Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Eugenio’s Café Gelato – Saratoga Springs, NY

We have visited Eugenio’s Café Gelato countless times since it first opened in 2003. It has been our favorite destination after gorging ourselves on Thai food (or more recently Chipotle) for some time. I realize that it is unfair to only write a Dinching Hour post about it now with a negative comment. So let me first state that Eugenio’s has by far the best gelato in the capital region and possibly even in a much larger region. It is all homemade, and every flavor is delicious. The fruit flavors, mango in particular, are the best in my opinion, although the chocolate is favored by Nabiscoman who chooses that almost every time. No prices are posted for the gelato; it’s one of those things that if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. I’m always astonished to see families with children in there.

We recently went to Café Gelato on a Sunday evening. I chose coconut, which was excellent as expected. NM chose his standard chocolate. We sat down to eat it on an empty bench outside. NM commented that his chocolate tasted of peanut butter (he dislikes peanut butter, I love it). He asked me to taste it, and it was, indeed, chocolate peanut butter (another flavor on the menu). He went back inside to see if he had been given the wrong flavor. The girl behind the counter insisted he was given the correct flavor and sent him on his way. Given that a cup of gelato is five dollars, I think she could have at least tasted what they were selling as chocolate to see if there had been a mix-up. The two flavors look identical and it seems plausible that a tub of chocolate peanut butter was mistakenly put in the chocolate’s place.

NM returned to the bench to continue eating his “chocolate” gelato. Moments later he pulled out a long, gelato-covered hair. He went back inside to convey his latest problem. The serving girl suggested NM speak to the owner, which he did. The owner explained that there is no law requiring the wearing hairnets while preparing food in New York, so it’s not surprising that hair may be occasionally found in the gelato. At this point, the owner offered to give NM a new cup of “chocolate” gelato – presumably from the same tub that produced the peanut-butter-tasting, hair-laden cup! NM suggested a refund instead, and the owner complied.

This experience was enough to sour us on our customary sweet treat. There are many other dessert establishments in downtown Saratoga, including Ben and Jerry’s and the Cold Stone Creamery. On our next sojourn to Saratoga we’ll rethink our gelato habit and try somewhere new.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Moon and River Café - Schenectady, NY

To make up for our recent journeys to a chain restaurant (Chipotle), we recently tried a locally-owned café in the historic Stockade neighborhood of Schenectady. I had known about The Moon and River Café for some time, but didn’t consider trying it until I recently came across the menu in some local establishment (the library, perhaps?). The menu was extensive, filled with a variety of mostly vegetarian offerings, but some chicken dishes, too. I placed the menu on our coffee table as a subliminal message, and lo and behold, Nabiscoman suggested we eat there before taking in the latest Harry Potter movie at the cinema in downtown Schenectady.

We arrived sometime between 5 and 5:30 and found the small storefront restaurant to be mostly unoccupied. Actually, there were as many as 6 other patrons there in addition to the proprietor, but the restaurant was so quiet that we felt like we were the only people there. In fact, the silence made conversation uncomfortable, as we felt like we were broadcasting our conversation to the entire restaurant. Ironically, the café is known for its nightly musical offerings. Perhaps the owner was looking for some quite time before the music started or recorded music just doesn’t cut it there. I’m sure I would have appreciated the solitude if I had been there with a book to read, but for dinner a little background noise would have been nice.

Our orders were taken promptly. I chose the African peanut stew, which had caught my eye when I first picked up the menu. NM chose the Mexican Eggs (breakfast is served all day) plus the vegan pea soup. During the ensuing wait we had plenty of time to examine the décor. We both instantly thought this reminded us of an Ithaca, NY – type restaurant (Pre-Walmart days). The décor was eclectic, with a good deal of it seeming to have been cast-offs from my aunt’s 1960s house (think avocado couch). There was also a used book section (presumably for sale?) and local artwork adorned the walls (some for sale). After about half an hour (of mainly silence), I was surprised to see the owner take a cup of dried soup from a shelf, add hot water, and present it to NM as is. I think the menu should have stated it was that brand of soup, since it was served in its paper cup or perhaps he should have but it into a bowl to conceal the fact, I don’t know which I would have preferred. NM took this in stride and finished the soup quickly, but not before our dinners appeared moments later.

