3.24.2015

A Delicious Injustice

A couple years ago, I was inspired one day to start a dream restaurant menu, and began a note on my iPad with ideas for upscale, creative dishes based on the wonderful regional favorites of Upstate New York. It had takes on Utica greens, Buffalo wings, a St. Lawrence River shore dinner, spiedies, beef on weck, and more.

I finished it off in August 2014. Check my iPad if you need proof! But of course, I don't actually have the cojones to start a restaurant! It takes big ones!

Now, I don't know when the Upstate Tavern at the Turning Stone Resort and Casino opened, but I feel like they had to have had access to my private files, because they may as well have stolen the idea behind it and some of the menu itself, right out of my head.

The space is masculine, dominated by exposed brick, distressed wooden shiplap, and tin ceilings. It feels a world away from the blinking, plinking casino floor. Comfortable, a little bit slick, and very cool.

Many of the cheeses, condiments, and some other ingredients are sourced from New York purveyors, but overall, the appetizer list isn't really in keeping with our regional specialties. There are wings, yes, and also spiedies, but I'm curious what city in Upstate NY is known for fried oysters? In any event, we chose onion rings and poutine to start. 


I would have preferred the onion rings to be beer battered, which also would have given them the opportunity to use a NY beer, but these were breaded. They didn't have a lot of flavor, but they were big, hot, and crunchy. The dipping sauce, however, was powerful - chock full of horseradish and spices. And when you bit into one, he onion didn't slide right out, which at least means someone in the kitchen knows their way around a ring.

The poutine was markedly more successful, for me. Hearty, hand-cut, skin-on russet potatoes were smothered in Yancy's Fancy cheese curds, still sharp and squeaky (and therefore very fresh), plus a generous ladle of brown gravy with a sturdy backbone of beer, creating a savory dish with a slight hint of acidity and the salty sharpness of the curds. It was very good, and even the sprinkling of scallions on top made sense in the mix.


The fish fry is done with Saranac Pale Ale in the batter, as I wish the onion rings had been. That batter was slightly sweet, owing to the abundance of hops in the ale, to be sure. It was thick, a bit greasy, almost like a funnel cake from your favorite Italian feast, but even crunchier. Just for reference's sake, the fishing camp fry on my fictitious menu is fried bass served on a salad with a slaw component and croutons made from hush puppy batter. Dressed with thousand islands dressing, of course.


Instead of fries with the fish, we tried, "fried salties," or salt potatoes, smashed and deep fried. These are utterly delicious, a little fleshier than a fry, but really well flavored and addictively crispy. You also can get regular salt potatoes with your entree, which of course are a must-have on any good Upstate menu.

A turkey burger was on special that day, and one of our diners tried it. I have no idea why a turkey burger with cranberry mayo has anything to do with Upstate New York, but that mayo was a winner. Maybe because people in NY celebrate Thanksgiving? I mean, people all over the country do that, but yes, those of us in NY happen to be in that camp, I guess. In any case, the burger was juicy, and that mayo was sweet and tart - peace.



In lieu of Buffalo wings, one diner chose the Asian wings. They were very good - sticky, well done, meaty, and slightly spicy. However, the choice to serve blue cheese dressing alongside wings dressed in sweet Thai chili sauce made little sense.

The pot roast was wonderful - boneless short ribs, fall-apart tender, over above-average, from-scratch mashed potatoes that were pointed up with tangy sour cream. The menu said this would be topped with "angry onions," but the little fried strings were only barely spicy with dried cayenne - I'd call them peeved, maybe. The carrots were well-seasoned, bright orange and still a wee bit crunchy in the center. Kind of perfect.



Again, I have no idea why pot roast is being served as an Upstate NY dish - I think of it more as a New England thing. I might have gone in a more Italian direction for the beef dish, as we have such a large Italian population - a braciole or garlic-rubbed ribeye, perhaps.

The Tavern burger was our last entree, and while I don't think of burgers an uniquely NY, they certainly  are beloved here. The brioche roll on which this was served was chewy and buttery, toasted and yummy. But the burger was kind of boring, for me. The diner who ordered it agreed, saying the pickle and roll were the best parts.



