Albany NY and Capital Region Restaurants

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Taste of Greece

One of my dining partners, who recently relocated to the Lark Street area, has urged me to come down to Lark Street to try the neighborhood fare. After my last experience at Totem, and of course the great difficulty with which one has to find parking after 7:00 p.m. in that neighborhood, I, understandably, had some reservations. Nonetheless, I ventured out to A Taste of Greece ("ATOG") located on the Washington Avenue end of Lark Street.

I did a bit of research on the establishment before making the trip. I learned that the restaurant, in its current location, has gone through several different iterations during the past decade. Of course, reading this gave rise to some concerns, but I dismissed it to the difficult Lark Street dining scene (except for a few perennial favorites: Bombers, Elda's and now, McGuires).

We walk into the restaurant and are greeted by warm, earth-toned walls. No chintzy murals of Greece or large banners of the Greek flag. The dining space could just as easily pass for Mexican, a French Bistro, or a coffee shop. You immediately get the "down-home" feel when a young woman (incidentally, modeling a "Totem" [sushi bar] tee-shirt) gets up from her seat, where she was dining with a group of her friends, and tells us to sit anywhere we'd like. The restaurant was about half full, so we take a seat at the banquette style booth near the window to get a good view of the restaurant and Lark Street below.

We studied the extensive 4-panel menu and separate wine list and concluded that ATOG is far more than your "typical" gyros-and-hummus-place that's generally found in middle-America. A separate wine list featured wine primarily from myriad vintners in Greece. Glass service ranged from $4.50 to $7.00, whereas bottles ranged from $20.00 to $30.00. A young group of urban hipsters shared a basket of warm pita and a bottle of a Greek white to my left.

Moments later our server/chef/foodrunner asked whether we've settled on our order. We were still in the midst of studying the menu, but we both agreed on sharing an order of Spanakopita ($5).

The menu reveals that ATOG relies on Greek mainstays like lemon, oregano and thyme, and puts together winning combinations of each. The most expensive dish on the menu is grilled lamb chops described as being crusted with pungent oregano and sprinkled with a light lemon oil dressing. There was also an ample seafood section featuring items like grilled shrimp. Of particular curiosity were pasta dishes with chicken or shrimp and pink sauce. By no means am I an expert on Greek cuisine, but it seemed like these were added to pander to those diners who were dragged to the restaurant and wouldnt enjoy the gustatory delights to be found in stewed lamb, shrimp, or char-grilled octopus.

The appetizers featured several other indegenous favorites including the aforementioned grilled octopus and grilled halloumi cheese. Halloumi is a cheese reminiscent of a firm mozzarella, but saltier. Its best feature is its ability to withstand grilling, which is how ATOG serves it.

The balance of the menu also revealed the chef's diversity. Prominently featured and labeled as an ATOG 'favorite' was gyveci, a stewed lamb dish infused with cinnamon, tomatoes and onions, and ATOG's rendition of saganaki, available in meat, seafood, or vegetarian options.

The Spanakopita arrived a few minutes later: a large (3"x4") sheet, which my partner and I elected to share. Cutting into the dish with our bread knife disrupted the delicate, buttery layers of phyllo and spinach beneath. Nonetheless, a swift, deft cut and we were on our way to enjoying the dish.

Upon first bite, the dish was cooler than I wouldve desired. The spinach was overwhelmed by dill and there wasnt enough feta in the dish. The phyllo, although visibly fresh-looking and well-colored, was a bit "stale" and tasted as though it had been reheated past its prime. The balance of the filling only revealed a bland swipe of chopped, frozen spinach (n.b., this maybe because of the temporary ban on fresh spinach).

Neither of us being too hungry after the appetizer course, my partner and I both settled on gyro sandwiches ($7). I opted for the beef/lamb and my partner requested the chicken variety. The gyros are served with an order of "Greek fries."

In the interim it was nice to see that the owner of El Mariachi, one of Albany's and the region's finest Mexican restaurants, strolled in for dinner.

The gyro sandwiches were served moments later, wrapped in deli paper and teeming with lettuce, tomatoes and meat. I dove into the "Greek" fries first, which I learned were nothing more than undercooked steak fries seasoned with a blend of salt, pepper and dried oregano. I hoped that my sandwich wasnt nearly as much of a disappointment.

The gyro meat was lean and well-flavored. Each bite yielded to fresh vegetables and a satisfactory mouthful of beef-lamb goodness beneath. My only complaint was the quality of the pita wrap - which tasted a bit bland (I dont think these were fresh) and the sourness of the yogurt which made the tzatziki sauce. Real homemade Greek yogurt is world renowned and should be creamy and offer good density. This was no more than your typical Dannon blended with cucumbers and other spices. Nevertheless, the sauce wasnt a major distraction from the main course which I was more than satisfied with.

The dessert course appeared to be simple and satisfying, and had I saved room, I wouldve opted for the baklava. Hopefully, it'll be a bigger hit than the spanakopita, which shares the same phyllo wrapper.

ATOG does a satisfactory job in bringing Greek cuising to the Capital region. Despite the rough waters facing many restaurants (on Lark Street and in that specific location) these days, ATOG has the right elements for a true dining jewel on Lark Street.

A Taste of Greece
193 Lark Street
Albany, New York 12210
(518) 426 9000

Friday, October 13, 2006

Totem Sushi

Amongst the many reasons I decided to start a food blog about restaurants in this area is because of the lack of blogs that address the subject. Sure, we have the Times-Union and the Metroland, but I really enjoy the landscape which includes fellow bloggers "Albany Jane," Warren Redlich, Dish and Dirt, and now, Liberally Seasoned, all of whom have their own views and opinions on all things foodstuff that the Capital Region have to offer.

