2.02.2016

The Cultivation of Confusion

Coltivare, in Ithaca, is resolutely one of the most gorgeous dining rooms in Upstate New York, and I say that with a fair amount of confidence. The concept of this subway-tiled, exposed brick walled, scraped wood tabled restaurant is a learning environment for the culinary students of Tompkins Cortland Community College, and last summer when I brunched there, though the food was good not great, I very much looked forward to the evolution of the menu and the kitchen as the students came up to speed.


We returned a couple weeks ago, again for brunch, and I'm still a little perplexed. The marketing is using all the right buzzwords to hook me, like "farm to bistro," and seasonal; the guys lined up behind the bar are young and mustachioed; the service is refined and cheerful. Here's the hitch: there's not a thing on the menu I really, really want to order. I love food more than almost anyone I know, and I can usually hone in on the dish I want in approximately 30 seconds - otherwise I'm agonizing between the two most interesting things and hoping my fellow diner will order the one I don't end up with so we can both taste it. At Coltivare, I couldn't decide, but it was because nothing was really all that enticing.

For the gorgeous interior, locavore sourcing, great cocktails, and ambitious concept, the food should be cravable, but for me, it's just ok.


We loved the tiny, two bite scones and moist, sweet carrot bread squares in our basket, but the banana bread was very dry and scant on flavor. The orange butter was tasty, though.


The big stuffed French toast was big and stuffed with ricotta and allegedly fruit, though I only got fruit flavor from the sauce on top. The waiter forgot to bring maple syrup when he first brought the dish, so our first few bites were dry. Once the syrup arrived, things perked up into more appropriate sweetness and texture, but this dish didn't blow either of us away. It was good. Not particularly inventive or demonstrative of culinary school technique.


I had been hoping for a hash made with brisket or short rib or pork shoulder, and that wasn't to be found on the menu, so I went for the croque Madame. For $12, it was good, thin, crusty bread, average ham and very little of it, mild Gruyere cheese that added almost no flavor to dish, and two eggs. The menu boasted bechamel sauce, which would at least speak to the students learning a French master sauce, but honestly, if it was on there, I couldn't even tell. Bechamel is a cream sauce, which may not always have assertive flavors, but if you're using it to teach, why not use it as the vehicle to jazz up the dish? Infuse it with herbs or citrus; make it a mornay and add cheese to bolster that snoozey Gruyere! Something! There was zero artistry or skill put into this dish, save possibly the pickled onions on the side, and since I wanted something to go along with it, I had to pay for a side of fries. How is a ham sandwich teaching anything to culinary students? I could make this dish with jet lag and no recipe.


The fries are good: hand cut and seasoned with coarse salt. Peace.

This is the second time we've dined here on a weekend, and the second time only two other tables were occupied on a busy Saturday morning in Ithaca. Every other restaurant near The Commons is jammed on weekends, so the empty dining room informs me that I'm not the only one being left cold by this uninspired fare.


Coltivare holds a lot of promise. I would hate to see this beautiful facility go to waste. I'm hoping the leadership here loosens the reins a bit and lets the kids unleash new ideas and some modern dishes. This menu is crying out for an infusion of the kind of food this extraordinary, modern interior deserves - and frankly, that the wonderful local products of the Finger Lakes deserve! Some creativity is all that's needed to make Coltivare a success.


1.19.2016

Watertown Daily Times Review: Fairground Inn

There are venerable restaurants in every city that launch a thousand tales told by a thousand patrons. A marriage proposal at Tavern on the Green, a first bowl of chowder at Union Oyster House or a celebrity sighting at Commander’s Palace become fodder for years of storytelling and elevate those places into their place in history. 
In Watertown, one of our more storied eateries is the Fairground Inn. This restaurant, now run by one of the north country’s most prolific food families, the Colemans, originally opened in the 1930s. That means that generations of patrons have made memories here, including yours truly. 
This was one of the first Italian restaurants in the area, but the interior has been updated since my childhood. The main dining room is now enlivened with murals of the Italian countryside running the length of the wall, with light fixtures festooned with heaps of grapes and vines. I couldn’t tell you the last time the Fairground Inn wasn’t busy when I was there, and the night we visited was no exception, with familiar faces and large families crowding into the cozy space.
A lot of the fried items on the starter menu are freezer-to-fryer processed foods, but our enthusiastic waitress, Allyson, steered us toward the calamari ($7.99) for a house-made appetizer. These tender squid were dredged in a very light flour mixture for a fragile, finely crispy exterior. Their flavor was mild, but dipped in the accompanying sweet chile sauce, they perked right up for a barely fiery, candied taste. 

