Izumi Sushi

http://www.izumisaratoga.com/

This place is doomed.

It’s very good.  I like it rather a lot.  Which is usually good enough to doom a restaurant, but in this case they’re also chasing a market which may not actually exist in this town.   Here’s how the waiter’s interaction with me went:

*I flip open the wine menu to the sake section*

“That’s sake,” he says

“Yes, I know.” I reply.

“Oh, you like sake?  What do you like?”

“Well my favorite is currently Gekkikan Horin, but I also like Kanbara ‘Bride of the Fox’ and Tentaka ‘Hawk in Heaven.’  I’m not very familiar with most of these though.”

He looks at me rather suspiciously.  “Where have you tried these sakes? “  *pause*  “You work at [insert name of my employer here] don’t you?”  I confirm this, and then he asks me if I’m from California or Austin.  “It’s very difficult to get people to try sake,” he confesses. 

At this point, I’ve been accepted into some sort of “oh thank God, a white guy who’s not an idiot” Club, and he starts bringing me gratis shots of different sakes, and telling me that if I sit at the bar next time they will set up a tasting flight for me.  I wonder if this restaurant has been set up aspirationally with the influx of the more urban transplants into the area, or if it does sufficient business during racing season to sustain itself, or if this place is just doomed.  Which would be a shame, because it’s good.  I suppose I should actually write about the restaurant and the food.

The décor: a cross between tavern, lounge and old fashioned Chinese palace restaurant.  Red leather banquettes, stained glass, patina steel, polished wood and neon. 

The soundtrack: semi-retro lesbian dance club with K-pop.   Waiters in their late 30’s occasionally singing along.

The food:  I came here because of Restaurant Week.  When I came here, my mind was oriented toward sushi.  They did have a restaurant week special, but the appetizer course and the dessert course weren’t all that appealing to me, and the entrée choices were cooked food and a California roll.  But for $5 more, I could get the sushi/sashimi combo for one.  Which I did.  And it was very, very good.  And generous — I actually was too full to finish everything, so I left a slice of delicious-but-takes-forever-to-chew tako behind.  It’s difficult for me to find things to write about, especially when it concerns sashimi.  I could mention that they had the best salmon sashimi that I’ve ever had, but that depends so much on the particular fish that is available and arrived that day.  Obviously it takes a good sushi chef to not screw it up, but ingredient availability always play a role.  For example, while the salmon was the best I’ve had (indicating chef quality), the lean tuna was not (indicating ingredient quality).  I’ll need to come back sometime to try the cooked food and some sake flights, but at the very least, I’ve found a go-to sushi restaurant.  While it lasts.

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Italian, two ways:

Limoncello

http://www.limoncelloristorante.com/

I took the opportunity provided by Restaurant Week to try this place, which I had passed by many times.  The RW bargain is a prix fixe 3-course meal, and this is what I had:

Polenta Napoletana – A slice of grilled polenta, topped with a ragout of eggplant, ham, and a generous amount of small bay scallops.  I really enjoyed this dish.  Part of it was the simple, physical heat of this dish coming from the icy weather outside.  Too many places serve food lukewarm, my mother would approve here.  Although she would not approve of the lighting level – the dish visually appeared as a chunky dark mess, with only the scallops being visibly identifiable.  But the flavors were very nice, the diced eggplant sponging up the port wine sauce; the textures (scallop, eggplant, polenta) were all slightly different and interesting together.  A good way of starting the meal, and promising.

Pollo al Basilico – Again, clever use of flavors and excellent saucework.  This was a stuffed chicken breast served on a plate of a tasty cream sauce with sides of mashed potatoes and green beans.  The only flaw I could find with this dish is in the stuffing technique, which left most of the chicken with no or very little stuffing.  Which is a shame, because the chicken with cream sauce was ok, but the bites with sufficient stuffing were worth bragging about.   And the sauce was also quite good with the mashed potatoes and green beans, which was fortunate because of the way it was plated left you no choice about the matter. 

Torta al Cioccolato – a descent chocolate cake, good texture, but uninspired compared to the first two dishes.  Also the major service misstep in the fact that the waitron sent the order to the kitchen in such a way that resulted in it being charged additionally.  It was taken off, however.

