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Photo: B.A. Nilsson
The Garlic Lover’s Corner

235 North Greenbush Road, North Greenbush, 283-1621. Serving lunch Mon-Fri 11-3, dinner Mon-Sat 4:30-9. MC, V.

Cuisine: Mediterranean

Entrée price range: $8 (small papardelle with Bolognese sauce) to $17 (NY strip)

Ambiance: casual

 

Out of Hiding

By B.A. Nilsson

There’s certainly a more euphonious name available, something that would suggest Mediterranean cuisine in the unlikely venue of a North Greenbush strip mall, but there’s no question that this lays it on the line: You’re probably going to eat garlic. Here’s the good part: You’re going to enjoy it.

The Garlic Lover’s Corner opened with little fanfare about six months ago in a long, narrow space that featured a cooking area near the front and a full kitchen out of sight in the rear. “It was too much work, trying to use them both,” says chef-owner Bill Assad, so he recently moved all of the cooking into the back, taking the opportunity to spruce up the dining room as well. It’s still a casual-looking space, but it’s roomy and comfortable and even sports a modest-sized Mediterranean-themed mural on a segment of one of the walls.

It’s the menu (and the food that subsequently appears) that sets this place apart from other restaurants in its price range, not to mention other restaurants you’d find in strip malls. The emphasis is on a range of affordable preparations that give Italy a nod even as they roam the Middle East.

If the Mediterranean plate, a $10 appetizer assortment, seems familiar, then you’ve enjoyed dinner at the Hidden Café in Delmar. Assad helped to open that restaurant a few years ago, and the menus have much in common. As I’ve previously noted in Hidden Café reviews, the baba ganouj is the best in the area, the grilled eggplant at the heart of it pushing its intense flavor to the fore.

You’ll want to make mini-sandwiches with the excellent falafel, using the warm pita slices and accompanying tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber) sauce. There’s also a creamy, garlicky hummus and lots of olives to add a darker edge to the flavors.

There’s enough here to take the edge off the appetites of a foursome, but we added an order of GLC crisps ($7), for which I’d happily abandon my potato-chip passion. These are a freshly fried batch to which lemon juice and crumbled feta cheese are added. Addictive.

Sampler plate items are available separately for $5 to $7, and you also can choose a starter of crab cakes ($8) or a salad: the $3 house mixture, a $5 goat cheese-enhanced version or a $5 Lebanese salad that features a generous mixture of vegetables along with croutons and sumac seasoning.

Not surprisingly, kebabs are a specialty. Lamb, chicken or beef gets cubed and grilled ($14 to $16), with sides of jasmine rice and the day’s vegetables, or go for the veggies themselves in a $14 skewer of seasonal items.

Tempting, but we were otherwise distracted. I stared longingly at the listing for New York strip Mediterraneo ($17), that tops the beef with tapenade, until our server mentioned a special of tilapia topped with crabmeat and shrimp ($16). I have no special love for any of those items, but the combination proved to be as tasty as I anticipated, with the sweetness of the crab and the shrimp’s crunchy earthiness pulling more flavor resonance from the tilapia than it tends to show when solo.

Regular-menu seafood offerings include marinated salmon with goat cheese and tapenade ($16), mahi-mahi coated with Moroccan chermoula (a spicy sauce with cumin and cilantro, $15), and sauté of mussels, shrimp and chorizo ($17).

Pasta preparations are frequent specials, I’m told, but of the two on the menu, go for that Bolognese ($8 or $15). It’s a killer sauce, beef and lamb at its core, with subtle additions of tomato and cream. The full portion, completed with papardelle, provides enough for a second helping.

Stews should show off a chef’s creativity. During my antediluvian days in the kitchen, I learned stew-making as a means of preparing leftover ingredients with which to feed the staff, and these concoctions, crafted with more culinary abandon than many of the regular-menu items, often were the most interesting food of the night.

Moroccan vegetable stew ($14) stars butternut squash and potatoes. Karahi chicken stew ($15) adds the Indian combo spice known as garam masala. My wife zeroed in on the lamb-and-apricot stew ($16), which proves that the tastiest cuts of the meat are those that require the most cooking, like lamb shanks prepared osso buco style. In this recipe, the braised meat is served in a rich, osso buco-like sauce that gets a magical lift from the fruit it also contains. It’s served over orzo, an easygoing prolonger of flavor.

Here’s a thought: Try that stew for lunch. You’ll pay $11, get the same great stuff, and be able to sample your way around many other menu items for a slightly lower price. Replacing the big meat and fish entrées are sandwiches, some of them on pita bread, some on ciabatta—and what a novel context for the burgers they serve. (Sandwiches are $8, except for the $10 open-faced New York strip on ciabatta.)

A wine-and-beer license is in the works, so check ahead if you’re looking to imbibe. Service is prompt and friendly, and Assad is often available to help you through the menu. If you’re a Hidden Café fan and rue the fact that it’s often very busy there, here’s your alternative. Until it gets discovered, of course.

The Real Blonde

Often derided, Chardonnay deserves the respect it has earned

By Anne Strainchamps

Not too long ago, I offered to bring wine to a dinner party and asked my host if he had any requests. “ABC,” he replied: “Anything But Chardonnay.” Ouch.

I know it’s been a decade or so, but to me it seems like only yesterday that big, buttery, oaky American Chardonnay was the belle of every ball. Now, like a prom queen deserted by her fickle court, she’s the butt of snide jokes and snarky put-downs.

