Thursday, December 13, 2007

Yono's Tasting Menu

The cold weather has gotten us into a rut of staying in, making some simple food, and snuggling up to a movie on tv. That's not a bad thing, but doesn't do very much for holiday spirit or eating adventurously. Having survived a couple of tough weeks of work, and too many nights of humdrum pork chops and rice, we shook ourselves out of our pseudo-hibernation coma with a fantastic meal at Yono's in Albany.
Reviewers have only great things to say about the restaurant, and when the local Wine Enthusiast Meetup Group chose it for the December Meetup, we were in. Everything on the menu sounded great, and we almost chose the Indonesian feast (next time, for sure!)but settled instead on the four course tasting with paired wines. The service was graceful and composed, and the food was absolutely delicious. The wines were nicely chosen, as well, and served just before the course, so we could taste them before tasting the food, then again along with the food. We ate every delicious morsel of sea bass, duck breast, lamb chops and pork tenderloin. I'd have to say the most memorable were the lamb chops marinated and served with a Pernod-curry sauce that was quite a new and delicious combination of flavors for me. Dessert was saved for last, and although we didn't quite finish all four(!) selections, they were lovely, though not quite as finessed as the other parts of the meal.
Here's the roundup of our tasting menu:

Amuse Bouche: Roasted Tomato and Truffle soup

First Course: Sea Bass with Lemon and Basil Sabayon over Fontina Risotto
Wine Pairing: Domaine Wachau Gruner Veltliner (Austria)
Second Course: Muscovy Duck Breast with Pumpkin Pannacotta and Sweet Potato Mash
Wine Pairing: Vasse Felix Shiraz (Australia) (This was our favorite wine of the night)
Final Course: Pernod-Curry Lamb Chops and Jasmine Rice, Pork Tenderloin with Citrus Barbecue Sauce, Chili Sauce drizzle and Steamed Baby Bok Choi
Wine Pairing: Bordeaux (sorry I didn't catch the chateau.)

Dessert: New York Cheesecake, Tiramisu, Bourbon Pecan Pie and Chocolate Rendezvous
Pairing: St. Supery Moscato 2006 (California)

Now that I look at the last five items, it seems like there might be a little too much drizzling of sauce going on. I can only imagine the rows of the squirt bottles back in the kitchen. We got a nice sampling of the menu's highlights, and we're eager to go back and try more of the unusual items (among the daily specials were a calf's liver appetizer and an Indonesian Bouillabaise). As soon as we can refill our wallets, that is!

Sunday, November 11, 2007


We’re new here, but one thing we are already sure about is that fresh fish and seafood are not among the local specialties of the New York Capital region. Apples: of course. Winter Squashes: certainly. Italian Pastries: Oh my, yes. Seafood: what’s that? We haven’t really been able to find a good fish purveyor, although decent wild salmon occasionally makes its way to our Price Chopper. Is this a sign of the days to come, as quality fish stocks dwindle due to unsustainable practices? Maybe one is better off staying away from fish, contaminated as they may be by PCB’s and heavy metals.

Sometimes, though, we get a hankering for a little raw fish, and ‘sushi restaurant’ goes right into our Google Maps search engine. Local favorites that we have tried include Mari’s on Van Vranken in Schenectady and Hiro’s on Central Avenue in Albany. But our current favorite is a relatively new place on Union St. in Schenectady: Mr. Wasabi. To be fair, one of our colleagues deserves credit for recommending the place to us (and to the rest of you).

The storefront is narrow but the restaurant has an elongated layout that allows for the 32 seats to be well spaced rather than cramped. Rather than the traditional paper screens and woodblock prints, the walls are decorated with abstract acrylic paintings, and the sushi bar looks right in on the open kitchen. The furnishings are all still shiny and new, which make sense for a restaurant that’s only four months old.

The menu goes far beyond sushi to include hibachi-grilled meats, tempura and noodle soups and stir fries. We were especially impressed with the variety of appetizers on the menu. We skipped the miso soup ($1.95) and went for Hamaguri (clam) Soup ($3.95, shown below) and Eggplant Yaki ($4.95). The clam soup had 3 clams in the shell in hot strained clam soup broth, and the eggplant was sliced, grilled in the skin and topped with a lightly sweetened miso sauce. Both are excellent appetizers, whose brininess whets ones appetite for the freshness of the raw fish to come.

The sushi menu includes all of the expected rolled (maki) and pressed (nigiri) sushi options, as well as some more creative Chef’s Specials, such as the Mango Special (tuna, avocado, and crab topped with mango) and the Tri-Color Roll (salmon, avocado, and ginger inside, topped with tuna, yellowtail, and sweet chili sauce), both $11.95.

We went with a ‘regular’ sushi platter ($14.95, above) and a rainbow roll ($9.95, below). The sushi was excellent, made from well-prepared, fresh-tasting, good quality fish. The avocado in the rainbow roll was ripe and firm, and the sushi rice was cooked and seasoned just right. We felt like we couldn’t really ask for more at this price level.

As for dessert, we were surprised by a green tea cheesecake which was really a layer cake with green-tea mousse($5.50), and a scoop of tempura-fried red-bean ice cream served flambe($5.00).

Although better than most sushi-restaurant desserts, they offered much more to look at than to enjoy eating. Our advice: skip dessert.