Given the finite number of restaurants in the area, however, there are bound to be some restaurants that each of us will visit and have differing opinions on. It happened during last week after Albany Jane and Dish and Dirt each reviewed Tai Pei and each had a vastly different experience. I suppose this is symptomatic of dining at a non-chain/franchised restaurant -- you may never have the same experience twice. Anthony Bourdain, in an interview with the 92Y blog said that one positive result of all this blogging is that it raises the stakes for every plate of food a chef sends into the dining room. He added that "it’s on balance, a good thing. Anything which raises expectations, places more value on consistent excellence, which pushes chefs to be better and encourages diners to be more knowledgable and to try new things--is good for the world."

For all its faults, I still love seeking out those one-off places that aren't chains/franchises (although Chili's does hold a spot that's near and dear to my heart). Albany is full of those places, and because of that, there should never be a shortage of dining experiences to write about.

My digression above leads me to write about my latest dining experience: Totem Sushi. Totem is the newest addition to the ever changing Lark Street dining scene. Noticably absent from that scene was a good sushi place; unfortunately, thats still the case. Totem does, however, have two things going for it: (1) location, (2) a clientele that is not necessarily inclined to drive to better, yet farther sushi haunts in the Guilderlands or Latham, for instance, and (3) depth and variety of its rolls.

Totem offers an unassuming storefront facing Lark Street. You enter into a long and narrow space with subdued lighting. You could almost picture the previous space to be a bar which they had retrofitted with 2 and 4 top tables and a large, with long bar in the back. A large plasma television hangs over the bar area. My impressions were favorable upon entering: the dining room was full of 20-somthing and 30-something patrons. Since there were no tables available, my dining partner and I took a seat at the bar. This was not, however, a sushi bar, but a seat at the bar from which they apparently serve wine and beer. Unfortunately, the bar wasnt made to dine at, since there was no room for your knees so you had to sit about two feet away from the counter space. Moreover, the sushi chef is working on a small counter away from the bar, so a seat at the bar is not necessarily the same as sitting at the sushi bar.

The menu is balanced -- it offers a few appetizers, some sushi/sashimi/roll combination plates, and what I believe is their twist on a sushi menu - 26 unique rolls - lettered A through Z (e.g., the "C" roll is a crab roll and the "S" roll is a spicy tuna or spicy salmon roll). I settled on two rolls: the rainbow roll ($10) and the spicy tuna roll ($7), and my dining partner ordered a philadelphia roll ($7) and the "house" roll ($15) which was basically a spicy tuna roll, tempura battered and flash fried.

I know this is where I lose sushi connoiseurs -- they're all thinking "how can you order such 'gringo' sushi" - that stuff's for kids, etc. My point is that those rolls are all familiar, I can get a consistent experience for purposes of comparing Totem to other places, and most of all, since I didnt see any fish displayed in the sushi case, I wasnt about to try Totem's sashimi plate.

Considering that there was only one sushi chef making dishes for over 40 diners, the service was satisfactory. All of the rolls arrived within 20 minutes of ordering.

Two large plates arrived with the artfully displayed rolls - the house roll with a brightly colored slaw of carrots draped the roll, and the kaleidoscope-like colors of the rainbow roll took the stage front-and-center.

I was immediately turned off by the apperance of the spicy tuna roll, and in fact inquired to my dining partner whether I had ordered that roll. The roll featured a faint pink filling and my dining partner advised me that was my spicy tuna roll and added that perhaps they put too much mayonnaise inside it (I then reminded myself that there should be no mayonnaise inside a spicy tuna roll). The first bite was tell-tale: the sushi rice was incredibly dry and almost "al dente" - meaning it was either undercooked or had been sitting against the walls of the rice cooker for too long. The spicy tuna "filling" left much to be desired, to wit: spice and tuna. I was incredibly unimpressed with the roll and dismissed it as being one step above grocery store sushi.

I ventured into trying my dining partner's house roll. Upon examination the tempura batter was dense and heavy. The roll had been cooked to the point that each layer of the roll was uniform. I took a taste and my initial thoughts were confirmed: the tempura was nearly as heavy as pancake batter, or batter one would use to coat a chicken tender, and the oil had picked up the "greasy" flavors of prior dishes cooked therein. It was more of a disappointment than the last roll considering that the "house special" more than double the price of the spicy tuna roll.

The rainbow roll was the only redeeming item of the night. The fish tasted relatively fresh and the cucumber and avocado was bright and refreshing. Unfortuantely, the overly dried out rice really detracted from an otherwise decent roll.

I grudginly left Totem, and unlike other dining establishments of the past, vowed to never return -- unless its after a late night of heavy drinking on lark street.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Via Fresca

Although I get a lot of criticism (from my friends) for my decision to move to Albany, New York, this city, and this region, in particular, has a lot to offer: outdoor activities, great weather (for about 8 months of the year), amazing vistas, access to fabulous cities in North America, and what I've learned in my past two years here: Great Bread. You hear a lot of NY-transplants (especially those in South Florida where I lived immediately prior to my move to Albany), kvetch about their inability to find really good pizza or bagels anywhere outside of NY. Most have bought into the theory that it has "something to do with the water." In fact, some restaurants, outside of NY, have gone so far as to ship NY water across the country to preserve the authentic NY-dough taste (see, e.g.,

As much as the water may play a role in the quality commercially-available bread / dough you find in this area, I also attribute the quality to two other things: (i) old, well-seasoned ovens and (ii) tried-and-true bread making recipes handed down from generation to generation.

Since nearly every restaurant and deli in the region has access to great bread, then, to some degree, the playing field (for sandwich places) is leveled. This leaves other variables: (i) variety/diversity of menu, (ii) service, (iii) quality, and (iv) price.

Via Fresca ("VF") makes the best of each of these variables.