Regarding the service/dining experience, it reminded me of Max London’s – a bit aggressive with a slight undertone of condensation.  I don’t know if it’s because as a solo diner, I’m a drag on the PPA of the individual server, and possibly if that effect is increased by ordering the Restaurant Week special menu.  Still, though that was a bit offputting, it’s not sufficient to keep me from coming back, especially if I have a date.  However, being an Italian restaurant in Saratoga Springs can be quite a challenge considering the competition…

Limoncello Ristorante on Urbanspoon

The Wheatfields

http://wheatfields.com/

I was not planning on eating here during Restaurant Week, since I try to use RW as chance to try new places, and especially since I had eaten Italian the night before.  But the restaurant I was planning wasn’t where I thought it was, and it was cold and raining, and Wheatfields had a nice glow, and it was getting late…  It turned out to be a good choice, since the RW menu was different from their regular one, letting me try some new things.  Same format as earlier, 3-course prix fixe.

Spiced Butternut Squash Arancini – If you read my earlier commentary on Wheatfields, you know that I think their regular menu arancini are the possibly the best things to come out of a deep fryer.  So when I saw they had a variant dish on the RW menu I had to try it, although with some trepidation that it wouldn’t match the original.   I wasn’t disappointed.  The arancini were slightly smaller than their regular ones, with butternut squash inside, and topped with additional minced, cinnamon spiced squash.  The sauce that accompanies their regular ones was replaced with a cream sauce that emphasized the sweetness in the fall-type spice mix.  I know it’s supposedly still fall, but to me, when the weather doesn’t get above freezing for more than a day at a time it’s winter.  These were delicious, though more of a seasonal novelty item like pumpkin-spice coffee.  I just happen to rather like pumpkin spice coffee.  Hopefully these will be on the menu next fall.

Chicken Saltimbocca – this is a good place to draw a contrast between the two restaurants.  The appetizer course at both was a base of hot grain cake topped mainly with finely diced seasoned vegetables.  Limoncello’s offering was much more complicated and energetic than at Wheatfields.  The entrée course made that divide even greater.   In contrast with the multicomponent plate at Limoncello, Wheatfields brought out a bowl of linguini in a light tangy pomodoro sauce with a prosciutto-fused chicken breast tucked in alongside.  Much simpler, more basic, less ambitious, but still very good.  The linguini in particular was nicely chewy.  Actually, the bowl might have been a little too simple, I could have gone for some broccoli next to the chicken.  But it was good and homey, as opposed to the definitely-cooked-by-a-professional stylings down the street.  Whichever style is better depends entirely on your personal preferences at that time.  That night, walking in out of the rain, I liked the homey.  Going out prior to dancing, I’d go for the professional.

Chocolate mousse – this suffers greatly by comparison with the chocolate mousse at The Wine Bar across the street.  This one is very light and fluffy, with the faux smoothness of foam.  And this is my one big gripe about Wheatfields.  Their whipped cream resembles Cool Whip precisely.  I’m not saying that they use Cool Whip (it seems highly unlikely that they would) but if they don’t, they’ve transformed whipped cream via the addition of sweeteners and emulsifiers into something that might as well be Cool Whip.  And that is a sin.

Wheatfields Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Fifty South

http://www.fiftysouth.com/

I was originally told about this place by the owners of Ravenous, and all those I talked to made me want to try this place more.   I really wanted to like this place.  And when it’s been good, it’s been very good.  But when it’s not… well maybe I should just describe my meals there. 