There certainly were more iconic dishes on the menu that we didn't try, but I felt like the food here was kind of up and down. The good things were very good, but the flaws were rather gaping, as well. Overall, I thought there should have been more ethnic foods on the menu to truly reflect Upstate's Italian, Greek, Polish, and Irish roots.

Moreover, our waitress was so standoffish, we actually thought she might hate us. She would come to drop off food and be gone so quickly, not a single one of us could have asked for anything if we'd wanted to. I understand that this place is serving a casino crowd, which might dictate a much larger menu and economies of scale that might not seem logical for a normal restaurant with this cool a concept, but I wished it had been driven home a little more thoroughly. 

I give Upstate Tavern a six on the BHS Scale. They may have bogarted my big idea, but I have to give them props for that - and every potato product we ate there was outstanding. Hey, maybe that's the nod to our Irish neighbors! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Upstate Tavern on Urbanspoon
 






3.16.2015

Binghamton Has Arrived

It's all happening in Binghamton. I bet that's a sentence you don't read too often. But finally, the sleepy Triple Cities seem to have downed a triple espresso and started to figure out that good food doesn't always have to be Italian.

I have nothing against our plethora of Italian eateries, of course. It's a birthright here, great Italian food, whether you like your red sauce sweet or savory. But it's well past time for the Southern Tier to catch up to the Finger Lakes, Syracuse, and Buffalo to claim a more prominent food identity. 

When I first moved here, in 2000, the Lost Dog Cafe was blazing the trail. They had a chicken muffuletta style sandwich back then that, combined with a side of sweet potatoes fries, soothed my early 20s soul. Over the years, their menu has evolved as has my palate, but they're still doing it right and packing their seats full of patrons craving something a little different.

Others have joined them, and now we have Bingamton Restaurant Week. This year's BRW is March 24 to April 2, and 25 restaurants are participating. I was among a lucky few invited to a VIP preview party last week at (that's right) the Lost Dog Lounge.


The party was a cool way to interact with restauranteurs, and I was especially pleased to see some of the restaurant owners passing around dishes from other businesses. Here, observe Whole in the Wall's co-owner passing a tray of Zona and Co Grille's super hot sushi:


And behold, Lost Dog's sweet but cheesy, nutty, and earthy "drunken" torta:


That thing was money, and I am working on getting the recipe to share here with all of you, because I don't think anyone should have to live without at least one bite. It was awesome.

There's another newbie in town besides the three new places I described to you in last week's post, The Shop. It's not open yet, but will be by next week. It's a creperie, which has all kinds of nice connotations for me, like a trip to Europe junior year. At the party, they had a tray of rose hip and fig crepes, and Nutella crepes. The Nutella had a lot more flavor, and really reminded me of Paris. The crepes themselves had good flavor and authentic texture, thin and fragile. I can't wait for The Shop to open.


So if you live in Endicott or Owego and don't often get into Binghamton to eat, Restaurant Week is a good opportunity to try out one or two places you might have been curious about. Newcomers The Colonial, Chatterbox, The Shop, and Social on State are all serving three course dinners for $25 or less. BHS favorites Loft at 99, Zona and Co Grille, and Remliks also are on the slate. I'm hoping to get to one or two that I've never reviewed before, like Whole in the Wall and Czech Please.


Those are back porch bourbon lemonades; you can get one (or three!) at the Lost Dog Lounge. It will make you believe summer is here, despite the cold. This was the lightest, most refreshing brown liquor drink I've ever tasted. Other tastes at the party:

- Whole in the Wall's cream of mushroom soup is less creamy and more sweet/savory than most. I guessed there might be a hint of tomato paste somewhere in there? I liked it, and will be trying it during RW.
- Social on State has perfected their chicken osso bucco recipe. They were cooked a little more well done than when I tried them initially, and I quite liked it.
- Binghamton Hots had some killer turkey chili and cornbread, which I never would have guessed in a thousand years. It's a brothy brew, not too much tomato, savory and satisfying. If it's on their RW menu, I recommend it.
- Zona's sushi is HOT. It has pickled habernero chili slivers hidden in that little roll. Get a beer ready and dive in!

