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Restaurant Week Recap

April 30, 2010

Officially, Downtown Albany’s restaurant week is still going strong.  If you can get a table at a joint with a decent menu, you can still enjoy the three-course prix fixe for $20.10 at participating restaurants.

But it is done for me.  I was able to get out and try two of the restaurants.  One I had eaten at a few months ago, and the other I was visiting for the first time.  One I thought was pretty good, the other left a lot to be desired.

Last week, I gave a rundown of the menus and was largely uninspired.  But there were three menus that stood out above the rest.  Now it was just about deciding which two I would try.

Susanr seemed disappointed that I didn’t elevate the menu from Katrinella’s Bistro over the line.  However, as she found out, this is their regular menu at their regular menu price.  Katrinella’s is special.  It is one of a handful of nice restaurants that offer good food at a reasonable price.  So when I only have a few days to take advantage of the Restaurant Week promotion, I am looking to the places where this kind of value is a rarity.

Monday night I met up with Ellen Whitby and went to Café Capriccio for the first time ever.  And I have to say that I was underwhelmed.

Never in my wildest imagination would I have suspected an appetizer of broccoli rabe, white beans, garlic and olive oil, to be served cold.  Not tepid, mind you, but actually chilled, like a salad.  And I tried to keep an open mind, but it was under-seasoned and not very good.

Ellen had the fresh mozzarella cheese with tomatoes.  I was actually surprised at how flavorful the tomatoes were.  However, I found the texture of the cheese to be unpleasantly mushy and undesirable.  Still, her dish beat mine by a mile.

I was having a difficult time deciding between the ragù Bolognese and their famous eggplant.  The waiter guided me to the Bolognese, and I was excited both about the fresh homemade tagliatelle and the wild boar added to the beef in the ragù.

What may be unfair is that I am comparing this restaurant’s ragù to the one I make at home from Marcella Hazan’s book.  It wasn’t even close.  The sauce was tasty.  It certainly wasn’t bad.  But the dish didn’t impress me.  The noodles didn’t help either.  There was no real chew or texture to them.  I’ve had better homemade pasta at a nondescript joint in Altoona, PA.  Frankly, I was expecting more.

For the most part, I did enjoy the cozy comfort of the restaurant.  It does strike a very nice balance between the familiar and the formal.  Although I wish they would invest in better flatware and glassware.  It always puts me off when I’m eating a nice meal to be using utensils that would be at home in a diner.  And wine always tastes better from thinner rimmed glasses.

As far as service goes, at some critical points our waiter was completely absent, while at other points the staff went above and beyond to fill our needs.   Nobody checked in on us after our food was delivered so Ellen wasn’t able to ask anyone about the conspicuous absence of ricotta in her pasta with “Eggplant, Tomatoes, Ricotta.”  As they were taking away the plates, it was curtly explained that the ricotta was more of a garnish, and that is just how it is.  But on the flip side, they also brought Ellen a second slice of chocolate cake, free of charge, just because she asked.  And they did it with charm and grace.

While I may go back, especially to try their beans and greens served hot, I am in no rush.  And if Mrs. Fussy ever feels the need to get a sense of the place, we can go for a drink at the bar.

The second restaurant was Marché, where Stanford Steph joined me on Wednesday.

The last time I was at the restaurant for a midweek dinner a few months ago, it was a ghost town.  Seriously.  There were two other tables.  One was a single diner, and she was reading the paper.  My guess was that they were hotel guests who just needed something to eat, and didn’t feel like venturing out of the hotel.

That first dinner was tasty, but nothing worthy of a return visit.  Still I thought this promotion was a perfect opportunity to give this place a second chance.

Restaurant week, as it turns out, was an entirely different ballgame.  The place was buzzing.   And the execution was significantly improved.  Even the amuse-bouche was better.  Although I still feel the restaurant is a bit rough around the edges.

The amuse-bouche looked like it had been plated for a while and sat around on a side table in the kitchen until it was served to us.  And even still, it was a curious choice to top the bite with a pickled jalapeno pepper ring.  It is very difficult for me to see one of those and not be instantly transported to the movie theater nachos of my youth.  But I thought it worked with the polenta cake and pork rillette.  It’s crunch and vinegar were a good counterpoint for the soft polenta and fatty pork.

