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.