4.22.2015

The Well-loved and the Newbie in Saratoga

It's been a while since I blew into Saratoga Springs for a whirlwind weekend of the Spa City's most delicious offerings. I have written before about my love for Putnam Market and Forno Bistto, so for this Miss New York's Outstanding Teen Pageant weekend, I led my flock to an old favorite and someplace entirely new to me.

Saratoga Springs is, of course, a playground for horse racing enthusiasts, and with that particular pastime comes affluence. It's a picturesque, pristine village of state parks, charming architecture, boutiques, small hotels, and many terrific restaurants. The perfect place for a weekend away, really.

Several years ago, Hattie's Restaurant went up against Food Network's Bobby Flay on his Throwdown show. Because the Throwdown was for fried chicken, and because the chicken recipe at Hattie's dates back to 1938, they sort of kicked Bobby's butt. I love me some Bobby Flay, but I'm not going to lie, it's kind of fun to watch him lose.

So, when I first started the blog about five years ago, I told you a little bit about Hattie's, and I just had to go back for another bite. Once again, we sat out on the festive back patio under the multi-colored, chandelier-lit tents, the chilly early April air mitigated by space heaters and a great mix of 70s and 80s Top 40 hits inspiring us to order inventive cocktails from the bar sharing the space.


A basket of biscuits and cornbread arrived from our very adorable waiter, Lars. I discerningly chose a biscuit from the bounty, which was like an oasis of the South plunked into my mouth just at the point this Nothern winter was about to dehydrate me. In other words, it was properly flaky without being too dry - almost assuredly made with lard rather than butter, in accordance with the prophecy.


Cajun stuffed mushrooms, crammed with breadcrumbs, seasonings, and aromatics, were a spice punch right in the kisser. They also contained approximately one metric ton of butter per shroom cap. Pretty tasty, utterly sinful - which is a pretty great precursor for a giant pile of fried chicken, now that I think about it.


But for my money, the perfect starter from Hattie's is the hushpuppies. These golden fried orbs of cornmeal are a little sweet, a little salty, and soooo indulgent dipped in the honey-enriched side of butter and crunched down into with abandon.



We all went for fried chicken, as it should be, but a couple members of our party knew in advance they wouldn't be able to put down three huge pieces. Lars agreed to bring just a breast for each of them without batting his long eyelashes, and we were thankful.

So behold, this is why you eat at Hattie's:



The fried chicken here is unsurpassed. The meat is juicy - well-seasoned and tender without being overly salty. The crust is light, flaky, without a trace of grease. Every element - meat, skin, crust - is fully seasoned and tastes like chicken, chicken skin, and fried chicken crust independently - you get juice, salty, fat, and mild spice, but not too much of any one of those flavors. It tastes like home even if your mom never made fried chicken. It is a primal flavor that just tastes right.



The mashed potatoes were super creamy, loaded with butter and heavy cream, but unfortunately, the gravy fell short - smelling great and tasting like not much at all. Those collard greens, though? Fiery with chilies and cooked down intol savory, tenders loveliness. Earthy, slightly bitter, pungently spicy and wonderful.

It's no wonder that Hattie's chicken beat Bobby. This is an exemplary taste of the Old South, and it's right here in Upstate New York. It rates a nine on the BHS scale, and I can't wait to return!
The following night, an even larger group bustled off to Maestro's, right on Saratoga's main drag, in a quite beautiful, old, columned building. 

The space inside is more modern, upscale but comfortable, kitted out in plush earth tones and equine-themed artwork. I started with a fantastically delicious cocktail whose name I unfortunately did not write down. It was comprised of brown liquor, apple liquor, plus citrus and cinnamon and tasted like a warming glass of liquid apple pie. I then formed a pork belly plan with a fellow diner, which resulted in is beaut:
 


A fat slab of crispy, rendered, tender pork belly served atop a creamy mound of barley risotto with crispy onions and jus. Four people ultimately sampled this wonder of fat, salty, crunch, earthy nuttiness, and a hint of sweetness. It seems Maestros changes its menu with some frequency, but whatever iteration of this fantastic dish is residing on it when you visit, avail yoursel of it post haste.

