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photo:Shannon DeCelle

Village Inspired
By B.A. Nilsson

Avenue A

289 New Scotland Ave., Albany, 320-8684. Serving Mon-Wed 3-10, Thu-Fri 3-midnight, Sat noon- midnight, Sun 11-5 (brunch 11-3). AE, D, MC,V.

Cuisine: wide-ranging eclectic

Entrée price range: $6.50 (grilled cheese with bacon) to $19 (Avenue A paella)

Ambiance: upscale tavern

 

My party of five tumbled piecemeal into the restaurant on a recent weeknight, gusts of the outside chill roaring into the warmth each time the door opened to admit another. The room remained cozy, its warmth echoed in the golden wood of tables and bar. As is Albany’s characteristic, the room filled early, with most of the tables taken by 7 PM.

At least, so it was in the room we occupied. There’s another, slightly more austere space with room for larger parties, but we opted for the society of those in the street-facing bar, even if it meant competing with a too-large TV beaming silent but closed-captioned sports programs.

Two members of our group, Al and Sharon, had been to the restaurant before and had good things to say about the food. I’d also heard the place praised by others, including the friend who volunteered to mind my child in exchange for leftovers.

The building, at the corner of New Scotland Avenue and Ontario Street, was an after-hours gambling hall and saloon that had slipped into disrepair. When Nancy Kupiec bought the place three years ago, she had work enough just to stabilize and recondition it; to make a restaurant out of the place, she brought in Ronan Tiu as her partner, and he embarked, as of a year ago, on the job of fine-tuning its look and figuring out a menu.

Tiu grew up in Clifton Park but has spent the last 15 years in New York and Chicago, going to college and then beginning a business career that included restaurant consulting. “We had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do with this place,” he says. “We started with a summer menu of panini and a few appetizers, and by autumn we added the entrées and doubled the appetizer list.”

And what a variety that list presents! Forget about your typical fried cheese and wings lineup: Here, the wings combine teriyaki and jerk sauces, and they’re roasted, so it’s much spicier (and thus more interesting) than what we’ve come to expect. ($9 fetches a good-sized platter.) A special appetizer of calamari ($10) also lacked the breading (and, thus, the attendant oil) but made up for it with great flavor and a tasty fra diavolo sauce around it.

Another retake on a classic, the stuffed mushrooms ($9), features a heap of turkey sausage made, like everything else, in house, with an added flavor of cornbread. A Tuscan meatball soup, the day’s feature, boasted a mouth-filling confluence of notes of basil and oregano around the rich broth, while veggie chili, a regular menu item, is built around the musty deep flavor of portobello mushrooms. Another regular soup is a corn chowder that’s milky, not thick, and plumped out with potatoes. (Soups are $4 for a cup, $6 for a bowl.)

You can make a dinner out of the appetizer of marinated shiitake mushroom and spinach quesadillas ($6.50), a good-sized portion enhanced with melted cheddar and served with sour cream and salsa.

We didn’t explore the sandwich-panini page much, except for Sharon’s order of a smoked turkey and cheddar panini ($9), a concoction pushed over the top by the addition of bacon. Chipotle-brightened mayonnaise is another nice feature. Other sandwiches include variations of roast beef, ham and cheese, even grilled cheese, although I’m most interested in trying the Avenue A Cubano ($8.50) next time I visit: It’s a mix of smoked turkey, ham, Swiss cheese and garlic mayo.

Five salads and seven entrées are dubbed signature dishes. Al was expecting more in the salad department when he ordered the broiled salmon and baby spinach salad ($15). A layer of greens decorated the plate, but the salmon dominated, helped by poached pears and a zippy papaya vinaigrette.

Mechado (beef brisket) stew ($13), paella ($19) and meatloaf ($15) are items I wish I’d tried, but I was delighted with chap chae ($17), a Korean-inspired dish in which sweet-potato noodles are tossed with sliced beef, shiitake mushrooms, scallions and vegetables, and plenty of good garlic. Homemade kimchee arrives on the side, as it does for the bulgokee ($18), which lets you wrap broiled sirloin tips in lettuce with rice and hot sauce.

There’s a twist to the tempura, literally: The $16 dish sports big, battered shrimp along with curly clumps of vegetable slices, knotted into a lacy array.

Chef Un-Hui Filomeno was most recently at the Ginger Man; adding her to the staff was serendipitous, says Tiu, because she followed up a rumor that a chef was sought and “turned out to understand exactly what I wanted to bring to Albany.”

While naming the restaurant Avenue A is a tribute to the East Village, where Tiu lived for a while, he also likes the cosmopolitan flavor of the name. “I wanted to offer something different to the area,” he explains, “with plenty of personal touches.”

