Sunday, December 29, 2013

Top Bites of 2013

Looking over Table Hopping's List of 2013 Restaurant Opening and Closings made me reminisce about some pretty good eats and salivate over those I haven't gotten around to checking out yet. Since the end of the year is a time to reflect, here are our "Best of" lists for 2013: 

Best new restaurant openings: 
  • The Hollow Bar + Kitchen: We can't rave enough about this place. It's by far our favorite new restaurant of 2013 and home to the best 518 burger. In fact, J and I both agreed at once that the Hollow Burger was the best bite of 2013 when All Over Albany approached us asking what was our favorite local thing to eat this year: AOA's Favorite Local Foods 2013
  • La Empanada Llama: Fried edible pillows of heaven. The savory empanadas are just as good as the sweet dessert ones. Don't forget to ask for the green sauce--it's a magical blend of garlic and cilantro that elevates each delicious fried bite. It's hard to pick our favorite empanadas but the spinach and cheese and nutella with banana are pretty awesome. 
  • Kim's Vietnamese Restaurant: There's no doubt that we're pho-natics and while we didn't quite see eye to eye with the TU's review, we still stand by that it's one of best pho in the Capital Region, at least from a Vietnamese perspective. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

TC Paris Bakery

You know what makes the best Christmas presents? The edible and delicious kind. We've told you how much we love TC Paris Bakery but let us tell you how much we love it even more. Now that TC has its very own storefront and kitchens, they're offering more specialty confections. For the procrastinators out there, these local treats are the perfect last minute gifts or a great addition to your holiday dessert spread. 

Behold the Winter Cookie: a buttery shortbread cookie topped with crunchy toasted almonds, a chewy honey caramel, and orange zest dipped in Valrhona dark chocolate.  This cookie is a delightful combination of textures and the floral notes from the orange blossom honey is so unique. We're planning on bringing a 1lb tin to Christmas dinner, minus maybe a few cookies because yours truly couldn't wait to share. You might want to hurry up to get these Winter Cookies. In true Alsace French tradition, TC Paris is only making these cookies up until January 2nd and then they are gone until next year! It's a one of kind cookie! 

Just in time for the holidays are jars of French brandied cherries. We got a special taste of this holiday item and it was lick-the-spoon-clean good. Tart sour cherries imported from France are infused with brandy, cloves, and cinnamon. Chef tells us they would be a great addition to the bottom of a champagne glass. That's something we could toast to and so would your guests! 

There are also a variety of chocolate dipped fruits and confectionaries but you can't go wrong with a sleeve of TC Bakery's signature French macarons.  We're avid fans of flavors like salted caramel and earl grey but new flavors like the chocolate dipped strawberry macarons are quickly rising to the top of our favorites. A flavorful and creamy strawberry buttercream with a dollop of chocolate ganache is sandwiched between delicate crisp and chewy almond shells. These macarons would be a great gift alongside its fresh chocolate-dipped strawberry counterparts. 

Be sure to make TC Paris Bakery part of your holiday. It's well worth a trip to Saratoga Springs. These are beautiful, quality handmade items made from the best ingredients and crafted by talented bakers. Your guests will be in awe and don't forget to get a little something for yourself too (or a lot!). You deserve it :) 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Seoul Korean Restaurant

My first Korean food experience was over shots of soju (a potent rice liquor) and diy grilled bulgogi shortribs in the heart of New York City's K-Town. My soju drinking days were short-lived but once in awhile I'll long for the fiery kick of gochujang chili paste and all the fun little side dishes. For as long as I've lived in Albany, I never really sought out Korean restaurants until I came across a few Korean dishes at Kinnaree on Lark Street. Kinnaree is better known for its Thai specialities but once I tried a bibimbap bowl, I knew I had to seek out more Korean specialities. That's when J and I came across Seoul Korean Restaurant in Latham. We spotted Seoul while exploring Indian food at Shalimar's next door. We were dead set on satisfying a craving for Indian food on that particular night and knew we had to come back and visit their Korean neighbor.

This time, our trip to SKR was J's first Korean food experience. The menu is a modest combination of rice, stir-fry, and soup dishes. A friend once made homemade veggie pancakes and we were compelled to try the restaurant's seafood version (hae mool pah juhl) for an appetizer. This huge pancake was loaded with veggies like scallions, zucchini, and carrots and an assortment of seafood. The textural contrast of all the elements was delightful: crisp exterior, soft and moist inside, crunchy veggies, and chewy pieces of octopus. The pancake comes with soy sauce but I enjoyed it the most with bites of kimchi. 

Before our appetizers even came out we were treated to a typical spread of small side dishes known as banchan. These side dishes vary and on our recent trip we got a mix of pickled veggies ranging from the classic fermented spicy cabbage known as kimchi and pickled spicy radishes, a potato and onion stir fry, sauteed mushrooms, and wedges of a veggie egg omelet. They were all simple bites to nosh on but the star of the quintet was most definitely the homemade kimchi. Contrary to my own previous prejudices, Korean food isn't all about blow your head off spicy food. This signature Korean condiment is the perfect balance of sour and spicy and the cabbage still had a lovely crisp and crunch to it. Think of kimchi as Korean sauerkraut that pairs well with just about everything. Bonus: you can even get refills of your favorite banchan if you ask nicely. I recommend loading up on more kimchi.



Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Hong Kong Bakery & Bistro

There's no doubt that Ala Shanghai has set some pretty high standards when it comes to dim sum. It's one of our favorite places but for the sake of trying something new we stopped by Hong Kong Bakery & Bistro

I've stopped in the grab and go portion of the bakery before for quicks snacks and bubble tea. One of my favorite bakery items are these huge vanilla sponge cakes that are so simple yet delicious. These cupcakes are eggy and delicately sweet, no need for frosting. It's hard to eat just one cupcake especially since they are so light and airy, its texture much like angelfood cake.  Whenever my friend D is in town, she always stops by and loads up on baked pork buns for her journey up to the North Country. These for me have been hit or miss. I once stopped in toward the end of the night and wonder whether the pork buns I picked up had been sitting on the shelf too long. The bbq pork filling was a bit off putting taste-wise. Another time I stopped in the early afternoon for a buy 3 get one free bun special and they tasted much fresher and better. I was curious to try the steamed version and stopped for dim sum. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Illium Cafe

We're on the verge of a heart attack as we write this post but every bite of The Illium Cafe's Cajun Pork Belly & Crispy Prosciutto Panini was worth it. We've always been fans of The Illium and it's been our go to brunch spot after a visit to the Farmer's Market in Troy. Our favorite sandwich is the Surf and Turf Sandwich. It's a flavorful combo of grilled shrimp and marinated steak with blue cheese, roasted red peppers, and arugula on foccacia. But when we read about the pork belly panini on All Over Albany's Eat This! we knew it was one of those crazy concoctions that we had to try. 

Truth be told, this is the second time we've tried this sandwich within a three week span. We're gluttons but to be fair, J ordered his own last time while I got the Surf and Turf.  I devoured my own order this time around. I figured the pork would balance all the turkey from the Holidays plus I hadn't had any breakfast yet and we had a very late lunch. All justified.  

Be prepared to be unproductive for the rest of the day. The Cajun Pork Belly and Crispy Prosciutto Panini is an open faced sandwich made with a savory bread pudding with brie cheese, pork belly, and topped with a hefty mound of crispy prosciutto, fried egg, and hollandaise sauce. There is no shortage of pork here and it's all kind of magical. These are all rich and fatty elements but somehow it all works together. 

The bread pudding has all the familiar flavors of a classic Thanksgiving stuffing and is the perfect vehicle to mop the runny egg yolk and creamy taragon hollandaise sauce. Fresh elements of red onions and spinach helps break up the richness of all the other elements. Last time J got arugula instead of spinach, which I thought was the better of the greens. Love that peppery bite. Our version also differed a bit from Masticating Monkey's in that we got fresh spinach instead of sauteed. Plus instead of a brie sauce ours was a slice of grilled cheese with brie beneath the slice of savory bread pudding. I can only imagine that the cheese sauce would add another rich layer of flavor.  A touch of acid or something pickled would have helped cut the greasiness of the dish but when you're ordering a dish like this, you might as well go all in. Why else would there be pork belly AND crispy prosciutto. Over the top? Absolutely but so worth it. 

The pork belly is essentially a thick cut of bacon. My pieces were a bit tough and dry this visit and frankly I didn't really pick up on any Cajun flavor but it's ok. The mountain of crispy prosciutto more than made up for it. Crispy, crunchy, salty, and bacon-y. This sandwich is the ultimate comfort food. If you need to squeeze in some veggies, the dish also comes with slices of pickles and a side of potato salad or coleslaw. 

The Pork Belly Panini is a try at your own risk type of sandwich but since it's the holiday season, why not indulge a bit. You need some pork fat to warm up in this chilly weather anyway and it's fuel for all that Christmas shopping. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Hollow Bar + Kitchen 2.0

We fell in love with The Hollow Bar + Kitchen during Restaurant Week. I was so impressed with our experience that I returned the very next day for lunch with my co-worker. I was curious to try their burgers and couldn't pass on the signature Hollow Burger. It was love at first bite and quickly became my new favorite hand-crafted burger in the Capital Region. Cooked to a perfect medium-rare, the grass-fed patty was well-seasoned and the burst of velvety yolk from the fried egg added such a luxurious touch. The signature burger also comes with a side of house-made tangy habanero ketchup. A schmear on the bun adds just the right amount of zip to the burger. It was also a great dipping sauce for the sweet potato fries that I opted for. I knew this was a burger that J needed to try too. 

A week later we returned to The Hollow for date night. We came smack dab in the middle of front bar renovations but the staff was more than accommodating making sure that the noise wasn't too crazy loud. We honestly didn't mind at all, it felt like we were in the middle of an episode of Restaurant Impossible, one of our favorite Food Network shows. J went with an order of the aforementioned burger and raved as much about it as I did. 

