4.15.2014

I Just Met a Wine Bar Named Maria!

All you Big Hungries out there know I frequent Staten Island, as it’s the home of the Miss New York Pageant. A couple weeks ago, our little pageant family trekked down there for the spring workshop, discovered some areas of SI that are quite nice – nicer than those we’ve seen previously – and began to understand why our friends who live there have so much pride in their borough. That being said, I know a lot of my NYC Big Hungries consider SI the forgotten borough, and really have no desire to board that ferry and explore the Island being called Staten. Well, consider your incentive discovered, guys.

Enoteca Maria is about two blocks from the Staten Island Ferry terminal. That means you barely have to come ashore to eat there. It’s a tiny wine bar in the St. George neighborhood, unassuming from the outside, and Carrera marble-enrobed inside. The coolest thing about Enoteca Maria, however, is who’s cooking there. No executive chef hides in the kitchen, torturing line cooks and dishwashers – the restaurant has a revolving cadre of nonnas, Italian grandmothers, who cook the dishes of the village in Italy from whence they came. So while on Wednesday, you may have Luisa from Piacenza serving up the soup her nonna made for her as a child, by Saturday, Teresa from Sicily will be wowing you with her prosciutto-laden lasagna. To guild the delicious lily even more, the owner, Joe, grows many of the vegetables and herbs for the restaurant right in his own garden. So we’re talking hyper-local, authentic Italian food, graced by a spectacular wine list. This place is totally worth a quick ferry ride, and our meal was so good, I didn’t even mind the cash-only policy. 



They start you out with a complimentary plate of focaccia and three little dishes containing tomato and onion bruschetta, roasted, earthy eggplant, and syrupy sweet roasted peppers dressed with really, really good olive oil. The kind of olive oil that makes you question your oil game. The kind that makes you order it online from Zingermans or DiBruno Bros, because once you’ve tasted it, you know the supermarket stuff is inferior. Yeah – it’s that tasty.


We ordered meatballs as an appetizer, even though Livi, our Miss TI, is a vegetarian. We’re cruel like that. Dad called them excellent, Mom intends to order them as her entrée next time, Joelle scarfed hers down, and I loved how bright and acidic the tomato sauce on them started on the tongue. The meat was ground very finely, and I could detect no filler, which produced an intensely meaty, savory meatball. There may be breadcrumbs or cheese or eggs in them, but none of that is interfering with the juicy, robust meat of these balls.



Our other appy was the imported burratta, which came with the hefty price tag of $25 for one ball of cheese. Get over the price and save your sheckles, because you’re gonna want this. I was shocked they didn’t make it in house, it was so fresh. It was clean, squeaky-fresh, other worldly in its interior creaminess and exterior bounce. Even the grape tomatoes surrounding it were fresh and flavorful, which is unheard of in March. Livi scooped up a morsel onto a piece of bread and proclaimed that it was the, “best possible way to cheat on a pageant diet.” High praise, indeed, and don't worry, Livi is lovely and quite fit. She can withstand a few bites of full-fat, cream laden mozzarella goodness. Anyway, I’m fairly certain that this dish is what they hand you right after St. Peter has given you the nod through the pearly gates. Tiny little cherubs fly over with a plate of this and sing, “Welcome to Heaven. Try our burratta!” 


Someone was ordering the braciole at our table – either me or Dad; I decreed it. It ended up being me, and I found this iteration of the classic rolled, braised beef to be unique and yummy. It was stuffed with green beans! The meat was fall-apart tender, extremely thinly rendered, and the pool of tomato sauce around it was the same as what came with the meatballs, but in this case enriched with the hearty, savory juices of the beef. 


Dad ordered the sausage rigatoni, which he found really spicy, but I utterly loved. The riggies were bathed in a very light tomato sauce, thinned out with more of that fabulous EVOO, and all the heat was packed into the sausage. The heat would hit you slowly, so that your first bite was pretty mild, but by bite three, you were reaching for the bread basket. The sauce was so unctuous, so rich, you needed bread anyway to sop it all up. So let go and let spice with his one - embrace it.



