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Eight Months of Mud and Ice

March 16, 2010

There were a couple of comments that came in recently that deserve to be shared more broadly and discussed more fully.  Mostly because they concern the opposing view of topics that I care deeply about, and deal with food issues that I think can be improved upon in the Capital Region.

I really enjoy getting comments like this.  They are thoughtful and articulate, and they allow me the opportunity to try to refine my original argument so that it can address unforeseen obstacles.

Today I want to share the first of these comments that was written in response to my comparison of two fancy Italian menus.  One was for MezzaNotte in Guilderland and the other was Oliveto in Oakland.

Here is the full text of what Sysonby wrote ten days ago:

I just came to this post via a link. Sorry so late to the party, or funeral as the case may be. Allow me to defend by town, Guilderland. As nice as it may seem to note the farm of origin for the tomatoes or the eggs at a location in California, what chance does a restauranteur have in upstate NY?

Meza Note may get much of it’s produce and dairy and meats from local farms, but … a) this area doesn’t have a close “relationship” with such providers and b) for 8 months of the year nothing is coming out of the ground but mud and ice. No restaurant in the Albany area can say “tomatoes from X farm” when that farm is only harvesting for 5 months.

Sure the foodies at Oliveto may understand what it means to get vegetables from “X farm” but most don’t know or care as long as it’s good food, well prepared. The hardcore foodie tends to think that everyone else in that restaurant is just like they are but most of us are not. We like the experience of a meal cooked by someone else. We like having the chance to linger over coffee or a glass of wine and not having to jump up to do the dishes. We don’t care if the cherry tomatoes are not the best we ever had or if the salad had too little arugula.

I believe a restaurateur has every chance in upstate New York to source high quality, seasonal ingredients from local farms.  In fact, there are three restaurants in the region (and I use the term “region” very broadly) that come to mind immediately: The Basement Bistro, Local 111 and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

But the idea isn’t necessarily that every ingredient has to come from a specific local farm.  The idea is that every ingredient and every supplier was thoughtfully chosen to provide delicious seasonal ingredients.  Seeing local farms listed on a menu and their names attached to specific varieties of meat and produce, offers the dining public a compelling shorthand.

I think restaurants can play a very important role in shaping how people eat and defining what people think is good.  Sure, Capital District restaurant patrons may not have any idea what happens at Sap Bush Hollow Farm or what makes their beef so good.

But if they see it on the menus of the area’s finest restaurants, over time people will get the idea.

That is essentially the story of what happened with Niman Ranch beef.  A few prominent local chefs thought Bill Niman’s beef was special, and put it on their menus. 

Menus have more power than one might suspect.  They are a medium.  And they can help change the way people eat.

Sure, the growing season around here is preciously short.  This was painfully clear at the Troy Farmer’s market this past weekend where many of the vendors had departed, and those who remain seem to be down to their last winter storage vegetables.  Nonetheless, this week I picked up a few beautiful varieties of potatoes, some celery root, rainbow chard, beets, carrots and onions.  Last night I made a big pot of chicken stock while it is still cool enough outside to justify simmering large pots of liquid for several hours.

So even though we may have eight months of mud and ice, I’m not letting the restaurants off the hook.  There are all kinds of ways to preserve summer produce.  And the winter storage crops, while limited, can still provide a bounty of inspiration to a creative and talented chef, especially if the restaurant offers a focused menu of the chef’s best recipes for the ingredients at hand.

If that means no Caprese salad in February, then so be it.  The world will be a better place once summer dishes are removed from winter menus.

I understand that I take food more seriously than other people.  Most of the time it’s painfully obvious.  But I also know that I am the outlier.  And I am perfectly fine with the idea that dining out doesn’t have to be about achieving culinary nirvana.  What I am not fine with is paying fine dining prices for a meal that only has the trappings of fine dining.

If a restaurant is charging $29 for a veal shank, there ought to be something more special about it than the mere fact that it was cooked by someone else and you will not be expected to wash the dishes.

