Recreational Dining

A lot of people I know run in 5ks and half marathons as a hobby. Some golf, or craft; others read. I never thought about eating and writing about it as my hobby, really, until this year when I began my column for the Watertown Daily Times, and Shawn marked that income as "hobby income," on my taxes. That seems like an odd hobby, but I do think that the sort of ultimate form of hobby eating comes in the form of wine dinners, beer dinners, and the like.

Big Hungry Melinda and I recently enjoyed a Cinco de Mayo-themed wine dinner at one of our favorite local haunts: P.S. Restaurant in Vestal. It was recreational dining in its highest form, a purely indulgent, fun, decadent foodie adventure. This was as far as you can get from eating to live. It was living to eat, and holy crap, were we living! 

Chef Rick Dodd and his wonderful wife Sylvana are some of my favorite food people. Our relationship goes back to my Lockheed days, when I planned high end awards dinners for the company and hired them as caterers. When they began the Southern Tier Independent Restaurants (STIR) last year and enlisted my help with social media and marketing, we found an excuse to keep even more in touch. Rick and Syl host these wine dinners a few times a year, and I was excited to join them for my first time, knowing that Rick would really go crazy with creativity in the kitchen. I wasn't disappointed.

Before we even got to the seven course meal, sangria, cheese and charcuterie platters, plus passed hors d'oevres were lavished upon us in the bar area. P.S. restaurant is in a strip mall in Vestal, and I always exhale when I enter the lovely bar, as it feels like an oasis from the bustle of the Parkway. An oasis is so much more fun with light, juicy pomegranate sangria, really good cured salumi, aged cheeses, and little appetizers like miniature cheesy chicken burritos with clean, crunchy diced cucumbers in the ranch dipping sauce. Three glasses of sangria prior to a seven course wine pairing dinner is risky, but hey, I'm a professional.

Empire Merchants North in Syracuse provided the wines for our dinner, and after we had settled in P.S.'s comfortable dining room, the company's rep Chris and Syl laid out the first four courses and what wines we'd be enjoying. Once we saw the menu, we knew we were in for an indulgent evening.

Chicken tortilla soup was the starter. The deep red contents of this bowl, topped with shredded queso fresco cheese, tasted like California - or rather, really good Mexican food I've had in SoCal. The broth had a rich tomato flavor base enhanced with a good amount if chili heat, plus garlic and cumin. The spoonful of crema helped the medicine go down, as it was slightly sweeter than sour cream, and tamed the roasted heat of the soup. Avocado chunks and that shredded white cheese were cooling to the palate, and the lime wedges provided were a smart addition, finishing each bite with bright acidity. There was finely shredded chicken suspended in the thick broth. A Pacific Rim Dry Reisling smoothed out the riot of flavors with a floral, jasmine-scented bouquet and the taste of summer peaches offset by a hint of minerality.

Next came a dish so good, I recommended that Rick put it on the menu permanently: hearts of palm salad with lardon, dates, and coconut vinaigrette. Because hearts of palm, similar in texture to artichoke hearts but less lemony, come from coconut (among other) palm trees, the sweet coconut vinaigrette made sense. There were lots of clean, sweet flavors going on in this dish, with chewy dates, crisp greens, the gentler smoothness of the hearts, and the chew of the bacon working well together. The slightly sweet dressing paired well with the dry, clean Unparalleled Sauvignon Blanc. This was a refreshing, sweet, light course that I could eat all summer.

Butter poached cod with soy, chili, yuzu and shallot sauce was served over fresh tomatoes treated with just a light smoke. With it, a Luguna Chardonnay was intensely oaky, which overpowered the fish flavor for me, although if I took a bite with the complete sauce and smoked tomatoes, the wine worked. The flavors in this dish were varied, layered, and really lovely. The fish was flaky but still juicy, garlic was there for sharpness, and the basil garnishing the dish provided a bright finish.

