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The Capital Region’s Good Side

May 10, 2013

Today I get to talk about food in front of an audience. These things are always a lot of fun. I love talking about food. Except today I’m not doing it alone, I’ll be on a panel.

The audience will be the members of a regional leadership program that’s organized by the Albany-Colonie Regional Chamber the Chamber of Schenectady County. And the other members of the panel are chef Ric Orlando, Rebekah Rice from Nine Mile Farm and Sharon DiLorenzo from Capital District Community Gardens.

Presumably the farmers and gardeners will be talking about the great bounty that surrounds us. Ric can speak to how he uses these locally grown foods in his restaurant. And me? Part of what I’m going to have to mention is the tragedy that more places don’t do the same. But the session is about the good life in the region. And believe it or not, after all of these years sniffing around for good things to eat in the region, I’ve come up with a rather substantial list of things to be happy about.

Who would have thunk it.

This has actually been a good exercise to force me to put everything down on a list. While in the past I’ve campaigned for more communal slates of businesses for other polls, I’ve never curated my own set of recommendations for those curious about where to eat in the region.

I kind of figured people would just use Yelp to find what was right for them.

To help save a tree, instead of printing up the list as a leave behind for the attendees, I’ll simply email it to all of them as a follow up. You can now see it in my newly revised and updated Recommendations tab. And you don’t even have to wait to hear me drone on and on about the state of food in the Capital Region.

So what am I going to say?

Then I think it’s important to address the elephant in the room. The Capital Region is filled with what can sometimes be an unhealthy level of boosterism. One local food blog boasts the following on its masthead: “The Capital Region has a tremendous culinary scene, while at the same time, we are rich with sommeliers and even a smattering of mixologists. That needs to be recognized, appreciated and celebrated.“ No. It doesn’t. It’s improving. But one of the reasons Albany has a bad reputation for food is that far too many places overpromise and underdeliver.

When people visit from larger cities, I’m not going to recommend they eat dinner at Yono’s, Prime or Jack’s. They can get better food for less back home, even in metropolitan areas with a higher rents and greater costs of living.

So where do I bring people?

1) Places that offer special dishes that are unique to the region.
Those would be the mini-hot dogs with meat sauce, foot long fish fry sandwiches, and plates of fried mozzarella with raspberry sauce. We’re also in apple country and that means apple cider donuts. Thanks to the forward thinking owners of Golden Harvest Orchard, it also means apple based spirits, like a modern version of the classic American applejack and a vodka so good that it really should be called brandy.

2) Neighborhood places that have stood the test of time.
The Orchard Tavern has been making the same pizza for 70 years. The Miss Albany Diner may be gone, but while Dan’s Place Two might not be nearly as pretty, it more than makes up for its looks in character. And bakeries like Bella Napoli are a dying breed around the country, however a bite of their stuffed donuts should make anyone swear of Dunkin’ forever.

3) Restaurants that offer food that’s not just “good for Albany” but “good for anywhere.”
We’re talking the soup dumplings at Ala Shanghai, the wood-fired pizza at DeFazio’s, the pasture-raised burger at The City Beer Hall, the Carolina-style pulled pork at Capital Q, The Buffalo style wings at The Ruck, the tater tots at Comfort Kitchen made by hand from local spuds with a little rosemary and sea salt, and more.

What do all of these places have in common?

These are all places that underpromise and overdeliver. They are things that people cannot get everywhere. And even though they may draw from other parts of the country or other parts of the world for their culinary inspiration, they are all an intrinsic part of the Capital Region.

The biggest problem our region has is not the lack of good things within its boundaries. Rather, it’s just so spread out. And if we were to squeeze all of the great places in the region into a central area, like the city of Albany? It would be incredible.

Recently I’ve been encouraged encouraged that more and more restaurants are finding ways to bring sustainably and locally sourced food to people, without making it only accessible to those with expense accounts.

For the first time it feels like the seeds have been planted to make Albany a tremendous culinary scene. But we’re not there yet. Not by a long shot. But if those seeds get water and plenty of light, I’m hopeful they can grow into something special. And maybe then our region’s best producers won’t have to drive past Albany to find a market for their goods in Manhattan.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2013 11:49 am

    City Beer Hall’s burger annoyed me, ’cause it was another place that doesn’t know how to get a burger to end up burger-shaped — it was more ball-shaped, meaning that it was really hard to eat without the bun and all of the toppings sliding off all over and a lot of bites didn’t have any meat in them. I noticed this at the Gastropub, too — dent the burgers in the center, people! The burger should come out relatively flat on top and bottom and cover most of the bun!

  2. May 10, 2013 3:15 pm

    And the applesauce from Samascott orchards in Kinderhook. Just had some for lunch today from the ESP farmers market. I agree with the idea that locals should point visitors to our regional strengths instead of our outliers. Perreca’s bread, orchard-fresh apple products, Saratoga water, maple syrup – what the locals take for granted.

  3. May 10, 2013 5:01 pm

    I agree with all of this x1000. We have turned many visitors into mozz + razz converts, and your list of “good for anywhere” places is exactly right. Nice work.

  4. Susan L. permalink
    May 10, 2013 8:19 pm

    What kind of questions did you get from the Schenectady County Chamber folks? I would think they’re trying to lure people west of the Troy-Albany area, which leaves only criterion #2 -“Neighborhood places that have stood the test of time.” Schenectady County has plenty of restaurants/diners that meet this qualification but don’t quite make the ‘Best of’ on anyone’s list.

  5. Geoff permalink
    May 10, 2013 9:15 pm

    Thanks for coming to talk to us today. All of these wonderful products and restaurants really add to our quality of life. Thanks for helping to introduce us to a few more.

  6. albanylandlord permalink
    May 14, 2013 12:21 am

    I have got to get you to the Gastropub. The definition of underpromise and overdeliver. My treat, it would be a pleasure to thank you for the great blog. Of course we’ll end up ordering everything on the menu for scientific sake. Let me know when!

  7. albanylandlord permalink
    May 14, 2013 12:28 am

    Thanks so much for the recommendations tab update. Even as a long time reader this is very helpful for me to find new places to try. I have often used your search feature to try and find some of your favorites that I kind of remember reading about which has been difficult. Awesome.
    My one suggestion would be for a few things listed in an overall good restaurant section of the list. You have all the ethnic places, but what about non-ethnic, or maybe overall best places.

  8. Ginnyjay permalink
    May 14, 2013 11:02 am

    Sorry but you have a HUGE DISAGREE here.. I come from NYC originally.. My children live in big cities..and I ASSURE YOU .. when they come to visit we DO NOT go out to get tiny hot dogs with meat sauce.. They all grew up here.. and we had our share of that crap when we were pressed for time prior to hockey or soccer practices.. When they visit.. we go to PRIME.. we go to YONO’s .. we go to Maestro’s.. etc.. When I go to NYC I go to Payard’s or Mayson Kayser.. Even Eataly.. And I can get a good “slice” in most of the city.. I want good food .. and sure.. I can make it at home .. and I DO.. but it’s nice to have someone else do it for ME once in a while.. so STICK TO THE low end places.. when I eat out.. I want GOOD food.. I can do low end food any day of the week.. that’s not what appeals to me when dining out..

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