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Culinary Sophistication

May 25, 2010

This needs more attention, and I would like to open up the subject and hear what others have to say.  But over the past few weeks AddiesDad and I have been going back and forth on why the food in Albany is widely not as good but more expensive than similar restaurants elsewhere.

It started with his response to my Restaurant Week post.
Continued as I detailed the problems of larger menus.
And we last left off with me clarifying my question, followed by AddiesDad clarifying his answer.

This is all part of a larger effort I have undertaken to understand why the food in Albany is the way that it is.  And I feel like every step along the way, I get a better perspective on the city and its restaurants.

Now I’ve heard the lobbyist pitch before, and I’m just not buying it.  There are people with deep-pocketed expense accounts in every major food city in the world.  And the same effect isn’t present there.  So I’d like to focus on the AddiesDad’s other major point.

Here it is in its full glory:

I think the lack of culinary sophistication (and expectation) comes from the lack of a truly indigenous cuisine. Providence and Austin both have rich, local/regional culinary traditions where the core ingredients are available in abundance, and relatively cheaply. The also have a local ethnic character that has remained in those areas and helped nurture an appreciation for well made food at reasonable prices. Albany and the Capital District’s fairly high levels of transient peoples (college students, seasonal tourists, the ebb and flow of government related people) have not fostered a great deal of culinary loyalty and expectation. Perhaps even the tri-city (or more if you include Amsterdam, Saratoga, and Glens Falls) nature has been a detriment here.

The indigenous cuisine argument is interesting.

In an attempt to try and better understand my new home, I’ve been reading William Kennedy’s O Albany! Now I’m not a historian, nor am I an expert on these matters.  I haven’t even finished the book.  But for a while, Albany was the big deal city in the region.  Everything and everyone passed through here.  I’m guessing back in the day there were some mighty fine restaurants for the time.

But when the river and the railroad were no longer the primary modes of trade and transport, our city became much less prominent.

Still, there have been many ethnic communities that settled in the region.  Given the Italian immigrant population, why we do not have restaurants that specialize in regional Italian cuisine is a mystery to me.  Instead we have dozens, if not scores, of restaurants where you can get chicken parmesan.  Conversely we also have 4o sushi places despite the apparent absence of a commiserate Japanese immigrant community.  Granted, neither of these situations is unique to Albany.

When I read AddiesDad’s comment, it is hard for me not to consider my recent trip to Tempe.  Officially, Mrs. Fussy is tired of hearing about the food in Arizona, but I’m hoping you will indulge me for just a moment.

One would expect Tempe to have good Mexican food, for some of the reasons outlined above: regional culinary tradition, local ethnic character, readily-available ingredients.

But I would not expect there to be great halal Mediterranean food, gorgeous mesquite charred burgers, and stunning cappuccinos.  After all, the region suffers from the same high levels of transient people (Arizona State University) and a tri-city layout (with Phoenix and Scottsdale as the other municipalities).  Naturally what is different is the population size of the area, and this cannot be overlooked.

Still, I think it would be hard to argue that these foods would be indigenous to the region.  And while I didn’t get a chance to partake, there were also a couple of well-regarded Hawaiian BBQ restaurants in town.  I would have made a stop for dinner, but Mrs. Fussy abhors heavy mayonnaise macaroni salad.

AddiesDad is onto something with this idea of a lack of culinary sophistication.  And I think some of his hypotheses have merit.  But I think there is something else at play too.  Maybe the local food critics and writers have some culpability, but I’m not going to lay this at their feet again.

Perhaps people locally have different expectations about what a restaurant should be?
Perhaps this is a function of life in a smaller market?
What say you?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarah M. permalink
    May 25, 2010 10:04 am

    I don’t think Addie’sDad’s argument about high levels of transient people really holds up– both Providence and Austin have enormous college populations and are also the state capitals, which would suggest that they share that ebb and flow of government workers. I think a lot of this discussion also hinges on what one means by “culinary sophistication.” Sure, there are lots of amazing restaurants and foodies in Austin; there are just as many college kids eating Torchy’s Tacos and Home Slice pizza for every meal (both awesome places, by the by, but at their core, quick service taco & pizza joints). It’s not always tied into erudite food choices.

    This is sliding into ad hominem territory, but in my opinion, the lack of sophistication or expectation is a result of Albany’s general provincialism. I don’t see that as a value judgment, just a reality, and it’s not like Albany’s the only mid-sized metro area that deserves that designation. It’s just obvious when one’s trying to compare the 518 to other areas.

  2. Matt K permalink
    May 25, 2010 10:37 am

    I guess I don’t see a lack of sophistication in the restaurant choices in the Capital Region. I’m from Boston, by way of Pittsburgh and a little bit of Toronto, and there are some restaurants in the Region which would certainly be very successful in those cities as well. I’m thinking primarily of places like The Beekman Street Bistro in Saratoga which specialize in local farm-to-table dishes. I suspect that if I was trying to name a “regional” food culture, it would be that – local food which takes advantage of the Hudson River Valley farming areas.