Italian-inspired panini sandwiches are springing up all over town. Ambititious panini-meisters are offering a panini of some type since adding a panini press requires little to no modification of an existing kitchen and generally restauranteurs can add 10 percent or more to the cost of the sandwich by throwing some Italian words into the mix: like Foccacia. Or Arugula. Or Balsamic-glazed. However, when my "Ma-and-Pa" deli located not too far (not Windows on the Woods, either) from here hopped on the bandwagon, I feared the trend had spun out of control. The problem with these fringe panini-meisters is that they tend to obfuscate the perfect simplicity of the sandwich by putting too much crap in it. The bread is the main event; there shouldn't be more stuff inside than outside.

VF understands the importance of the sandwich equation. But more about that below.

VF is a relatively new restaurant founded by Cristina and John Randazzo; both both are alumnae of Provence, a fine French restaurant located in Albany. VF is located in a free-standing building on a stretch of Western Avenue that connects Albany and Guilderland. It features ample parking, and in fact, some of that space would be well-served by an outdoor dining area/picnic tables to take advantage of the gorgeous weather. VF has a large catering menu and its not unusual to see delivery trucks or vans outside the premises picking up a large order.

You enter through an entrance just astride the parking lot and up a few steps into the space. Blonde wood floors and large windows drown the room with sunlight. Sharply contrasting midnight-blue table cloths on each of the deli's six tables anchor the place together. A large deli counter displays the day's freshly prepared hot and cold food offerings together with large cuts of deli meats, each of which are beautifully showcased. The walls are lined with tall shelves stocked with gourmet ingredients like fine pasta, rich olive oil, aged balsamic vinegar, and many other items, each of which are available for sale. VF is more than a deli counter, it is also a great, local (!), purveyor of fine foodstuffs. Once inside VF, you immediately get the feeling that you're not in the deli on the corner that you may be familiar with.

But, alas, I'm here for a panini sandwich.

I ordered a simple sandwich of prosciutto and fresh mozzarella. Thats it. No more, no less. VF does however, have an extensive "sub" and "panini" menu. Many sandwiches are far more complex, but again VF understands and never loses sight of the aforementioned sandwich equation. To tide you over until your sandwich is available, VF stocks some interesting bottled drinks: aranciata and limonata from Italy, slightly fizzy; and Izze sparkling fruit juices from Colorado. I wouldn’t have predicted that sparkling water and pear juice would combine well, but they’re tangy and excellent.

The paninis are made on a smoky, crunchy and chewy ciabatta bread. Going back to my point about "well-seasoned" ovens -- you can see the dark charcoal-y spots on the oversized bread -- telltale signs of the oven's past. You order the sandwich by name or by ingredients, and you take a seat (or peruse the well stocked shelves). You don't follow your sandwich down a conveyor belt or assembly line; it is less primal than the routine practiced at "other" sandwich places, where you follow your sandwich as it is assembled on a condiment-rich production line and can bark "can you throw some jalepenos to my mc-bacon-onion- ranch-turkey-wrap." Have faith in Cristina and John and trust your sandwich to them, they won't let you down.

I opt to dine in and enjoy the Times (NY Times, not Times Union). Cristina brings out my sandwich which is practically falling off the plate because of its size. Its immediatly apparent that I will need some tin foil to wrap up half for later. Cut on the bias, the cross section reveals gently-melted mozzarella which has barely started binding to the deliciously salty prosciutto beneath. You immediately note that the sandwich doesnt have the grill marks that show up on most paninis elsewhere. This is because the ciabatta - a large shoe shaped bread - has an incredibly non-porous and resilient exterior, but yields upon bite to a light, creamy, and airy, interior. Albany Jane described the bread in a previous entry on her blog ( as "Breaven." Her desription is spot-on. The prosciutto was top notch -- lean enough to not overpower the delicate balance of the sandwich, while flavorful enough to really impart a spicy and salty bite.

Of course, the menu doesn't just begin and end with paninis. There is a wide variety of sub sandwiches, each served on a delicious local sub roll. Fresh ingredients make all the difference and a peer into the assembly area shows that VF doesnt pre-cut a day or week's worth of ingredients in advance. Small, carefully planned batches are prepared before the shift or even during the shift to ensure maximum freshness.

There is also a bountiful salad menu, although a former dining partner commented that the salad doesn't offer a good value for the money. VF also has hot dishes available, which, as I've observed, rotate on a daily basis.

VF is an incredible place to pick up a quick bite, but at the same time, a great place to sit back, take in the sites, visit its sinfully delicious dessert counter, and read the paper over lunch. Its high-end enough to indulge in your penchant for ingredients like capers or basil oil, but not so fancy that you can't rush back to the office to wolf down your milanese-chicken-grilled-panini-with-basil over your computer keyboard.

I only wish VF was open later (it closes at 7) so I could enjoy a carryout sandwich after work. I also wish VF tried its hand at more soup. Considering how talented they are with artisinal sandwiches and other items, I have everything to gain from what I'm sure would be a great meal.

Stop by VF, talk to its owners, and it becomes clear that VF is not a place that wants to force its agenda. It's a restaurant that was opened for the same reason as countless others: to be a place for people to eat, drink and have a good time, all at a great value. Its a welcome addition to the Albany dining scene and I hope they're here for the duration.

Via Fresca
1666 Western Avenue
Albany, New York 12203

NB: a former dining partner asked me to mention that VF deserves "+ 1 million points" for their coconut macaroons. I haven't tried them, but this dining partner is generally a tough critic so I'll take their word for it.

Thursday, September 28, 2006


Another weekend usually brings about more travel. It's been the case all summer long and last weekend was no exception. My uncle had been asking to meet up for dinner for the past few weeks now, and considering the fact that (1) he's one of my favorite uncles and (2) food was involved, no arm-twisting was required to get me to submit to his request.

We agreed to dine at Nanking - a relatively new Chinese/Thai restaurant in New Hyde Park (Long Island) NY. I tend to steer clear of dining establishments that try to serve more than one type of cuisine -- you usually end up with a botched attempt at both cuisines. Nanking also offers, in addition to the foregoing, "Hakka" style cuisine. Hakka food is, generally speaking, a type of Chinese cooking preparation in the Indian style and using Indian ingredients. The cuisine is attributed to the Chinese communities of Bombay and Calcutta where the curry influences were fused with the traditions they brought with them from the Canton province. I was particularly excited about Nanking's Hakka offerings.

