1.28.2015

Steak Out

Another Miss Finger Lakes Pageant has come to pass, and with it, my crew's annual pilgrimage to Corning. As usual, I was so pleased to traipse up and down the boutique-lined Gaffer District, shopping in antique and fun clothing stores. 

This year, we chose Tony R's Steak and Seafood for dinner, a place I've been wanting to hit up for the last two years or so. As soon as you step into this expansive space that actually takes up three buildings on Market St., you are whisked away from little Corning with marble floors, oodles of dark woodwork and piano music twinkling from a balcony above.


The feeling of transportation continues into the dining room, a former bank, adorned with a large fireplace and some mounted big game heads from the owner's safari hunts in his native Africa. It is big, but quiet and dim, encouraging a deep breath and a relaxing sigh as you peruse the varied menu. The feel is very clubby, very masculine, but enveloping. 

The generous bread basket is filled with homemade, crusty and hearty Italian and brown breads. The texture is more crumbly and tender than a ciabatta, but the robust, browned crust is homey and just slightly smoky.

I very much wanted to order both the beef carpaccio and the tuna appetizer, but it's a new year and I'm back on Weight Watchers, so saving points for steak won out. That said, my starter salad with house Italian dressing and crumbly blue cheese was fresh and flavorful, the dressing tart but not too sharp. It was basic, but good basic. I love a couple black olives on my salad, and I received them. Cool.


Let's cut right to the meat, shall we? I am firm believer that the ribeye is the highest form of beef perfection (except maybe the short rib, but that's for another post). So I ordered the delmonico, even though 12 ounces of well-marbled choice cow is an insanely large portion and my Weight Watchers coach probably keeled over somewhere when the order escaped my fat mouth. 


When we received our steaks, our exemplary waitress Marci stuck around and requested that we each take a first bite, so that if one of our grilled slabs of Heaven happened to be cooked in a manner other than our liking, she could fix the problem. I have literally never had this happen, anywhere. Well done, Marci and Tony! And can you see that gorgeous little pool of fat in the meat dimple up there? It looks so delicious, I almost wanted to lap it up rather than cut into it.

But I relented, and I bit. Holy cow (literally)! There are adjectives like tender, savory, well-seasoned and juicy that I would ordinarily use to describe such a protein. None of them are good enough to describe this steak. Did I really taste this wonder in Corning? The explosion of umami every bite delivered was exceptional. This seems crazy to say, but this might have been the best steak I've ever tasted.

Maurina's penne alla vodka was the lightest, brightest version of this dish I've discovered. I don't even think there was cream in it, you guys. So, it was very different than what I was expecting, but garlicky and fresh tasting. Quite delicious.


Pasta pomadoro was like a taste of summer on a cold winter's evening - totally herbaceous with a burst of fresh basil, garlic, and crushed tomato. The delicate angel hair pasta was a perfect pairing with this whisper light sauce.



Chicken campagnola was sneakily quite spicy, a fact not revealed on the menu! Tender sautéed chicken, al dente linguine, and spicy Italian sausage played with fiery cherry peppers in a light, just slightly creamy wine sauce. I would order this dish on a return trip and chow down on this fantastic, kicky combo.



We split a delectable plate of wild mushrooms sautéed in butter with fresh herbs for our steaks to add woodsy, earthy oomph to the works. One diner exclaimed that while he is not a shroom fan, these made him into a fungus 'shipper. Imagine that. He's a pretty fun guy.

Please don't kill me for saying that. Another side of mac and cheese was a little pedestrian compared to the rest of our terrific food. I know I'm a harsh critic of mac, but this was lacking zing, overt creaminess, or sharp cheese flavor. We agreed it was a little dry, and scooped up some more shrooms.



I really wish we'd had time for dessert, because Tony's has baked Alaska. How old school and fun is that? Anyone want to go back with me for appetizers and dessert? I give Tony R's an eight on the BHS scale, and from the response we received at the pageant when we told locals we'd dined there, I think communiy sentiment would agree. This is one club everyone want to join. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger! 

