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Food Versus Restaurant Food

June 18, 2009

I don’t really care to go into the history of restaurants, although it is interesting.  We could spend some time discussing the different grades of restaurants from “greasy spoon hole in the wall” to “palace of fine dining.”  Maybe we’ll do that later.

But I have been reviewing a few of my recent posts, and some that I have on deck for the future.  What I need to come clean about is an expectation I have for higher-end restaurants.

Now I do recognize that “higher-end restaurants” may be a vague term.  But it is one that I believe reflects a variety of decisions a restaurant makes: from the look and feel of its menus, to its menu offerings, to the price of the dishes, to the table setting, to the dishware, to the formality and dress of its waiters, to the interior and exterior of the building, etc.

On occasion one of these elements will not be in line with all of the others, and it is as wrong as pants on a trout.  For example, the beautiful restaurant with inventive seasonal menus and elegant utensils that uses paper napkins emblazoned with the name of the establishment.

In Albany there is one thing that sticks out across the board: the absence of restaurant-quality ingredients.

Let me explain.  Anyone can buy meat, vegetables, grains, stock and spices at the supermarket, bring them home, and cook them up into something tasty.  On some level restaurants exist to save us from the task of cooking.  But on another level restaurants exist because their chefs are trained and more skilled than most home chefs, and we pay for the privilege of eating what they make.

But the best chefs know that the secret to the best quality food is using the best quality ingredients.  And the best chefs have access to ingredients that home cooks do not.  They also have the time to prepare things from scratch that are not feasible for most home cooks, like rich clarified double or even triple stocks and demi-glaces.

Ideally I would like to see on the menu at any serious restaurant with options above $16 – yes, I said $16 – meats and poultry that include some description about their source.  Or at the very least to provide some kind of higher quality offering, such as heritage Berkshire pork instead of just run-of-the-mill pig flesh. By the same token, I would expect the proud chef to highlight his or her source of produce as much as possible or bring something interesting or unusual to the table.

Otherwise I am left to assume the worst: that the ingredients on the menu are nothing but food service grade, delivered with the c-fold paper towels and bulk industrial spices from the SYSCO truck.

Perhaps the chef is so well trained they can make a delicious meal using industrial ingredients.  That is fine.  I’d happily eat it, and admit my enjoyment.  But on some level I would still feel robbed paying a fine dining tariff for the experience.

And to me this is the critical flaw of the local food scene.

Yes, there are some exceptions; most notably New World Bistro Bar where the chef is committed to local, sustainable, and humanely-raised meat, seafood and produce.  And where I am thrilled to be able to eat a grass-fed hamburger.

Maybe I am just missing other places around the area that actually provide food of this quality.  Tell me your thoughts, and we’ll discuss it further.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. AddiesDad permalink
    June 18, 2009 10:57 am

    There are several restaurants in Saratoga Springs that strive to use (and source) local/high quality foods including Beekman Street Bistro, The Local Pub, Chez Sophie, Mouzon House, and One Caroline among others.

    Also, don’t disparage the SYSCO truck too much. The are a distributor for many products, including local and regional foods and ingredients. They are often the best, and only, way for a local farmer, cheesemonger, etc. to distribute their wares across the Capital District.

  2. jess permalink
    June 18, 2009 11:07 am

    You NEED to take a trip this summer to Local 111 in Philmont, just outside Hudson. It’s wonderful!

    I went there for my last birthday and was absolutely impressed. Delicious, clean dishes prepared simply using really good ingredients in an old converted auto shop. The chef puts a lot of focus on “farm-to-table.”

  3. AddiesDad permalink
    June 18, 2009 12:04 pm

    I’ll add Swoon in Hudson to Jess’ comment.

  4. Joanna permalink
    June 18, 2009 12:39 pm

    While the aforementioned restaurants and comments are appreciated, I would love to know if there are any in the Albany area. It seems to defeat the purpose for an Albany resident to travel to Hudson or Saratoga for “local fare”.

  5. Tonia permalink
    June 18, 2009 12:48 pm

    My favorite so far locally has to be Tosca. I went there initially because that was where we had my sister’s bridal shower. The service was impeccable. Chef came out and described all the produce and where it came from. I loved the experience.

