Monday, December 12, 2016

Bad Chain Restaurants X - Dread Lobster

I just had the blandest meal I can remember eating in a long time.

The dull dinner came about as a gift of sorts from my wife's employer. In place of a Christmas party, my wife's company instead gave everyone in her office a restaurant gift card. It's a nice gesture, and we were looking forward to a night out on her company's dime. The card arrived in the mail yesterday, and to my dismay, it was a Darden gift card.

Darden is the parent company of no less than eight restaurant chains (seven actually—I'll explain in a moment). Eight restaurants are enough to choose from, and of those eight, a few are upscale, and the food is excellent. But only two of the eight Darden chains are local to the Albany area, and none of the other six are within a two-hour drive. The two that are local to Albany are the worst of the bunch, Olive Garden, and Red Lobster.

Oh, joy.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Politics of Apologizing

No, this post is not about politics. As George Bush the elder once said, "Not gonna do it. Wouldn't be prudent."

This post is about an experience my wife and I had the other night. It's about a "stuff happens" moment that was initially handled poorly and my thoughts about how it could have been handled better.

I won't mention the name of the establishment; it's not relevant to the story. This could've happened anywhere, at most any restaurant. It was a local, sit-down full-service restaurant that is very much like a "better" chain, in the vain of casual dining similar to Cheesecake Factory, or Bonefish Grill, etc., and it has to do with the length of time we waited for our meals to come to the table. For context, I think it's reasonable to expect that you should be eating within 20-25 minutes after being seated.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Running from Hermine

We recently spent 12 days in Sarasota Florida. We had planned on spending 14 or 15 days there, but we decided to cut our vacation short due to Hurricane Hermine. Though it wasn't forecasted to hit the Sarasota area, we thought it best that we head home (we drove) before the storm hit the Florida coast. So on a Thursday morning, we hastily stuffed our bags into the car and headed north. In the photo below you can see the storm on our heels. We're the blue dot in the middle of the photo, in Gainsville, about three hours north of Sarasota. We left just in time.


The good news is Hurricanes move very slowly (Hermine was moving northeast at just 14 MPH) and for the most part, we stayed ahead of the storm. It was fun running from it, and we were far enough ahead that we were never in any real danger.

But this isn't a weather or travel blog, this is a food blog, and I want to share a couple of interesting eats I had on our trip. I didn't get to visit nearly as many places on my bucket list as I'd hoped, especially considering how much time we spent there, but I did get to a few, and here are three that stood out to me as memorable.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Bad Chain Restaurants IX - Taco Hell; Hellacious Tacos

A few weeks ago, Otis M. of the food blog Burnt My Fingers, wrote a Yelp review of a tiny Mexican restaurant in South Glens Falls, Taqueria GDL. And when I say tiny, I'm not exaggerating. The building is about the size of a two stall garage, with around 5 or 6 tables within. It sits on the southbound side of Route 9, in an area that's sort of 'urban barren', to coin a phrase.

Otis loved the tacos, claiming they're "Magical...". He tried three varieties and raved "...each was the best of its kind I have ever tasted."

The best he'd ever tasted? Heady claims indeed.

Coming from just anyone I'd write it off as irrational exuberance or inexperience, but Otis knows his stuff, and he has credibility with me. Plus, the photos he posted backed up his claim. Those tacos looked legit. Despite it being a 50 minute drive up the Northway from my home in Albany, I had to check them out for myself.

Before I get to Taqueria GDL; I had so much fun writing the piece comparing the lobster roll at Troy Kitchen to McDonald's, I wanted to do a similar comparison with tacos. So I also stopped into La Mexicana Grocery in Schenectady, and my local Taco Bell, eating a sampling of tacos at each.

