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Taken Out

March 20, 2013

This week has been amazing thanks to a whole lot of sharing going on around Facebook. Thank you to those who are helping to spread the fussy. That social media platform has been bringing in dozens of new readers over the past few days. So, if you are new, welcome. I hope you get to dig around the archives, and soon feel comfortable enough to come out of the shadows and write a comment or two.

In some ways the recent sharing of posts isn’t all that surprising. Monday was about my love for a city that has passionate advocates and rarely gets the respect that it deserves. Tuesday was about a restaurant that people love to hate.

Today’s post is similar to many I’ve written in the blog’s infancy, although lately I’ve been largely silent on the Times Union’s restaurant reviews. One reason for my silence is because I’ve come to realize that perhaps I overestimated the influence of the paper on the local food scene. And while she’s not perfect, I recognize that Cheryl Clark has been an improvement over Ruth Fantasia.

That said, I can’t let this latest review go without comment.

Steve Barnes will tell you he’s not a restaurant critic. He’s not. But he was filling in for Cheryl Clark. For what it’s worth, I enjoy Steve’s writing style. I prefer it to Cheryl’s. Still, Steve is a major voice in the market when it comes to food. While he writes about other things for the paper, food is clearly his passion.

So I expect him to know his stuff.

It was more than a little surprising to me to learn that he didn’t know butter (and cream) are what make dishes labeled “makhani” so delicious. Especially since Steve writes that he has enjoyed this dish “about a dozen times in the past year from a handful of Indian restaurants in Albany.”

If I wanted to split hairs, I could say that Steve and the copyeditors at the TU got it wrong when they printed, “Makhani means ‘butter.’” In Hindi it is makhan (माखन) that means butter while makhani (मखनी) refers to a dish prepared with butter. Yes, they are similar. But the words are still different. That took me all of five minutes to figure out thanks to the miracle of the Internet.

As a side note I once prepared dal makhani at home after I was inspired by spying a bag of urad dal at Parivar. This is the preferred variety of black lentil that’s traditionally used in the dish. Anyhow, I’ve tried to block out the memory of how many sticks of butter melted in that pot. Luckily for me, I prefer chana masala made with heart healthy expeller pressed safflower oil instead.

But a blasé lack of knowledge about Indian food isn’t my primary complaint. It’s that the review seems to be entirely about takeout. And one of those takeout entrees involved shrimp.

Takeout is food of last resort. Heck, I got takeout last week from Ruby Asian Bistro. I even did the unthinkable and got takeout noodles because Young Master Fussy thought it would be a treat (some things you have to learn the hard way). But I would never ever dream of evaluating a restaurant based on its carryout or delivery food.

Dishes continue to cook in their cartons. Noodles absorb sauces and get limp and soggy. Vegetables wilt. Fried coatings steam and soften. Crusty bread loses its crunch. Rice gets gummy. Peas get mushy. You get the idea.

Granted, Steve actually like most of his food. But naan begins to diminish the moment it’s taken out of the tandoor. And shrimp? I see no way that a perfectly cooked shrimp could survive a journey home without turning into a hard dry version of what may have once been something delightful.

Sure, it’s only for the cheap eats section. But this is a restaurant. How about giving it some of the respect that it deserves? Or maybe the restaurant drove Steve away. He did say that on both of his visits the place, “smelled more like cleaning products than food.” I do really appreciate this inclusion in the review, because the widespread and aggressive use of cleaning sprays spoils far too many restaurant meals. However, based on that observation, I can’t say that I would want to eat there either.

And it’s odd that the review includes the line that he’d, “like to see Darbar succeed, and in the abstract it should be able to.” Perhaps this fact has colored the decision to focus his story on the good taste of the food (even as takeout) rather than what sounds like would be a less than great experience in the dining room.

I could also write an entire post about the whole glorification of “turbocharged” spice levels that made his head sweat and blissfully, “sent a napalm mist into [his] sinuses and eustachian tubes.” We’re in Buffalo wing territory. I get it. People here like it hot and spicy. But I’m really over people conflating blistering levels of heat with authenticity.

Honestly, I expect better from the Times Union. Maybe that makes me foolish. I just wish there was someone at the region’s major daily newspaper who would hold restaurant reviews to a higher standard.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Lulu permalink
    March 20, 2013 10:04 am

    used at eat at the home of my friend all through college. her parents were from bangladesh. sure, the daal was not spicy and her mom’s chicken dishes usually were not too hot, but most of the other things she cooked would make me cry. i would say that yes, heat doesn’t = authenticity in indian food, but neither does it mean that the dish is NOT authentic. many, many traditional dishes are quite hot. i am looking forward to trying out dabar. i never intended to eat in there, though. I always assumed the place was tiny inside.

  2. Lulu permalink
    March 20, 2013 10:06 am

    *Darbar

  3. March 20, 2013 10:31 am

    I wondered about that, too — aside from the accuracy of the condition of the food, he’s not evaluating the table service and the presentation of the food if it’s takeout. Unless it’s a takeout-only place, but it doesn’t sound like this place is.

  4. March 20, 2013 11:26 am

    Cooking is a passion for me, yet I live a life of takeout. Having two (more than full time) Careers, often not arriving home until 8 or 9pm (sometimes much later), and exhausted – I have no desire to cook. By the time I am ready to go home I am completely out of energy and barely able to function. I miss the days (before the bakery) when I could open a bottle of wine on a Saturday evening and spend hours in the kitchen cooking something special for dinner. I truly do miss those days.

    That being said, I totally agree that take-out can not be used to judge the abilities of a restaurant. Not only does time hurt a dish, but once you cover a hot dish, SO MUCH happens to deteriorate it. My dinners literally do continue to cook and steam inside the takeout containers. There is an invention worth it’s weight in gold . . the perfect take out container!

