10.26.2014

On Brunch


There was an op ed recently in the New York Times Sunday Review maligning the brunch craze in Greenwich Village, Brooklyn and beyond, as well as its spread from a Sunday occasion to a Saturday habit. The article concluded brunch, the delicious combo of breakfast and lunch, was by nature adolescent, a contrivance of young urbanites attempting to bring the fantasy of Sex and The City to life.

I object to looking down one’s nose at any meal, frankly. In fact, I find brunch to be a delightful repast, a chance to enjoy the kind of fellowship once found only at holiday gatherings and church services, escaping the potential familial controversies or religious implications. This hybrid meal provides an opportunity for a different type of communion, between you and the loved ones with whom you choose to dine, and it just so happens to come built in with food that brings the best of sweet and savory to the table.

But while our metropolises and tourist villages in Upstate NY have embraced brunch culture, Northern New York and the Southern Tier have seemingly missed the memo. Yes, we have a few good choices – Tin Pan Galley, in Sackets Harbor, has held court as the grand dame in that region for years, more recently joined by upstarts The Hops Spot and Skewed Brewing, Gram’s Diner, and Tug Hill Vineyards. In Ithaca, Booker's Backyard, Agava, and a few others offer tomato juice and pork-laden jollies. But both Syracuse and Binghamton are wanting. In Salt City, Empire Brewing has a jazz brunch, and here in Binghamton, Loft at 99 and Tranquil do brunch. But that's about all, folks. So again, I'm left wondering at our lack of ability to get our brunch on.


As if the limited selections weren’t enough of an afront to the sensibilities of would-be brunch enthusiasts, some of New York’s rather archaic on-site consumption laws prohibit the serving of alcohol before noon on Sundays, curtailing the bruncheon joy of mimosas and bloody marys for early risers, the truly festive way to kick off any proper Sunday funday.

I’ve blogged before on my breakfast and brunch favorites in NNY, which include Clayton’s venerable Koffee Kove Restaurant, Gram’sDiner in Adams and humble stalwart The Clubhouse, on Outer Washington Street in Watertown. Of these, Gram’s is the only one offering a special brunch menu on the weekends to augment its more typical diner-style day starters.

At Gram’s, you’ll find some inventive options such as pumpkin pancakes, butternut squash casserole, macaroni and cheese omelets and buffalo chicken eggs benedict, as well as those most coveted brunch time cocktails, mimosa and mary, both. I wouldn’t dare mask my bald affection for this warm, casual café nor its hearty, adventurous food. I just wish there were more like it!

I know most folks are happy enough with our ordinary breakfast choices – the diners, hotels and chains serving up eggs, pancakes, bacon and the like –  but I can’t help but wish we could import a bit more of that brunch savoir fare to our communities. To be sure, Upstate New Yorkers are hardworking, salt of the Earth folk, likely to spend a Sunday morning hunting or a Saturday mid-day escorting the kids to various sporting events. But I suggest that creating a brunch tradition here can work. The meal serves as an invitation to linger with friends and family over many mugs of steaming coffee, savoring a hearty feast and repartee – couldn’t we use a little more of that in our community?

While Manhattan may already be pronouncing the craze of brunch a has-been, I wouldn’t mind us picking up the trend a bit late. If I were an Upstate restaurateur, you better believe I’d be coming up with a creative benedict, a savory waffle, a dynamite seasonal pancake and fruit stack, sourcing a great New York State pork purveyor for bacon, sausage and ham, and starting a brunch service.

The nice thing about brunch, from a business standpoint, is that you can probably charge double what you would your standard breakfast dishes, because your customers are combing two meals out into one. So chill the Prosecco, grate the horseradish, and watch the brunch hordes roll in! What New York City may consider passé will pass just fine for us, thanks. Let’s embrace brunch! It’s not just for Easter anymore!

10.21.2014

Dispatch from Texas: Don't Mess with Mealtime

I was in a Texas - Houston and Austin - to be specific, on business travel last week. It's probably not shocking that I capitalized on this opportunity to find some of the tastiest bits of both these cities, and put them in my belly so I could tell you about them.

