9.28.2016

Dispatch from Austin: The Prettiest Little Hacienda in Texas

Fonda San Miguel won't show up in most of the searches you do for the best restaurants in Austin. It's a food town, Austin, and among the Franklin BBQs, zillions of trendy food trucks, and migas and queso joints, I'm not sure Fonda San Miguel is quite cool enough to rate on most people's must eat guides.


What's crazy is, in nearly any other city in America, this would be the best place in town! More than 30 years old, this hacienda-style culinary theme park has it all over the migas trucks and hipster fusion joints that crowd downtown. It's absolutely gorgeous inside, with multiple dining rooms and a bar serving up downright delicious margaritas and cocktails.


They also serve freshly fried tortilla chips and house made, fiery red and green salsa in there. Don't miss out on these absolutely delicious, and free, starters. The salsa verde was powerfully spicy, but I couldn't stop eating it. Even the chile and salt-spiced rim of my cucumber margarita was inspired.


The menu at Fonda is seductive, and I easily could have gone for duck enchiladas or chiles rellenos, but it was probably a forgone conclusion that I would actually order the cochinita pibil - pork, slow roasted in a banana leaf.


Crowned with hot pink pickled onions, this rich, tender meat was juicy, with the faintly floral taste of the banana leaf baked into it, but mostly unadorned - the unctuous flavor balanced by the bracingly sharp onions. Fluffy white rice and black beans, plus a pungent, fierysalsa made with ground up almonds and chiles and another milder one with a tomato base, rounded out this feast.


My coworker Paula ordered the shrimp in chipotle cream sauce. The menu called it spicy, but I found the flavors of her homey dish balanced, rich and deep. This was decadent, but not like most of the Tex-Mex food we're used to. Instead of a cheese-laden, highly salted meal, the shrimp were light, the chiles were bright and alive, and the crema served to extinguish the heat without blanketing the fire completely. You were left with the spicy, raisin-y flavor of the chipotle and the sweetness of the shrimp, swimming in the savory sauce. Excellent.


My other colleague, Ernie, ordered the duck chile rellenos, which looked outrageously delicious, but I did not venture a taste. Sometimes, on work travel, it seems a little much to be eating off everyone's plates at dinner.


Rest assured, I'm entirely comfortable recommending Fonda San Miguel to you based on the foods I did try. Our waiter, as well, was infinitely patient as we asked menu questions about the very authentic Mexican menu. As I said previously, the food here has little in common with the taquitos palors we're mostly familiar with, so a little guidance is a welcome favor.


I give Fonda San Miguel a nine on the BHS scale, for the stunningly beautiful interiors and friendly and professional service, but also for the distinctive, authentic fare of old Mexico, wrapped in a luxurious veneer. For me, this would be a fabulous date night spot or a great place for a business meal (which is what we were doing). It's a different world from the typical hip, grungy Austin haunt. I hope you check it out next time you're in Texas Hill Country. My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!


Fonda San Miguel Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

9.20.2016

A Slice of Good Life in Skaneateles

When I was in high school, during a weekend day trip to Skaneateles, my parents and I splurged on an evening meal at The Krebs. Then the jewel of fine dining in Central New York, The Krebs was venerable, but considerably less chic than I had expected for such a lauded dining establishment. I don't remember what we ate, frankly, but I remember that the space had a country club feel, a relaxed and aging elegance that communicated old money rather than overt opulence.

There's a gentility to the hamlet of Skaneateles that, even more than Saratoga Springs or Ithaca, smacks of generations of dynastic wealth and an unassuming comfort with the finer things in life. The Krebs of old was firmly ensconced in that oddly East Coast sensibility of rugged, relaxed luxury.

What a difference a couple of decades makes. Today, The Krebs is owned by a millionaire and his wife who saved the restaurant, first established in 1899, and have turned it into a farm to table destination that donates all its net profits to local charities. A complete interior renovation has transformed the dining spaces and bar into a modern, urban example of luxe fine dining - a cocoon of glamour, though never over the top. The outside has been sprucedup, but not altered, so that the deep front porch still retains that hospitable, throwback, early 20th century feel - a wonderfully peaceful spot to sit and enjoy cocktails before your reservation.