    I always judge a place by their salad. If the salad sucks, I get immediately turned off. I guess this comes from growing up on garden fruits/veggies. (bread is another)

  6. June 18, 2009 10:21 pm

    I will definitely add all of these restaurants to the ‘to-eat’ list, but I would also really like an Albany based restaurant that served Berkshire pork. If there are any, I would love to know about them since I have been jonesing to try this out for years.

    Also echoing the dislike of sysco foodsl; as in super-processed brine-ified and not terribly meaty-meat. Cool to know sysco can distribute local meats.

  7. jess permalink
    June 19, 2009 10:38 am

    I agree Joanna, but sadly, our options are pretty slim in Albany proper, except for NWBB. Marche does some of this though too.

  8. Jennifer permalink
    June 19, 2009 12:02 pm

    Local is all relative up here. I consider Albany local (I am an hour away) and Saratoga local (I am 30 minutes away)

    My favorite Saratoga restaurant is Beekman Street Bistro. They always list where their food is sourced from and they serve heritage pork. Some times the vegetable come from my son’s old pre school teacher’s farm, which I love.

    Swoon in Hudson is worth a day trip. Love that place.

    Next on my list is NWBB. Maybe for Father’s Day…

  9. Raf permalink
    June 19, 2009 2:27 pm

    I mean to post this under “Junk in a Box”, but since you solicited comments today, I’ll do it here.

    Seems like you should delight your readers with some other fussy classics like t-bell’s beef and bean burrito (hold the beans) and velveeta microwave fondue.

  10. cheftanner permalink
    June 24, 2009 8:12 pm

    In Albany, Dale Miller’s Restaurant, 677 Prime, New World Bistro, Yono’s, Eats Gourmet Marketplace in Albany come to mind readily, in Saratoga Maestros, Beekman Street Bistro, Max Londons, Chez Sophie, One Caroline Street Bistro, The Wine Bar, In Tory Toscas, and actually the local colleges are featuring local ingredients at RPI, Skidmore, and Union College. Some mention it on their menus, but not all of them. The trend seen in NYC or Boston of listing one’s sources on the menu may not of hit this area yet. But there are many restaurants using local ingredients, this list was only what I could come up with off the top of my head. just ask the chef, he or she will certainly let you know where they source their products. I will be running the Patron’s Club at the Hall of Springs this summer and will be using many local purveyors as well. Oh, and as one of the earlier posters mentioned, don’t write off Sysco, they carry products from many local farmers, including a good friend’s farm Sheldon Farms.

  11. June 9, 2011 10:57 am

    Although we’re not technically a full-service restaurant, over here at All Good Bakers (in Albany, on Quail St.) we use almost all local ingredients. We’re not serving meats at this time, but we obtain our flours, dairy, produce and cheeses from sources as close to Albany as possible (Organic White, Wheat & Spelt flours come from central NY (about 160 miles), hormone, antibiotic and GMO-free dairy is from Meadowbrook Farms in Clarksville (about 15 miles), sustainable produce in season comes from Farmer Jon’s Produce in Selkirk (13 miles, out of season we get organic from the Honest Weight), cheeses are mostly from R&G in Saratoga but sometimes we use VT or CT varieties. We serve specialty focaccia pizzas and made to order sandwich specials on Fridays, Saturdays & Sundays. We don’t prepare anything for the bakery we wouldn’t eat at home, where we have thoroughly researched for years what goes on our dinner plates. If we decide to go the meat-route in some of our specials (they’re veg & vegan now), you can be sure it will be from a local farmer of grass-fed/pasture raised, heritage breed, organic. We like beef & pork from Tilldale Farms and chicken from Franzen’s Scenic Acres.

    We are tiny and total “noobs” compared to other mentioned restaurants, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to compromise our values to save a buck. I think it’s promising that more locally-owned food businesses are getting on the train! Restaurant owners who care are finally starting to listen to you, Daniel B. – you’re doing a great thing here at FLB (which I personally voted as best blog in the TU poll….not to kiss your ass or anything, but food activism is important to me and I know parsing details isn’t easy). So, just sayin’, thanks.

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