A few weeks back I received a phone call from Jay Larkin, instructor at Schenectady County Community College’s Culinary Arts Program. Jay was pleased with the blog post that I wrote about the Casola a few months back – all of it, even the criticism – and offered me (and three of my guests) the opportunity to enjoy lunch during the demo week for their new semester of the dining program. Full disclosure: the lunch was provided to us free of charge, so we would be able to offer a critique of the food and the service. It is, after all, a classroom restaurant, and the students are there to learn.
I and my dining companions Maryellen, David, and Jackie (I hope you don’t mind me using your “real names”) arrived at the Casola, and were greeted with a flourishing opening of the dining room doors, where the front of house students were there to take our names and escort us to our tables. As we were entering, we noticed an interesting objet d’art at the desk: a sculpture of a girl in a chair – MADE OUT OF TALLOW (rendered beef or mutton fat, solid at room temperature). It was cool and weird, all at the same time. The card in front says it won the Gold Medal at the SCCC Spring Culinary Classic 2010 (a competition sanctioned by the American Culinary Federation – a pretty big deal). I wish I could read the name on the bottom of the card, so I could give the artist some props. Jay – help me out!
Onward into the dining room…
We didn’t know the menu theme ahead of time, but were pleased to open our menus and see that we’d be enjoying Southern/Creole cuisine. After we were seated, our server Angel greeted us and explained how lunches at the Casola work ($16 per person, includes all service charges. Water, iced tea, hot tea, and coffee are all included in the price; soft drinks are available for an extra charge). He then took our drink orders and left.
When we finally got our acts together to place our order, Angel was extremely courteous and helpful. And he was although very attentive – a few minutes later, he came back to review our orders, because something was amiss with the way he wrote it down. He had made a mistake in taking our appetizer orders, but he handled the situation professionally and politely, and everything arrived as we intended.
Here’s a rundown of what we ate:
Biscuits – the biscuits were small and dense, served with room-temperature butter (extra points awarded there – I hate when restaurants serve cold butter. It’s careless). I enjoyed the biscuits, but Jackie did not care for them – she thought they were flavorless. To each her own biscuit.
This was outstanding – probably my favorite portion of the meal. Tangy, briny olives tossed with peppery greens and savory meats, cheeses and some sharp marinated vegetables. It all worked so well together that I could not stop eating it. I seriously almost licked the plate clean. But I held back because I knew there were two more courses on their way…
Carolina Style Smoked Pork Chop
Delicious. Just perfect. A GIANT pork chop, grilled to perfectly pink, and served with a tangy mustard BBQ sauce. The side of baked macaroni and cheese was exactly right – creamy, sharp, with a crumbly topping. And the collard greens….oh, lord the collard greens. Cooked until just on the far edge of firm, seasoned with bacon and some chopped ham. Somewhere along in the cooking process, the greens somehow manage to exude a sweet spiciness, which reminds me of nutmeg or cardamom. I know they don’t add seasoning – that’s just the natural flavor of the collard green. I remarked to my friends that the last time I had collard greens this good, I was at Hattie’s in Saratoga. That’s saying something, trust me.
Southern Crispy Fried Chicken
Maryellen and Jackie ordered this, and I only tasted a tiny bit. But what I had was quite tasty – a crispy coating fried onto moist, juicy chicken quarters. The chicken was sauced (underneath the pieces) with Country Gravy, which Maryellen remarked was essentially the ubiquitous sausage gravy you find all over the South. The sides were the same as mine.
And now on to the dessert portion of today’s menu…
Fig & Pecan Pie
I was expecting more than what this turned out to be. I love pecan pie, and this was definitely what you think of when you think of pecan pie. Sweet, almost cloyingly so, with some nutty crunch from toasted pecans. To their version, SCCC adds fig preserves, which sadly don’t add much of anything to the party except the shallow crunch of tiny fig seeds. It tasted good, but the fig lover in me was a bit disappointed. And I tried to use the cookie “spoon”, but it broke.
Bourbon Street Bread Pudding
Jackie and Maryellen ordered this, and they really liked it. They would have liked it better if there was more bourbon. At least I think that’s what they said. They sounded drunk. (Kidding!)
Louisiana Chocolate Fudge Cake
David ordered this, chocolate fiend that he is. I didn’t get to taste any, but David didn’t leave a morsel, so I’m guessing it was good.
The conversation about chocolate inspired a personal revelation from Maryellen, who also is addicted to loves chocolate. When she is unable to procure a proper chocolate cream pie (and we’ve all been there, haven’t we?), she creates some Desperation Cream Pie – a square of chocolate with a squirt of whipped cream on top. For a splurge, she puts it all on a graham cracker and microwaves it for a few seconds. Bravo, Maryellen.
I think overall that this was a great food experience. Everything was cooked properly, the flavors were all in balance, and the presentation was outstanding. Really, no complaints in the food.
But, as is always the case in the Casola, service is slow. Very slow. If you go, you should expect to spend ninety minutes on lunch. I don’t know if there’s any way that the faculty and staff can speed things up in the kitchen, but the slow pace of service is a huge obstacle to getting diners other than retired folks into their dining room. Most people only get a half hour for lunch, but even for those of us lucky enough to get a full hour it’s troublesome. This particular day took even longer – two hours – but we understood, considering that the restaurant is a classroom and this was the first day that the students went “live”. We did joke on the way out that we’d have to put in for an hour of vacation time to make up for what we lost at lunch.
I have not yet been to the Casola for dinner, but I imagine the pace would be similar – though for dinner the leisurely pace could be most welcome.
Lunch is served Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at Noon and 12:30 p.m; Dinner is served Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday with seatings at 7pm and 7:30 pm. Lunch price is $16.00, and Dinner price is $22.00 (all prices include tax and surcharge). You may bring in your own wine at a $3 corkage fee per bottle.
Upcoming Menus for the Fall Semester:
- October 18 – West Coast
- October 25 – Puerto Rico
- November 1 – Mid-Atlantic
- November 8 – Pacific Northwest
- November 15 – Southwestern
- November 22 – Southwestern(Monday and Tuesday ONLY)
- November 29 – Midwest
- December 6 – New England
You can take a gander at all of the menus by clicking here. Last semester, I had the Puerto Rico-themed meal, and it was all kinds of crazy good. My last post here was about the Tuscany menu, and this semester I’m kinda excited about the Pacific Northwest and New England menus. I better get on the horn, because…
Reservations are mandatory, and can be made by calling 518-381-1391. Reservations are taken for ALL meals daily at 10 a.m. exactly two weeks in advance of the desired date. Dinner always fills up faster than lunch, but don’t take any chances – if you see a menu you like, set your alarm for 10am two weeks ahead of time. Sometimes they may even have an opening for lunch if you call that same week – it’s worth a try. I’ve done it before, particularly if it’s a type of cuisine that people around here aren’t familiar with.
SCCC’s Casola Dining Room is a treasure – one of Schenectady’s best-kept secrets. But I don’t think it should be a secret anymore. It’s a great place to enjoy a fantastic meal at an extraordinary value – if you can squeeze a little bit more time from your lunch hour…