My African peanut stew was a tasty vegetarian dish. It was less of a stew and more of steamed vegetable covered in a peanut sauce. There were a variety of fresh vegetables (definitely not frozen) including peppers, eggplant, asparagus, green beans, and squash. The peanut sauce was chunky and not too sweet, just right. As someone who loves peanuts (and Mr. Peanut, but that’s a different blog), I could, and sometimes do, eat them at every meal of the day. This peanut stew certainly fit the bill. NM enjoyed his eggs, which were made with salsa, pepper jack cheese, and surrounded by tortilla chips. The portions were adequate, but not overfilling (which is a good thing). Having to catch our 6:30 movie, we left as soon as we finished – but not before finding out that the owner had indeed lived in Ithaca previously and founded a well-known café there. There were also an array of deserts and coffee-type beverages to try when we have more time the next time we visit. And despite the pea soup and silence there probably will be a next time.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Battle of the Burritos

I like burritos as much as the next person, but Nabiscoman really loves them (but I like blogging more, so I'm doing the post). For the past few years he has made a point of seeking out burritos wherever he goes, from Vancouver to New York and everywhere in between. According to him, the best burritos are found at Chipotle. However, until quite recently, there was not a Chipotle within driving distance, and so it was not an option. Other burrito places were springing up left and right in the area, though, so we made a point of trying them all.

The first place we tried was another chain, Moe's Southwest Grill. We both had "homewreckers," which I found to be acceptable, but Nabiscoman assured me they were nothing compared to the burritos of Chipotle. Certainly quantity was not an issue, and chips and salsa even come with the burritos there.

Next we were excited to try a local chain, Bomber's Burrito Bar, which opened recently in downtown Schenectady. We prefer to patronize locally owned businesses, and any business that attempts to make a go of it in Schenectady certainly deserves our support. Knowing it would be crowded, we waited a few days after the grand opening to go. It was doing a brisk business and the menu and decor seemed promising. I had the chicken burrito and NM had the ground beef. We were surprised that they contained mostly rice and very little meat or beans. We figured the rice ratio was due to lack of experience, but in fact, that's how the workers are instructed to make them. Also the workers were incapable of rolling the tortilla because it was overfilled and had to try several times, dumping the filling out onto a new tortilla. The chicken was rather tasteless and required the use of much dental floss later.

We didn't want to give up on Bomber's, so we returned a second time. This time we carefully instructed them to limit the amount of rice, and that definitely helped. I had the BBQ pulled pork and that had more flavor than the chicken. NM had the chicken and found it flavorless and stringy, too. Undaunted, we tried a third time. I had the "Red Stripe" jerk pork, which sounded better than it was, and NM had the BBQ chicken (chunks, not shredded). It wasn't great, and we decided to give up.

Our third burrito experience was at Hot Harry's Fresh Burritos, a more or less regional chain. I had the chipotle barbeque pork burrito, and it was fine, but nothing special. The staff was very pleasant, though, and did know how to roll the burritos. Again I was assured by NM that no place could hold a candle to Chipotle.

Then the moment we had been waiting for: a Chipotle opened within driving distance with 2 or 3 more restaurants in the works. So we made the 25 mile pilgrimage to the new Chipotle in Wilton (in our Honda Civic hybrid that gets 45 mpg, so it's not as bad as it seems). NM advised me to get the barbacoa, spicy shredded beef. I'm not a big beef fan, but I took his suggestion. I also had black beans and the chili-corn salsa (and the proper amount of rice). I must agree that it was the best burrito I've had. Everything was fresh and flavorful. We've been back twice, and I haven't tried anything new. I did have pinto beans instead of black beans on the most recent trip. They didn't add anything, and I'll definitely return to black beans the next time we go. And there will be a next time, maybe even this weekend.

While I would prefer to frequent a locally owned restaurant, in this case Chipotle definitely beat out the competition. We'll look forward to more Chipotles opening in the area. Maybe the other burrito places can get some pointers from Chipotle.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Spa Brauhaus – Ballston Spa, NY

Last weekend, my husband and I visited the Spa Brauhaus in Ballston Spa, NY (actually right over the Malta town line). We enjoy German food and have visited this restaurant periodically after discovering it a few years ago. It is in an out-of-the way place one would not happen upon by chance, but it is definitely worth seeking out. The restaurant itself is mainly a large, dark, low-ceilinged banquet room that clearly hasn’t been updated in many years, although this only serves to heighten the “old-world charm” of the establishment. There’s a significant bar section as you enter, next to which lies the divided dining room. Past the bar area and main dining room is the mysterious, always-locked Edelweiss Room. I like to imagine that if the double doors swung open they would reveal an elegant ballroom similar to that of Captain Von Trapp’s mansion where he and Maria dance the laendler (Sound of Music, for those who don’t know).

