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Cocina Criolla*

October 31, 2009

I had lunch yesterday with my friends Gail and Nell, at Schenectady County Community College’s Casola Dining Room.  The Casola is the college’s restaurant “laboratory,” where the culinary students get real life experience cooking and serving in a restaurant.  SCCC is just one of five colleges in New York State that is accredited by the American Culinary Federation Educational Institute.

From SCCC’s website:

Since Spring of 1993, the Casola Dining Room has been serving gourmet meals to the patrons of the Capital Region of Upstate New York. The Casola Dining Room is open for business during the college school year, generally from the first week of October to the first week of December and from the last week in February to the first week in May. Reservations are required.

Menu selection and themes are changed weekly. In the fall semester, menus are themed for Regional American Cuisine. In the spring semester our students prepare International classics. Guests choose one appetizer, a main course and a dessert from the choices. Guests are encouraged to bring in their own wine to compliment the meal experience.

Gail and I had a meeting at SCCC last week with Chef Chris Tanner, to plan the upcoming Culinary Boot Camp (details coming VERY soon), and Chris told us that this week’s cuisine was Puerto Rican.  We were very intrigued – neither of us had ever eaten Puerto Rican food – so I called to make reservations for the three of us (details about making reservations can be found here).

The Casola Dining Room has undergone extensive renovations over the last few years, and it has truly become an elegant space.  The walls are a lush chocolate-brown, the pillars and moulding are off-white, and the walls are decorated with colorful and intricate pieces of fiber art.  I forgot to find out if they were produced locally – I’ll have to make phone call.

It isn’t a very large dining room, with only about 10 or so tables, but it is very warm and welcoming.  The chairs have rounded backs, and are comfortably upholstered in moss-green fabric.  The tables are set with crisp white linens, and are complete with a full flatware service (including soup and coffee spoons).  The decorator was obviously looking to recreate a fine dining experience, and it definitely works.  So far, so good!

We were seated immediately, and one of several servers welcomed us, handed us menus, and took our drink orders.  It was a while before he came back.  When he did finally return, we placed our appetizer and entree orders:

Gail ordered Ensalada De Pulpo: grilled octopus sliced thin and tossed with Spanish onion thinly sliced into rings, crushed garlic, lime juice, virgin olive oil, white vinegar, chopped celery

Nell and I ordered Sacocho: A classic Puerto Rican stew that features the tropical life with yucca, yam, cassava, plantains, corn, beef short rib, and ham with tomato sauce and broth.

We all ordered the same entree: El pargo de cacerola-quemó con Salsa de Criollo, which is pan seared red snapper fillets with pumpkin fritters and avocado-tangerine salad, accompanied by yellow rice and pigeon peas garnished with plantanos.  (don’t normally order fish, but the thought of pumpkin fritters was so enticing that I thought I’d risk it.)

More after the jump…

The dining room was a bit chilly, but seemed to warm up a bit the longer we sat.  And sit longer we did.  We did enjoy some of their homemade bread while we waited.

Our server brought us our appetizers after a bit, and they certainly looked appetizing:

Sancocho

Sancocho

The sancocho was very good – though it was very underseasoned and benefited tremendously from the addition of salt.  I understand sometimes chefs are afraid to overseason, so they err on the side of caution.  And the fact that these chefs were students (and probably unsure of themselves) likely made it worse.  The soup was light and tomato-ey, with generous chunks of beef short rib and ham.  There were 4 or 5 of what appeared to be meatballs sitting in the middle, and neither Nell nor I could ascertain what exactly they were made of – though we did agree they were quite bland.  I think the soup would have been enhanced by a bit more of the exotic ingredients – yucca, casava, and plaintain.  The cilantro garnish added a nice refreshing element to the soup.

Ensalada De Pulpo (octopus salad)

Ensalada De Pulpo (octopus salad)

Gail assured me that the Ensalada de Pulpo was delicious, and I took her word for it.  I do not eat octopus.  The presentation was lovely – a neat layered stack of ingredients.