After that rich starter, I went for a small plate rather than a full blown entree. It was no less rich, however: house-made ricotta cavatelli coated in a cream sauce embellished with foie gras and topped with micro greens.  The pasta was tender but sturdy, but as you chewed it, it dissolved and almost became creamy itself. The sauce, laced of course with goose liver, was thick, more unctuous than creamy in a way that only a sauce that looks like dairy but is actually minerally, salty, fatty meat can be. This dish was tiny, but splendid.
 

It was like a carbonara in that way, much like the egg yolk heightens a carbonara sauce into a silky, gorgeous velvet, this was a luxuriously decadent pasta.
 
For dessert: coconut cream pie. It was anchored by a supremely light, whipped, mousse-like vanilla base with lots of toasted coconut up top. I'm still searching for my perfect coconut pie, one made with coconut milk, cream of coconut, and really great coconut chips. This wasn't it, but it was still damn yummy.
 

Our service at Maestro's was friendly and very attentive. It's a smaller space, and therefore loud on a Friday evening, but we were loud too, so everything was fine. It's pricey here, but every dish I sampled was delicious and presented in an upscale way, with thoughtful, creative approaches to familiar food. I would also give it a nine on the BHS scale, so I guess I'm feeling pretty rosy about our Saratoga experience.
 
I wish I could be as magnanimous about our hotel, but frankly, the Hilton Garden Inn is aging and in need of renovation. In my room, the bathroom had a funk that didn't go away even when I called in maintenance, the service in the dining room was brusque at best, and despite friendly desk staff, we were not impressed. 
That said, we had a terrific time in the Spa City. A quick lunch of prosecco and flatbread pizza at Wheatfields was lovely, Putnam Market was bustling and chock a block with good eats as usual, and the shopping along Broadway was unique and delightful despite the blustery wind. We can't wait to return next spring for more tastes of this great town!

Maestro's at the Van Dam on Urbanspoon

4.08.2015

Watertown Daily Times Review: Mullins Family Restaurant in Gouverneur,NY

When you cook at home, you slice vegetables; you cram the ingredients you like into soup, even if the recipe dictates smaller amounts; you turn up the music if you like the song; you slice your roasted turkey as thick as you like. 

When you go out to eat, you might expect the cook to cut some of those corners — maybe he’ll make a superb broth, but dice the potatoes small, and dish out only so many per cup; perhaps she’ll use a slicing machine to achieve uniform, deli-thin slices of meat for your sandwich. Many restaurants troop out words like “homestyle” or “housemade” on their menus but fail to take the care with their food that you display in your kitchen when you’re cooking for your loved ones.

This is not the case at Mullins Family Restaurant in Gouverneur, where husband-wife co-owners Dan and Tina are churning out every plate full of food so obviously loved and fussed over, you can’t help but taste the welcome. 

The sizeable building on Gouverneur’s Route 11 is split half and half between a massive, darkened bar, just beginning to warm up with a fun crowd at 7 p.m. on a Friday night, and the lighter, open dining room decorated with exposed brick, wood paneling and new light fixtures. A thoughtful accordion door between the two spaces shielded us from early strains of Toby Keith, but once the party was in full swing, we enjoyed the convivial atmosphere that bled through the screen.

Tina was our server, and my girl crush on her started right off the bat, when she gave us her true thoughts on the evils of reduced-fat cheese and commiserated with me over the trials of being on Weight Watchers. Her casual, friendly, fun demeanor never wavered, and her knowledge and pride in her husband’s hard work in the kitchen transferred to us nonstop throughout our meal.