My goal was to try the handmade pasta and lucky for us the night's special was a pappardelle with asparagus. At first sight, the dish could feed an army but proportion was no obstacle. I was more than happy to have leftovers for lunch and dove right in. Kudos to chef for making hand-made pasta everyday. The difference between fresh pasta and the boxed kind is unbelievable. Fresh pasta has a lovely texture and toothy bite to it. Finally I understood what al dente is suppose to taste like. A light tomato basil sauce allowed the pasta to shine and for once I didn't miss a heavy, rich meaty sauce like bolognese. The addition of grilled asparagus elevated the pasta dish that much more with that familiar smokey, charred flavor. Ribbons of asiago completed the dish with nutty, salty bites of cheese. 

As if our meal couldn't get any better, dessert was on the house for us for all the construction noise. We were hesitant to try the apple cider donut bread pudding again but boy was it a major redemption moment. This time, each spoonful had that creamy custard that we were looking for the first time. Plus we were treated to more of that raw honey we loved so much. Dessert more than exceeded our expectations. Not only is The Hollow Bar + Kitchen now our new favorite place to grab a burger, but our new favorite date night joint. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Iron Roost

We're very Albany-centric when it comes to brunch. On a whim, we decided to take a trip up to Ballston Spa for a weekend outing. We've stopped for tea at the Whistling Kettle a number of times but always overlooked The Iron Roost until recently. Located on Front Street, this quaint and charming cafe makes brunch a treat. Their speciality are gourmet waffles, both sweet and savory. They also make it a point to use fresh, local ingredients whenever possible and we love to support businesses with this philosophy. 

Your food is homemade and made to order, but you pay at the counter first and then the food comes to you. I've always associated waffles as a sweet treat but never underestimate the power of a savory waffle. It's not weird at all! We were so impressed with the Green Turkey special from our summer visit and were delighted to see it again on the specials board. We had to order it again. This savory waffle wedge is made with sliced turkey, fresh avocados and sprouts, and a schmear of homemade green goddess dressing. Green goddess is a creamy and tangy dressing typically made with variations of mayo/sour cream and chives, garlic, tarragon, parsley and lemon. The waffle was a great alternative to a thick bread and worked well as a wrap here, light and crispy, and a great vehicle for all the above. What we loved about this sandwich is how light and bright the flavors were. We were actually eating something healthy for once that tasted awesome.  We also added a side of homefries to share because brunch wouldn't be brunch without them. The homefries were unfortunately nothing too exciting. We prefer smaller crunchier bites rather than the few big hunks of starchy potatoes. 


To balance the savory bites, I went with a sweet waffle. I'm usually a bit hesitant about ordering from the sweet side of brunch, afraid that it would be too cloyingly sweet. I was pleasantly surprised when I took a bite out of my lemon mascarpone and strawberry combo. The waffle was just sweet enough and had a nice chewy texture, almost like a yeast donut. We had tried the liege waffle over the summer and were so disappointed. It was strangely stale and had an odd grainy texture, unlike the yeasty ones we were use to from the Troy Farmer's Market. This was certainly a redeeming bite for us. The heaping scoop of mascarpone was intimidating but it was light and bites of fresh strawberries and drizzle of lemon curd was a good balance of sweet and tart. I would've loved more lemon curd to bring out more zing. Add two cups of dark roast coffee (roasted locally in Hudson) and we were happy campers.

Monday, November 11, 2013

A Take on TU's Review of Kim's Vietnamese

I felt the need to write my own post on Kim's Vietnamese upon reading Bryan Fitzgerald's Times Union review. The review left me confused. Not that I don't doubt that restaurants have inconsistencies from time to time but some things about the review were off-putting enough for me to share my own thoughts. As a disclaimer, I am a first generation Vietnamese-American (nee Canadian but now a naturalized American) born and raised by immigrant parents. I live a very Americanized lifestyle and don't follow much in way of traditions but if there's one thing about my culture that I wholeheartedly appreciate, it's the food! I have a very unique perspective on Vietnamese food and you can't blame me for being so picky. Have you read what my mom packed for my school lunches? My parents are even more picky and never go out to Vietnamese restaurants unless it's for pho noodle soup. 

My parents and I have eaten pho at most of the Capital Region's Vietnamese restaurants with the exception of Pho Yum because it's a silly name and it's just not right to charge extra for meat on top of a base, and My Linh because they couldn't fathom paying $15 for canh chua soup (a peasant dish that my mom makes all the time) and a bowl of pho for two just didn't make sense. In fact, my dad made us walk out of My Linh upon being seated and seeing the menu. Told you they were picky.

You might think that I am biased towards all things Vietnamese but trust me when I say I've had mediocre Vietnamese food too. Perhaps my taste for Vietnamese food is more discerning than an American palette but I've trained my Irish-American boyfriend to love Vietnamese food and we both disagree with Fitzgerald's take on pho: "Beef broth in our pho — Pho Dac Biet ($8.95) — at Kim's Vietnamese in Albany was a bit weak, a tad sour, just underwhelming enough to fall onto the good-but-not-great side of the pho-broth spectrum." (Times Union).  At times we've had a fattier broth at Kim's but never underwhelming or weak. I don't know what Fizgerald's expectations of what a real pho broth tastes like but it's suppose to be a fine balance of aromatic spices and rich, beefy flavor that has good clarity to it and has a good depth of flavor. Perhaps Fitzgerald is use to places that use more of a bouillon-cube based broth (a taste that my mom has picked up on from other local joints). 