The menu features a variety of German dishes plus specials and some non-German cuisine. We primarily stick to the sauerbraten because it’s so good, as well as being the house specialty. Meals are served with bread, a salad, and a large tureen of soup. Sunday’s soup was cream of mushroom, although we have had vegetable barley on other occasions. The soup was quite good, if a bit thick. We always felt like we had to try to eat as much soup as possible because it seemed like such as shame for it to go to waste. We actually commented upon this to our waitress on this visit and were surprised to learn that any uneaten soup is returned to a larger tureen and served again. While this certainly makes sense, one must have a lot of faith in one’s fellow diners. Fortunately, the crowd is often comprised of senior citizens who presumably would not defile the soup in any way.

On this visit we had our customary sauerbraten. The meat was tender and buttery as usual, although it was presented in four smaller slices instead if the two large cuts we have usually had. Meals are accompanied by a choice of potato and vegetable. Although there seem to be many options, we have never deviated from spaetzel and red cabbage. Both are excellent and filling. On previous visits I have also tried some of the wursts and roulade of beef, but the sauerbraten is still tops. We seldom have room for dessert and this visit was no exception. In the past we have tried the black forest cake and apple strudel. Both were acceptable, but not exceptional.

If you’re in the Ballston Spa area and find yourself in the mood for hearty fare, the Spa Brauhaus is a good bet.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Hattie’s Restaurant – Saratoga Springs, NY

Posted by NabiscoMan's Wife

After an initial visit several years ago (while still known as Hattie’s Chicken Shack), my husband and I recently paid two trips to Hattie’s Restaurant in Saratoga Springs, NY. One could believe the restaurant has changed little from its opening in 1938 apart from the multitude of photographs and clippings that adorn the walls, as the inside of the establishment is very utilitarian and somewhat rustic. On both visits we arrived early enough not to wait for a table, but the restaurant filled up quickly past their 5 pm opening time. Tables are very close together, and the atmosphere is quite “communal”.

On our first visit my husband ordered the jambalaya as an appetizer, and we both ordered Hattie’s famous fried chicken ($14.95). Meals are served with homemade cornbread, biscuits, and a mesclun salad with a curious sweet dressing: seemingly just sugar water, but still tasty. The fried chicken came with a choice of two sides, and we both chose the sweet corn-on-the-cob, which was excellent. My second side was tasty and unique cranberry coleslaw, while NabiscoMan chose the mashed potatoes. While the fried chicken was good, I did not find it exceptional. Perhaps I am not a good judge of these matters, but nothing will beat my grandmother’s fried chicken. The quantity of chicken was prodigious, though, allowing me to take a doggie bag for lunch the next day. I rather preferred the cold, leftover chicken the subsequent day.

On our second trip, neither of us got the fried chicken again. My husband got the jambalaya as an entrée while I got the catfish pan fried in seasoned cornmeal (both $16.95). NabiscoMan thoroughly enjoyed his dish while I found the catfish to be rather flavorless; this is a bit of a role reversal for us. We also tried the Louisiana Crab Cakes appetizer, which was very tasty, if a little greasy. I ordered the same two sides as before, although the sweet corn was not quite as good as the first time. The quantity of food was again more than adequate, causing us to forgo our usual Saratoga dessert of gelato.

No doubt we will make a return trip to Hattie’s but I would like to wait until its limited menu changes as it seems the colder months feature tempting comfort food like Chicken and Dumplings and Macaroni and Cheese. Hattie’s is definitely worth a trip to experience a Saratoga legend and ponder how the racing town must have been in the 30s and 40s.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Beardslee Castle - Little Falls, NY

My wife heard about this renovated castle from a co-worker, who described it as being "too creepy" for her wedding reception. With this type of introduction, and with supporting material from the restaurants website indicating potential spirit activity, we had to check it out!

We invited another couple from the neighborhood, and off we went to Little Falls, which is about an hour away from our home. Preliminary contact with the establishment led me to believe that this was a fancier venue than our normal dining location, and we thus took the trouble to dress a tad more carefully than the attire we usually favor.