  3. Ellie permalink
    May 25, 2010 11:32 am

    Having been to Scottsdale/Pheonix/Tempe, I can honestly say there are some duds of restaurants, especially in Sedona. (Even my father didn’t like that steakhouse…) And having lived here, I can honestly say there are some good places to get food here in the 518. I think it’s honestly a combination of the following:

    1. When you’re on vacation, you do research. You go to yelp, you ask locals, you look at the zagat guides and then you decide where to eat. When at home, if you’re like most of us, you don’t do that. So I think we tend to compare the foods of other regions as more favourable then the ones where we live.

    2. The Times Union doesn’t assign the correct critic to the correct restaurant. I love Wolf’s. There are beers there you cannot get any other place in NY – even in bottles. And they have them on tap. Why did the TU send a fine dining fan to a beer garden? My sister, having been to an actual Oktoberfest, says the food is as authentic as you’ll get without going into an area with strong German heritage, or Germany itself. And the place got panned. Friends of my father’s looked at us as if we were insane when we spoke about its wonders as if we were crazy after they read the review.

    3. College kids suck. I think the large majority of our college student make-up is on whole not adventurous and not interested in trying new things. So why bother opening up a new and risky place with a different menu if that’s not what the kids want? (And furthermore, many of them have no taste at all anyhow…Especially in music.)

    4. We’re forgetting there is great food here! While Ric Orlando and I have different ideas of what customer service looks like, New World Bistro provides excellent meals each time I have eaten there. A trip down Lark St, and there is Justins and DeJohns, both of which I’ve had fantastic meals at. Let’s not forget Shalimar, or in Troy Ali Baba. I have had consistently good food and beer at Albany’s Pump Station. Plum Blossom is excellent Chinese food, and not a sushi roll in sight! Mexican Radio is a short trip down to Hudson, and oh yeah, it’s opening in Schenectady soonish. While I have not personally eaten at Dale Miller, I have been told it’s delicious.

    5. The economy, silly. I think that people are learning to cut back on expenses and they’re learning to cook at home. Much of what I can cook, given time, a little bit of wine, and the proper ingredients is much better than any actual Italian restaurant. (My grandmother had some recipes her mother brought over from Italy…) Why go out?

  4. May 25, 2010 11:39 am

    When I think about things like this, I don’t really consider Albany as separate from the greater Capital Region. I kind of feel like we are a super region consisting of Albany/Troy/Schenectady/Rensselaer and all of the suburbs/exurbs therein. Therefore I think that analogies between the City of Albany and other cities of similar size in different states to be not that helpful in understanding issues such as this.

    To me, the plight of our home region is similar to the issues of a city like Detroit, or even our very own Buffalo. If you want to understand the relative lack of “culinary sophistication (a subjective and dubious term)” you need look no further than the wholesale “flying of the coop” of heavy industry in the years following WWII. The entire area became unable to support the kind of urban upper and middle class households that would tend to support food philosophies that included more then filling bellies. There were immigrant/ethnic groups that supported their own cuisines locally, but not in the kind of numbers you would have seen in other major industrial areas.

    But this is not explanation enough, you have to look deeper. The substrate culture that we have locally is an interesting case. I would say that people like me, Anglo/Scots/Irish types with routes in the area going back a couple hundred years, have much more in common culturally with inland New England then with the rest of New York. Just as parts of Central New York probably have more in common with the Dutch/German influences of Pennsylvania. This means the historically local cuisine was probably of your “beans and bacon” and “boiled dinner” type, i.e. simple and English influenced fare. Albany folk (not newcomers, people who have roots and were raised here) are simply stated, meat and potatoes folks whether they know it or not (or are even willing to stop affecting airs and admit it). Not that this is a bad thing, look at me, I celebrate it.

    I also think there is a built in suspicion here of restaurants/food with real or imagined pretentiousness. We are stodgy folk and don’t appreciate people “putting on airs.” For better or worse, this is just kind of how it is.

    My final point would be to look outside the urban areas to the suburbs, which will inevitably have a kind of bleed back influence on the cities. We live in an absolute wasteland of suburban sprawl, I shiver every time I drive through Clifton Park. It is Walmart, Panera, Target, Starbucks, or some pattern of chains repeated ad infinitum where ever you go. People are generally secure in their subdivisions and loathe to venture out. Certain well heeled locals often get an urge to gussy up and go somewhere “fancy” and head to Angelo’s or the like, they expect “fancy” food to cost money and restaurants are not afraid to capitalize on this. Simply stated, sometimes people just want to drop a lot of money on dinner to prove their financial worths to themselves or others. They are not really concerned with the philosophy behind the food.

    These are just some of my thoughts, in any event the whole discussion is kind of mental masturbation. It is beautiful out today and I saw a Karner Blue on my morning run, everyone should go outside. I am going to have grilled cod and salt potatoes tonight with some early sweet corn. My culinary level of sophistication is just fine with me, the wife, and the lovely daughter.

