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PHOTO: B.A. Nilsson

Café Madison

1108 Madison Ave., Albany, 935-1094. Serving breakfast and lunch Mon-Thu 7:30-2, Fri-Sun 7:30-3, dinner Sun-Thu 5:30-10, Fri-Sat 5:30-11. AE, DC, MC, V.

Cuisine: Mediterraneanistically continental

Entrée price range: $18 (carne Bolognese) to $29 (rack of lamb)

Ambiance: handsomely informal

 

Culinary Phoenix

By B.A. Nilsson

It’s been a breakfast mainstay for many years, maintaining a unique identity in a row of varied restaurants. But it hasn’t been the luckiest place on the block. The former Madison’s End took on new owners—Michael and Brian Viglucci and Tony Lounello, who also own Junior’s, Spinner’s Pizza and other similar establishments. The team added fine-dining dinners to the restaurant’s repertoire.

Then it was hit by fire late last autumn. Shuttered throughout the winter and spring, the place re-opened this summer and the breakfasts and lunches are back, along with yet another approach to elegant dinners, this time with an ace in the hole: chef Jennifer Hewes, who left her longtime position as chef at Café Capriccio to take this post.

It’s a transition made with Capriccio owner Jim Rua’s blessing and encouragement. During his many years in the business, Rua has quietly nurtured a tremendous amount of talent in that kitchen and, as with all good teachers, he imparts not a little of his style.

During Hewes’s tenure, she absorbed Rua’s culinary approach and took it to places of her own—she has notebooks, she told me, filled with recipes she’s developed over the years. The Madison’s new menu features an eclectic amalgam of preparations, on a list that’s promised to change and grow as the restaurant’s new identity continues to develop.

Nestled amidst a row of varied dining spots, Café Madison maintains a unique identity. Tables, booths, and that odd semi-upstairs dining area unfold in a railroad car-style room. It’s all there, but it’s been refurbished to a fare-thee-well. The place seems softer, warmer, and the outdoor patio is a charming accent.

The menu will have changed by the time you read this, but it shouldn’t be drastically different from the one I’m looking at, a two-page promise of lively constructions. Beginning with one of my favorite seafood preparations: tuna ceviche ($10), an appetizer portion of a cold citrus marinade that cooks the fish to a sweet pinkness. Served with a fennel and peppers, it’s a good-sized portion of a dish that splendidly brightens the palate.

Other starters include calamari sautéed with tomato, garlic and basil ($9), eggplant and ricotta Napoleon ($8), crostini served with hummus, red pepper aïoli and tapenade, and—the one that landed in front of me—crab cake and grilled shrimp ($12), an excellent variation on a familiar theme that showcases the flavor of fresh crab, accenting it with three big smoky shrimp that I was forced to share with the rest of the table.

If a salad is more to your liking, the varied quartet includes a $5 dinner salad with local greens, a Caesar for two dollars more, a fancy platter of homemade mozzarella ($10) pairing the cheese with peppers, artichokes and arugula, and the one we sampled—peach and pear ($9), in which the fruits receive contrasting preparations (the pears are poached, the peaches sautéed), with goat cheese and a pear vinaigrette served over spinach.

Speaking of cheese: A three-cheese selection is also available, market priced, that fills out the platter with olives, fruit and cured meats. An especially enticing array was on tap when I visited, but my plan to enjoy it for dessert was blasted by the desserts themselves.

There’s Café Capriccio legacy on the floor, too, which is managed by Alexandra Buiton, one of Rua’s former front-of-house stalwarts. Under her guidance, Café Madison has a similarly friendly staff, working cooperatively, who know the menu, know the wine, and know how to make you feel comfortable.

Which was why I felt comfortable enough to ask our server to ask the chef to recommend an entrée. She sent out Don Quixote short ribs ($22), a hearty portion of meat braised in rioja. The meat leaped from the bone, with its sofrito—a celery-rich tomato sauce—clinging its way along. The accompanying papas Espanola were the best potato chips I’ve tasted, not least because they still were warm.

Free range honey chicken ($19), which gets a lengthy roast in the oven, sports a glaze tinged with white balsamic vinegar, so you have no choice but to eat the skin. It was served with scalloped potatoes (rich with flavorful cheese), a tower of grilled squash and a few spears of fresh asparagus.

The Tuscan cherry porkchop ($24) features locally raised meat; Mediterranean strip ($24) is certified Angus beef, marinated and grilled. Other entrée items include veal scallopini ($24), vegetable torte ($15), a seafood and chorizo mix called zarzuela ($26), pan-seared wild salmon ($24) and much more.

And there are pasta dishes, such as the shrimp pesto ($19), a rich dish generously dotted with sautéed shrimp. The pesto is homemade (is there any other legitimate approach?), with toasted pine nuts and swirls of ricotta—a wonderful assembly.

By the time we reached dessert, we’d amassed a shopping bag of leftovers. A selection of chocolate pâté, tiramisu cheesecake, bananas foster and excellent gelato—all house made—ensured we’d be moving that much more slowly as we headed for the door.

Hewes and company have a goldmine here; it’s the most satisfying of the area’s new restaurants that I’ve visited so far this year.

