Watertown Daily Times review: The Barracks is Back

To eat again at The Barracks Inn is to take a page from my childhood and add notes to the bottom. Slung low along the Sackets Harbor shoreline, this legendary eatery has been given new life this season by a former employee of the Coleman restaurant empire. It’s clean, freshened up, and ready to serve as the backdrop of an idyllic evening of your summer.

We brought two of our favorite young people with us to dinner, Joelle and Troy, in order to pass the rite of The Barracks on to the next generation. Now they, too, understand the casual splendor of dinnertime passed looking out that wall of windows at glittering, sunset-hued Lake Ontario.

Maria, our young waitress, could not have known the expectations we carried with us to our table in the medium-toned wood and navy, nautical themed dining room. This place has been a family favorite for going on 40 years, and after a hiatus filled with longing, we were pumped to have The Barracks back. To Maria, we probably just seemed hungry.

Shrimp cocktail ($10) amounted to four jumbo crustaceans cooked perfectly. They were tender, cool, and just cooked through, plump and sweet. The cocktail sauce with which they were served was pretty basic, so the shrimp were the star here.

Everything dip ($11) was creamy and mild; my first bite more cheesy than anything else. Upon a more vigorous ingredient hunt with my second tortilla chip, I tasted the metallic brightness of fresh spinach, the soft richness of crab, and the faint lemony flavor of minced artichoke hearts. In my opinion, this hearty dish could have used about two good shakes of hot sauce just to break up all the creamy dairy, but three of our five diners adored it as is, and couldn’t shovel up scoops of the gooey dip fast enough.

Our salad course brought bowls chock full of crunchy, fresh spring mix, cucumbers, grape tomatoes, carrot shreds, black olives, and croutons that actually didn’t shatter when you tried to spear them with a fork. Best of all, The Barracks has the same house Italian dressing they serve at Fairgrounds Inn, in Watertown – the recipe possibly a parting gift for the owner? If you haven’t had it, the dressing is one part vinaigrette, one part mayonnaise, one part sugar, and completely delicious – tart and sweet.

Chicken penne pasta ($16) was well-seasoned, with tender chunks of white meat chicken and al dente pasta swimming in a creamy, but not heavy sauce. It was garlicky, and the fresh spinach and roasted red peppers added to the sharp, popping flavors. The diner who ordered it devoured every bite.

Smoked turkey BLT ($9) arrived on a ciabatta roll the size of a life raft. The deli meat was thinly sliced and fully flavored, its smoky notes echoed in the thick-sliced bacon, and balanced with sweet, ripe tomatoes. That life raft – er, ciabatta roll, was soft and supremely chewy. The pickle spear served alongside was nice and crunchy, not limp or flabby like so many afterthought garnishes.

Prime rib ($21) was served with a particularly good tiny cup of au jus. Had it been my dinner, I would have asked for a big cup, and then stolen all the rolls to dunk in this garlicky, beefy elixir that somehow avoided being salty – the end point for so many of its kind. The generous slab of roast beef was cooked to order (medium, in this case), a little chewier than I’d prefer, but my guess is that that was due to being cooked further than I would order rather than any flaw with the meat. The flavor was pretty unimpeachable.

Chicken Caesar salad ($11) was big, cheesy, crisp, cool and creamy. The chicken breast was grilled, so it leant the dish a hearty, charred taste that worked nicely against that rich parmesan saltiness coating the crunchy romaine lettuce. This is a simple salad, but just plain good.

Baked scallops ($19) were cooked perfectly, just like their shellfish cousins in our appetizer. Scallops take on the texture of a pencil eraser when overcooked, but these were delicate and juicy. They also were covered in salty, buttery cracker crumbles, which is a preparation I’ve never had before. They rendered this into a decadent, kind of naughty dish, perhaps inelegant, but definitely yummy. The baked potato was cooked through, and Maria kindly brought profuse amounts of butter and sour cream in order to check every box I have for a satisfactory starch.  

