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


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 Рan acidic, sweet bacon jam and bitter, crisp-tender saut̩ed 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!


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


Flitting the Trail

Have you met my Shawn?

He's the smartest person I know, and a man of simple pleasures. He's happiest with a cold beer and a nice day to navigate his tractor around his land, puttering on house projects and reverse engineering the myriad issues that come along with home ownership. It's difficult for me to lure him away from our property.

But a couple weekends ago, it was my birthday, and everyone knows the birthday girl gets to call the shots. I happen to be very good at shot calling, and the day I wanted was wine oriented and Finger Lakes bound. So my Shawn charted a course for Cayuga, and would you know what? There were tasty treats afoot.

Since we access Ithaca by first surmounting Owego, we stopped off at Iron Kettle Farms on Rt. 96, said hello to some little friends, and picked up a peck of local apples.

Then it was off to wine country. We hit Americana for my favorite taste of the Finger Lakes - their Apparition white table wine. It's good stuff, you guys. It has a crisp sweetness that doesn't linger in the back of the throat like almost all other sweet wines, and pairs well with chicken and ethnic dishes.

After Americana comes Sheldrake Point, my favorite winery to visit. This is where you buy Riesling, take in the gorgeous water view, and joke around with the pourers. Oh, you also take selfies:

Feeding goats and drinking wine works up a mean hunger! For years, I've tasted wine at Cayuga Ridge and wished it was mealtime so that I could grab a pizza from their Copper Oven. Finally! My wish came thrue, and we beelined there for a delicious and lovely lunch al fresco. I ordered wine, while Shawn was relieved to get a beer:

And we perused this fun menu:

I feel like I should reassure you that the graphic is of the Finger Lakes in their entirety, not some horrifically scarred internal organ from an animal. It's ok. Don't be scared.

We split the fun-guy pie for lunch, and it was the perfect few bites for which we were looking. The pizzas at Copper Oven are small and thin crusted, not the traditional pepperoni and cheese gooey behemoths you might be used to from delivery pies. The fun-guy had a base of Creme fraiche, which is like sour cream but French and therefor better (ok, ok, it's actually just a bit creamier, with a hair less tang than American sour cream). On top of that were minced mushrooms, cheddar cheese, fresh chives, and truffle oil to round out the flavor and give each slice an earthy personality that would have been absent without it. The toppings were scant so as not to trump the flavor of the crust itself, which was subtle, but had fantastic crunch and chew. 

See those gorgeous charred bits of cheese? You can thank the super-hot oven, made of (yes) copper, for them. I know I did. The Copper Oven is a great stop for lunch on your Cayuga Lake wine tour. The wait staff was pleasant, the drinks were great (there were local crafts beers on special, plus Cayuga Ridge Estates wines available by the glass), and the deck on which you sit feels like a little private enclave, just enough removed from the winery, overlooking the lake and a pretty red barn, and charming as all get out.

Also? Pizza soaks up all the booze, man!

We hit a few more wineries, then headed back into Ithaca, where I took Shawn to Ithaca Ale House, just off the Commons, for a pre-dinner drink. Because what you need following an afternoon of wine tasting is a Bloody Mary or a beer! As ever, my most favorite bar in Upstate NY was bustling, friendly, and a good place to pause and catch our breath. The food cranking out of the kitchen looked almost good enough to make me rethink our dinner destination, but no, I was not to be deterred.

We rolled up the other side of the lake to Booker's Backyard, which I first told you about last summer, declaring it the spot for your next date night. I don't know if you've tried it out yet, but I can tell you that MY birthday date night there was splendid, and we both already can't wait to go back.

We sat in that idyllic backyard, and rather than down on the patio, Shawna and I were seated up on the deck, with a bit of an elevated view of the sunset, a private feel, and of course, all the yummies Booker's entails.

I've already reviewed Booker's, so I'm not about to give you a full run down, but our meals were wonderful. My scallop and bacon mac and cheese and exemplary lobster roll were fabulous - I groaned and made Shawn taste them and the whole nine. You should go here.

He would probably never admit it, but I think Shawn enjoyed getting out and about and exploring this gorgeous little section of our state quite a bit. We revisited places we already know we like and hit up some new spots, didn't plan too much, and let our moods, our stomachs, and the road take us where they liked. It was a golden, romantic, and very happy birthday for me. Could a girl ask for anything more? My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

PS - I have big, BIG news to share next week, so check in Wednesday for a review from Hamilton and Utica, and again on Thursday for a special announcement!

PPS - My Little One is crowning her successor this Saturday at the culmination of the 2015 Miss Thousand Islands Outstanding Teen Pageant. It's at 2 p.m. in the LaFargeville Central School Auditorium. If you have a free afternoon and you're in NNY, swing by and support six young ladies working hard to join the nation's largest achievement program for women: the Miss America Organization! There will be entertainment in the form of dancing and singing, plus, you get to see Joelle on her way to the next fabulous chapter of her young life. You won't regret the investment of your time into supporting our community's young people! 

The Copper Oven on Urbanspoon