After driving through the backroads of central Long Island for what seemed like an eternity, we finally arrived to a packed parking lot. The unassuming exterior leads into a bright, loud and energetic space. The space is beautiful and my brothers (who also joined us at dinner) unanimously agreed that the structure was not very "long-island-like" and looked like something you'd find in New York City or Las Vegas. The space features copper tables, plush velvet seating, gorgeous wood floors, and large bamboo planters which separate the various areas of the restaurant. (NK +1)

The floor manager was overly friendly and treated each guest as if he or she was a special honored guest of the restaurant. I live for service like this. (NK+ 1). He personally greeted each patron with a healthy handshake, and gave an accurate estimate of the time until the party is seated.

We were led to our table which featured a small drink menu printed on a table tent and there were large oversized leather-bound menus already placed in front of us. Our server hastily rushed to the table to take our drink order. My youngest brother and I ordered each a drink special which were Asian influenced martinis, and my uncle ordered a ridiculously weak Scotch and soda. My drink was entirely too strong which took away from the hints of citrus and ginger which the drink was to be infused with.

For first course we ordered grilled lamb chops ($12) which brought 5 pieces to an order and breaded and flash fried shrimp ($12) which brought between 7-8 to an order. The lamb was pounded and incredibly tender despite being cooked well past medium/medium well. The lamb was marinated in garlic and chili and grilled. Hands down, this dish was the highlight of the evening. (NK +1). In fact, if I return, I'd be fine ordering this as an entree accompanied with a bowl of noodles or rice. The shrimp, regretfully, left much to be desired. NK seemed to use those 18-20 count shrimp, failed to really marinate them in anything, and over breaded the shrimp in a dense coating. (NK - 1). Fortunately, the dish was served in a incredibly fresh green garlic and onion "relish" which I and my dining partners made quick use of for the shrimp and for our lamb. (NK + 1).

Our server suggested that we order 4 courses for our dinner entrees, but we took a look around the dining room and it was clear that NK serves up copious amounts of food for each dish. We settled on 3 dishes: Crispy whole fish (~$20), Hakka Noodles with Chicken (~$12), and Crispy Chicken with Dried Chilies(~$15).

The Crispy Whole Fish dominated the table. It was served on an oversized platter and the head and tail of the fish was spilling off the edge of the plate. You could choose between pomfret or red snapper and we had settled on the latter. The fish was generously sauced with a deliciously complex sauce which was garlicly, spicy, sour and had gingery notes throughout. (NK + 1). The fish, on the other hand, was a bit overdone and was very difficult to dismantle and eat. The rice flour breading had hardened and was not as delicate as fried fish I've had at other places. (NK - 1).

The Crispy Chicken featured small pieces of white and dark meat lightly breaded, fried, and served in a sweet and spicy sauce with honey. It included diced peanuts, red and green bell peppers, and onion. Frankly, the dish was uninspired and reminded me of a breaded Kung Pao chicken. The dish included a large bowl of white rice.

The Hakka Noodles were pedestrian; they really didnt seem like much more a mere departure from lo mein noodles served in a Chinese restaurant. The noodles were woefully underseasoned and devoid any much, if any, chicken at all. (NK - 1)

As a general comment, we had ordered each dish "spicy," but we all found ourselves adjusting the spice using one of the three chili-based condiments available on each table.

Dessert was a welcome end to our dinner at Nanking. We ordered bananas wrapped in crispy rice paper which were then drizzled with honey. Two large scoops of vanilla ice cream and a dollop of fresh whipped cream rounded out the plate.

Final Score: NK +2

2056 Hillside Avenue
New Hyde Park, New York
(516) 352-0009

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Bagel Bite

This morning a friend and I went to Bagel Bite on Delaware Avenue. Its a place I've heard a lot about, driven by a few times, but have yet to dine there. Usually I end up at Johnny B's diner or when I'm feeling especially generous (or the cash flow is in the black), I'll go by Madison's End Cafe.

Bagel Bite is tucked away on a stretch of Delaware Avenue between Delmar and Albany. It features a parking lot and also offers sufficient street parking. There is seating for about 60-70 scattered across a number of 2 and 4-top tables.

The dining room was completely full upon entering. We were greeted by one of the 2 servers working the entire (!) floor and were seated. The place has a nice charm to it and its obvious how it has developed quite a following. Its the type of place you'd want to unfold the newspaper, enjoy a cup of coffee and a light breakfast. Unfortunately, considering how busy it was, and the poorly staffed dining room, you couldn't help but make it into Section B of the paper before your order was taken. I'm sure this was only a consequence of the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

The menu features "typical" diner breakfast offerings, including omelettes, egg sandwiches, pancakes and french toast. There's also an extensive deli menu, grilled sandwich menu, and, what Bagel Bite calls its "Mediterranean" dishes. Each dish was priced between $7-$13 and frankly I didnt feel like experimenting at that cost.

I settled on the Challah-French-Toast ($5.95) and a cup of coffee ($1.50) and my dining partner, who'd been there before, ordered a grilled vegetable sandwich accompanied by a side of potato salad ($7.95). The French Toast doesnt provide any sides which are each ordered a la carte.

Despite how busy it was, the order was processed relatively quickly and light conversation made the time pass faster. In the meantime I observed other diners and concluded that, irrespective of my experience this morning, I must try the pancakes and a turkey sandwich. The pancakes were golden brown and had the appearance of being light and airy. The turkey sandwich was freshly roasted (according to the menu) and piled high on what looked like a bulk roll.