Livi and Mom got the four cheese risotto, which is based in vegetable broth and reinforced with gorgonzola, fontina, mozzarella, and parmigiano cheeses. Freshly ground nutmeg was sprinkled over the top as a garnish, which is a totally ninja move my Nonna Christina, from Bergamo, Milano. The depths of the cheese were layered, so that you tasted different flavors as each bite moved on your palate, and the little crisp-tender bits of minced onion throughout were like sweet treats to interrupt all the richness. Risotto is basically rich man's Mac and cheese, and this was a particularly comforting rendition.


Joelle is our teen titleholder, and Mom and Dad were a bit concerned that she wouldn’t find anything she liked on this very adult, very foreign menu. But lo and behold, Maria’s has a pizza! The authentic margherita pie had a thin crust that wasn’t overly crisp – plenty of chew left in it to make this small pie into a meal. It tasted like a chewy, thickened saltine cracker, and the goopy cheese mellowed out that shockingly fresh tomato sauce. I loved all the fresh basil on it, but that flavor was a little robust for our Little One, who picked those bits off, and raved about her meal.


Though we were stuffed to the gills at this point, grandma knows best, and she wanted us to order dessert. A plate of Italian cookies appeased Mom, Joelle and Dad, and please understand, these were not the run-of-the-mill cookies your third generation Italian friends pass around at Christmas. They were tender but not crumbly, nor too sweet, studded with almonds, spread with Nutella, and dusted with powdered sugar.


I ordered the chocolate sponge cake with orange ricotta, and all I could think through the haze of each bliss-filled bite was: more desserts should have cheese in them. I’m not usually one for fruit and chocolate together, but the orange in this was very subtle. It was more like a chocolate cannoli made into a cake, again not too sweet, but creamy and light. 


Livi had her last hurrah before Miss New York’s punishing swimsuit competition courtesy of the berries topped with cream. Those strawberries and blueberries were like jewels, glistening in their macerated juices, and the whipped cream on top was so rich, it must have been made by those burratta cherubs fluttering about up in Heaven. 


It was a no brainer to award Enoteca Maria a 10 on the BHS scale. While our waitress wasn’t the most attentive girl on the block, the place is so tiny, we were never at a loss, service-wise. We even received attention from, and heaped praise upon, the owner, who was never more than eight feet from us the entire meal. Enoteca Maria is just two doors down from the theater in which Miss New York is held, and I’m so grateful, because I would like to taste all the nonnas’ specialties and eat here about five more times. Yes, it’s pricey, yes, you need a reservation, and YES, it’s worth the ferry ride from Manhattan. If this place catches on, Brooklyn may have a rival for coolest outer borough! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

PS: our girls are competing at Miss New York in just a couple weeks, so send your luck and love their way!


PPS: I would be remiss in failing to wish a Happy Birthday week to the woman without whom I might fall off the face of the Earth. The fabulous, funny, cookie-baking, good-time-making countess of weather reports, the bride to be, and my best friend Big Hungry Melinda! Have a wonderful birthday, my love!



Enoteca Maria on Urbanspoon

4.01.2014

Brooklyn Reppin’ in the 607

TShawn and I were fortunate to be invited by Big Hungry Melinda and BLD to join them at the Binghamton Club’s Brooklyn Brewery beer pairing dinner last week. The City Club has a new chef, who decamped from Remliks somewhat recently, and seems to be doing good things. I would not have wanted to necessarily blog about dinner at the Bing Club in the past, but this meal was definitely a step up, and as Shawn has been known to enjoy a beer or two now and then, this event was right up our alley. 

As ever, the facilities at the Bing Club are lovely. You kind of can’t beat the ambiance created by the epic, three story double staircase, and the dining room we were in for the dinner was small enough to be intimate, but big enough for comfort. We weren’t jammed in there, but neither were we in the big ballroom, shouting to each other about beer. I do wish they’d take a couple months of one family’s dues and update their restrooms a bit. The one on the third floor is a bit elementary school-chic for me, but I’m mincing hairs here. 