 
You know, one food event in a week just wasn't enough for me, so this past Sunday, I grabbed my friend Big Hungry Carrie, and we hit up Southern Tier Independent Restaurants' 2015 Tasting Party at Traditions at the Glen. I am going to lay this down for you right now: this was the best food show to which I have ever been. Yes, I sit on the STIR board, so I knew a lot of people there and that added to the fun, but no joke, the STIR member restaurants pulled out all the stops for this thing. 


Not only did the participating restaurants bring their A games with great dishes, but there were five demonstrations in an adjacent room, allowing you to eat a little, then escape the big, busy ballroom, sit a spell, and learn something. I attended P.S. Restaurant's, Loft at 99's and Food and Fire's demos, and learned more about red curry (with delicious results), local gin and giant ice cubes, and how to prepare a BBQ brisket like a badass.



I know I commented, when I reviewed Food and Fire in January, that their BBQ was not my favorite. I have been proven wrong, because that brisket was juicy, lightly smoked, and utterly divine.


My other favorite bites:

From P.S., a delectable mini duck pot pie in a buttery, flaky pie crust. Rick, tender duck breast, a little white gravy, some corn, and that yummy, savory crust made for about four stellar bites. I hope Rick puts this thing on the menu.


Sake-Tumi was there, rolling fresh sushi right in front of guests. I have literally never seen that at a local food show, and the end product was fantastic.


I liked Moghul's vegetarian samosa, Kampai's hot mama roll, Colonial's truffle Mac, and Remlik's tomato soup, but my next favorite bite came from Zona - a tasty, rare tuna soft taco with sweet chili sauce, just a touch of wasabi, and crunchy, fresh veggies:


Between STIR's event and the peek into Binghamton Restaurant Week, I can state with authority that the Southern Tier finally has its legs under it in terms of its food scene. This is an exciting time for a foodie in the Tier! In fact, with all this goodness, I can't imagine a reason to choose a chain over a local restaurant. I want to wish all the participating Restaurant Week eateries good luck, and encourage you to try and get out at least once, if not more, between March 24 and April 2 to take advantage of the deals they'll have. I also congratulate the STIR members on a wonderful first event as a group - it was really outstanding, and I can't wait for the next one! 

If you live in the Triple Cities, it's a great time to be hungry! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!




3.11.2015

A Gastropub Comes to Jolly Binghamton-town

It's not often we get a new restaurant in Binghamton to review. So when my buddy at BingPop, Joshua, starts posting on Facebook about new eats downtown, I pay attention. Right now, we have four new places either opening or getting set to open, and it's like Christmas for food lovers around here. First and most lauded, The Colonial, on Court St., opened a little more than a week ago, so Big Hungry Melinda and I hit it up right away. 

The interior is what I would call metro-masculine. You've got weathered grey wood, exposed brick, tin ceilings and wood paneling comprising the furnishings. The tables also are made of hard surfaces, which made me think this is more of a drinking place than an eating place.

Obligingly, we ordered a couple jalapeño margaritas, and then immediately ordered a side of extra jalapeños - the heat level wasn't what we were quite looking for. More zing, please! Our waitress was happy to bring them over, and with a few extra slices per drink, these were pint glasses full of spicy, piquant liquid refreshment. 




Chef Jordan Rindgen is touting the menu as Gastropub fare, so we ordered a combo of British pub classics and more Americanized dishes. If you know what's good for you (and also pretty bad for you), the scotch egg will be the first thing you order here. Across the pond, a traditional scotch egg is a hard boiled egg wrapped with ground pork sausage and deep fried. At The Colonial, that egg is soft boiled, the house made sausage is a wee bit spicy, and the fried coating is nice and crunchy. But what made the dish really special was the beet and celery salad underneath - the shredded beets lending sweetness and a huge punch of celery flavor from the light green leaves, lending salt, freshness and sharpness. That is not a mere garnish! The celery leaves made the whole dish - they delivered all the contrasting flavors you needed to counter the rich egg and savory sausage. Brilliant.