  5. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    May 25, 2010 11:50 am

    I agree with all of Mr. Dave’s points. That said, I would urge all to get up to The Black Watch in Glens Falls.

  6. AddiesDad permalink
    May 25, 2010 3:11 pm

    Mr. Dave makes an interesting case, but I don’t think it fully explains my feeling that there is something missing in the Capital District culinary scene. We have pockets of excellent restaurants at moderate prices; loads of mediocre restaurants at extraordinary prices; a few top-shelf/top-pricers; and then a chain “quick service” restaurant for seemingly every 5 people. To Daniel B’s point: where are the truly authentic regional Italian restaurants? Where are the Japanese restaurants where the bigger-than-you-think Japanese community goes?

    I will add a corollary to Mr. Dave’s theory. I have a friend who grew up in near poverty in Amsterdam. He’s a self-made guy, and has learned to enjoy the finer and more sophisticated aspects of life as he’s moved up career and income brackets. Yet, he likes the blandest food possible. When we’re out together, I try push his culinary envelope and he is often game and likes about 60% of what I suggest. He never developed a palate for complicated and sophisticated food.

    What I think my friend’s experience, plus what Mr. Dave wrote, tells is that there is a vast blue-collar community in the area that never developed the taste for food that wasn’t the most basic/plainest food you could make. I was lucky in that my parents and grand-parents encouraged us to eat anything and everything, and we grew up going out to eat on special occasions and learning about restaurants and food. My sense is that maybe due to the fairly rural nature of the Greater CD that many never had this experience.

  7. May 25, 2010 10:36 pm

    There are some very interesting points here. And like AddiesDad, I too will add on to Mr. Dave’s line of thought. I am under the impression that many in the Capital District choose quantity over quality. It sometimes seems that the measure of a meal is based on how much you have leftover for lunch when you are done stuffing yourself at the restaurant. Perhaps that kind of thinking can be traced back to a time when money was tighter.

  8. May 26, 2010 10:27 am

    The quantity over quality thing is definitely part of the problem. When diners are expecting a trough of food, chefs will challenge themselves to create dishes that can be made as cheaply as possible.

    I don’t begrudge the folks who want their simple boiled dinners or their red sauce but what I do miss is the opportunity to escape to amazing ethnic food which seems to materialize in most any town where there is any pocket of recent arrivals who are hungry for the food of their home. I grew up in Dallas which can’t hold a candle to Austin in sophistication but there was lots of great food to be had.

    Maybe the cost is an issue. I just don’t understand why most Cap District restaurants seem to charge a couple of bucks or more over what seems to be reasonable based on their overhead and their food cost. San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities to work and live in, is dollar for dollar significantly cheaper when it comes to eating out and that includes ethnic places. Maybe the folks who open these places think it’s appropriate to charge a few bucks extra because everybody else is doing it, and as a result they price themselves out of what their target market can afford.

  9. Ellen Whitby permalink
    May 26, 2010 10:13 pm

    How about this. Maybe there isn’t actually a reason. Maybe it just happened this way. You might be trying too hard to figure out what the “problem” is so you can make suggestions about fixing it. I wonder if, over the course of time, our local restaurant “industry” has changed much. Has it always been like this? Has the number of overpriced/mediocre restaurants increased over time as the well-priced/good restaurants decreased?

    Are you trying to answer a question for which there really is no answer?

    I’m just sayin…

  10. May 27, 2010 9:27 am

    I think Sarah landed closest to my feelings on this subject in the very first comment. It’s the reason I’ve always given myself when I return home from trips elsewhere to humble little Albany and find that I can’t go out to eat for weeks until I forget how good the food was elsewhere.

    I’ve lived in Boston and New York. I travel often to Seattle and several towns in Australia.

    All of the above explanations have focused on the food industry and culture in the area. I would like to advance the notion that the restaurant culture of a town is merely a reflection of the overall character and culture of the place. To sum up: Lame town, Lame food. I would say maybe 20% of the people living in Albany think innovation and exploration are awesome. The rest, for reasons ranging from overly conservative ideology to the comfortable mental sloth of aggressively cultivating thoughtless attitudes actually Prefer bland, boring un-challenging things, Food amongst them.

    Take the below list of unusually good, albeit-unusual, places that have given up the ghost in Albany. Their owners produced some amazing products whose niche-markets couldn’t find enough niche-y folks to sustain them.

    Food Related Businesses that have closed which Shouldn’t Have:
    -Olivers Naturals
    -The Good Leaf on Lark (one month left)
    -Shades of Green
    -I’m sure you all know of some of your own.

    With Boston and New York 2-3 hours away by car, why in the WORLD would you try to create something special here, in this culture-free zone (not discounting the small percentage who try) with cultural centers like that on your doorstep. Those who remain in Albany, for the most part, are those who either can stomach having their diversity stifled or who actively prefer it.

    It’s a comfortable little burgh, the Capital Region, but it’s a bit on the shallow side and the food matches the culture.

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