The French Toast was served on a large platter, although it only provided three rather meager looking slices of bread. The color was a bit lighter than I would like and didnt appear to have been soaked in the eggy-creamy custard batter for too long. Also, rather than being accompanied with a bottle of warm maple syrup, or even those IHOP-styly tableside syrup, it was served with a ramekin full of those pre-packaged syrups that are always too sweet and refined-tasting (BB-1). I understand that BB may be trying to control portion size, but in my opinion, this cheapens the experience. The custard/batter was missing "something" -- perhaps a dash of cinnamon, nutmeg, or just salt.

My dining partner also offered me some of the grilled vegetable sandwich. It included roasted peppers, eggplant and onion, dressed with a "dijonnaise"-type dressing on "grilled" rye bread. The vegetables were perfectly cooked and seasoned, although I'd probably pass on the dressing which was way too tart for the sandwich. (BB +1). My main complaint, however, was the greasiness of the "grilled" bread. (BB-1). It was like they soaked the sandwich in butter and then cooked it on the flat-top. The sides of your mouth felt like you just ate a dozen buffalo wings without any napkins. In fact, as I write this I subconsciously just wiped my mouth.

Overall it was a decent-experience. One of my main complaints (hoping not to sound too "cheap") is the "no sharing" policy they have installed at BB. In order to share a dish, BB adds a $2.00 surcharge to the already pricey menu cost. In my opinion, there is no restaurant in Albany (or really anywhere) that can justify this practice.

As with other restaurants I've reviewed in this blog, I'll definately be back -- to try their pastrami or roated turkey. With the bread "dry" of course.

Final score: BB -1.

Bagel Bite
544 Delaware Avenue
Albany NY 12209

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Ocean Palace

Ocean Palace (OP) was my latest stop on this tour-of-Albany. I was craving Dim Sum so the following entry, with the exception of soup, will solely emphasize on that aspect of the establishment.

This review of OP also marks the first entry which features a restaurant which has been reviewed by other local food bloggers, including Albany Jane ( As I said in my initial entry this is inevitable in a small town like Albany where there is only a finite number of dining establishments. Nonetheless, I love how two similarly situated persons can come to form different opinions about a place. OP is one such instance.

OP is a place I really want to love, and I'm sure that'll come across when I review OP's other fine lunch and dinner offerings.

Many people ask me about my favorite (local) Chinese restaurants. I invariably direct them to Ocean Palace, with a few caveats: 1) try to go during lunch hour to take advantage of the 40+ lunch offerings, 2) do try one of the posted specials, and 3) by all means, don't water-down the experience by ordering OP for take-out; your neighborhood strip-mall Chinese-take-out place is better suited for that.

OP is set off a busy segment of Central Avenue. Its located on the main floor of an office building that, frankly, looks abandoned. You enter the building and just past the vestibule doors lies a scene reminscent from an old Kung Fu movie. To your right lies a large fish tank with fish that's ostensibly going to end up in that evening's dinner special. The lighting is subdued, but not in a romantic way, and gives off an element of "seedyness." You can almost picture a time, when there were a roomful of diners, plates and cups clattering, and the intense smoke from handrolled cigarettes lingering in the air. This is no longer the scene and the room feels dingy. Curiously, there's a large projector screen draped over a wall in the back part of the restaurant. I've seen it functioning on certain occasions, usually projecting Chinese television programs or on one occasion the Judge Joe Brown show.

I remind myself that I'm not here for the atmoshphere, and if atmoshphere was what I had sought, I could try out many of Albany's more "upscale" establishments (even though the food quality may be, regretfully, lacking).

The service at OP is anemic. Even during the busy lunch hour, there are usually only 2 - 3 servers working the entire floor, which, at capacity, may have nearly 50-75 diners. I stand up in my booth to look around, trying to make eye contact with a server, thinking that I perhaps snuck into to the restaurant unannounced. (OP -1)

My dining partner and I have previously agreed on Dim Sum. We both wanted an order of soup, so I opted for my favorite, Hot & Sour, and my partner ordered Egg Drop. Although there are many Chinese soups available, I like using Hot & Sour soup as a benchmark by which I can compare other Chinese restaurants. The soup was delivered with an order of crispy flat noodles, and I requested a side of chili paste. On the plus side, the soup was full of bamboo shoots, wood ear mushrooms, and pork. Also, a huge pet peeve of mine, when it comes to starch thickened soups (arrowroot or cornstarch) is when they're over thickened. You know, when/if you bring home leftovers and the next morning its hardened to take on the shape of the plastic container. Anyhow, OP found the right thickness for its Hot & Sour soup. Unfortunately, however, the soup was too "bright" -- it was too sour and not nearly hot enough. A few additions including the chili paste helped bring it into balance, but I wouldve prefered it right, straight from the pot. (OP -1)

I also placed our Dim Sum order along with the soup order. We settled on

1) Har Gow
2) Sui Mai
3) Beef rice roll
4) Bean curd cake with shrimp

All four dishes arrived simultanously and within 5 minutes of finishing the soup course.

In my experience, Har Gow and Sui Mai are usually served in the bamboo (or metal) steamers. Unfortunately, they were served on side plates, 4 to an order, with the typical serving sauces off to the side in a ramekin. I know its just a matter of presentation, but I really enjoy receiving the food in its typical cooking vessel (OP -1).

I tried the Har Gow first since it's the item with the shortest shelf life. This dish, in particular, epitomized my dissatisfaction with the Dim Sum offerings of the evening. Har Gow is a light, transparent, shrimp dumpling. The wrapper is merely a means to deliver the shrimp-y goodness inside and should very little away from that. Unfortunately, the wrapper was excessively gummy, and worst of all, its clear that OP doesnt use fresh shrimp in its Dim Sum. The shrimp was overcooked, not deveined, and tasted otherwise "fishy." Sadly, I ordered two Dim Sum plates with shrimp, the Bean Curd Cake being the second. (OP-1)

The Bean Curd Cake featured an approximately 2" cubed piece of white bean curd, topped with a shrimp paste and formed around 1-2 pieces of the aforementioned shrimp. The cake was lightly battered, the consistency of which was just thicker than tempura. As delicate as this dish could've been, it missed on two points: 1) the poor quality of the shrimp used and 2) it was evident that the oil in the fryer had not been changed recently. Overall, the Cake was bland and underwhelming

Hitting rockbottom, OP's offerings grew better as dinner progressed. The Sui Mai (steamed dumplings with pork and shrimp) were better, despite the addition of the same shrimp from before. Fortunately, the shrimp in the Sui Mai were minced, so you didnt get the full effect as you would in a dish like Har Gow. The pork was well seasoned, albeit a bit denser than I'd like in a Sui Mai plate.