Kitchen Heat

With the Food Network’s female chefs, it’s not just about what’s in the saucepan

 

By Laura Leon

About a year ago, one of the lo cal papers ran a story about the emerging popularity of the Food Network among children, and in particular, tweeners, and especially, between the hours of 4 and 5 PM. The reporter neglected to mention that the chefs whose shows were being aired at that time were Rachael Ray and Giada di Laurentiis. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Ray is the ubiquitous face of several Food Network shows, including 30 Minute Meals, not to mention her own talk show, Dunkin Donuts ads, a magazine, and so on, ad nauseum. Di Laurentis, granddaughter of the famous producer, is the astonishingly pretty face of Everyday Italian, as well as a few new ventures. Both are attractive, in wildly divergent ways, and I find it pretty obvious why, out of the blue, hormonal boys are hooked on watching them. Oh, excuse me, I mean, on learning to cook.

The Food Network has cannily parlayed its various women cooks’ personae in such a way as to evoke wholesome yumminess with a bit of va-va-voom. (A brief scan of the listings for the shows steered by men give us a rather burly, he-man image, as personified by Emeril Lagasse—that is, if he-men really do yell “Bam!”—and Mario Batalli.)

In the case of Ray, whose intense popularity boggles this writer’s mind, the appeal is simple: She’s cute, in a nonthreatening sort of way. She also never shuts up. My kids still make fun of a show they watched in which Ray was whipping up veal chops for her in-laws, in 30 minutes or less, and she just never stopped talking about how much she loves, loves, loves those folks. She could have been sautéing puppies with Michael Vick for all we knew, so dazed we were by the nonstop barrage of kudos for the in-laws. Ray, featured in numerous close-ups depicting her chipmunk cheeks, makes such daunting tasks as making a meatball sub or a tossed salad with prewashed greens seem doable; she’s not going to critique you for not knowing the proper way to peel ginger.

Working the other end of the glamour spectrum, the Food Network showcases Di Laurentis in a gleaming white and stainless-steel kitchen, with lovely glassware and profusions of fresh herbs. For all her talk about authentic Italian, this woman’s basically an L.A. trust-fund kid, but that can’t completely detract from her obvious passion for whipping up mocha semifreddo. I can well imagine the veritable orgasm she produces when waxing poetic about words like mascarpone and prosciutto; in her Rembrandt-esque mouth, these ingredients come across like soft porn for foodies. Watching Everyday Italian, you’ll be inundated with glimpses of Giada, her long curls held back loosely, her skin glowing and her lovely breasts ever present just above her cutting knife. Sensing a good thing, the Food Network’s Web site gives you the opportunity to watch videos of Giada “at work,” to “Get to Know Giada” through her opinions on table setting, or to take a quiz that tests your Giada I.Q.

Granted, with older women such as the Southerner Paula Deen, it’s not so much tight close-ups of revealing cleavage. Rather, the gregarious Deen, who favors casual denim tops and often shares the stage with her second husband or her two grown sons, practically oozes down-home comfort. Her specialties are things with names like cheesy broccoli bake and zesty cheese straws, and she counts mayonnaise and sour cream as everyday pantry essentials. The thing about Deen is that she taps into every man’s subliminal wet dream that, no matter how old he is, his wife is gonna whet his, er, whistle with a hearty home-cooked meal, or, for sons, that Mom’s always gonna be on hand with a comforting plate of whoopie pies.

Then there are the basically sexless Sandra Lee and Robin Miller. The former, tall, blonde and skinny in a Tippi Hedren sort of way, has written several books and now has her own show, Semi-Homemade Cooking With Sandra Lee, in which she perpetuates the idea that good things can come of frozen mango (toss it in a salad!). A typical “wished I’d thought of that!” moment on Lee’s show is when, in making “Island Chicken,” a sort of jerk-chicken dish with canned pineapple, she actually recommends Dole. Who’d have thought? That saves us all from having to comparison shop.

The soccer mom-ish Miller, on the other hand, is the mistress of the do-ahead meal, the time-saver dish. She tosses off helpful tidbits like “Make extra rice, and store the rest for another night.” She also likes the convenience of jarred sliced garlic (frequent viewings have yet to reveal whether she endorses the flavor of same).

While neither Lee nor Miller seem to pique much in the way of sexual desire, their presence is a thoughtful nod to guys out there who, while they may daydream about a Giada or even a Rachael, or wish that Mom were a little more like Paula, appreciate the fact that they can come home to a reasonably attractive person who won’t startle the neighbors or freak out the in-laws by suggesting we try sushi, or roasting those late-harvest tomatoes. A little something for everybody would seem like a programmer’s best plan of action, but in the case of the Food Network and its stable of female stars, there’s a little more cooking than what’s on the stove.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Nicole’s Bistro (25 Quackenbush Square, Albany) presents an International Beer Dinner at 6:30 PM tonight (Thursday, Oct. 4) featuring a guest speaker from World Class Beverages to introduce the beverages. Enjoy spicy shrimp and corn bisque or an Alsatian tarte with a German Späten Oktoberfest, filet mignon tips and portobello mushrooms or classic choucroute garnie with a Kronenbourg 1664 (France) and much more, including a dessert beer. It’s $45 per person, beer included. Reserve seats by calling 465-1111. . . . Honest Weight Food Co-op celebrates Local Harvest month with a series of events: This Saturday (Oct. 6), they’ll be grilling fresh local vegetables, locally grown chicken and quorn, a non-soy meat alternative, using coffee-infused grilling sauces from Keuka Lake Sauces from 11 AM to 3 PM. On Oct. 7 from 1 to 3 PM, enjoy a demonstration of pumpkin carving using locally grown pumpkins. All events are 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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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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