Tina told us very frankly that the mozzarella sticks and coconut shrimp on the starter menu were freezer products, so we skipped those in favor of Dan’s two homemade soups that night. 
The seafood bisque was heaving with finely diced fish and shellfish, subtly kissed with the sweetness of sherry, and finished with a buttery mouthfeel and flavor. 


The corned beef and cabbage soup, made with corned beef brisket that Dan had marinated, or “corned,” himself from scratch, was like liquid dynamite! That first bite was a salty, fatty, rich punch to my face. It’s a punch I would eagerly request again, too. I loved it. It was over-packed with big shreds of the tender, salty corned beef and chunks of carrots and potatoes still retaining a good bite, plus sweet cabbage cooked down so far, it almost helped thicken that buttery broth. 


Prime rib ($19.99 for 16 ounces) is available on Friday and Saturday nights, and again, the care these folks have for their food was evident in every bite. It was prepared simply, well-seasoned, but balanced — I’ve had prime rib in much fancier joints in which all you taste is rosemary, or garlic. This slab of tender, juicy, buttery-soft beef wasn’t overpowered by any single note, letting the taste of the meat sing. 


Its partner, au jus, was savory goodness, as well — again, remarkably balanced. Mashed potatoes were fine-textured, and a ladle of brown gravy to dress them wasn’t too salty, just smooth and well-seasoned. 

I’ve eaten a lot of hot turkey sandwiches. I am a total sucker for white-meat turkey, potatoes, gravy-soaked bread, gravy-soaked fries, gravy-soaked Shelby … er, excuse me. My fervor for gravy knows no bounds. 


What Mullins is bringing to the hot turkey sandwich ($7.99) game is significant — house-roasted whole turkey breast, real turkey gravy, hand cut fries. That turkey was juicy — you know why? Because it was sliced thickly, like you would do if you roasted your own bird and made yourself the most delicious sandwich you could with that succulent roasted poultry.

I’m going to crawl way out on a dangerous limb of the north country culinary tree here and make a pronouncement: Mullins just might have the best french fries in all of Northern New York. Now, I’m not going to definitely give out the gold medal yet, because I haven’t tried every fry in our tri-county area, but these were pretty dang fantastic, folks. Thick cut, lightly crisp, perfectly seasoned the second they departed their hot tub of oil, and dressed with just enough of that homemade gravy to make them drippy and delicious, but not enough to render them soggy or overshadow the potato flavor. Masterful. 

Beef tips with garlic butter and mushrooms ($16.99) was a much lighter dish than I expected from the simple menu description. Gorgeously tender, lean, thin slices of steak were sautéed with slices of baby bella mushrooms and a few hefty shakes of robust Montreal steak seasoning. Not greasy or overly buttery, it was served with hand-cut mixed vegetables, sautéed until crisp-tender, and seasoned with salt, pepper and butter. 


Let me repeat myself — those vegetables were hand-cut and sautéed in a pan with butter. Not microwaved, and not frozen, from a bag. You know how I could tell? Every carrot, pepper slice, and zucchini coin was irregular, and each one kept its natural texture and unique flavor. You might think I’m crazy to belabor a side of veggies, but I can’t even tell you how many kitchens regard the vegetable side as an afterthought. At Mullins, this dish was treated with as much respect as the proteins and soups, even though in no way will the restaurant make money from a side dish like that. 

A reader had written to me a couple months ago and recommended the baked potato at Mullins after I remarked that this side was scarce on modern menus. Thank you, kind sir, because my stuffed baked potato served me well for two meals! It arrived encrusted with golden brown cheese, cooked perfectly fluffy inside, and crowned with a little real chopped bacon and a couple of broccoli florets. Please note, that bacon did not originate in a jar, nor did the broccoli come from the freezer. Just like the majority of our meal, this was fresh food. 

When Tina came back to check on our drinks, we chatted her up about Mullins’s barbecue offerings, because even though we didn’t order any that night, we do love real, slow-smoked meats. We told her of my college days in rural North Carolina and our love of BBQ done right, so she brought us out a treat — a small scoop of pulled pork and a couple of ribs, on the house. 

