Nice, Good & Reasonable: Explained
Hopefully I learned a lesson about being loose with language. At the end of a post last week about restaurants and value, I closed with the following lines:
What I want is that middle ground. A nice restaurant with good food at reasonable prices. But I am having a really hard time finding places like that around Albany.
And since then, those lines were posted by Steve Barnes on Table Hopping, with an open request to his readers for restaurants that might fill the bill. This resulted in a torrent of over 90 restaurant recommendations and a handful of comments that revealed some understandable misconceptions about my attitudes towards dining in Albany.
These two things had to be dealt with first, so I could finally get to the critical task of discussing how I define nice, good and reasonable.
Without a doubt, all the restaurants submitted have good food at reasonable prices. But this is where I got into trouble by not defining my terms.
All the words I used in my closing statement were terrible: Nice, Good, Reasonable.
“Nice” didn’t even make it into question Steve asked of his readers, but this was really a big part of my original issue. I have found plenty of places to eat that are good values in the region. Albany’s taverns are institutions unto themselves, and truly a local treasure. Even when the food isn’t so great, they exude a sense of place and past. Some cities will have one or two places like this remaining if they are lucky. We seem to have at least one in every neighborhood.
We also have a fair share of ethnic restaurants that offer comparative value. I’m still perplexed about the Albany Pan-Asian experience that ensures a sushi bar in almost every Thai and Chinese restaurant and includes Chinese-American classics on the menu at almost every Japanese restaurant.
But I was looking for something a bit more refined than all of that. When I used “nice” it was really my shorthand for a restaurant without plastic tablecloths or paper napkins. This has really been the segment of the market where I’ve been most reluctant to tread.
And it’s not just because I’m looking for a good value. A fair value would be fine. But based on what I have seen from the restaurants’ menus, and what I have taken from professional and amateur reviews, most of these restaurants don’t even deliver on that. At the crux of the matter is what I consider to be “good food.”
“Good food” is an atrociously vague thing to say. By any reasonable person’s definition, food that isn’t bad would be good. I had the Black and Blue pizza at Victory Café and it was tasty, if really really heavy. I cannot say it was bad. But it isn’t what I meant by “good food” in my original post either.
I said the following about good food yesterday:
This has everything to do with quality of ingredients, authenticity of preparation, focus of the menu, technical execution and plating. This has nothing to do with portion size. In fact, portion size is the enemy of price to quality ratios.
Let’s take a simple Italian dish like spaghetti carbonara: pasta with cured pork, eggs, cheese, olive oil, white wine, garlic, and parsley.
In my wildest fussy fantasies, the dish would fulfill all the criteria below. But in reality a subset of these things would be sufficient:
- It was listed among a small handful of pasta dishes (menu focus)
- Specified guanciale instead of pancetta or bacon (authenticity)
- Highlighted the source of the meat and eggs (ingredients)
- Pasta is cooked through, but still offers some resistance to the teeth (execution)
- A sensible portion is served (plating)
I’m not going to make the same mistake twice, so forgive me if I’m being a bit pedantic. A sensible portion is under a thousand calories of food. It is intended to feed you once. When you are finished, you may not feel stuffed, but you should no longer be actively hungry.
Isn’t that the point of dessert? If you are still a bit peckish after your meal, to have a sweet treat with the level of richness needed to bring you to full satiety? So if you just have a sliver of an appetite remaining but want something sweet you can have the sorbet. Or on the other hand if you are still feeling empty you could get the cheese plate or a silky panna cotta.
But what is a reasonable amount to pay for all of this?
Well I think it depends on all of the factors that went into the meal.
- The design of the dining room, its furnishings, and its rent.
- The training and skill of the chef and their brigade (the size of which is dependent on the complexity of the dishes on the menu).
- The wages needed to hire a maintain a professional staff.
- The price of restaurant-quality ingredients and the costs incurred in sourcing them.
Why the nicer restaurants in Albany are seemingly so expensive is still a mystery to me. I cannot tell you how glad I was to hear Steve acknowledge this to some degree in his post. Maybe I had missed it in the past, but when our paper’s critics have gone out and reviewed restaurants on the Hearst dime, I don’t recall hearing that any prices were out of line. Perhaps the topic is off limits in print. Even I know it is gauche to talk about money in polite company.
Luckily, as Steve pointed out, there are often good values lurking within these menus. And I have been pleased with seeing more “half-portions” and “small plates” being offered at our finest area restaurants that to me are indistinguishable from sensible entrée portions.
But I have only completed two years in the region, so I still have a lot of eating to do.