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photo:Teri Currie

Mall’s Well
By B.A. Nilsson

The Hidden Café

Delaware Plaza, 180 Delaware Ave., Delmar, 439-8800. Serving Tue-Sat 11-3, 4:30-9. MC, V.

Cuisine: continental/Mediterranean

Entrée price range: $13 (pasta à la Florentine) to $19 (seafood Levernesse)

Ambiance: casual

 

One of the nice things about my job is my level of veto power. A couple of weeks ago I joined some friends in a dining-out venture, and when I murmured my dismay at their choice of restaurant, they immediately insisted they’d switch to the place of my choosing. We were in Albany; it had been a couple of years since I’d last visited the Hidden Café; thither we went.

I was surprised and impressed by the transformation. It’s still, as befits its moniker, squeezed into an unseeable corner of Delaware Plaza; the space still bears the lunch-counter look of its original occupant. But chef-owner Joseph Soliman has continued to improve both the ambiance and the menu, fine-tuning the flavor of the place as his clientele grows.

He was born in Egypt but worked for many years on the other side of the door in some chichi Long Island restaurants. He taught himself to cook by copying the dishes he served. “First time I’d try one: not so good. Second time: better. By the fourth time: excellent. That’s how I did it.”

When he opened the Hidden Café three years ago, he featured a variety of Mediterranean dishes, items like spanakopita, falafel, souvlaki and a variety of kebabs. But the menu has evolved a more continental face. “I want to cook what pleases me,” says Soliman, “and what pleases my customers.”

Reduce cooking to its fundamentals and you find any number of opportunities to give a unique character to a meal. A recipe may always call for capers and lemon juice, but you decide the quality and amount of those ingredients; you also decide when to add them and what other flavor components might be welcome.

Soliman’s cooking shows the consistent personality of a chef who has reinvented the recipes he likes to suit his preferences. Garlic, for example, is a very good friend. It shows up, sautéed, simmered or roasted, in many an item.

It’s roasted in the seafood Levernesse ($19), which sweetens the combo of sautéed shrimp and scallops in a tomato sauce also flavored with olives and capers, all of it served over rice.

Chicken dishes dominate the entrée list, priced from $14 to $18. If you like it paired with potatoes, the chicken Mediterranean adds a delicious combo of roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts and portobello mushrooms; for a pasta pairing, the chicken in chicken Sophia is tossed with spinach and garlic, sundried tomatoes and mozzarella cheese in a tomato-cream sauce and served over rigatoni.

Philly’s flat iron steak ($18) is a bargain-priced serving of this boutique cut, paired with a blue cheese cream sauce that’s redolent of roasted garlic. The mashed potatoes underneath only enhanced its richness.

My favorite was the lamb kebab ($18). The combination of the marinade and the charcoal grilling make this a fantastic presentation of my favorite meat.

Among the appetizers are the Mediterranean classics, like baba ghanoush, hummus, falafel and stuffed grape leaves. With little persuasion, they’ll put a bunch of those together in a platter that could well serve your entrée needs.

During one of my visits to the café, I witnessed what I call the Olive Garden Phenomenon, a problem that’s more and more plaguing our better restaurants. When you work in a professional kitchen, you develop an inner timer. Thanks to my years in the kitchen, I know when an entrée is ready. It’s become a joke when I dine with my family: I can predict within seconds when the meal will appear when the restaurant is running smoothly.

Too much lag time means the kitchen or floor staff is in the weeds; too little time and your food probably emerged from cryovac—and that’s the food source of many a chain restaurant. The result is a clientele with an unrealistic sense of the wait time for food.

Let me reiterate a point I can’t make too often: There’s no such thing as a “30-minute gourmet.” Sure, you can sell cookbooks and TV shows by pandering to the impatient, but those who would feed you too quickly have no wish to feed you well.

Thus the OGP. I watched a nearby party place an order, fidget silently, and in what seemed like no time at all, begin to complain, first to one another, finally to the server. With utterly unrealistic expectations, their dining experience turned unpleasant. And it was self-inflicted—with the help of the profit-hungry fast-food industry.

The server spoke valiantly in defense of prep and cooking time, and I hope the result calmed the diners—but they were too busy stuffing themselves to show reactions.

Soliman’s food ought to be enough to quell that level of anxiety. He’s offering meals crafted around fresh ingredients, with enough of a Mediterranean sensibility worked in to liven the flavors in a healthy way.

It’s a friendly place with busy servers who nevertheless are as attentive as possible (and Soliman invites anyone interested in working the floor to get in touch with him). He’s obviously bested the canard that you can’t have fine dining in a strip mall.

Sure, he should be in a prestige location in downtown Albany or, better yet, Saratoga. He should have tuxedo-clad servers serving higher-priced food. He should get out of the Capital Region altogether and find a place where the clientele knows that real food takes time to prepare. But he’s staying here, with his family and friends, and we’re the ongoing beneficiaries of this kindness.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

The Regional Farm & Food Project presents its eighth annual fall feast “Through Farmers’ Hands — A Country Prom” from 6 to 10 PM Monday (Sept. 26) at the Canfield Casino in Saratoga Springs, New York. The event features farm-fresh local foods prepared and served by 29 farmers and chefs, as well as old-time country music and a live art auction. The event is presented in collaboration with Putnam Market and Putnam Wine of Saratoga Springs, who have organized a presentation of New York State wines to complement a selection of New York State cheeses. Brown’s Brewing Company of Troy will be serving ale and lager. Beekman Street Bistro, Easton Mountain Retreat Center, Lily and the Rose Catering, Mrs. London’s, Roadhouse 29, Slice of Heaven Breads and Spoonful Catering will be presenting gourmet creations. Divinitea will be serving artisan teas. And High Peaks Java of Glens Falls will serve organic fair-trade coffee. One of the goals of this event is to produce zero waste. McEnroe Organic Farm will accept all biodegradable waste from the event at its composting facility in Millerton. The event will introduce biodegradable table service manufactured by Biocorp® of Rogers, Minn. Tickets are $35 in advance or $45 at the door. Buy tickets online at www.farmandfood.org or at Hawthorne Valley Farm Store, Ghent; Honest Weight Food Coop, Albany; Natural Food & More, Cobleskill; the Open Door Bookstore, Schenectady; Putnam Market, Saratoga Springs, or The Village Store, Cambridge. For more information, call 271-0744. . . . The Saratoga Lake Bistro (511 Route 9P, Saratoga Lake) presents a Fall Wine Tasting Dinner Sept 29, 30, Oct 1 and 2. The four-course meal paired with three glasses of wine is $49 per person. During the Fall Wine Tasting Dinner, rooms at the inn will be able available at a reduced rate starting at $75. For a room reservation, call 495-7408; for bistro reservations, 587-8280. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food@banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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* E-mail address not required to submit your feedback, but required to be placed in running for a Van Dyck Gift Certificate.

What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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