My fellow diners loved the uber-smoky, unctuous pork, dressed in the housemade sweet barbecue sauce. I preferred the St. Louis-style ribs, slathered in that same sweet sauce, but with it a little cooked into the meat for a more concentrated, meat-candy sweetness. On a return trip to Gouverneur, I can’t wait to try Dan’s brisket — and Tina told us that for local fairs, they top those glorious fries with layers of pulled pork and coleslaw for about the most delicious BBQ parfait you could ever want. I’ll be dreaming about that dish for weeks!

With all the goodness we had already experienced, dessert was a must. Tina told us they’ve brought a new chef into their kitchen to help update the menu, and he was in charge of our first perfect ending: maple walnut bread pudding ($5). When I tasted it, I wanted to start a slow clap for this newcomer. Think of the most luscious, tender, gooey French toast you’ve ever had, swimming in real New York Grade A maple syrup. One diner declared, “This does happy things to me.”


Peanut butter ice cream pie ($5) was less bossy about its attributes, but still delectable — not too sweet, but anchored with a killer chocolate cookie crust. 


By the time we were moaning and groaning over our sweet treats, the party in the bar was really rolling, and we were swaying to the great mix of Jimmy Buffett and Brooks & Dunn floating through the space. A peek on the other side of the accordion door revealed several couples dancing, and many more enjoying a good time with their great food. You can tell Mullins is a community gathering place, and for good reason. 

Tina clued us in that Mullins is a Pride of New York restaurant, meaning they source their ingredients from more than 3,000 New York state farms and purveyors. The attributes of buying local resonate with me on several levels: Not only does it make sense from an environmental standpoint, but an economic one, too. When you source your products from New York state, I know that most of the money I’ve spent at your restaurant is contributing to the bottom line of families who are working hard right here at home to make excellent food. 

Portions sizes are appropriately hearty for a family restaurant here. There was probably 8 ounces of steak in the steak tips dish, and those cups of soup were filled to the brim. Dinner for three people, with two glasses of wine and two desserts, ran us $76.65, and that was with extras like sautéed mushrooms added to the prime rib and the upcharge for the stuffed baked potato ($2). 

The feeling isn’t fancy, but what you feel here, frankly, is a sense of home. Mullins is cranking out good food, great times, friendly service and a comfortable setting. I can’t say enough about how much appreciation I have for five-star service and thoughtful, crafted, homestyle food. Actually I can: I give Mullins Family Restaurant a nine on the Big Hungry Shelby scale. We should reward restaurant people working really hard to do it right, and Dan and Tina, who feel like old friends even though I just met them a couple weeks ago, are doing just that. You might order your steak medium rare, but I think you’ll find everything is well done at Mullins!

I'll be out of the country on business travel next week, Hungries, so I may not get a post up, but take heart: before I leave on a jet plane, I'm spending the weekend in Saratoga Springs! So you have two delicious reviews coming up from the Spa City when I return! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Mullin's Family Restaurant on Urbanspoon

4.01.2015

A Recipe and a Recommendation

A few weeks ago, when I previewed Binghhamton Restaurant Week, I posted a picture of a drunken torta made by the Lost Dog Cafe that garnered a lot of attention - rightly so, because that thing was sinfully delicious.


I asked the lovely owners of LDC if I could share the recipe of this cheesy, nutty, savory, fruity wonder, and they said yes! Their chef was a little bit less eager to give away the whole shebang, but from what they told me, I bet you clever readers could assemble reasonable facsimiles for your Easter tables.

Lost Dog Cafe Drunken Nutty Torta

Mix cream cheese with with some feta, basil and parsley. I would recommend three parts cream cheese, brought to room temperature, mixed with one part likewise room temp crumbled feta, and a few tablespoons of minced herbs, and I would whip them together with a mixer.