We began our evening with a full can of Brooklyn Lager, the brewery’s flagship beer. You might think canned beer an odd choice for an ostensibly upscale dinner, but our brewery rep Lindsey explained that, because the can prevents light from reaching the beer, it actually keeps fresher longer and you get a better product. Who knew I was such a gourmet all those years ago, buying sixers of Busch Light at the mini-mart next to campus in Laurinburg, NC? Thank GOODNESS I knew enough to preserve all the taste and flavor of that magical elixir! Brooklyn Lager is a prohibition-style beer, meaning its brewed with real hops and malt, not cheater ingredients like corn or I don’t know, pig trotters. It was a bit more robust than my usual Labatts Blue Light, but I liked that there was no bitterness but quite a bit of depth to the drink. 



The first course was a small sweet potato encrusted crab cake set atop lemony sautéed spinach. Again, having eaten at the Binghamton Club for years, I wasn’t expecting much from this, so I was pretty blown away by how good it was. I expected the sweet potato to add too much sweetness, and the wilted greens to lack in flavor, and I was mistaken. The crab was high quality and fresh, not put together with too much binder, the potato crust was done very subtly but nicely crunchy on the outside, and the lemon in the spinach really added to the overall flavor profile of the dish. The beer served with this was Brooklyn Pennant English-style Pale Ale, and it was my favorite of the night. It was crisp, light, and played off the seafood very well. I would buy this beer out at a restaurant, which is an out of the ordinary statement for me, but I liked it that much. 




The salad course was next, and again, I anticipated a boring, humdrum bowl of romaine, but was instead given an incredibly well balanced small plate of romaine and arugula, with a light lemon vinaigrette, sweet roasted red peppers, earthy walnuts, and really gorgeous, full fat creamy feta. I often eat reduced fat feta at home, so I’m always taken off guard about how good it is when it’s the real thing. Yum. The salad beer, if you will, was Brooklyn Summer Ale. This was very light and nearly citrusy – sort of the Fresca of beers. I didn’t find it as smooth as the Pennant Ale, and a bit less drinkable, for me, but it was good with the salad. 



The fish course was, surprisingly, my favorite of the meal. And I cannot stress to you enough the degree to which I expected to dislike the dish, which was salmon. I love seafood, but have never much liked salmon – the oily, heavy uncle of such delights as halibut, scallops, and tuna. It actually kind of bums me out that salmon is almost always the fish choice on standard menus, and I was not looking forward to this course when I initially read the menu. So Mr. New Chef, well done! This small, blackened medallion of salmon was cooked perfectly, nice and pink in the center. The scallion cream sauce served under it was rich and a pretty glorious foil to the dark, caramelized blackening spices on the fish. Lindsey served it with Brooklyn India Pale Ale, which is just not my bag. I can’t take all the hops, man! I passed this glass over to Shawn and let him drink his fill. I had plenty to occupy me in that creamy, dreamy sauce and spiced salmon. 



Pour me some of number 4! Next up, peppercorn-crusted London broil slices with tamarind glaze. This one fell short, for me. I think a couple slices of ribeye or a short rib cooked in beer would have worked better. I know what they were going for with the tamarind, which is a sour pod used in Indian cooking, but honestly, I could barely taste it. The meat was a bit on the tough side, and there just wasn’t enough going on on the plate for me, to stand up to the Brooklyn Brown Ale served with this plate. The beer is caramelized, deep, and slightly bitter (though not as bitter at the IPA), and for me, a fattier cut of beef or smoked barbeque would have balanced those malty flavors. 



We finished up with another really good beer, Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, and a dessert I was excited for, but didn’t quite live up to its promise: chocolate crème brulee. The coffee-tinged, dark, deep, beer was smooth as silk and incredibly yummy with the chocolate flavor of the crème brulee, but the custard was all wrong in texture. The small cup I received was gritty, as if the sugar hadn’t been properly incorporated into the egg yolks when the base was prepared. I liked the berries on top, and the chocolate flavor was fairly good, but the mouthfeel was so discordant, I drank my beer by its lonesome. 



