Song for Albany


They don’t call it the capital of the Empire state for nothing.  Inch for inch, the food in Albany, New York trumps bigger cities in quality and value.  Take that Boston with your $14 cocktails and oxtail ravioli!

I started with Ragonese on New Scotland Avenue : A great, old school Italian grocery store and deli.  A chicken parm sub the size of a big baby’s arm.  Folks, delicious doesn’t describe this.  Try: Really or very delicious.  Closer.  Toast the roll next time and lines will be out the door.

Dinner?  Well, after the sub a light meal was in order so I returned to Dinosaur BBQ in nearby Troy for fried green tomatoes, a pulled pork sandwich, a half rack of ribs, and sides of creamy man ‘n’ cheese and collards.  This joint trumps any BBQ in the aforementioned city that is too busy selling $19 hamburgers made of choice beef.

Today it’ll be the redoubtable Jack’s diner for a contender for the world’s best turkey Club.

Oh, Albany, Albany, your treasures yield such bounty!


Albany, My Albany

Say what you like about “big city dining,” a lot can be said about the feisty towns where regulars determine the quality and consistency of delicious food.  We’re talking about access to farms along the Hudson and farms in Vermont, an interest in satisfying hunger made worse by long winters and boredom and low wages, and a history of Italian-American families who adapted and stayed and brought with them a memory of flavors and abilities to recreate versions of them.

On Central Avenue, once the city’s main drag where shoppers lit into posh stores day and night, you’ll find, past the Check Cashing storefronts, Jack’s Diner: Best Club sandwiches around, and a crowd of the high and low.

Nearby is the city’s food Coop: Go past the overpriced fruit and vegetables to the poultry display to buy wonderful Vermont chickens and then drive over to “Oriental Market” or Shop Rite for everything else on your list.

In Troy, which has fallen, there is Dinosaur BBQ: Light years better than anything in the NE Region: Ribs, pulled pork, brisket, and terrific sides.

Return then to Albany: Architecture that recalls big city years.

The Albany Report, Part 4

We’re talking, first of all, about Jack’s.  Not the fancy-pants, old school, downtown steak and lobster place with the way cool signage and what must be a great bar, not that I know yet, but I will.

No, this is Jack’s Diner.  Also old school, but well within budget for many.  Open 24 hours.  A small aluminum room with stools and booths.  The crowd on Sunday AM?  Four old white men in suits straight from church; one of the group unable to walk and so supported by the others.  An older African-American couple.  A younger African-American couple with the woman in tight gray sweat pants and a little skin as she leaned forward on the stool.  A big white family.  A big white cop.

OK, the food.  Really delicious eggs.  And, more to the point, was a turkey club sandwich with generous slices of bacon.  Turkey, apparently, is the house speciality.

Will we be back?

Can’t wait.

Later, that same morning, we visited the Food Coop.  A saint from the Bible was returning to his car as we arrived: Lean, tall, grizzled, gray, and bearded.

Inside: Amazing stalks of Brussels sprouts, kambocha, spinach, and kale micro greens.  Even better: An astonishing stock of Misty Knolls chicken; this is restaurant quality bird, unavailable consistently in Boston.  Plus, Neal’s Yard Dairy cheeses, a room of beans and bulk.

Staff at both?

Chill, of course.

The Albany Report: Part 3

Smitten with the capital of the Empire state, from the desperation of the corners of Clinton & Lark, to the junction of Delaware and Lark, from the moist farmlands to the Hmong finding a home, to the ravioli at Andy’s on Delaware, and a nod to the humongous bagel at Uncommon Ground, the city has character and depth.  I feel as if I am exploring Kinshasa or Taos or Pierre. It’s all new!

OK, fine, Troy isn’t Albany.  Duh and double duh.  But let’s not get pedantic. Dinosaur BBQ, in Troy, is rather stunning.  They started in Syracuse (not Greece or Sicily, but upstate NY) and now have branches in Troy, Harlem, and Newark.  The ribs are falling off the bone, meaty, smoky but not overwhelmingly so, and the rub has a fine balance of cumin, black pepper, and brown sugar.  Greens, mac ‘n’ cheese, maple syrup sweet potatoes.  Hello?  It was perfect.  Plus the brisket and the pulled pork?  And the many beers on draft?  And the server with a fine sense of humor plus alacrity?  Did I mention the Sazarac?

Let’s throw in New World Bistro where Dez arranged for a BLT that was nuts.  It was nuts!  It was crazy!  Toasted challah, thick and chopped and peppery bacon, slices of tomato, lots of lettuce.  Just the right amount of mayo.  At the end of the meal, a scent of THC emerged from the general direction of the kitchen.

Nearby, in Ghent, ample pickings of golden D’s and just up the road a distillery where some bad boys are turning the clocks back to make firewater.

And to top it all off, Obama is up 7%.

What a world.

The Albany Report: Part Two

Back to Albany, Visit #2, to drop off progeny and get her settled in.  The new digs are pre-war with high ceilings in a leafy urban neighborhood across the street from several very good bars and restaurants.  More bang for the buck when you leave the big cities.

Last night we went to Midtown Tap and Tea Room for pre-game Martinis.  Kathy, the weekend bar manager, ex-Brooklynite, was chill.  Great room, great drinks.