Our entrees soon (well, not really “soon”) arrived, and I was pleasantly surprised with the dish.  As I mentioned above, I do not normally eat fish, so it has to be very good for me to enjoy it!

El pargo de cacerola-quemó con Salsa de Criollo

El pargo de cacerola-quemó con Salsa de Criollo

The snapper filet was seasoned with a *very* spicy rub, and it was perfectly cooked – the crust was crispy, and the flesh was white and flaky.  Yum.  The pumpkin fritters, the very reason for my ordering the fish, were disappointing.  They were very chewy, with an almost leathery texture.  The flavor was excellent, but I think they had been deep-fried much earlier and sat out too long.  Nell had never had pumpkin fritters before, and she really enjoyed them.

The plantains were wonderful – I love their pasty texture, and unassuming flavor.  Gail did not care for them.  The yellow rice with pigeon peas was quite tasty.  I’ve never before tried pigeon peas, and was surprised by their nuttiness and “al dente” consistency.  They worked very well with the rice.

Perhaps my favorite part of the entree was the Salsa de Criollo: the tangerine/avocado salsa.  It was bright, creamy, citrusy, and sunflower seeds added just the right amount of crunch.  Spectacular!  I’m on the hunt for the recipe, and will be making it at home!

On to dessert.  The server wheeled the dessert cart over, and this is where it got…interesting.

Dessert Cart

The Dessert Cart

Our choices were:

Chocolate Tres Leches: A light chocolate sponge soaked with a trio of chocolate milks topped with a meringue crisp

Banana Torte: A rich banana flavored butter cake filled with fresh banana slices and topped with a coffee flavored butter cream

Mango Sorbet: Mangos pair with simple syrup for a light refreshing ice served with a coconut cookie

The waiter tried valiantly to explain each of the desserts to us, but it was painful to listen to him try to pronounce “meringue” and “sorbet”.  It was apparent that his teachers sent him out into the dining room very unprepared.  Oh, well.  He will learn!

It was a pleasant surprise when we each ordered something different.  I had the Banana Torte.  Overall, it was very good: the cake was a tad dry, but the coffee-flavored buttercream was great.  I think that perhaps the kitchen did not let the cake rest long enough out of the refrigerator, because the icing was a bit hard.

Banana Torte

Banana Torte

Gail had the Chocolate Tres Leches.  It was very chocolatey, with a very light spongey texture.  The presentation left something to be desired.

Chocolate Tres Leches

Chocolate Tres Leches

Nell ordered the Mango Sorbet, and while it looked delicious, I didn’t try any because I am not a fan of mangoes.  For some reason, I think they taste like dirt.

Mango Sorbet

Mango Sorbet

Overall, a good meal.  And a GREAT value – the price per person was only $16 (coffee was also included), and tips are not permitted.  If you came for dinner, you would only be out $22.  The college does not serve alcohol, but you can bring your own bottle and the servers will pour for you, for only a $3 corkage fee.  It’s an incredible deal – you should get there if you get the chance.

Lunch is served Tuesday, Thursday and Friday with seatings at noon and 12:30 p.m.  Dinners is served Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday with seatings at 7 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.  Reservations are taken exactly 2 weeks in advance of the date you wish to reserve, beginning at 10am.  The number to call is 518-381-1391.  Seatings fill up quickly, so plan ahead.  The dining room schedule is available here, and menus are available here.

Bon appetit!

*The principal cooking style in Puerto Rican cuisine is called “cocina criolla”, which literally means Creole cooking. This is not the same as Louisana Cajun cuisine.   In the Spanish speaking islands, “criollo” refers to Spanish Americans of European descent. Hence, “cocina criolla” is the cuisine created by the European (mostly Spanish) colonists using their traditional recipes coalesced with native Caribbean foods and cooking styles.
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