.  It'd be nice to have a yard of our own again; I know Mr. P misses all the acquaintances he made, from the comfort of his condo, while in the Appalachians last year: the groundhogs, the chipmunks, the possums.  Those were the days!

But it also struck me while thinking about this piece that we've now found a second restaurant in the Guilderland area that we enjoyed, Sushi Tei (after we were already impressed by Nosh Delicatessen).  So I was thinking, even though we're dealing with a particularly small sample size here: is it outlandish to take into account a neighborhood's dining options when considering moving there?  I admit, this sounds like one of those crazy demands someone might pose for the realtor on House Hunters, but it is nice to have good options nearby.

Sushi Tei, at least as a lunch spot, fits that bill. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Washington County Cheese Tour, Part II: The Cheese

Yes, that's a lot of cheese.  And we only made it to three farms!  But this post, as The Essex Green sang, isn't about farm life.  I got to that yesterday.  This post is all about the cheese (and yogurt, and cheese crisps).

Three of us went on the Washington County Cheese Tour together on Saturday, visiting 3-Corner Field Farm, Consider Bardwell Farm, and Sweet Spring Farm.  It's hard not to leave with a lot of product when stopping by places on the tour; you often meet the cheesemaker, see the animals (maybe even pet them), and taste the cheeses--and they're good! 

Now that I've tried all the products we came home with, I want to do a little review of them.  There's so much good stuff to be had from these cheese farms; no matter your personal preferences when it comes to cheese, you'll definitely find something to like.

And much of the cheese can be purchased online through the farms' websites and at regional farmers markets, so you don't have to wait for the next Cheese Tour to try some.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Washington County Cheese Tour, Part I: The Farms

In his essay "The Case for Short Words," Richard Lederer writes,
When you speak and write, there is no law that says you have to use big words. Short words are as good as long ones, and short, old words—like sun and grass and home—are best of all. A lot of small words, more than you might think, can meet your needs with a strength, grace, and charm that large words do not have.
This passage, and the sentiment from the entire essay, seems relevant because, in thinking about the three farms I visited on Saturday as part of the Washington County Cheese Tour, I'm taken back to that old freshman writing problem of feeling the urge to use too-large words to get my point across.  How else will people understand just how splendiferous the vistas are at 3-Corner Field Farm?  Or how resplendent the fields at Consider Bardwell Farm once the sun broke through?

I'll see what I can do without all those syllables.  Some pictures might help my case (though that's not a tip for any freshman comp. students out there!)--especially ones featuring adorable farm animals.

Friday, September 7, 2012

A Pair of Unibroue: Reviewing Chambly Noire and Trois Pistoles

I remember the first time I saw the name Unibroue.  This was back in Pittsburgh, at a place called D's Six Pax and Dogz, where I'd be spending way too much time now if I still lived in that city.  Then, I didn't know what I had in my backyard; instead I just laughed and made very bad jokes about the name "Unibroue." 

But these days, no more jokes.  Only love.  I discovered Unibroue for real a few years back when Trader Joe's was selling a Taster Pack, featuring 12 oz. singles of four different Unibroue beers.  I've only ever seen it in the Columbus, OH, store, but apparently it's out there at others, which gives me hope that one day we'll see it here in Albany.  Even so, you can find 750 ML bottles of La Fin du Monde at TJ's here, and good beer stores will also sell four packs of single varieties, which is how I got my hands on Trois Pistoles and the less-frequently-found Chambly Noire.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Home and Away: El Loco's Chicken Mole Negro and Trader Joe's Chicken in Red Mole

Trader Joe's Chicken in Red Mole: Tastes better than it looks

 Note: This is the first in a series in which I'll be comparing food I've eaten out in restaurants to similar dishes at home.  Usually, it'll be a comparison to something I've made; in this case, it's between a restaurant dish and a frozen entree.  

 Agree?  Disagree?  Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.

There are times when I wish I were a more spontaneous person.  I think it's always been in my nature to be a little nervous, a little squirrelly, when it comes to making decisions.  Just give me a few minutes to think about it!