The outside of the building does indeed resemble the popular vision of a castle, with a stone facade and heavily timbered door. The illusion is somewhat spoiled by the significant amount of cars parked right up to the front steps, however. The large entrance leads one right into the main dining room on the first floor, and we were politely greeted and shown to a table. While the environment was clean and generally well-maintained, some aspects of the set-up belied the upscale impression I had formed of the place.

Menus were printed on loose sheets of paper, presumably to convey an illusory spontaneity. Prices for various meat, fish and poultry items range from the high teens to low thirties. The menu also features several vegan dishes, for those so inclined. The first item we received was bread, served in the form of small flat stale cold squares. This was coupled to small dishes of humus (somewhat past its prime) and butter laden with chives.

Our friends selected chicken breast with spinach and feta cheese (also chosen by my wife) and walnut-crusted pork medallions. I selected the scottish salmon. The wine and beer list carries items of local origin, and so we all wound up drinking Utica Club beer, which provided much entertainment.

Salads came with all the dishes we had ordered, and these were served shortly after we ordered. In general, these were fine, with a wide variety of dressings to choose from. After a sizable delay (approximately 1 hour), our entrees arrived. I'd like to say that it was worth the wait, but regrettably the fare was just of average quality and preparation, although portion size was satisfactory. My salmon chunk was rather homogeneous, and somewhat overdone. This dish came with a strange mixture of linguini and rice, as well as a salsa concotion of corn and tomato shavings. My dining companions seemed generally satisfied with their orders, however. The less-than-stellar service was perhaps attibutable to the noisy wedding reception taking place on the second floor, but I'm not convinced.

After the main course was completed, we decided to order dessert. Our friends had death-by-chocolate and carrot cake. My wife and I had banana madness and death-by-chocolate (this last was simply chocolate cake with raspberry sauce swirled over it). All desserts tasted good, and were of sufficient freshness to please. We received our check (for $120), paid cash, and got up from the table.

After paying, we decided to look around the establishment. The basement, locus of spirit activity and referred to as the "dungeon", was hugely disappointing. In different hands, this space could be redolent of spookiness, whereas here it harkened back to the basement of my college dorm. All in all, the shabbiness of the place contradicted the allure promulgated on the establishments web site.

Bottom Line: unless you live right next door, and feel like throwing your money away for average quality food, don't bother. There are many equivalent restaurants in the capital district, and many more that surpass it. If the atmosphere had been appropriately managed, that would have made up for a lot, but that definitely wasn't the case here.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Karavalli - Rotterdam, NY

We are fans of Indian food, and were semi-regulars at Sapna, located next to the pool at the Quality Inn on Hamburg Street in scenic Rotterdam, NY. A little while ago (I don't know exactly when), Sapna went out of business, and Karavalli appeared. Please understand that Sapna was a no-frills affair, with probably the best Indian food in the Capital Region. Given its location off a hotel in a small strip mall, it was probably destined to be relegated to the diamond-in-the-rough category at best, with few decorations in the dining room, and very little in the way of ambience. Karavalli, I'm happy to report, has improved on this markedly. While still next to the pool, the chlorine smell is gone from the dining room, the walls have been repainted a semi-flashy two-tone blue, and the tables now sport cloth coverings (i.e. it looks like a restaurant).

It should be noted that this was our first visit. We arrived at around 5 PM on a Saturday, and the place was empty, a trait shared with Sapna. We actually never saw more than one other patron in that establishment, ever. The greeting today was courteous, and we decided to sit at a central table on this occasion. We were quickly provided with papadum/sauces, as well as ice water. So far, so good.

The Karavalli menu is chock-full of all your indian favorites (samosas, tandoori, nans, etc.), as well as some items that are less commonly available (dishes from the jewish section of Calcutta come to mind). We ordered ragara as an appetizer, and found it delicious and plentiful. This is a chick-pea/potato fritter combination that provided a welcome change from the appetizer rut we had fallen into. The main course consisted of chicken Vindaloo and Avial Malabar, served with rice. The latter was tasty, and not overly spicy, with an interesting blend of vegetables, which my wife appreciated. The vindaloo was prepared to taste (spicy!), but the chicken sections were tough and somewhat gristly, degrading the quality of the dish in my estimation.

Both courses were served by what we assumed to be the chef (although this may be incorrect), with an attempt at flair. Service on the whole was quite good. Portions were sufficient to provide dinner the following day.

Bottom line: the ambience has been significantly improved over the previous establishment. The service was fine, and the bulk of our dishes were excellent. We didn't stray from the "beaten path" very much, but will return to do so.