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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

By Land and Sea

By B.A. Nilsson

Turf Tavern

40 Mohawk Ave., Scotia, 393-3344. Serving lunch 11:30-1:30 Tue-Fri; dinner 5-9 Tue-Fri, 5-10 Sat, 11:30-8 Sun. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: classic American

Entrée price range: $11 (pasta primavera) to $23 (turf and surf)

Ambiance: old world

Much of what you need to know about the Turf Tavern is right there in the menu, which you can find on their Web site. Steak teriyaki ($16), filet mignon ($20), New York strip steak ($20), chicken parmesan ($14). Those are the lead-off entrées, and they define a style of American restaurant that’s all too rare these days. The customer demographic? Let’s just say that the first and second flushes of youth are far behind. Which nicely suits Scotia and its environs, and partially explains why this restaurant has flourished here since the 1940s.

The food is familiar, the prices are low, and consistency is the watchword. Nothing too threatening appears on the menu. And there’s nothing fancy about the preparation and presentation of the food, although the $21 Turf Tower has an arresting appearance, stacked on a bright red plate with a topping of crisped onions. More on that in a moment.

This is a calm, old-fashioned eatery that’s formal in a most casual way. A large banquet hall adjoins the restaurant, so make sure to choose the proper door. It won’t hurt to make a reservation, especially on a Proctors event night. This is the dinner destination downtown Schenectady badly wishes it could duplicate, but it’s hard to compete with so much history.

“Consistency is the name of the game when it comes to filling seats,” says chef-owner Tom Gallant, whose wife, Maria, oversees the floor. “We were careful not to make any big changes when we bought the restaurant in 1996, and we’re reluctant to change things now. Everything on the menu sells very well.”

The Gallants bought Turf Tavern from Steve and Fanny Karamanos, who ran it for more than 40 years. The banquet room was added more than 20 years ago, and the Gallants did some remodeling when they took over, but the feeling of the place has remained as consistent as the food.

Appetizers include standbys like stuffed mushrooms ($6), bruschetta ($5), shrimp served chilled with cocktail sauce ($9) or wrapped in bacon ($8), and French onion soup ($4.25). Or do as I did and share a for-two selection of shrimp Nicole (that’s the bacon-wrapped one), bruschetta and stuffed mushrooms for $10.

By the time this arrives, you’ll have torn through a basket of warm bread and spent some time admiring the layout of the rooms. The main dining area sports a portrait titled “Ye Olde Gateway West: Scotia Bridge,” painted in 1957 and depicting the old covered structure that crosses the Mohawk River atop a series of stone pilings. Smaller dining areas are partition-separated, and the bar is set off from the dining room by a large window easily mistaken for a mirror.

By the time you finish the appetizer, you’ll be full. Just in time for the salads, those sneaky appetite-fillers. No wonder we saw many a takeout bag go by.

Four special entrées were described on a separate menu page when we visited, a simple array of chicken and steak, stuffed sole, pork marsala or prime rib, priced at $13 or $14, and available as a complete dinner (adding soup, dessert and coffee) for an extra $3.75.

In addition to the aforementioned steaks and chicken parm, the regular entrée list offers veal scallopine or Savannah, the latter a preparation with mushrooms and prosciutto ($16 each), chicken Roberto (marinated and grilled) or Savannah ($14 each) and herb-encrusted pork ($15.50), which we discovered is a pan-seared tenderloin seasoned with mustard and herbs, giving it a crunchy finish, and served sliced with a pleasingly aromatic roasted garlic demi-glace.

Those cuts of prime rib looked tempting as they went by, obviously a popular dish. But I cooked and served prime rib during my long-ago restaurant days and can’t see that it’s much of a chef’s showcase. This is not to diminish its power as a crowd pleaser: The carnivore in me delights in the tender meat, and it eases the kitchen’s toil on a busy night.

A quartet of pasta dishes also had appeal, including seafood Fra Diavolo ($16, available unspiced for the timorous), and a bargain-priced pasta primavera for $11.

My love-hate relationship with tradition eases toward the latter when it comes to surf and turf, which, to my palate, dims the appeal of a good steak by throwing it at a portion of bland, overpriced lobster. I suspect it still represents, for many, some notion of ultra-fancy that distinguishes dining out from the drudgery of dining in. But the Turf Tower pairs two tenderloin medallions with a fat crab cake, sauced with another of chef Tom’s nice demi-glaces, this one bourbon-laced, and topped, as mentioned above, with a sheaf of crisped onions to give it a contrasting bit of crunch.

One of the clues to the kitchen’s skill is the side dish. In this case, the vegetables that came with the meal. An array of squash and carrots was crisp and tasty and not overbuttered, and gave the plates a pleasing finishing touch.

Will the restaurant be heading in any significantly new directions? “There’s a fine line between pleasing the regulars and being a little creative by attempting new dishes,” says Tom, and I can’t fault him this attitude. The Turf Tavern embodies a very old-fashioned approach to dining, but does it well enough to make it a nice—and economical—nostalgia trip.

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

Here’s a last call to Wine & Dine for the Arts, with three days of events to choose from, showcasing the work of two dozen of the area’s most extraordinary chefs. Start tonight (Jan. 7) with a vintners dinner held from 6-9 PM at 16 downtown Albany restaurants, including dp-An American Brasserie, Café Capriccio, Dale Miller, March @ 74 State, New World Bistro Bar, Scrimshaw Restaurant and the Hollywood Brown Derby. Tomorrow (Friday, Jan. 8) from 4 to 8 PM and Saturday (Jan. 9) from 1 to 4 PM, you’ll get a Taste of Albany at the Crowne Plaza, featuring selections from 50 restaurants and beverage suppliers. The event culminates with a Chef’s Grand Dinner and Wine Auction from 6 to 11 PM Saturday at the Crowne Plaza. The chefs for that event include Brian Molino, Yono Purnomo, Mark Graham, Jim Rua, Jaime Ortiz, Dale Miller and AJ Jayapal. Tickets are $50 for the Taste of Albany and $125 for the Grand Dinner. The events will benefit Capital Repertory Theatre. Find more info and buy tickets at albanywinefest.com, or call 462-4531, ext. 209. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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