Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Charles F. Lucas Confectionery & Wine Bar

Not too long ago FUSSYlittleBLOG wrote about iced coffee at The Confectionery and as a coffee fiend, I had to try it for myself. My absolute favorite iced coffee joint from my NYC days is Abraco in the East Village. They hands down have the best iced coffee in town; it's stupidly strong yet uniquely tart and oddly enough, a bit sour. At the same time it's not too bitter and the ratio of ice to milk to sweetener is just magical. I shouldn't be comparing The Confectionery's iced coffee to Abraco's standards, but in my mind, nothing will ever top Abraco. The magic at Abraco is most likely in the beans but I was pretty happy with the Confection version. It's refreshingly tart yet not too bitter. I'm no stranger to chicory coffee; it's our go to Vietnamese style coffee (with condensed milk of course). Chicory does give the coffee blend a mellower flavor and while I favor a strong, dark roast I appreciate it just as much in iced coffee especially when it's a cold brew.

Iced coffees aside, The Lucas Confectionery is like an adult candyland. On our first trip, we

got there too late and missed out on Troyster Tuesdays and opted for a cheese and charcuterie board with a glass of Riesling of course. We ended up with some speck,prosciutto, and teahive cheese. The teahive is Cheddar style, cow's cheese hand rubbed with black tea and bergamot oil that imparts a unique floral undertone and was just delightful especially paired with a shortbread cookie. There's no doubt that The Confectionery is serving quality products. These paper thin cured meats are melt in your mouth unctious bites of salty fatty bites. I'm no connaiseur of wine pairings, but whatever I was drinking along was fine by me; the star was this slate of meat and cheese.


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Ancient Epicureans

Take a look at this.

Of course, we know that people were spicing, fermenting, and enjoying things thousands of years back.  The Romans were notorious lushes, and there's solid evidence for beer production all the way back to the Mesopotamians.  Complex soups, as well, are an ancient culinary tradition.  Heck, the word Epicurean is a reference to ancient philosophy, though it actually promoted moderation and described the company enjoyed as the greater pleasure than the food itself.  That people in the distant past were just as into their meals as we are now is hardly a surprise.

Still, beyond carrying a common bond across the ages, This article is significant in that it tells us a lot about what makes us human.  Man is different from any other animal, indeed, as far as we know from any animal that has ever existed.  Pinpointing why we are so different - why we are the planet's most advanced life form in spite of our physical shortcomings - is a much more difficult challenge.  Cut a person apart (not something I've ever done, so I'm taking medical science on faith here), and you come out with an organized mass of meat, bones, and fleshy bits that are pretty much the same as any other animal, albeit in different configurations.

No, it's not the physical differences that make us different.  I would argue it isn't even the size of our brains, as there are other animals with similar size and heft.  I think it is our creativity, our ability to imagine a possibility, then go and see if we can pull it off.  At some point, some hunter/gatherer ate some mustard seeds, then ate some meat, then said "what if I mixed these".  This isn't quite the no brainer it sounds like.  At the time, food was something that took significant investments of time, energy, and expertise to hunt or harvest.  To not only have that thought, but to be willing to risk the integrity of something you had spent that much of yourself on acquiring just to satisfy a hunch is a huge deal.

And that, in a nutshell, is why we are what we are.  Creativity and imagination are vital parts of the human condition, because without the ability to dream up new ways of doing things - and the balls to follow through with them - we would still be hiding from the lions in trees instead of paying to see them in a cage.  We've found cave paintings dating back tens of thousands of years, why wouldn't the other art forms be similarly developed?  Why wouldn't ancient and prehistoric people prefer their meat medium-rare?  We are not so different, all we have now is the benefit of building on their works, and knowing their mistakes.

What was found, in that article, was more proof that we have always been artists.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Food for Thought

MHA's recent blog post got me thinking. I've been stalking the local blog scene for years since moving to Albany 6 years ago. As a newbie to the blogging scene, I'm inspired by my fellow 518ers, where they eat, and what they have to say about the food scene in the Capital Region. Bloggers like myself might be self-proclaimed "foodies" (that in no way makes me an "expert" in anything nor does it mean that I have a "refined" palette; I just love food!) but taste in food and flavors is so subjective. We all come from different cultural backgrounds that influence our culinary palette. In my case: (a) I was born in Canada to Vietnamese parents but have spent the past 18 years in the States; (b) am engaged to J, an American boy with Irish and Polish roots; and (c) we watch so many episodes of Chopped, and the Food Network in general, that it has truly influenced our approach to the culinary scene. When we started the blog in April, we just wanted to share our personal views with other bloggers and readers. 

I didn't go to culinary school (even though part of me daydreams about it at my desk job); I'm not a professional food critic or writer; nor am I am I a chef or have ever worked in a restaurant (well at least J has), but no matter our levels of expertise or how refined our palettes are, food is an experience and adventure in and of itself. The pursuit for epicurean bliss is through personal discovery, and you decide how adventurous you want it to be! 

