Update: I’ve gotten my hands on the recipe for the baba ghanoush. It does not contain tahini, and the lemon juice is added in an unusual way. Doesn’t matter – it’s great. Click here for the recipe.
I’m a lucky gal. I occasionally get the opportunity to enjoy lunch at the Casola Dining Room at Schenectady County Community College during Practice Week, when the students practice cooking and serving the menu to the week before the restaurant officially opens to paying customers. Full disclosure: my friend Jay Larkin is an instructor at SCCC, and he invited me and two friends to lunch, as guests of the college. Our meals were provided to us at no charge.
My friends MEB and David – the same crowd I bring with me every time – and I have never eaten at the Casola during Spring Semester (well, not together anyway), when the menus focus on International Cuisine. This week we were treated to food from Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean. The complete Spring Semester schedule is available here, and the menus are available here. I’m extremely interested in the Latium (Rome) menu, so if anyone would like to join me for dinner the week of April 9, hit me up. I’ll bring the wine.
After taking our drink order, our server Lara brought over a basket of warm pita wedges and two mini-tagines of dip (those tiny tagines were adorable – I wish I’d taken a photo): one was a classic hummus, and the other was baba ghanoush . The hummus was the standard recipe (chickpeas, tahini, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil), and tasty, if a little too thick for my liking.
Note to self: I have GOT to remember to post my hummus recipe here. I never buy hummus anymore – mine is the best there is.
The baba ghanoush was off-the-charts good, but slightly different than baba ghanoush I’ve had before – it was made with yogurt (Greek?) in addition to the traditional ingredients (same as hummus, just substituting roasted mashed eggplant for the chickpeas). It was all I could do to stop myself from eating it all myself and licking the bowl clean. It was tangy, refreshing, and pleasantly mouth-cooling. The pitas were good – not great, just good.
For appetizers, MEB and I got the Spanikopita (phyllo pastry stuffed with spinach, onions, ricotta, Romano and feta cheeses, scented with dill and mint; served with red pepper coulis and dill sauce). Really good; nice balance of flavors. Crispy, not-greasy phyllo. The red pepper coulis was terrific, the dill sauce was bland and not so great.
David got the avgolémono soup (traditional Greek soup made with chicken stock, lemon, egg, and rice; garnished with julienne of chicken breast and chives). I tasted a bit of it, and thought it was good, and the lemon was a nice and not overpowering flavor. David called it “cream of lemon soup with rice”, which was not wrong. I’d love to try this soup again, a whole bowl all to myself. I was hesitant to order it, because of the mention of egg in the description. I am not a fan of egg in soup (read: egg drop soup), and was afraid that’s what it would be. It was not.
For our entrees, David and I got the kota kapama (breast of chicken braised in tomato and cinnamon sauce, accompanied by Moroccan couscous and moussaka). The chicken breast was *slightly* overcooked and a tad dry, but the sauce made up for it in spades. Perfectly spiced, warm and tangy all at the same time. The couscous was tasty – lightly spiced, and speckled with peppers, onions, and currants. The moussaka was good, too – vegetarian, with lasagna-type layers of zucchini, eggplant, and cheese. Some traditional moussakas contain minced meat, usually lamb. I intensely dislike lamb, so I was pleasantly surprised with a vegetarian version. I think there might have been too many flavors on the plate to consider it well-balanced, but it was a nice way to show off the culinary talents of the students in the kitchen and give them an opportunity to try several recipes.
MEB ordered the tagine of monkfish (monkfish steak rubbed with a Mediterranean herb rub, served on a bed of fresh garden vegetables and braised in a saffron-infused broth). I don’t normally like fish, but this was a creamy, flaky whitefish with a delicate flavor. The vegetables were nicely spiced (go saffron!) and tangy (go capers!). I think I saw some couscous in the bowl too, but MEB will have to confirm that one herself.
On a side note, I was recently asked what I thought might be missing from my home kitchen. There’s really only one piece of equipment that I really, really want but don’t currently own, and that’s a tagine:
On my recent trip to Washington DC, I noticed a vendor at Eastern Market selling some beautiful tagines. I must save some suitcase space the next time I travel there. Sarah, you must remind me. I would probably never use it as a cooking vessel, but some of them are just beautiful pieces of art.
We all ordered baklava for dessert, and it was incredible. Frankly, I would have been happy if I’d had only the baklava for lunch. It’s easily my favorite dessert of all time. Flaky phyllo pastry layered with a spiced walnut mixture, and and drizzled with a honey-lemon syrup. MEB and I were remarking how this version had more nuts than other versions we’d had – definitely a good thing. The two little triangular pieces of baklava each had a clove stuck in the middle. David and I took ours out; MEB ate hers accidentally (hey, you got a free lunch because of me – I’m allowed a little bit of fun at your expense). And, dammit, I forgot to take a picture of the baklava. But, I did get shots of the other dessert offerings (in the slideshow below).
As always, the atmosphere at the Casola is terrific – clean, elegant, and inviting, with works from local artists hanging on the walls. The front-of-house students are well trained and polite, and offered friendly and attentive service. My only criticism – and it’s minor – is that the servers should know how to pronounce each item on the menu and explain what it is. I still don’t know how to pronounce avgolémono. Maybe my Greek friend could help me out here.
Lunch at the Casola Dining Room 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. 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 aren’t familiar with.