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Dash and Dine
By B. A. Nilsson

Tips 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.

“And 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 said.

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.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

The 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).


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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