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Eight of Eleven

January 19, 2012

A menu is the window into the soul of a restaurant. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. This holds true for lunch, dinner and even special events. It’s one of the reasons I get excited about what seems like an unceasing parade of local restaurant weeks. Each of these promotions comes with a brand new slate of menus to pore over.

The next one is for the town of Guilderland, a suburb of Albany immediately to the city’s west. It’s where I live, and where Mr. Dave left a little piece of his heart. The details are all here, but it runs from January 22 through January 28. During this period you can get a three-course meal at participating restaurants for $20.12.

Now, that’s only a bargain if the food is actually good.

Sure, it is interesting to see which places participate and which ones do not. Creo, arguably the fanciest restaurant in town, isn’t involved. Neither is The Standard or The Melting Pot. I could sit here and name names of the others who have dropped out or have perpetually sat on the sidelines. But that’s not too interesting.

More exciting are the places that are here for the first time, like Mio Vino Wine Bar and Bistro and J/A Prep Kitchen. However, the former hasn’t submitted their menu yet and the latter didn’t submit a menu that’s appealing.

So, where should you go?

Athos fails to get a recommendation from me because your choice for the first course is either an unspecified soup or an out-of-season Greek salad. And that’s a shame, because their oven roasted half chicken in lemon, oregano and fresh rosemary, with lemon potato, rice pilaf and vegetable sounds delicious. Well, except of the vegetable part. Why, oh why does Athos insist on the protein, starch and vegetable paradigm?

Barcelona for the first time is oddly compelling, but it wouldn’t be my first choice. Sure, they are serving something the folks at Epic Meal Time would enjoy: fried meat with Jack Daniels, cream and extra pork thrown in for good measure. And sure they have what is most likely farmed Atlantic salmon on the menu. But they also have what is likely a tasty calamari appetizer (which is a double edged sword in this town). Plus the flat iron steak with a tempranillo sauce and roasted red peppers sounds promising. The tres leches makes me a little nervous with their talk of vanilla pudding, but I’d still be curious to give it a try.

BFS continues to do little for me. Perhaps because I think this food is so over priced that even their restaurant week deals feel expensive. Seriously, here you get hummus and pita, followed by a chicken kabob and a piece of baklava for $20 in a homey setting? I’ll pass. Although a dish called Ravioli Fiesta is so wrong it might be right. Well, until I read that the, “Luscious Assorted raviolis” are topped with their puttanesca sauce. I like puttanesca, but I can’t think of many ravioli with which it would pair well.

J/A Prep Kitchen is the new player at the big Guilderland mall. It has a prime piece of real estate right across from the movie theater, and this could be a chance to shine. And on some level they are shining. For your $20 you could get a seafood chowder or French onion soup, followed by a choice top sirloin with garlic mashed potatoes, with a mini brownie sundae for dessert. The value is there, but it just feels dull.

MezzaNotte is one of the nicer restaurants participating, and they made an interesting decision. Their three courses are appetizer, salad and entrée. For the Primi course the chestnut and winter squash gnocchi in a buttery sage sauce sound amazing. But I could see the meatball soup with mushrooms, faro, cippolinis and spinach being delicious too. Anyone upstate who eats a salad in January must really need their roughage. Greens here are brutalized in transit through our freezing conditions. I’d put my bet on the hearts of romaine (with their Caesar dressing) rather than the mixed baby field greens as being a lot more appetizing on the plate. For the Secondi course, there really is only one choice worth writing about. That would be the Trota (aka trout) Picatta, which is sautéed in a lemon butter caper sauce over lemon risotto. Now that is how it’s done.

Peaches Café has always seemed like an overpriced diner that’s not even as good as some of the better greasy spoons I enjoy periodically. I recently encountered a picture from there of a broken hollandaise they served to a customer. Apparently he didn’t notice, but still. To start you get a choice of two salads or soup from a bag? I don’t need to see any more here. Let’s move along.

Provence just seems lazy. You either better like farmed Atlantic salmon or seasonal vegetables with garlic mashed potatoes. Because, yes, all the dishes except the salmon come with the same starch and vegetable. That’s so weak. What is this? 1972?

Tesoro on the other hand, sounds fabulous. It’s not a fancy place, but it is a classic red-sauce Italian-American institution within the town. I’ve never been, and this seems like a good chance to go with a couple friends and try all the classics: fettuccine Alfredo, mozzarella frita, linguini with clam sauce, chicken parm and veal with peppers. It’s not a light meal by any stretch of the imagination, but it would be perfect for taking off the chill of winter.

Of those restaurants that did not submit a menu as of last night, the one that holds the most promise is the Mio Vino Wine Bar & Bistro. Besides that, it’s MezzaNotte and Tesoro. Hopefully I can make it out to one of these three places next week. But if I’m still feeling fat from the holidays I may have to be good and stay home.

But that shouldn’t stop you from indulging.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. -R. permalink
    January 19, 2012 3:14 pm

    “…that’s only a bargain if the food is actually good”. And – if there’s enough of it to make the $20.12 worthwhile.

    While this is advertised as a ‘three-course meal’ on the website, my past experiences at restaurant weeks in Albany (in particular) lead me to believe that the URL is more indicative of what you’ll actually receive: a -taste- of Guilderland. I believe the three-course meal to be a misnomer unless you are 10 years old, or have an eating disorder. While I am certainly not advocating gluttony, I do expect a meal, whereby I don’t have to stop for a slice afterward. Since my past experiences through the early to mid oughts (the 00s) nearly always led me to the nearest pizzeria afterward, I now make a conscious effort to avoid ‘restaurant weeks’. In my opinion, most establishments don’t put their best food forward since they are preparing a fixed menu and are attempting to lure in a broad demographic meaning nothing too challenging, and some of the items are prepped in bulk, which means sitting around for a while; they’re also usually packed, since everyone is looking for a bargain – being packed also means a surly waitstaff who all know they’re working their asses off for a tip on $20 + drinks. Also, since most of these establishments charge roughly $20 for an entree alone during normal operations, one can imagine the abbreviated nature of what’s on offer. And that’s fine, but please don’t call it a ‘three-course meal’. Call it palate teaser, a tasting sampler, or (cringe) small plates. A wee dollop makes not a meal (at least for me) – but, I’m not a picker or a grazer – when it comes time to eat, I do actually prefer to eat, not push my food around the plate and chit-chat. Perhaps times have changed, and I’m being too cynical regarding restaurant weeks; perhaps I’ve always picked the wrong establishments in the past. Regardless, with an array of lackluster menus, I see no reason to discontinue my avoidance.

  2. January 19, 2012 4:43 pm

    I’ve found the portion sizes at Barcelona for restaurant week to bigger than average. We always go there for dinner to celebrate the birthday of a deceased loved one and it always ends up being restaurant week; we are going next Friday this year. I have gotten the Jack Daniels dish before, I just prefer it with penne and since they don’t allow substitutions on the restaurant week menu, I usually just end up ordering off the regular menu where I can substitute pasta at will. Their calamari is always good and they have the best seafood alfredo in town.

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