Friday, November 8, 2013

dreamPuff Sweet Shop

I'm surprised neither J nor I have more cavities. Let's just say that 1lb bar of Trader Joe's chocolate doesn't last very long in our household. We have a MAJOR sweet tooth and are so lucky to be surrounded by talented local bakeries. Our most recent discovery took us to Brunswick. If you are a regular at the Troy Farmer's Market you must already be familiar with dreamPuff Marshmallows and their unique take on the s'mores staple with flavors like chai and cardamom. Lucky for us, we didn't have to wait until Saturday to satisfy our need for a sugar rush. 

We've been meaning to check out the shop for a long time now ever since trying the ice cream sandwiches from the summer Farmer's Market. Brunswick really isn't that much of a trek. dreamPuff Sweet Shop is located just beyond the border of Troy in a strip mall. Don't let the location fool you. Step inside and it's like the Willy Wonka of all delicious sugary things. Our eyes lit up by the sight of truffles, cheesecakes, pies, and cupcakes. J and I were overwhelmed as we were greeted by a vast display case of handmade chocolates and baked goods but Ginny, head dreamPuff maker, was happy to give us a tour of the confectionary. 

She had us at "I like to make things with booze," and "There's real rum and lots of it," in the rum cupcake with banana buttercream and toasted coconut. Ginny, we like to eat the treats that you make with lots of booze. Of course we couldn't just get one cupcake especially when they are so pretty. I swear J loves chocolate more than I do and we couldn't pass on the chocolate cupcake, the raspberry truffle cupcake, and tis the season for all things pumpkin so we added a pumpkin cupcake too. I hope you're ready for a treat. These are no regular fluffy cupcakes. Holy butter. The frostings are creamy and buttery and almost as dense as the cakes themselves. The banana frosting on the rum cake was my favorite. None of that artificial flavoring, it was like eating banana bread in buttercream frosting form. We left a few flavors behind to make room for more goodies. After all, the first thing you see when you walk into the shop are the words "Treat Yourself" in giant letters, so of course that's what we did. 


For good measure we added a couple of beer truffles made with Dogfish Chicory Stout. Yup, dreamPuff even makes sweets with beer and the selection alternates from week to week. The beer filling wasn't as strong as I was expecting but it was a delicate malty flavor that paired well with chocolate. Two just wasn't enough and we highly advise getting more. Before we went into diabetic shock, we just couldn't leave without the signature marshmallows. To round out our tour de boozy treats, we got a pack of the blackberry cabernet marshmallow. These handmade marshmallows are nothing like the store-bought version. dreamPuffs are light, fluffy, not overly sweet, and packed with flavor. The cabernet wine flavor really comes through! Did we mention there are boozy caramels too? Our only regret was not getting a few of the eggnog caramels made with Maker's Mark. Gives us something to come back to along with slices of pie.  Ginny assured us that she makes a mean pecan pie. She is from the South after all.

We love the creativity and adventurous flavors coming out of dreamPuff Sweet Shop. There will always be the classic flavors but think and eat outside the box. You'll be surprised how fun it is to try new things. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Vietnamese Caramelized Shrimp (Tom Rim)

My mom did not pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for my first day of fourth grade. I barely spoke or knew any English when we first moved to the U.S. from Montreal. There I was in the school cafeteria struggling to find the words to translate banh mi cha lua (Vietnamese pork bologna sandwich) to my peers. I did not have a typical American childhood. 

My parents were boat people and escaped in the early 80s. I was born and raised in Montreal and spent the latter part of my childhood in New York's North Country. I was the only Vietnamese kid in a predominantly Caucasian community and quickly rose to fame as the kid whose mom made homemade eggrolls instead of cupcakes. Even teachers from other classrooms would stop by to hoard their share at potlucks. My dinners did not include meatloaf with mashed potatoes. Occasionally my mom would whip up her version of goulash and tacos whenever I asked for an "American" meal. Now that I am in my late twenties and am on my own, I find myself more and more nostalgic for the Vietnamese foods that I grew up with and have a much deeper appreciation for it. Dinner for us was as simple as a stewed meat or fried fish with a side of fish sauce and savory soups, all served with bowls of white jasmine rice. On the weekends, it would be a treat to have banh cuon (steamed rice cake) or banh xeo (sizzling pancakes). In fact, Buzzfeed pretty much sums up my childhood eats here

Sadly my teenage self never paid attention to my mom's cooking. In the past decade, as I've become more engrossed in food culture and exploring culinary eats, I'm finding myself more in touch with my own cultural background. Even more so now that John and I are together. My parents might not be able to communicate that well in English but food is our common denominator. My mom loves John enough to make his own batch of said famous eggrolls without mushrooms and I love being to share with John, my Irish-American boy, the food that I grew up with. So when my mom isn't around, I've learned to make my own version of Vietnamese eats. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I'm slowly building up my repertoire and my mom is only a Vonage phone call away for tips and questions. 