Our only letdown came when Maria told us the desserts weren’t made in-house, but came from boxes out of the freezer. I hope our visible disappointment didn’t ruin her evening. But other than lackluster cheesecake ($6), which had a dense, gelatinous texture more like a dried out pudding pie than cheesecake, we were pleasantly surprised.

Coconut cake ($6) was moist, with strong coconut and vanilla flavors and an achingly sweet frosting, while the chocolate lava cake ($6) was served warm, with rich, dark chocolate flavor and that gooey pudding-like consistency.

Dinner for five, with one cocktail and one glass of white wine, cost us $142.23. The view was free.
We enjoyed being among the chatty, relaxed groups in the dining room. Oddly, there were no couples out on date night. Gentlemen of the north country, what are you thinking? Your ladies want to be wined and dined here. Get on it. The waterfront deck isn’t quite finished being set up yet for sunset cocktails, but it’s close.

I award The Barracks Inn a seven on the Big Hungry Shelby scale. This Lake Ontario legend is back, folks, and it’s good. You won’t find fancy, but what you will find is friendly service, a laid-back atmosphere, and the unbridled beauty of Northern New York, plus casual but tasty food. It’s adding a whole new page to my childhood culinary book, and the writing is fabulous. 

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I Eat the Best Things: Pizza

Over the winter, I illuminated the best Mexican food I'd ever eaten. I'm hoping to amend that list this September when Shawn and I go to San Diego for a little getaway. Meantime, let's look at food porn of really good pizza. Ok? Ok!

Frank Pepe's charcoal-blackened crust is the draw in New Haven, CT. Everyone talks about the bacon and clam pizza here, but the simple margarita was our favorite - just fresh, acidic/sweet tomato, mozzarella and basil. In a world of gourmet, artisanal pizza, this is a classic, and classic is delicious. 

Recently, I reviewed Stefano's Pizzeria in Carthage, NY for the Watertown Daily Times. This is what I want when I'm craving pizza for dinner: crust that's chewy and flavorful without being greasy or too crispy, not too much sauce or too much cheese, and really high quality toppings. If Carthage is far from you, the Magro clan has restaurants all over Upstate, so you can get your fix in Ilion, Pulaski, Norwich or Mexico.

The new Citrea, in downtown Binghamton, is using a wood fired oven to innovate with new takes on pizza. Think shrimp and lemon pies and this brunch variety, with sausage, scallions, and a sunny side up egg broken up and spreading its golden richness across the top. It's fantastic, believe me. 

This is another Citrea pie for your viewing pleasure.

On a sunny day wine touring in the Finger Lakes, one must fuel up so as to avoid over consumption of other delights. In Ovid, right next to the Thirsty Owl Winery, The Copper Oven is employing a Provençal clay oven to churn out little pizzas with delicate, thin, chewy crusts. This "fun-guy," slice had Creme fraiche for tang, lots of woodsy, earthy, nutty mushrooms, and chives to brighten up all that depth. I want a slice right now.

In Staten Island, find Denino's and order the garbage pie for a taste of decadent pizza like you remember from childhood. With salty pepperoni, canned mushrooms, sweet onions and fennel seed-studded sausage, this thin crust, pleasantly greasy pie is crave-worthy. 

Now, all of this is not to say my heart doesn't still belong to both Art's Jug and Bernardo's, in Watertown. Those are my stalwart pizzas. The ones I order with pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms and peppers, could eat everyday and never get sick of them. They taste like parties and family dinners and casually celebratory nights out. But the above pies area good glimpse of excellent up and down our great state (plus New England!) and you can't go wrong with any of them. Grab a slice and dig in! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger! 


Don't Call it a Throwback

The lady in the canned meat aisle at Wegmans snickered at my exalted Whoop! upon finally finding a tube of anchovy paste. A futile search at another supermarket, plus a fruitless plundering of the Italian aisle, had rendered me pessimistic about the prospects of procuring this specialty item.