Lobster in a spicy tomato sauce was significantly less spicy than the soup, but deeply aromatic. It was paired with Unconditional Pinot Noir, which is what wine is really supposed to taste like. It's grapes with no sweetness; dry and juicy at the same time, sort of jammy. In the tomato sauce, I could have handled more jalapeƱo, but the basmati rice was perfect - just a hair undercooked - I wish I could get it like that at home! The lobster sauce was buttery and velvety, especially with the wine, which tasted of dark berries eaten in a forest after it rains.

Here's a spoiler: the next course was my favorite. Tamales in Dos Equis Amber beer and guajillo chili sauce, paired with Federale (I mean Federalist) Zinfandel. Tamales are real deal Mexican home cooking, meats and vegetables wrapped in masa, or cornmeal, steamed inside corn husks, then topped with chili-based salsa. This glorious masa was both sweet and savory, refined and flavorful. A lot of masas are either bland or just salty, but this was earthy, with layers of slightly sweet flavors like fresh summer corn, and thoroughly seasoned. The bold red wine was robust and juicy, balancing the light, bright tomato and sweet heat of the chilis.

Coffee glazed beef tenderloin with chocolate mole arrived at our table just at the point we started complaining about how full we were. I brought most of mine home, but tasted enough to tell the tale. The beef was peppery, rich, and tender. You would think a mole negro featuring chocolate might be sweet, and indeed, I've had some that relied too heavily on chocolate for flavor. Rick's mole sidestepped that pitfall and maintained its savory balance, bringing the bitter hints of good chocolate and the dry minerality of cocoa to the sauce of chilis, sesame seeds, herbs, and spices. Crispy onion straws on top added the only real sweetness to this deeply flavored, yet somehow light, entree. The Carnivor Cabernet Sauvignon was lightly sweet, dancing across the top of the beef flavor with deep mocha and berry notes and a silky finish. There's a little bit of muddiness in Cabernet that I always get, but that may just be me.

Cinnamon coffee is my jam, so I was all kinds of jazzed about dessert: chili ice cream, cinnamon churros, crema and macerated berries with Mexican coffee. The coffee raised all my cinnamony desires and doubled down with mild sweetness and the rich bitter acidity of really good coffee. The darkly sweet berries had a base of crema Catalana, with creamy cocoa. The chili ice cream tingled your palate without blowing it out, with some dark chocolate ganache there to provide bitter contrast to all the luciousness and pair perfectly with the coffee. The deep fried churros were crunchy delights; Melinda would have liked two of them. This dish was a happy harmony of chocolate, cinnamon, heat and sugar. Despite our bursting stomachs, we gobbled it all.

There is no possible number to grant this boozy, fun, gorgeous meal other than a 10. It was some of the best food I've had so far this year, and hooked me forever as a wine dinner patron at P.S. It's my new hobby! 

I feel like a lot of people associate P.S. with special occasion dining and an older clientele, and yes, it's on the higher end, cost-wise, for dinner in the Southern Tier. But Rick, time and again, has delivered food to my eager maw that's inventive, global, thoughtful, and delicious. I think you might want to give P.S. Restaurant another try. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


Almost There, in Endicott

Antonio's Galleria & Cafe on Urbanspoon

I work in Endicott, and have long both loved and felt disappointed by Antonio's Galleria and Cafe at the same time. As a gelato shop and bar with fun cocktails, Antonio's has been successful for a long time. But as a restaurant, I have unfortunately had some really lackluster experiences there. Recently, I heard the Little Italy spot had a new chef and a new dinner menu. I was told the food was all new and phenomenal, so Big Hungry Melinda and I met there to give it a try.

The interior of this small corner cafe is dim and cozy, with an upscale bar and a comfortable dining room decorated in warm colors, with a wine country feel to the furnishings. You have to walk by the gelato case to get to the dining room, which is a brilliant strategic maneuver - all that homemade goodness is colorful and nearly irresistible.

