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Albany in My Absence

October 28, 2013

Part of me wanted to completely detach from the Capital Region on this sabbatical. But I can’t. Not only does the region really have a hold on me, but I’ll be back home before you know it.

There are good things happening in the 518 which absolutely deserve praise and should be getting more attention. Of course, there are also things going on that make me bang my head against the desk from almost two hundred miles away. And on those things, I find it hard to be silent.

So let’s start off with the good, because access to great foods in the Capital Region is getting better all the time. That’s a cause for celebration. And then I’ll share with you my recent torment from my long time tormenter the Times Union. The reviewers may keep on changing, but the song remains the same.

Troy has been in the news lately. It hasn’t been entirely flattering, since the news was largely about the social media meltdown over at The Brown Bag’s Facebook page. Things are never dull in that town, are they?

Speaking of Troy, I never officially congratulated DeFazio’s on these pages for finally taking home the grand prize in All Over Albany’s Tournament of Pizza. This year, the shop got smart and submitted its unbeatable Buffalo chicken pie into the finals. It’s about time.

But the big news of the week is that Vic and Heather’s newest project is officially opening.

If there was any way that I could be in Troy this Tuesday at 11 a.m. I would. Because I find “The Grocery” to be a super exciting project. The Pioneer Market tried to bring food to downtown Troy and tragically it failed. But I would argue that it didn’t have a clear sense of its own identity, plus it was a lot larger than what this little gourmet market aspires to be.

From the press release, “The Grocery will feature fresh produce, cured meats, artisan cheeses, craft beer, and a variety of quality items sourced from local purveyors. Daily specials will be featured on The Grocery Facebook page.“

And it will be open seven days a week starting at 11 a.m.

Oh, and this Tuesday at 11 a.m. they are having a party of sorts. Instead of a ribbon cutting ceremony, they will cut a strand of sausage links. Those links will then be grilled up with peppers and onions, and will serve as complimentary treats for those who make it out for the festivities.

And they’ll have vegetarian sausage for the vegetarians.

Now, across the river in Albany, The Cheese Traveler sounds like it is gearing up for some more intense competition. They are bringing in Bonfiglio bread. And also working on a grilled cheese menu. Oh yeah. This is sounding awesome.

The Cheese Traveler is also getting a new neighbor. Now that All Good Bakers has closed, Bake For You is moving into their space. Linda makes some serious cookies, including an especially impressive chocolate shortbread cookie with rum that I enjoyed at The Confectionery.

So, that’s the good.

Whenever the Times Union gets a new food reviewer, I always get hopeful. There was a ray of light when I heard that Bryan Fitzgerald gave a positive review for La Mexicana Grocery and Restaurant in Schenectady.

Then of course came the realization that it was an unstarred write-up, so that was a little disappointing. Then reading through it, he claimed the tacos come with lettuce. That’s wrong. First, real street tacos should never have lettuce. I can’t even imagine the look you might get if you asked for a taco con lechuga. But that green stuff mixed into the onions at La Mexicana is cilantro.

Don’t try to tell me that’s a typo. And then there was this:

Dinner for two — with five small appetizers, a pair of sodas, three entrees and dessert — came to $65 with tax and tip.

If you can spring for the extra $10.99, order a tlayuda to take home for lunch the next day. The 12-inch, thin-crust tortilla is layered with a melange of La Mexicana’s best: refried beans, avocado, cabbage, Mexican cheese, steak, al pastor and chorizo, with bits of jalapeno hidden in the center. We got ours cold and wrapped, ready to be tossed into the oven.

Like Ruth Fantasia before him, his “dinner” is based on an impossibly large amount of food for any human mortal. I get that it’s a good idea for a reviewer to try as wide a selection of the menu as possible.

But especially since this isn’t a starred review, I would hope that he could simply list the prices for each dish. It would do the TU readers a greater service to conclude at the end of the story (because without stars it’s not really a review) that a robust dinner for two of a tlayuda and four tacos, could be had for $20 before tax and tip. I can’t even imagine spending $65 at La Mex. I’ve fed a family of four there for half that price.

Mrs. Fussy has suggested that this convention may be the newspaper’s policy, and not the choice of the reviewer. But a lot of my complaints about the food writing in the paper could be solved with better editorial oversight.

