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Appian Way Restaurant

Photo: B.A. Nilsson

The Year In Review 2009

Restaurants

By B.A. Nilsson

We still seek, 22 years after the planetary event, a big-palette manifestation of harmonic convergence. I say look for the micro events, such as that which you enjoy on the small palate when forking in an excellent meal from your plate.

And I can’t think of a better term for the Dale Miller dining experience than “harmonic convergence,” in which the seemingly disparate aspects of food colors come together to effect a transcendent whole.

Dale Miller (30 S. Pearl St., Albany) is the name of both chef and restaurant, giving the area’s best chef—and this guy is world class—his own long-overdue and very elegant forum. You can order from an excellently assembled menu, of course (and where else will you find sous vide braised pork belly?), but the table d’hôte discovery menu lets Miller choose for your party. A recent offering had a Victorian English Christmas theme. Every component course is beautiful to look at, surprising and fulfilling to taste, with every sensory aspect in balance, and the journey from course to course is similarly enriching.

So you’ve shot your wad on a fancy meal. How about some good grub that won’t set you back much? Bros Tacos (319 Ontario St., Albany) is pretty much a takeout joint, but there’s a little bit of table and counter space if you’re inclined to linger. The heart of the menu: rice and beans and your choice of meat on homemade soft tacos, or wrapped in flour tortillas as burritos. The $7.75 taco plate special gives you two tacos and sides of rice and black beans, and that’s about as costly as it gets here. The salsas, marinades and desserts are all made in-house, and this thoughtfulness and creativity makes the place special.

On a similar note, we were pleased by the family spirit that imbues the Phoenicians Restaurant (1686 Central Ave., Albany), where Middle Eastern fare is prepared by Rindala Rahal while her husband, genial Robert, oversees the floor. A mixed shawarma plate best represents the menu: chicken or a beef-lamb combo is spit-roasted and pita-wrapped or served over rice. Look for such favorites as falafel, stuffed grape leaves, hummus, baba ganouj, a baked spinach pie called fatayer, a meat pie called sfiha and more. The garlic sauce is so popular that the restaurant goes through 10 gallons of it a week.

A family tradition for over 30 years has Gina and Anna Montova still helming the Appian Way Restaurant (1839 Van Vranken Ave., Schenectady), where they continue to bake their own bread, roll their own pasta and churn their own gelato. Try the fettuccine with shrimp and asparagus, sausage and ricotta, prosciutto and broccoli or mushrooms—or go all out and get it Alfredo, wherein bits of prosciutto mix with the traditional sauce of cream and eggs and cheese. Plenty of veal and seafood specialties, too, in a welcoming dining room dominated by a helpful fireplace.

Talk about homemade! At Local 111 (111 Main St., Philmont), it’s pretty much home-grown, too, as chef Josephine Proul designs each day’s menu based on what’s available from an army of local suppliers. Lamb is raised down the street at Ry-Ky Ranch; chicken comes from Punsit Valley Farms in Chatham; beef is from nearby Grazin’ Angus. And Proul is skilled at charcuterie, as her homemade chorizo demonstrates. Small menu, intimate dining space and, yes, it’s a bit of a drive for most of us, but well worth the effort.

51 Front Wine Bar & Bistro

Photo: B.A. Nilsson

At 51 Front Wine Bar and Bistro (51 Front St., Ballston Spa), Scott and Carolyn Frances draw from many years in other people’s restaurants, particularly the time Scott spent cooking in New Orleans. That’s why he has the temerity to claim that he offers the best fried chicken—and I think he’s right. Crawfish and smoked sausage cheesecake, with its rich brown butter, is a superb starter, and look for items like blackened catfish, grilled duck breast with a hoisin teriyaki glaze, grilled salmon with braised fennel and crab-encrusted grouper with a lobster cream sauce.

Mike Cohen opened Chez Mike (596 Columbia Turnpike, East Greenbush) about a year and a half ago in a strip mall, and his nice-sized restaurant is both a neighborhood stopping place and a fine-dining delight. His mission: offer “rustic contemporary American comfort food, familiar but with a few surprises.” Don’t miss the braised beef short ribs, which leap from the bone to your tongue.

The Federal-era Century House (997 New Loudon Rd., Latham) has been a restaurant for more than 60 years, updated and reimagined when necessary, keeping a high standard of quality while offering familiar fare with imaginative touches. Chef Michael Niccoli makes a specialty of such things as turkey pot pie, hanger steak, pan-seared sea bass, veal ossobuco, potato-wrapped cod, and a Cape Cod pot of lobster, scallops, shrimp, clams and whitefish over pasta, all of which you’ll enjoy in a handsome room while surrounded by antique fixtures and furnishings.