We started our meal with a couple really excellent St. Germaine-spiked champagne cocktails, which were lightly sweet and effervescently refreshing. Our appetizer of choice: blackened tuna bites. These morsels of rare, super fresh fish were just hot enough with Cajun spices to give a little zing. They were served with a cooling tatziki sauce, which is usually one of my favorites, but this version was thinner that my ideal, and lacking either cucumber or garlic flavor. I loved the tuna, but the sauce just didn't do it for me.

I wasn't kidding when I said it was dark in there!

The salad course was simple, but one of the better comp salads I've had lately. The spring mix was crisp and clean, with big chunks of veggies, black olives, some homemade croutons and a very light, not-too-acidic house vinaigrette made with lemon juice. It was large for a starter salad, and just a very light, yummy starter.

Unfortunately, our starters wrote checks our entrees couldn't cash. Melinda's crab risotto did not enjoy the freshness our tuna bites had. Instead of the sweet, rich flavor you want with crabmeat, there was a wiff of fishiness with each bite of the crab and arborio rice dish, which lacked any other real flavor, and was cooked much tighter than a textbook risotto should be. Risotto is meant to puddle in a dish, the cream and butter added at the end loosening up the finishing texture after all the broth is incorporated. Instead, this was cooked down into a pretty dense, dry bowl of rice. 

You can tell a lot about an Italian restaurant by its meatballs. It's almost a litmus test. I ordered the ravioli with mini meatballs because, with the caliber of the gelato here, I assumed the meatballs would be on point. Unfortunately, my ravs were undercooked and those meatballs were dry with little flavor. The savory, bright, smooth marinara was a scant saving grace, but not enough to cook the pasta surrounding the ravioli through, nor to resuscitate the small meatballs. Usually when they're made with beef and veal, you're guaranteed a tender, flavorful product, but I didn't taste any seasoning in these. Where for art thou, cheese, egg, herbs, breadcrumbs? I'm guessing these were a fresh, frozen ravioli, because I've had the bad luck of undercooking them at home before, resulting in a similar, gummy, too toothsome pasta. Al dente is good, downright dry and chewy, not so much.

Luckily, gelato saved the day! Antonio's not only uses a machine brought over from Italia, they are committed to superior, imported ingredients for this better-than-ice-cream treat. Gelato had a lower butterfat content than American ice cream, but is creamier and more dense. At Antonio's, they put real Nutella in their chocolate hazelnut variety, and real fruit I. Their gemstone colored fruit varieties. I chose mint chip for my dessert, and luxuriated in every robustly minty bite, enjoying the semi-sweet chocolate chips and appreciating the lack of saccharine sweetness. This is a grown up dessert, and you can even get their gelato incorporated into adult beverages if your after dinner needs skew boozy.

When Antonio's first opened, the paninis they served alongside the gelato were very good. A few years later, they tried pizzas, but couldn't compete with Consol's thin pie and Joey's brick oven excellence. It's such a pleasure to spend an evening in this space that I hope they can fine-tune the bumps in this menu and find their niche. I want to love it here, no holds barred. The cocktails and gelato are already winners, and my salad and tuna appetizer were quite good this visit, but those mains were just clunkers. I give Antonio's latest dinner menu a five on the BHS scale - about average once you factor in all the courses we tried. 

I've got a bunch of great write-ups headed your way in the next few weeks, Hungries. Next week, join me for an epic Mexican-themed wine dinner at P.S., in Vestal. And I'm heading to the land of the witches, Salem, Mass., next week for work, so expect a dispatch or two from there. After that, I'll share  my review of a new, fancy fishing lodge north of Syracuse that's serving up fabulous eats in the middle of nowhere. Well, unless you're a fish. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


I'll Have S'more

Bailey's Cafe on UrbanspoonIn Saratoga Spring a couple weeks back, we did more than just high end dining and fried chicken worship. For lunch one day, we sought out a place my Mom found in her trusty, old school AAA guide: Bailey's Cafe.

This restaurant, housed in an old stained glass shop that was built in 1903, sports tin ceilings and lots of exposed brick. It's small, but charming.

Even more charming is the beautiful Caprese salad, made with yellow and red tomatoes, fresh, snowy white mozarella, and fresh basil. The balsamic vinegar drizzled over the top was predictably sweet, but what made this salad special was the fact that though it's only April, these tomatoes had the sweet burst of summer already contained in their fragile skins. This was my lunch, and it was good.

Much of the menu is pretty standard fare - sandwiches and salads, a lobster bisque that's nice but not extraordinary. Do yourself a favor and order Saratoga chips. Most restaurants in town serve some iteration of them, but since this is the land where potato chips were born, and the real deal are chewy, crunchy, and salty but not complete saline dumps like most bagged chips, you should avail yourself of them as much as possible. Mom got them at Bailey's and we all partook - they were delectable.

But the real reason to come to Bailey's is the novel, nostalgic addition of s'mores on the dessert menu. This isn't some deconstructed, tortured-into-gourmet, flamed vanilla bourbon marshmallow and fair trade 70% cocoa mousse with graham cracker ice cream deceit, either. At Bailey's you get a stack of commercial graham cracker squares, a pile of standard, mass-produced campfire marshmallows, some wooden skewers, and two Hershey bars. Plus a genius contraption for your table:

That is a small gel-fueled burner that will serve as your personal campfire, right at your table. Is there a more communal dessert than s'mores? I don't think so. We laughed as some of us set our marshmallows right on fire, and helped one another prep the graham and chocolate. These were simple, classic, and perfect on a very rainy day in Saratoga Springs. Somehow, my Dad had never had a s'more before, and I loved his reaction when he took his first bite of hot marshmallow, crumbling graham cracker, and just-about-to-melt milk chocolate. 

You won't get the best fried chicken ever or haute cuisine at Bailey's Cafe, but if you're enjoying a weekend with your family in beautiful Saratoga, what a fun experience! This is simple, good food with one hell of a gimmick - go there! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


The Well-loved and the Newbie in Saratoga

It's been a while since I blew into Saratoga Springs for a whirlwind weekend of the Spa City's most delicious offerings. I have written before about my love for Putnam Market and Forno Bistto, so for this Miss New York's Outstanding Teen Pageant weekend, I led my flock to an old favorite and someplace entirely new to me.

Saratoga Springs is, of course, a playground for horse racing enthusiasts, and with that particular pastime comes affluence. It's a picturesque, pristine village of state parks, charming architecture, boutiques, small hotels, and many terrific restaurants. The perfect place for a weekend away, really.

Several years ago, Hattie's Restaurant went up against Food Network's Bobby Flay on his Throwdown show. Because the Throwdown was for fried chicken, and because the chicken recipe at Hattie's dates back to 1938, they sort of kicked Bobby's butt. I love me some Bobby Flay, but I'm not going to lie, it's kind of fun to watch him lose.

So, when I first started the blog about five years ago, I told you a little bit about Hattie's, and I just had to go back for another bite. Once again, we sat out on the festive back patio under the multi-colored, chandelier-lit tents, the chilly early April air mitigated by space heaters and a great mix of 70s and 80s Top 40 hits inspiring us to order inventive cocktails from the bar sharing the space.

A basket of biscuits and cornbread arrived from our very adorable waiter, Lars. I discerningly chose a biscuit from the bounty, which was like an oasis of the South plunked into my mouth just at the point this Nothern winter was about to dehydrate me. In other words, it was properly flaky without being too dry - almost assuredly made with lard rather than butter, in accordance with the prophecy.

Cajun stuffed mushrooms, crammed with breadcrumbs, seasonings, and aromatics, were a spice punch right in the kisser. They also contained approximately one metric ton of butter per shroom cap. Pretty tasty, utterly sinful - which is a pretty great precursor for a giant pile of fried chicken, now that I think about it.

But for my money, the perfect starter from Hattie's is the hushpuppies. These golden fried orbs of cornmeal are a little sweet, a little salty, and soooo indulgent dipped in the honey-enriched side of butter and crunched down into with abandon.

