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Friday, July 12, 2019

Delicious Hole in the Wall

From the Food Vault Dept.: I had the pleasure of lunching in Beirut the other day. Not the city in Lebanon, however: the restaurant in Troy, NY. I’ve visited several times before and after reviewing it for Metroland Magazine in 2011, but it’s been a few years since I last stopped by. It’s still going strong, still helmed by the indefatigable George Hajnasr. Some prices have gone up a little since the report below, but it’s still crazily economical. (You can find the current menu here.)


MY FAMILY’S CIVILIAN (non-reviewing) dining strategy is to seek, as I indelicately put it, “Some hole in the wall.” Which is understood to mean a place where the food is interesting and the people friendly. Beirut fulfills this like a dream. But like any dream, it’s not one over which you should expect to have complete control.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The former Al-Baraki, it’s a tiny eatery on Troy’s River Street, about the only Lebanese restaurant that remains in the region. It’s small enough to boast only a half-dozen tables, with some outdoor seats available this time of year. Once you’re settled in, however, be prepared to spend some time there.

It’s pretty much a one-man show, that man being George Hajnasr, who bought the place from its previous owner at the beginning of 2009. Hajnasr, trained as an artist and architect, had a hard time finding work in his chosen fields when he emigrated, so he pursued what was more of an everyday activity: preparing and serving food. “These are all family recipes,” he explained when we looked at the menu. “We are doing what was done here before, but I have made a few changes.”

Monday, July 08, 2019

It Keeps On Rolling Along

AS SOON AS THE OVERTURE STARTS and you hear the banjo in the rhythm section, you know you’re off to a very different era. The Glimmerglass Festival kicked off its 2019 season last Saturday with “Show Boat,” which is one of the finest productions of any show that I’ve seen anywhere, which covers a lot of time and spaces. There’s long been a phony divide between opera and musical theater, but this company, under artistic director Francesca Zambello’s guidance, has proven that no such thing exists.

Justin Hopkins with members of the ensemble.
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
What makes this production such a success is the combination of top-notch talent and a total commitment to the integrity of the piece. And a potentially troublesome piece it is.

It was troublesome when it premiered, nearly a century ago. Adapted from a novel by Edna Ferber, this tale of love and loss in a theatrical setting already made it an excellent vehicle for the stage, but it also addressed racial issues that Broadway wasn’t accustomed to dealing with.

The showboat is the Cotton Blossom, arriving in Natchez on a pleasant day in 1890. Leading lady Julie La Verne (Alyson Cambridge) is revealed by a jealous suitor to be bi-racial, thus (according to then-current law) invalidating her marriage to Steve Baker (Charles H. Eaton). Although they cleverly dodge the miscegenation issue, she is legally prohibited from performing, thus opening the way for young Magnolia Hawks (Lauren Snouffer) to take over the leads. This is excellent news for her father, Cap’n Andy (Lara Teeter), who runs both the boat and its productions, and anathema to her mother, Parthy Ann (Klea Blackhurst), who maintains a Puritan sense of showbiz as sin.

Friday, July 05, 2019

Boxed In

From the Racing Vault Dept.: The Saratoga Race Track is about to open for another season, swelling the small city into an urban blowfish as the out-of-towners cram in to get their betting thrills. New box seats and other amenities were installed last year, so the piece below is probably even more out of date. But it’s still a struggle to get those premium seats.


THE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE is here to welcome you; the New York Racing Association will make it as easy as possible (traffic notwithstanding) for you to get to the track. But behind the well-wishers’ smiles is a fact of the track that reminds us why they’re them and we’re not.

Photo: New York Racing Association
You’re not likely to get into a clubhouse box seat at the track this summer unless you’ve got some very good connections. Track wisdom says that someone usually has to die before a box is released, and then it usually gets handed down with the estate.

In fact, you can spend years at the track without really noticing that it’s there. We of the proletariat are deflected from its hallowed aisles by a track design that sends us to bleachers and grandstand. But the box seats afford the choicest view, straddling the finish line, just out of reach of the dust.

Monday, July 01, 2019

Ellen’s Quest

“I LOVE SWEETS,” are the first words we hear from Ellen West, as sung by soprano Jennifer Zetlan. “Heaven would be dying on a bed of vanilla ice cream.” The tune is not pretty. She’s dressed in a heavy button-down duster, the colorless drab of the sanitarium she occupies. It’s a powerful moment both in terms of its musical setting and the fact that everyone observing this scene can sympathize in one way or another.

Lidiya Yankovskaya, Keith Phares, and
Jennifer Zetlan | Photo by Gary David Gold
In 1944, 23 years after a former patient committed suicide, a noted Swiss shrink published an account of her case and assigned her the pseudonym “Ellen West.” She was 33 when she poisoned herself. She was obsessed with food, enough so to be initially diagnosed as anorexic, but her obsessions also included unhappiness with her gender and her physical self.

