Monday, July 18, 2011

Bistro Brunch Backfires

Call me crazy, and a traitor to the Albany food scene, but I had never been to New World Bistro Bar. I had heard awesome things about their loyalty to local ingredients and their willingness to pair strong flavors with head to tail ingredients like sweetbreads and blood sausage. I'd even cheered Ric Orlando on with the rest of the Capital Region when he pulled off a 36 spice Jerk Rub from memory on Chopped. But, I had never been.

Well, along came a friend due for a second baby and in need of a fancy shmancy last hurrah of a lunch out with the girls. We called ahead, reserved ahead and showed up at 12 for a Sunday brunch. Was the service phenomenal and accommodating? Absolutely. Did the food hit high notes with original combinations and strong spices? Surely. But there were so many dishes that we walked away from thinking,"This would be so good, if only...."

Truth? New World Bistro Bar packs a punch, but it doesn't land it.

For example: we started out our meal with Jalapeno Cheddar Biscuts with locally sourced Butter, Cage Pan Blackened Green Beans with Cajun Remoulade, Mimosas, and an Artisan Cheese Plate of Danish Blue, Fromage Blanc, a Vermont Aged Cheddar, Fig Jam, Spiced Rice Crackers and Tamari Almonds. All arrived promptly, green beans cooked perfectly crisp; the cheese and butter at precisely the right temperature.

The beans were so coated in spice that they overwhelmed the palate and the remoulade was not remoulade as I know it. A Cajun remoulade with its sweet spice would have been welcome and would have balanced the dish. Instead, we were served a sour bitter concoction, tasting of whole grain mustard mixed with Asian sweet and sour sauce. Those of us who were persistent in desperately wishing to enjoy the dish ended up scraping off spice onto our plates in huge black clumps.

The rolls were just fine, if too mild to pair with the green beans, and the butter was at the right temp. But, if we were looking for a starch to ease the pain from the heat and the jalapenos fell perfectly into the adage, "Misery loves company."

The dairy on the cheese plate also had the potential to ease our capsaicin woes. Unfortunately, the portions were simply too small to be sufficiently effective. The rice crackers were also spiced, not only depriving us of another potentially healing starch, but also contrasting horribly with the fig jam and the blue cheese choice.

The blue was Danish Blue. As Gustav puts it, Danish Blue is a pedestrian blue. All of the cheeses were mild and none could cut through the fig jam, let alone the crackers. In a previous life, I worked the cheese counter at HWFC for my volunteer hours on a weekly basis. So, I knew what the mark up on this $14 plate was. Any part of me which was still pleased by the dish was pretty resentful by this point.

I can sing the praises of the large arugula salad - it was fresh, delicious and crisp with roasted beets, orange sections, roasted almonds and nutty shaved parmesan - a better cheese than any on the Artisan Cheese Plate.

My entree was a Ropa Bennie (aka Eggs Benedict). It consisted of a Cuban Pot Roast aka BBQ Beef Brisket with perfectly poached eggs and guava hollandaise, served on top of toasted Brioche. The main piece was exquisite and perfectly balanced. Mellow, seeping egg against the smoke of the meat, a slight sweetness from the hollandaise that was by no means overpowering, and the crunch of the buttered brioche crunching finishing the bite.

But accompanying this perfectly executed entree were 'throw away sides.' The greens were not properly washed. They were grainy and beginning to wilt, a far cry from our fresh arugula salad. The homefries were nothing short of steam tray mush. They were over cooked, under seasoned, worthy of any high school cafeteria.

I have made a study of homefries, and I know full well that the most basic greasy spoon can make homefries that will make this half Irish gal purr. So this is what I'm going to say if I ever meet Ric Orlando: "Ric, if I am choosing to pay you $12 instead of $6 at my local greasy spoon for a Sunday brunch, why are you serving me over cooked potatoes? The work that you put into perfecting the main part of my entree is clearly evident, so why are you ruining my plate and my palate with this drek?"

Everyone ran into the same issue with their entrees: a great idea, beautifully presented, with zero follow through on the flavor profiles. Perfect crepes, folded around crisp apples, with an unidentifiable sauce (supposedly Cinnamon Creme Fraiche). Simply cooked chicken, blue cheese, cranberries, with the twist of toasted hazelnuts, tossed through lovely greens, then overdressed with a mediocre vinaigrette. A "Straight Up Belgian Waffle" with "real maple syrup" on a plate for $7. No sides, nothing special. Just a $7 waffle.

The service was extraordinary, the atmosphere divine. But the 'must try' specialty Chocolate Coconut Cupcakes with Key Lime Creme Anglais arrived at our table stale and tasting of the refrigerator they were pulled from. There was a hint of lime in the Key Lime Creme Fraiche, but it was not strong enough to have any impact on the dish. In a bite with the chocolate cupcake, the lime did not cut through the chocolate or the cold, limp coconut, nor did the cream moisten the crumb enough to make the cupcake worth eating. Allow me to emphasize this point: A table full of mothers, out to brunch without their children, did not finish their chocolate cupcakes.