Tony R's Steak & Seadfood on Urbanspoon

1.14.2015

You Can't Eat Friendship, but it will Fill You Up

I started this review in December 2013, and am just finally delivering it now. Maybe Food and Fire, in Johnson City, is just too big to fit into one year? So full disclosure, a friend of mine, Dan, is one of the owners of Food and Fire. That always complicates my job, but he knows I pull no punches and that I'm always on the side of the small business owner, even if my opinion has some tough love mixed in.

On my first trip to Food and Fire, way back in winter 2013, we were seated right away, but unfortunately, at a table which no servers were covering at that time. So we had an egregious lag time before we could manage to flag down a waitress and score some grub. I'm happy to report that on successive visits, the service kinks have all been worked out, and in fact, the wait staff in both the dining room and bar have been really warm, fun, and prompt.

The interior is very Guy Fieri's "Big Bite," all black and red with chrome touches. It's macho, but not too sparse, and there are some very modern fireplaces to warm it all up and make it comfortable for the female persuasion.

Back then, I wasn't bowled over by the under-seasoned fried green tomatoes, but when I ordered them again about a month ago, they could have won an award for most improved. The breading is super crunchy and the green tomatoes are tart and hold together well. The red pepper sauce served alongside is reminiscent of a romesco sauce: sweet, creamy, and just a little nutty.



The two best appetizers on F&F's menu are like the proverbial angel and devil, warring atop each shoulder for your attention. The smoke bombs are fiery and fantastic. Hoo boy! The jalapeño in this popper play is smoked to crisp-tender, and just like all chiles, will vary in heat. What I'm saying is, the bomb you pick off the plate could be hot, or it could be nuclear. You've been warned! The bacon wrapping the outside of the smoky, spicy chile and cooling, but flavorful, cream cheese somehow gets cooked through perfectly despite the jalapeños retaining some bite, and the saltiness plus a hint of sweetness from a quick swipe of BBQ sauce is much more successful in balancing the spice and cream than boring old breadcrumb coating.
On the more angelic side, the sweet bombs are there to cool you down. These are sweet papadew peppers dolled up in much he same fashion, but bursting with sugary pleasure. No pain on this plate. The cream cheese here is fortified with cheddar, to bring some savory flavor to all that sweet. Another glaze of BBQ sauce and the light smokiness ensures these babies aren't all saccharine goo.





But the hits just keep on coming! Because while the smoky and sweet bombs may be the king and queen of the appetizer menu, their royal subjects aren't sleeping on the job. The corn fritters having a robust fry on them and are generously sized, with a very smart chipotle-pineapple dipping sauce that ended up being the key to the whole dish. The fritters themselves had a zip I didn't expect, and dipped  in the spicy-sweet and creamy sauce, they were really delicious (though very filling for a starter!)





Fried pickles come dangerously close to my beloved and dearly departed most-favorite-ever fried pickles at The Peguin, in Charlotte, NC. For one thing, Food & Fire is one of the only joints north of the Madon Dixon using the proper dill chips instead of blasphemous spears. But better still, these are homemade pickles! Dip in ranch and shovel them into your gaping maw with abandon. They're yummy.





Ok, so I know the focus and the star here is BBQ. Honestly, the BBQ at Food and Fire, for me, is not the star. I'm a tough judge on BBQ, to be sure, having lived for two years in rural North Carolina and spent a lot of time in Texas Hil Country. Something is going on with Food and Fire's rub that doesn't work for me - maybe a little too much brown sugar that over-caramelizes in the smoker or something similar. For my palate, that rub covers up the actual taste of whatever meat it's seasoning, and I lose the flavors of salt and fat that for me equal good BBQ. But I only have the one mouth with which to taste, and this is where the lesson comes in, folks. I have eaten F&F's BBQ with plenty of people who totally groove on the pulled pork, ribs, and chicken wings all rubbed up good. And that's kind of the genius of this restaurant - I love eating there even though their BBQ is not my jam.