Finally, the highlight of the evening (if you can call it that) was the Beef Rice Roll. It brought three pieces to an order already dressed with its appropriate sauce. Unfortunately, I wasnt adept enough with the chopsticks to try to eat this dish without the aid of Western utensils. The dish featured minced beef, water chestnuts, garlic and cilantro, wrapped in a rice noodle, with a delicious sweet soy sauce. The beef was perfectly cooked and seasoned, and the noodle was thick enough to hold in the filling. (OP +1)

Despite an overall score of (-3), I will return to OP and hopefully, represent to each of you, how it remains one of my favorite Chinese restaurants in the Capital region. Next time, however, I'll save my Dim Sum for NYC.

Ocean Palace
855 Central Ave
Albany, NY 12206
(518) 453-6258

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Postscript - Windows on the Woods

I've decided to decuct a point from Windows on the Woods' in light of a recent event this afternoon. Some may call me lazy in doing so, but I guess it's a matter of principle. I upsets me that WotW has a requirement that minimum orders need to be $15.00 for food to be delivered. There are other sandwich places, such as Plaza Deli, which is, not only further from office, but will often deliver even a bowl of soup ($2.75), recognizing that it's something that's desired in a office park environment. Although it makes sense to collect multiple orders from our office, each of the attorneys and assistants seem to eat at staggered times.

Irrespective of the foregoing, I still believe WotW offers a terrific value and encourage everyone local to check it out.

Monday, September 18, 2006


In retrospect, its really not fair of me to write about restaurants when they're out of town, but in this case, I couldn't help but share about one of my favorite fast-food restaurants. I really don't care to eat fast food that much, but two of my all-time favorites include "In n Out" (a hamburger chain located in California, Arizona, and Nevada -- entry pending for late October) and Chick-fil-a.

Seriously, if chicken were a religion, then Chick-fil-a is its temple.

My first experience at CFA dates back to the 8th grade. The middle school I attended, in Roswell GA, offered its students a voucher for a CFA meal for each "A" he or she received on his or her report card. I've always been a fan of incentivizing certain achievements: bonuses at work, toys or other items for good grades, etc., so this incentive, was a bit peculiar to me since it didnt necessarily want me to work harder in school, until I had my first taste of a CFA sandwich.

The CFA website describes the ubiquitous "chicken sandwich" as a boneless breast of chicken seasoned to perfection, breaded, pressure cooked in peanut oil and served on a toasted, buttered bun with dill pickle chips. That does, in fact, sum it up, but words truly fail to capture how incredibly tender, succulent, and tasty the sandwich really is.

The Chick-Fil-A is just your basic chicken sandwich. It's served on a hamburger bun and adorned with a simple slice of pickle or two (I order my CFA sans pickle), but it’s the chicken breast filet that really makes the sandwich. Coasted in a sweet and savory batter and deep-fried in peanut oil, the CFA is sublime in its simplicity. It’s juicy, tender, and really just melts in your mouth. (CFA +1)

Of course, you’re free to add any condiments you like, and same are provided for your enjoyment. Most sandwiches will run you about $3, and are available in a combo. You can also choose a Chargrilled Chicken Sandwich in a straight or club variety.

Either way, you’ll find that your chicken sandwich is presented much more intact than what you get at the average burger joint. The buns always seem fresher here, the sandwich is never “thrown together” in haphazard fashion, and the insulated foil bag keeps it fresh and hot until you’re ready to eat. (CFA +1)

Of course, you’ll want to add an order of Waffle Fries. Tired of the average fast food fry? These are a cut above, home cut waffle pattern fries that go great with your sandwich. (CFA +1)

Towards that end, Chicken Nuggets and Chicken Strips here are about the best you’ll find anywhere. Not pressed or formed, these are fresh strips and chunks of the same juicy, tender chicken used for the sandwich. Available with your choice of dipping sauce, they’re truly addictive. My only quibble is the price: at $5.99 for 12 rather small nuggets, they are a bit expensive indeed (CFA - 1)

CFA also offers wraps amongst other standard side items including a creamy coleslaw largely reminiscent of the KFC variety. Even the beverage choices go the extra mile, with the usual assortment of Coke products being complemented by fresh squeezed lemonade made daily and freshly brewed SWEET TEA (CFA +1) .

Note, consistent with company policy, all CFA's are closed on Sundays, so plan to eat there on Mondays through Saturdays. (CFA -1 --(I know its a family values thing, but why is it that I always decide on CFA on Sundays)).

Sadly there are no locations in or near Albany NY (CFA-1). I suppose I'll have to schedule some more trips around CFA locations.

Locations nationwide (except Albany of course):

Wu Liang Ye

Other than food, I am pretty passionate about traveling -- whether they're short weekend trips, or just day trips, I love to get away and hopefully, take in some new restaurants while on travel. Below I'm briefly summarized a recent experience in NYC. I wrote this prior to creating the blog, but wanted to upload it in the interest of completeness.

During a recent trip to NYC I was craving "authentic" Chinese cuisine prepared in the Sichuan (Szechuan) style. Sichuan food enjoys a reputation for being spicy and flavorful, and primarily employs preparation techniques such as stirfrying, steaming, and braising.

I've heard rave recommendations about "Wu Liang Ye" which has several locations in Manhattan. I was closest to the one at Lexington and 39th.