Enough said.

All in all, it was a great brunch with people I love. We had phenomenal service. But I could have done that at Dan's Place II or Mike's Diner or Peaches n' Cream or Londonderry or Alexis Diner or The Ripe Tomato or any number of other places around the Capital Distict. And it would have cost me $30 less.

I have been to flagship restaurants of celebrity chefs and I have been to outpost restaurants of celebrity chefs. I am a born and raised Capital District foodie. I've worked in the catering house for the BSO's top donors at Tanglewood and I've watched my spouse work his way up in the world of the Corporate Big Box Restaurant Chain. I know that I was eating brunch in a restaurant that does its majority of business with its best chefs on Thurs/Fri/Sat night.

But, I want New World Bistro Bar to land the punch, not just the pretension.

I want my perfect entree to be accompanied by a side worthy of it. I want that Artisan Cheese Plate, brought perfectly to temp, to have cheeses worthy of the care and time that went into that preparation that are served with crackers that don't overwhelm the centerpiece of the dish. And as for cheese mark ups, Chez Sophie Bistro of Blessed Memory charged less for more adventurous cheese, served in larger portions.

I want an in-house dessert. If you're going to bring in a dessert from out of house, do it justice. Don't serve it stale, tasting of refrigerator. And for Pete's sake, I want a key lime creme anglais that tastes like key lime and a cinnamon creme anglais that tastes like cinnamon.

If I was paying $10 per head, I wouldn't be asking this. But, I'm being charged gourmet prices by a rightfully respected local chef for dishes created with in season, local ingredients. All I'm asking is that the kitchen does this bounty justice.


  1. I have eaten at NWBB twice. Once for dinner ( and once for brunch. The dinner experience, in a nutshell, was good. I alluded to the fact that they got a little cute with the description of the side dishes, but I did enjoy their Jerk chicken.

    So much so, that when I went for brunch, I ordered the jerk chicken + waffles. It comes w poached eggs, but I ordered scrambled because I like to be difficult and because I can't do yolks and whites separately. The chicken was great, again; the waffle was meh, a waffle; and the scrambled eggs were a plank, way overcooked. You can order eggs your way, so it's not like there are people in the kitchen who only know how to poach them.

    Since that time, I haven't returned, not because I was terribly displeased, but because the experience left me indifferent. For less money, I can get comparable or better brunch anywhere else, just as you concluded.

    I'm going back for jerk chicken for dinner some time, though!

  2. My brother/partner-in-crime-on-most-things-food-related raves about NWBB's sweetbreads and blood sausage and general willingness to use ingredients others won't touch and use them well during their dinner service. But, I just don't know. Anyone who knows how to poach an eggs should have no problem with scrambled and to see the side component of nearly perfect main dish mangled so thoroughly just pisses me off.

    And that includes your experience with the dinner entree - great protein, and black eyed peas vs. kidney beans fine, but to kill RICE!!! It's the kiss of death and a sure sign of a lax kitchen with an absentee head chef and a prep cook or sous that needs their ass kicked.

    I completely hear you on the "Bistro" title in a restaurant: all it seems to do is to give restaurants license to charge more for a hit or miss experience.

  3. I have only had dinner at New World, and have had no complaints about food or service. And there are folks like me who can't wait to order the green beans each time. Perhaps the mis-step is in trying to apply a successful dinner model (including prices) to a brunch menu. It sounds a bit ill-conceived.

  4. Zero complaints on service- our waiter was phenomenal.

  5. I've never been either, Leah. I look at the menu every so often and think, "Well, ok, yeah, that looks pretty good, I guess." And then, for no reason in particular, I don't go. Now I feel a bit better about it.

  6. I agree with everything you said, Leah. I would only add that I was as happy with the ambience as with the service: NWBB is a very pleasant place to sit for a couple hours.

    In retrospect, though, I kind of wish I'd hassled you all into trekking up to Saratoga to brunch at Max London's instead.

  7. @Holly- I loved being at brunch with you guys. It was an amazing meal in the company in every respect. And they were more than generous with the time they gave us at our table. But you're right - Max London's would have tasted better. And we could have gone to look at beautiful yarns and ridden the carousel afterwards.

    @MollyMom - I think you've hit the nail on the head with a successful dinner model being applied to brunch. But, from what I've been reading over the last couple days, mediocre to inedible sides served with beautifully presented main components seem to be the result day or night. We'll give it a shot for dinner one of these days.

  8. i would've been SHATTERED if the cinnamon creme fraiche had been gross. shattered. on the up side, i'm now inspired to make guava hollandaise! :)