B. A. Nilsson
on finding fine food afield
It’s that awful moment when you’re on a stretch of interstate
highway and the sun is cresting its zenith and you’re feeling
the first gnawing pangs of hunger. You unwisely failed to
pack a lunch, so you’re going to have to get off the highway
to find something. You don’t know the area. But you know it’s
a minefield of ptomaine and tastelessness out there. And whatever
you order is probably fried.
Traveling around the Capital Region is difficult enough, but
over time you learn a few techniques and ace-in-the-hole stopping
places. It’s a kind of game. You lose points for dining at
chain restaurants; your license to dine out is revoked if
you end up at a fast-food joint. Long-distance traveling requires
strategy, and I’ve boiled it down to three methods.
First is the by-guess-or-by-god approach. People have to eat,
you reason, and every town must support at least a café or
diner. It’s a romantic notion I sustain despite many years
of bad experiences, and just as I’m about to give up on it
something happens like our recent stop in Sherman, Maine.
It was the only promising dot on the map en route to Portland
but still within lunchtime. A sign at the end of the exit
ramp indicated that food would be found in either direction.
We turned left and drove through Sherman. The town looked
as if it had recently been eviscerated by the general of the
same name. We U-turned and looked on the other side of the
exit ramp. The vista was bleaker.
As I contemplated removal of that lying sign, I found the
promised eateries. One was at the Irving gas station on one
side of the ramp, the other at the other side, attached to
a Mobil station. Not convenience stores: full-fledged restaurants.
Through the Irving window we saw that the dining room was
crowded with burly men wearing wife-beaters, so we found seats
at the Mobil-adjacent place. Our first sign that something
was wrong, meaning something was right, was when my daughter’s
order of macaroni and cheese appeared, and obviously was not
made from a mix. The next was the appearance of homemade bread.
The meal was as good as it was unexpected.
We learned later that Irving (a major gas-station chain in
the area) had recently upgraded its restaurants, and that
was probably the better of the two.
Unfortunately, for every incident like that I can list dozens
of disappointments. Which brings me to the next method: Read
the ads and brochures. But do so with skepticism. If you’re
visiting a tourist-oriented area, as we recently were on Prince
Edward Island, there’s probably going to be a focus: seafood,
in this case, with mussels and oysters and lobsters galore.
Thus we avoided Peakes Quay Restaurant. For all I know, it’s
a terrific place, but the brochure listing touted it as having
the “Island’s largest outdoor deck with the only indoor/outdoor
bar and heated deck.” Much more tempting was the Merchantman
Pub, with its promise of “Thai and Cajun fare” as well as
local draft beer on tap. And the hunch paid off: It was a
very worthy dinner.
Zagat guides are a mixed blessing. While I appreciate the
ability to choose restaurants in a daunting place like Manhattan
by food type and physical location, with notes on pricing
and service, I don’t trust something built upon popular acclaim:
After all, it’s popular acclaim that keeps the wretched Olive
Garden in business (but I note with approval that Zagat’s
doesn’t list the place).
Not surprisingly, I like the weekly freebies, especially if
they’re for-real alternative newspapers. That’s where the
best ads lurk, and the Portland Phoenix and
the PEI Buzz were great helps as we traveled. The Buzz
ad for the Pilot House restaurant reminded me that plain white
lettering on a black background denotes an upscale place probably
with a good menu, and such was the case. Locally, Saratoga’s
Wine Bar takes the same approach.
For consistent success, however, nothing beats word of mouth.
The trick is to find people who know what they’re talking
about. My PEI visit included some unexpectedly good advice,
gained only because I’m eager to talk about restaurants.
The island’s principal tourist industry revolves around the
book Anne of Green Gables, and includes not only a
re-creation of the titular house but also a cluster of salvaged
buildings assembled to recreate Anne’s village. The sight
of a costumed actor bearing down on me with an interactive
gleam in the eye is enough to send me screaming in the other
direction, so I found refuge in a concert hall where a talented
singer-songwriter named Mike Pendergast was holding forth
with sea-related material.
Talking with him afterwards, I mentioned my interest in food.
“Oh, I could talk about that all day,” he said, noting that
his Irish-Acadian background made him an enthusiastic trencherman.
He described some compelling Acadian recipes, then sent us
to an amazing little bakery where we found heavenly homemade
date bars, among many other things.
you’ll want to have oysters,” he said. “Go to Carr’s.”
As I sat on the deck of Carr’s and slurped a representative
serving of the varied oysters fished from nearby Malpeque
Bay, I caught sight of the Pendergast face—but it turned out
to be Mike’s brother, Robert, himself a bread baker. And it
was Robert who insisted we try a restaurant called Dayboat,
which had opened only a couple of weeks earlier, and where
we had our finest meal on the island.
As we checked in for an overnight in Revere, Mass., the desk
clerk named a few local eateries, none of which sounded too
interesting until she mentioned “a little Brazilian place
I don’t know much about.” The hotel was in a Brazilian neighborhood,
so we hurried over to find a churrascaria, a completely
unpretentious place where you buy dinner by the pound and
eat cafeteria style. It was terrific.
Another hotel proprietor, this time near Fredericton, New
Brunswick, tipped us to the fact that the restaurant at a
local Holiday Inn was better than you’d expect from such a
place, and she was right. And we hit pay dirt in Portland,
where an old friend who has lived there for many years (and
it’s a restaurant-intense city) took us to the excellent Silly’s,
“which you’d never think to try by just looking at it,” he
Because he travels all over the Northeast, he, too, has worked
out ways of finding good eats, so we followed his recommendation
to breakfast at the Friendly Toast in Portsmouth, N.H., a
retro-themed place that served an incredible omelette wrapped
around bacon, cheese, corn, olives and jalapenos.
Even as I write this, a thousand new blog entries no doubt
have been published, trumpeting such discoveries, but nothing
beats being out in the field, talking to locals, taking a
chance. It’s the only way to travel.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
Cappiello Festa Italiana takes place this
weekend (Friday-Sunday, June 24-26) in Schenectady’s
Central Park. It’s an annual celebration of Italian
culture with food, children’s activities, bocce,
cooking and wine demonstrations, casino games,
children’s rides, strolling mandolinist and vocal
musicians, several bands and dance groups. Featured
entertainment is by the Tuscan Duo at 8 PM Saturday
and tenor Michael Amante at 7 PM Sunday. Admission
is free. For more info, check out www.festa-italiana.com,
or call 372-5656. . . . The Van Dyck Restaurant
(237 Union Street, Schenectady) begins brewing
beer again this week. The facility was part of
the Van Dyck’s extensive refurbishment eight years
ago and welcomes back brewmaster Jason Furman,
who was part of the original crew. He’s promising
to start off with an amber ale, an India Pale
Ale, a traditional German wheat beer and a raspberry
wheat beer; the second week of brewing will produce
the Van Dyck’s “Coal Porter,” a classic pilsner,
the popular “Edison Electric Light” and a traditional
English bitter. Furman will be brewing in the
evenings, when customers can watch him at work.
For more information, call the restaurant at 381-1111.
. . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland
(e-mail food@banils son.com).
want your feedback
you eaten at any
recently reviewed restaurants?
Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...
address not required to submit your feedback, but required to
be placed in running for a Van Dyck Gift Certificate.
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.
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
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!
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..