Potato skins ($6.99) are also made in-house, and each big half russet was packed with a pocket of minced bacon in the center and topped with browned, bubbly, sharp yellow cheddar cheese. They were savory and earthy, perfect with lots of cooling sour cream. I will say, a sprinkle of fresh chives, scallions or parsley on top would have been a nice contrast to just point these up a tiny bit, but we liked the, sans green just fine.

I have a lifelong love of soup, which basically originated at the Fairground Inn. My favorites, then and now, were the clam chowder and French onion. 
The clam chowder ($3.99) here is one of the thickest I’ve had anywhere, the “broth” is creamy with lots of celery flavor and slightly chewy clams throughout. I like to add lots of black pepper for punch to the already well-seasoned potage. 
The French onion ($3.99) was covered in a blanket of browned provolone cheese, keeping the soup inside hotter than the surface of the sun. Usually, the broth is beefy and salty, flavored with the aromatic, sweet essence of the cooked-down onions. This time, unfortunately, it tasted like maybe they had run out of soup sometime earlier in the day and tried to top off the pot without starting from scratch. The broth tasted like saltwater, lacking the depth of beef or vegetables.
By the time we ordered our main dishes, Allyson had been tipped off that we were there to review for the Times. That will happen at a place where you’re a regular. While most servers get kind of nervous and formal when they figure us out, Allyson became even more familiar, joking with us and getting to know us better. She, of course, was great to us, but I watched her care for her other tables, and I can promise you that everybody has a fun night out when Allyson’s working. 
The Fairground Inn’s creamy house Italian salad dressing is a big deal. A couple decades ago they started selling it to go because they received so many requests. The salads are pretty de rigueur: iceberg lettuce, red onion, tomato and shredded carrots, but that sweet and tangy dressing is unique and delicious. 
It’s really just a standard vinaigrette with lots of sugar and a little mayonnaise, I believe, but the whole equals more than the sum of its parts, and once you try it, you’ll never order another dressing for your salad here. A tip from me to you: Ask for your salad dressed up with bacon and chopped hard-boiled egg. It’s a variation dreamt up by a friend of mine, and the salty bacon and earthy egg pair beautifully with that tart, sweet dressing.
The Italian sandwich ($6.79), served, as the diner requested, on a sub roll (it usually comes on a round bun), sports a thick pile of thinly sliced salami and ham, with crunchy, fresh green peppers and red onions for a note of vegetal sharpness amid all the richness of the meat. Tomatoes and provolone cheese round out the enormously satisfying heft of this big boy, along with a bit of Italian dressing to bring everything together. 
It comes with wavy potato chips, in case the salt content of this meal hasn’t already bloated you beyond all recognition — in the best way possible (insert decadent foodie grin here).
A personal white pizza ($5.29) is big enough for two, especially if you’ve had appetizers — although if you’re smart, you’ll just keep the leftovers for yourself. Four mammoth slices of garlic lovers’ heaven arrive on a relatively thin crust that still has a good chew to it. There’s lots of garlic, oil and salty, goopy cheese on this beauty — eating it is like making really fabulous garlic bread into your entire dinner and not feeling guilty about it. I mean, you can feel guilty if you want to, but what's an extra three hours on the treadmill? Pshaw.

The meatball sandwich ($6.29) arrived looking like a UFO that had been covered in marinara sauce. It’s made on that Italian bun I mentioned before, and it’s a massive amount of food for under $7. The tomato sauce at the Fairgrounds is cooked down and flavorful, enriched with lots of tomato paste for a deep taste.