    Still, I order it, out of hunger and ease. My busy schedule does not permit me to cook, nor to sit down and enjoy a meal inside a restaurant (at it’s best). But, I know what to expect. I know ahead of time, that the crunch will be gone. I know things will be wet and soggy. The roll from the burger will be mushy. I simply understand – this would have been much better (I hope) had I eaten inside.

    That being said, I still make some poor choices when ordering take out. I have arrived home with the most wilted fried cheese sticks you have ever seen (what was I thinking?), and literally soft rubber ball fried calamari . . . which I sure hope was not pig rectum! Don’t ever ever ever . . .order fried calamari to go. Learn from my mistakes. BTW, thank you to The New World Bistro . . . for refusing to sell me an order of their fried calamari to go. They simply told me over the phone “No, we won’t do that”. I applaud that again and again. I am very impressed when I can see, first hand, that the chef and employees truly care about the food and my experience with it.

    I also give The New World Bistro an A++ for take out. Somehow they have managed to master the art of keeping my truffle fries crunchy when I get home . . even in the take out container. One day, I would like to find the time to sit down and enjoy my dinner inside the New World. I love the take out . . dining in is probably something special. Long live those “purple haze shrimp” (You wanna talk about working up a heat sweat from eating??? Try those babies!)

    Finally, did you say chana masala? That is one of my absolute favorite Indian dishes. That with some warm nan to slop it up. I no longer have time to make my own chana masala, so I am looking for suggestions on “the best in Albany” for this dish? Send me in the right direction please??? And please, don’t scold me when I tell you . . . it’s probably going to be take out. That’s just how my life is for a while.

    • March 20, 2013 11:03 pm

      Aashiana has really delicious … well, everything, but their chana masala is quite good. Shalimar’s is pretty good, too.

  5. Suzie permalink
    March 20, 2013 11:48 am

    If the place smells like cleaning fluids – I would not make it past that! Great post. Thanks

  6. -R. permalink
    March 20, 2013 12:05 pm

    Barnes isn’t really writing about anything anymore – I mean, how much effort does it take to post, “X restaurant featuring Y for Easter” twenty times on his blog? Aside from the occasional snarky little article from some outside source, the man doesn’t really write about food anymore, excepting this fairly insubstantial ‘review’. Just my two cents.

  7. March 20, 2013 12:31 pm

    Fussy, I think this is a tempest in a teapot, or your knickers are in a twist, or choose some other metaphor for overreacting. The “makhani” riff was a writerly device much as you or I might use. He wanted to pretend not to know it meant butter (or, ok, butter-y) so he wouldn’t feel guilty about loving it.

    And the review of his dining experience was specifically about getting takeout, enjoying its aroma on the drive home, then eating it in front of the TV. It sounded pretty damn pleasurable to me. And I would have accepted a bit of limpness in my naan for the satisfaction of eating exactly what, when, where and how I wanted.

    Actually, rereading Steve’s review made me want their food, right now. I’m far away but my wife is down south at a meeting. Maybe I can get her to swing by and get some takeout on the way home.

  8. March 20, 2013 1:09 pm

    I hear you. Take out is tough to keep at a “10” between travel and actual mealtime. Proteins tend to cook up and in the case of seafood overcook. “Resting” the protein and allowing it to finish the cook process away from the heat helps a lot. But, like I said travel time…in a restaurant it’s usually under a minute from meal completion to table. Salads and baked meals are usually a safe togo choice though.

    You and Steve both do a great job getting the culinary/ cultural word out. Parody is a great thing, especially with writing…it’s all apples and oranges after all :)

  9. david permalink
    March 20, 2013 1:13 pm

    Been to Darbar once to pick up a take-out menu about 2 months ago. Lack of imagination in the menu, sit-down meal prices without a nice dining area, and many other places offering the exact same menu elsewhere means I have yet to order from them. I was hoping the owners might move away from the North Indian/Pakistani fare that most other restaurants in the area (and for that matter all of the US) serve. A vegetarian place concentrating on south Indian fare would be nice or maybe a place doing Indian style Chinese food (yes it exists and it is yummy).

  10. non_foodie permalink
    March 20, 2013 1:43 pm

    I have to disagree with your assessment of the review. I have frequently criticized Cheryl’s reviews largely for their writing style and lack of ability to relate easily to readers.

    Steve, on the other hand, educates readers without the pompousness of Cheryl’s reviews. While I respect Steve’s food knowledge (certainly more than my own), he can’t be expected to know everything. He actually writes a straight-forward review that tells me the menu and whether I want to eat at the place. That’s all that most readers want, which Cheryl woefully doesn’t get.

    While maybe he should have eaten at the restaurant, he at least never pretends he’s reviewing anything but the takeout. I think you’re going a little too hard on him. I wish he would do more reviews.

  11. Sarah M. permalink
    March 20, 2013 4:25 pm

    Well, now we KNOW you’re not getting put back on Steve’s blogroll.

  12. March 21, 2013 7:46 am

    I gotta agree with some of the above commenters that you’re picking nits here about Steve’s knowledge of makhan vs makhani. I didn’t know that, either, until I read this post. Now, no, I’m not a food writer, but when I did work as a journalist (which seems like a lifetime ago), one of my favorite things was learning something new for a story and relaying that knowledge to others, which is what Steve did here.

    I don’t disagree with your assessment of takeout food, but there are a lot of people (myself included) that take great comfort in knowing that they can have a dinner sitting on their couch in PJs without having to cook or worry about dishes, OR actually getting dressed (beyond, you know, real pants if they don’t deliver). Knowing what places that you can get good, cheap takeout that doesn’t completely deteriorate on the way home IS valuable (some things translate better for takeout than others … I’ll agree with you that naan is not one of those things).

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