I almost wonder if there are two grades of cooks in the kitchen, one for specials, and one there to provide someone’s idiot brother a job so he doesn’t violate the terms of his parole.  Their complementary pre-meal nibble is potato chips and tapenade.  I heartily approve of tapenade in general and the one they serve in particular.  I think you can buy it in jar form there and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it at the farmer’s market.  Anyway, a nice start to my first time there. And the appetizer special only built on that.  It was a couple of slices of lamb rack (overcooked from my request, but still delicious, and it’s hard to cook such tiny pieces of meat to a particular temperature) served in a martini glass over mashed sweet potatoes with some micro greens.  The sweet potato mash was a little wet for my taste, but that seems to be the normal way mashed potatoes are served up here.  The appetizer was a well thought out experience, decently executed.  It would be a perfect part of a tasting menu at a later spot in the progression.  The main course was where things came apart in a big way.  Have you even had a dish so bad that you thought perhaps you just didn’t understand the concept?  That surely they couldn’t have fucked up a culinary idea to that extent?  That’s what showed up.  I thought I understood the concept.  Salmon on wasabi-seasoned mashed potatoes with maple glaze.  Ok, I get it.  Like sushi, but with potatoes serving as the starch instead of rice.  What arrived was a gorgeous slab of fish on mashed potatoes so watery that puddles were oozing out, the entire thing drenched in maple syrup.  What, you don’t like horseradish maple syrup potato soup parfait, even if it’s garnished with salmon? 

Cooking errors showed up on my second visit as well.  I was there for brunch, but was in a more solid-food mood.  I saw some really delicious plates of pancakes, but I ordered a cheeseburger.  Remember how the lamb was overcooked?  This burger had the opposite problem.  I like rare/raw beef, but I prefer the taste of cooked beef when it comes to burgers.  I ordered this one medium well.  It came out blood rare.  No es bueno.  It was almost enough to make me finish my tasting of the place, but like I said I really wanted to like it, and I had already made reservations for a brewer’s dinner.  That was great.

The brewer’s dinner was so good, it further convinced me that there is a wide variety of skill in the back of the house.  I want to know who has cooked which of my dishes, and also their schedules so I can come over and eat when they’re working.  It started off with a (beer naturally) cheese soup.  I noticed that oyster crackers are the norm here, whereas back in Texas, their uses is uncommon.  So I’m not used to using them.  Here though, the soup was seasoned with the dulling effect of the crackers in mind, such that I found they were a nice addition, toning down the excessive (in uncrackered form) mustard flavor.   

The middle dishes could have been swapped in order, and in many cases would have, but really that’s an irrelevant formality, since there was no problem with taste fatigue.  We were presented with a twin slider plate, one beef one pulled goose.  Having never had pulled goose, I was curious as to what it tastes like.  Unfortunately, I can’t tell you, because all I could taste was the barbeque sauce mixed into it.  Still it was tasty, and the beef one was truly excellent.  This was presented sans garnish because of its early slot, but could easily have been the “entrée.”  That position was filled by a couple of perfectly cooked scallops on a rice salad with greens.  Who cooked this dish and why the hell couldn’t they have cooked that salmon debacle a couple of weeks back?  This dish was elegant, sensitive, ingredient-aware in concept and flawless in execution.  Anyone who can think of this and cook it is someone who’s food is worth eating.  The dessert was a wedge of “crepe cake” consisting of stacked crepes with a mascarpone-like layer between them, with a tart raspberry sauce.  This is one dish wherein the concept didn’t quite work.  The base “cake” was wonderfully rich, but overly dull tasting.  I’m sure that the raspberry sauce was supposed to brighten it up, but it didn’t quite succeed it its goal.  Maybe some citrus in the cheese or chunky granules of sugar scattered on top might have completed the effect.  A pleasant, mellow, but uninspiring end to a very good meal.

So there you have it.  The food ranges from wonderful to dreadful, and I only have a rudimentary strategy of “order the special” to obtain rewarding food.  I will probably be back when the farms are producing ingredients again and try to find “safe” dishes.  But if you’re in the mood to try this place, good luck.  It may pay off well, it may not.

Fifty South on Urbanspoon

Maestro’s at the Van Dam

http://www.maestrosatthevandam.com/

In almost every case (barring Glass on the Green in Tulsa) my experience with hotel restaurants has been negative.  They are rarely above mediocre in quality, and always terribly overpriced.  However, I know that historically, hotel restaurants have been some of the best, and I was hoping that the restaurants of the grand hotels on Broadway might adhere to the old tradition.  So for my birthday,  I went out for the prix fixe meal at the Van Dam.