Thirty years later, Frank Bidart fashioned a lengthy narrative poem from the West saga in which the eponymous character is given her own voice even as the story is shifted in time, evidently to the mid-1950s, to allow West to reflect on the career of Maria Callas, who also was troubled by weight issues.

The poem resonated deeply with composer Ricky Ian Gordon, culminating in yesterday’s world-premiere performance of the opera he fashioned from Bidart’s text. Opera Saratoga commissioned and is presenting this premiere in collaboration with Beth Morrison Projects, which sends it to New York City in six months and thereafter on tour throughout the country.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Hots to Trot

From the Food Vault Dept.: An entertainment arena opened in Albany, NY, in 1990. Originally monikered the Knickerbocker Arena, fiscal sponsorship deals have lured it through different names. I wrote a series of articles about it for the Schenectady Gazette in advance of its opening, two of which are here. Here’s an entertaining third, which was supposed to be about the foodservice at the arena, provided by what was then known as ARA Leisure Services, and now is the behemoth Aramark, which provides the overpriced, mediocre food at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, much (if not all; it’s hard to find confirmation) of the SUNY college system, and many other such places around the world. Here’s the note I attached to the piece when I submitted it: “The outfit providing the in-house food at the Knick Arena was singularly uncooperative in providing information, never returning calls and getting downright belligerent by Friday. I offer the following as a much more enjoyable substitute.” The lede, by the way, is complete fiction.


WHEN MY FATHER FIRST TOOK ME to the Saratoga Racetrack I was much too young to appreciate the subtleties at work. On the one hand there was the beauty of the racehorse itself to be considered; on the other, Dad's deft maneuver to get out from under Mom’s financial supervision and fling a few dollars luckwards – all in the name of my education.

I fear that most of his money went to shutting me up, however, because I discovered something that consoled me then and has since been a mainstay of my sporting and entertainment travels: concession stands. While to some people “hot dogging” is a form of ski travel, I use it to describe my tendency to eat my way from event to event. I have hot dogged from ballpark to theme park across the country, and I look forward to doing so in Albany next month.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Nine-Miles Delicious

WHAT SHOULD BE THE COST of a healthy meal? We know that it’s going to be more expensive than what we’re accustomed to paying, whether in supermarket or restaurant, although that’s a reality that I, at least, try to hide from. You can see the difference in your fruits and vegetables, but it’s the pesticide-laden produce that sparkles so gorgeously.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The camaraderie at a farmers market eases the pain. It’s less painful to slip those extra bucks across the counter when the amiable person behind it is the one who grew your lettuce. It’s more abstract at a restaurant, of course, where higher food costs are reflected in a higher bill, and you’re also paying for the ambiance and service.

But when you see the setup at Saratoga Apple, you’ll realize right away that you’re going to get a bargain. And you are. And you do. Twenty-five dollars for a four-course meal is an exceptional value for the home-grown fare that you get. The fact that it’s not served on anything fancy actually complements the rustic feel of the event.

9 Miles East is the farm that has been serving weekend dinners at Saratoga Apple. Not surprisingly, that’s also its distance from Saratoga Springs. “My wife and I started 9 Miles East in 2005,” says co-owner Gordon Saks, “with 29 acres and a commercial catering kitchen. Now we have 35 employees.”

Friday, June 21, 2019

Saratoga Stately

From the Vault Dept.: Thirty years ago, the Saratoga-area newspapers went into puff-mode overdrive with pieces about the city and its racetrack during the summer, and I contributed a few of those pieces. The one below was part of an improbable photo spread – improbable because nothing dims the charm of a house portrait more than black-and-white newsprint, Garry Brown’s photographic prowess notwithstanding. You can find current views of the properties mentioned on Google Maps Street View. I note that all of the addresses given in the piece (and the original captions, which I didn’t write but which I reproduce here) omit the “north” in what should be North Broadway; I have no idea why this happened.


UNTIL FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT demonstrated that you could remove walls and even hide the front door and still have a good-looking house, American architecture featured a continual reinterpretation of things European.

QUEEN ANNE: The Kilmer House, 722 Broadway,
was built in 1887 and is a fine example of the Queen Anne
style with its many varied features – turrets and gables,
spindles and bands, wood, terra cotta, stained glass,
and differing kinds of roof. Photo by Garry Brown.
Old houses in Saratoga Springs offer an amazing array of styles, reflecting the changing tastes of an affluent turn-of-the-century town that was lucky enough to suffer a financial decline during the recent decades when similar cities razed such buildings.

One of the pleasures of a day or two in the city is the chance to perform old-house detective work and identify the styles that were once so fashionable. In the realm of Victorian design, this city offers an example of just about every notable style – and these examples have even rated a mile's worth of North Broadway houses to gain National Register of Historic Places recognition.

Two architects who contributed heavily to Saratoga's 19th century look of opulence were R. Newton Brezee and Samuel Gifford Slocum, both of whom were born in New York State and maintained Saratoga offices.