The cocktails themselves are a bit high in concept and low on delivery, for me. An autumn rum concoction sounded delicious, but was so overly spiced, it tasted like a mouthful of potpourri rather than a masterfully balanced tipple. A Bloody Mary martini should have tasted of the tomato infused into the alcohol, but instead was just a glassful of chilled vodka with little flavor. I respect strong drinks, but these two seemed to focus more on form than function. Neither was very drinkable.

Things perked up with our starter course. Late harvest tomatoes and burratta cheese were right up our alley. I was surprised that the tomatoes in question were grape and cherry rather than heirloom beefsteak varieties, as typically, you want less bitter skin and more sweet flesh to pair with the ultra creamy mozzarella, but the tomatoes were busting with sugary flavor. The cheese was almost more of a freshly handmade ricotta than a burratta - the focus was on the creamy, loose interior of this specialty food rather than a shell of chewy, sponges fresh mozz. It was sort of free form, and the cheese broke down quickly to create a sort of cheese sauce around the tomatoes. It was dressed in what the menu called botanical oils. I was missing acid - a little bit of vinegar would have been a welcome addition to this herbaceous, milky dish.


Prawns with coriander, citrus, and espelette chile were much smaller than I assumed when ordered them. Shrimp and prawns are fairly interchangeable terms, but typically when featured on menus, prawns indicate a very large crustacean. These were petite, but perfectly cooked, and bursting withfreshness, paired with supremed segments of orange and grapefruit, and lightly sprinkled with espelette chile pepper, which is a gently hot, slightly sweet spice.


The Krebs menu doesn't specify what cheeses come on the $18 cheese plate, but we liked them all. The blue cheese, in particular, was sweet and savory - possibly a Gorgonzola? It was really lovely with smears of the gooey honeycomb served alongside. Shawn absolutely adored the crispy crackers that came with the plate, as well. This was not an especially plentiful amount of cheese for the price, but the quality was there all day. My favorite was the creme selection, which may have been a Camembert.


The four of us dining were evenly divided on our entree choices: two chicken, two duck. The guys were very happy with the chicken, which was prepared sous vide, or cooked in a sealed bag inside a bath of temperature controlled circulating water, low and slow, to retain all its moisture. The skin was removed and fried separately, to render it crispy and crunchy. Yum! The plate was completed with some celery and a chicken jus, which was subtle - the star here was the juicy meat and salty, crisp skin.

Melinda and I chose the duck, because we are wise. The menu claimed it was flavored with hibiscus, which I am very enthusiastic about, but I couldn't taste the flower at all. Maybe it was in the extremely scant drizzle of sauce under the duck. This meat also was prepared sous vide, and then finished on a hot griddle to crisp up the skin. Crispy duck skin is a rare treat, and is so delicious, Thanksgiving roasted turkey skin gorging seems amateur in comparison. Roasted parsnips alongside the meat added sweetness and a little something extra to the juicy duck overload. We loved this dish, but I confess: I found it a bit simple for the $36 price tag. 


We had to pay extra for a family style serving of mashed potatoes, but they were excellent: more of a potato purée, silky, buttery, and luscious. Well worth an extra $9, although that's a little extravagant for potatoes. I assume we were paying for fancy butter rather than spuds.

I didn't care for the profiteroles I ordered for dessert, as they were a little heavy and the flavors of chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream on the plate were actually too rich and sweet after that lavish meal. But Melinda's bowl of summer berries topped with a fabulous lemon and champagne sabayon was perfection. The berries were tart and just barely sweet, while the frothy wine cream sauce was light, rich and eggy - this is serious food, and showed more skill and imagination than much of what we ate that evening.

Our waitress, Heather, was engaging and professional, never leaving us hanging, but also unobtrusive, letting us enjoy our evening. Her wine recommendations and help with menu questions was spot-on for this level of dining. 

