Death by Cheeseburger VII – Best Burger in NY State

Daniel B., Albany’s Yelp Ambassador, was gracious enough to invite me to participate in a burger tasting. He knows I’m a big fan of the form, and I’d enjoy judging a few burgers. Initially, I was a bit hesitant, but ultimately decided I’d do it, and I’m glad I did. It was a blast. There were four judges in total, and besides Daniel and me, Josh D. the Syracuse Yelp Ambassador, and Yelp Elite Thomas C. also took part in the fun.

But this was no ordinary burger tasting; we’d be judging the “Best Burger in New York” contest, run by the NY Beef Council. It’s a contest they do every year, and the goal is to highlight local beef producers and the businesses that sell their product. That’s great, and a noble cause in my opinion.

The restaurants all happened to be in Central NY, between Utica, and Syracuse, which meant a long day, with lots of driving. Daniel picked me up at 9:30 am, and we didn’t get home until 11 that night (after a little side trip to Utica for pizza). It was indeed a lot of driving and of course, a lot of eating.

Continue reading “Death by Cheeseburger VII – Best Burger in NY State”

Pizza Pilgrimage V – Six Days in the Fridge

Have you seen the video series Upstate Old School Vic Christopher is doing for Two Buttons Deep? In the first episode, he visits O’Scugnizzo’s Pizzeria in Utica. O’Scug’s makes a form of Utica tomato pie, and the place is the second oldest continually operating pizzeria in the US. The video is less than four minutes long. It’s worth a watch.

Barely one week after Vic’s video was posted, Daniel B. and I had some business together in Central NY (more about that at a later date), and after seeing the video, both of us were curious to visit O’Scug’s and experience the pizza.

I was not impressed, and frankly, perplexed as to why O’Scug’s is popular.

Continue reading “Pizza Pilgrimage V – Six Days in the Fridge”

My Favorite Pizza in the 518

Notice the title of this post is not “The Best Pizza in the 518.” “Best” is subjective, and when it comes to pizza, everyone has their favorite style or favorite pizza joint. I’m willing to accept that my favorites are not necessarily the best, but instead, merely those I like most. I’m sure it won’t be hard for anyone to take issue with my favorites, and that’s fine. You are welcome to disagree with me.

With one exception, my favorite pizzas are all cooked in a wood oven. To produce the light, tender, and chared crusts I prefer, requires temps of 800 degrees or higher, temperatures a wood oven has no problem reaching. Wood also imparts some flavor into the crust. Wood oven = more flavor.

So, without further ado, my favorite pizza in the Greater Capital Region:

Continue reading “My Favorite Pizza in the 518”

Nashville Not Chicken

I adore spicy food. Spicy heat improves so many dishes that it’d take a book the size of the Bible to list them all. Even when used in small amounts to add a little background heat that most palates won’t detect as spicy, it’s an important element in cooking. Then there’s the nasal and sinus-clearing heat of super spicy dishes. I crave that tongue burning pain. It hurts so good! I love spicy food so much that I keep a small vial of cayenne seasoning in the lunch box I take to work at all times. One can never know when something will need a little hit of heat.

You can imagine my excitement when I discovered that Hattie’s in Saratoga had put Nashville Hot Chicken on their menu. Nashville Hot Chicken is the stuff chili-heads like me dream of, and fried chicken is a great vehicle to deliver high amounts of heat that you’ll later regret eating.

I was disappointed with Hattie’s version of the Southern classic, I was expecting better.

Continue reading “Nashville Not Chicken”

Bad Chain Restauants XII – In Recovery

Today, I’m giving the dubious honor of bad chain to Recovery Sports Grill. The concept started in Albany with a single location across the street from Albany Med as The Recovery Room. It has since expanded to eight locations in the immediate area, and is expanding west—there’s one in Amsterdam and one near Turning Stone Casino in Verona—and south with locations in New Jersey, Virginia, West Virginia, and Florida.

Congratulations Albany! You are the progenitor of your very own bad chain. We have supported and enabled an expanding empire of uninspired pub fare and its ubiquitous “throw a bunch of crap on the wall along with lots of giant TVs” ambiance. Yes, folks, our beloved Captial Region has unleashed a bad chain on an unsuspecting world. May God have mercy on us.

Continue reading “Bad Chain Restauants XII – In Recovery”

Donna’s Matters

Donna’s is the new Italian-American addition to Vic Christopher and Heather LaVine’s growing empire.

Typically, the opening of an Italian-American restaurant would draw disinterested yawns. But Donna’s is not typical. Donna’s to my knowledge is the first time a talented, top local chef has headed the kitchen of an Italian-American joint. Chef Nick Ruscitto is the brain behind Peck’s Arcade, which is arguably one of the best restaurants in the Capital District. He’s left his post at Peck’s and moved about a mile southeast to head the kitchen at Donna’s. And it’s a big deal.

I’m not Italian, but my step-father (whom my mother married in 1976 when I was just 10) is a first generation Italian, a stowaway on a boat, arriving in America after the war. My wife is half Italian, her father a second generation Italian. My best friend during my pre-teen and teen years was Italian, his parents’ first generation Italian’s with a discernable accent. I’m no stranger to Italian home cooking or Italian-American culture. I take Italian food and culture seriously and consider myself an adopted Italian.