Amuse-bouche: white bean salad with sesame-poppyseed crackers.  This was obviously portioned for four people, which is one of the few advantages of dining alone.  The salad was cool, creamy, and surprisingly mild considering all the herbs minced into it.  This was an excellent summer dish.  Something I’ve noticed about this town, is it does summer food very well, better than Texas.  Which makes no sense to me, because this region doesn’t even know what summer is. 

First course:  Avacado-melon soup.  Remember how I said it didn’t make sense how great the summer food here is?  More of that.  Delicious, and pretty much exactly as described, with the unmentioned but noticed addition of chilies to keep you awake.

Main course 1:  Apples and sprouts.  I’m so glad that Brussels sprouts made a comeback.  I never had them as a kid, but I understand that they used to be considered rather ghastly.  The versions we get these days are wonderful.  This was a combination of halved, roasted spouts tossed in a sauce made from sautéed tart apples and bacon.  This was not part of the dinner, but I ordered it off of the small plates section, and I’m very glad I did.

Main course 2:  Roast chicken.  The most common way of arranging a plate is to set up complementary contrasts.  This plate was set up differently, as an example of variations on a theme.  The plate had three components:  a boned, skin-on wing quarter of chicken, fingerling potatoes, and a cauliflower gratin.  All the foods are (initially) white.  All were cooked in an oven getting some color, and all three were seasoned mainly with salt and oil.  The chicken and potatoes with olive oil and salt (and another bright flavoring – rosemary) and the cauliflower gratin getting the same flavor profile from cheese.  All dishes were quite good, well thought out and executed, and intellectually the plate makes obvious sense.  Still, the sameness (color, temperature, cooking technique, flavoring) was noticeable. 

Desert: Lemon cheese pie.  This bore an unfortunate visual resemblance to a Jello no-bake cheesecake, with a whipped cream/mint leaf garnish and some sort of lemon sauce.  It also bore another unfortunate resemblance to a Jello no-bake cheesecake upon eating, right down to the unblended chunk of cream cheese floating within it.  A jarring misstep in the meal.  However, in a nice bookend to the beginning of the meal, the servers passed out complimentary chocolate bark sprinkled with nuts and dried fruit.  This was a more than satisfactory dessert. 

I’m definitely coming back here, and also definitely trying out the Chef’s table when it makes a comeback post-racing season.

Maestro's at the Van Dam on Urbanspoon

http://www.irishtimessaratoga.com/

I know I’ve mentioned this place in conjunction with another Irish pub in the area, but I’ve been going here often enough that it deserves its own entry.

Why do I like this place?

  Beer.  This region is fortunate in having some quite excellent brewers, and my favorite local (Davidson Brothers — coming from Texas, Glens Falls is absolutely close enough for me to consider it local) always has something on at least one (usually two) of the taps.  Irish Times has lots of taps, and keeps rotating new brews in so that there’s something new to try.  The only quibble is that sometimes the beer you want is upstairs, and if there isn’t a waitron to get it for you, you’re SOL.

Food.  The great thing about the food here, is that when you get a meal, you actually get a meal. Not just a meat-based product with some version of a fried potato (though those are definitely available) but also some accompanying vegetables.  They seem to vary it occasionally; for a while it was a combination of baby carrots and green beans, lately it’s been white beans, carrots and squash.  Some particularly notable entrees are:

Corned beef and cabbage –  The ne plus ultra of stereotypical Irish food.  So.  Flipping.  Good.   Seriously, the best I’ve had out, and frankly better than most of my friends make.  The corned beef is nice and lean, served as an enormous slab, with a pile of delicious, butter-laden mashed potatoes and a generous wedge of well-cooked (and by that, I mean cooked well, not overcooked) cabbage.  The only things wrong with this are that it doesn’t have carrots like my Mom’s version, and the fact that I can’t eat a meal of this magnitude on a regular basis without being unable to fit on a bar stool.  You’ll need two pints of Davidson’s Red for this one.

Boxty –  This dish is available in three versions:  curry chicken, curry steak, and Irish stew.  I’ve yet to try the stew version, I need to rectify that.  But the chicken and steak versions are both delicious, and with their vegetable sides project the illusion of being healthy food.  Yummy, and more reasonable than the corned beef.  You’ll probably want a couple of pints (again, I’d go with the Red) but you could get away with one.