Those fruity layers are called raspberry melba, and they tell me it's laced with Merlot wine. There's your drunken element! When I think melba, I think crunchy toast, so I looked it up. It's French, of course. All praise Escoffier! Basically, this is just raspberry purée. So for this, I would suggest cooking down a bunch of frozen raspberries with a smidge of sugar and some Merlot until quite thick like a jam, the pureeing in a food processor. 

Give a whole mess of toasted walnuts a whizz in the processor as well, and press the finely chopped nuts into the top layer of cheese, then drizzle with honey. Once you get your layers of cheese, melba, and nuts assembled, refrigerate for several hours to a day before serving, so that it can set up and the cheese layer doesn't slide off its fruity foundation when you scoop into it.

The genius of this dish is the funky, salty feta and savory herbs in the cheese layers juxtaposed against the sweet, fruity melba fortified with merlot, which has an earthy quality. The nuts ground everything, and the finished product is quite complex and so pretty! I would recommend lining a trifle dish with plastic wrap, building the torta in that, and then turning it out upside down for presentation once it's refridgerated for a bit and set up.

Serve this baby with baguette, fresh fruit, and crackers, and just wait around to collect the raving accolades. Thank you to Lost Dog Cafe for bestowing this tasty wonder upon us!




This past weekend, we had Big Hungry Melinda's bridal shower up in Hamilton, at the Colgate Inn. I reviewed the Inn a few months back, and was even more enamored with their catering and special events operation. The space was absolutely gorgeous.



One of my favorite gets for this celebration were the favors, which I actually learned about on Instagram. Bijou Sweets is an NYC-based start-up founded by two young women who wanted to share their love of fancy treats. We had their chocolate-covered "14 karat gold honey and vanilla" pretzels, adorned in edible gold sprinkles and individually wrapped in clear cellophane - one for each guest. 


The pretzels were crunchy, lightly sweet and salty, and subtly flavored with vanilla. Very chic, easy, and yummy! I highly recommend Bijou Sweets for your next stylish fete!



The best part? Liza and Stephanie were a dream to work with, and the process of ordering these bespoke treats took all of 20 minutes. You know I love supporting artisanal, local, small purveyors, and the Bijou ladies embody every bit of that passion. They have a fabulous idea, they make their products by hand, and the result is delicious and affordable. I was so glad to throw this brand new business some work, and to bring this big city product all the way Upstate! Check them out at http://bijousweets.com



So, Restaurant Week in Bingamton is about to wrap up, but you have two more days to get out there and try a new place for a great price! Some friends and I hit Loft at 99 this week, where I devoured this amazing bowl of decadence:
 


"Confit" fried chicken sitting in a puddle of thick, perfectly seasoned polenta with a ladle of sweet tomato jam, a soft poached egg for richness, shavings of salty Parmesan cheese, and a sprinkle of freshly cracked black pepper. I may never diet again! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger! 






3.24.2015

A Delicious Injustice

A couple years ago, I was inspired one day to start a dream restaurant menu, and began a note on my iPad with ideas for upscale, creative dishes based on the wonderful regional favorites of Upstate New York. It had takes on Utica greens, Buffalo wings, a St. Lawrence River shore dinner, spiedies, beef on weck, and more.

I finished it off in August 2014. Check my iPad if you need proof! But of course, I don't actually have the cojones to start a restaurant! It takes big ones!

Now, I don't know when the Upstate Tavern at the Turning Stone Resort and Casino opened, but I feel like they had to have had access to my private files, because they may as well have stolen the idea behind it and some of the menu itself, right out of my head.

The space is masculine, dominated by exposed brick, distressed wooden shiplap, and tin ceilings. It feels a world away from the blinking, plinking casino floor. Comfortable, a little bit slick, and very cool.

Many of the cheeses, condiments, and some other ingredients are sourced from New York purveyors, but overall, the appetizer list isn't really in keeping with our regional specialties. There are wings, yes, and also spiedies, but I'm curious what city in Upstate NY is known for fried oysters? In any event, we chose onion rings and poutine to start. 