I have a love-hate relationship with Italian-American restaurants. They are bastions of comfort food, and I love comfort food. But they also mostly suck, and I don’t say that lightly. They’re all the same, and it’s not a good sameness. They serve a too thick, and too sweet, overcooked, Italian ‘gravy,’ that tastes more like burnt tomato paste than tomatoes. Giant, sprawling menus often topping more than four dozen dishes. Huge portions that make even the biggest eater blush. And creativity? There is none. The dishes haven’t changed in decades. Most IA restaurants have both feet firmly planted in 1970’s gastronomy when an iceberg lettuce based salad was considered haute cuisine. And don’t get me started on the crappy so-called “Italian” bread they all serve.

Continue reading “Donna’s Matters”

The Wood Fired Pizza at Restaurant Navona

Slowly but surely I’m becoming a pizza snob.

I’ve been eating a lot of pizza lately. In the last 9 months, I’ve had the good fortune to eat at three pizzerias that are some of the best in the country. Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, Pepe’s in New Haven, and Varasano’s in Atlanta. At home, in the Albany area, I’ve been eating pizza at a whole host of different local places as well. Both new and old. You could say in addition to my burger obsession, I’ve also been obsessed with pizza over the last year or so as well.

The nice thing about all the above, is that eating a lot of different pizza locally, and from all over the country, (and also with some influences by others that I respect), has helped me to form a strong opinion of what I like in pizza, and don’t like (which I’ve already spelled out in my Tinney’s Tavern post, so I won’t rehash it here), but the short version is I’m in love with Neapolitan style wood fired pizza.

Continue reading “The Wood Fired Pizza at Restaurant Navona”

Death by Cheeseburger IV – Two Grass Fed Burgers and a Patty Melt Walk into a Bar

I’m not in love with grass fed beef. This is heresy in the foodie world. But I’ve yet to become fanatical about grass fed beef, while at the same time, not being ignorant of why it’s preferable over grain fed.

As grass fed beef becomes more prevalent, and I eat it more, I’m starting to like it more. It has an earthier, deeper flavor than conventional beef, which has taken me time to appreciate. My opinion may change in the future, and likely it will, but for now, it still doesn’t factor into my decisions when choosing what and where to eat. I’m still a bit apathetic toward grass fed beef. And me being frugal, its higher price sometimes causes my wallet to revolt.

Whole Foods has added burgers to the menu of their in-store restaurant. Being Whole Foods, the beef they use is grass fed, and they also claim it’s humanely raised. The feel good is there. But is the taste good there? Only for the strict purposes of science mind you, I intended to find out.

Continue reading “Death by Cheeseburger IV – Two Grass Fed Burgers and a Patty Melt Walk into a Bar”

Pizza Pilgrimage

One morning, going through my email, and weeding through all the spam, I came across the email of promotions Living Social sends out to it’s subscribers each day.

I saw a special for Tinney’s Tavern. Tinney’s is on the shore of Lake Desolation, about an hour northwest of Albany. Apparently Lake Desolation is a destination for snowmobilers in the winter, and Tinney’s is a popular place to take a break, warm up, fill up your belly and have a couple of beers.

Continue reading “Pizza Pilgrimage”

The Popcorn at Madison Theater

The Madison Theatre before World War II

The Madison Theater on Madison Ave. in Albany first opened in 1929, 86 years ago. It survived the Great Depression and—from what I can glean from the few articles written about it—it managed to largely stay open until about 2004 when the CVS next door proposed demolishing it to make room for a drive thru.

Thankfully it survived and in 2013 the owners of Tierra Coffee Roasters who ran the adjacent coffee shop, purchased the theater and completely gutted, and refurbished it. It now houses three small (90-120 seat) screens, and an 168 seat performance space. It reopened in early 2014 showing old movies and newer, second run flicks. I’ve seen 3 movies there, and the theaters are nice. They have wonderfully comfortable chairs that recline, and modern surround sound systems. It’s a great venue to see a movie, especially if you’re a movie buff who’s into classics. They run a lot of classics and it’s a blast to see old favorites on the big screen.

It was the popcorn though, that really got my attention.

Coconut oil popped

Before the mid 90s, most movie theaters popped their popcorn in a coconut oil blend. In 1994, food cops, The Center for Science in the Public Interest orchestrated a consumer scare campaign in the hopes that consumers would pressure theaters to abandon using coconut oil in their popcorn because of it’s high saturated fat content. They effectively demonized coconut oil and the campaign worked. By the mid to late 90’s coconut oil popped popcorn had disappeared from theaters.

But today the science has changed—as it often does— and coconut oil is now thought to be healthy. I have a jar of coconut oil in my pantry, and I use it for frying on occasion. It adds a distinct coconut flavor to foods cooked with it, it’s not a neutral oil and it works best with foods that have a neutral flavor, like… popcorn!

The popcorn at Madison Theater is popped with coconut oil. The coconut oil adds a pronounced, but subtle, coconut flavor to the popcorn. It also adds an unctuousness that air popped popcorn or corn popped in lighter oils simply does not have—due mostly to it’s high saturated fat content. They also use real butter at Madison Theater, and the combination of the butter and coconut oil is amazing. It’s the most flavorful popcorn I can remember eating. It is delicious, and it’s worth a trip to Madison Theater just to have the popcorn.