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Food culture – and Restaurant Week – offers newcomer novel welcome

Food culture – and Restaurant Week – offers newcomer novel welcome

New Gazette reporter surveys local food scene
Food culture – and Restaurant Week – offers newcomer novel welcome
Another Restaurant Week in Schenectady comes to a close.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber/Gazette Photographer

SCHENECTADY — Food provides a reliable roadmap for exploring new places.

That’s typically been my M.O. as I’ve touched down in new cities, whether venturing down Beijing alleyways in the search for the iconic steamed buns that have fueled generations of working stiffs.

Or watching fishermen pluck octopus out of the sea in South Korean resort towns to serve them moments later, still writhing, along with giant kettles of milky rice-based liquor. 

The exoticism took a backseat during my tenure in the Champlain Valley in the Adirondack foothills, which was home to a no-less-exciting locavore movement with an exponentially-expanding flotilla of farms, brewers, artisan cheesemakers and other food-related upstarts. 

So having relocated to the Electric City three weeks ago, I jumped at the chance to use Schenectady Restaurant Week, which concludes Sunday, as a chance to not only beat down the pavement and explore the city, but also to survey the local food scene. 

Also online: Restaurant week adds late-winter bump to food scene

Since relocating, I’ve engaged in a crowdsourcing effort for food recommendations.

Some have surfaced repeatedly, places like Newest Lunch, where my colleague took me on Tuesday. 

There, we scarfed down two “loaded” dogs – onions, meat sauce, mustard – and creamed chicken soup amidst a buzzing lunchtime crowd, where city officials rubbed shoulders with the hoi polloi.

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Hot dogs are a new – and welcome – addition to my repertoire. 

Others are like old friends.

Since moving back to upstate New York in 2013, I’ve gravitated back to the region’s rich food culture – perhaps owing to an ancestral pull – where I rediscovered regional specialties, most of them Italian, and just about all centered in Utica: 

Pasticciotti, or “pusties,” at Florentine on Bleecker Street.

Utica greens at Chesterfield. 

Tomato pie everywhere. 

My first-ever food stop in Schenectady was Cappiello Foods, where I emerged armed with soppressata, cannolis and their in-house sauce. 

And despite the drumbeat of recommendations, it wasn’t until this week I had a chance to visit Civitello’s and Perreca’s Bakery, where I satiated my sweet tooth – and got a lead on the former’s eggplant sandwiches.

Each of these visits has been in-and-out affairs. 

Schenectady Restaurant Week provided an opportunity to sit and dine in places that I likely wouldn’t do so while flying solo. 

Have fun with it, encouraged my editor. 

Zen Asian Fusion Bistro on State Street was a natural choice, where this week’s set menu offered a blend of Chinese, Japanese and Thai fare.

I opted for straight Japanese, selecting edamame, or soybeans lightly dusted with salt, for an appetizer. 

The entrée was hibachi salmon, which I washed down with a Uinta Hop Nosh IPA and fried green tea ice cream. 

Fusion, indeed. 

I was in good company at the neon-backlit bar with a lone wolf slugging sake.   

Verdict?

Worth it.

The set menu gave me enough ammo for a repeat visit. 

While Zen was a result of scratching that East Asian itch, the allure of a second restaurant became unavoidable through my crowdsourcing effort. 

The venue was bursting at the seams with diners on Wednesday night and I was sent packing. 

As I was trying to determine a replacement, I stumbled past Canvas, Corks & Forks, the paint-and-sip venue on Union Street.

Inside, owner Thomaura O'Sullivan was in a whirlwind of activity preparing for the night.

Before long, each of the paint-speckled perches was occupied by amateur artists. 

“Try not to dip your paint brushes in your drinks,” she told the room. 

Attendees noshed on four different types of macaroni and cheese from their “Mac N’ Cheese Bar” – including a variety called O’Shrooms.

Also online: Restaurant week adds late-winter bump to food scene

Before long, O’Sullivan lulled the room into a hypnotic groove, paintbrushes whirring away as classic soul songs pulsated overhead.

Why go anywhere else? 

I stuck around.

As the room painted, I spoke with her husband, Bob Orminski, who offered a glowing endorsement of Wolf Hollow Brewing Company, the Glenville-based craft brewer who he said makes some of the region’s best craft beers. 

About a third of the attendees raised their hands when asked if they were there for Restaurant Week. 

Obviously, I counted myself among them. 

By the time I left two hours later, I did so with a litany of new recommendations, and a new appreciation for the paint-and-sip culture, proving inspiration – and future roadmaps – can be found in the most unlikely of places.

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