The dining room was empty on Saturday night ~ 9:30 pm. Most of the staff were sharing "hot pot" type dishes in the back of the restaurant. I secretely desired to share what they were eating. My dining partner and I were overwhelmed by the menu -- it was nearly 10 pages offering well over 200 dishes.

We ordered a few beers each and then ordered:

(1) Dan Dan Noodles
(2) Poached Razor Clams
(3) Sliced Beef Tendons
(4) Tea Smoked Duck

This was the first time I had tried Dan Dan Noodles. They were tossed tableside and when the hot/warm noodles were mixed in with the "vinaigrette" it released it salty/sweet/earthy aroma. We knew we were in for a treat. The noodles offered so many flavors dancing around in your mouth. (WLY +1) To those who'd never had it before, I'd liken it to a "chinese bolognese" but even that phrase doesnt do the dish any justice. If I lived in NYC, this would certainly be a weekly treat for me. My only recommendation -- and Im sure this is a bastardization of the meal -- would be to add some extra spinach and perhaps some chopped green onion.

The Poached Razor clams "special" was prominently displayed over the bar. I had read about prior recommendations of the dish and ordered it. The dish was served cold accompanied by a scallion sauce. Again, the dish was infused with an abundance of flavor; my only regret was that I wish this dish was served before the noodles as I wouldve benefitted from a "cleaner" palatte to really enjoy the clams.

Sliced Beef Tendons may have been the highlight of the evening. (WLY +1) This dish was served cold and offered a salty/chewy/crunchy texture. It was served in a red sichuan oil "sauce" and this dish really challenged and highlighted what traditional "carry-out" chinese places cannot offer to the public at large. It really made me wish I lived in NYC (just for a moment :) so I could experience foods like this on a regular basis.

The tea smoked duck arrived along with the Tendons. It was half a duck (at this point my dining partner and I were so full) and chopped into bite sized pieces. The first bite revealed a smoky/earthy and salty quality. The duck was not gamey and offered a crackly skin. It was perfect. We contemplated how they prepared the dish so quickly and agreed that it was likely prepared in advanced and kept in some type of oven that didnt dry out the meat while still maintaining a crisp skin. We finished the best pieces of the duck leaving behind some bones and large pieces of fat.

I look forward to my next visit to NYC to try out Wu Liang Ye again. I only hope the next time I can go with a larger group of similarly-minded diners so I can try out a larger variety of dishes.

Wu Liang Ye
338 Lexington Ave
New York, NY 10016
(212) 370-9647

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Windows on the Woods

Windows on the Woods has two locations and, from what I understand from the chef/owner, George Shoemaker, initially started out as a catering company. A Google search yields several recipes by George (pun intended) Click Here or Here.

The deli is only open during business lunch hours (weekdays 11:00 am to 3:00 pm). The restaurant space has about 6-8 tables in the front and a long deli-counter near the back of the store. Before you enter, you're greeted by the sign which indicates the deli "Proudly Brews Starbucks Coffee" (WotW +1). The coffee prices are reasonable and given its proximity (to our office in particular), helps out when you're in need of a caffeine rush, especially when you're not interested in consuming "office coffee."

WotW's menu offers salads, wraps, grilled and 'traditional' deli sandwiches. The prices are rather reasonable and the most expensive item, I believe, is about $6.50. I've found the portions to be very generous (WotW +1). I think WotW keeps its prices relatively low (at least a good value) since they don't use any high-cost meats or ingredients. In fact, they don't even offer an "italian-mix" type sandwich on their menu since deli meats such as prosciutto or genoa get costly. That said, however, they do stock cheese beyond typical american/swiss/cheddar keeping items such as mozzarella, brie, feta, and others. Having this variety on hand allows WotW, or its patrons, to create a great assortment of sandwiches, wraps, salads, or paninis, beyond what's on the menu. (WotW +1).

Since it opened last Spring, I've enjoyed several wraps and sandwiches off their menu. My initial impression was, in fact, not favorable. I had ordered the roast beef sandwich on their multi-grain bread. The bread was very thick and "doughy" tasting. (WotW -1). I also didn't care (nor do I still) for the roast beef they use. The beef has a metallic aftertaste and really lacks any jus flavor. (WotW -1). I nearly swore off WotW after that overall experience, but considering the unavailability of dining options within a walking distance, I returned the following week.

Upon subsequent visits I learned that WotW uses freshly roasted chicken for its chicken sandwiches, salads, and wraps. Each item contains nearly 6 - 8 ounces of grilled chicken (depending on who makes your sandwich) (WotW +1). My favorite wrap, which I'm sure I'll write about in a future entry, is the Greek wrap. It features grilled chicken, spinach, roasted peppers, an "herb mayonnaise," and deliciously salty Feta cheese. Other wrap offerings, which I've enjoyed, include the thai chicken wrap (with a great Asian-inspired chili vinagrette), and a roasted vegetable wrap.

I also tried the sandwich again, but this time opted for them to make a pressed turkey sandwich using the panini press. The bread they use is the same one I had before for the plain sandwich. Since its a thick bread, it held up very well under the weight of the panini press, and the bread tasted far better being slightly toasted. I think WotW would have better luck with the plain (un-pressed) sandwiches if they used a better tasting bread for those sandwiches. I should note that they offer several pre-designed sandwiches, or you can mix and match meats and cheeses and create your own for just under $5.00.

For those of you who know me personally, you may know that one of my favorite foods is soup. WotW offers incredible homemade soups that rotate on a nearly daily basis. In fact, the reason I'm adding this entry today, is because I recently waxed nostalgic about WotW's homemade New England Clam Chowder. (WotW +1)

There are two types of clam chowders available in this part of the country; New England and Manhattan. The New England version is the most popular and served up in most restaurants on Fridays, having the thick, cream based broth. The Manhattan is the lesser-known, lesser-loved (?) tomato based one. I've always preferred the New England style to the Manhattan one, with my favorite commercially available one being that served at Legal Seafood.

