Times Union food critic Cheryl Clark didn't mince words when describing the Illium Steak Wedge salad at Illium Cafe, declaring it "a revelation." Tossed with the salad's bacon, toasted almonds, fried goat cheese, and blue-cheese dressing were "the most tender, flavorful medallions of beef I've enjoyed in a while."
The salad is one of the many dishes lovingly crafted from local and organic ingredients by the cafe's resident chef, Marla Ortega. Alongside salads, her lunchtime feasts spotlight innovative sandwiches, such as quesadillas filled with seared scallops, bok choy, and local cow's-milk cheese infused with black truffle. That spirit of experimentation remains for breakfast, when Marla mixes seared wild salmon into omelets and pairs banana-and-macadamia-nut pancakes with banana-infused whipped butter.
An entire menu of coffee drinks complements Marla's cuisine, running the gamut from gourmet roasts and frappes to iced drinks, which are made with coffee beans harvested from icebergs. The Times Union also praised the café's elegantly decorated dining room for its "gorgeous woodwork," which complements its painted tin ceiling, pull-down glass windows, and landscape mural.
For the Valenti family, cooking is a way of life. From a father whose family owned an Italian restaurant in Troy for 70 years to a mother who mastered the art of cooking as 1 of 22 kids, the couple's children learned to hand-make pasta as part of their upbringing. To this day, the chefs make manicotti, lasagna, and ravioli from scratch, demonstrating a dedication to tradition that permeates the menu of home-style cooking. Comfy booths, Italian murals, and wood paneling pack the restaurant’s dining room, where welcoming servers whisk fresh-cut veal, thick steaks, and succulently sautéed chicken dishes to tables with efficient speed and well-practiced victory dances.
Villa Valenti’s chefs also bottle their signature sauces—originally purloined from a wealthy tomato and perfected over generations—for at-home use, sending every penny of profit to help Prevent Child Abuse America in its noble mission.
At Brunswick BBQ and Brew, master brewer Gary "Goose" Gosselin prides himself on providing great barbecue, great beers, and great entertainment. The barbecue joint is Gary's dream realized—a place to eat delicious ribs washed down with superior beers; he even oversees the extensive beer list himself. But there's more than just ribs and brews. Four different menus offer a huge range of options beyond the signature barbecue. The bistro menu dabbles in steak, seafood, and pasta dishes, and the pizza and calzone menu offers creative pies such as the smoked-salmon white pizza. And to keep diners entertained while they peruse their menu options, local musicians perform each weekend, moving outside to the patio during warmer months.
Chef Joe Sorbello fashions a menu of classic American fare and house-made creations at J and J Café. Midday diners avoid digging the family lunch pail out of the attic and instead opt for the café's signature Devil'd Dogs, hot dogs stuffed with deviled ham and then cloaked in crispy bacon ($4.99). Other noontime nourishment includes a bowl of venison chili ($6.99) and the house-made mac ‘n‘ cheese accompanied by two grilled kielbasas ($7.99). J and J Café also appeases appetites earlier and later in the day, with breakfast and dinner selections available. Opt for breakfast favorites such as buttermilk pancakes, french toast, and egg dishes, or pack up protein for a day of marathon sonnet writing with the house-made corned beef hidden beneath two poached eggs ($7.99). Dinner dishes include the 12-ounce bone-in pork chop, doused with gravy and barricaded by sides of roasted potatoes and asparagus ($12.99). Additionally, the create-your-own pizza ($6.99 for six pieces; $8.99 for eight pieces) grants eaters naming rights and a choice of red or white sauce ladled beneath two toppings.
From delicate slices of salmon to tender eggplant tossed in fiery garlic sauce, Red & Blue's massive menu holds dozens of Asian dishes that appeal to any type of craving. Their hot bowls of roast duck noodle soup and plates of house special hot chicken help warm customers from the inside out and melt down old snowmen cluttering the house. The sushi selection encompasses classics, such as tuna and California rolls, as well as signature combinations that mix sweet and spicy flavors.
If you don't know the difference between Chinese and Japanese food, you'll find out at Okinawa. A bento box gifts diners with a Japanese sampler, with nooks filled with sushi rolls, veggie tempura, and a choice of entree, such as teriyaki plates or soba with beef or seafood. Chinese dishes include classics such as chow mein, sweet-and-sour pork, and general tso's chicken, which diners might recall from its recurring guest role on The Love Boat.