But this part of my disposition has only increased in recent years, probably corresponding with the increase in reviews at our disposal on the internet.  Moving here and there so much over the past decade has contributed; not since we were in grad school in Pittsburgh did K and I really have go-to restaurants that we could head to on a whim.  These days, this is pretty much how our conversations go when we decide we're in the mood to go out for a meal:

Me: What do you feel like?
Her: I don't know.  ...?
Me: Hmm.  Okay.  (Opens laptop, flips to Yelp.)

10 minutes later.

Me: This place has some good reviews.
Her: Oh, I was just looking at those.
Me: Daniel B. likes it.  That's a good sign.
Her: Oooooookay.  I guess that works.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Basement Discovery: Rick Bayless's Pollo en Escabeche

It's been 25 years since the publication of Mexican food authority Rick Bayless's first book, Authentic Mexican.  I was pretty young back in 1987, subsisting mostly on grilled cheese sandwiches, but I recall that the Northern California town I was growing up in was hardly a hot-bed of interesting food options.  It's not that way anymore.  And in so many other ways, the changes to our food-consuming culture have been swift, not so unlike the advances made in technology over that time.

But have we really seen significant jumps in how we think of and consume Mexican cuisine in America in that time?  In the introduction to Authentic Mexican, Bayless writes, "Most Americans don't even know well-prepared Mexican-American foods.  Their unhappy experience is often limited to some mass-produced takeoff on the Southwest Traditional at a Chi Chi's or El Torito's or whatever the regional chain restaurant is called.  Mexican-American food seems to...have become a near-laughable caricature created by financially-savvy businessmen-cum-restaurateurs who saw the profits in beans and rice and margaritas."

In the last quarter century, I don't think that's changed so much.  Chi-Chi's might have gone bankrupt in the U.S. in 2004, but not for lack of demand.  Taco Bell may be trying to class up their joints by bringing celebrity chef Lorena Garcia into the fold, but it's not like their food is any more authentically Mexican (cilantro: so exotic!)--or, apparently, any better.  More cities are featuring hole-in-the-wall authentic Mexican eateries and groceries, like La Mexicana in Schenectady, but while these places often feature excellent tacos, their menus are generally pretty limited.  More often than not, enjoying food at many Mexican restaurants is related to the amount of margaritas you drink during the meal.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Musings on Troy's Flying Chicken and Southern/Soul Food

Former star of Chicken Run
I'm going to talk about the new Southern/Soul food restaurant in Troy, The Flying Chicken, in a bit.  But first, at the risk of burying the lede--which is that The Flying Chicken is serving some really quality food--I want to get into the whole idea of Southern and Soul food, the dichotomy between the two, and what these differences might mean.

What gets me thinking about these matters, other than The Flying Chicken's food, is that their Facebook page calls the place both a "Soul food restaurant (and) Southern restaurant."  As of now, less than two months into their existence, the restaurant serves a pretty simple menu focused around fried chicken.  The special the day I visited was fish and grits, with sides including collard greens and sweet potato salad.  I ordered the chicken and waffles, with a side of real maple syrup.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Tale of Two Eggplants

I've never been anti-eggplant.  As a picky child, I eyed them suspiciously the first time my grandmother served them.  But because she's the best, I was willing to try them.  And they were all right.

But I didn't really develop strong feelings for eggplants (or aubergines, as they call them in the UK--which I prefer, but sounds insufferably snobby if you're American) until several years later when I ate the Asian version at a Thai restaurant.  I was simultaneously enlightened and flabbergasted.  How could they be so much better than your regular eggplant?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Boatswain H.L.V. Ale

This was one of those impulse buys that I typically tend to avoid--there's only so much money to spend and beer to drink, so why not investigate before dropping some coin?  But the Boatswain H.L.V. Ale was at Trader Joe's, and of course it was cheap ($2.29 for a bomber).  This was my first trip to Albany's new TJ's store, only a few days after opening, so it was a zoo and this beer was an extra treat I grabbed at the end of the visit, only to store it for the past few weeks in my beer cave, a.k.a. bedroom closet.

