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Albany’s Star Chefs Come Out to Shine

January 10, 2011

There are no two ways about it.  I had a great time at the Albany Chef’s Food and Wine festival.  It may not have gone entirely as planned, but I had some good drinks with good company and got to taste the food of a few chefs I’ve been hearing a lot about.

But who was the big star of the night?

I’ll get to that in just a minute.  Because if you have never been to this festival there is probably something you need to know.  The wine and the booze tables totally outnumber the food tables.  I was a bit surprised by that.  And there were some stunning spirits to try as well as some very capable bartenders plying their trade.  Of note was the energetic and charming gentleman at the Bacardi table who was simply delightful.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the discrepancy is that the top chefs are divided between the Friday tasting and the Saturday tasting.  This was unexpected, and frankly disappointing.  It meant I didn’t get to try food from either chef Dale Miller or the restaurant formerly known as Dale Miller.  Nor did I taste what Chez Mike, MezzaNotte, McGuire’s, Creo, The Wine Bar, or Jack’s Oyster House would present.

So if you went on Saturday, you may have had a different experience.

If I had a restaurant, I would want to serve a dish that was reflective of my food at an event like this.  Granted, I would choose one that would do well under the difficult conditions of a food festival: something that wouldn’t wilt on the table, and something that could be made well in volume.  It would also need to be full-flavored, so that it stood out from the crowd.

Some places understood this, others did not.

New World Bistro Bar did a great thing with our locally farmed sea bream.  It presented it as a delicate crudo, which is a great way to serve something so fresh and light.  But while it does represent the restaurant’s commitment to sustainable aquaculture, ultimately I think it passed under people’s radar because it was just too delicate for the event.

Yono’s really hit the nail on the head for serving something delicious that appealed to people who were doing a lot of drinking.  They served open-faced Kobe sliders with caramelized onions and American cheese.  This was one of only a few tables at which people were willing to stand in line.  But I can’t say this has anything to do with the chef’s unique restaurant with its Indonesian flair.  Nor did Chef Yono seem to be involved with the food’s preparation.

677 Prime prepared their signature appetizer of seven-hour cherry-pepper pork.  And I was glad to try that dish, although I’m still mystified at the choice of topping it with pepper jack cheese.  It was a better choice for the event than their surf and turf sushi roll, which contains a combination of lobster and filet mignon that is then breaded and fried.

I don’t want to linger on the bigger misses.  But meat loaf with creamed-corn mashed potatoes was redolent of the cafeteria lunch line.  Crostini should taste more of their flavorful topping than the toast underneath.  There was overcooked snapper.  Fishy, limp crab cakes. Uninspiring pork belly overwhelmed by soy sauce.  Leg of lamb mac-n-cheese where the roasted lamb was tough and the macaroni was replaced with couscous, which was exactly as muddled as it sounds.

Ultimately I think there were only two restaurants that really succeeded.  Maybe three.  But I don’t think anyone here wants to hear more about why I think Chipotle is great.

The Brown Derby put together a beautiful plate of medium-rare lamb, served atop roasted vegetables, with a bright little salad on the side.  Chef Larry, who really cares about using good ingredients, seemed truly contrite that they didn’t have local lamb.  But the lamb was from Colorado, as he doesn’t care for the stuff from New Zealand.  Of the vegetable medley, the onions and the mushrooms were divine.  The winter squash was the weakest link. Still, the whole thing worked, and I think was a great reflection of the restaurant and his style.  However, setting up late and running out of food early didn’t earn him any bonus points.

Garden Bistro 24 got my vote for the most successful table of the night.  I hope everyone there got to try John Grizzaffi’s flatiron steak with blue cheese butter and some of the mussels that were being cooked in small batches all night long.  Chef John’s food isn’t revolutionary, but it’s delicious in its simplicity.  His steaks had a nice external char and were a deep pink all the way through.  This is what he does.  If you went to his restaurant, this is exactly what you would get, except you would also be treated to a generous mound of crispy fries to boot.

These two very different chefs deserve a round of applause.  I’m looking forward to getting back to Garden Bistro 24, and one of these days I’m going to make it to The Brown Derby.  Really.  I promise.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Erinn permalink
    January 10, 2011 1:01 pm

    I was there Friday night as well. I share several of your thoughts, though my biggest disappointment of the night was actually the Waygu sliders that were being served at the Yono table. I think by the I got there they were serving them too quickly – the one I got was raw in the middle. I’m all for a rare burger, but I don’t do my burgers blue. (Steaks blue, well that’s a different story…)

    I loved the people at the St. Germain table. They were obviously having a blast! I also share your opinion on Garden Bistro 24. It’s definitely on my list of dinner places now!

    I also share your disappointment in missing Chez Mike, in particular. I was looking forward to trying out his cuisine.

    All in all, I really enjoyed the event, and will certainly be making an appearance next year!

  2. January 10, 2011 3:54 pm

    I went on Saturday and had a fantastic time. The Bacardi bartender was awesome Sat. too. I was a little disappointing that I missed some tables from the night before like Garden Bistro and Yono’s. New World didn’t have a table Saturday but I was able to taste the crudo and sea bream fish tacos by attending the seminar that Ric Orlando did, great, though it went a little long at over an hour.

    The best food station on Sat. was Creo with their seared Ahi tuna on a little bit of dressed salad greens, lovely. Jack’s did a huge oyster raw bar with giant scallop shell ice sculptures, I love oysters but they didn’t cook anything, just shucked oysters the whole time.

    For the rising star chef’s there were only 4 our of the 6 there on Sat. Marla Ortega and John Grizzaffi were not there. I though Edwin Nazario’s dish of sea bass on the potato pancake with cabbage was great as well as John Ireland’s Brussels sprouts. Chez Mike did three small things and I can’t remember what one of them was, and I only tried the chicken liver mousse tart which I thought needed more of liver flavor. The other was sesame shrimp toasts which I thought was an odd choice.

  3. January 11, 2011 1:22 pm

    The plan for the festival was to have three rising-star chefs at the tasting on Friday evening and three on Saturday afternoon. Several factors resulted in Mike Cohen from Chez Mike coming on Saturday, meaning that Marla Ortega and John Grizzaffi were there on Friday, the other four on Saturday.

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