The crazy things I do for this blog.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Organic Straw that Broke the Camel's Back

As I, like many, became more aware of what I was eating, and what was in it, I started eating more organic foods. My commitment to organics reached a peak a few years ago. But then I started seeing studies and articles that began to change my mind. A piece by Bjørn Lomborg in The Telegraph titled "Think organic food is better for you, animals, and the planet? Think again" (Mr. Lomborg also had a similar piece published in the NY Times), has convinced me to no longer waste my time, energy,—and especially my money—on organics. His well-written dismantling of organics (which he backs up with links to scientific studies) is the final nail in the coffin for me. In some cases I will still buy organic but if given the choice, I'm going to choose conventionally farmed food over organic, and I will no longer seek out organic alternatives to conventional foods.

Well before the Lomborg piece, I was becoming more and more skeptical of the advantages of organics and dismayed with the mendacious marketing tactics of many organic companies. I also hold contempt for the nasty radical environmentalists that advocate for organic. I don't want to help them or their causes. Of course, they're the extreme fringe and not the norm, and most of us just want to eat healthier and feel like we're helping the environment. Feel is a key word here. It's one thing to feel good; it's another to do good.

Am I doing me, my family, and the world any good by buying organic foods?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Bad Chain Restaurants VIII - A Lobster Rolls into McDonald's

Lobster rolls are a unique thing. They're the mating of shabby and chic. The melding together of expensive, fancy-schmancy, pinky-in-the-air lobster, with a cheap, blue collar hot dog roll. Who in their right mind would do such a thing? It's crazy. Crazy good! Frankly, I'd much rather eat a great lobster roll standing up outside a lobster shack, than eat a whole lobster in a fine dining setting, and all the work it takes to de-shell the thing, all while wearing that silly bib.

Moreover, lobster rolls are pure genius in their simplicity. Just three components, lobster, hot dog roll, and mayo. Those three ingredients come together to make culinary magic. And its simplicity belies what an incredibly delicious thing it can be.

Back in March I had the pleasure of attending a preview for Troy Kitchen and came away very impressed with what Troy Lobster, one of the food stalls within, was doing. I finally made it back this past weekend and ordered Troy Lobster's take on the classic Maine-style lobster roll.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Pizza Pilgrimage IV - Dinosaur Pizza

Back in March, I stumbled on a Syracuse-based news article that profiled one of the owners of Dinosaur BBQ. The article focused on the new pizza place they were opening directly across the street from the original Dinosaur location; Apizza Regionale.

According to the article, they're cooking the pizzas in a wood-fired oven imported from Naples. They claim to have cooked one thousand test pizzas before opening. They're going for Neapolitan style pizza, made with ingredients sourced from New York State producers. The flour for the dough, for example, comes from a mill in Ithica.

Impressive.

We all know what a sucker I am for Neapolitan style pizza, and it made for a great excuse to make a day trip out to Syracuse to try the pizza, and visit a couple of other iconic places since I'd be out that way. Wegman's immediately came to mind as a must stop. And since I'd be passing through Utica, I thought it'd also be cool make a detour there and have chicken riggies and Utica greens for lunch.

Things didn't quite work out as I had envisioned. It's a day I won't soon forget.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Staycationaurant V - The Tap House at Catamount Glass

It's been months since I wrote a Staycationaurant post on the blog. If you'll remember, staycationaurant is the corny term I created by mashing together the words staycation and restaurant. I've defined it as a vacation day (or days), in which I while away the hours eating at interesting or unique places. For today's post, I think I've found a business that qualifies as both the former and the latter.

This past Tuesday I had most of the day to myself, and it was beautiful; a drive was in order. I started thinking about which direction to head out of Albany. Vermont came to mind. Bennington is just one hour from Albany, and if you've been, you know what a lovely place it is. I decided to search for restaurants in the area. I discovered The Tap House at Catamount Glass.

I wouldn't call it a restaurant. And it's not a bar. I wouldn't call it a pub. I think it's aptly named, but it's not a house either, in spite of the paint job on the front of the building that evokes the shape of a classic A-frame. 

