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Monday, March 28, 2016

Churrasco: At Your Service

YOU WILL HAVE SPENT THE DAY working hard – herding cattle, perhaps – and you’ll come to the table feeling ravenous. Even then, dinner will unfold like a dream, with an endless series of servers stopping at your table to slice a succession of succulent meats. More filet mignon? Here you go. Parmesan-crusted pork loin? Don’t mind if I do. Leg of lamb? Sausage? It keeps on arriving for as long as you signal your readiness to keep on eating.

Slicing the picanha.
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
This is a churrascaria, a type of restaurant that originated in Brazil, with tableside carving from skewers (rodizio) of a slow-cooked variety of meatstuffs (churrasco). Add to that an imaginative, well-tended salad bar that includes soup, plenty of vegetables, and Brazilian antipasti, and you’re in as good a buffet situation as you’re likely to find. Texas de Brazil is an international chain of more than 40 such eateries, with an Albany, NY, unit in Crossgates Mall not far from Lord & Taylor.

Evandro Caregnato, the chain’s culinary director, shares his personal history with the cuisine and over 70 recipes in his book Churrasco (Gibbs Smith), and he’s inviting you to cook these dishes at home, secure in the knowledge that you’ll still keep coming back to the restaurant.

That is, after all, where your expectations are set, and a recent visit to the Albany branch of Texas de Brazil set mine high. The restaurant sits on a corner space that offers the mall equivalent of patio dining. Inside is a bar area with a generous wine display; in the dining room’s center sprawls the rectangular salad bar, topped with a huge, colorful flower arrangement. It was an uncrowded Thursday evening, but the staff showed nothing but eagerness as were greeted and shown to our table, taking a route that allowed us to see the grilling area.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Last Suppers

From the Communal Table Dept.: It’s time to celebrate betrayal, death, resurrection, rabbits, and eggs, while one considers carefully what foodstuffs one might be consuming. Suppose you had certain knowledge that your next meal would be your last? I pondered that in this piece from three and a half years ago, written to celebrate the End of the World, according to a misguided interpretation of the Mayan calendar.


“Just coffee and a slice of toast, thank you. Oh, and perhaps a few grapes. I hate to disappoint the newspaper-reading public, but it'll be too early for the conventional hearty breakfast. The appointment is at 8, is it not?” – Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini, "Kind Hearts and Coronets."

MAZZINI IS ABOUT TO BE HANGED FOR MURDER, and therefore chooses the meal with the confidence that it will be his last. Not many of us enjoy that privilege, succumbing to unexpected endings or wasting away to a point where the food choice probably courses through a tube.

But with the confidence that tomorrow (Friday) spells the end, you’re no doubt looking over menus and ingredients. It’s difficult to find precedent. Most of the last meals we know of come from death row, and range from the artistic simplicity of murderer Victor Feguer’s request for a single unpitted olive to murderer-rapist John Wayne Gacy’s banquet of a dozen fried shrimp, a bucket of original recipe KFC, a side of french fries and a pound of strawberries.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Fie on Goodness!

The State of the Stage Dept.: Three years ago, I Metroland-reviewed the Glimmerglass Opera’s production of “Camelot,” but denied you, the vast blog-reading public, a look at the piece. This is rectified below.


THE LANCELOT PROBLEM keeps the Arthurian writers and scholars on their toes. According to Thomas (“Tom of Warwick”) Malory, he slavishly follows the Pentecostal Oath; by the time T.H. White gets hold of him, he’s initially ugly and undesirable. And Lancelot’s godlike goodness doesn’t keep him from pursuing an adulterous relationship that kills 100,000 knights as it brings down a kingdom.

Andriana Chuchman and David Pittsinger
Photo by Karli Cadel.
As librettist Alan Jay Lerner wrestled a chunk of White’s The Once and Future King into stage-musical shape, he made the dramatically satisfying choice to introduce Lancelot as a self-absorbed buffoon (“C’est moi!”), which unfortunately sets up a trail of inconsistencies to the big ballad (“If Ever I Would Leave You”) and the let’s-get-it-over-with finale.

What’s needed is a strong actor with a strong voice who can radiate charm, and Nathan Gunn gives us all that as well as a goofily appropriate French accent. “Camelot” well fits the Glimmerglass mission to revisit classic golden-age musicals that are strong on score and, if Lerner and Loewe didn’t hit another “My Fair Lady” home run with this one, they created a set of songs that became part of America’s musical consciousness during the Kennedy administration, with a cast album that pushed Bob Newhart out of the number-one slot.

Friday, March 18, 2016

In Memoriam: Jackie Baldwin

Beat the Drum Slowly Dept.: The news of the death of chef Jackie Baldwin is too recent as I write this to include much detail, but I at least can reflect upon her legacy by sharing two pieces I wrote about her, 17 years apart. Most recent was an overview of dining at RPI, which she helmed for a baker’s dozen years, and you’ll find that here. In 1991, my wife and I visited (the long-gone) L’Ecole Encore on Albany’s Fuller Road, where Jackie impressed us with her excellent interpretation of some classic French fare.