Then, rounding up everyone we knew, we went a few doors down to an Albany icon: The Fountain.  Old School pizza and a half and half, and we’re good.  Two bucks bought Marvin Gaye and Teddy Pendergrass on the jukebox.  Talk about old school.  The pizzas were unctuous; someone must own a dairy.  No need for so much cheese, but the kind of pies it’s hard not to plough through.  The half and halfs were fun: Baked slices of bread topped on one half with sausage and one half with meatballs.

Today’s mission: Bagels.  But from all the Internet postings, I think we may fail.  People praise Bruegger’s and Price Chopper.  Uh oh.  That’s not happening.

More successful will be the sub purchase for the plane ride to Philadelphia later this afternoon.  Albany has an impressive Italian-American community and there are a few first-rate grocery stores.

Philadelphia?  Glad you asked.  Interviewing Chef Marc Vetri for a video.


The Albany Report

One would think that after so many years of living in the East that I would have visited Albany, New York before this Friday.  Not so.  At last, I made it to the capital of The Empire State.

Prolonging the arrival, I took Route Two from Boston, through rural Massachusetts and Upstate, where, at the border, a northern vista near a hairpin turn showed me 60 miles towards Vermont.  So beautiful it was startling.

Albany seems to have a healthy mix of varying hues.  Burmese, African Americans, white folks, etc.  The architecture is simply lovely and at places dramatic as is often the case in capitals.  Lots of 1920s brick row houses, old school restaurants.

We found a wonderful place: New World Bistro.  A wildly eclectic menu served up by tat covered, cheery wait staff in a bar like atmosphere.  I’d go back in a heartbeat.  Sweetbreads with Egyptian hummus, a good, flatbread pizza, stewed beef with plantain.

The next A.M. it was buttered bialys at All Good Bakers where Elizabeth and Nick hold court.  A garlic scape scone.  All Good is right.  Dude with the Cat in the Hat tat on his right forearm was chill.

Followed by a long stroll on Delaware Avenue.  Must once have been an Italian neighborhood: A fabulous bakery, three first rate grocers.  Forty-five minutes later and I had eggplant ravioli and pappardelle.

It’s a city that attracts me.

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What A Busy Week!

I’ve skimmed through the tireless self-promotion of a number of acquaintances, peered at the T.V. screens posted at my gym showing the senators deciding (or not), fried the tofu, walked the dogs, and heard and seen hundreds of acorns plummeting and squirrels racing across power lines and the tops of fences.

Yes, it’s over.  Summer’s over, no time for regrets.  Put air in the tires, fire up the GPS.

Around these parts, the dogs can’t wait to take in the scents.

It’s true and they are correct: Change is literally in the air and on the ground.

On a personal level, a very personal level, and I don’t know if I should be saying this, but, hey, here goes: The flat, pressed tofu I’ve been buying and frying has changed my life.  Toss these babies in corn starch and flour, fry fast in crazy hot Canola, dry on a rack, and toss with spicy red pepper sauce, hoisin, and toasted sesame seeds, and, folks, your taste buds will cheer.  This is: CHANG SHING TOFU, based in Cambridge, MA, and truly the product rules.

Meanwhile, up ahead, on the horizon, I see Betony, Albany, and Tokyo.

One thing leads to another.

#1 with a bullet

Lots of PR yesterday on, “Back of the House,” from Dallas to Albany, from Boston to New York City.  Eater called it, “scintillating,” and, “juicy,” (which I found odd and ironic as these were the exact same words I used to describe my girlfriend in high school), and the columnist in Texas was positively salivating.

The result?

This morning we hit #1 in Kindle, Professional Cooking, and, folks?  That’s pre-sales.  The book is not even out yet.

#18 in Books in the same category.

#50 in Gastronomy (like astronomy, but less celestial).

If life is contextual, and it is, the current context has a certain appeal.


And in today’s top story…

Oh, my goodness.  “Scintillating and juicy,” reports today’s National Eater.  Albany Times Union!  KRCW!

Back of the House hits the charts!

Is it just a rumor?

Or is Beyonce going to talk about “Back of the House” @ HT?

And this just in: We hit #3 tonight in Kindle Professional Cooking:

Auto-delivered wirelessly
Back of the House: The Secret Life of a Restaurant
Scott Haas
Release Date: February 5, 2013
Available for Pre-order

Could be…



Three for Three

Unusually, because I am far more often in the house cooking, I found myself in three cute, little restaurants over the past 24 hours.

All cost about the same–$25-30 per person with drinks, tax, and tip–and all were pretty good.

The first was BACK DECK on West Street in downtown Boston.  Lively room, packed with Emerson and Suffolk students, it’s basically a bar that sells food.  Adequate wings and an adequate turkey burger and one cold gin Martini per person and, $47 later, we’re good to go see Seven Psychopaths.  Spiff up any neighborhood bar and it’d be the same.  Oddly, this place has a real chef, Paul Sussman, who, back to the room, feels the need to devote energy to expediting this food.

Next up was SIDE STREET CAFE, in Florence, MA, where chef Patrick Shannon cooks really good food.  We’re talking turkey pot pie, BLTs, Reubens, sausage and kale soup, and burgers.  Great room, local crowd, light years better than the dinner the night before.

Finally, it was GASTROPUB in Albany, NY: Terrific, thin pizza with soppressata from Andy’s, a local deli that is first-rate, burgers with freshly ground beef, a pork ragu with rigatoni, and a salad of local, golden beets.  About eight beers on tap.  Heaven, really.