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 jalapeño, 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!