Our sole complaint of the evening was the excess time our appetizers took in arriving—a product, he says, of so many orders hitting the kitchen at once. “We don’t have heat lamps back there. Everything is finished and served right away. But we’re working on pacing things more effectively.”

With no official grand opening and practically no advertising, the restaurant already has attracted a large and loyal following, which isn’t a surprise. It’s an ambitious place that’s already delivering nicely on its promise. As our party returned to the cold street, I regretted bargaining away my leftovers.

Chug a Jug
By Taylor Eason

When it comes to wine bottles, bigger can be better

 

In our culture of excess, more is better. And if you’ve got a houseful of people during the holidays, having more wine is definitely better, if only for sanity. Bottles measuring 750 ML (the normal size you see everywhere) fail to fit the bill, so why not buy the big jugs? These family-size 1.5-liter helpers can save you money, and you’ll have enough to dive in yourself.

“But isn’t all the stuff in big jugs swill?” you might ask.

Actually, no. And, to further muddle the issue, there are two grades of big bottles: affordable ($10 to $20) and high-end ($80 to offensive). High-end big bottles age well and collect dust quite effectively. Wine ages better and slower in big bottles due to the volume, but these highly coveted items are seldom available for sale except at wine auctions (many state laws prohibit sales of them, for whatever idiotic reason). Large-format bottles are so special that they even have their own lofty-sounding names, defined by how many 750-L bottles are contained in them: Mag num: two bottles; Jero boam: four bottles; Reh oboam (rare): six bottles; Methuselah: eight bottles; Salmanazar: 12 bottles; Balthazar: 16 bottles; and Nebuchadnezzar: 20 bottles. Wine geeks haven’t lived until they’ve seen one of the mammoth bottles in person. Makes you want to move into one.

Low-end, affordable large-formats are sold simply for convenience, like buying milk in gallons instead of quarts. And, incidentally, the wine in the big bottles is the same stuff in the smaller ones. No fear that they’re filling the big jugs with wine mopped off the bottling floor.

The big bottles are easy to find at wine-selling stores across the country, and most fall around the $12 mark. American wineries had drifted away from marketing the 1.5 in recent years—probably because of the negative jug-wine image—but it seems they’re back on the rise. The Aussies had been kicking our ass, per usual, but we caught on to their usefulness.

To deliver you the best of the big, I convened a panel of judges to serve as 1.5-liter guinea pigs. No one knew they were judging jugs, since I poured the wine from 750-L bottles and hid the labels. Our results follow.

Recommended Wines:

Meridian 2003 Chardonnay (California) Laced with apricot, sweet vanilla, ripe peach, and goes down real smooth. An easy drinking wine, to be sure. Sweetness = 3. $20 for 1.5 L.

 

Vendange 2004 Chardonnay (Calif ornia) Sweet peach, tangerine and easy acidity define this light, refreshing chard. I didn’t think it was a chardonnay at first, and it caused one person to exclaim, “I might have to rethink my chardonnay bias.” Excellent value. Sweetness = 3. $10 for 1.5 L.

 

Barefoot Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon (California) “Dee-lish,” fruity and full of bright cherry. “Very drinkable,” a good everyday wine. Sweetness = 2. $11.

 

Yellow Tail Shiraz (Australia) This triumphant brand out of Australia took America by storm a few years ago, and it’s still captivating people. Tastes like spiked cherry Kool-Aid, but has a rosy, elegant fruit-bomb character. Sweetness = 1. $12.

 

Lindeman’s 2004 Bin 45 Cabernet Sauvignon (Southeast Australia) For those looking for a bigger, heftier big jug. Flirts with black cherry and tobacco, then opens up with ripe raspberries and smoky red currants. Sweetness = 1. $12.50.

 

Alice White 2003 Cabernet Shiraz (Southeast Australia) Juicy, mellow and friendly. “Sitting up, talking-trash-at-my-friend’s-house” wine. Oozing dark cherry, some dirty blackberry. Sweetness = 2. $12.

corkscrew@creativeloafing.com

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Schenectady recently celebrated the grand opening of Villa Italia Pasticceria in a beautiful new building at 226 Broadway. It signals the rebirth of an institution that served the city for 40 years from its former space in Rotterdam. The Mallozzi family (which also runs their namesake restaurant in Rotterdam) is positioning itself to be part of the rebirth of downtown Schenectady itself, characterized by the expansion of Proctor’s and the expected arrival of several new shops and restaurants. The new Villa Italia totals 7,200 square feet, five-sixths of which is given over to the commercial bakery, producing breads, pastries, fancy cakes and much more; the retail shop also features sandwiches and homemade gelato. And the display cases, true to the family’s roots, were imported from Italy. . . . 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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