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The Year in Review 2010

Time to Digest

Gustatory recollections of fine meals and food trends from 2010

By B.A. Nilsson

You may remember my April Fool’s Day gag article in which I profiled a solar-powered, hydroponic gardens-on-wheels, serving the newly green and “locally grown” fast-food industry. A company called GustOrganics, which has a restaurant a couple of blocks from Manhattan’s Union Square, is developing solar-power-enhanced lunch carts—there’s one at Park and 53rd—where you can grab a meal for under 10 bucks. I give it another year or two before my joke piece seems merely prescient.

Behind the joke, of course, is the quest for All Things Local, which dominated our food pages throughout the past twelvemonth. Amy Halloran roamed the countryside to report on such events as the Hoosac Valley Farmers Exchange Pancake Day, an annual event in Schaghticoke that marks the start of Rensselaer County’s growing season; Montgomery County’s Mohawk Valley Produce Auction, a weekly gathering at which Amish farmers hawk their wares; and a gathering of Columbia County apple growers who discussed their problems with U.S. agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack.

Amid the restaurant reviews, I looked at local sources of raw material for our Earth Day issue, and profiled local companies with finished products later in the year. We saw the craze for designer cupcakes finally hit the Capital Region, while elsewhere in the country—in the major cities, at least—the French macaron has become a culinary cynosure. But food trends aren’t all hoity-toity: This year’s Texas State Fair saw the debut of, I swear to you, fried beer.

More than 80 restaurants opened in the area during the year, and I count far fewer—just over 50—that shuttered, with about eight of them doing both in the same year. This suggests you have a 10 percent chance of your eatery going belly-up during its early months, a better statistic than in much of the rest of the country. And, may I take this opportunity to give a nod of regret to Casablanca Café, which diligently offered excellent Moroccan fare on a downtown Albany block that ultimately proved too inhospitable.

Long leading the locavores is chef Ric Orlando, whose New World Bistro Bar in Albany we visited last month and found as eclectic as ever, delivering nicely on the promise of the innovative, thoughtful menu. Local suppliers also figure prominently in chef Brian Molino’s work at Marché, the elegant restaurant at the hotel 74 State in Albany, where we enjoyed a palate-popping meal early in the year.

The Hudson Valley is a terrific food source, and a couple of outlying restaurants proved that a chef can shop close to home with terrific results. Jeff Gimmel and Nina Bachinsky-Gimmel run Hudson’s Swoon Kitchenbar and not only list their sources on the back of the menu but make a point of visiting their purveyors. And Luna 61 in Tivoli, not far from Bard College, not only buys locally but keeps it vegetarian.

I suspect that any kitchen not tied to a chain will look to local sources, so let’s consider some of our other favorite stops. It had been several years since my last dinner at Provence in Stuyvesant Plaza, but I found chef Michael Cunningham running a scratch kitchen delivering food inspired by the cuisine of southeastern France.

On the upscale Italian side, there’s the recently opened Grappa ’72, in a strip mall on Albany’s Central Avenue, but, according to Laura Leon’s enthusiastic review, it looks more welcoming and offers more comfortable seating than in a past incarnation. Chef Dominic Colose cures salmon in grappa and lemon, serves prosciutto with melon in a fig-walnut vinaigrette, and marinates lamb chops in calamata brine before grilling them and serving them with roasted potatoes and rapini. “The subtle salt of the olive brine,” she noted, “was a revelation.”

Moving around the Mediterranean brings us to BFS Restaurant, on Western Avenue, not far from Crossgates. Our recent visit was a reminder that this place puts out everything from spanakopita, moussaka and kibbe to pasta (try the three-meat lasagna), seafood and a host of vegetarian items, handsomely presented.

Our more casual favorites included Saratoga’s Local Pub and Restaurant on Grand Avenue, which has the area’s best fish and chips, real Canadian poutine, good burgers, an impressive array of beer on tap, and even a gourmet tea selection! If you’re looking for red flannel hash, on the other hand, or some excellent pancakes, Jake Moon Restaurant and Café in Clarksville should be your destination. Moving from very fine dining to down-home fare, chef Daniel E. Smith serves an array of breakfast favorites, all of it as homemade as possible, and locally sourced where possible: Those pancakes are made from Champlain Valley flour and Meadowbrook buttermilk. Lunch specials, too, and dinner on weekends.