Much anticipation preceded the opening of Creo in Stuyvesant Plaza: Would chef Andrew Plummer find the kitchen his excellent cuisine deserves? And then some. The handsome building boasts an equally handsome dining area, where you can dine on anything from wood-fired pizza to roasted duck with orange-pomegranate sauce. A small portion of meatloaf here can be just as satisfying as the grilled sirloin with a roasted garlic demi-glace, and manager Paul McCullough and his well-trained staff make dining a delight.

We started the year with a trip down the Thruway and up a hill to Mohonk Mountain House (1000 Mountain Rest Road, New Paltz), where hospitality is a byword and accommodations in the vast structure are superb. And the meals: magnificent. The old-world formal dining room requires jackets for the guys; during summer, a more casual buffet also is presented. Chef Jim Palmeri works with local suppliers and teams with the nearby Culinary Institute, so the fare is at once substantial and imaginative.

Let’s end on a sweet note. Crisan Bakery (197 Lark St., Albany) offers some of the most delicious pastries I’ve ever tasted. Claudia Crisan makes everything from scratch, and whatever she does to puff pastry, phyllo and the myriad other crusts and filling that are offered is so feathery and rich that you’ll forget that these treats are also pleasingly sweet. The place is an Albany treasure.

 

The Abundant Aughts

By Laura Leon

You can’t escape it, the inevitable musings over the decade that was. Top-10 lists abound about everything from movies to trends, as we collectively struggle to make sense of it all, find meaning in the time that has passed and, in the process, perhaps prove to ourselves that, through out involvement in anything on those lists, we matter. “I love that movie too!” we inwardly squeal as we read The New York Times’ picks for best cinema of the aughts, and somehow we feel vindicated, or at least still relevant. And since my life revolves in many ways around food, its preparation, presentation and consumption, I guess it follows that I would be forced to put my thoughts on the same and what’s transpired since 2000.

I think the biggest change surrounding food that has taken root since the early years of the decade is our obsession with weight and portion control, which includes concern over trans fat and childhood obesity. Surely, Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me (2004) made a lot more people aware of the problem that comes from eating too many extra-large servings of fries, but, typical of our breed, we continue to look for quick fixes on convenient ways to shed calories that don’t require the essential X factor, which is regular exercise. OK, so much for the sermonizing. Cities such as New York instituted regulations requiring that menus display nutritional information, which resulted in the shocking realization—for me—that the mac-and-five-cheese entrée at Penn Station’s TGI Friday’s has less bad fat and calories than any of its salads. Lots of snack manufacturers did away with their trans fats, too, or reconstituted their recipes to utilize baked, not fried, potatoes. The resulting Dorito, for instance, is noticeably lighter, but a taste challenge for palates used to a certain sweet/salty indicator in such things.

Organic foods have become much more mainstream, as people seek healthier lifestyles and come to understand the importance of local sourcing on both their bodies and their regional economies. Still, critics love to expound upon the sheer expense of organic produce, compared to what can be bought at the local supermarket, and do a little “I told you so” jig when E. coli epidemics, related to products like organic lettuce or tomatoes, break out. Still, Michelle Obama’s embrace of organic gardening and healthier menus at the White House has added a chic element to the whole process. Nevertheless, critics such as James Thurber, the director of American University’s Center on Congressional and Presidential Studies, point out that the administration does not have a clear policy of action with respect to overhauling the food system.

Sustainable is another catchword that has caught on, even as a great many people don’t understand the first thing about it. But this decade has seen successful campaigns which, using scientific studies as a basis, convinced chefs and consumers to stop using endangered food products, notably swordfish and Chilean sea bass. Indeed, a reputable Web site, montereybayaquarium.org, informs professionals and consumers on a daily basis what seafood is endangered and which contain higher-than-normal amounts of chemicals.

As we sink deeper into economic troubles, our desire for homey dishes increases exponentially, which explains why Bon Appetit’s January 2010 issue proclaims meatballs as the dish of the year. Increasingly, magazines and food shows are offering newer versions of macaroni and cheese, many featuring evocative ingredients like pancetta or truffle oil. This year, Cook’s Country Magazine produced Best Lost Suppers, a series of regional and traditional home-cooked recipes like chicken-and-dumpling casserole, funeral potatoes with ham and salmon wiggle, each of which has been fine-tuned and modernized in America’s Test Kitchen.

