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Austin Again

October 19, 2009

I really do not want to be writing about Austin again.

The first time Austin popped up on my radar was when they were included in Bon Appétit’s 2009 Top 10 Best New Restaurants in America.  And I wondered if Austin could get on that list, why couldn’t we?

The city briefly raised its head again when I discovered Pakistani-style Chinese food here in Albany.  I thought for a brief moment that we might have a leg up over Austin on this cuisine.  But I was wrong.  Austin has it too.  Sniff.

A few days ago a commenter at All Over Albany suggested that I would favor the pizza of Austin and San Francisco to that of my newly adopted Albany.  And I was concerned that I was getting a bum rap.

So, I really do not want to be writing about Austin again.

Maybe you saw this weekend’s Wall Street Journal.  The Weekend Journal section had a full page article “Austin Raises the Bar on Good Food; Young chefs have big ambitions for local ingredients and Tex-Mex traditions.”

This should be a link to the article.  The Journal is all over the map these days with their stance on free versus paid content.  But at the very least I expect this link to work for the next six days.  Send me an email if it doesn’t work for you, and I’ll see what I can do.

Let me make my point clear.
If Austin can do it, so can Albany.

Last time I wrote about Austin, Mr. Sunshine made the best case for why, perhaps, this level of culinary success cannot happen in Albany.

So yes, one of the great restaurants the Journal suggests features an update on the area’s regional specialty: Tex-Mex.  You may agree with Mr. Sunshine that we in Albany do not have that same type of culinary starting point.  Or you may agree with me and truly consider red sauce Italian our regional specialty.  We’ll save that topic for another day.

I am also not going to concede that Albany is a backwater and Austin is not.  We are both state capitals dammit, and also university towns.  Say what you will about the students, but the professors who teach them should be at least book smart and a modest bit worldly.

The bottom line is that people come to Albany from all over.  There are plenty of other people in Albany who know what is good, and are disappointed they cannot find it here.  Apparently there used to be a place called Cowan & Lobel’s in Stuyvesant Plaza, which sounds amazing but predates my time in the area.

But I digress.

The Journal also suggests that Austin has one of the best sushi restaurants in the country.  This involves paying top dollar for the highest quality fish from Japan that is flown to NY and LA.  Then the fish has to be flown immediately to Texas.  It’s tricky, and it’s costly.  Yet they do it because they have high standards and a desire to make Austin “a great restaurant city.”

This could be done anywhere, and arguably would be easier in Albany, given our proximity to NYC.

The final restaurant featured focuses on locally raised ingredients.  Thanks to Chef Ric, we have one of those here too.  But from my personal experience and what I have read from others, New World Bistro Bar could still benefit from a bit of big city ambition.  What I find frustrating is that this restaurant is so close to getting everything right.  It just can get sloppy in its execution.

My point is not that Austin is better than Albany.  It’s in Texas, after all.

But I am hoping that this story of a metropolitan area in Texas—similar in size to the Capital District—that rose to a high level of food prominence will be inspirational.  At the very least, the article reminds me that it is possible.

Albany is certainly moving in the right direction.  We are just not there yet.  And we can get there.  We just need to keep our standards high.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 19, 2009 8:45 am

    Cowan and Lobel’s ….ahhh memories. I grew up on their apricot chicken fingers and peasant bread. My parents probably went there 2 or more times a week (we lived fairly close to Stuyvesant Plaza). However, looking back through my child’s eyes, I don’t believe that Mr. Fussy would have been all that impressed. But for its day, it was the destination for “gourmet” type food in the area. Plus it was a haunt of the demon spawn herself, Rachel (shudder) Ray (shudder). BTW, I actually knew the young lass who supposedly brought the operation down with her feminine wiles, this was a story of seduction that I need not get into here. Locals will know what I am talking about.

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