Let’s also salute some of the places we visited that continue to hang in there, defying the odds, keeping customers happy. We started the year at Scotia’s Turf Tavern, which sports a portrait in the main dining room of a long-gone covered bridge over the Mohawk. The painting dates from 1957, and the restaurant already had been open for quite a while by then. The fare is familiar and uncomplicated, with filet mignon, strip steak and chicken parmigiana among the favorites.

Scotti’s Restaurant and Pizzeria, on Schenectady’s upper Union Street, has been a neighborhood institution since 1966. My April visit was during a manic Saturday, but the place ran smoothly and my lasagna was terrific—as were all the classic Italian dishes they serve.

Finally, a nod to the Bears’ Steakhouse, on Route 7 in Duanesburg, also going strong for more than 40 years, and still serving better steaks than any of the newcomers, chain or otherwise. You’re talking about $40 for a giant slice of filet mignon, but it’ll be perfect. Explore with the English mixed grill and you’ll sample lamb and pork along with the filet mignon, and maybe even a slice of chicken for good measure. And they make their own pickled herring.

So we end the year clinging to tradition even as we explore the slow-to-arrive-here trends, and hope, if you’re like me, that 2011 brings at least enough discretionary income to avoid dining at home quite so much.

 

Taking Stock

From trans-fat bans to urban agriculture projects, 2010 was an eventful year for local and national food policy

By Amy Halloran

Locally and nationally, there were plenty of food ideas to chew on this year. The obesity epidemic clamored for attention. Interest in home food production swelled, and new producers popped up at the many farmers markets around the region. The fall found many concerned with food and agriculture glued to the news, waiting to hear the fate of the beleaguered Food Safety Modernization Act.

Let’s start with the obesity epidemic. Somehow, the elephant that America has become has escaped much notice. Although health and nutrition professionals have observed rising weights and declining health metrics over the last decade, reporting on the trend has lagged. We entered the new year with a grim outlook in the statistics: State by state, adult obesity rates ranged from 20 to 30 percent, and childhood obesity rates ranged from 10 to 25 percent. Experts predicted that this generation of children might be the first since the Civil War to live shorter lives than their parents because of weight-related health problems.

Amid this sudden consciousness, first lady Michelle Obama launched a campaign to end childhood obesity called Let’s Move! The multi-tiered agenda tackles child health and nutrition on many fronts, calling on parents, local governments, health-care workers and chefs to get in on the project. The program sends chefs into schools two days a week to talk about food and cooking. Locally, none have yet formally answered the call, but Noah Sheetz, executive chef at the Governor’s Mansion, is involved in statewide efforts to reform school lunches.

Speaking of reform, Albany County mandated non-chain restaurants to reformulate their recipes without trans fats. The switch was unpleasant for bakeries because the approved fats are not as easy to use; places with outlets in two counties, like Bella Napoli, which is in Latham and Troy, now sell different products on either side of the Hudson.

The soda tax proposed by Gov. Paterson in January 2009 was much criticized, especially by the beverage industry, and ultimately got nowhere. That didn’t stop New York City Mayor Bloomberg from proposing a soda tax of a different stripe: He sought to ban soda from the list of acceptable foods to be purchased with food stamps.

In all of these battles over what people should eat, the real enemy of health is not often named: commodity crops that are cheap because of government subsidies, which in turn make junk food inexpensive. Someday, the link will be made and the country will align food and agriculture policies with health policies to present a consistent message.

Until then, pictures tell the story. The Centers for Disease Control has put together a nice slideshow of maps (cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends) tracing the evolution of the obesity epidemic. Compare these with the 1967 invention of high-fructose corn syrup and the amounts Americans spent on fast food. Back in 1972, we annually spent $3 billion on fast food. That number today is more than $110 billion a year.