The Boatswain line of beers seems to be exclusive to Trader Joe's, brewed by Minhas Craft Brewery (though on the bottle the brewery is listed as Rhinelander) out of Monroe, Wisconsin.  The name of the beer refers to a type of ship, even though Monroe is in the middle of the state, nowhere near Lake Michigan--which is almost as amusing as the fictional Westish College baseball team, of Chad Harbach's novel The Art of Fielding, being named the Harpooners despite also being located in Wisconsin.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Nice Place to Nosh in Guilderland

It's in a re-purposed Wendy's; you can't help but notice that when arriving at Nosh, the New York-style deli that opened just over a week ago on Western Avenue, just a pickle's throw from the Crossgates Mall.

Never mind what used to live in this building.  The folks behind Nosh have done what they can to change the feel inside.  The decor is black-and-white and there's a takeout counter in front of the kitchen.  Most importantly, the food is no longer burgers and fries but smoked whitefish and pastrami.  Well, maybe more importantly: it's good.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Highland Brewing Razor Wit

A leftover from my one year spent in the mountains of North Carolina--a single bottle of Highland Brewing's Razor Wit.  Worth reviewing, I figured, because I don't expect to be drinking it again anytime soon.  Highland is based out of Asheville and doesn't distribute north of Virginia.

I'm a fan of witbiers, and the Razor Wit is a pretty solid version of the style.  It pours a nice hazy shade of gold, the result of the type of yeast used and the beer being unfiltered.  Not much head on my pour, and what was there dissipated quickly and left basically no trace of lacing on the glass.

This beer has some nice stuff going on in the taste: a little bit of funk, a little bit of wheaty sourness.  That being said, it's not the most complex, and it's on the lighter end of even the witbier register at 4.5% ABV.  When it comes to witbiers, I like the wheat flavor to be more in the background, obscured by strong spicing.

Compared to a couple witbiers I tried for the first time this past year--Allagash White and Dogfish Head's Red & White--the Razor Wit comes in a pretty distant third.  But look, Allagash White is one of the best examples of the style, and the Red & White is witbier on steriods: 10% ABV, it's fermented with pinot noir juice and partly aged in oak tanks.  I've tried several different beers from Highland, and they're all solid, worth recommending.  The seasonal Thunderstruck Coffee Porter is a standout, worth searching for.

The Razor Wit didn't ease my longing for a Great Lakes Holy Moses white ale, my summer beer of choice the previous few years.  I love the way the Holy Moses is liberally spiced with orange peel, chamomile, and coriander.  Alas, Great Lakes isn't distributed to the western side of New York, and I believe the farthest east it travels in the state is Syracuse or Ithaca.

Still a few months until I start craving their Christmas Ale.  Maybe another goal of this blog should be trying to get Great Lakes distributed a little farther east here in the Empire State.

What This is About: An Introduction

Where to begin?  It feels like the first day of class, maybe because it's that time of year, when I would spend a minute or so (depending on my mood and the desperation I saw in the faces staring back at me) saying a little about myself.  This worked best with my adult students, who I think liked realizing that there was a human being in front of them, even if he was a nervous little nerd.  The eighteen-year-olds?  They were already checked out, fantasizing about their next Facebook post.

So without any fall classes on the horizon (for the first time in six years) after relocating to the Albany, NY area less than a month ago, it feels right to spend a minute explaining--even if, like so often in class, this is mostly for myself--why I've decided to start a blog, especially one dedicated to food instead of, say, fantasy baseball or the joys of nit-picking.

In some ways, it's simple.  I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about eating and drinking.  A lot of my time spent online, whether it's reading reviews or searching for new places to eat, has to do with food.  And after reading so many other people putting their two cents out there about this stuff, I can't help but feel that, gosh darn it, maybe I have something worth saying, too.