Catamount Glass initially specialized in laboratory glass and has since expanded into promotional glassware among other items, and I got the impression they're a small operation. The entrance leads you first into the glass shop. It's barely twenty-five feet long, and about 8 feet wide. There's a large selection of Catamount glassware for purchase as well as an eclectic mix of kitchen gadgets, a refrigerated case of beer and other drinks, and Vermont made foodstuffs among other items. The Tap House is to the right as you enter, and it is tiny. I think I saw seven tables. There is a door that leads out to the front patio, where I was seated, with another five tables. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Pizza Pilgrimage III - Volturno


Currently, I'm a fan of Neopolitan style pizza. I'm fascinated with it mainly because I love its bubbly charred crust. When done right the crust is light and airy, with a delightfully soft and tender chew, but it still has crispness due to the super hot wood fired oven in which it's cooked. Toppings are usually kept to a minimum and applied with a light hand because the crust is the star (though that's not always the case of course).

It's important that you call it Neopolitan style. Because to be a true Neopolitan pizza, the restaurant must be VPN certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana [link] which sets strict guidelines on ovens, ingredients, and techniques used for those claiming to serve true Neopolitan pies. Interestingly, there are surprisingly few VPN certified pizzerias in America, only about 75, and only two in NY State, both in NY City.

There's controversy surrounding the VPN certification because it doesn't necessarily ensure one makes great pizza, and it's viewed as a marketing gimmick by some because there are many pizzerias that are not certified but are making fantastic Neopolitan style pizza. Serious Eats has a good piece on the subject if you're interested in reading more about it.

Volturno is not VPN certified, but they are making top notch Neopolitan style pizza.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Pierogi at Chester's Smokehouse

When I was little, one of the treats my father would make for us was fried spaghetti. Occasionally we'd have spaghetti and meatballs, and invariably there'd be extra pasta leftover. Instead of saucing it, he'd throw the plain pasta in a frying pan with some butter. He let the pasta sit in the pan until one side browned and crisped up, then flip the whole thing, and repeat. It was one of my favorite things as a kid. Crispy, crunchy, chewy, and full of flavor from the caramelized pasta and butter. It was always a treat for me.

Fast forward to my early twenties when I discovered pierogi. I forget the brand I would buy, but I'd get them in the freezer isle at the grocery store. And I loved them. I'd fry them up in a pan with butter, and the experience reminded me of the fried spaghetti I'd have as a kid, only better, due to the addition of the mashed potato filling. Carbs on carbs. Yum.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of dining at Muza the Eastern European restaurant in Troy. Everything we had was delicious (I especially recommend the potato pancakes), except one item, the pierogi. I didn't care for them, nor did anyone in our group. The main downfall being the overly thick pasta shell, it was gummy, and there wasn't enough filling. We tried some fried, and they lacked crispness and that wonderful caramelized pasta flavor I love so much.

About a month before Muza, I went to the Purple Pub in Watervliet. They had pierogis as a special on the menu "made by the church down the street". They were fantastic, and that the local church made them, only added to their appeal.

Those two experiences reignited my interest in pierogi.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Bad Chain Restaurants VII - Slouching Skirt

What do you get when you mix a Hooters ripoff with Applebees?

You get the Tilted Kilt. Just opened in Niskayuna, it's a half-baked attempt to capitalize on Hooters' unabashed glorification and playful mockery of Men's primal desire to mingle with attractive women half their age, drink too much beer and eat fried foods.

I want to be clear, I am not disparaging Hooters, or the average Joe's need to spend time with his buddies whilst ogling a cute waitress in a male-focused establishment. Rather, I am saddened that Tilted Kilt manages to water down the experience to the point of it being nothing more than bad chain food served by scantily clad women and men in skirts.

Hooters has been famously sued on more than one occasion because they refuse to hire men as waitstaff. Hooters argues that hiring only (young and attractive) women is a 'bona fide occupational qualification'. In short, young, cute, female waitresses are essential to their business. (Hooters does hire men, but not as waitstaff or bartenders). And I agree with Hooters. It's what makes them special. Trust me, no one is going to Hooters for the food (with the exception of the wings, which are quite good).

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Shakshuka at Morgan & Company

Recently I've fallen in love with poached eggs. When made well, the whites are tender and creamy. The yolk should be runny and slowly ooze its golden goodness into, and onto, whatever it's paired with when pierced. The combination of delicate albumen and rich vitellus, make for wonderful textural and flavor contrasts, and are but one reason why eggs are a cherished food the world over.