For all our desire for rich homey goodness, our prerequisite is firm: We must be in and out of the kitchen in short time. Hence, Jim Lahey’s book My Bread promises the home cook the down-home comfort of freshly baked bread with the convenience of a no-knead (and perceived time-consuming) technique. Countless cookbook titles proclaim dinner in 30 minutes, or in three ingredients. The Food Network, which has grown immensely since its early days, now includes, as the bulk of its lineup, shows like Rachael Ray’s 30 Minute Meals and Robin Miller’s Quick Fix Meals, not to mention the odious Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee, which tells one how to make Cool Whip and canned peaches into something, well, semi-homemade. Purists sniff at the idea of rushing through food preparation, but it cannot be denied that we are extremely pressed for time. Indeed, I would argue that, as long as we’re cooking for our families, whether we do so in under a half-hour or over the course of several, we’re doing something right.

Speaking of the Food Network, back when we first began receiving it, I was on maternity leave with my eldest and quickly became hooked on a show called Ready Set Cook!, in which two audience members would join famous, or semi-famous, chefs on stage to prepare a meal in under 30 minutes using the five ingredients each had brought with them. This resulted in delightful challenges, like what to do with a can of kidney beans, some sausage, a head of broccoli, a jar of molasses and a pomegranate. Nowadays, the network has augmented its “anybody can cook quickly” lineup with a series of reality- and challenge-based programming. Ready Set Cook! has given way to Iron Chef America, in which an unknown chef challenges the likes of Bobby Flay or Masaharu Morimoto to see who can best the other by making five dishes using a mystery ingredient, which can be anything from octopus to broccoli. Other shows feature home cooks vying to make the best dish using a Pillsbury product, or concocting multi-storied cakes based on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Indeed, as one writer noted recently, the tenor of the channel’s programming has become much more spectator, rather than participatory, in nature.

As the Internet has exploded with excellent and evocative blogs about food and dining, like eGullet.org and chow.com to name just two, the world of such matters has diminished, at least as far as printed publications are concerned. October saw the sudden demise of the great Gourmet, made all the more disheartening by the fact that Ruth Reichl and company were unable to prepare a final December issue befitting the end of a legend. Other magazines, noticeably Cooking Light and Bon Appetit, retooled, and Martha Stewart’s Every Day Food continues to chug on. Younger generations apparently don’t share my need to have a magazine or a recipe in hand to pore over the pictures of food, wine and convivial people, to dogear pages and tear out recipes to store in a file for later use.

A few years ago Food & Wine printed a provocative article about the emerging prominence of screw tops for wine. At the time, I, like many quoted for the piece, were aghast, equating such tops with remembrances of Boones Farm or Thunderhead. Even when confronted with the environmental component of producing real cork, many turned up their noses. And guess what? They’re here, they’re often from top-notch vintners, and unless you make the unfortunate mistake, as have I, of attempting to open a bottle with a corkscrew, they make perfect sense.

Speaking of wine, the decade has seen a lot more educating of the masses as to how to buy and especially how to navigate a restaurant wine list without looking like either a rube or a miser.

The emergence of food-related allergies has taken a foothold, especially in schools, which now proclaim themselves peanut-free zones. The Boston-based chef Ming Tsai has made it his mission to educate the food industry, especially restaurant workers, about how best to accommodate the dietary restrictions of its patrons. Not surprisingly, many in the medical field still question or even pooh-pooh the effect of, say, dairy products on conditions such as excema or asthma.

The best thing that has evolved over the past 10 years is probably the greater understanding, acceptance, availability and use of international products, even though, ironically, the trend leads to philosophical dilemmas involving the actual costs related to such use. The other great ethical question we face is how to better husband international resources and harness traditional agrarian techniques with science and technology in such a way as to provide food for the great many who are starving. It’s got to be done. So here we are in 2010, weathering unsure economic times and global turmoil, and yet blessed with incredible bounty and choices.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

It’s the Toast of Christmas Past. New World Home Cooking (1411 Route 212, Saugerties) holds its 13th New World Champagne Dinner on Friday (Dec. 18) with favorite selections from the 12 past celebrations. Chef Ric Orlando and CIA wine professor Michael Weiss have chosen such items as a blue corn-lobster tamale with huitlacoche-poblano crema, paired with an Iron Horse Russian Cuvee; wild mushroom pierogis with white woodears and lemon-chive butter with a Pol Roget Brut; and Creole-style pan-roasted quail with dirty rice, red beans and sauce picante alongside an Australian Shingleback Black Bubbles. Dinner is at 7 PM and priced at $75 per person ($50 without wine). Reservations are required. Call (845) 246-0900. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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