In Houston, my favorite supper by far was taken in the enchanting, candle-lit courtyard of Hugo's, which specializes in authentic, delectable, regional Mexican cuisine. Nary a burrito or gordito on this menu, but the refried black bean-stuffed empanadas made from plantains were lightly crispy, wholesome, and just sweet. The plantain dough fried up light and airy, while the earthy frijoles grounded that slightly sweet flavor, and the crema and queso fresco on top provided a little selenity and a cooling creaminess.


Even better was my entree, cochinita pibil, or suckling pig braised and wrapped in a banana leaf. It was served with black rice, an al dente, slightly crunchy, non-sticky starch, and a scorching habernero salsa that was best employed sparingly, and with a big mouthful of tortilla. The pork was cooked down perfectly, not fatty but plenty tender and juicy, the moisture preserved in its leafy wrapping.


The service at Hugo's was courtly and attentive, and everything from the hostess' welcome to the cinnamon-laced coffee I enjoyed with dessert, was splendid. This is a Houston highlight, to be sure.

Another bright spot in downtown Hpuston is Bryan Caswell's Reef, a cool, modern seafood house with more of the same friendly-yet-refined service I had found at Hugo's, but a more modernist approach to the food. The fresh corn ravioli with basil sauce (not pesto) and tomatoes was gracing its last evening on the menu, and we rescued it, savoring its final breath of sweet summer and robust, bursting flavors. 


I arrived intending to consume the crab carbonara, and I enjoyed it immensely. The crab was clean-tasting and not overpowered by the dish's bacon or peppers. This was far less eggy and cheesy than a traditional carbonara, but again, an old school preparation would only have drowned out the crab's glorious flavor. This lighter sauce was apropos and quite yummy, and the sturdy strozzapretti pasta it enrobed was hearty enough to compensate for the ethereal pleasures of its dressing. 


Once in Austin, after an excessively early flight and a long day at work, I was too weary to seek out a food adventure in this tasty town, but I managed to return to an old favorite: Max's Wine Dive. This visit, I took advantage of Max's famous fried chicken and champagne combo. But first, the epic pan borracho, or drunk bread. This, my friends, is the best damn holiday dressing you will ever consume. A heady mix of sourdough, white wine, gruyere, prosciutto, and provolone - a savory bread pudding, tangy with wine, luscious with a mix of cheeses, and enriched by the salt of the prosciutto - it was absolutely dreamy. I will be tinkering with a rip-off recipe of this masterpiece, so come on over if you fancy a taste!



And then, yes, oh yes, fried chicken. A heaping plate of mashed potatoes, collard greens, and three pieces of brined, crunchy chicken was over-the-top decadence, and no, I did not polish my plate, but oh did I enjoy the attempt!


I have lots of favorites in Austin, and have reported most of them to you before, but on this night, there could not have been a more perfect, comforting meal than the one I enjoyed at Max's. 


I'm now happily back in NY, and heading to Watertown this weekend to meet my newborn niece and enjoy a couple North country eateries for my new column in the Watertown Daily Times. Have you checked out those reviews yet, Hungries? I hope you'll follow along this new food trail! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Hugo's on Urbanspoon

10.11.2014

The First Watertown Daily Times Column: Sea Your Way to Clayton

So, you all know, try to discourage people from using the food critic label about me, because the reason I love writing about food is that I’m a fan – I want to support the people who are passionate about feeding others rather than critique them. While I do provide candid feedback about what I’ve eaten and experienced, typically, if I really can’t find something positive to say, then I just won’t publish that review.

With my new column for the Watertown Daily Times, however, I think a more critical palate is in order. The folks of the north country want value and good grub when they dine out; I respect that, and so I want to highlight the best places to feed your family in the region, and let you know if I think there’s a place you maybe should avoid for one reason or another.