MHA asks what Top 5 restaurants 518 bloggers actually patronize on a regular basis? In no particular order, we frequent: 

1. Sushi Tei and Mr. Fuji Sushi: It's no secret that at Chopsticks Optional, we're obsessed with sushi.  We're cheating but these two spots are a tie for us. 

2. New World Bistro. Brunch here is killer. This is the only place where we have enjoyed excellent food and consistent service, which we usually have a bad streak of elsewhere.

3. Saigon Spring: Vietnamese pho noodle soup cures all ailments. I am also partial to this cuisine but everyone needs to try it at least once.

4. The City Beer Hall. HopChef made us lifetime fans but a revolving seasonal, creative menu keeps us intrigued. 

5. Brunswick BBQ: The aroma of smoke in the parking lot lures us in every time.

While we have regular spots, there are countless other local gems that we love and frequent too but we'd go broke if we ate out everyday! These particular ones are our regular spots because it's flavors that we have consistently enjoyed but they're also places where we get the most value out of our meals at reasonable prices. It's a mix of foods that we are comfortable with but places like NWB and City Beer Hall lets us savor unique combinations and local flavors when we want to. Value shouldn't limit our options but sometimes the best eats are the ones we relate to the most through our own backgrounds and preferences. I would love to be able to regularly splurge on higher end establishments like Yono's or Prime 677, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate the creativity that goes into their culinary process because when I do get the opportunity to try bites from those restaurants at taste of events like HopChef, I truly appreciate the nuances and techniques that the chefs use. Like Michelle says, local chefs at all levels of dining are being more and more creative. A good culinary experience isn't and shouldn't be limited to fine dining or five star restaurants; it should be accessible and approachable by all, not just "foodies" or "experts". For a small city like Albany and the Capital Region in general, it's a wonderful thing to experience different culinary points of views AND cultures in this little melting pot of ours. 

J and I enjoy discovering new places and experiencing the culinary cornucopia of the 518 and beyond. Whether they are as homely as the mini hot dog (Gus' is on the bucket list) or adventurous as a beef tongue reuben. Not all experiences will be great, but it's about taking risks and seeing and tasting what's out there. It's ok if you like chains and are skeptical to step outside your comfort zone. I'll admit it; sometimes a greasy Five Guys burger hits the spot but that doesn't mean I also don't appreciate a grass-fed artisan burger from The City Beer Hall. The Capital Region has such a rich food scene with innovative chefs, from fine dining to handcrafted ice cream; but regional foods and ethnic eats are just as much part of the dining experience. See what us bloggers think is good and taste for yourself! It's ok to disagree or rave if you do love it. The 518 food scene is yours to discover. Bon appetit! -R

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Vietnamese Pho Soup

During our first Christmas together, R and I went up north to meet her parents for the first time.  It seems that, like many cultures, food is synonymous with hospitality in Vietnam, as I was stuffed to the gills with homemade eggrolls, wontons, sweets, and one very special soup; pho.  It is a broth developed for hours or days, then poured in a bowl of rice noodles and, in authentic cases, with servings of raw beef over it that you can push into the broth to cook directly.  It is invariably served in massive bowls, and when any restaurant advertises a large then that bowl can probably hold a family of 4 with pets.

Finding great pho has become something of a mission, as good Vietnamese food can be hard to come by. There are only a few decent places around here, and (I'm assuming) due to health standards they can't serve raw beef on the soup so you aren't going to get the real experience.  That said, here are the 3 best Vietnamese restaurants in the area we are aware of, in no particular order:

1.  Van's Vietnamese Restaurant:  This was the first Vietnamese restaurant I'd ever been to.  It isn't bad, per se, but I feel the soup is pretty forgettable.  Again maybe this is because I'd had the real thing fairly recently, so it's possible I'm being unfair, I just don't think Van when I get an itch for good pho or, for that matter, anything.  That said, it's certainly decent and a good introduction to Vietnamese food, as the grilled pork R let me try off her plate was delicious.  If you go here, try the entrees and leave the soup for one of the next places.

2.  Saigon Spring:  Based in Clifton Park, Saigon Spring is definitely the nicest looking restaurant, with a full bar and good sized, affordable menu.  The pho here is pretty good, there's a lightness to the broth that makes it good for lunch on a cool day.  Though the broth isn't very hearty, it is flavorful and enjoyable to eat, and the portions (as with all pho) are very generous.  If you try any of the entrees, I would again suggest a pork and rice dish (Vietnamese recipes for marinating pork are amazing, just as an aside).  Service is good, which I appreciate as I used to be a waiter.

3.  Kim's Vietnamese Restaurant:  This place just opened a few weeks ago, and we finally managed to get there and try it out this past weekend.  The inside is a little dull and poorly lit, and it seems like they're still setting things up inside.  It was also almost empty on a Friday night which was disappointing, because the pho was really good.  The broth was very rich and hearty, so much so I couldn't even finish it (which has never happened), so it's definitely more of a dinner place.  The flavors they worked into it were amazing, however, and the amount was good as well.  If there was one weakness, the beef seemed pretty dry and overcooked though the beef balls were excellent.  I can't suggest any other dishes as we've only been once, but if you like soup you owe it to yourself to try it here.  Also, the servers were very attentive and courteous without being obtrusive, so in spite of the decor I was very pleasantly surprised by the experience.