Special events like these are so fun. PS Restaurant, in Vestal, one of my longtime favorites, does a wine dinner every few months, and I'm desperate to go, and ditto to the beer dinners at the Hops Spot in Sackets. Now that we've participated in one, I'm hoping our little group will want to do more. As a side note, if you're looking for a way to fire up your social life, do look into membership at the Binghamton Club. If we lived closer to Binghamton, we would definitely be members. Not only does membership afford you events like this one and the great Parade Day buffet, but free, nearly private bowling becomes available to you, there's a very nice gym and saunas for members only, reciprocal membership with Vestal Hills Country Club, which means pool use (!), plus bowling leagues and the ability to snootily tell people you're going to the club tonight. Just like Mad Men! 

I'm jet setting again - this time a unique combo deal of two nights in Staten Island, followed by four in Hamburg, Germany. I'm very excited to bring you all the review on SI's Enoteca Maria, where Italian nonnas cook you dinner, but almost more excited for whatever Hamburg has in store for my gustatory system. I'm betting it won't be hamburgers! So I'll see you back here two Wednesdays from now...My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

3.25.2014

Prance on to Dasher’s

When I originally started Big Hungry Shelby, one of the reasons I wanted to focus on Upstate New York restaurants is because, attending local pageants as part of my volunteering with the Miss America Organization, I get around to a lot of small towns in the state. This past weekend, I dragged Melinda with me to a pageant in Cortland, and she suggested a little spot in Homer for lunch, recommended to her by a BU professor who also is a reader. Dear reader – thank you for the tip, and I hope you speak up in the comments!

Dasher’s Corner Pub is located on North Main St in Homer, which is just north of Cortland along Rt. 81, in case the drive from Binghamton to Syracuse is just too much for you without a stop to eat. And you know, if it is, I’m not going to judge you. I once knew this woman from Ireland, and she told me that her family’s big vacation ever year was to Dublin, which was a four hour drive from where they lived, and that they would pack a lunch to stop and eat along the way, because it was such a long drive. It made me giggle then, and it does now, as I travel between Binghamton and Watertown as if it were just a Wegmans run.

Anyway! Dasher’s is charming inside, all dark wood and nautical notions. I loved the exposed beams in the ceiling, and the sort of shabby-chic nautical décor. Even more, I loved the fun 80s tunes playing overhead, but not drowning out our conversation. If I had to ding the pub on one thing, it would be that we froze our entire meal – the dining room was quite chilly. This seems to be a theme this winter, as if our restaurants just can’t keep up with the marathon winter we’re experiencing.


There were four appetizers on the menu I really wanted, but since there were just us two, Melinda helped me narrow down to the beef carpaccio and the burratta and greens. She’s so good like that. The beef for the carpaccio was sliced ever-so-slightly thicker than I’ve had it before, but was just as buttery and tender as one would expect. It contrasted nicely with the peppery arugula, salty, snappy capers, the zing of drizzled Dijon mustard, and a very smart, light sprinkle of sea salt. Whomever thought to finish this plate with a sprinkle of salt was very wise in the ways of the kitchen. Total ninja move, which transformed this from a plate of sliced meat, greens, and mustard into carpaccio



The burratta and greens was another animal entirely – intensely bright and fresh on the front of the palate, with a deep spice kick in the back of throat thanks to the cherry peppers in the Utica greens. The midpoint of any given bite in your mouth was gorgeous, oozy creaminess from the cream center of the fried burratta cheese. The tomato sauce that garnished the greens was so fresh tasting, I would bet that chef either makes it fresh per order, or cans his own garden grown tomatoes each summer. Splendid.



I had decided before entering Dasher’s that I would be having a lobster roll for lunch, but once Melinda talked me out of getting the liver pate as an appetizer, there was a domino effect that led me to the Wellington sandwich as my entrée. Indeed, the pate was the brightest shining star on the plate, though the sliced prime rib was tender and uber juicy, the mushrooms were deep and earthy, and the sesame seed roll was light enough to soak up the jus but not enough of a sissy to fall to pieces. In order to imagine biting into this masterpiece, think of the best French dip sandwich you’ve had, perhaps Ithaca Ale House’s stunning rendition, but a little less salty, then add the minerally, salty funk of pate to that gorgeous mouthful. Yeah, I know, yummm.