 
So what does make my skirt fly up at Food and Fire? Why, it's only my new favorite burger in all of the Southern Tier, the glorious rise and swine burger. I mean, come on, throw a sunny side up egg, a little smoky ham, and some smoked Gouda cheese on anything and I'm likely to chow down, but add them as the crowning glory to a juicy, thick, beefy burger? Oh, and have the eggy bun actually be capable of containing all this gustatory gladness? This is the stuff that hangovers and hungry mornings spent volunteering are made of, friends.




In the Bingamton area, we're a little shy on really good pub grub spots. You all know I love Zona in downtown Binghamton, but it's tiny, and from where I live, a bit far away. I love that Food and Fire has pretty fantastic and creative appetizers and good burgers, plus sandwiches, salads, and the whole BBQ array - in a comfortable setting that's large enough to always have a table available. And I haven't even mentioned all the craft beers, which aren't necessarily my thing, but offer a lot of options for those who love the hops. 

I give Food and Fire BBQ and Taphouse a seven on the BHS scale, maybe just for the fact that they serve a small cup of melted marshmallow fluff with their sweet potato cottage fries. Or maybe because I've been craving that burger ever since I ate it, or because the cute bartender is so tall? He can reach across a whole section of the multitudes of taps, almost! Or maybe because I think we need more Food and Fires 'round these parts, roomy restaurants where you can assemble a mess of friends and family and share some down to earth and artfully prepared food - and there's something for everyone. How delicious does that sound? My personality is big; my hunger is bigger! 

Food & Fire on Urbanspoon

1.12.2015

Take a Seat in Your Comfort Zone at Shuler’s in Watertown


I figure, after the first full work week of 2015, you might deserve an easier ride this weekend. So take a load off smack dab in the middle of your comfort zone, and let’s have dinner tonight at Shuler’s Steak and Seafood.

This stalwart of the North Side of Watertown has a couple new owners and a refreshed interior to match, plus a cozy, somewhat secluded bar area complete with a spanking new flat screen TV for your athletic viewing pleasure. The old school dining room is receiving its makeover gradually but steadily, with new window treatments and lanterns brightening up the space when we visited, but fresh tablecloths and water pitchers yet to come.
 
The liquor license was also in-process then, but it’s since been acquired, so have no fear. The bar is now functional and that glass of wine you’ve earned this week is ready for you. Also ready is the bustling staff, catering to tables of families and older couples on the night we dined there, though at these prices and with the updated feel, I can see this becoming an affordable date night spot for young couples as well. You can still grab dinner here for $10, folks. $10!!

Shuler’s has a reputation as kind of a grandma’s restaurant, and part of that is well earned. You won’t find any words like fusion, molecular gastronomy, artisanal or vegan on the menu here. Nay, Shuler’s is where you come for really great renditions of the kind of food you ate growing up. In fact, when new owners Jason Tanner and Terry Williams took over, just about the only thing they didn’t change was their head cook. As a result, diners get practiced, homemade comfort food with no gimmicks.

You might, say, start your feast with some fried mushrooms ($5.99). Simple bar food, right? Probably a frozen product, straight from the bag into the fryer? Not at Shuler’s! We received a dinner plate jammed with big, juicy white mushrooms, quartered, breaded with finely ground breadcrumbs, and flash fried. The mushrooms were cooked through but not dried out, and there wasn’t a hint of greasiness to the finished product. Dunked into ranch dressing, these flooded our mouths with the lightly earthy flavor of mushrooms and the tang of buttermilk and dill. Not quite so simple after all. I could have snacked on three platefuls.
 
When we frequented Shuler’s in my tween days, the clam chowder ($3.99 for a cup) was one of my favorites, so I had to give it another try. This cup of creamy warmth was so packed with clams and potatoes, there was barely room for the chowder portion of the deal. The predominate taste was of cream, rather than seafood, which is entirely up to preference. I quite liked it, though it didn’t blow me away or anything.



The salads were a standard affair, with a couple grape tomatoes, de rigueur cucumber slices, red onion rings and romaine, but our upgrade to crumbly gorgonzola cheese on top added sharpness and personality. The generous basket of dinner rolls and corn muffins was also a throwback, but what a nice one. How few non-Italian restaurants are supplying a bread basket these days!
 

