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Capital Improvements

May 22, 2014

The Internet ate my blog post. Sometimes I spend too much time reading stuff online when I’m supposed to be writing. It’s hard to say if that time is actual research or procrastination. Even if I’m writing a Yelp review, I can argue that I’m just getting my writing juices flowing.

Last night however, I was sucked into writing a lengthy comment on someone else’s blog. Usually, if I’m going to do that, I just turn the comment into a post here and call it a day. I’m not typically good at short form responses to issues that I care about, and which might benefit from a more nuanced response.

Still, I thought I could leave Jeff (from the Masticating Monkey) a quick response on his excellent post about the state of food criticism in the Capital Region. He pitches the notion that if the critics in this town were just tougher, the restaurants would get better. It’s a theme that sounds oddly familiar, and I’m glad to have him on board.

But the longer I’ve lived in the Capital Region, and the more that I’ve seen, the less convinced I am that revealing the Emperor has no clothes will solve our problems.

Here’s what I posted on Jeff’s blog.

The reviews that kill me are the ones that details critical flaws in the food, service or decor, yet don’t seem to be reflected in the overall rating of the establishment.

And of course there are the ones that get basic facts wrong.

It sounds like you are at a point in your Capital Region experience that I was a few years back. But then I came to realize that more critical critics wouldn’t improve the level of cuisine in the region. It would seem that the plurality (if not the majority) of local restaurant goers are there for the experience of eating out and NOT for the food. The food is kind of secondary. And the experience that these people are seeking is a very different one from what I want in a good restaurant.

Fortunately, the state of food is improving. And it’s been perpetually improving for years. Try to imagine a Capital Region without Ala Shanghai, Trader Joe’s, Parivar (chaat cafe), The Cheese Traveler and The CIty Beer Hall.

That’s the Capital Region I moved to back in 2007. There was no La Mexicana either, so if you wanted a taco, you had to drive down to Poughkeepsie.

Honestly, it was brutal.

I think what is more important for improving the culinary scene is still more eater education. It’s more people banging on the drums for the good places, and getting those who are less interested in food turned on to the good stuff.

As well known as Ala Shanghai is in some circles, I’m willing to bet that most people who live in the Capital Region have never even heard of it (much less tried their fantastic soup dumplings).

After all, I’ve spoken to life long residents of the region who have never even tried the signature specialties of the area.

You want to have an awesome and impactful Mast Monkey blog post series? Work your way through every menu item at Ala Shanghai. Take pictures. Share the good with the bad. Help guide the culinary adventures of others.

Because once people are exposed to good food, and come to realize that it doesn’t need to be expensive, they will have a lot less patience for the mediocrity that surrounds them.

I totally feel Jeff’s pain. But I really think that classic restaurant criticism is dead, at least in all but a small handful of metropolitan areas with a vibrant and bustling food scene. And as much as local food bloggers want to play restaurant critic, it’s just not the same.

One person’s experience of a small segment of a restaurant’s menu, sampled on one occasion, is insufficient to provide an adequate judgement on the place. Heck, this happens even with Albany’s major newspaper. Remember that time that Bryan Fitzgerald went to Giffy’s and left without even trying the chicken?

Newspapers no longer have the money to adequately support these efforts. Television news may have money, but they don’t have time. As it is a thirty minute broadcast can only cover the equivalent content of one newspaper page.

So let me ask a different question. Why do you think the food in and around Albany is actually getting better?

And it’s absolutely getting better. Of this I have no doubt.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2014 10:57 am

    It is getting better because of people moving in from Austin and California for the tech industry who are used to more adventurous and strongly flavored food. To the extent it’s getting better, that is. The local menus would suggest most restauranteurs have no clue.

    I would ask anybody who is running a local “fine dining” or “ethnic” restaurant to go to Ala Shanghai, notice it’s packed day and night and see what’s on the menu and what people are ordering. The scales will fall from their eyes.

  2. May 22, 2014 11:41 am

    Here is a menu from a restaurant that is not in the Cap District: http://www.verbenarestaurant.com/uploads/docs/Verbena_Savory_Menu_5.18.14.pdf
    Maybe you think it’s esoteric but I see a lot of creativity in that kitchen. Anything like this happening around here?

    • enough already! permalink
      May 22, 2014 8:23 pm

      Not identical, but I believe NWBB can certainly compare in creativity.

      • May 23, 2014 12:41 am

        enough already!

        This isn’t a question of what you believe to be true. BMF posted a menu with some really creative dishes. If you think there are dishes on the NWBB menu that compare favorably to those on the Verbena menu in terms of culinary creativity, let’s hear about them. With details. Please.

        Show me that it’s true, and I promise to keep an open mind.

  3. May 26, 2014 12:33 am

    Nothing changes until there are consequences. There is enough movement and sourcing education in the general public to elbow some room for change. Yelp, Food Network, Bourdain,…. what is weird is that some eating establishments are really trying to mix it up, but are unsure of the flavor profiles. For example, making home made ice cream and sprinkles is a nice idea unless it taste inferior to the local all natural brand that can be sourced. What is local all natural icecream supposed to taste like when you have been raised on Blue Bunny? Will there be consequences if you choose to serve Blue Bunny at .10 a scoop food cost
    opposed to Adirondack Creamery at .45 a
    scoop food cost? In the food service industry there is a cost formula. 1/3 food
    cost, 1/3 labor, and 1/3 overhead. For the Blue Bunny you should charge .30 a scoop, but can probably charge a dollar. For Adirondack Creamery you need to charge $1.05 just to break even. Thats why Sysco is so attractive. The price points can be lower and they deliver. Time is money. Its so attractive. Until recently they didnt carry to many specialty products even if your establishment knew how to use them. Why go to the local guys, who cost more, for fresh ingredients just to break even when the place next to you is four times the size with posh furniture and fresh linens with the Sysco truck unloading their frozen Blount soup and frozen Sweet Streets cakes off the truck? Well… there are enough people who want more variety. Who want other choices now. I often wonder why we keep seeing Rick Orlando, (as we had with Carmine before him), and not the head chef from Karavalli, Parivar, Ala Shanghai, or Kims? I would love to hear from them. WAMC had a chef on the air the other week who openly talked about opening a #10 can of sauerkraut and adding white wine to
    it. That was his recipe for homemade sauerkraut. I dont blame him. Making homemade sauerkraut is almost as smelly as Kimchi. But really?

    • DEN permalink
      May 28, 2014 4:24 pm

      I agree with most of what you say, catty. There are economic considerations for restaurants and I think the knock-on effect of that is people who push the envelope past the normal palate here are still more likely to go out of business than succeed (even below the general non-success rate of restaurants). The table turnover here at the better restaurants is still pretty low. You can pretty much get a table anywhere on any day of the week, with few exceptions. And I think the lack of customer flow is a deterrent to introducing places that can raise the bar.

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