Irish Breakfast – Four (4) kinds of pork on one plate, are you kidding me?  If I could make one change, I’d have them open a couple hour earlier so I could get this on days I wake up on normal person hours and don’t feel like waiting until 11:00 for breakfast.  Dear squeamish people:  black pudding is delicious, get over it.  And the lonely slice of grilled tomato isn’t just a fig leaf in the midst of all this meaty goodness, it really does serve as a nice, acidic complement to all the other components.  I find myself intrigued by the bangers.  I don’t remember eating this kind of soft, white centered/red cased sausages when I was in England, I don’t know if this is an English/Irish difference, or if there is another story behind these.  For this mal, I’ll break out the Davidson’s Brown, or Brown’s Oatmeal Stout, but I think a pint of the new Irish Times Dry Stout would also be lovely with this.

Shepherd’s Pie – Lovely, it’s what I go for when I’m in the mood for spiced beef, though that happens  infrequently with the three above dishes on the menu.

Fish and Chips – I’m a bit conflicted about this dish.  It consists of a platter-length haddock fillet on a pile of fries, with a cup of coleslaw (served in a cabbage leaf for style points) tucked in where they can find a place for it.  The fish is perfectly done.  The fries are a bit ordinary.  I’d frankly rather have their competitor’s fries underneath the fish, but they don’t fry their fish as well.  But my main problem is that haddock, like most whitefish, is just a little boring.  And the vinegar they serve with it is also kind of weak.  So you’re more reliant on their tartar sauce, which is ok, but I prefer a good, strong malt vinegar.  Still, the overall mildness of this entrée makes it much easier to pair with any of the less assertive beers that they have on tap.

 Parking.  There is a two storey parking lot right next to them.  While this doesn’t affect the quality of the food, it does make it awfully convenient for a spur of the moment lunch.

I’m sure at some point I’ll be able to try their desserts.  Haven’t ever had enough room left after the meal at this point.

Irish Times on Urbanspoon

So this is place is obviously not in the Saratoga Springs area, but it is north east-ish of Austin, and it does have good food, so I’m writing about it anyway.

Picasso’s Café

http://www.picassosonpaseo.com/Picassosonpaseo.com/Welcome.html

The day that I stopped here was during a street festival in the area, so the menu was pared down significantly from the regular version, but the dishes on the festival menu are the same as on the regular one, so my impressions should still be applicable.

Appetizers:

Quinoa tacos-  Very good, actually.  The menu listed them as being served with avocado puree and “lto,” which I read as the word “ito.”  Which is a word in Japanese, but does not, as far as I know, refer to a foodstuff.  The waitress, when asked about it, launched into an explanation of quinoa, but when I explained that I was actually concerned about this mysterious “ito,” she said, “oh, that lettuce, tomatoes, and onions.”  Actually, from examining the plate, the “o” more likely stood for “olives,” but no matter.  A big plus for the use of corn tortillas here.

Tapenade, hummus, spinach/artichoke dip trio-  A fairly standard set of dips, served with pita points, but well done.  The tapenade in particular was loaded up with salt and herbs to make the taste more intense.

Salad:

Arugula, beet, fried chevre w/pine nuts-   Apparently the pendulum is swinging back towards the composed salad, since is the second one I was served in as many days.  Actually, this salad was presented more as two independent salads with condiments rather than a composed or deconstructed one, with both the arugula salad and the beet salad dressed and ready to be eaten, a condiment cup of pine nuts and a deep fried slice of goat cheese.   The arugula salad part was nothing special, but the beets were treated a bit differently than I’m used to seeing:  they were baby beets, boiled, peeled, chilled, quartered, and then dressed with honey and sea salt.  Very nice actually.

Entrée:

Greek Pizza- This was a delicious, soft, pillowy bread topped with artichoke hearts, olives and alfredo sauce, and completely not a pizza.  Quite the yummy though.

