New year, new restaurants! Woo-hoo! We have a couple newbies in the Southern Tier I’ve been jazzed for weeks to review, and the first happened Friday night, when Shawn and I joined Melinda and BLD at Zona and Co. Grille on Hawley St. in Binghamton. The Asian, Southwest, and American food eatery is owned by friends of BLD, whom I’ve met, but don’t know well. Ever since they started remodeling the space, next door to my favorite Binghamton shop, the Garland Gallery, I’ve been excitedly awaiting its opening.
Zona is funky inside, with booming music befitting a downtown location, and an exposed brick and animal head amalgam of décor. The seating area is a little tight, as most of the space is allocated for the bar and some high-top tables. One negative I hate to ding them on right off the bat is the tippy tables and chairs. My chair wasn’t level on the floor, and neither was our table, which is odd considering Zona just opened on Christmas night. They’ll need to be mindful of keeping up their interior if they want to pack the place with a line out the door like it was on Friday.
The complimentary starter brought to our table made up for the ailing table, though: chips and salsa. Shawn died over the chips, which were fried flour tortilla triangles, uber crispy and slightly puffy. The salsa was very saucy and mild – fresh-tasting and clearly made in-house. Personally, I would have liked more heat and spice in it (salt and cumin were lacking), but I know tons of people who don’t groove on the spicy foods for whom this would be salsa perfection.
Those same luscious chips accompanied BLD’s appetizer choice, the queso dip. While the chips were a hit, none of us cared for this dip, which was very gluey with no discernable flavor – cheese, jalapeno, or otherwise. I’m not sure what happened with this weak starter, but most of us abandoned it in favor of devouring the splendid buffalo shrimp, which had all the fire and flavor the queso lacked. These perfectly-cooked, large shellfish carried all the kick for the table, and passed my hiccup test on the heat scale, meaning they were fiery and delicious. My only note on this dish is that I would turn that mound of cabbage served under the plate into a cooling, edible avocado and blue cheese slaw, and raise the price of this item by a $1. Why waste the garnish?
Can I just insert a sidebar here that’s been stuck in my craw this week? I had a conversation with my Dad over the holidays about spices used in food, and he sort of accused me of being odd for liking food with bold flavors. That lead to me thinking about cumin, a spice that, for me, is essential to salsa and many other dishes. Cumin and coriander (cilantro’s dried sister spice) both are integral to the cuisines of Mexico, India, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, China, Southeast Asian, and the Carribean, but somehow, the American historical palate doesn’t care for either. How did this happen? Why are we so bland? The spice rack in my mother’s kitchen when I was growing up sported cinnamon, garlic salt, onion powder, paprika, and parsley. Somewhere in a cupboard, she had a little tin of nutmeg, plus dry mustard and cream of tartar. That was it. How did it come to be that America, the melting pot, spawned cooks who cooked without cumin? I’m sure there’s an anthropological reason, and I hope someone smarter than me will help me out with this conundrum in the comments.
But back to Zona: the single menu choice I was most amped about ordering came next: foie gras fries. We’ve talked about foie gras before, but in case you missed it, this magical ingredient, much lauded by celebrity chefs, is duck or goose liver. Unlike scary beef liver and onions of old, foie gras is unctuous, less mineraly, salty, but not gamey or assertive. If you’ve ever had dirty rice, giblet gravy, beef wellington, or pate, you’ve had something close enough that foie won’t be foreign. Paired with Zona’s excellent house-cut, homemade fries, this dish was perfection: sweet, salty, crunchy, fatty, creamy, and scrumptious. But again, I have a suggested tweak: the proportion of fries to foie was a little odd. I would suggest going up another ounce or ounce and a half on the foie, and down about a half cup of the fries, and raising the price to $17. Foie lovers will surely pay this, and it will be much more bang for their buck. By the way, Parker’s, Tully’s Good Times, Basha Mediterranean Grill, and all you other establishments out there using frozen fries – go to Zona and try theirs. It’s a testament on a plate on why you should be making them from scratch. These were textbook and wonderful. A dipper would have been a nice addition to this dish, something sweet to compliment the foie and break up all the rich saltiness of the fries, like a fig and port wine jam, or a sour cherry ketchup, or something.