It’s time for Albany to step up its game.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2010 9:08 am

    These days that Niman Ranch link doesn’t actually mention Bill Niman. He got excised when he left the company and there was a bit of bad blood. Now he is happily raising goats and turkeys but nary a cow. If you want the full Niman Ranch story check out the Niman Ranch cookbook which is available for under 20 bucks through the Profussor’s Amazon link at right. It is a great narrative on natural meats and philosophy as well as a source of some good recipes.

  2. jess permalink
    March 16, 2010 10:05 am

    Sap Bush Hollow Farm just got some ink in this past Sunday’s NYT magazine:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/14/magazine/14fob-wwln-t.html?ref=magazine

  3. March 16, 2010 11:14 am

    Sysonby says, “Meza Note may get much of it’s produce and dairy and meats from local farms, but … a) this area doesn’t have a close “relationship” with such providers” …this perplexes me. I mean, I know I am an hour from Albany but…this is farm country. There are right to farm laws here. A traffic jam for me means getting stuck behind a tractor with no clearance to pass. Or room to pass, for that matter. The farmers and farmers are here. To say that there are not relationships with these providers is ludicrous. Ever heard of Mack Brook Farms? Flying Pigs? 3 Corner Field? Farms and farmers raising sustainable and in some cases heritage breeds of meat. And those are just a few off the top of my head in my county.

    As far as the assertion, “The hardcore foodie tends to think that everyone else in that restaurant is just like they are but most of us are not. We like the experience of a meal cooked by someone else. We like having the chance to linger over coffee or a glass of wine and not having to jump up to do the dishes. We don’t care if the cherry tomatoes are not the best we ever had or if the salad had too little arugula.” As as “hardcore foodie” I call bullshit. I don’t think everyone is like me. I can assure you that I am used to sticking out like a sore thumb. Used to going against the grain, used to being thought of as odd.

    I too, like having a meal cooked for me and lingering over coffee. And I could give a rats ass about arugula or cherry tomatoes. What I do care about is seeing tomatoes on a restaurant menu in January. Caprese in January makes no sense. Even if the tomatoes are imported from elsewhere they are usually crap. A tomato tastes best from where it’s grown, when it’s logical for it to grow. Which is not January in upstate NY.

    The only thing I wish for is more thoughtfulness and mindfulness about the food we eat.

  4. March 16, 2010 11:19 am

    One other thing I’d like to note is you reached pretty far for restaurants that use seasonal, local ingredients but left out some local restaurants that deserve kudos for trying to do the same (though perhaps not on the same scale, it’s hard to compare to Blue Hill) such as, NWBB, Swoon (in Hudson), Max London’s, The Wine Bar (Saratoga) and my favorite Beekman Street Bistro.

  5. Mike W permalink
    March 16, 2010 5:47 pm

    I guess I’ll jump on the recommendation bandwagon here and give you a link to the Red Devon down in Dutchess County. Might be right up your alley…

    http://www.reddevonrestaurant.com/

    You can find seasonal menus on the website along with a chart detailing from which Hudson Valley farms are used for sourcing food. As you’ll see, the prices are a bit steep, perhaps even for farm to table. Hudson Valley restaurant week is coming up though, so it might be a good time to check them out at a lower cost.

  6. mirdreams permalink
    March 17, 2010 11:55 am

    What about New World Bistro? They assert on their menu: “We are committed to serving our take on Global Neighborhood fare that utilizes regional, seasonal,sustainable and artisan ingredients. Help us support the little guys in all of their endeavors. We buy local meats from Northeast Family Farm Cooperative http://www.northeastfamilyfarms.com and Niman Ranch. Our Chicken is Freebird http://www.freebirdchicken.com. Our seafood is sustainable as recommended by the EcoFish and Monterey Bay Sea Watch. Our seasonal produce is as local as possible.” And they’re right in our neck of the woods.

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