Such is the plight of a home cook recently beset with a fresh wave of enthusiasm for Caesar salads. That's right, the passé star of late 80s and 90s fine dining menus is my new favorite thing. A couple weekends ago in Northern New York, where throwbacks have gone to die, I tasted two particularly yummy examples, and was actually jealous I hadn't ordered them. I couldn't believe it either...sitting with a plate of scallops or lamb in front of me, I was drooling over a salad

The key, of course is the dressing, which is how I arrived in that aisle in Wegmans, triumphantly celebrating my anchovy score. Because as stinky and gross as those tiny, canned fish swimming in olive oil are, they mean everything to the type of Caesar salad you want to be making. Homemade Caesar dressing, made with anchovies, egg yolks, mashed garlic, a little Dijon mustard, lemon juice, grated (not shredded) Parmesan cheese, and a metric ton of oil, will elicit an almost animistic, guttural response when you taste it. It's like you dip a finger in the silky, dark yellow sauce, pop it into your mouth, and instantly all your muscles relax in tandem, your body responding to the pleasure in a visceral, uncontrollable way. Bottled Caesars, even ones that list some sort of anchovy product in their ingredient lists, are funky without sharpness, viscous without silkiness, and rich without depth. Stay away from them.

The dressing you make from scratch takes a little practice, and the kind you make with anchovy paste in a tube will be a little thicker and less nutty than the one you make from the canned fishies, but a can full of oil and fish that you have to peel open is a total mess. Get the tube. It's still great, but a little saltier than the ones in the can, so don't add salt until you've got the dressing together and can taste it.

I've been using my own combination of this recipe, from Bon Appetit and one from Tyler Florence, and I'm still monkeying with the amount of lemon, cheese, and oil that works best for me, but this crouton (as well as Tyler's) method works great with Italian bread, and I've been marinating chicken breasts in garlic, lemon, EVOO, and S&P and sauteing them up to make a complete meal. The chicken would be better grilled, but Shawn's been working late, and I'm too lazy to fire up the grill just for me.

Once your dressing is made, you have some important romaine choices to make. I'm liking it pretty finely shredded, for maximum dressing-to-lettuce ratio. Shawn prefers the lettuce in about a two inch dice, so that it stays crunchier. You also don't want to sprinkle shredded or grated Parmesan cheese throughout your salad, because it will interfere with the beautiful, liquid satin consistency of the dressing. Get a hunk of good parm and a vegetable peeler, and just add some pretty cheese curls over the top of your salad, like so:

Another important step is to combine your lettuce - shredded or diced, as is your preference - and just the right amount of dressing to evenly coat every piece. You really need to toss them together with the proper utensils, that is, your hands. Don't be a baby, just do it. You could also toss your croutons in there, but I like those undressed, personally. Oh, and good lord, don't ruin all your dressing efforts by using croutons out of a bag! This salad demands a loaf of great bread, or at least a few slices of it, be sacrificed for its greater good.

So I know all of this seems like a throwback, but when was the last time you had a great, hand- crafted, Caesar salad? It became popular way back when for a reason. The garlic and lemony sharpness grounded in the earthy, salty nuttiness of the anchovies and cheese, rounded out by the oil and enriched by the yolks form an unparalleled, golden elixir sent here from angels. Yes, there's more fat in this "salad" than vegetables, but this is not the time for restraint. Nay, this is decadence, served with crunchy romaine. This is your new summer supper. Enjoy! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger! 


What if Ithaca were in Sonoma?

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A regular conversation we have at work, when trying to pick a restaurant in the Bingamton area to impress customers or to send visitors from bigger cities to, is that P.S. is awesome, but is it ok to send those folks to a strip mall in Vestal (?), Loft at 99 is cosmopolitan, but the menu is limited, Remliks is gorgeous, but the food can be inconsistent. I'm not knocking any of these restaurants, and I eat at each of them frequently. But it's tough sometimes in these parts to put the whole package together.

