Bad Chain Restaurants X – Dread Lobster

I just had the blandest meal I can remember eating in a long time.

The dull dinner came about as a gift of sorts from my wife’s employer. In place of a Christmas party, my wife’s company instead gave everyone in her office a restaurant gift card. It’s a nice gesture, and we were looking forward to a night out on her company’s dime. The card arrived in the mail yesterday, and to my dismay, it was a Darden gift card.

Darden is the parent company of no less than eight restaurant chains (seven actually—I’ll explain in a moment). Eight restaurants are enough to choose from, and of those eight, a few are upscale, and the food is excellent. But only two of the eight Darden chains are local to the Albany area, and none of the other six are within a two-hour drive. The two that are local to Albany are the worst of the bunch, Olive Garden, and Red Lobster.

Oh, joy.

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The Politics of Apologizing

No, this post is not about politics. As George Bush the elder once said, “Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.”

This post is about an experience my wife and I had the other night. It’s about a “stuff happens” moment that was initially handled poorly and my thoughts about how it could have been handled better.

I won’t mention the name of the establishment; it’s not relevant to the story. This could’ve happened anywhere, at most any restaurant. It was a local, sit-down full-service restaurant that is very much like a “better” chain, in the vain of casual dining similar to Cheesecake Factory, or Bonefish Grill, etc., and it has to do with the length of time we waited for our meals to come to the table. For context, I think it’s reasonable to expect that you should be eating within 20-25 minutes after being seated.

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Running from Hermine

We recently spent 12 days in Sarasota Florida. We had planned on spending 14 or 15 days there, but we decided to cut our vacation short due to Hurricane Hermine. Though it wasn’t forecasted to hit the Sarasota area, we thought it best that we head home (we drove) before the storm hit the Florida coast. So on a Thursday morning, we hastily stuffed our bags into the car and headed north. In the photo below you can see the storm on our heels. We’re the blue dot in the middle of the photo, in Gainsville, about three hours north of Sarasota. We left just in time.

 

The good news is Hurricanes move very slowly (Hermine was moving northeast at just 14 MPH) and for the most part, we stayed ahead of the storm. It was fun running from it, and we were far enough ahead that we were never in any real danger.

But this isn’t a weather or travel blog, this is a food blog, and I want to share a couple of interesting eats I had on our trip. I didn’t get to visit nearly as many places on my bucket list as I’d hoped, especially considering how much time we spent there, but I did get to a few, and here are three that stood out to me as memorable.

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Bad Chain Restaurants IX – Taco Hell; Hellacious Tacos

A few weeks ago, Otis M. of the food blog Burnt My Fingers, wrote a Yelp review of a tiny Mexican restaurant in South Glens Falls, Taqueria GDL. And when I say tiny, I’m not exaggerating. The building is about the size of a two stall garage, with around 5 or 6 tables within. It sits on the southbound side of Route 9, in an area that’s sort of ‘urban barren’, to coin a phrase.

Otis loved the tacos, claiming they’re Magical…”. He tried three varieties and raved “…each was the best of its kind I have ever tasted.”

The best he’d ever tasted? Heady claims indeed.

Coming from just anyone I’d write it off as irrational exuberance or inexperience, but Otis knows his stuff, and he has credibility with me. Plus, the photos he posted backed up his claim. Those tacos looked legit. Despite it being a 50 minute drive up the Northway from my home in Albany, I had to check them out for myself.

Before I get to Taqueria GDL; I had so much fun writing the piece comparing the lobster roll at Troy Kitchen to McDonald’s, I wanted to do a similar comparison with tacos. So I also stopped into La Mexicana Grocery in Schenectady, and my local Taco Bell, eating a sampling of tacos at each.

The crazy things I do for this blog.

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The Organic Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back

As I, like many, became more aware of what I was eating, and what was in it, I started eating more organic foods. My commitment to organics reached a peak a few years ago. But then I started seeing studies and articles that began to change my mind. A piece by Bjørn Lomborg in The Telegraph titled “Think organic food is better for you, animals, and the planet? Think again” (Mr. Lomborg also had a similar piece published in the NY Times), has convinced me to no longer waste my time, energy,—and especially my money—on organics. His well-written dismantling of organics (which he backs up with links to scientific studies) is the final nail in the coffin for me. In some cases I will still buy organic but if given the choice, I’m going to choose conventionally farmed food over organic, and I will no longer seek out organic alternatives to conventional foods.

Well before the Lomborg piece, I was becoming more and more skeptical of the advantages of organics and dismayed with the mendacious marketing tactics of many organic companies. I also hold contempt for the nasty radical environmentalists that advocate for organic. I don’t want to help them or their causes. Of course, they’re the extreme fringe and not the norm, and most of us just want to eat healthier and feel like we’re helping the environment. Feel is a key word here. It’s one thing to feel good; it’s another to do good.

Am I doing me, my family, and the world any good by buying organic foods?

