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.