For my first review in the paper, I chose one of the newer gems dotting the Northern New York landscape – the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel in Clayton and its warm, craftsman-style dining room branded the Seaway Grille. The hotel looms large at the end of Riverside Dr. in Clayton, next to the recently re-gentrified Frink Park, and hugs the shoreline of the St. Lawrence with promises of gorgeous views and luxurious accommodations. I haven’t stayed there, but luckily, anyone can access this glittering waterfront retreat just by walking in and ordering a drink or a nosh.

The best part of the ambiance of the Seaway Grille is the entire wall of windows that open up to that vista of water. It’s posh but not frou-frou – jeans and a nice top would be fine here, and I’m sure vacationers have and will dress even more casually.

One of our diners chose to start with a bloody mary, and as this is one of my favorite cocktails, I stole a sip. It was decorated with a skewer of green olives, a big lemon wedge and long, lean spears of both celery and asparagus. The drink itself was bursting with that lemon flavor and a generous helping of horseradish for kick. I ordered the Little Black Dress Sauvignon Blanc – a pretty mundane entry-level dry white, which at $7 for a big glass worked just fine, thanks.

The bread basket was a standout. I feel like a lot of places forget to make these complimentary items as special as everything else, but at the Seaway Grille, you get homemade olive bread, sesame bread and poppy seed flatbread PLUS a trio of toppings: sweet whipped butter, Italian herb butter and olive tapenade.

The olive bread was warm, savory, and studded with Kalamata black olives. I love the funky, earthy personality Kalamatas deliver; in this yeasty, soft bread, they added complexity and pungent pleasure. A smear of the oregano and basil-spiked Italian herb butter leant even more flavor, creating two perfect bites to perk up the appetite. The tapenade was clearly made in-house, chunkier than jarred varieties and comprised of both green and Kalamata olives. It was delicious. Try a spoonful on, like, an old cracker, and I’m pretty sure it would still be tasty.

We went for the pink peppercorn-dusted scallop appetizer ($12). The grilled radicchio, goat cheese, and shallot-Riesling cream making a bed for those bi-valves stole the show here, though the scallops themselves were beauties – just a hair undercooked, like I like ‘em. An overcooked scallop is texturally akin to a pencil eraser, but even a just-cooked-through example can have a stringy consistency and lack the sweetness you want from the shellfish.
That sauce, though – it was masterful. The radicchio brought a smoky, caramelized sweetness to the peppery, rich sauce. The little bits of goat cheese, scattered like icebergs in Northern waters, lent creamy, tangy notes to all that glorious saltiness. This was a well-balanced dish created by someone who really thought about how all the flavors would meld.

The diners around us were enjoying the seafood scampi and the veal osso bucco on special – I wish we’d had more people with us in order to try these. In fact, all the tables around us seemed sated and well attended-to, even though I had heard in advance that service was slow here. Our waitress, Sammie, was delightful, chatting us up about her likes and dislikes and giving us the skinny that several executive chefs are at the helm in the kitchen.

The Orchard Harvest Salad ($11) was mostly good, but did contain the one downfall of our entire dinner – mealy apple slices that tasted like a mouthful of dirt. Ew! But here’s the good thing – they were in big slices, so we avoided them after a first bite.

We quite enjoyed the salad’s sparkling orange-cranberry vinaigrette, which was bright and tart without being stringent. The mixed greens, well-seasoned grilled chicken, candied walnuts and dried cranberries formed a light base for the fantastic dressing, and a bit of sharp cheddar cheese leant body. Find a better apple, and this salad would have been a home run.

The roasted half duck ($32) wafted to the table with the fragrance of the finest roasted chicken in all the land. We all just sat there and smelled it for a second before even digging in. But then the lemon mushroom risotto smacked me across the face and made me fall in love. It was redolent with garlic and leek flavor, grounded by whisper-thin slices of brown mushrooms, and pointed upwards on the palette with that citrus flourish. The consistency was perfect – a very tricky concept in the world of risotto, which is slow-cooked short-grain rice that becomes creamy via constant during cooking. This version was loose enough not to give off a gummy mouth feel, but tight enough so as not to be soupy. I loved it so much that I made yummy noises with every bite, and threatened to marry it, making me into Mrs. Lemon Mushroom Risotto.