We had a wonderful evening at The Krebs, enjoying the luxe surroundings and expertly prepared food, but I'm giving it a nine rather than a 10 on the BHS scale. The dishes here are well executed, but missing the assertive flavors and modern touches I felt the interior demanded. This is a five star restaurant, and though all of our food was delicious, the recipes were very, very simple. In instances where the menu led me to believe an ingredient would take a dish to the next level, it never really did. Nothing made us groan or rave with pleasure - it was universally tasty, but just a little bit boring.

It could be that this is what the community of Skaneatles demands of its ritzy stalwart, but after having eaten in similarly themed restaurants in DC and Philly, I want just a little more. That said, we quite enjoyed the evening out, and a boozy, pampering dinner in such a gorgeous setting is always a treat. I would go back, for sure. My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!



Krebs Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

9.15.2016

Dispatch from Austin: Keep BBQ Weird

A couple weeks ago, as a couple of colleagues and I prepared to head down to Austin to support an event at our company's site there, I caught an episode of Bizarre Foods America during which Andrew hit up a really beautiful BBQ place downtown called Lambert's Downtown Barbecue. You don't see a lot of upscale BBQ or reinventing the wheel on Texas BBQ at all, so I booked us for dinner there this week.

Andrew does not steer his viewers wrong. We were still enjoying drinks in the bar when an adorable mom and daughter ordered the wild boar ribs and told me how delectable they were. Our first dish was cemented.


These tiny ribs were taken so far in the smoker, the fat had rendered down completely and left the meat almost crispy - but not dried out - kind of like extra crispy chicken wings. To reinforce the wing vibe, they were glazed with honey and sambal, which tasted like a remarkably upscale buffalo sauce. And to further gild the lily, celery and buttermilk blue cheese added freshness and earthy funk to the deep, sweet, smoky ribs. This is a singular dish, and worth enduring the disgusting heat of Texas for.

When in Austin, one must order queso. It's the right thing to do. At Lambert's, the green chile queso comes accompanied by tortilla chips, soft tortillas, avocado, cilantro and pico de gallo. This is no Velveeta and Ro-tel heated up in the microwave, folks. The cheese itself was mild and thick - absolutely aces with the cool, creamy avocado chunks. Be still, my barely still beating heart!


We absolutely didn't need another starter,mount my colleague Ernie had never tried duck prosciutto, and Lambert's has it on its charcuterie platter. I couldn't let Ernie go one more day without trying this delicacy! Never mind that it also had foie gras pate and spicy cornichon. The decadence was bordering on absurd at this point, and we hadn't even gotten to the entrees yet.


The main dishes at Lambert's are divided into two categories: oak smoked and grilled. We were after BBQ, so while I ordered the pork ribs, the fellows chose the brisket.

The huge ribs were smoked over oak and glazed with maple syrup, for a sweet finish completely unlike the usual cloying sweetness most BBQ sauces lend. They were cooked perfectly - tender enough to flake the meat off with a fork, but not so much so that it completely fell off the bone. The blush of the smoke ring illustrated the earthy taste of the oak,me hole a rib of fennel and coriander added a subtle hint of floral grassiness to underscore the maple. Thankfully, none of those flavors outshone the pork itself, which was robust. A chive and cheddar biscuit on the side was a hair over baked, but still pretty tasty with the pork.


The guys' brisket was rubbed with coffee before its trip to the smoker, which had a remarkable alchemy with the beef fat and smoke - a deep, dark flavoring teetering on the edge of bitter without careening over the side, thanks to some brown sugar in there to save it.


Our family style sides were macaroni and cheese (not my favorite - a little bland for me), collards cooked with smoky bacon and just shy of completely broken down (absolutely scrumptious) and Brussels sprouts rooted with brown butter and more house made bacon. I was all about those collards, man. I love roasted sprouts, but the brown butter with these made them more bitter than I prefer. 