I would have preferred the onion rings to be beer battered, which also would have given them the opportunity to use a NY beer, but these were breaded. They didn't have a lot of flavor, but they were big, hot, and crunchy. The dipping sauce, however, was powerful - chock full of horseradish and spices. And when you bit into one, he onion didn't slide right out, which at least means someone in the kitchen knows their way around a ring.

The poutine was markedly more successful, for me. Hearty, hand-cut, skin-on russet potatoes were smothered in Yancy's Fancy cheese curds, still sharp and squeaky (and therefore very fresh), plus a generous ladle of brown gravy with a sturdy backbone of beer, creating a savory dish with a slight hint of acidity and the salty sharpness of the curds. It was very good, and even the sprinkling of scallions on top made sense in the mix.


The fish fry is done with Saranac Pale Ale in the batter, as I wish the onion rings had been. That batter was slightly sweet, owing to the abundance of hops in the ale, to be sure. It was thick, a bit greasy, almost like a funnel cake from your favorite Italian feast, but even crunchier. Just for reference's sake, the fishing camp fry on my fictitious menu is fried bass served on a salad with a slaw component and croutons made from hush puppy batter. Dressed with thousand islands dressing, of course.


Instead of fries with the fish, we tried, "fried salties," or salt potatoes, smashed and deep fried. These are utterly delicious, a little fleshier than a fry, but really well flavored and addictively crispy. You also can get regular salt potatoes with your entree, which of course are a must-have on any good Upstate menu.

A turkey burger was on special that day, and one of our diners tried it. I have no idea why a turkey burger with cranberry mayo has anything to do with Upstate New York, but that mayo was a winner. Maybe because people in NY celebrate Thanksgiving? I mean, people all over the country do that, but yes, those of us in NY happen to be in that camp, I guess. In any case, the burger was juicy, and that mayo was sweet and tart - peace.



In lieu of Buffalo wings, one diner chose the Asian wings. They were very good - sticky, well done, meaty, and slightly spicy. However, the choice to serve blue cheese dressing alongside wings dressed in sweet Thai chili sauce made little sense.

The pot roast was wonderful - boneless short ribs, fall-apart tender, over above-average, from-scratch mashed potatoes that were pointed up with tangy sour cream. The menu said this would be topped with "angry onions," but the little fried strings were only barely spicy with dried cayenne - I'd call them peeved, maybe. The carrots were well-seasoned, bright orange and still a wee bit crunchy in the center. Kind of perfect.



Again, I have no idea why pot roast is being served as an Upstate NY dish - I think of it more as a New England thing. I might have gone in a more Italian direction for the beef dish, as we have such a large Italian population - a braciole or garlic-rubbed ribeye, perhaps.

The Tavern burger was our last entree, and while I don't think of burgers an uniquely NY, they certainly  are beloved here. The brioche roll on which this was served was chewy and buttery, toasted and yummy. But the burger was kind of boring, for me. The diner who ordered it agreed, saying the pickle and roll were the best parts.



There certainly were more iconic dishes on the menu that we didn't try, but I felt like the food here was kind of up and down. The good things were very good, but the flaws were rather gaping, as well. Overall, I thought there should have been more ethnic foods on the menu to truly reflect Upstate's Italian, Greek, Polish, and Irish roots.

Moreover, our waitress was so standoffish, we actually thought she might hate us. She would come to drop off food and be gone so quickly, not a single one of us could have asked for anything if we'd wanted to. I understand that this place is serving a casino crowd, which might dictate a much larger menu and economies of scale that might not seem logical for a normal restaurant with this cool a concept, but I wished it had been driven home a little more thoroughly. 

I give Upstate Tavern a six on the BHS Scale. They may have bogarted my big idea, but I have to give them props for that - and every potato product we ate there was outstanding. Hey, maybe that's the nod to our Irish neighbors! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Upstate Tavern on Urbanspoon