Fried haddock ($11.99) was flaky + succulent, which equals perfectly cooked in fried fish math. The breading was very light and savory, with a bit of corn meal in the mix to add to the complexity and make it super crunchy. The French fries, typically a forgettable side, are in this case hand cut and double-fried as the kitchen gods intended; lightly seasoned and expertly fried. Again in this dish, Shuler’s is taking the ordinary and elevating it ever so slightly to make it really tasty and worth leaving the house to taste.
 

Fried clams ($11.99) were a frozen product, so demerits; however, they also were plump, flavorful and not a bit greasy, so they kind of won me over – at this price point. While I’m an advocate of all-homemade food, there are a few cases in which a landlocked restaurant like Shuler’s, in the interest of keeping prices down, may choose a high quality packaged product rather than try to find fresh seafood and bread it themselves; this may be an instance in which this was a wise choice. Honestly, I’ve had hand breaded clams in New England that were weaker in flavor and texture than this plate, which was nearly overflowing with seafood.
 
Prime rib is available every day at Shuler’s, which right away distinguishes it from most north country establishments. You don’t have to wait for Saturday for your slab of beefy goodness! My 12 oz portion was $16.99, cooked perfectly to my medium-rare specification, and plenty juicy. It was lacking a bit of seasoning for me, but I am a noted salt hound. A more aggressive hand with the salt and pepper would have suited me just fine, but otherwise, this was textbook perfect roasted beef.

 
I haven’t had a baked potato since dinosaurs roamed the earth (approximately). Who is still serving them anymore? Shuler’s is, and this one was a sight for sore eyes. Hello, gorgeous carbs! I loaded that foil-wrapped, steaming pod of lusciousness up with a metric ton of butter and real, full-fat sour cream and regressed into the moaning, drooling form of my 11 year old self. This is how you kick it old school, people. I haven’t bought full-fat sour cream for my own home in eons.

Desserts ran the gamut from a pretty run-of-the-mill coconut cream pie that didn’t set my hair on fire, with its boring vanilla pudding and packaged, sweetened shredded coconut, to a quite yummy lemon lush in which the tartness of the citrus was tempered with a sweet cream cheese layer on the bottom. The chocolate pie was a standout, with truly rich, deep, chocolately flavor.

Dinner for three with no adult beverages, but one appetizer and three desserts, was $69.84, and the portions were pretty huge, you guys. It’s a new year, so I know everyone’s starting their diets and trying to figure out how to load up on vegetables and limit their breaded, fried proteins, so you might think a comfort food review is ill-timed. But I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like a home style, affordable, filling and comforting meal out now and again. And we all need cheat days, am I right?

The service here is casual but excellent – your dirty dishes will be removed lickity split and your water glass will never go empty. There’s natural light from large windows with which to gaze upon your generous platter of chicken and biscuits or stuffed shrimp, and for the most part, this classic eatery is doing it right – homemade and legit.

I award Shuler’s Steak and Seafood with a seven on the Big Hungry Shelby scale because the whole is equal to more than the sum of its parts. Family style restaurants providing hearty fare and good value are just as important to the gastronomic landscape as more refined spots which push culinary boundaries, and they’re just as good, albeit in a different way. Gravy has value, is what I’m trying to say, and good gravy is just what the doctor ordered on more occasions than a gastronome might imagine.

Shuler’s delivers tasty plates of solid food at more than fair prices to your table in a comfortable, light-filled dining room by a cadre of smiling servers, and sometimes, that’s just the ticket. On those nights when what you really want is relaxation and to pig out (I can think of a lot of nights when that’s just the ticket), Shuler’s is your new destination.
Shuler's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

1.03.2015

No Bashing on Basha's

Happy New Year, gang! Back in 2012, I tried lunch at Basha's Lebanese Grill on the Vestal Parkway and cautioned you not to bother. It was terrible. But recently, some new friends and my hair stylist Dan urged me to give it another chance, as new owners have taken the helm and have purportedly righted the ship.

