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When Dreams Go Wrong

October 14, 2014

When I tell people I have a food blog, they usually ask, “So you write restaurant reviews?”

Frequent readers will know that’s not what typically goes on here at the FLB. Reviews themselves aren’t all that interesting, especially in this modern era where reviews can be crowdsourced and experiences aggregated over time. That’s why I continue to contribute to Yelp. With all of its faults and foibles, I still think it does the best job in that space overall.

This isn’t to say that restaurant reviews are unimportant. The restaurant critic of any major newspaper has a platform to be a tastemaker for the region. More often than not that opportunity is squandered.

Today’s post is going to try and walk a fine line.

Last month I wrote about the exciting change going on at Taste in Albany. A talented chef was moving to a shorter weekly menu, based on seasonal ingredients, at a reasonable price, and in a lovely setting. It took a few weeks to clear my schedule, but last Friday Mrs. Fussy and I were finally able to venture out on a rare date night.

Here’s the story of what went wrong, and what Taste needs to do to get back on track.

We went on week four. Dave N. of Yelp went on the first week and had a very enjoyable meal. I’ve met him. I trust him. And I also happen to know that he occasionally comments on the FLB under a different name.

The week four menu was troubling on its face, but my schedule is stupid busy and sometimes you have to strike when the opportunity presents itself.

As opposed to past weeks, the meat entrees on last week’s menu were all matched with the same starch and vegetable. So you could get beef with mashed potatoes and broccolini, pork with mashed potatoes and broccolini, or chicken with mashed potatoes and broccolini.

Given the abundance of the harvest season, and the desire to be more seasonal with a fall menu, this fell far short of what I expect from chef Mark Graham. The beef braciole was much better than the tough and dry porchetta, but both resembled dishes closer than what one would expect at a wedding or golf course than one of the nicer dining rooms in Albany.

The dining room is still lovely with modern fixtures, heavy stylish flatware, and thin rimmed glassware. Regardless of the price, one expects the food to rise to the level of its surroundings.

Our appetizers came the closest in that regard. I enjoyed the deep flavors of my butternut squash soup, and I thought it was clever to float a few toasted squash seeds on a tender leaf of fresh spinach. The braised short rib came with a seasonal spinach puree which visually brightened up the plate of long braised, fork tender meat.

All of the food paired well with the half bottle of wine we selected. The wine flight sounded like fun, but Mrs. Fussy really wanted the short rib and wasn’t convinced the first wine of the flight (a white) would be such a great pairing. I was excited by the half bottle list and found a 2005 petite sirah from Lodi that I thought would be lovely, and it was.

Oddly, the wine was served in glasses etched with the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs shield. I know it’s a prestigious food and wine society, but etched glasses are tacky. They just are. And since we’re on the subject of inappropriate and tacky, one of the food runners or bussers who came to our table reeked of cigarette smoke.

Dessert could have been a chance for redemption. It’s hard to screw up flourless chocolate cake and a flight of gelato and sorbeto. But that too fell short. The hazelnut gelato was icy, the chocolate was bitter, and the pink one was virtually flavorless. At least my shockingly dry flourless chocolate cake was served with a sliced macerated strawberry which brought a little relief. I don’t know if the cake was overcooked. Maybe it was just made with an insufficient quantity of butter or eggs. But an amateur home cook could do significantly better with a halfway decent recipe.

Still, the meal was only $25 for three courses. It’s less than a three course meal would cost at Olive Garden or The Cheesecake Factory. Even on my sliding scale, it wasn’t worth it. Nothing was inedible, but the highlight of the meal by far was the bottle of wine.

My sincere hope is that Taste gets back on track and finds a way to recapture some of the magic it had in those first two weeks of this new direction. Maybe they have to raise their price to $30 for three courses (or perhaps two courses for $25 and three for $35). I suppose it’s possible chef Mark was on vacation that last week, since neither the menu nor the execution reflected the skills and experience of such a talented chef.

Were there hiccups in the first few weeks that required such menu simplification? I don’t know.

I really want to see this approach succeed, but to do so the kitchen needs to set some kind of minimum standard. And it’s clear from looking at pictures from Yelp that our meal was not an anomaly.

While it brings me no pleasure to share this negative experience, I’d be doing nobody any favors by keeping it to myself. And I hope in my heart of hearts that Taste can take this constructive criticism and right their ship.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 14, 2014 10:12 am

    Wow. Was looking forward to Mark’s magic. Agreed that the repeated sides are a dead giveaway. Please fix, Taste.

  2. -R. permalink
    October 14, 2014 10:17 am

    Hmmm…that sucks (and ruined your date night). I really wanted this idea to work, but somehow it decidedly smacked of restaurant week year round – you trim back prices, quality and portions hoping nobody will notice. I love the concept, but the devil is in the details as they say. Still, I’ll have to give it a try if only for curiosity’s sake.

    That said, I would like to sing the praises of The Grille at 138, where we dined Saturday evening. The food was excellent, the menu broad enough to meet most demands, but simple enough to keep it focused. I felt the preparation, presentation, service and quality ranked it as one of the finer meals I’ve had out in some time, as well as being a decent value. Nothing too exotic or challenging (hell, when’s the last time you saw meatloaf on a menu that’s not at a diner?), but well executed and damn tasty. Recommended.

  3. DEN permalink
    October 14, 2014 12:44 pm

    I am very sorry to hear that. I think you should try and reach out to Mark with the constructive criticism. He has a reputation of being very friendly and would probably love to hear your feedback. I haven’t been back since that initial trip, but will have to check in again. The shift to uniform starch and vegetable sides is a surprise. The etched glasses were absent from my table, as far as I could tell.

  4. October 14, 2014 3:20 pm

    And just like that it appears chef Mark is back in gear. Week five’s menu just got posted and it’s devoid of the entree problem I experienced on my visit. It’s back to sounding fantastic. I want the duck pastrami, arctic char and trois pommes.

    Click to access 10-14-3-course.pdf

    • DEN permalink
      October 14, 2014 4:00 pm

      Nice. Here’s hoping for a quick bounce-back.

  5. Weenie Girl permalink
    October 14, 2014 7:24 pm

    You use the word “flight” several times. What does it mean in this context?


  6. October 15, 2014 1:04 am

    Enjoy reading your blog!
    Xo, Wendy Watson from College Cheese

  7. October 15, 2014 10:59 am

    I adore Mark. I’d like to think this was a fluke. He is a truly, truly great guy, and if you were to reach out to him, I’m certain he’d be receptive. In case you couldn’t tell, I <3 MDG.

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