More and more I'm of the mindset that poached is a better way to eat an egg. As such, I've been seeking out dishes that incorporate poached eggs. The North African dish of Shakshuka—eggs poached in a spicy tomato based sauce—has become one of my favorites.

I'm also a big fan of the Italian corn porridge better known as polenta, similar to the southern staple grits, it's hearty, homey, and comforting. When made by expert hands, it's swoon-worthy.

Morgan & Company has combined shakshuka and polenta into a filling and flavorful dish. It's an Italian-African mashup if you will, and on a recent trip to Glens Falls, I stopped in to try it.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Yelp Makes My Life Better

I had not a single close friend during my teen years. Oh, I had acquaintances, and I would spend time with my two brothers and other family, but for the most part, I felt alone.

I was extremely shy when I was little. I don’t remember when it dawned on me that I was shy, but at some point I became aware of it and it caused me to withdraw further. I was a skinny kid, and not at all athletic. I wasn’t cool. I was geeky and dorky. As a result, I was picked on in school, and because I was shy I wouldn’t stand up for myself. I withdrew even more. By my early teens I was a loner. It’s better to be alone, than to be picked on. I felt I wasn’t likeable, so I was afraid to reach out to people and strike up friendships because I was convinced they wouldn’t like me. I deeply envied those who had a group of friends or were part of a clique. I desperately wanted to be a part of a group and spend time with others that have similar interests.

Thankfully, I quickly grew out of the shyness, and for the most part I’m now very outgoing. My personality has swung 180 degrees.

But a few years ago, I started to get frustrated with my social life. I was getting more and more into food, and there was no one among my friends or family that shared my passion for it. I wanted to share that passion with others who could appreciate it. I wanted to experience the camaraderie of being with birds of the same feather. But I had no idea how to make that happen.

That’s when I discovered Yelp.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Bad Chain Restaurants VI - Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance as it's described on the Simply Physcology website:

"Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance etc."

Am I feeling discomfort due to cognitive dissonance? Perhaps. But it does make me want to rethink some of my beliefs regarding casual restaurant chains. Some obviously are better than others and that makes it easy to justify eating there. Sometimes though there are places that shouldn't be much better than the rest of the pack, yet I find myself eating there on occasion and actually enjoying the food, as well as the atmosphere.

Macaroni Grill is one of those that causes me to experience cognitive dissonance.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Making Great Pizza at Home

I was going to title this post "Making Better Pizza at Home" because I don't quite think my homemade pizza would qualify as great. However, grading it on a relative scale, and though I have a ways to go yet, I do think it's possible to make great pizza at home.

I've discovered 3 secrets to making very good pizza at home, and using those 3 methods, anyone can make pizza close to something you'd get at a decent pizzeria.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Manhattan Copycats

I'm slowly becoming more and more enamored with simple foods. And I've discovered simple foods generally are created on a triune foundation. Three components that come together to make delicious magic. I want to elaborate on this more at some point and hope to write a full post about it in the future.

I found myself with the opportunity to spend a full day in Manhattan,  and I decided while I was there I would eat a couple of copycat items that are attempting to elevate themselves above their inspiration. I found a restaurant that's making copycat Five Guys burgers, and one that's making a copycat Chik-Fil-A sandwich.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Marcella Hazan's Bolognese - A Study in Fat

Do you have any Marcella Hazan cookbooks in your collection? If you don't you should. She is without question the Grand Dame of Italian cooking. Or perhaps I should say she was the Grand Dame of Italian cooking, as sadly, she passed away a few years ago. If you're unfamiliar with who she is, and the huge impact she's had on Italian fare in America, please read the wonderful bio/obituary the NY Times wrote just after her death.

If you don't have any of her cookbooks, you should pick up what is probably her best collection of recipes, "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking". It's chock full of great Italian dishes, of which I've made more than a few, and they never disappoint. Plus there's instructions for cooks of all levels on things like how to make pasta, risotto, and other classic Italian dishes. As well as information about herbs, spices, and cheeses used in Italian cooking.