Does anyone else have suggestions for good Vietnamese?  As always, leave it in the comments. -J

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The American Hotel

As I'm sure you're all aware if you've read the rest of this blog, we are fans of the Beekman 1802 Mercantile in Sharon Springs, New York.  If you've never visited their storefront or had the goat milk ice cream, you owe it to yourself to drop by.  This post, however, concerns the historic American Hotel across the street, and I only mention Beekman 1802 because the hotel was featured during the show, which convinced us to stop in for brunch this morning.

Both of us love heirloom style, historically rich places and things.  Old hotels that used to house former presidents and diplomats are just fantastic, and I love nothing better than looking in the old lodge and ballrooms of those places and picturing the grand parties of a hundred years ago (while we may be using rose colored lenses, it's still fun to pretend).  I used to work in such a place, and actually dealt with a great deal of abuse from the owner of the place solely because the property was so great.

So we were prepared to love this place, we wanted to love the American.  We would have forgiven a lot of issues in a lot of areas just on account of what it was and what it represented in the modern world, not to mention its appearance on the Beekman boys.  Unfortunately, what we experienced simply surpassed what we are willing to forgive in any eatery.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Crisp Cannoli


All Over Albany's blog post inspired me to try the cronut craze that has plagued NYC. Fans wait hours in line for the original version at Dominique Ansel's in the city. I was overjoyed to find this half-doughnut, half-croissant concoction at The Crisp Cannoli in East Greenbush, and no crazy long lines around the block...yet. I forget whose Twittter feed I saw this amazing news on but once you bite into one of these puppies, you'll understand the hype.  

It took us three drive-bys to finally locate The Crisp Cannoli. It's located on the corner of a very unassuming building but inside are cases of wonderful pastries and sweets including the coveted cronuts. J and I hold very high standards when it comes to a good croissant. We use to get these amazing chocolate ones from TC Bakery when they were on Colvin Ave (now relocated to Saratoga) and haven't had a great croissant since until now. I can't compare this cronut to other cronuts, or crodo as it's called here since "cronut" seems to have been trademarked, but the magic is in the croissant dough. It's got to be buttery, flaky, and crispy on the outside yet chewy on the inside and this crodo hits all the above. It's as much fun taking a whole bite out of a crodo as
it is to pick apart those beautiful layers of sugared dough. It's no dainty pastry, be ready to be covered in lots of sugar. The Crisp Cannoli makes three wonderful versions of the crodo: glazed, vanilla custard-filled, and nutella filled. Try all three, you won't be disappointed; but I gotta say my favorite was the nutella filled one. 

The filled-to-order cannolis looked pretty damn good too but the lovely woman at the counter talked us into trying their other croissant invention: The Crodoli. Made to order, we were sold at freshly fried croissant dough filled with their homemade cannoli cream, dusted with sugar and drizzled with chocolate for good measure. This was best enjoyed right out of the fryer and boy did we enjoy it. I was expecting the crodo and crodoli to be heavy and greasy, but both versions were surprising light and crispy. With a name like Crisp Cannoli, the cannoli cream in the crodoli definitely lived up to its name; not too sweet and melt in your mouth creamy. We can't wait to come back for more crodos, crodolis, and of course cannolis. -R






Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Last Sunday's Ribs

I'm in a weird mood today, so read at your own risk.

Cooking is like making music:  It's a temporal art form, in that every performance can only ever exist that one time you experience it.  In a way, this is a depressing thought.  We will never taste a meal made a hundred, a thousand years ago.  All we have are firsthand accounts and our own best approximations of what that meal should have tasted like, based on ancient crumbling recipes and served with steroid enhanced meat and genetically engineered crops.  We can never taste that first performance of the sandwich, or stew, or seared scallop.

On the other hand, this is part of what makes food truly special:  Every time you sit down to a meal, you are experiencing the only exact version of that meal that will ever exist.  I believe that this property can be how the enjoyment of great food is such a unifying experience for everyone.  The knowledge that, together, you are experiencing something that never existed before and will never exist again can make anyone smile at least a little.

The other day, I made pork ribs on a charcoal grill.  They weren't perfect; it was my first attempt at making ribs over coal.  Certainly I should have left them on a bit longer to render the fat some more, and I probably should have included brown sugar in the spice rub.  Nevertheless, I thought they were well smoked, tasty, and beautiful.  I made R take a profile shot of them, just because it was the first time I had ever seen a pink ring on something I made.

That first time you make something, when you're still focused on all the things you managed to do successfully rather than what you need to improve on, is an impossible feeling to capture or describe.  Now, I could probably go out right now and cook a rack twice as tasty and  pretty, but no matter what I do they will never be last Sunday's ribs. -J