Service/Ambience:

OK, so this is one of the things that makes me adore both Oklahoma in general as well as Austin:  the people are some sort of combination of tolerant, polite, or practical such that even if you are not their target/ideal person, they treat you well enough to make you feel welcome.  I am about as far from edgy/trendy/hip/cool as you can be, and Picasso’s has a definite attitude/image to project that is completely not me.   Without exception, the front of house staff were tatted front-to-back, aggressively genderqueer, paeleogoth, or the like.  While waiting in line to wash my hands (this place is so alt that they don’t have a men’s room, just a woman’s and a unisex) I saw that the dishwasher station was plastered with band bumperstickers.  But even with all this we-are-consciously-rejecting-the-30-something-white-guy demographic, the body-art fetish model who took my order, brought my food, and chatted with me a bit about the menu and business during the festival treated me with courtesy and friendliness.  Was it just because she knows my money is as green as everyone else’s?  I don’t care.  She did her job well, and so did the kitchen.

Picasso Cafe on Urbanspoon

Winslow’s Restaurant

http://winslowsofsaratoga.com/

I heard about a restaurant down the road from where I live, but in the opposite direction than I usually travel that was famous for its turkey dinners.  Lori at Ravenous confirmed it, and mentioned that she liked it.  Good enough for me.

I went and found it, it was very close, and after settling in at the bar (I do a lot of eating at the bar lately, it frees up tables, reduces any potential wait that I might experience, and sometimes the bartender will be bored enough to strike up a conversation.)  I realized that it must have been fate that I chose to try Winslow’s this particular evening.  You see, I don’t carry cash.  Winslow’s only accepts cash.  But that day, I had grabbed some cash to go to the Farmer’s Market, and still had enough on me to pay for dinner.   Dinner, as per recommendations, was turkey with the trimmings.  The plate was arranged in the following manner:  a pile of dressing was put down.  I can’t really tell you how much, since during the entirety of the meal, I never saw it.  I know it was there, I could taste and feel the texture, but I never was able to get a visual confirmation.  There was a goodly portion though, maybe a third of the plate.   Half of the plate was devoted to good mashed potatoes.   Dark meat turkey was placed over the entirety of the dressing and remaining part of the plate, with a layer of white meat slices covering the dark meat.  The plate is getting pretty tall at this point.  Then, gravy is poured over the whole damn thing, excepting a small space on the rim of the plate which is reserved for cranberry sauce.   A tiny bread/appetizer plate on the side contains their concession to vegetables:  two broccoli florets and a tablespoon of seasoned cooked cabbage. 

A side note about the cabbage:  it was good, like everything else.  But that’s not the point.  The point is, I have very little or no idea about what is normal up here or not.  Apparently cabbage is not a normal turkey side dish in upstate NY.  I had a very similar experience early in my stay here.  When my equipment was being installed at my job, they were required to have seismic restraints.  We never needed seismic restraints in Texas, but then again, Texas does not have earthquakes.  My logic dictated to me that if NY requires seismics, NY must have earthquakes.  So when an earthquake hit, once I realized what was happening (it was absolutely nothing like the movies, more of a slow pulsing/rolling than a vibration/shaking) I wasn’t terribly concerned.  This was just something that happened, right?  Apparently not, because the natives were freaking.  A similar situation occurred here.  I was served cabbage with a turkey dinner, I just assumed it was a regional variation, maybe from the Irish or perhaps Dutch influences.  Everybody I’ve talked to since then though has assured me it’s not a thing, it’s strictly an innovation of Winslow’s.

Anyway, the meal was delicious, a literal feast of old-fashioned hearty (let’s be honest, too hearty) fare.  I completely recommend Winslow’s if that’s the sort of meal you want, but their cash only policy will prevent me from dropping by on a whim. 

Since I still had cash, I went back to try more of the menu before I wrote this entry.  I got the burger, which turned out to be rather more of a patty melt, hold the onions.  The (cooked) burger patty and cheese were put between slices of bread and grilled.  It was served with thick cut fried potatoes and in a twist reminiscent of their cabbage side dish, a quartered, seasoned hard-boiled egg.  Again, a good meal, but one I’d have to plan for.

I’m planning on taking my parents here, but I’ll have to make sure I’ve got the cash for it.

Winslow's Diner on Urbanspoon