Tonight I was craving a very simple dish called tom rim aka Vietnamese caramelized shrimp. It's so simple to make yet I never got around to making it until now. It's a rustic dish that is so comforting especially served with a bowl of rice. Some Googling and a phone call later, I found this random recipe to be closest in flavor to that of my childhood memories. I adjusted the recipe a bit by just throwing everything in one pot after making the caramel sauce and soaking the shrimp in salt water beforehand because that's what my mom told me to do. I also didn't have shallots or scallions on hand but it tasted just fine without and added a thai chili in for some heat. Mom also said don't add ginger per some recipes that I saw but do add plenty of pepper. You don't have to go all out with the head-on shrimp but the ones with the shells really make a difference. The sauce sticks to the shell better and prevents the shrimp from overcooking. I can't recall seeing this dish on the menu from the Vietnamese restaurants in the Capital Region, but if you do see it in your travels give it a try and let me know what you think. If you happen to whip a batch up yourself, good for you! Be prepared, fish sauce has a very strong and pungent smell and taste but mellows out with cooking. Fish sauce is the magical ingredient in every Vietnamese dish :) 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Ala Shanghai

I have fond childhood memories of rolling dim sum carts in Montreal. A dim sum experience in the Capital Region is nowhere near that of the bustling cities, but I'd give up the carts for quality food anytime especially at Ala Shanghai in Latham. Forget the cloyingly sweet sesame chicken takeout or crab rangoons.  Go for an authentic Chinese food experience minus the grease and MSG. 

We've dined at Ala Shanghai a number of times for dim sum, aka Chinese brunch, and dinner and every experience has always been spot on. Dim sum is a great way to try a bit of everything since they are small bite-sized plates. A typical spread includes a mix of dumplings and buns and Ala Shanghai alone has fourteen dim sum dishes to pick from a Cheesecake Factory-length menu that includes chef's specialties, soups, noodles, and fried rice too. The stars of the dim sum menu are the pork soup dumplings. What are soup dumplings? Just as it sounds, soft chewy dumplings steamed and stuffed with a wonderful rich broth contained inside an edible pouch. A drop of hot sauce and soy and they are too die for bites. Just be careful that you don't put the whole thing in your mouth, you might die from exploding hot broth. The secret to eating soup dumplings is to put the dumpling on your spoon, dress with sauces, take a tiny bite out of the dumpling just enough to break the skin and carefully slurp up the broth. It's a very interactive and tasty experience. 


Created with flickr slideshow.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Hollow Bar + Kitchen

This past week was Restaurant Week in Downtown Albany.  For those not from the area, or the blissfully unaware within the area, this is a week that restaurants advertise a three course meal for a low low price of $20.13.  As first-timers, we were afraid restaurants would cheap out on menu items and portion sizes. 

I feel like I've been the negative nellie on this blog, which is hopefully not a reflection of my real life attitude.  I do tend to be the one to write when we have a bad experience, for whatever reason.  Today, however, I want to tell everyone about a fantastic experience we had at The Hollow Bar + Kitchen in Downtown Albany.

The Hollow.  Though it failed to live up to its name in that we saw no headless horsemen--this is more disappointing to me than you'd think--the food, service, and hospitality managed to overcome this deficit.  Walking in the interior is fairly nondescript, with simple brick walls and white linen tablecloths.  The lighting is a little low, though I didn't have an issue reading anything (possibly because we sat near the window), and the music and atmosphere generally comes across as rock-indyish to me, but I may just be a cultural gorilla.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Leon's Mexican Restaurant

Did you know Leon's Mexican Restaurant was a Rachael Ray's $40 a Day stop in Saratoga Springs? That's right, home of the Burro Ranchero with Rachael's seal of approval. I am obsessed with anything Food Network-related and religiously watched $40 a Day back in its early years. I couldn't believe that J had a special connection to the restaurant when we were first dating. Turns out Leon's was an extended family affair. Consider this our official disclaimer. Yes we are greeted by familiar faces when we walk through the door but having had my share of Mexican food around the Capital Region and San Diego, this is truly a gem that has gotten better within the past few years, even months. 

A change in decor and atmosphere in addition to changes in plating and presentation has improved the overall experience at Leon's. The restaurant has started using seasonal and fresh ingredients, which makes a huge difference in taste. On a recent visit J and I were quite impressed by said recent changes.  A new paint job and open seating with brighter lights made the dining room much more inviting. If you opt for bar seating, Uncle Jimbo the weekend bartender, will gladly make you a killer house margarita. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Casa Dominicana

I find lots of inspiration from fellow local food bloggers to try new and exciting places, mostly because I am salivating as I browse through their posts and pictures. My most recent adventure was inspired by Masticating Monkey's visit to Casa Dominicana for mofongo de chicharron on All Over Albany

One of my best friends was in town and we both have a love for all things culinary and food related. D is half Puerto Rican and knows her Latin food. Her Grandma makes a mean alcapurria and I can vouch for it. For the longest time we've been talking about getting mofongo but never knew where to find a good place for it in Albany. Lucky for us, AOA pointed us in the right direction for a lunch feast. 