Food from the Mediterranean region offers some of my favorite flavors. The tatziki of Greece, the lamb and eggplant of Israel, and the za'tar, ras al hanout and sumac spices used throughout the middle eastern and Mediterranean areas are exciting, fresh and delicious. I want more of them in my life, and Basha's has them. This may be my new favorite lunch stop in the Triple Cities.

To start off, you may want to order the mankoushe, which is a pita served flat and covered with za'tar, then baked up crispy. Basha's version is a little dry; it would be wonderful dipped in hummus or the garlic sauce I'll tell you about a little further down the page. Za'tar is a small bush that grows in the mountains of the Holy Land, and in this iteration, it is green and verdant, mixed with sesame seeds, thyme, oregano and sweet, woodsy sumac. The bread is chewy and has some crunch from the seeds - just a nice, savory start to the meal.


The lamb kabob on a pita is one of my new favorite things in all the world. Bright bursts of lemon, tomato and savory lamb pop on the tongue as you first bite down, and then sort of dissolve into the flavor of earthy hummus, which is spread inside the Lebanese flatbread. That bread is like thin, pliable pita, but a little less dry, and it managed to hold up to the sandwich ingredients without tearing or falling apart. The lamb is super tender for the short amount of time they cooked it, so I'm guessing it was marinated for a while in lemon, olive oil, oregano and other spices. Altogether, the flavors were just remarkably harmonious for a fast food sandwich - I could eat this twice a week for lunch and be happy indefinitely. The kicker had to be the lightly grilled onions and green peppers stuffed in there, the peppers lending a sharp zip to the mellow lamb and creamy hummus. 



I am really becoming more and more enamored with coffees from other cultures and less so with my Keurig. This all started, of course, in Amsterdam, with their ridiculously civilized service of dark, deep coffee with crema on top and a tiny cookie alongside, and was intensified when the hotel I stayed in in Houston in October had a Nespresso machine right in my room. Then I had Vietnamese coffee with sweetened, condensed milk in it last month, which was fabulous. So at Basha's, I just had to try the Lebanese coffee. Hoo boy! This stuff is serious business. Super strong, and served in what can only be described as a doll's tea set, the coffee was bangin'. I had to add sugar because I'm a wimp, but unadorned, this brew is thick, rich, a little bitter and wickedly delicious.


This is sexy food, y'all. I don't know if it's the lack of heavy carbs and rich cheese which makes the  meat, veggies and citrus shine so brightly, or what. But whenever I eat it, I want more.

I also want more of the chicken shawarma platter, which comes with a super crisp, colorful salad topped with an herbaceous lemon vinaigrette to make you feel less guilty about scarfing the entire cup of the other thing it comes with: garlic sauce. This uber robust, garlicky triumph will keep away vampires and is utterly delicious smeared on the thin, Lebanese-style pita with the crispy, marinated chicken. The tomatoes in the salad provide an acidic sweetness, while the rice pilaf is savory and well seasoned. The entire plate is a zesty concerto of garlic, sharpness, salt and earthiness - a world tour of flavors that adds up to why this cuisine is so vibrant and addictive.


I did my homework on the sauce, in case you were wondering. It's a marvel, but not because of its ingredients, which are simplicity itself: vegetable oil and raw garlic; sometimes a tiny bit of lemon juice. The key is a fun little word to say: emulsification. Basically, you take enormous, unreasonable amounts of oil, and force it into fresh garlic in a food processor until it becomes something....other. The sauce is fluffy and creamy, pungent yet ethereal, an absolutely dynamite elixir that is more of a spread than a sauce, and that you will want to slather on every edible surface you can root out. At the very least, dunk your fries in it.

Is it apparent I'm enamored with Basha's? Because I am. At the very same place I once threw away a $10 lunch that was so lousy it wasn't worth the calories, I now salivate over the perfectly seasoned meats and sauces. In my book and on my BHS scale, it's an eight. An eight! I never give fast food places an eight! But it's that good. Get there, try it, then thank the people who talked me into going back. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger. 

Basha's Lebanese Grill on Urbanspoon