WotW's chowder offers an incredibly creamy and rich broth (read: high-calorie), and has all the qualities I enjoy: huge chunks of potato and fishy, briny, meaty clams. Its thick enough to adequately cover the back of a spoon and perfectly seasoned, leaving to the eater the addition of a few specks of pepper if desired. Its accompanied by a bag of oyster crackers, but I usually ask them for a piece of the French baguette, which demands are always graciously accepted.

If you're in the area -- whether its in our office park, or any of the other ones near Crossgates/Washington Ave Extension, it behooves you to give WotW a try.

(Score O being par, WotW +3)

Windows on the Woods
13 Columbia Circle
Albany, NY 12203

Happy dining,

NB -- I've received some feedback about the "point system." I understand this is a completely arbitrary system, e.g., giving a point in this case for their chowder, but I am trying to design some way to keep tally of the places I've written about without using a traditional "#x out of #y" system. If you have any suggestions, comments, etc., please write. Thanks so much.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Chico's BBQ - Guilderland, New York

Chico's BBQ - Guilderland, New York

This inaugural post in the Albany New York and Capital Region Restaurant blog features Chico's BBQ in Guilderland, New York.


I am hopeful that I'll keep up with this blog on a regular basis, and request all of my readers to submit comments -- either publicly or privately, on a recent dining experience, food trend, or any other matter -- whether or not it relates to restaurants in Albany, New York.

I love food and travel (pretty much in that order). I enjoy reading about food, cooking it, and eating great dishes. My love of all things food stems from my family background. I hail from a very large extended family where I was, in fact, raised by my Grandparents. Family gatherings were commonplace and food was the focal point. Everyone in my family, men included, can cook very well. It would also be helpful to my readers to know that I'm first generation Indian-American. My grandfather emigrated here in the early 1970's and my parents shortly thereafter. The reason this bit of information is important is that I believe my cultural background has helped me appreciate and develop my palette for certain flavors. Although many, if not most, Indians are vegetarians, my family has always been omnivores. I was enjoying certain "delicacies" well before they were in style now in the finest French restaurants. I recall while growing up that I was embarrassed to tell my (American) friends that I had a dinner which consisted of liver, gizzards, lamb, goat, or even lamb brain.

This afternoon, after much planning, I was able to join fellow food-blogger, Warren Redlich. Warren is a local attorney and regularly posts about dining in this area. While it's likely that many of our entries will overlap, hopefully we'll each be able to provide our own unique perspective on a particular dining experience.

Warren and I agreed to meet at Chico's BBQ in Guilderland, NY. Warren, who was born and raised in Guilderland, explained to me that the location of the restaurant has evolved through many iterations during the past several years. This was immediately apparent upon entering the premises, which was largely reminiscent of a "country kitchen" or casual Italian restaurant.

I did not protest to meeting at a BBQ restaurant since its one of my favorite foods. I've lived in South Florida for the past 13 years with brief stints in Georgia and South Carolina in between, so I've been fortunate enough to try very good BBQ. As an aside, I've found that many "BBQ" places in this part of the country are really grilled meats and not "slow and low" BBQ.

My point (if any) being that I was welcomed by the familiar smell of smoke upon entering Chico's. This was a positive thing and I looked forward to the meal ahead. (Chico's +1)

We sat down and I noticed that we were the only people dining in the restaurant (at least in our dining room). It was just past noon so this was a bit of concern (Chico's -1).

The server was kind enough and allowed us ample time to study the menu. She asked for our drink order and I requested Sweet Tea. For a brief moment I was whisked away to the South and hopeful they would have Sweet Tea. I was elated to hear they had it, but upon further inquiry, I learned that it was Sweet Tea from a fountain and not freshly brewed. (Chico's -1).

Shortly thereafter Warren and I ordered lunch. For me, the standard "control group" dish is how well a BBQ establishment can cook chicken. The benchmark is Shorty's BBQ in Miami (yes, Miami) Fla. Chicken is difficult in the sense that it can't be over or undercooked and it takes a talented cook to make it just right. I also think a restaurant with high turnover is key since many places may "sandbag" chicken (i.e., make it in advance and heat before serving) since the smoking/bbq'ing process is a time-consuming one. The quarter chicken (dark meat, always) "platter" comes accompanied by two sides ($5.99). I opted for coleslaw and mashed potatoes. Platter's also come with a piece of cornbread. (I wouldnt normally order chicken on the bone for a "working" lunch, but this was in the interest of science...and blogging).

Unfortunately, I'm not qualified to comment on Warren's dish, which was the "Plain Jane" platter ($7.99) -- hand pulled pork on a roll. Our server indicated that this was one of the more popular dishes on the menu.

The service was prompt and our dishes were on the table within 10 minutes of ordering. (Chico's +1)

Although the plate was quite full, I was disappointed by the portion size of the chicken. I first dove into the mashed potatoes. My immediate response: blech. I can't believe why a restaurant, much less a family BBQ place, would insist on using instant mashed potato flakes. The gravy was a bit salty, but had the semblance of being homemade. I tried the coleslaw next, which was okay, but a bit too "wet" and heavy on the mayonnaise. I can, however, see how the coleslaw may go well perched on a pork sandwich (Carolina style). At a moment at which bbq and other restaurants are creating well seasoned, fresh and crisp coleslaw, Chicos' slaw was just pedestrian. (Chico's -1)

Finally, I cut into the chicken. Can someone say Sandbagged?!? The skin was dried out and the meat, rather than being pink on the inside as well-smoked chicken should, started turning dry and brown. I picked around the overly dry bits on the leg and thigh and surrendered for the rest of the meal. (Chico's -1).

That said, I may consider giving Chico's another chance. The service was friendly, and I have yet to try their pulled pork. A future visit, if any, will be during dinner time or when they're busier.

Final score (0 being par: Chico's -2)

Happy dining,