Central Avenue never fails when it comes to getting authentic ethnic eats. No frills, no fusion-- just simple, good regional native food and that's what we found at Casa Dominicana. D, accompanied by her fiance J, were so excited to be greeted by a menu full of her childhood favorites. Casa Dominicana is a Dominican establishment but carries an array of Latin foods with Puerto Rican and Cuban favorites. I also have to mention how nice and accommodating the owner was. We were initially awestruck by the menu but he was very friendly, introducing each item in the hot trays and highlighting the specialties of the house.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Fly Creek Cider Mill

My folks were in town and it was on a whim that we took a day trip to Fly Creek Cider Mill near Cooperstown. Normally, Fly Creek is a mecca of samples from pickled vegetables to apple wine, cheese, fudge, jellies, jams, sauces, dips...you name it they have it. The list goes on and it's a delicious tour of the country store. The cafe next door is a great spot to grab an icy cold apple cider slush (free with a coupon from various visitor's guides) and an array of apple goodies from doughnuts, pies, dumplings, and cookies. For the kiddos and kiddos at heart, there's a coop of live geese, chickens, turkeys, and ducks who would be very happy to be fed corn treats for a mere quarter. There's also a play area, plenty of educational apple and cider related trivia, and displays of John Deere tractors. 

This past weekend just so happened to be the Annual Cider Festival and the line to get into the shop and the cafe were crazy long but we did not miss out on our small share of freebies. It's not every day that the International Society of Apple Parer Enthusiasts come to town. We arrived toward the end of the day but managed to sneak in samples of freshly pressed cider and sliced apples, sliced the old-fashioned way of course. 


Created with flickr slideshow.




The core of apple parer enthusiasts were a happy bunch of volunteers demonstrating the lost art of peeling an apple and slicing them through an array of antique yet functional machinery. There was even a demonstration of hand-pressed apple cider. 

It was a fun little side trip for us, but our main goal was to get a bite of the famous Brook's BBQ chicken for dinner and boy did it hit the spot. Nothing beats charcoal roasted meat. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Carmen's Cafe

Since R and I met, poor service has kind of become our thing. The first time I ever saw her was at a friend's birthday party at Brown's in Troy, where I ordered a soda three or four times and somehow never got it.  Since then, almost every place we've gone has featured long wait times, being completely ignored by waitstaff, kitchen errors, and stale/unseasoned food.  It isn't consistent, but it is unusually regular.  I suspect this is the reason we like to search out the little known, uncharted places in the area.  For one we both have pretty adventurous tastes, but also with this curse hanging over us, if we have a good experience then we know it's a genuinely great place.

Unfortunately, Carmen's Cafe fell completely flat on all the above issues.  It started well enough, we sat and were seen immediately for food and drink orders (although, oddly, by different waitresses).  The decor and floor were also nice, though my chair was set at the corner of the fireplace, forcing me to sit at a slight angle to the table.  Just enough to be annoyed but not enough to say anything or move once we had sat. 

The wait for our food was a good half hour for eggs. EGGS!  It was probably worse for R because it was her first meal that day (I take early classes on weekends), but regardless it's kind of long for breakfast in a dining room that's only half full.  Service fell down a bit here, as we finally had to ask what was going on with our food at the half hour mark (nobody had let us know the kitchen was backed up or checked on us in that time, though our water glasses were kept full which I appreciate).  Fortunately, at that point it was in the window anyway.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Brewery Ommegang & Cafe

J and I decided to venture out to Cooperstown during our staycation. Our goal was to finally visit Brewery Ommegang after unsuccessfully trying to squeeze in a tour and tasting this past summer. The brewery was way too hectic and overcrowded on a July weekend and now that it's fall season, it's the perfect time to visit. Plus the scenic route along Route 20 is perfect for leaf peeping this time of year. 

We got to Ommegang just as a tasting was starting and opted to jump in. Ommegang beers are on the stronger, alcoholic side. Needless to say a 6-mini flight tasting on an empty stomach wasn't exactly the best idea but it's quality beer! Ommega
ng prides itself on Belgian-style beer and at $3 per tasting plus a souvenir shot glass, it's a steal. The tour guides are very knowledgeable and no, there was no Game of Thrones beer samples but you get the classic six: Witte, Rare Vos, Hennepin, Abbey Ale, Three Philosophers and a fall brew called Scythe & Sickle in honor of the harvest season akin to the pumpkin beers of the season without the spices. 

Monday, September 30, 2013

TC Paris Bakery Preview

J and I have been avid fans of TC Paris Bakery since their early days inside The Chocolate Gecko in Albany. We would stop by every other weekend for fresh flaky and buttery chocolate croissants and boxes of french macarons, not to mention the best creme brulee (torched to order!) and lemon tarts too. Safe to say we were regulars but how could we resist all made from scratch treats. Being in walking distance was dangerously delicious. It would be an understatement to say that we were devastated to find out that TC Paris was losing their space back in March and had to relocate. We were in withdrawals throughout the summer and while TC temporarily found a home at Fluffalicious, it just wasn't the same not being greeted by Chef Paul and crew. 