I liked the butternut squash croquettes considerably less. The squash gave the dumplings a little sweetness, and that was about all the flavor they had. The maple yogurt sauce underneath was tangy with a slightly smoky depth from the maple syrup, which was nice, but I'm not sure why the menu description mentioned chive, as they were just a garnish and didn't lend much to the dish. For me, next to that killer scotch egg, this plate begged for color and personality.



Melinda ordered the grilled cheese flight with tomato soup. That soup was rich, velvety, with sweet tomato flavor and a background tone of cheese funk that I really dug. This was a bowl filled with savory umami and we both loved it. We also loved the French onion grilled cheese, which was sweet, rich and sparkling with bold flavors like nutty Gruyere cheese while still maintaining its crispy grilled exterior. Unfortunately, we were not as enamored with the mushroom sandwich, which was soggy and surprisingly insipid in flavor, considering it packed a good deal of truffle-laden Gouda cheese that overpowered the rest of the ingredients. You smelled the truffle, and that pungent scent drowned out the cheese and fresh mushrooms but didn't taste like much of anything. 


Much better? Chicken pot pie, baby. This is one of my all-time favorites, and I was thrilled that it was so terrific here. I now have a local pot pie hook up! This dish had a pleasantly surprising depth of flavor that could only have come from a painstakingly house made stock chock full of aromatics and herbs. The sauce was jammed with chunks of stewed chicken and vegetables, and the puff pastry was crisp and buttery.


Melinda loves things done "Buffalo," style, so we tried the Buffalo and blue cheese fries as well, and were really disappointed with this basket full of frozen shoestring product, dressed in wing sauce with some crumbly blue cheese tossed on top. The fries weren't even hot enough to slightly melt the cheese, and they were ice cold within about one minute of arriving at our table. I suspect they were fried ahead of time and kept in a (not so) warming tray, then topped with the (cold) sauce and cheese for service



The Colonial was too new when we visited for me to rate it - they need some time to work out the kinks in the kitchen. They aren't serving dessert yet, though I hope they intend to - you can't be a gastropub without some kind of take on bread pudding or toffee pudding, right? 

The feeling I got from our meal was that Chef Jordan is really jazzed about the more traditional pub dishes and has worked incredibly hard to make them good, while someone else is insisting the menu be filled in with American dishes that are an afterthought for him. While that scotch egg was a masterpiece of flavor and texture, the croquettes felt unfinished. The pot pie and soup were soulful and earthy, but that mushroom grilled cheese still needs some tinkering, and the fries should disappear altogether. I don't know if this theory is true, but that's the story the food is telling.

But let's give it some time, shall we? I think there's real promise here; the good bones of great food. The Colonial had only been open a couple weeks, and I'll be back to really dive in and score it once they've got their legs under them.
 
Colonial on Urbanspoon

I also had dinner at a softly opened Citrea on Parade Day, which also is in downtown Bing. They don't have their full menu available yet, and my gut feeling is that chef is still learning his wood-fired brick oven and its particular eccentricities. But overall, the pizzas were pretty great. A little goopy, which is why I think the intimacy with the oven may not yet have come to fruition, but I think this place has a bright future. The flavors all worked.  A wood-fired brick oven will have hot places and cool places, and learning to control the temp and where to put each item to cook it to its maximum takes some getting used to, you know? Wood fire is fickle.


We even made time to stop in to the new Chatterbox Cafe and Oyster Bar. We didn't try any food there, but I loved the bright, eclectic, but still comfortable atmosphere. You know what else? They have an entire little menu of beer cocktails. That's reason enough for me to come back.



Binghamton is under a renaissance, you guys! It's pretty exciting. I'm heading later this week to Binghamton Restaurant Week's preview party, so I'm hoping to meet with folks and get some scoop. And you know where I bring the scoop! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!




3.03.2015

Watertown Daily Times Review: Cook 'Em, Dano's

It’s no secret that I love a breakfast out, maybe because most mornings, I eat it at my desk like a chump (if chump equals hard-working, typical American). So when I find out that an unexpected place is serving breakfast, I am there like white on rice, baby.