Jackie Baldwin
IF YOU’RE IN THE RIGHT MOOD, you can be pleased fairly easily. Bad burgers and watery beer seem great on a lovely mountainside with the right company. But when Susan insisted we go out to dinner one particular evening last week, I was in no mood to do so and knew that nothing would seem pleasant.

Besides, L’Ecole Encore would require me to sit in a dark, stuffy room and eat overly Frenchy stuff. With heavy sauces. And on a warm, summery night, I’m in the mood for cold soups and less-demanding entrees. “We’re going anyway,” said Susan.

I’m glad she insisted.

Did you know that L’Ecole has an outdoor dining deck? I didn’t, but was happy to take the host’s suggestion that we sit there. I’ve sneered at such accouterments in the past, having overlooked some pretty ratty parking lots in the name of al fresco dining, but L’Ecole Encore’s view of Stuyvesant Plaza is masked by trees and looks especially nice when the setting sun is ablaze.

No silly fruit drinks available – “We don’t have a blender at the bar,” said Mark, our superb waiter, but we ordered a half-bottle of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay from the generous selection of wines and regarded a menu (and specials) that included two of our favorite soups – pistou and gazpacho.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Here’s the Beef

From the Deli Dept.: Three years ago at around this time I wrote about Helmbold’s Market and Old World Provisions, and it’s been my source of corned beef and pastrami ever since. In fact, there’s a huge slab of corned beef brisket in the oven as I write this.


THEY’RE AT THE PEAK of corned-beef craziness right now, so busy churning out our favorite St. Patrick’s Day dinner that even the executives have donned cap and gown to work the processing line.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Thus it was that Ross Shuket, a company vice president, was wearing a sanitary overcoat, hairnet and gloves when he met me recently at Helmbold’s Market in Troy. “As you can see,” he said, “corned beefs are coming right off the line. This morning, full truckloads of meat came in, by the end of the day, full truckloads of the product will go out.” We were peering through a window onto the production floor, which seemed to be a blur of slabs of pink.

Corning beef is a process of curing the meat in brine, the production of which has been stepped up here for the past couple of months. “We take the briskets or the rounds from the packer,” says Shuket, “and trim it to our specs. Then it goes into a pumping room where we put it through a water-injection process. It cures overnight. It’s our proprietary flavors that make it special.”

The market is located around the back of a warehouse and processing plant located in a residential area off Campbell Ave. The store has been there for nearly 50 years, a neighborhood-style deli that has been serving generations of loyal patrons.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Old Middle

From the Vault Dept.: Incorporating music into a non-musical play is a challenge that was well met by Susan Dworkin in “The Old Mezzo,” which had an excellent production in Pittsfield a few years ago. Let’s revisit my Metroland review.


AT THE FUNERAL of renowned conductor Pauletta Kripalova-Canti, the absence of her famous mezzo-soprano friend Alyssa was noted by several of Alyssa’s students, who summon the courage to query their instructor about it as a master class is about to begin. The answer is in a script the students were handed earlier, a script they enact as this framing device gives way to a story of indifference and betrayal.

Eileen Schuyler (foreground) and cast.
Photo by Joseph Schuyler
Susan Dworkin’s multi-layered play examines the too-common conflict between art and  regressive politics. It’s not a comfortable journey: the ugliness of the conflict is meted out slowly, setting up quick epiphany that climaxes the 85-minute, intermissionless piece. It’s also presented in a way that keeps us questioning, keeps us guessing. The students speak with contemporary tropes, yet the young men sport wing collars and black ties.

Alyssa speaks with an eastern European accent, which she maintains as her story unfolds, but the students – who play the roles of her parents and others – retain their today’s-America sounds, especially in the case of Kripalova-Canti, known as Pow (the radiant Elizabeth Donnelly), whose speech is almost jarringly filled with Valley Girl-ish sounds and phrases.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Stone Beginnings

From Deep in the Vault Dept.: From my inaugural year as Metroland’s restaurant reviewer, here’s my first stop at The Stone Ends, a place that flourished for a while under a variety of owners and chefs before slipping into a succession of less-ambitious guises, and then going dark. Which is a shame: it’s a quirky, charming place, which I also visited in 1989, 1991 and 2000.


THANKS TO 30 YEARS in the same location, Ralph Junco’s Stone Ends restaurant has achieved something available to none of the culinary youngsters: it has the redolence of a place where a lot of good food has been prepared, that “grandmother’s kitchen” kind of aroma.

Chef Roger Herweth. Photo by Drew Kinum
Lousy photocopy by me.
Which instantly brings me back to my own cooking days at a Connecticut restaurant with an even longer history but much the same scent - a nice Proustian assciation. Plus, there was Coleman Hawkins on the PA, his classic “Body and Soul” recording. Nice.