We're so happy to report that TC Paris has found a permanent new home in Saratoga on Henry Street. It's a bit more of a hike for us to get our fill of treats, but it's one we're happy to make. We were honored to be invited to a preview of the new shoppe and every morsel we sampled was just as good as we remembered, if not better. TC takes pride in quality from ingredients to execution. The stars of TC Paris are the French macarons: delicate almond meringue cookies filled with light buttercream or chocolate ganache. These macarons have a light and crisp shell yet chewy center as you bite into the cookie and filling. They are delightful fun little morsels of textures and flavors ranging from chocolate made with Valrhona chocolate, salted caramel, and lemon to unique flavors like chocolate earl grey, chocolate rose, and ube purple yam. 

Did we mention how good Valrhona chocolate is? TC uses the same quality chocolate in their croissants and no other croissants have lived up to TC's since. We're also happy to report that TC started making chocolate-dipped pretzels with the same Valrhona chocolate. If you need more of a chocolate fix, TC is now carrying a line of Neuhaus Belgian chocolates and truffles, and we can vouch for those too but the in-house scratch-made confections are what you really want to go for. Duchilly hazelnut pralines are also back and we can't wait to see the return of our old favorites and new favorites to come! Congrats TC Paris Bakery! The new space and renovations are beautiful. It's great to see TC in their own space. We'll be back in two weeks for the official opening! - J&R

Monday, September 23, 2013

Karavalli Indian Restaurant


There's an abundant of Indian cuisine here in the Capital Region. Albany's Central Avenue alone has four Indian/Pakistani restaurant all within a one mile radius, not even! I remember being hesitant about trying Indian food, but after one bite, it wasn't as intimidating as I thought. I was introduced to Indian cuisine when a housemate during my summer internship had a hankering for palak paneer, a dish of farmer's cheese in a spinach sauce. We drove 70 miles to eat at Ghandi Restaurant on Central Ave where I was introduced to Chicken Tikka Masala and was hooked at first bite. 

I'm one of those people that likes to try a bit of everything and Indian buffets are perfect for that, but usually I've only come across buffets at lunchtime. So when the craving hit at dinner time, J and I decided to venture up to Latham to Karavalli and stray from our usual sushi date nights. A 4.5 star rating from Yelp was enough to pique our interest. 

There was already a pretty good dinner crowd when we arrived; a full dining room is always a good sign. Even better, there was complimentary papadum (a thin, crispy cracker) with a duo of sweet and savory chutneys aka Indian condiments. J isn't much of a seasoned Indian foodie as I am but was adventurous enough to order lamb saag. I usually don't like lamb but loved it in this dish. Sometimes the gamey flavor of lamb is off-putting to me but the blend of spices in the spinach sauce balanced well with the chunks of meat. I ordered the Chicken Tikka Masala, a dish that sets the standard and quality of each Indian-American restaurant that I visit. Karavalli's version did not disappoint; creamy and spicy (but not hot spicy), chicken tikka masala always hits the spot when the craving hits. Indian food is also never complete without naan, a buttery and chewy flatbread. It's perfect for sopping up the sauces and picking up bits of meat mixed in with basmati rice.  Don't be afraid to get hands on! A glass of mango lassi, basically a yogurt milkshake, is always an added treat too. 

What I love about Indian food is that flavors are so complex. Not every masalas and curries are made the same; dishes can taste different across the board depending on where you go. Each Indian restaurant is unique in its own way; they use their own blend of spices and if you go enough like I do, not one dish tastes exactly the same and that's the fun part! Just don't ask me to name all the spices, it's nearly impossible but I mostly pick up on cumin, cinnamon, and paprika.  Indian food can be as regional as our American foods and I love discovering and tasting the nuances of this type of cuisine. It's hard to pick a favorite Indian food spot in the Capital Region, but J and I thoroughly enjoyed our experience at Karavalli. Plus service was excellent; our dishes were cleared right away and you never run out of water (a giant pet peeve of ours when ignored). 

Does anyone know of Indian buffets for dinner in the area? I'd love to go on more Indian dinner dates. Variety is the spice of life right? Indian food certainly doesn't lack spice! Ok, really, I just want to be glutton and fill my plate with all kinds of delicious morsels. -R


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Golden Harvest Farms


You know it's fall season when there's an abundant of all things apple and pumpkin-flavored, but nothing beats the real thing. The epitome of fall happens the moment you pick a ripe apple from the branches and bite into its crisp, juicy flesh. Upstate New York is magical in the fall and wouldn't be complete without a trip to the orchard for apples and cider donuts. J and I went on a whim and it just so happened to be opening weekend of Pick Your Own at Golden Harvest Farms in Valatie. Just 20 miles from Albany, this orchard is a nice getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city.

It's always a good sign when you are greeted by the rich, fragrant smell of freshly made apple cider donuts as soon as you drive through the parking lot. The sweet smell is enough to lure you into the shop first but a treat is much more rewarding after you've worked for it. If you need a little pep before venturing into the orchard, a distillery is conveniently located onsite. Harvest Spirits
has been making a range of liquors from apple vodka to apple jack and brandy. $1 will get you a sample and boy will it hit you. It's strong stuff, maybe that's why they'll only serve you up to three samples. Hard liquor isn't really for us but we really appreciate locally sourced and handcrafted products. Harvest Spirits also had samples of ice cider on hand from Slyboro Cider House.  Produced much like ice wine, ice cider is sweet from the residual sugars and the apple flavor is very prominent. We were big fans and picked up a bottle.

