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Eating Around

Ten favorites from a very good year in restaurant reviewing

by B.A. Nilsson on January 3, 2013

What with the orgy of eating that typically comprises my days and weeks, it’s something of a shock to be reminded that I wrote about fewer than 50 of those meals over the past 12 months, and, in looking them over again, realizing that what I would have sworn was a long-ago visit in fact took place within the year.

Choosing 10 of those restaurants as favorites suggests that some three-fourths of them aren’t worth the re-attention. This is hardly the case, and a nice characteristic of our present e-age is that you can easily find all of those pieces online and revisit my portrait of the experience. But the places described below will reward an in-person look-see.

Let’s start casually and meet for lunch. When Bruno and Lucy Sacchetti bought this Schenectady eatery in 1980, it already bore the moniker Peter Pause (535 Nott St.) and they saw no need to change it. And the place continues to pack in the customers every weekday from 6 to 2. I suggest dining at the counter, where we’ll watch Bruno and an assistant work the grill, an impressive ballet of eggs and toast and various meatstuffs. Breakfasts are traditional, lunches an array of Italian favorites like spaghetti with homemade meatballs and a killer eggplant sandwich.

Tradition is what’s cooked in your neighborhood, and Rose Marie Coleman’s happened to be in Jamaica. And, as you’d expect from someone whose mother cooked for Bob Marley, Coleman serves excellent jerk chicken at Orchid’s Jamaican-American Restaurant (1113 State St., Schenectady), in a just-off-downtown location she took over earlier this year. At the heart of the menu are preparations of chicken and goat and seafood, available in stews and curries and other traditional preparations, all of it priced amazingly low. Visit often enough and you’ll be ordering the ackee and saltfish, considered to be Jamaica’s national dish.

Also in the budget-dining realm is Albany’s newest outpost from My Linh owners Anh and Linh Diep. Responding to customer demand, they opened Phơ Yum (1558 Central Ave., Albany), specializing in a meal-in-itself Vietnamese noodle soup that can be ordered plain or with additions of beef (eye round, brisket, tripe, meatballs or tendons), chicken, shrimp and in a vegetarian version. Sandwiches (bánh mì), rice-noodle dishes (bún vermicelli) and summer rolls also are offered, served in an unprepossessing strip-mall storefront. It’s thus austere in the ambiance department, but more than satisfying in culinary terms.

I wrote about Moroccan cookbooks in 2011, taking the opportunity to complain that the Capital Region lacked any such restaurants. I heard back almost immediately from Aneesa Waheed, who noted that she’d be opening one soon. Tara Kitchen is tucked away on Schenectady’s Liberty Street, but it’s all that I’d hoped for. It’s small, quirky, and well stocked with tagines, the conical earthenware cooking vessels that give Moroccan stews a unique quality. What you see simmering on the stove hardly prepares you for the sight of the reveal, when the single-serving tagine is placed before you, the lid removed, and a plume of steam mushroom-clouds up and scatters across the ceiling. If you’re about to enjoy the lamb meatballs in a just-made tomato sauce finished with eggs, all the better, but don’t overlook the flatbread pizzas.

Since last February, when I wrote about The Hungry Fish, the restaurant moved to 615 Pawling Ave. in Troy. It’s not far geographically from its old place, but the new space is much more cheerful and thus better suited for the culinary magic of chef-owner Sarah Fish. Her restaurant is about farm-fresh food crafted into unique, affordable breakfasts and lunches (it’s open daily from 8 to 3). She knows, for example, the power of bacon, and offers it not only on a breakfast BLT (with eggs and home fries) and the lunch-menu Best BLT Ever, with applewood-smoked bacon and pesto mayo.

Two enjoyable but quite different Italian restaurants were among the year’s favorites. Katrinella’s Bistro (123 ½ Madison Ave., Albany) offers the classic red-sauce fare that Americans enjoy, prepared by the talented Joe Rogers, and served by a passionate staff. What makes the place particularly special is its intimacy. With but a handful of tables, you’re going to get attention. You’ll probably also be able to follow the adjacent table’s progress. Chicken and veal dishes, pasta, shrimp—it’s a smallish menu, but well-assembled. Veal alla Katrinella was especially good, featuring spinach, roasted red peppers and mozzarella and finished with a tomato-laced gorgonzola sauce, served over penne.

A wood-fired pizza oven is a centerpiece at Marotta’s Bar-Risto (611 Union St., Schenectady), which brings a snazzy look to Italian dining thanks to a $300,000 makeover of what was once a business office. A 12-inch pizza emerges from that oven with excellent crunch and a hint of smoke, and you can build your own over a bargain-priced cheese base and a wide selection of toppings, including feta, sun-dried tomatoes and pancetta. Again, chicken and veal, seafood and pasta dominate the menu, and a chicken dish finished in the style of fettuccine Alfredo was rich and satisfying.

The realm of fancier dining gave us Mingle (544 Delaware Ave., Albany), where chef Un-Hui Filomeno offers a menu mix of Korean dishes like chap chae and bulgokee, an American variety including jambalaya and San Francisco-style cioppino and original items such as her immensely popular five-cheese lobster mac and tuna Un-Hui, which are sesame-encrusted ahi tuna and sesame rice rolls. Service is exemplary, an example to restaurants everywhere. Although the dining room is large and can get noisy, the attention we received more than made up for it.

It’s about damn time we got a gastropub in our midst, and Capital City Gastropub (261 New Scotland Ave., Albany) offers a deft combination of well-chosen wine and beers with a novel selection of meal plates large and small. You’re not going to find blood sausage anywhere else around here very easily. Or poutine, that Montreal favorite. Roasted marrow bones and pork rillettes come from locally raised beasts, and most of the food has nearby sources.

Chef Ian Brower also offers pizzas and burgers, all with unique touches, and enough of a selection of small bites and salads to challenge the taste buds visit after visit.

The most original and elegant of the year’s eateries was a Hudson mainstay called DA | BA (225 Warren St.), where chef-owner (and non-relative) Daniel Nilsson informs every aspect of the dining experience with harmony and balance. The chicken liver mousse was unlike any I’ve ever seen, the mousse itself whisper-smooth and coppery, served with apple compote. The menu includes Swedish meatballs, a novel salad of cubed beets, a gorgeous preparation of whitefish roe, and a brilliantly fashioned seven-ounce portion of grilled filet mignon served over puréed potatoes, with fava beans and asparagus. Not to mention a not-too-sweet blueberry-vodka sauce and a small cup of airy foamed pepper.

And with that in mind, let’s hope that what the Mayans actually predicted was an ongoing improvement in all area restaurants and the elimination of chains, so that next year’s choices will be even more difficult to make.