But don’t think for a second that Mr. Risotto overshadowed his protein date. The meat was tender and moist, flavorful, and really the best you could want from poultry. If you haven’t tried duck, think about really good dark meat turkey – it has a deeper flavor than chicken, but is not gamey in any way. The crispy skin on this version brought it all home and made this one of my favorite duck dishes ever to get shoveled into my face with wanton abandon.

The other two components on this plate – an acidic, sweet bacon jam and bitter, crisp-tender sautéed bok choy, complemented each other and the savory duck to round out the dish perfectly.

Grilled swordfish ($28) was elevated with a verdant cilantro-honey glaze that tempered the somewhat bland flavor this firm, oily fish can sometimes deliver.  A powerfully lemony gremolata, which is a condiment of herbs and vegetables in the same vein as pesto, was in this instance made with licoricey fennel. It was absolutely scrumptious, crunchy and bright – such a brilliant idea to serve with fish.

To balance all of that acidity and a very generous portion of fish, a scoop of bacon-chipotle mashed sweet potatoes were buttery, with the latent smoke of chipotle peppers, the salt of bacon and the perfume of vanilla. This was just a gorgeous plate of food – devoured so fast, I’m surprised I snuck in enough bites to even describe it to you.

After all this lusciousness, it should have been no surprise that desserts were serious business here. Homemade all around, we loved the lightness of both the key lime and chocolate peanut butter pies ($8 each).  The key lime was lacking the lip-smacking tartness you get with traditional versions, but wasn’t made heavier by the creaminess that abated it – it was just airy and nuanced. The peanut butter slice was topped with little chunks of brownies, and while rich, avoided cloying sweetness with its stunning, light texture.

But the shut-the-front-door, this-place-is-awesome moment came when Sammie sauntered over to our table with a plate of three chocolate-covered cherries sitting atop little clouds of whipped cream. They are complimentary with every meal here, and even if those blasted apple slices had been on every plate, these beauties would have made it all worth it. But to cap off a pretty terrific meal, they were the craven, classy, outstanding icing on the cake. They were the cherry on top, literally.

Sammie told us they’re made fresh every day, and that she sneaks them all the time from the kitchen. I don’t blame her! These were not your run-of-the-mill boxed cherries, and this is not merely “hotel food.”

The Seaway Grille is pricey, yes. Dinner for three, with one beer, a cocktail, and one glass of wine plus desserts, ran us $131 plus tip. However, the view, friendly service and comfortable, immaculate atmosphere were worth five dinners out at your pick of Arsenal St. chains.

This is not a spot you’re likely to make your new Saturday night regular. That said, there is a bar menu featuring chicken wings and burgers in the $10-$12 range. If they’re treated with a fraction of the care of the dining room menu, I’m betting that’d be a deal of which I’d be likely to take regular advantage, if I lived closer.

This is occasion dining – not the very top, Jacques Cartier Room-level opulence you’ll find in Alex Bay, but still elevated and special. I award the Seaway Grille a nine on the BHS Scale – my affectionate term for the grading system I’ve developed for my blog – which will be the new “forks” system for this column. The BHS Scale goes one to ten, with ten being over the top, groan-worthy, blow-your-mind perfection that haunts my dreams, five about average and perfectly serviceable, and a three the base level of a restaurant I will even sit still in past the drinks portion of the dining experience. If it’s below a three, I’m probably not sticking around to order a full meal, is what I’m saying.

I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s review, and that you, too, enjoy a meal at the Seaway Grille. When I have good food, my first instinct is to share it with others – I’m an old Italian nonna at heart – and there is really good food to be found here. Give it a try for yourself, and let us know what you think – food, above all, needs to feed our hearts and minds just as much as our bellies. I found the duck, risotto, gremolata and pie at Seaway a treat for all five of my senses, and I’ll be “seaing,” my way back to this grille soon enough. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

10.07.2014

Dinner in Historic Hamilton

The Colgate Inn, in Hamilton, NY, was built in 1925 to replace a pre-existing hotel on the same site that stood for more than a century. So when you step onto the property, you can feel the weight of history and the hush of hallowed ground despite updated, gracious interiors and young patrons.

