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Restaurant Week Preview

September 20, 2011

It’s Downtown Albany Restaurant Week…again. This time around it’s Thursday, October 13 through Friday, October 21. Sure, that’s not exactly a week. But hey, when the Downtown Albany Business Improvement District offers three course meals for $20.11 at some of Albany’s finest restaurants, who am I to cast aspersions about the number of days in a week.

This time there are seventeen participating establishments, although once again, some of the more notable restaurants are choosing not to participate. 677 Prime, Yono’s and dp brasserie are sitting this one out. And in some ways I cannot blame them. If one is judged by the company one keeps, the remaining participants are indeed a motley crew. Downtown Albany’s restaurant week continues to include a broad range of establishments from white linen fine dining to dive bars not known for their food.

All the same, this is a chance for restaurants to bring new people in the doors and wow them so they continue to come back throughout the year. However, it doesn’t seem like many places get it. Yes, there are a few that have presented at least three compelling dishes. But most missed the mark.

I’ve gone through all the menus, and have the highlights and lapses for your convenience.

First, the great news. Farmed Altantic salmon is almost entirely gone from the menus! I can barely believe it. Seriously, only one menu lists salmon, and one other lists a mysterious “seafood macaroni and cheese.” I am hopeful that this is yet another sign of continued improvement in the Albany culinary landscape.

“Seafood macaroni and cheese” on the other hand isn’t. But that comes from one of the many places participating that aren’t exactly known for their food. At one you can make a meal out of chicken wings followed by a hoagie and a slice of cheesecake.

Frankly, that is not the kind of Restaurant Week that Downtown Albany needs. Yes, perhaps the deal will draw more people to downtown at night who might otherwise have stayed home. But it diminishes the reputation of Albany as a place with a good dining scene.

Fried pickles, fish fry and triple chocolate mousse cake don’t cut it. Nor does potato skins, teriyaki grilled chicken sliders and classic carrot cake. But my favorite bar menu was the one that offered chicken wings, a burger between two grilled cheese sandwiches and a slice of cheesecake.

Some items were simply too mysterious to comprehend.

Like this interesting entrée called Shrimp Andre. Here’s the description, verbatim: Large gulf shrimp sauteed in a brown sauce, with sherry wine, seasonings & herbs, over pasta chicken. Bonus points for anyone who can tell me what pasta chicken is, and why you would want it under shrimp in brown sauce.

However, odd preparations are not reserved for the less fancy restaurants. The Brown Derby offers an “Autumn Green Salad” which contains, “Gingerale Soaked Apples.” I find that to be irrationally upsetting.

So speaking of the better restaurants, what did they bring to the table. Here’s the run down.

Brown Derby
There are a few fall dishes, notably Butternut Squash Bisque & the Rosemary Pork Loin with apple, sweet potato and sage. Although they continue to tout that desserts come from Villa Italia, the owner’s classic Italian bakery that has somehow gotten a reputation for being better than it actually is. Not that it’s bad, but I think a restaurant of this caliber should be serving something finer to cap off the meal.

Café Capriccio
I was there for a prior restaurant week, and I really wish they would offer a hot appetizer. Their rapini with white beans, olive oil and garlic isn’t noted as a chilled dish, but it’s stone cold. Despite its being past tomato season, the best bet would seem to be their fresh mozzarella. I’d be curious to try their porchetta after tasting the one Chianti made over the course of a day on an open fire rotisserie. But I’ve been told their eggplant with four cheeses is one of the few must-eat dishes. Either way, you are in for one heavy meal. And if you end with the Sicilian Cheesecake with Ricotta, you could have cheese for every course.

Jack’s Oyster House
A lot of people are looking to see how Chef Larry Schepici does at the helm of this classic Albany institution. Restaurant week could have been a stunning opportunity to get people in the doors and show them his stuff, but not with this slate of entrees. Chicken Neapolitan: Fresh herb seared breast, layered with spinach, fire roasted peppers, and fontinella cheese, finished with a garlic basil artichoke sauce. Tilapia Amandine: Tilapia fillet seared with almonds, and finished with a light amaretto almond vin blanc sauce. Vegetarian Rigatoni Aubergine: Large rigatoni with roasted eggplant, basil and parmesan reggiano tossed in a roasted tomato cream sauce.

Fontinella? At a place like Jack’s, with a chef like Larry there is no excuse for using anything less than Fontina Val d’Aosta. Seriously.

Kelsey’s
Again, they continue to surprise and impress with their restaurant week menus. There are interesting and genuinely tasty looking seasonal items in every course. Granted, they could all fall apart in execution. But a meal of smoked corn soup with clams, a rare hangar steak with caramelized onions and mashed potatoes, and a pumpkin crème brulee sounds like a lovely meal for $20. The roasted trout entrée is probably a lot more ethically sound, and equally delicious sounding with caramelized fennel and onions and a red pepper sauce.