Unfortunately, this visit, the meatballs were not their usual flavorful, tender selves. These were very tough and had no flavor of their own. It really shows you how important it is for a restaurant to achieve consistency in the kitchen, because whomever had made the meatballs that day had apparently skipped some seasonings and mixed the meat beyond belief, to the detriment of the final product.
The beef dip ($7.08) at the Fairgrounds is my favorite. Almost 2 inches of tender, sliced roast beef are piled on a squishy, sesame-seeded Italian bun with a slice of provolone and served with a big cup of beefy, rich au jus sauce for dipping. So you grab a half of the sandwich and you dunk it in the jus, making for the juiciest, beefiest bite ever. 

The roll is key — it has to be airy enough to absorb lots of jus but sturdy enough not to disintegrate before you can cram it into your mouth. The Fairgrounds does it perfectly — this dish can be too salty or the jus can be too watery, but here, it’s always just right. I’ve had versions of this sandwich elsewhere in which the bread is made like garlic bread, or the beef was more flavorful, but I come back to this simple greatness every time. 
The Fairground Inn chicken ($12.99) consists of two boneless chicken cutlets smothered in roasted red peppers, mushrooms and Alfredo sauce. The sauce is well-seasoned and robustly cheesy, and it balances the sweetness of the peppers and the woodsy, sort of beefy mushrooms to round the dish out very well. The baked potato alongside was cooked through perfectly. 

Tollhouse pie ($4.99) is, essentially, a warm chocolate chip cookie in pie form. Think rich chocolate, the warming flavors of brown sugar and cinnamon and the sweet richness of whipped eggs, butter and sugar rendered in a 2-inch-thick, still gooey cookie, and you’ll understand exactly how good it was. This slice was studded with tons of chocolate and topped with chocolate sauce, which received thumbs ups from all who tried it.

The banana cream pie ($4.99) is another Fairground Inn favorite from my youth. It’s a very simple version of this Southern classic, with a flaky pie crust, a layer of sliced bananas and a vanilla custard filling topped with whipped cream. It is creamy and very mildly banana-y, not the best or the most gourmet banana cream pie I’ve ever had, but certainly the most nostalgic. It is perfect in its simplicity, for me.
Coconut cream pie ($499) is another simple, but good, rendering. More flaky crust, more thick vanilla custard, more whipped cream, but this time, it’s got shredded, sweetened coconut running through it. Nothing fancy, but certainly tasty. 

Dinner for six, with two rounds of drinks, two appetizers and three desserts to share, ran us $110.30, and right there is one of the big reasons my family has been eating at the Fairground Inn regularly for nearly 40 years: lots of good food for low prices. 
The Fairground Inn is a place where people come together. You can go there for lunch and see everything from groups of girlfriends taking a shopping break, to Canadians on their way through town, to families with small children being thankful that someone else is doing the cooking. The food is accessible, the atmosphere comfortable. You can get everything from fajitas to pasta to gourmet sandwiches, and for the most part, it’s pretty terrific. 
Unfortunately, we did have a few weak dishes time time. I’ve noticed over the years that consistency can be a problem — but a restaurant with more than 80 years of serving food can’t be perfect every time. 
I give the Fairground Inn a seven on the Big Hungry Scale (Allyson’s warm, wonderful service is worth a whole point of that score). And look, you know I’ll be back. This place is as much a part of me as cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning, the playground at Thomspon Park and feeding the ducks at the public dock in Sackets Harbor. If you mapped my DNA, you’d find clam chowder, a beef dip and banana cream pie from the Fairground Inn in the matrix, I bet.
Make sure you're keeping up with all the latest on Upstate New York food on the Big Hungry Shelby Facebook page, plus lots of food porn on Instagram @BigHungryShelby. My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!
Fairgrounds Inn Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

1.12.2016

Open Wide

I have a new favorite website to help me waste my money on stuff to make me fat. Doesn't that sound like an enticing prospect? LOL Mouth.com is relatively new, and I found out about it because my girl Carla Hall (who I've met, so I'm famous and fab by association, right?) curated a collection of her favorites on the site and shared it on her Facebook page. I'm sharing it with you of my own volition - not some paid endorsement razzmatazz. 