Melinda ordered the fish tacos, which were on my shortlist of possibilities, so I was grateful for the bite she allowed me. The mahi-mahi was delicious, and these double-corn-tortilla’d babies carried all the complexity and flavor the queso forgot to bring to the table. Melinda exclaimed they were, “like summer in my mouth.” I couldn’t agree more, and liked the bright acidity from the cilantro and lime, creaminess from queso fresco and chipotle aioli, the crunch from the red cabbage, and the earthy corn flavor from the two tiny tortillas enveloping each taco. The portion was gigantic on this, and it was a solid dish.
Shawn’s cheesesteak choice was the other stunner at the table. The menu denotes this as a Philly cheesesteak, but we all know it’s not a Philly steak unless it’s made on an authentic Amoroso roll, with Cheez-wiz, correct? While this sandwich may not have been authentic to the City of Brotherly Love, it was fantastic – its crunchy, garlicky roll, beefy, flavorful, juicy steak, truly caramelized, sweet onions, and that distinctive, creamy, wholesomeness you only get from American cheese melded into classic comfort food at its best. And those delectable fries were served up with it.
I was psyched to order the ramen selection from Zona’s newest menu addition, its noodle bowls. The highly-anticipated noodle bowls had just been added last week, and I couldn’t wait to slurp up a bowl of something good. The menu describes this as house-made fish stock with fish cake, scallion, and cabbage. I ordered mine with pork as well. I’m sorry to say, this did not hit a home run for me. A good Asian soup broth needs to bring complexity, assertive flavors, and the classic sour, sweet, salty and spicy umami to your palate. The broth in my noodle bowl was scant, overwhelmingly starchy, and bland, unfortunately. There was no hint of my favorite Asian flavors: soy, miso, chile, or even fish sauce, that I could detect. The only reason for this that I can come up with is that the chef cooked the noodles in the actual broth, instead of cooking them separately, and then combining just in the bowl? The starch content in the broth was unlike anything I’ve tasted before, and while the pork was tender, the fish cakes good, and the scallions, hard-boiled egg, bean sprouts, and corn were very nice additions on top, I would have needed a carafe of tamari and one of sriracha served alongside to get through this gigantic bowl of insipid food. Luckily, I had those and white miso at home, and was able to doctor up the leftovers on Sunday, along with some pork base and a lot of water, into a really satisfying lunch. This is a brand-new dish that needs some serious tinkering before I can recommend you try it, Big Hungries.
I didn’t taste BLD’s southwestern chicken sandwich, but he housed it, loved it, and it looked divine, so I’m going to recommend it on behalf of him. I will also report that a table next to us ordered the shrimp po’boy, and it looked amazing. I want it, along with that guacamole burger. Melinda testified that the quesadillas are top-notch, so you may want to try those if and when you hit Zonas. I’m betting that buffalo shrimp version is to die for.
Like all new restaurants, Zona and Co. has some fine-tuning to do, for sure. They can hardly be faulted for that, especially since they’ve been open for just about two weeks, and the line is already out the door. It can be hard for a kitchen staff to tinker and tune when they’re in the weeds every night and slammed just trying to fill orders. This place is in a great location, so they should expect those crowds to keep on coming, and my friends and I were all confident the kitchen would catch up soon. We give Zona an eight on the BHS scale, with some room for improvement that still reflects the originality and precision most of the food is carrying, as well as the fun atmosphere and good setting. When they were renovating pre-open, they also went though the permitting extravaganza required for outdoor café-style dining, and I just know having fish or shrimp tacos on Zona’s patio this summer will be a real treat. When you go, try something new and report back in the comments what you liked and didn’t like. Every new restaurant needs feedback like that to hone in on what its customers crave.
Next week, meet back here for a glimpse of a new tapas bar in Endicott. Yes, you heard it right – Endicott! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!