La Serre
Their menu is a bit all over the place. For example, if I had access to local seasonal farm fresh vegetables, it would never occur to me to make a “Vegetable Cake” served with a roasted red pepper aioli. All the same, you can have a panko encrusted goat cheese salad (with toasted pumpkin seeds), a seared duck breast with an apricot and fig compote, and a mystery dessert of the day for $20, with the additional surprise treat of a $25 gift card good for a future visit (one per table).

taste
This revamped restaurant that was formerly Dale Miller seems to be offering a dessert for every course. Tempura apple fritters with a Captain Morgan gastrique dipping sauce is an appetizer. Applesauce with cinnamon emulsion goes alongside a butternut squash ravioli entrée. But at the same time a crab stuffed crepe with morels and micro arugula sounds like a lovely starter. Coriander crusted bass with squash ragout and Vidalia onion broth speaks to fall. Ending on a warm and spicy note of chai crème brulee rounds out a winner of a menu. Especially for the price.

My top three? I’d have to say Taste, Kelsey’s and Capriccio. Brown Derby and La Serre lost me on dessert. And the Jack’s menu is just embarrassing. Honorable mentions go to both the Albany Pump Station and V&R.

So in total I would really only truly consider going to eight of the seventeen restaurants participating during restaurant week. That’s less than half. I think the Downtown Business Improvement District and the restaurants themselves could take a lesson from the same book: quality is more important than quantity.

Heck, my wish came true when it came to farmed Atlantic salmon, maybe next time around the menus will get better too. We’ll just have to wait and see. I’m not going anywhere.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2011 9:27 am

    The fontina/fontinella comment is gold. I’m sure it’s a cost cutting measure to hit the price point. (slight bit of sarcasm there)

  2. September 20, 2011 10:36 am

    I’m not particularly moved to go anywhere for restaurant week. Even in DC, I eventually only wanted to go to places I was already interested in (RW or not) with wide open menus for RW. If it’s clear that I could have the dishes I prefer for less than the RW price on a set course (or 2 options for each), I wouldn’t step foot in the door. Especially because we typically share a dessert as opposed to getting two–minus 7 to 10.

    May all your dreams come true.

  3. September 20, 2011 11:10 am

    Hm, hope for improvement springs eternal. I’m too much of a homebody to go out generally, and certainly won’t go out by myself. And these are a little too “lowest common denominator” for me. It took the DC RW a few cycles to find its way, so maybe in a few more RW cycles they’ll get the picture and have menus that are less First Lady Friend, more Yes, Chef!

  4. September 20, 2011 11:26 am

    This may just be me being cranky, but does anyone else feel the need to avoid this promotion like the plague? The last thing I want to do is to sit down for this type of prixe fixe meal at an overcrowded restaurant. They are trying to wow with proteins on the cheap and I would bet money that more often than not these dishes are going to end up tasting like “wedding food.”

    I would rather that the restaurants impress with food that is cheap but executed excellently. Give me a truly well done pasta dish, or an excellent vegetable appetizer. Keep your shitty, pale, limp, sad little tilapia filets with a dollop of sauce and your flabby chicken breasts, I don’t want them.

    I think that these sorts of promotions are actually damaging and lower the bar for restaurants (as Mr. Fussy alludes). Coupon culture in America, big for cheap, and all the other unfortunate cliches concerning our present food culture are only fed by this kind of crap stunt.

    • September 21, 2011 3:26 pm

      Three things:
      1) I blame you for my misspelling of prix fixe.
      2) Wedding food isn’t all bad.
      3) A full response can be found here

      • September 21, 2011 10:32 pm

        haha, I am notoriously bad at spelling. It is one of my few charms.

  5. September 20, 2011 11:38 am

    When I first read it I thought you gave “horrible mentions” to the Pump Station, not “honorable”. I think the Pump Station’s menu has the most going for it that is going to appeal to a lot of diners, crab dip and prime rib is calling to the masses. I have not wanted to attend RW in a few years, but the Pump Station is going to get me there with their Gold Medal dish of Sea Bass and Shrimp even if they aren’t using sustainable seafood, which I doubt they are. I’ll just drown my guilt with something from the tap.

  6. September 20, 2011 4:29 pm

    Oh, Restaurant Week. Many of the restaurants you mentioned used to be clients of mine, and I have a love/hate relationship with this promotion.

    I had to laugh at the carrot cake quip (though I generally agree with everything else you say). Just carrot cake, eh? Guess you haven’t had my carrot cake :-)

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