We were very excited that fried plum pies were on the dessert menu, but our stomachs, groaningly full at this point, were not having it. And you just can't take a fried pie back to the hotel room, so these will have to wait for my next visit. No matter - our food and service at Lambert's were phenomenal - a nine on the BHS scale. This hip, "fancy BBQ," joint has some of the most modern riffs on classic Texas barbecue you'll find anywhere, with a refined edge that's so much more downtown Austin that Hill Country. You've got to get there and get Lambert's oak smoke in your mouth! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Lamberts Downtown Barbecue Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

8.30.2016

Bites and Bobs

I don't have a real post for you this week - I ate entirely for pleasure last weekend, and I'm not sad about it! I'm still hearing from some folks with warm feelings about the Sunday column. I miss it, too! But I'm also not minding the break.

I do have a couple of tasty nuggets, though:

A couple of weeks ago, I covered Khan's Kitchen, in Endicott, but already what I feared has come true. He wasn't able to make enough to stay open, and closed up shop this week. I will miss those empanadas.


This is why I'm so passionate about patronizing our local restaurants! People's livelihoods are at stake when we choose a place to grab lunch. Make good choices, kids!

When Kristina, Morgan, and I were in Saratoga Springs earlier in the summer, we brunched at a really cute restaurant a couple of blocks off Broadway called Scallions.


I had the eggs Benedict with bacon and avocado. Have you had cool, creamy avocado with buttery, warm hollandaise? Add in crunchy, salty bacon and you basically have nirvana. I recommend you get your brunchy mitts on this breakfast.


Throw in eggs and a riot of fresh fruit, and that was exactly what a girl needed after an epic night out dancing to the Dixie Chicks.

I also grabbed dinner out with my pal Lindsay in DC back in June, and we hit up Farmers Fishers Bakers in Georgetown. This place is run by the same folks who brought you Founding Farmers, one of my DC faves, but FFB didn't hit quite so high on the scale for me.


That's fried chicken AND mashed potatoes. I love both, in a primal, homespun, nostalgic kind of way. But this plate didn't quite turn my crank. Good thing the company was so good! We even shared dessert:


Beignets with dipping sauces! Again, good, but not great. There's a little bit of inspiration lacking at Farmers Fishers Bakers, for me. The food was kind of heavy and just a little boring. Nothing really stood out as stellar, unlike the amazing cocktails at Founding Farmers, or it's incredible pimento cheese.

Last weekend, I paid my second trip of the summer to Ryan's Lookout, in Henderson Harbor. I got the same dish that's become my favorite, the patriotic pasta. Here's why I love Ryan's, you guys: I had that dish in May and then again in late August, and not only was it delicious, but it tasted exactly the same, despite the fact that I know the restaurant has had some personnel changes in the kitchen between the two visits.


The corkscrew pasta is al dente, the garlic cream sauce is flavorful but light, the shrimp are sweeter than just about anyplace else and perfectly fried in their crispy rice flour coating, and the spinach and basil add earthiness and a floral, herbal note to lift the entire dish. So many restaurants struggle with consistency when their kitchens experience staffing upsets, but that doesn't seem to happen here. That means the management is on point, methinks. Ryan's is closing soon for the season, so if you want to dig into this exemplary dish, get there fast!

I just need you to know about this dish:


It's the queso fundido at Agava Restaurant in Ithaca. It is made with gooey, stringy chihuahua cheese, plus silky, local, sautéed shiitake mushrooms and poblano chiles and truffle oil, which lends the whole delightfully greasy enterprise an ethereal, heady aroma and taste. If you like something a little lighter, go for the chicken taquitos:


The darker sauce on this dish is the restaurant's signature black salsa, which is piquant and flavorful - absolutely perfect opposite creamy guacamole and crunchy fried tortilla shells. 

In short: the food at this eatery near Cornell is just as good as I remember it. I'll be back, and I've been referring other people there like crazy.

I think that's a pretty good round-up of what I've been eating lately. I've got an upcoming trip to Austin, so expect a dispatch from my favorite Mexican food mecca, and we're hitting up a Skaneateles stunner for my birthday, so I have lots of yummy things planned for you. In the meantime, my personality is big; my hunger is bigger!