A trip to the Stone Ends is a trip back in time, of sorts – to a restaurant era that featured a large, meaty menu and perhaps a cocktail pianist; a product of the 1950s. Like a vintage car, it has stood a test of time to come back in style. This is a restaurant with fins, and proud of it.

Yes, the walls at either end of the large dining room are of mortared stone; the floor is flagstone, too. The ranch-style interior features orange lanterns, a decorating touch from another era. The carts and copper chafing dishes aren’t just, antiques - they’re treasures.

But something that’s very new about the place is the man in the kitchen. Executive chef Roger Herwerth has been there about six months, a graduate of the food-service program of SUNY at Cobleskill. He has taken the classic ‘50s menu and brought it into the ‘80s without resorting to nachos and fried potato skins: he emphasizes freshness and quality products.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The Music of the Maid

From the Slush Pile Dept.: Some pieces get lost in the pipeline. Here’s one I wrote for Metroland towards the end of 2012 but which never ran, although I included the CD set described below in my year-end Best Classical CDs roundup that year, and it continues to be a delight to revisit.


HAVING HIT ON THE PROFITABLE MODEL of presenting a single-themed, multi-CD set in attractive book form, tireless musicologist and conductor Jordi Savall continues to top himself with the often-arcane subject he’s able to cover in each successive release. On the heels of Mare Nostrum (“Our Sea”), itself a richly varied musical exploration of disparate Mediterranean voices comes his eighth such set, a tribute to the music of the time and place of Joan of Arc.

Unlike its predecessors, this program, spread across two CDs, follows a single narrative: in this case, the story of Joan’s visions, political activity and martyrdom, drawing from contemporaneous texts performed by a trio of actors interspersed (or overlapping) with the brilliantly realized music.

We follow Joan the Maid from her birth through the battle at Orléans (1429) and her trial and execution (1431), all of which took place before she was 20. The program then takes us through the finish of the Hundred Years War in 1453 and Joan’s “rehabilitation” three years later with a vigorous anti-English finale.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Winter Farmers Markets

From the Vault Dept.: I’m champing at the bit just as much as you to get those seeds in the ground, and the way we’ve been teased with hints of spring makes it no easier. But the farmers markets are carrying on, so let’s revisit my overview of the Albany-area scene from 2008.


IT’S MORE THAN GOURDS AND COLLARD GREENS. Winter produce is tough-skinned stuff, those spaceship-like spears of Brussels sprouts perhaps the most emblematic. And while it’s true that these are good things to eat and you celebrate the season by eating them, you’ll find much more than cold-weather comestibles at those farmers markets that choose to run through the winter.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson. These are among the all-local
ingredients that went into my 2008 Thanksgiving dinner.
The phenomenon of these markets has been considerable and impressive, not only offering consumers fresh, locally grown items but also presenting the growers themselves. And bakers. And cheesemakers. And craftspeople.

Nothing beats being able to admire a loaf of bread and while you’re learning its provenance. For some, an accurate ingredients list is vital. For some, there’s a wonderful sense of community in the act of eating locally grown and/or assembled stuff.

The number of local farmers markets has exploded, giving us an unprecedented warm-weather bounty. I’m sure you’ve seen it: booth after booth of vegetables, fruit, meat, cheese, honey and milk, along with artisan products like crafts, sauces, jam, clothing – anything made by hand.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Lovely, Lovely Ludwig Van

From the Vault Dept.: Dipping way back into my journalistic past, here’s a 1984 Metroland piece written under the pseudonym George Gordon, as I was signing my own name to pieces in the low-paying Albany Knickerbocker News, whose genius editor wanted me all to himself. Mr. Gordon needed to come up with an advance about Beethoven’s Ninth and chose to take a route other than that of the standard interview.


Beethoven in 1823
NOT SINCE WILD-EYED MALCOLM MACDOWELL committed acts of “ultraviolence” in Stanley Kubrick’s film “A Clockwork Orange” have we been treated to so much of (“Lovely lovely Ludwig van”) Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as this year has promised. A full series of the nine symphonies was performed at Tanglewood over the summer, the Ninth is scheduled with the Schenectady Symphony later in the season and tomorrow night (Friday) the Albany Symphony Orchestra opens its season with the piece.

A radical departure from his earlier eight symphonies in some respects, Beethoven’s Ninth is also a sort of summary of the composer’s genius. He introduced the use of soloists and chorus in a symphonic setting, and proved that such a work needn’t be confined to the half hour or so that was usual.

The Ninth was completed in 1824, at which point the composer was totally deaf – but not at all lacking in enterprise. He took it upon himself to arrange the premiere, a difficult prospect because Vienna had gone crazy for Rossini at this point, and Beethoven feared he couldn’t compete with the Italian, Hearing. of this, Beethoven’s friends got up an ornate petition begging him to present the work in Vienna (not Berlin, as Beethoven was considering).