Warmed up from a couple shots, J and I were ready to hit the orchards. This pick your own was a steal at $15 for a half bushel bag plus two coupons for FREE apple cider donuts! Apple sampling is encouraged too which meant free snacks along the way. It's still pretty early in the season, so not all the apple varieties are prime for picking. Our favorite were red crisp and sweet galas and we had no problem filling our bag, and stomachs to boot. But of course there was still room for donuts at the end of the trip!

To round out our apple picking adventures, we picked up a gallon of apple cider and half a dozen of cider donuts (plus two free ones from our coupons). I'm usually on team yeast donut, but these cider donuts are one of the few cake donuts that I love; they're not too dense and deliciously covered in cinnamon sugar. Don't wait til you get home to have your first bite, especially if they are still warm. Eating one in the parking lot is perfectly acceptable and the more sugar you're covered with, the better. Plus it makes for a very special moment eating a freshly made donut made on premise from the cider pressed from the apples that you're standing a mere few feet away from. Now I'm curious, where are other must go to orchards in the area for apple cider donuts? -R


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

La Empanada Llama

We can officially add Peruvian cooking to our list of favorite ethnic eats. Just last week I got I got a chicken empanada from La Empanada Llama lunch stand at the Empire State Plaza. That empanada was so memorable that I had to track down the restaurant and share my find with J. 

I remember reading about the new La Empanada Llama storefront located in the Crestwood Plaza in Albany (same plaza as Spinner's Pizza) and can't believe I didn't make it a point to stop by earlier. J and I got to the place a little before closing time and and the restaurant was sadly empty except for the life size stuffed llamas. We decided to order a small feast to go which seems to be the norm vs. dine-in. 

Since empanadas are the specialty, we ordered one of each kind: beef, chicken, chorizo, and spinach and cheese. For little hand pies, these puppies were packed with flavor. The dough is light and flaky yet not too greasy from being fried. J's a "meatatarian" and the spinach and cheese was his favorite.  My favorite was the chorizo and cabbage empanada, which was different from the bright red and spicy Mexican chorizo that I'm normally use to. I was taken aback by the bites of raisins in the beef empanada but the sweetness worked so well with the spiced beef, corn and rice filling. As for the chicken, I can see why it's a Farmer's Market bestseller. It's cooked in a traditionally aji amarillo sauce, a Peruvian yellow chilli pepper, that is midly spicy but not as sharp as jalapenos. It's a good starter empanada, even for my co-worker who normally isn't adventurous and she loved her first time trying something new. Needless to say, not one bite of any of these empanadas was disappointing. It was a good balance of flavorful filling to crust. What we discovered is that there's so much more to La Empanada Llama than its signature empanadas.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Banh Mi Hung Phat


To most people Montreal is synonymous with the French-Canadian delicacy of poutine. J and I have a deep love for poutine but Montreal for us is about exploring my family's Vietnamese roots as well. My mom is an amazing cook and bar none makes the best homemade spring rolls and chicken pho noodle soup. The one dish that is best left to the professionals is the humble but oh so delicious banh mi sandwich. 

Marche Hung Phat has mastered the art of assembling a good 'ole banh mi sandwich. At a mere $3.50 in Canadian dollars/$3.32 in U.S. Dollars at the current exchange rate (that's no typo!), this deal blows the $5 footlong Subway sandwich out of the water. What makes a classic banh mi sandwich so good you ask? Let's break it down: 

- The Baguette: Did you know Vietnamese cuisine has a lot of French influences? Case in point--the very foundation of any sandwich--the bread. Banh mi literally translates to bread. What's unique about the Vietnamese version is that it's made from a combination of wheat and rice flours. The result is a crispy crust yet light innard, the perfect vehicle for meaty accroutrements.

-The Filling: A classic banh mi has a schmear of liver pate and homemade garlic mayo (other very French components) with thinly sliced layers of ham and pork bologna called cha lua. You can actually find cha lua at the Asian markets here in Albany if you want to give a go at making your own homemade banh mi sandwich. 

-The Greens: Must include pickled carrots and daikon, fresh crisp spears of cucumber, cilantro, and slices of bird chillies for a spicy kick. 

A good banh mi is a fine balance of the above elements. It's layers of flavors and textures in a humble sandwich. One bite and it's a party in your mouth: crispy, crunchy, spicy, meaty, salty, sour, umami. Banh mi sandwiches at Marche Hung Phat are that special. Maybe it's because of its location in the heavily French-influenced province of Quebec, or maybe it's because those ladies behind the counter just assemble your sandwich to order with love. By the way, every sandwich is customized to your liking so it really is made with love.  You can even deviate and order other banh mi sandwiches made with chicken, tofu, Vietnamese sausage, or pork meatball or go in a completely different direction with other Vietnamese soup dishes.

But really, make it a point to order yourself a #2 Classic Banh Mi at Marche Hung Phat. It's what they are known for. Best $3.50 you'll ever spend on "fast food" It's also conveniently located near  Little Italy and Marche Jean Talon's public farmer's market where you'll find more good eats and free samples along the way. -R



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.