My scallop ceviche with lime and cucumber in a habañero gazpacho was delicious.  All of the flavors really came through, and the whole thing was very well balanced with a bit of snappy heat on the finish.  The only thing that detracted from the experience was likely a service issue.  There was a giant handprint on the broad rim of the bowl.  Probably few people would ever notice.  But it’s sloppy.

We both got the roasted chicken breast with bean ragout and house-made andouille sausage, which was also delicious.  But I love chicken.  And I love beans.  And I love sausage.  And it came with a surprise of heirloom carrots as well, which I also love.  Still, chicken is risky, because an overdone chicken, especially a breast, is such a waste.  But the skin was crisp, the meat moist, and the sausage and beans were succulent.  The dish was certainly on the salty side, and walked right up to the edge of being over-seasoned, without crossing the line.

It would, however, have been nice to have a fork when my meal arrived.

Dessert was a disappointment.  I still can’t place the texture and flavor of the tart crust.  But it was nothing pleasant.  I’m thinking of some kind of stale wafer.  How they can call this a tart is beyond me.  A tart crust is something specific that this most certainly was not.  The strawberry and rhubarb filling was fine.  But the whipped cream was heavily over-whipped, and given how easy it is to make a fresh batch, the lapse is inexcusable.  I think Stanford Steph did better with her ice cream filled profiteroles with chocolate and hazelnuts.

The distracted, rushed and inattentive service didn’t bother me much.  But I could see it putting some people off.  I was pleased with the restaurant’s cutlery and wineglasses.  And I was glad to see that the chef here has some chops.

I walked away from this whole experience with a new perspective on Albany restaurants, what might be wrong, and how they might be improved.  And I thought I would have time to talk about that today.

Boy, was I wrong.
It will just have to wait until next week.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 30, 2010 10:05 am

    Have you ever checked out the above recipe for Ragu Alla Bolognese? It has been deemed by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina to be the “official” recipe. I made it a couple months ago, and it was really very good.

  2. April 30, 2010 10:31 am

    Great, I am going to Marche tonight so this was a pretty good review of it.

  3. Ewan permalink
    April 30, 2010 1:32 pm

    Interesting! Marche was the only menu that attracted us this time around; visiting with another couple, we tried almost everything on the menu.

    The amuse didn’t do much for me – too little flavour, too little variation of consistency. My beef tartare was dominated by capers and contained in a gel that made it frankly unappealing visually; the risotto that had been my second choice was bland and the promised ine nuts seemed entirely absent. So far, not so good.

    Saving grace for the meal was indeed my chicken: perfection, excellent taste, crisp, juicy. All good. The ragout was undercooked and underseasoned, I thought, but not *bad* per se; the salmon was OK but poor fish and accompanied by an identical risotto, identically flawed. Bread was an apparently store-bought dinner roll, not refreshed.

    And in contrast to you, I really enjoyed my rhubarb tart – rhubarb is rare enough over here, my pastry was crisp and very fresh, and the cream well-made. Problem of mass production?

    Overall, we thought this year’s effort fell well below that of last year, sadly; I doubt that we’ll return.

  4. Ellen Whitby permalink
    April 30, 2010 1:58 pm

    Like I said on the comment card given at the end of the meal at Cafe Capriccio, I enjoyed the company a great deal. And while I was disappointed to find out afterward that the ricotta was really a “garnish,” the pasta, eggplant and sauce part were yummy. And the bonus cake was a real treat (made by Crisan’s). It was nice to have a second slice.

    Today, I had the pleasure of lunching (again) at Katrinella’s bistro. The flavored oil and bread was especially tasty (I wonder if you know what the red stuff in there is – besides the balsamic vinegar), and the stuffed eggplant was delicious (even better than the previous time I was there). My only complaint is that I wasn’t hungry enough to finish it all. Instead, Hubby will enjoy the leftovers in his office.

    I like knowing that this is a restaurant with good food, good value and good service. It was a pleasure to go there again.

  5. Paul Kornblueh permalink
    May 3, 2010 12:04 pm

    Perhaps Albany’s eatery prices are inflated due to the number of people eating out on expense accounts? Just a thought

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