Rather than traditional Japanese ceramics, the orders are served in trendy square bowls and oblong platters, suggesting that this restaurant plans to take a youthful and fresh approach to sushi, unlike most places that try to evoke Old Japan through d├ęcor and atmosphere. This was confirmed to us by the peppy Japanese pop music that started to play over the sound system that had been silent until we received our desserts. As we paid, our server asked us to be sure to come back again to try items from the revised menu that will be appearing soon. I can confidently say that we’ll be taking that suggestion, and we’ll post an update when we do. For now, we’re especially attracted to the $8.95 lunch special.

Mr. Wasabi is located at 1671 Union St. in Schenectady, and is open 11:30 am- 2:30 pm for lunch/ 4:30 pm-10:30 pm for dinner Monday- Saturday, and noon to 10pm on Sunday.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Beer Tasting Menu at Nicole's Bistro

Woo hoo! One of us turned thirty years of age last Thursday, a day which coincided with a special night at Nicole's Bistro in downtown Albany. As soon as we found out about the special event, which promised to demonstrate successful pairings of beer with French-style dishes, we made our reservation and smiled in happy anticipation. You see, we love good beer and especially good French food.

Nicole herself was waiting to receive all of the guests and suggest a cocktail to the early arrivals (which included us). The unseasonably warm weather allowed us to relax a little while on the patio. The birthday celebrant enjoyed a lovely Kir Royale: champagne with a bit of blackcurrant liqueur. Passed hors d'ouevres were complimentary but rather ordinary, except for a tasty toasted baguette slice with salmon mousse and capers. Nicole told us that she planned to wait for about 45 minutes after the dinner's advertised start to actually serve food, so that everyone would have time to be seated. At long last, we were seated in the upstairs half of the restaurant. The feeling of the restaurant was cozy and unfussy, with exposed wooden ceiling beams and simple artwork along the lines of the French Bistro theme.

We were seated at a table for 8 with 6 people whom we had never met, making it feel a little like a wedding reception, but our neighbors were amiable and tolerant of our blog-photo taking, so no complaints there. On with the food!

Starter pairing with Spaten Oktoberfest:
Spicy Shrimp and Corn Bisque OR Alsatian Tarte with Caramelized Onions and Gruyere Cheese

The bisque was delicious and creamy while not heavy, with large pieces of shrimp, but unfortunately lacked the promised spiciness. The onions of the tart also lacked any caramelization, so that was a disappointment. We had been expecting a true Alsatian Flammekuche, but this was definitely not it.

Spaten Oktoberfest is quite light in weight with malty-sweet flavors that dominate the medium hops, and it's rounded out with roasted nutty flavor on the finish. Both the bisque and tart were sweeter than the beer, which brought out the beer's roasted nuttiness. The hops were somewhat diminished in taste once we started eating our creamy starters.

Main Course, paired with Kronenbourg 1664:
Classic Choucroute Garnie -- Sauerkraut with Assorted Sausages, Smoked Pork, and Steamed New Potatoes or
Carbonnade of Filet Mignon Tips and Portabella Mushrooms served with Rosti Potatoes

Both the choucroute and carbonnade dishes were spot on and scrumptious, with the exception of the rosti potatoes, which had turned bitter and gray before cooking. The rich carbonnade sauce made up for this error, though. With the choucroute, the bratwurst and weisswurst were unsurprising but good, and the smoked salted pork could have been more smoky, but there was a lovely slice of sausage resembling a large-diameter kielbasa that made up for any lack of flavor in the rest.
The beer distributor's sales rep was on hand to clarify that, in this case, the light, mild beer was meant to cleanse the palate between bites of the heavy main courses, rather than complement any particular flavors. In this case, the carbonnade and the beer didn't complement each other so well-the Spaten Oktoberfest might have been more apt. However, we found that the salty and acid flavors in the sausage and choucroute were very well matched to refreshment with the beer.

Dessert, paired with Lindeman's Framboise Belgian lambic.
Gateau Pithivier - Almond Raspberry Puff Pastry Tart or Plum and Apricot Galette

Ah, dessert. Lindeman's Framboise is beer, but it doesn't taste like it. Lambics are different from lagers and ales because they are fermented by wild yeasts rather than added yeast, therefore developing more sour flavors and also because fruits, raspberries in this case, are often added for flavoring and sweetness. The beer alone could have stood in as a dessert, but in this case we were asked to evaluate a dessert with either a matching flavor of raspberry filling or a dessert with complementary apricot and plum flavors. Both desserts were good, except for the fact that the apricots in the galette were dried rather than fresh, and both types of pastry crusts were delicate and tasty. For us, the winning match was the Gateau Pithivier because it seemed like more of a unified dessert course when matched with the similar beer. The role of complementary flavor and texture was played by the cream sauce to balance sweetness and tartness in the raspberry gateau. The sauce with the galette was a deep brown caramel and cream sauce whose caramelization contrasted too much with the beer.

We had a great time tasting the food and beer, as well as meeting some interesting people who sat near us, but we felt a little bit let down by the atmosphere of the restaurant. It was noisy and cramped, and we would have been hopeless in the case of a fire emergency. However, we were glad not to be any closer to a musician downstairs with a keyboard that was playing and singing awful muzak that ranged from the Monster Mash to It's Raining Men. The fact that Nicole's is willing to try to convince diners that beers can be paired with fine foods shows that the chef and owner are willing to take risks on new trends in dining. So, we think that, with some tasteful updates, Nicole's could become a great contemporary restaurant experience. That said, having experienced such crowded and noisy conditions, we're not really tempted to go back to an event dinner such as this one, even though the price was reasonable, $45 pp, beer included, plus tax and tip.

We were indeed quite inspired to try our own beer and food pairings at home. Watch for them on this blog!