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photo:B.A. Nilsson

Party of 20
By B.A. Nilsson

Reflections on two decades of sampling the fare at Capital Region restaurants

This week marks the 20th anniversary of Metroland’s food column—appropriately enough, it’s the anniversary for china, the topside of which I’ve now studied professionally in several hundred different eateries. And there’s no doubt that I’ve seen the color of those many, many plates, because my pursuit of gustatory indulgence during this time has personally cost me about five pounds per year.

The first restaurant review appeared in the issue of April 3, 1986. I wrote about the long-defunct Bijou Café in Schenectady. A week later, we reviewed Café Capriccio, which is still going strong. This is about par for the statistics you’ll see below.

Review may be too generous a term for what ran the first 22 weeks. When I pitched the idea of a food column to the magazine’s founder and then-owner, Peter Iselin, he liked the concept but lamented the lack of a budget. So I suggested that we do the opposite of other newspapers, and phone ahead, beg for a free meal, and allow the restaurant to show us what it does best.

Thus was “Byron’s Blue Plate Special” born. It encouraged more restaurants to advertise, but there was grumbling that an announced visit was no more than a puff piece, and thus not to be taken seriously. In September 1986, we switched to unannounced visits for a meal at Jack’s Oyster House, and it’s been that way since.

I argued myself into this job by virtue of the fact that I was already writing for the newspaper—back then I covered classical music, dance, and theater—and had spent several years before moving to this area on the floor and in the kitchens of a number of restaurants in Fairfield and Westchester counties. So we could offer a perspective unique to area food writers, who otherwise tend to be arts editors throwing themselves a plum little gig.

During all those 20 years, there were but 16 weeks when no food-related piece ran at all—usually because I was running late. 1990 began the annual Best Of issue, which usurps a review; a year later we began ending each year with a best-of-the-year roundup and a “Year in Pictures” issue that gives most of the staff a holiday.

After about a year and a half of trying to wrench yet more food-related verbiage from my overfed brain, I gave up the column, suggesting Jo Page as my successor. I figured myself happily rid of it, even when Jo packed it in and someone else took over. The column almost died at the end of 1989, when Peter lured me back with the time-honored technique of offering more money.

Thankfully, Laura Leon has been contributing reviews and essays for the past three years, giving me welcome breaks from that endless dining.

“Endless dining?” I hear you echo. “It’s a dream job—getting paid to eat!” Getting paid to eat, yes, but then also to come up with 800 to 900 words about it every week, trying like hell to make this week’s piece sound a little different from last week’s and the week before. But, yes, it’s still a thrill to sit at that table anticipating what’s to come.

Making it all the more revealing to pause and look back. What kind of ground have we covered in 20 years? Sifting through a list of all the pieces that have run, setting aside the various essays—topics ranging from preparing macaroni and cheese to raising chickens—reveals that 928 restaurant reviews have run in this paper.

After subtracting the many repeat visits, we’re left with 712 different restaurants. Although I may not have tracked down every last one, it looks like 317 of those places have gone out of business, far fewer than would be expected in a more frenzied market.

Some of those places folded precipitously. The most savage piece I recall writing was in early 1987, when a place called D’Lites opened on Albany’s North Pearl Street. Taking its cue from the fast-food burger joints, it was supposed to offer comparable fare, but what food we received was terrible and the rest was unavailable because the staff didn’t know how to work the various machines in the place. It folded shortly thereafter.

I take no credit, however, for the demise of 55 Main, in North Adams, Mass. My glowing review ran on Oct. 25, 2001; the place closed a week later, succumbing to pressure already in place. Still, it felt awkward.

My daughter, Lily, was born in early 1997; three weeks later, her mother and I plunked a sleeping infant in a corner at Nicole’s Italia in Guilderland, and the kid’s restaurant ventures began, well-chronicled (often to an annoyingly self-indulgent degree) in columns ever since.

“Do the restaurant owners ever know you’re coming?” I’m often asked, and I shake my head sadly in reply. In Manhattan, photos of reviewers are affixed to kitchen walls, and the writers don disguises and tender pseudononymous credit cards.

Here in the Capital Region, I haul my bulk to a table, often with that telltale child in tow, and pay with a credit card that trumpets my name. Have I ever been spotted? Not yet.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Speaking of Beekman Street activity, the Yawning Duck Pasta Co. and Gotchya’s Trading Co. are combining forces to open Gotchya’s Trattoria, a fresh pasta market and espresso bar by day and neighborhood Italian restaurant by night, which means that the Yawning Duck will be moving to the current location of Gotchya’s, 68 Beekman St. The combined opening will be on March 31; Got chya’s Trattoria will be open Tuesday through Saturday at 11 AM for the fresh pasta market and espresso and pastry bar, and dinner service will begin at 5. They will begin to take dinner reservations next week. 584-5772 or www.gotchyas.com. . . . In Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout Finch makes several mentions of Miss Maudie’s Lane Cake. A version of this multilayer cake, with coconut, pecans, candied cherries and raisins in the filling, will be the centerpiece for a “Mission Society Dessert Table” at a reception on April 8 at 2 PM at Schenectady County Community College. The reception follows a lecture by Claudia Durst Johnson with the provocative title “Bela Lugosi, Rosa Parks, and Harper Lee: Social and Universal Issues Reflected in To Kill a Mockingbird.” The program is free. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (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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