Yet, beyond these brutal facts, another America is eating. The number of farmers markets continues to swell. There were less than 2,000 across the country in 1994, and in 2010 there were more than 6,000. Brunswick, Bethlehem and Cohoes are among the local towns that developed markets over the last couple of years, and the markets are thriving throughout the growing season.

Farmers markets are incubators for food businesses: Witness newbies R & G Cheesemakers from Cohoes and a pickle producer from Salem called Pucker’s Gourmet. Direct marketing at farmers markets is far more lucrative than selling wholesale to restaurants or groceries, so, as these outlets increase, more food businesses open, such as Duncan’s Dairy Farm.

Robert Duncan had dreamed of opening a dairy since his father sold the cows when he was a kid. That dream is now his daily routine, as he milks 18 Heifers in Brunswick. The milk is bottled on site after low-heat pasteurization, a process that preserves enzymes and taste. Duncan brings his milk to Troy just like his great grandfather did, except not in a wagon. Find him at the winter market in the Atrium.

Interest in gardening has also been rising. It’s a natural extension of the locavore moment—what’s closer to the table than your backyard? Foodies with less of a political agenda have also fallen in love with the loud, proud flavors of locally grown produce. They are turning the soil, as are those concerned by widespread outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella in the national food supply. Remember the wildfire of packaged spinach? Taco Bell finally tracing problems to its tainted jalapenos? The threats are real, and people who can do something to lessen the risks of eating are doing so, as evident in sales of seeds and supplies. Another indicator: Capital District Community Gardens had a waiting list for people wanting a plot in one of their 47 locations.

Growing your own leads to too many tomatoes and a need to save the harvest. Classes in canning, offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension in Albany County, had wait lists, too. The Jarden Company, manufacturers of Ball canning equipment, experienced double-digit growth in the first two years of the economic downturn, and sales were strong in 2010. In the 1970s, during the last back-to-the-land movement, Jarden built a community cannery in Albany, a place for kitchen education and quantity canning to take place. Talk of similar endeavors is percolating through holiday parties in certain circles, but who knows what kind of action that talk will yield?

Urban agriculture got national and local attention. Seattle just finished the Year of Urban Agriculture, loosening its regulations on city chickens, among other home-scale sustainability issues. Albany is poised to follow suit—perhaps. Stay tuned.

The country used to turn to Detroit for the newest car. Now, people look to the city for developments in urban ag. The city, with its plentiful supply of empty lots, is re-fooding itself with fenceless community gardens, and other bold growing operations.

Locally, the Produce Project, a youth-powered farm on 8th Street in Troy, grows vegetables and other things, like business skills. The Troy High students who tend the beds and high tunnel at this Capital District Community Gardens enterprise learn how to grow and market vegetables. They sell to chefs, like the aforementioned Noah Sheetz, the Pioneer Market, and at the Bethlehem Farmers Market.

The Pioneer Market, run by the Troy Food Coop, is the first grocery in downtown Troy in five years. The market stocks its shelves for a wide variety of clientele, from the selective organics-locally-made crowd, to the budget consumer.

Last but not least, the Food Safety Modernization Act survived a tense fall bouncing between the House and Senate, and will be signed into law in January. The legislation gives the FDA recall powers, and requires food-processing facilities to have plans in place to deal with outbreaks. Scale and distribution exemptions—under $500,000 in sales, and within 275 miles—protect small farmers, but might not insulate larger sustainable operations that are decidedly not part of the agribusiness food system. Critics argue that the underfunded FDA doesn’t have the human muscle to implement or enforce the outlined protocols, but as the first legal changes to the FDA since 1938, the time has arrived. For many food advocates, this makes for a happy new year.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

I’m digging in as much as you are in order to eat well while money is scarce. So I thought I’d share some tips and techniques, and will do so over four weeks at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, with a class called Cooking for the New Economy. Make your shopping trips more efficient and plan menus without waste. Can I cook anywhere as well as those I criticize? Find out and enjoy some (putatively) tasty food over the course of four Mondays (Jan. 24-Feb. 14) from 6 to 9 PM. More info at artscenteronline.org. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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