Bryan’s suggestion of getting the tlayuda to go and heating it up at home the next day, just makes me sad.

This wasn’t his only “Order Up” story that stuck in my craw. At one point these unstarred write ups were intended for cheap eats. That is different from the “Matters of Taste” reviews that actually get stars. Steve Barnes helped clarify this for me back in May.

So just yesterday, Bryan gave Dave & Buster’s the “Order Up” treatment. Dinner for five, which included games, came to $280. That’s $56 per person. And yes, Steve Barnes doesn’t seem to have broken his habit of calling this “Cheap Eats.”

Do I think chain restaurants deserve starred reviews?

Well, let’s ask the Times Union the same question. Cheryl Clark gave a 1.5* review to Joe’s Crab Shack. Ruth Fantasia gave both P.F. Chang’s and The Melting Pot 3*. Her predecessor William Dowd gave Bucca di Beppo and The Cheesecake Factory both 2.5*.

Well, maybe it didn’t get a starred review because of the games?

Except Ruth Fantasia also gave a 2.5* review to Wolf’s 1-11 where the cuisine is described as pub food, the style as sports bar, and the ambiance was described as “if you took a carnival, a family restaurant and a sports bar and twisted them together like a balloon animal.” Because much like Dave & Buster’s a large part of Wolf’s 1-11 is dedicated to games as well.

Look. It’s not my paper. If they want to give stars to some places and not others, I’ll learn to live with it. But when their decisions about this important distinction appear to be arbitrary or capricious, I’m going to call foul.

I may not be living in Albany, but I’m continuing to pay taxes there. So I’m keeping one eye out for shenanigans. Still, all in all, things seem to continuing on a good path.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2013 9:51 am

    I agree, let’s see prices and either have stars or do away with them in which case who needs the review. Two people 5 appetizers, 3 entrees, etc. are they eating for the week. Dave and Buster’s is just that a “BUST”. We went there to just look around, sensory overload and WHO would want to eat there???? Just a side note but I don’t seem to get the connection between the review and the number of stars awarded. If you sort out the pluses and minuses in the review, for the most part things don’t add up to the number of stars or is it just me?

    • October 28, 2013 2:33 pm

      They do have a quieter dining room (in a separate room), and the food’s actually pretty good. Not that you’d know that from the TU’s review, since he barely gets around to actually reviewing any of the food.

  2. Beck permalink
    October 28, 2013 10:58 am

    This isn’t directly related to restaurant reviews in the TU and stars or lack thereof, but does tie in to Mexican-style tacos, like the style served at La Mexicana (as opposed to American or Tex-Mex style with ground beef, cheese, lettuce, tomato, etc.). I seem to remember reading that your wife does not like onions, Daniel, so maybe you can give me your opinion on this. I do like onions, but only cooked; I hate raw onions and they are, in fact, about the only thing that will make me send a dish back when dining out, if I’ve specifically asked for no raw onions. The idea of a more traditional style taco appeals to me, particularly all the fresh cilantro, but they seem to always be served with lots of raw onions and honestly, though I don’t like the taste, I’m not sure the taco wouldn’t seem as if it was lacking without them, even though I wouldn’t enjoy it that way.

    So. If you hated raw onions, would you ask to hold the onions on Mexican-style taco, or just skip the taco altogether?

  3. October 28, 2013 11:04 am

    Don’t you pay taxes in Guilderland? Are you ashamed of living in the Land of Guilders?

  4. October 28, 2013 2:32 pm

    What bugged me even more is that if you read that Dave & Buster’s review, only ONE PARAGRAPH actually reviewed the food! He literally spent the entire review talking about the ambiance, the games and the things written on the menu, and then, after FIVE PEOPLE ordered full meals and drinks, he actually reviewed only two things: The potato chip chicken was good, and the steak and shrimp pasta wasn’t. That’s it.

    Maybe I’m alone here, but when I read a restaurant review, I want to read mostly about THE FOOD.

    And the worst thing here, too, is that I’ve been there, and the food’s actually pretty good. It’s not gourmet good, sure, but for a middle-of-the-road chain-type place, it’s pretty darned good. And he says almost nothing about it.

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