It's like Zingermans for hipsters, with the added bonus of booze. Think jams, peanut butter, cookies, sweets, cheese, bacon, and seasonings. Many are from Brooklyn, that annoying hotbed of artisanal, self-righteous deliciousness. Seriously, these millenials are incorrigible, but damn their absolute belief in their own individuality and preciousness leads to some good eats.

In my first order, I went for carrot cake jam, beer mustard, a salt/pepper mix by Marc Murphy that actually was disappointing, and these cookies, which rocked my world.


These are deep and nutty with brown sugar and butter flavors and spiked with enough salt to take the edge off all the sweetness, plus the slight tang of a shortbread base. Absolutely wonderful.

Carrot jam is my favorite, but if your jam jam is, well, based in actual fruit, Mouth has plenty of options:


And then they have their products curated into groups for your particular food obsessions. Guess which one is mine? 


I also ordered some of that bacon jam, and a tiny spoonful of it in a portion of stone ground oatmeal is a perfect breakfast treat with a soft boiled egg over top.

The site specializes in indie, artisanal foods made in America, so it's cool to know you're supporting small purveyors with your purchase, even if most of those schmucks have dumb beards and wear skinny jeans. I can't really deal with a lanky 24 year old named Jezekiah who owns a bike instead of a car and has to budget for mustache cream each month, but if he'll make me some really tasty, handmade bourbon marshmallows that cost $11 but revolutionize my hot cocoa, I might call us even.


There's some really fun stuff on the site, like something called Sparkle Bark, smoked chocolate chips, beer-infused pasta, and fun pickles. So check out Mouth.com for yourself. It's a new year! Try new things! It's one of my new favorite online haunts, and you never know when you'll stumble upon a signature ingredient for your kitchen. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


1.05.2016

Much Better than Pills and 90 Proof

There's an old Hank Williams Jr. song that asserts that corn bread and ice tea's taken the place of pills and 90 proof, with the inference that it's a sign he's getting old. Here's the thing: I would much rather eat corn bread and ice tea than pills and 90 proof, and that fact has stood for my entire life!

Ahem. If you, too, fancy corn bread, there's a new joint in town. Muffer's Kitchen, on Glenwood Ave in Bingamton, has been open for a few months now. Its dine-in area is small, which probably means the majority of this comfort food den's business is take out. 


There are two very important things to know about Muffer's. First of all, the cornbread here is legit. It has a more cakey and less crumbly texture than most versions I've tried North of the Mason Dixon line, and the flavor is sweet like fresh summer corn, with less of the cornmeal earthiness and grit you typically find. 

The second thing: 


FRIED CHICKEN. 

Now, this isn't the best fried chicken I've ever had. Samantha Buyskes, of Kindred Fare in Geneva, makes my favorite in New York State, and Mrs. Rowe's in Staunton, VA probably makes my favorite in the nation. But for these parts, where the southern delicacy is woefully hard to find, Muffer's is here to save the day. The crust is delicately crisp, but not full-out crunchy, and the dark meat thigh and leg are juicy and well-seasoned.

Sides of macaroni and cheese and collard greens were both good, although the greens were on the more bitter side than savory - a sign to me that they could have been cooked down a wee bit more. The Mac and cheese was made with good, sharp cheddar and the pasta wasn't overcooked, which I liked.

I did notice huge food service cans of baked beans behind the counter, so I would skip that as a side. If I wanted canned baked beans, I'll fish some Bush's out of my pantry. 


The grilled chicken was well-seasoned but very simple. We also tried the sweet potato pie. You actually get two slices with each order! This was far too sweet for my palate, but I very much liked the flaky crust. 

Muffer's likely won't blow your mind, but I'm betting it's a godsend for the folks who live in that neighborhood. I know I'd be ordering up cornbread, chicken and Mac and cheese if I was nearby. I give Muffer's a six on the BHS scale. Give it a try and let me know what you think! And I know what you're thinking: no, I do not want to talk about why I have Hank Williams Jr. lyrics floating around in my head. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Muffer's Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato