1.02.2012

Southern Exposure

This week...I'm blogging live from a luxurious hotel room in Austin, TX. Trying to decide if a future "special edition" Big Hungry will bring you delicious treats from Austin, but in the meantime, we're roadtripping downstate...I think I’ve mentioned here that, although I was born and raised in Watertown, I’ve lived for nearly 10 years in the greater Binghamton area. My boyfriend Shawn began working down here when he graduated from college, and I followed a few years later. Most of our friends and family up north think of the Southern Tier as a hunter’s paradise, which it is. In fact, it’s uncommon to look out the windows along the back of our house and not see deer, wild turkeys or bunnies.

But the Big Hungry readers from down here know that the Triple Cities is more than just wildlife. We are breathtakingly close to the Cayuga Lake wine trail and the culinary wonders of Ithaca, the birthplace of spiedies, and home to even more Italian restaurants per capita than Watertown. Comprised of the City of Binghamton, but also the bedroom communities (as my Mom likes to call them) of Endicott (birthplace of IBM), Vestal (home of Binghamton University), Johnson City (Wegmans!), Owego (coolest small town in America – for real, Google it!), and Apalachin (famous for a 1957 meeting of NYC Mafia bosses depicted in Goodfellas and Analyze This), the Southern Tier is far more interesting than the view you get zooming by on 81 North heading for home after a trip down south.

So this week, I’m sticking closer to home and recommending two great places to eat in the Southern Tier. Whether you live locally, travel here for business or school, or on a stop-through to points south, the following two restaurants are great places for a fun night out.

First up, Tony’s Italian Grill, on 17C in Endwell. Tony’s has had a long history in the Endicott area, first opening in 1977. It’s moved around several times over the years, and flirted now and again with a second location in Owego. My friend Melinda and I go to Tony’s for girls’ night out most Fridays, because of the great food and atmosphere. Some of the wait staff call us the “Ipsum Girls,” because of the Spanish brand of verdejo white wine we almost always order. One of the best things about a night out at Tony’s is that, no matter how busy they are, we are never rushed through our dinner or from our table. The atmosphere is very nice, comfortable and casual but stylish – a place where you want to linger. Quite often, we spilt a bottle of wine, then an antipasto salad and the bianco rosa pizza, which is simply fresh tomato and garlic. However, this past Friday, when we brought along our friend Elise, we ordered full meals for the benefit of this review.


Big Hungry Shelby loves a giant swirl of mashed potatoes

The appetizers are not the star at Tony’s. In fact, Melinda and I often poke fun at their ever-constant Friday night “special” of fried green beans. We’ve tried them, they’re OK, but only OK. What are great are their soups and salads. As stated, we frequently spilt the antipasto, which is actually large enough for three, or even four, people. It’s basic mixed greens topped generously with ham, pepperoni, provolone, roasted red peppers, olives and giardiniera (spicy pickled veggies). They sometimes have a fantastic sausage and lentil soup that shouldn’t be passed up, though the regular pasta fagiole is flavorful and satisfying as well.

Last Friday, I ordered the filet mignon, which is served in a perfect 8 oz portion. The steaks are very good here, although I feel like that may be a well-kept secret. The meat is tender and flavorful, served with totally (not overcooked) yummy roasted veggies and bang-up real deal mashed potatoes. The whole reason I actually ordered this meal was the mashed potatoes. They are delicious! That little side dish contains a wonderful little mélange of mushroom marsala sauce. This was the first time I’d had this sauce, and I was so pleased. I’ll be getting the chicken marsala next Friday night, I’m thinking.

I will tell you that I am one picky little witch when it comes to red sauce. I grew up eating the best – Giovanni’s and Pete’s in Watertown – so I am not easy to please when it comes to marinara. Tony’s is FABULOUS. Their gnocchi napoletana - potato gnocchi with two huge meatballs, robust and savory red sauce, served parmigiana, is one of my all-time favs. I also order chicken parmigiana in moments of weakness. I haven’t found a chicken parm I like this much since those good old Giovanni’s days, seriously. Never bland, never greasy; it’s salty enough, crunch enough, saucy enough…delicious. Melinda would want me to speak up and tell you that the lasagna is her favorite. Tony’s does their lasagna very well: a huge slab that’s never too ricotta-fied and covered in melty, browned cheese. She would also give a shout-out to the cheesy garlic bread that’s listed as a side order at the back of the menu, and since she’s my friend, I have done so.

Our friend Elise, who worked upscale restaurants in Michigan in her adolescence, endorses the penne rustica – pasta, chicken and broccoli in a robust garlic cream sauce. The penne is al dente, the garlicky sauce will surely ward off any lurking vampires, and the broccoli is perfectly cooked. I think expertly cooked vegetables are the unsung heroes of restaurant food – it’s so important that they’re cooked through but still retaining that snap that saves them from mush!


This is Elise. She likes a snappy floret.

Our next stop is Kampai Japanese Steak House in Vestal. For those of you who live in the Northcountry and don’t have a local Japanese hot spot, you are missing out. Kampai has a long tradition of serving up great food and entertainment in its hibachi dining area. Like Ichiban in Syracuse, the hibachi tables afford diners dinner and a show: you get your own personal chef to cook your stir-fry style meal right in front of you. This option is great for birthday parties, anniversaries, girls’ nights out, or your first experience with Japanese food. The chefs like to interact with their clients, teasing children, and offering a taste of foreign food that’s still familiar to conservative palates. My favorite choice of hibachi treats at Kampai are steak and shrimp – and don’t skip the salad, with its delicious and unique sesame and ginger dressing.

As my tastes have matured and diversified over the past few years, I’ve begun to embrace Kampai’s softer side. That is, their traditional dining section. This section of the restaurant is much quieter, almost zen-like. Traditional Japanese dining, at least at Kampai, means two very important things: great appetizers and fantastic sushi. I highly recommend the gyoza – fried, pork-filled dumplings with a salty soy dipping sauce – to start your meal. Other great starters include nagimaki – scallions rolled up in thinly sliced beef, served in soy sauce – and the tempura fried soft shell crab. For healthier readers, they also have edamame, soybeans that you shell yourself, served simply with sea salt. Satisfying and light.

Kampai Traditional offers a selection of noodle dishes, teriyaki platters and other full meals. But my friends and I come for the sushi. Now, don’t give me the old, “Yuck, raw fish,” argument. I used to think that, too! Let Big Hungry Shelby introduce you to the wonderful world of specialty rolls. It’s a world stuffed with some of the happiest food in the universe. Sushi can be light, clean, crunchy, spicy, luxurious, exotic or tame. It’s a peaceful and orderly meal: you can customize your personal bowl of soy sauce with as much or as little wasabi paste as you like, and you get to eat with chopsticks! Fun!! You can keep a roll all to yourself, or share a few selections with your tablemates. You can play it safe with smoked salmon or tempura crab (NOT RAW) rolled in rice and sesame seeds, or be adventurous with a slab of sensuous raw tuna draped over a cute little cube of shaped rice.

Most honorable Kampai dynamite roll

For my tastes, the best sushi rolls are either crunchy or spicy, preferably both. The dynamite roll at Kampai fulfills the spicy requirement, with a whole delicious mess of cooked scallops in spicy mayonnaise sauce covering the top of the basic roll. I also enjoy both the hot mama and red dragon rolls here – try them; you’ll like them. Red dragon sounds scary, as it’s topped with caviar, but trust BHS – they’re like little yummy confetti popping in your mouth, with not a trace of scary fishiness. In fact, if you’re having good sushi, you won’t ever taste fishiness. It should always taste clean and light – slightly salty and super fresh.

Most of all, sushi is addictive. My frequent refrain during the middle of a sushi feast is, “I’m so happy right now!” I don’t know if all the wasabi triggers endorphins or if it’s because the tastes are so opposite of my usual favs like bacon, parmesan and mushrooms, but I literally get a high from a meal like this.

Tony’s and Kampai are obviously very different dining establishments. One factor they have in common: great service. At Tony’s the vibe is attentive, but never intrusive. The wait staff obsessively pick up any table detritus you may create, including paper napkin rings and dirty plates – but I’ve seldom ever felt that conversation was being interrupted by their presence. At Kampai, the kimono-clad waitresses and vested waiters are friendly and knowledgeable, which is important when you’re sampling food that may be outside your comfort zone. My friend Nick is my favorite waiter here – ask to be seated at one of his tables and he’ll take fantastic care of you. So, please, go Big Hungry and try both. Binghamton may not be a particularly traditional getaway destination for NNYers, but if chance brings you through Vestal or Endwell, your stomach will thank you for following my advice.

If you want to join me in being Big Hungry, let me know in the comments section. I’m building a legion of Big Hungry supereaters and readers across New York State, so shout out your favorite bistros, cafes and diners! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Kampai Japanese Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

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