Whether or not you’re from the Binghamton area, chances are, you’ve heard of or dined at Number 5 Restaurant. Located right in Binghamton, it was the prom restaurant of choice for many of my Thornfield buddies back in high school, and remains the fine dining institution of the area I now call home. Number 5 is housed in a 19th century fire station, complete with brass pole (no, not that kind of pool, perv!). There are good and bad things about a restaurant operating within a historic landmark. Good: built-in ambiance, gorgeous architecture, street cred. Bad: Narrow staircases, aging, tiny restrooms and drafty dining rooms. So bring a cardigan, wear stair-enabling shoes, and come along!
Lindsay and I chose Number 5 as our last supper restaurant before she traitorously moved to DC this fall, because we share a love of one dish: French onion soup. And Number 5’s iteration of this classic is legendary. So, even though we started with appys before the soup was served, I will begin by telling you about it, in accordance with the prophecy. Number 5 uses a little wonder called applejack brandy in their onion soup. In the abstract, applejack brandy doesn’t sound all that impressive or important, but that abstraction is wrong. Wrong! This is the best soup in the region, hands-down. It is savory, but not too salty; fruity but not sweet; flavorful but not overly beefy. It’s just in balance, you know? This is one of those recipes, should you know someone who works at Number 5, you would brow-beat them for years to disclose the alchemy going into this soup.
A miracle of culinary genius: Behold! Number 5’s onion soup!
The bottle of Little Black Dress pinot grigio Linds and I shared isn’t about to win any prestigious international wine awards, but it was affordable, acidic and a nice foil for all the fatty goodness we were about to consume. Chief on that list were our appetizers: honey horseradish shrimp, which is a de rigueur staple at Number 5, and lobster and braised bacon steak, which was on special that evening. The shrimp are, quite simply, fantastic. A number of local restaurants offer a version of this, but Number 5’s is the original and the best: big butterflied shrimp stuffed with fresh horseradish, wrapped in salty bacon and swimming in a nice warm bath of honey that’s all infused in bacony deliciousness. You might want to order two of these if you have more than two people at your table, because they go fast. The so-called lobster and braised bacon steak made my head spin, it was so good. A nice piece of lobster tail accompanied a luxurious slab of pork belly, bathed in an apple-chili vinaigrette and accented with delicate diced apples and a creative little brussel sprout salad. It was a truly inspired dish, and required a tremendous amount of kitchen talent from Chef Matt Jones. The apples were perfectly brunoised, which is a culinary school technique to turn out uniform little cubes of food; the pork belly was cooked perfectly, and not so crunchy as to just seem like a bunch of breakfast bacon on the plate; and the brussel sprout salad and vinaigrette made it wonderfully seasonal and apt. I even talked the table next to us into ordering it, it was so good.
Next up: Lindsay ordered the chicken felix entrée for her main course, while I, knowing I would fill up on appys and soup, opted for a caprese salad. She gave two thumbs up to the felix, a boneless, skinless chicken breast stuffed with fontina cheese, lump crabmeat and asparagus, egg battered and pan-fried, then topped with a great little buerre blanc sauce. The baked potato that came along for the ride had lovely, crunchy kosher salt on the outside – yum! My caprese salad was much more robust than I had anticipated, with huge slabs of red tomato, fresh mozzarella and balsamic vinaigrette crowned with a unique and pleasing touch: whole pink peppercorns. The behemoth could have used a little garnish of that kosher salt, or a tad more salt in the vinaigrette, but overall, I really liked this salad offering as a nice finish after the rich French onion soup and those decedent starters.
Caprese and pink peppercorns do a stunning dance of tastiness
Other good bets for entrées at Number 5 include the prime rib and greek tenderloin, as well as the stuffed lobster tail, which is rich and indulgent. I also am hoping to go back and try the braised short ribs on their new econo-menu, and Melinda has challenged me to do a 2011 series on bar food menus at more upscale establishments, of which Number 5 would be one. I’m betting the pulled BBQ prime rib sammie would be killer off the lounge menu here. I should also mention that with the lovely loaf of bread brought to us at the beginning of the meal came a knock-out homemade galic herb butter, and that our waitress, whose name I regrettably did not catch, was absolutely dynamite. She made great suggestions throughout our meal, was knowledgeable about wine and the ingredients featured on the menu, and even thought to bring a spoon along with our shrimp starter because she knew we would want to scoop up every drop of that delicious honey. We gave this experience a 9 on the BHS scale. It was a delightful, if gut-busting, evening. I miss Lindsay already now that she’s moved to the big city, but I have onion soup in my heart along with fond remembrances.
Onion soup in my heart? That’s kind of gross. But no matter, Big Hungries! The holiday season is upon us, and to be sure, Number 5 would be a fantastic spot to celebrate the New Year or gather your family for a new holiday tradition. Please please check back in next Wednesday, because I’m cooking up a very special year-end edition of BHS. Have fun this week writing cards and wrapping gifts, like Big Hungry elves scattered all hither and yon! And follow me here, on Facebook and Twitter - My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!