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Bad Chain Restaurants VIII – A Lobster Rolls into McDonald’s

Lobster rolls are a unique thing. They’re the mating of shabby and chic. The melding together of expensive, fancy-schmancy, pinky-in-the-air lobster, with a cheap, blue collar hot dog roll. Who in their right mind would do such a thing? It’s crazy. Crazy good! Frankly, I’d much rather eat a great lobster roll standing up outside a lobster shack, than eat a whole lobster in a fine dining setting, and all the work it takes to de-shell the thing, all while wearing that silly bib.

Moreover, lobster rolls are pure genius in their simplicity. Just three components, lobster, hot dog roll, and mayo. Those three ingredients come together to make culinary magic. And its simplicity belies what an incredibly delicious thing it can be.

Back in March I had the pleasure of attending a preview for Troy Kitchen and came away very impressed with what Troy Lobster, one of the food stalls within, was doing. I finally made it back this past weekend and ordered Troy Lobster’s take on the classic Maine-style lobster roll.

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Pizza Pilgrimage IV – Dinosaur Pizza

Back in March, I stumbled on a Syracuse-based news article that profiled one of the owners of Dinosaur BBQ. The article focused on the new pizza place they were opening directly across the street from the original Dinosaur location; Apizza Regionale.

According to the article, they’re cooking the pizzas in a wood-fired oven imported from Naples. They claim to have cooked one thousand test pizzas before opening. They’re going for Neapolitan style pizza, made with ingredients sourced from New York State producers. The flour for the dough, for example, comes from a mill in Ithica.

Impressive.

I ‘m a sucker for Neapolitan style pizza, and it made for a great excuse to make a day trip out to Syracuse to try the pizza, and visit a couple of other iconic places since I’d be out that way. Wegman’s immediately came to mind as a must stop. And since I’d be passing through Utica, I thought it’d also be cool make a detour there and have chicken riggies and Utica greens for lunch.

Things didn’t quite work out as I had envisioned. It’s a day I won’t soon forget.

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Staycationaurant V – The Tap House at Catamount Glass

It’s been months since I wrote a Staycationaurant post on the blog. If you’ll remember, staycationaurant is the corny term I created by mashing together the words staycation and restaurant. I’ve defined it as a vacation day (or days), in which I while away the hours eating at interesting or unique places. For today’s post, I think I’ve found a business that qualifies as both the former and the latter.

This past Tuesday I had most of the day to myself, and it was beautiful; a drive was in order. I started thinking about which direction to head out of Albany. Vermont came to mind. Bennington is just one hour from Albany, and if you’ve been, you know what a lovely place it is. I decided to search for restaurants in the area. I discovered The Tap House at Catamount Glass.

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Pizza Pilgrimage III – Volturno

Currently, I’m a fan of Neopolitan style pizza. I’m fascinated with it mainly because I love its bubbly charred crust. When done right the crust is light and airy, with a delightfully soft and tender chew, but it still has crispness due to the super hot wood fired oven in which it’s cooked. Toppings are usually kept to a minimum and applied with a light hand because the crust is the star (though that’s not always the case of course).

It’s important that you call it Neopolitan style. Because to be a true Neopolitan pizza, the restaurant must be VPN certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana [link] which sets strict guidelines on ovens, ingredients, and techniques used for those claiming to serve true Neopolitan pies. Interestingly, there are surprisingly few VPN certified pizzerias in America, only about 75, and only two in NY State, both in NY City.

There’s controversy surrounding the VPN certification because it doesn’t necessarily ensure one makes great pizza, and it’s viewed as a marketing gimmick by some because there are many pizzerias that are not certified but are making fantastic Neopolitan style pizza. Serious Eats has a good piece on the subject if you’re interested in reading more about it.

Volturno is not VPN certified, but they are making top notch Neopolitan style pizza.

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The Pierogi at Chester’s Smokehouse

When I was little, one of the treats my father would make for us was fried spaghetti. Occasionally we’d have spaghetti and meatballs, and invariably there’d be extra pasta leftover. Instead of saucing it, he’d throw the plain pasta in a frying pan with some butter. He let the pasta sit in the pan until one side browned and crisped up, then flip the whole thing, and repeat. It was one of my favorite things as a kid. Crispy, crunchy, chewy, and full of flavor from the caramelized pasta and butter. It was always a treat for me.

Fast forward to my early twenties when I discovered pierogi. I forget the brand I would buy, but I’d get them in the freezer isle at the grocery store. And I loved them. I’d fry them up in a pan with butter, and the experience reminded me of the fried spaghetti I’d have as a kid, only better, due to the addition of the mashed potato filling. Carbs on carbs. Yum.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of dining at Muza the Eastern European restaurant in Troy. Everything we had was delicious (I especially recommend the potato pancakes), except one item, the pierogi. I didn’t care for them, nor did anyone in our group. The main downfall being the overly thick pasta shell, it was gummy, and there wasn’t enough filling. We tried some fried, and they lacked crispness and that wonderful caramelized pasta flavor I love so much.

About a month before Muza, I went to the Purple Pub in Watervliet. They had pierogis as a special on the menu “made by the church down the street”. They were fantastic, and that the local church made them, only added to their appeal.

Those two experiences reignited my interest in pierogi.

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