The other day (and it takes almost a whole day) I decided to make her bolognese for the first time, and what I discovered, is that it's a dish that's all about fat.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Pizza Pilgrimage II - Fried Pizza

Did you know fried pizza is a thing?

Yes, fried pizza. I know it sounds gratuitous, but stick with me. I first discovered it a couple of months ago. I was surprised to learn it's not new, it's been around for awhile. And it's not gimmicky, as though it were something you'd find at a carnival food stand. Trust me, it's a heck of a lot better than it sounds. I'm even inclined to use the "D" word—delicious—and that wouldn't be an embellishment for the sake of dramatic effect. In fact, I'd love to see an Albany area establishment create a fried pizza of their own. More about that in a moment.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Bad Chain Restaurants V - Fool me once...

On a recent visit to a local chain restaurant, this idiom came to mind:

"Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me."

We all know that chain restaurants have marketing departments. People that get paid to make their restaurant appear to be someplace you want to spend your time, and more important, your dollars. This is no secret. We're all jaded by TV commercials, online ads, billboards, etc. But have you realized that a restaurant's menu is also a marketing tool? Some of it is obvious. Most casual chain restaurants today have very large laminated menus with beautiful mouth watering photos of the food in the background. There's also the marketing terms scattered throughout the pages that are obviously attempting to "sell" you.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Best Fried Chicken You've Not Eaten

When you think about fried chicken locally, what restaurants come to mind?

Most would say Hattie's. And that's for good reason. Hattie's fried chicken is renowned in the area, and it's not only locally famous, it's also nationally famous. And just as a side note, if you've never been, do put a visit to Hattie's on your bucket list.

Any other local restaurants that are known for their fried chicken that you can name?
The only others I can think of off the top of my head are The Flying Chicken in Troy, and Cupz on Arch St., in Albany's south end neighborhood, neither of which unfortunately, I've yet to get to. (But if there are others, please feel free to enlighten me in the comments).

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Death by Cheeseburger V - The Jon in Albany Burger

Back in April of last year, I tagged along with Daniel B. of FUSSYlittleBLOG fame on the Tour de Soft Serve. I had a great time, but I previously wrote about it in my Soft Serve Sucks post, so I won't rehash the event here.

Jon in Albany also joined in on the fun, and I had the pleasure of meeting him, and during one stop on the tour, I had a fairly long conversation with him. We talked about a lot of different things, mostly food obviously, but he also mentioned that his family has a farm where they raise cows, and they occasionally slaughter one and split up the meat among the family. He mentioned he gets quite a bit of ground beef from it. The subject of my love of burgers must've come up, because he promised he'd give me some of his ground beef.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Under the Infuence

We are all influenced by those around us. Our personal circle of friends, family, and acquaintances affect how we view the world. In our jobs, professionally, we are constantly being pulled this way or that by our colleagues, superiors, and vendors. The media we consume—TV shows, movies, music, art, the national news, (food blogs!)—they all challenge or reinforce our views.

These forces are all, whether we realize it or not, constantly having an effect on what we like or don't like, what we believe to be true or false, and what we deem valuable or insignificant.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Wood Fired Pizza at Restaurant Navona

Slowly but surely I'm becoming a pizza snob.

I've been eating a lot of pizza lately. In the last 9 months, I've had the good fortune to eat at three pizzerias that are some of the best in the country. Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, Pepe's in New Haven, and Varasano's in Atlanta. At home, in the Albany area, I've been eating pizza at a whole host of different local places as well. Both new and old. You could say in addition to my burger obsession, I've also been obsessed with pizza over the last year or so as well.

The nice thing about all the above, is that eating a lot of different pizza locally, and from all over the country, (and also with some influences by others that I respect), has helped me to form a strong opinion of what I like in pizza, and don't like (which I've already spelled out in my Tinney's Tavern post, so I won't rehash it here), but the short version is I'm in love with Neapolitan style wood fired pizza.