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Hanging onto Albany’s Restaurant Week

February 27, 2014

Probably the best thing about restaurant week is the chance to peruse a new batch of menus. I love reading menus and looking for the winners and losers.

Restaurant week is a dicey proposition in Albany with an inauspicious track record. Far too many places simply call it in, putting out uninspired plates of dumbed down dishes for a bargain price. Service tends to suffer too.

Still, are there any places that might be worth the indignity this time?

It always seems to be the same names that appear in my list of best bets. But this time we’re going to go in order from the worthwhile to the mighty impressive. For the record, it is absolutely an indictment of this promotion that I’ve only found five worthwhile menus of the sixteen participating restaurants.

And the first probably shouldn’t even count.

I’ll admit my prejudice against red-sauce Italian-American restaurants. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the cuisine, I do. It’s just that I find it staggering how much people want to charge for fairly ordinary preparations of unspectacular dishes. That said, it’s hard to argue with three courses of the stuff for twenty bucks.

Especially since I’ve never darkened their door, I would absolutely consider dinner at V&R. Start with a little eggplant, tuck into a plate of veal and finish with a cannoli? I could do that. Or I could try their Caesar and then have a whole plate of eggplant parm and end on tiramisu. I don’t expect this to be mind blowing. But perhaps low expectations are one of the better ways to enjoy restaurant week.

The Hollow continues to try hard, and it shows. This upcoming restaurant week is scheduled to run from April 2 through April 11. In some parts of the world that’s considered spring. So it’s refreshing to see roasted and grilled radishes served with an herbed brown butter as an appetizer. I’m also a sucker for gnocchi, grilled calamari and puttanesca. The Hollow put those three things together in one dish. I want that. But gnocchi is a make or break pasta. If in execution these are hard, dense orbs instead of light heavenly pillows of deliciousness, you’ve lost me forever.

In addition, they are offering a different steak preparation and a different dessert every night. It’s a smart way to try and get a larger share of the restaurant week pie. If I were a conventionally-raised-steak kind of guy, I might consider hitting up The Hollow a few times over the course of the promotion. As far as dessert goes, they will have their apple cider donut bread pudding on offer every day.

Arguing with The Merry Monk is also a hard proposition. Especially when you can start with their duck drumsticks, follow that with either moules frites or steak frites, and end on a Belgian sugar waffle. To me that seems like $20 well spent.

Unless of course you wanted to step up to a decidedly fancier spot. Because for the same tariff you can get sauteed mussels with fennel bulb and arugula in a saffron broth at Taste. And that’s just for starters. There are three entrees, count ‘em THREE, that are notable.

1) Heather Ridge Farm chicken breast with red beet potato puree and broccolini. Heather Ridge Farm raises some seriously happy chickens. Those are the chickens I want to eat. And as I think about this plate, I think about how happy the vibrant colors of beets and broccolini would make me. It’s like a belated Christmas present to my senses.

2) Haddock fillet with asparagus risotto, salsa verte and sundried tomato-olive tapenade. This feels like another spring dish with bright flavors, colors, and a fish that’s not horribly unsustainable. I do enjoy eating fish out at restaurants, mostly because I don’t like to cook it at home. So this would be a treat.

3) Spring peas with carrots, broccoli rabe, and minted ricotta gnocchi. THIS! We were talking about spring? Ricotta gnocchi are the lightest pillowy dumplings of them all. Put a little mint in there and toss them with sweet, earthy and pleasantly bitter vegetables. Sign me up.

Depending on how tight my pants are at the end of the meal would determine my choice of cheesecake or sorbet for dessert. But what a smart choice on a limited menu to accommodate varying appetites.

So, what’s the top menu?

I don’t know how The City Beer Hall does it. Chef Dimitrios has a lot of fun with his food and it shows. These are all inventive dishes that are clearly filled with love and plenty of labor.

1) The BLT salad (aka B.L. Teezy My Neezy)
I have no idea what the name means, but it’s a wedge of Bibb lettuce with roasted tomatoes, wild boar bacon and and Sriracha buttermilk dressing. Damn. And it’s just so freaking smart to serve the tomatoes roasted, because it’s the only way to coax sweetness and juiciness out of these nightshades at this time of year.

2) The Asian fusion rice dish (aka Oh Miso Corny)
The name might not be in good taste, but the dish sounds spectacular. Miso butter poached chicken with kimchi fried rice and tempura baby corn? Sure, it’s possible I have a soft spot for kimchi fried rice. I do. It’s a favorite comfort food. But it’s always a pleasure to have someone else make it and adorn it with such tasty accompaniments. Miso-butter poached chicken? I’ve never seen that anywhere before, but it sounds brilliant.

3) Reinvented Greek comfort food (aka Spud and the Salty Spheres)
Skordalia is one of my favorite Greek spreads, but I love garlic and I love potatoes, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Add fried cod balls and Swiss chard, and it sounds like a winner to me.

4) Boiler maker ice cream
Beer ice cream. Bourbon caramel sauce. Boom. Did I mention that the caramel sauce was salted? With bacon? Or that the beer and bourbon are local? Because they are. That’s incredible.

5) Left Hand Milk Stout chocolate pudding
It’s actually not chocolate pudding. It’s really a cream pie. It just starts with the pudding and evolves from there. Damn.

The good news is that even with just five decent menus, Downtown Albany’s latest restaurant week promotion has enough good food for you to have a different meal every day of the week. The bad news is that it’s still restaurant week and subject to the pitfalls to which we’ve all grown accustomed.

Should you happen to make it out and try one of these menus, I’d be curious to know if any of these restaurants are able to rise above the din and provide you with an experience that might bring you back through their doors during the rest of the year.

I would hate to see the hard work so evident behind a few of these menus go to waste.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Rosemarie permalink
    February 27, 2014 1:23 pm

    THANK YOU for the detailed Albany Restaurant week information. I really
    enjoyed the Hollow’s Tempeh Reuben earlier this week. Will return with friends. I hope they do well.

  2. February 27, 2014 2:31 pm

    Regarding BLT salad: just do it. I’ve tried it more than once now ( and making it is a lot of the fun. You can riff on it forever.

  3. Josh K. permalink
    February 27, 2014 10:22 pm

    Watch out for CBH if Chef Demitrios is not behind the kitchen. Like the Wine N Diner (RIP) all out amazingness if he is there, epic fail if he is not. Something goes awry in his kitchen when he is absent.

    Went to brunch (which I used to love going to) a few weeks back. Had to wait 10-15 minutes to be seated (even though there was loads of empty seats er benches). Food was served lukewarm at best, nuked in the microwave, and was really nothing special. Certainly not the same Chicken and Waffles from the past, the Turducken sandwich (which was amazing) was gone, and the spinach and feta omelet was severely overcooked to the point of being inedible (the home fries were cold and rubbery-obviously reheated).

    Beer and coffee were great though.

    I am scared to order food from there again especially during restaurant week (and you don’t need my take on restaurant week again, right?)

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