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The Quest for the Golden Tureen

January 29, 2019

What did you do last Saturday? I sampled twenty six soups.

It was the Schenectady Soup Stroll, and it was fantastic. I got to serve as one of the official Yelp Elite Squad judges. I’m not sure how many of the attendees could say they tried every single soup that was being ladled out at the event. However, everyone was allowed to vote for the crowd favorite, assuming a minimum threshold of samples were tried.

In the past, the judges have done a pretty good job of lining up with the crowd favorites. This year, we were on entirely separate pages. And I’m left scratching my head at the final results. So today, I thought I would share not just my impressions on why the soups chosen by the judges were our top picks, but also on why the ones that were chosen by the crowd failed to rate.

Let’s see if I can do this without getting nasty.

A good way to do that is to start out with the positive. The three judges all agreed that it was neck and neck between Mad Jack Brewing Company at The Van Dyck and Aperitivo Bistro for the number one and number two spots. Mad Jack took it by a hair, with its Pale Potato Pancake Soup Infused w/Mad Jack Pale Ale.

There were a few reasons for this, not least of which was the bacon. Bacon can be brilliant in soups, but also problematic. The fat needs to be rendered completely, and this one was. These not-so-little smokey flavor nuggets permeated this creamy, luscious, and comforting potato soup. And those crispy edges of the fried potato pancake garnish? Those were gold. It’s also really hard to make a soup with beer that compliments but doesn’t overwhelm the flavors. This one nailed it.

Aperitivo’s Chicken Parmigiano Soup was also a marvel of culinary technique. I wanted to have everyone who put chicken meat in their soup to pop into Aperitivo to see how it’s done. This chicken was so perfectly tender and satisfying, it was a treat to eat. And while it may have been stewed and not fried like the namesake dish that inspired the soup, all the flavors and textures of chicken parm were present. From the parmesan cream, to the crispy fried bits, to the bright tomato sauce. This was one delicious sample of soup.

Ruggiero’s Pizza, Deli & Catering came to downtown Schenectady and set up a table at the Jay St. Pub. I fully expected to hate the Chicken & Sausage Gumbo, especially when I found out it was gluten free. That’s because you can’t make a gumbo without a roux. So I asked about this, and they just abandoned the roux, opting to thicken the soup with rice and lots of chunky meat and veg. Was it gumbo? Maybe not really. But the smokiness from the andouille and the overall spice of the sample made it one of the judges’ favorites.

There were other things we enjoyed that were worthy of an honorable mention. What didn’t actually make the official report was the Tortilla Soup at Wolff’s Biergarten. As I was going through my photographs of the event, without a doubt, this was the best looking soup of the bunch.

Apologies to the chef for not getting that fact into the official results.

Hunter’s on Jay did something unusual, by taking something that sounded super sweet, and making it more balanced. The Caramel Maple Butternut Bisque was not cloying because the “caramel” came from a Saranac Caramel Porter, which balanced out the sweetness with bitterness. As judges, we commended the effort for its creativity.

My hunch is that a lot of people didn’t try The DillyBean’s vegan offering because it was called Stand Out In The Kraut Soup. But the sauerkraut was added at the end, and it was remarkably delicate in flavor. For a soup with sauerkraut as a principal ingredient, this was delightfully unexpected.

Tara Kitchen went back to its roots to cook Haleem Porridge, a deeply spiced puree of wheat and meat. Except by the time the judges rolled around, the kitchen was scooping a backup batch that didn’t have quite the finesse of the earlier samples. Drat. But so it goes. Still, we felt compelled to recognize the effort of bringing something so different from a distant corner of the world to the Schenectady Soup Stroll.

Finally, that Chicken and Dumpling Soup from Hell’s Grill was as comforting as something grandma would have made. If you had a Pennsylvanian grandma, that is. Oddly, this deeply comforting soup was being served at a tattoo parlor on Jay Street from a place called Hell’s Grill. But good is good, and this was good.

Here’s the kicker. None of these places rated with the popular vote.

people's choice

The people’s third place choice was Johnny’s Italian Nacho Soup. And that wasn’t bad. But it was like a cup of alfredo sauce with sausage crumbles in it, topped with fried pieces of pasta. The chopped tomato and banana pepper topping lightened it up a little, but not enough. Primarily because these were January tomatoes in upstate New York, and there’s only so much you can expect from them.

What I struggle with is how this soup beats the one from Mad Jack. They are both creamy, and meaty, with fried things. But the Mad Jack one had so much more depth of flavor. The bacon permeated every bite. Whereas if you didn’t have a piece of sausage on your spoon, and my cup had several spoonfuls that were sausage free, the Johnny’s soup just tasted like a bite of cream.

The people’s choice second place award went to 20 North Broadway Tavern for their Roasted Poblano Corn Chowder. Which was a good soup. It was. Maybe the problem was that our samples came from a fresh batch. I could imagine the soup getting better the longer it sat in the steam tray. But the chowder samples that we received were broken. And that can happen. However, when there are twenty six soups in competition, there is little room for error at the top.

Ultimately the people loved the Maryland Crab Chowder at 151 Bar & Restaurant the most. And without a doubt it was delicious. That creamy broth was definitely among my favorite of the day. Plus, the crispy spinach that topped the whole thing was fantastic. However, the soup was filled with “crab” that had the texture of imitation crab sticks.

Now, we can have a long conversation about imitation crab, its texture, and its flavor. As nigiri where it is very clear what you’re getting, I have no problem with this delicious, obvious fake version of a real food. But in something called Maryland Crab Chowder?

The expectations are just so much different from the reality.

That soup would have been better if there was no “crab stick” in there at all. Certainly in a lobster bisque, most of the meat can find itself pureed into the dish. So chunks aren’t always expected. Texturally, the strands of chewy imitation crab were simply too distracting from an otherwise fantastic soup to award this tasty entry a spot in the judges’ favorites.

Yet, somehow, the attendees of the soup stroll felt differently. I’m not entirely sure what that means. I think it makes sense to take some time and process what happened. It’s probably not a cause for alarm. But it’s certainly a cause for concern.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Benjamin M. permalink
    January 29, 2019 3:22 pm

    Were the ones that won the popular vote clumped together? Is so, perhaps a large group of the public visited a small geographic area and then only voted on those?

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