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


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


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!


Honey Throwdown

This is the fourth year the Broome County Legislature asked me to come be a part of its Fresh From the Farm Throwdown, a partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension to expose young people in the community to locally grown foods and how to prepare them. I serve as a "celebrity" judge (insert cynical laughter here) of the dishes the various youth groups conjure up utilizing an in-season agricultural product each year.

This year, local honey was the ingredient of choice for the Throwdown, and my fellow judges Kristen Cox Roby and Sue Chinyavong were the most fun foodies ever to experience all the wonderful treats the kids cooked up. Kristen writes about food for the Press & Sun Bulletin and Sue runs my new favorite pho and coconut rice hangout, Teasure Ice Cream, in Endwell.

Team 1 was Girl Scount Troop 30245 AKA Francesca, Gianna, Delaney and Sarah. Let me just underscore the extreme Jedi skills of these girls, who experimented with subbing in honey for sugar in a variety of crackers and cookies until they came up with a moist shortbread to serve as the base for their honey fluff fudge s'mores. 

With this delectable s'mores hybrid, we also received a goblet of sweet/tart red zinger iced tea, sweetened with honey from McRey Farm. The kicker to the s'mores was the fluff piled on the fudge-dipped cookie - it was made with honey, and delivered a punch of the syrupy, floral sweetness that plain corn syrup can never equal. It was all presented rather adorably, and that's why this selection won our prize for Best Presentation.

Team 2, the Club Cafe gang from the Boys & Girls Club of Western Broome, actually run a restaurant that's open to the public a few hours a week at the club. Amierah, Luke, Aliviya and Quanez used honey from Berkshire Hills Honeybee Farm for their honey butter delight, smeared on top of corn muffins.

They topped the muffins with a smear of the honey butter and chopped strawberries, and sprinkled the whole shebang with some sea salt to finish. We found the addition of the salt to be so different and kind of nouveau, and awarded them the Most Creative award for their dish.

Sea salt and honey pie, the creation of Team 3, the Fantastic Foodies, is the kind of dessert that is so sweet, your teeth send up signals of protest to your brain immediately as you bite into it. However, your brain's pleasure centers are all lit up already, sending out mental fireworks and moaning noises to your lips, and at that point, your teeth and their dumb cavity concerns barely register. Eve, Kirsten, Kennedy, and Logan? You ladies made us a dessert so complex and ooey-gooey delicious, we didn't care in the slightest that it was a dentist's nightmare.

The juicy, fresh peach frozen yogurt on top added just enough tartness to stand up to the maxed out honey flavor of the pie, but the real genius was the honey mint lemonade, which employed fresh garden mint to stunning effect - a palate cleanser for this multi-dimensional, brilliant dessert. I would definitely pay money for this dish in a restaurant, and I encourage local pastry chefs to reach out to these youngsters for their recipe. Unsurprisingly, it won both Peoples Choice and Best Overall.

Team 4 brought the thunder with a massive tres leches cake in which all the sugar components were made with honey from Earl's Honey. VINES has competed in the Throwdown every year, and you've read here before about how these kids grow all their own food in their urban garden. This year's team, made up of Quitajah, Ariel, Sage, James, Joshua, Jonathan, and Destini, knocked it out of the park with their very sweet, super moist layer cake with honey whipped cream and honey-caramel drizzle. There was no mistaking the rich taste of honey in this confection.

They also made us a tea with mint and honey in it, and again, the mint was a refreshing antidote for the  cloying sweetness prepared for us by the bees and the kids. VINES took home the award for Most Local Products. They even grew the sumac flowers garnishing the cake!

The final group, Team 5, was Citizens U, another returning squad. Nyeatwig, Shazaria, Esther, Kiara, and Emroidery made us a complete tasting plate of inspired honey dishes, including crostini, jalapeño honey butter, fruit, dipping sauce, and honey lemonade. You want to make something awesome with honey? Roast up a jalapeño chile, and dice that into some softened butter with a drizzle of local honey. That stuff is dynamite!

We also loved the crostini, which gave us a salty bite of prosciutto and a licoricey leaf of basil with our honeyed ricotta. Citizen U won our award for Best Taste.

Overall, this group of kids did a remarkable job, through creativity and a lot of hard work, with this year's featured ingredient. I was a little surprised there wasn't a more savory dish in the mix - my favorite use of honey this time of year is equal parts honey and butter glazing slender green beans, seasoned with lots of salt and pepper to keep them from veering too sweet. But, I'll tell you, I came up with that recipe in my mid-20s. At these kids' ages, I too, would probably have chased the sweet preparations with reckless abandon!

We had great food this year (that pie. THAT PIE!), but what I love most about this event is that it forces so many young people into the kitchen to really dissect a locally-grown food and figure out how to cook it. Plus, the kids' pride of their dishes is so evident - they develop the recipes themselves, often through a good bit of trial and error - and to be rewarded for that hard work lays a really wonderful foundation for a lifetime of kitchen experimentation. There are so few opportunities these days for kids to fall in love with cooking, and I'm enthusiastic about supporting any of them that I can.

Oh right, it was also pretty fun to be on an extreme sugar high with these two;) Congratulations to all of this year's Honey Throwdown participants! You are all the bee's knees! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!