In Ithaca, somehow, there seems to be just enough motivation/economy to push a few special places into that desired combo of atmosphere and great food. A new spot is swinging for the fences: Coltivare. 

Coltivare is part high end dining experience, part teaching facility, serving as a training ground for Tompkins Cortland Community College's culinary program students, supplied by a farm run for the school, and led by the department's head professor. So you can expect a youthful vibe, inventive, locavore food, and lots of creativity. 

What's unexpected is the utterly gorgeous space. If you've ever watched Fixer Upper, on HGTV, just imagine you asked Jo to design a Napa Valley-esque house for you. Coltivare is what would result. White subway tile, scraped wood, dark stained tables, exposed brick and ductwork, plus tons of windows and natural light to cradle you in an environment that is both cosmopolitan and utterly relaxing. The rustic-chic decor is completely different and unique for this area. Even the interior wine cellar/private dining room is idyllic.

Even better than sitting in this transporting interior is to sip a strawberry rhubarb mimosa in it. This drink was markedly less sweet than a lot of sparkling wine cocktails - the sugar content tamped down by the astringent rhubarb, but reinforced gently with the berry purée. We liked them so much, we ordered a second round.

Our brunch time bread basket was laden with miniature currant scones and pumpkin muffins. Each tiny scone was sweet, crunchy on the outside, with that dry, crumbly inside you want in a good scone. The muffins were highly spiced, tender and moist. I liked that these were diminutive, because they whetted our appetites without obliterating them. 

The pastrami hash had me tempted, but I went for the omelet of the day: (I can't even believe this exists) a goose egg omelet with lobster and bernaise sauce. I don't think I'd ever had goose egg before, so I wasn't sure what to expect from it. But it was delicate, tender, and light with rich flavors - just what one appreciates from a perfectly cooked chicken egg. The lobster meat leant sweetness, while the pale yellow bernaise was buttery and rich. Scallions saved it from going over the edge with their light sharpness. The one thing missing here was toast. Instead, it came with some kind of very scantily dressed carrot salad, which may have well just been shaved carrot, for all I could taste. Next to bernaise sauce, subtle flavors just don't cut it. In any event, when I eat an omelet, I need toast. I would have adored a piece of charred country bread with some tarragon-flecked butter to compliment the flavors of the dish. It felt naked without it.

Big Hungry Melinda, who was celebrating her last girls' day in Ithaca before tying the knot, loves a hearty burger. I hope that hasn't changed since she got married! So the bacon egg burger got the nod. Unfortunately, her massive patty of locally raised beef was a bit overcooked. That didn't detract from the rich, savory flavors at play here, but perhaps the overall effect was impacted by a lack of juiciness. The bacon had wonderful flavor, obviously. It was from BHS favorite The Piggery. And the chewy bun was delicious with the egg.

The fries were hand cut and double fried, in accordance with The Prophecy. Hallelujah.

Our waiter, a young hipster, fittingly, was friendly and kind of adorable, but our meals took an inordinate amount of time to arrive. Thank goodness for that bread basket and those mimosas to tide us over. Ladies can get the vapors, you realize, when not fed properly.

I'm not exactly ready to give Coltivare a rating yet. Brunch for two just wasn't enough to give us a wide sample of the food here. I can promise you I'll be back to Coltivare, and will provide a full report and a final judgement then. Meantime, during your next trip to Ithaca, you should hit it up and see what you think. If nothing else, this is a glorious place to while away the hours, and you're guaranteed some fun and different dishes. I always love eating in Ithaca, because the dining choices there are so varied and different from the 200 Italians restaurants we have to choose from in Binghamton. Coltivare is a somewhat stunning addition to that landscape, and I, for one, am welcoming it with open arms. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!