Big Hunry Melinda, who you know well if you've been reading for any length of time, is getting married to her dashing BLD next year, and the female side of their wedding party had the occasion to pass through Hamilton after a day of dress shopping in Utica recently. A celebratory dinner at The Colgate Inn after a very girly day, indeed, seemed in order.


And how do fine, young (heh!) ladies kick off a proper meal in a notable locale? Why, with a platter of meats and cheeses, of course!


That gorgeous tower of bread in the top left was outstanding, really. It was crunchy with enough give to avoid shredding the inside of your mouth like Freddy Krugar in a wallpaper factory - a major feat in the world of crostini. The little pyramid of speck (think really good prosciutto) allowed you to peel off shreds of the peppery, buttery meat and let it melt in your mouth. The fat roll of wild boar summer sausage trying to hide behind the bread  was like a salt lover's passionate embrace - intensely porky, with a warming, peppery finish and the slightest whisper of sweetness. 

The balsamic jam laced with blueberries was sweet, pungent perfection with the mild Cayuga blue cheese, leaving tart, creamy, sweet and syrupy notes on the tongue. The Jewett's cheddar was milky and wholesome, with the tangy mouth feel of cheddar but not too much sharpness. Basically, the entire platter was a feast for the senses, and we devoured it. Properly, of course.



I enjoyed the Yankee pot roast I ordered as my entree, but I also kind of wish I'd stuck to the sandwiches and salads. The meat was tender, flavored with wine, and I quite liked the tiny pearl onions that dotted the plate. However, more of the utterly delicious, rich gravy would have been welcome. The parsnips in the veggies mixture were the highlights of the whole dish - just shy of cooked through all the way and working the spicy carrot angle all the way.



K ordered the Reuben, and while I didn't taste it, I did sample her German potato salad, which was legit. It was creamier and less stringent with vinegar than other versions I've tasted. I adored the tiny specks of salty bacon sprinkled though out, natch. I would order this as a side dish on a repeat visit.






The best looking dish, which I now wish I had hatched a plan to bogart, was the shaved roast beef and cheddar panini that B scarfed up. It came equipped with caramelized onions and cheddar cheese - trigger words for me that I should have been smart enough to hone in on. B said the house roasted beef was tender,mand those fries, which I did sample, we're done right - fresh cut and well seasoned. Sandwich, you will be mine next time. Mark my words!




Less successful, to our disappointment, was Melinda's lobster Mac and cheese. The dish's linguica sausage competed with the delicate lobster and peas, and the ratio of breadcrumbs to tastier ingredients was overwhelming.


You know what can totally redeem a clunker of a dish? Fabulous desserts and naughty Girl Scouts. Not in a gross way! In a liquid way:


Desserts stand-outs included the to-die-for strawberries atop the shortcake - bursting with summer sweetness they had no right holding on to this late in the year.


Also, the fantastic coconut cheese cake which was not actually cheesecake, but actually tender, vanilla cake flecked with coconut, topped with cream cheese frosting and glorious bits of lime zest.



Our waitress for this meal was a little flaky, but she was also a billion months pregnant, so we cut her as much slack as possible. The other oddity was the high ratio of college students rather raucously sharing the dining room with us - this is fancy place for hipsters. Melinda's Mom posited that Colgate students can use their dining cards here, so mystery solved. 



We liked most of our food here quite a lot, but there were some low points of the meal, as well. The best part of eating here may be the classic ambiance and the cool little design vignettes around the inn. I give The Colgate Inn a seven on the BHS Scale, and I'd be happy to hang out here in the future, to scarf some dessert and artisanal meats. I mean, who wouldn't? 


Check back in tomorrow for an exciting Big Hungry Announcement! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Colgate Inn on Urbanspoon