Melinda ordered the Napa Burger, a beef burger topped with red wine sauce, mushrooms and brie. It was gorgeous: earthy from the mushrooms, sweet from the sauce, and a bit of funky cheese flavor from the medium-bodied brie. This burger was bold and assertive, and I loved the great grilled flavor of the burger itself, which added a smoky, charred addition to the works. 



I’m on Weight Watchers, and I’ve done really well. But I’m still human, I’m still Shelby, and I have zero willpower, so we ordered dessert. All the desserts at Dasher’s are made in house, which always pleases me. I would have been tempted by the profiteroles, but as I mentioned earlier, I was chilly our entire meal, so the custard-filled donut with a side of hot chocolate, for dipping, won. Melinda and I split it, because while we are greedy, we also are ladies. 


The custard on this mama was ultra sweet, with a thick, rich mouth feel that was still light enough not to be overwhelming. You could taste the butter in it, but you couldn’t taste only butter. The fried donut was crunchy on the outside and dense, but still somehow airy on the inside. I would say that the custard was stronger than the donut in flavor – I’m not sure I would have been as impressed with the donut alone. Dunking bites of that sucker in the whipped creamed-topped hot cocoa was the real deal. Melinda opined, “This is the best dessert I’ve had in a long time.” I agree, milady.

We were excited enough about this place, that when we got to the pageant in Cortland right after our lunch, we recommended it to others, and it was the first thing I told my work friends about Monday morning. I mean, Homer is not exactly high on my punch list of places to visit, but its convenient,  right-off-the-highway location makes this a really top notch choice if you’re motoring up or down the I-81 corridor. We gave it an eight on the BHS scale, and I might have been higher if I hadn’t been so cold all through lunch. When it’s 19 degrees outside, you gotta crank the heat, folks.

Upon my return to Dasher’s Corner, I shall be sampling that lobster roll, the beet and goat cheese salad, and the liver pate as an appetizer. I wouldn’t mind also shoveling some truffle mac and cheese into my pie hole. And some pie, for good measure. You know how I do. Take a look at the menu – what would you treat yourself to in Homer? My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

3.18.2014

Chroma Chameleon

Chroma on Urbanspoon

First off, a mea culpa: I don't have a full post this week. I was in Watertown last weekend, all weekend, but we we're just kind of running around shoving pageant girls into dresses and convertibles and taking lots of pictures. There was no time for blog eating, which makes me sad. If it makes you sad, too, I'll try to make up for it with a picture of pretty girls:


I'm so proud of them, I'm almost not even mad about the lack of good eats.

I can tell you about a little mini-review Big Hungry Melinda and I executed a couple weeks ago. There's a tiny cafe and bakery on Chenango St. in Binghamton we've been meaning to hit up for months, called Chroma. I don't really get the name, either, though a little paragraph on the back of the menu explains that the cafe intends to define itself with an intensity of flavor and a saturation of cooking. Who cares, right? I just want to know if the food is good.


From what we sampled, the answer is yes. While I was disappointed with the fact that by the time we arrived for our late lunch, the empanadas of the day were all gone, as was the soup, my Cuban panini was tasty and generous for the $5.95 price tag. Melinda also liked her banh mi, pictured above. I've had a lot of Cubans lacking in flavor and with tough roasted pork, but this meat was tender, moist, and porky. I do wish the mustard had been yellow rather than honey, to stay truer to the Cuban tradition, and that the featured cheese had been Swiss rather than jack, but I'm mincing hairs here. That said, if you have had the empanadas, please report out in the comments!


Chroma is a no-frills kind of place - you place your order and pay in a tiny front room, and then eat from paper plates with plastic utensils in what's basically a display window of a neighboring antique shop. And you know what makes up for that lack of ambiance entirely? The baked goods. I had a sandwich cookie - thick, sweet vanilla buttercream smooshed between two deep, dark chocolate cookies - so rich, I thought about calling it Daddy.


Need I say more? My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!