Have you heard the one about the Mother Superior? She calls all the nuns together and says to them: “I must tell you all something. We have a case of gonorrhea in the convent.” “Thank God,” says an elderly nun at the back of the room. “I’m so tired of Chardonnay.”

Well. It’s true that the wine world has, regrettably, never been better stocked with dime-a-dozen, knock-off Chardonnays that sit around taking up shelf space and ruining the reputation of a perfectly good grape. You know what I’m talking about: those sweet, urinous yellow wines that just sit there in a glass like a proverbial dumb blonde, no sparkle, no zest, no life. Think poor, doomed Marilyn Monroe in her last years, all those luscious curves turned to overripe flab.

But in the hands of an inspired winemaker, Chardonnay can be something vastly better. How about a wine like Grace Kelly, all classic blonde beauty, with perfect bone structure and a little cool reserve? Or Owen Wilson, a lean California golden boy with a bit of acid lurking behind the smile? You’ll have to look harder and spend more to find Chardonnays like these—but they’re worth it.

Movie-star metaphors are sort of inescapable when it comes to California Chardonnays. In fact, the story of its discovery as a young American wine, its triumph over Europe’s established superstars and its subsequent transformation into an icon of American viticulture has all the makings of a Hollywood romance.

No surprise then, that the rise of American Chardonnay is the subject of two forthcoming Hollywood features. Both purport to tell the story of the famous—or infamous, depending on your nationality—“Judgment of Paris,” when at a blind tasting in 1976, a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay beat out some of the most exalted French wines in the world—to the shock and dismay of the French judges, whose chortling over wines they had mistakenly assumed to be French proved particularly embarrassing. (“Ah, back to France!” a French judge is reported to have crowed, as he sipped a Napa vintage.)

Bottle Shock, which premiered a few weeks ago at the Sundance Festival, stars Alan Rickman as Steven Spurrier, the British wine-shop owner who organized this wine smackdown. The Judgment of Paris, due out later this year, tells virtually the same story and is rumored to star Hugh Grant and/or Jude Law. Spurrier himself consulted on the second film and has filed complaints against the first, which I’m sure has nothing to do with the fact that he doesn’t seem too thrilled at seeing himself played by Professor Snape.

Innocence and youth famously can’t be recaptured, but with a little forethought, you can still taste what California Chardonnay must have been like back in the day, when it arrived as a gorgeous ingénue and stole the show. And you don’t have to bankrupt yourself in the process, either.

I recently sampled several wines—not all, strictly speaking, from California—to get a sense of how different Chardonnay can be, depending on how it’s made.

First, I wanted to wallow in happy memories of the lush, rich, buttery Chardonnays I fell in love with long ago. Rombauer Vineyards 2006 Carneros ($30) had me at the first sip; it’s a beautiful, full-bodied, creamy wine with long notes of butterscotch and vanilla. Cybill Shepherd in a glass.

Botega Catena Zapata’s 2006 Catena Alta ($28), from Argentina’s Mendoza region, also took me back. This is a wine made in the cool foothills of the Andes, and it has a wonderful rich, honeyed feeling in the mouth, with a little zingy freshness underneath. Think of the creaminess of a ripe mango or perfect pear and then imagine the stony freshness of a mountain stream. Or just think of Angelina Jolie—sultry and steely and center stage.

If you like your Chardonnay brighter and lighter—often a good choice if you’re looking for a wine that will pair well with food—then Laetitia’s 2006 Estate ($19), from California’s Arroyo Grande Valley, is a tart, lemony wine, with a nutty finish. Meg Ryan, anyone?

The best bargain of the bunch was Trevor Jones’ 2006 Virgin Chardonnay ($17), a wine that combines something of the best of both styles. Trevor Jones is an award-winning Australian winemaker with a 20-year philosophy of creating Chardonnays from “free-run juice.” His Virgin Chardonnay is intensely floral and perfumed up front, but there’s some muscle under all the delicious nectar, and it has a finish that just doesn’t stop.

Of all the others, this is the one that reminded me just how wonderful a good Chardonnay can be—warm as a summer sunset, juicy as a ripe peach. As I took the remains of the bottle up to bed with me, I thought happily that there’s just one word for a wine like this: dreamboat.

Anne Strainchamps writes for Isthmus, in Mad ison, Wis., where this story first appeared.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Several salubrious and timely events are scheduled this week at the Honest Weight Food Co-Op’s Community Room (484 Central Ave., Albany). “Living Gluten Free” is the subject of a workshop with Amy Pagano from 1 to 3 PM Saturday (March 8); the store’s plant buyer, Gayle Anderson, discusses “Starting Seeds” from noon to 2 PM Sunday (March 9); and “Eat Good Fats” will be the topic from 6 to 7 PM Wednesday (March 12). For more info, call the Co-Op at 482-2667. . . . Enjoy a Southern Italian dinner and wine tasting at Saratoga Rose Inn and Restaurant (4136 Rockwell St., Hadley) at 7 PM Saturday, March 15, an event featuring five courses paired with five wines and commentary by Janine Stowell of Opici Wine Co. Chef-owner Richard Ferrugio will be preparing leek and pancetta frittata, Sicilian pesto with mint and almonds, braised rabbit agrodolce and much more. Dinner is $70 per person, plus tax and tip, and seating is limited. Call 696-2861 for reservations. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (food at banilsson.com).



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