We all went for fried chicken, as it should be, but a couple members of our party knew in advance they wouldn't be able to put down three huge pieces. Lars agreed to bring just a breast for each of them without batting his long eyelashes, and we were thankful.

So behold, this is why you eat at Hattie's:

The fried chicken here is unsurpassed. The meat is juicy - well-seasoned and tender without being overly salty. The crust is light, flaky, without a trace of grease. Every element - meat, skin, crust - is fully seasoned and tastes like chicken, chicken skin, and fried chicken crust independently - you get juice, salty, fat, and mild spice, but not too much of any one of those flavors. It tastes like home even if your mom never made fried chicken. It is a primal flavor that just tastes right.

The mashed potatoes were super creamy, loaded with butter and heavy cream, but unfortunately, the gravy fell short - smelling great and tasting like not much at all. Those collard greens, though? Fiery with chilies and cooked down intol savory, tenders loveliness. Earthy, slightly bitter, pungently spicy and wonderful.

It's no wonder that Hattie's chicken beat Bobby. This is an exemplary taste of the Old South, and it's right here in Upstate New York. It rates a nine on the BHS scale, and I can't wait to return!
The following night, an even larger group bustled off to Maestro's, right on Saratoga's main drag, in a quite beautiful, old, columned building. 

The space inside is more modern, upscale but comfortable, kitted out in plush earth tones and equine-themed artwork. I started with a fantastically delicious cocktail whose name I unfortunately did not write down. It was comprised of brown liquor, apple liquor, plus citrus and cinnamon and tasted like a warming glass of liquid apple pie. I then formed a pork belly plan with a fellow diner, which resulted in is beaut:

A fat slab of crispy, rendered, tender pork belly served atop a creamy mound of barley risotto with crispy onions and jus. Four people ultimately sampled this wonder of fat, salty, crunch, earthy nuttiness, and a hint of sweetness. It seems Maestros changes its menu with some frequency, but whatever iteration of this fantastic dish is residing on it when you visit, avail yoursel of it post haste.

After that rich starter, I went for a small plate rather than a full blown entree. It was no less rich, however: house-made ricotta cavatelli coated in a cream sauce embellished with foie gras and topped with micro greens.  The pasta was tender but sturdy, but as you chewed it, it dissolved and almost became creamy itself. The sauce, laced of course with goose liver, was thick, more unctuous than creamy in a way that only a sauce that looks like dairy but is actually minerally, salty, fatty meat can be. This dish was tiny, but splendid.

It was like a carbonara in that way, much like the egg yolk heightens a carbonara sauce into a silky, gorgeous velvet, this was a luxuriously decadent pasta.
For dessert: coconut cream pie. It was anchored by a supremely light, whipped, mousse-like vanilla base with lots of toasted coconut up top. I'm still searching for my perfect coconut pie, one made with coconut milk, cream of coconut, and really great coconut chips. This wasn't it, but it was still damn yummy.

Our service at Maestro's was friendly and very attentive. It's a smaller space, and therefore loud on a Friday evening, but we were loud too, so everything was fine. It's pricey here, but every dish I sampled was delicious and presented in an upscale way, with thoughtful, creative approaches to familiar food. I would also give it a nine on the BHS scale, so I guess I'm feeling pretty rosy about our Saratoga experience.
I wish I could be as magnanimous about our hotel, but frankly, the Hilton Garden Inn is aging and in need of renovation. In my room, the bathroom had a funk that didn't go away even when I called in maintenance, the service in the dining room was brusque at best, and despite friendly desk staff, we were not impressed. 
That said, we had a terrific time in the Spa City. A quick lunch of prosecco and flatbread pizza at Wheatfields was lovely, Putnam Market was bustling and chock a block with good eats as usual, and the shopping along Broadway was unique and delightful despite the blustery wind. We can't wait to return next spring for more tastes of this great town!

Maestro's at the Van Dam on Urbanspoon