When some good friends who live in Black River said they’d heard that Dano’s Pizzeria & Restaurant in Felt’s Mills was serving breakfast seven days a week, we quickly made plans to try it out. Not a lot of pizzerias are tackling breakfast, so we were eager to find out if the menu would be all breakfast pizzas and egg-stuffed calzones, or what. Not surprisingly, there is a pizza omelet and breakfast pizza, but this menu goes far and above those expectations.
 

Dano’s serves the Fort Drum crowd as well as locals, and I love that they’ve gone to the trouble to upgrade their spacious dining room with slate tile flooring, terracotta-colored walls, and booths decorated with wrought iron details. Yes, the soda dispensers along the back wall kind of interrupt the Italian charm, but A for effort, you know?
 
The Sunday morning we visited, another large family was enjoying a noisy, but friendly repast, and a couple smaller tables came in and out, but it wasn’t crowded. They should get ready for that to change.

The breakfast menu is vast, and I hope you’re good at making decisions, because the choices of cheese and bread for each breakfast entrée are even varied. And the platters (!) of food that will hit your table are just as gargantuan, so you may want to bring your whole platoon to help you eat.

I have an affection for biscuits and sausage gravy ($6.99) dating back to my two too-brief years of college in rural North Carolina. At Dano’s, that gravy was what I call savory incarnate – salty, fatty and creamy, with a powerful punch of black pepper. You could really taste the sausage in each bite, and the biscuit underneath was done right – fluffy and buttery, a perfect base camp for pure decadence. I got the half deluxe order with two eggs and Mexican cheese on top to bump up the richness to Himalayan levels, and my diet cringed appropriately.
 
The breakfast bowl ($8.99) could easily serve two and every ingredient played an important role, with everything in balance and nothing overshadowed. Sausage was ordered with this, though, and we couldn’t account for it anywhere. But there was still plenty to like in that bowl – the onions, mushrooms and peppers were all cooked perfectly and had lots of flavor, and the crispy home fries held their own with the eggs and the thick blanket of melty, gooey cheddar.


The breakfast quesadilla with ham ($7.49) was filled with a lot more zest and generous fillings than I would have wagered, given the price. Once again, the veggies in this were well-seasoned and cooked crisp-tender so they sung in and of themselves and weren’t just tasteless bystanders to the eggs, cheese and meat. This baby was fat and griddled up crunchy on the outside, like you would want.



Pancakes ($2.49 for one cake) were fairly ordinary, but sweet and fluffy. The side of bacon ($2.79) had good flavor and was cooked perfectly – not too crispy nor still limp.
 
The bacon, egg and American cheese on an English muffin sandwich ($4.99) was served on a homemade English muffin made by some sort of kitchen ninja (or, you know, Mr. Rick's Bakery, in Watertown). That puppy was extraordinary – buttery, with a satisfying chew, a crunchy exterior and a gorgeously airy interior. The diner who ordered this also asked for her bacon extra crispy, and her wish was granted. We like that.


A bacon, onion and American cheese omelet ($4.99) was well-seasoned and not greasy, the international hallmarks of well made omelets. Again, those onions were fresh and offered sharp/sweet personality, and there was enough bacon in there that you could definitely taste it – this is no bacon bits joint.


Breakfast for six came to $60.59, and our waitress, Roxanne, was a little brusque, but very efficient and sharp – she handled every special request (save the sausage in the breakfast bowl) with ease. And the sausage omission was most likely a kitchen snafu rather than any fault of hers. Those prices were more than reasonable for such big portions, in a bright and comfortable setting.

I give Dano’s a seven on the Big Hungry Shelby scale for breakfast – above average, and in fact, earlier this week, just randomly one morning, I wished I was having breakfast there. Le sigh – such is the life of a working drone stuck eating a boring, healthy breakfast at her desk. With a morning repast this good, I can’t wait to go back, because they have a poutine pizza. Yeah. Gravy and fries on a pizza – be still my heart failure!
Dano's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon