Bashing Out Some Killer 'Cue

It was an honor to be invited to judge the 2017 Binghamton BBQ Bash, a fundraiser for the Family Enrichment Network, at Traditions at the Glen this past weekend. The event was overseen by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, an organization that runs the majority of the most prestigious BBQ competitions in the country. Because the KCBS was running the judging, they gave the local judges on the panel a tutorial on how to judge an official BBQ contest, and boy, do I know my smoked meats now!

The competitors were Big Dipper, Saucy Hog BBQ, The Belmar Pub, Ozzie’s Brisket BBQ, Binghamton Hots, Muffer’s Kitchen, Marilu’s Catering, and Smokey Legend Gourmet BBQ.

Our judging was double blind, meaning the entries were received, renamed, and then renamed again so that we didn’t know where the food in front of us came from and could be completely unbiased in our assessment of appearance, taste, and texture.

There were quite a few rules insofar as the mechanics of judging went, beginning with the mandate that we not wear sunglasses, with a hilarious BBQ oath in the middle, and a directive on how to arrange our water bottles before we were done. But learning the ropes from the pros was really fun. We judged in two categories: meats and sides. Smokey Legend Gourmet BBQ took home the judges’ prize for Grand Champ BBQ, while Marilu’s Catering won Best Side Dish for its hot potato salad. I also really like Muffer’s Kitchen’s corn bread, with its little chunks of fresh corn, but I know some of the judges felt like it was too cake-y, without enough cornmeal in the mix to count as corn bread.

Smokey Legend’s brisket was almost overwhelmingly seasoned with black pepper and cumin when I tasted what they were serving to the event attendees after our judging was over, but if its offering was one of the two I liked best when judging; it was moist, tender but not mushy, and really beefy.  The baked beans from Smokey Legend were not my cup of tea however – too much ketchup flavor in there made them too tangy without enough depth for me.

The Family Enrichment Network provides supportive services for the optimal development of children and families, running head start programs, community clinics, special education services and even food programs. What a wonderful organization to support on a sunny, not-too-hot Saturday, and I’m so grateful to have met all the certified KCBS judges from around New York State – we had lots of good foodie conversation in our tent before the judging got underway. Congrats to all the winners! What your favorite local BBQ?


Is Henderson Harbor the New Culinary Hotspot on Lake Ontario?

I’ve brought you tales of delicious dinners at Ryan’s Lookout, comfort food at Cooper’s Landing, and daybreak delights at the Cherry Tree Inn. Well, there’s a new kid in town, and he’s got a view.

The Waterside Bar and Grill is Billy Caprara’s latest business venture, but there are no cars to be found here. This restaurant, with dockside service, fire pits, and outdoor seating, has brought a ringer into its kitchen – Chef Kevin Gentile, from Syracuse. You may remember my review of Gentile’s several years ago. I was impressed then, and our recent, lovely dinner at Waterside only underscored that impression.

First of all, the venue is pretty luxe – Billy has built a gorgeous dining room with a fireplace tucked in one corner, and a wall of windows to see Lake Ontario. There’s plenty of outdoor seating for nice days, and the three fire pits out front, which the busboys were struggling to light on the windy night we visited, reminded me of chic restaurants in California and Florida. I’ve also heard that Billy quite often will order appetizers on the house for folks seated at the bar, and in fact, he was present during our dinner, and stopped by to greet us. A present owner is a good owner, in my book.

But let’s get to the food, shall we? We began with a sexy little threesome…of shrimp. Get your minds out of the gutter, folks! The shrimp 3 way was the perfect combo of two big coconut fried shrimp, two bacon wrapped beauties, and two cold, steamed shellfish served with fresh-tasting, punchy cocktail sauce. I also loved the sauce served with the fried ones – a horseradish mayonnaise that was light but sharp. The shrimp were good-sized and not a single one was over-cooked. We loved every bite, but I think the bacon-wrapped version dunked in the horseradish mayo was my personal jam.

A round of salads preceded the entrees, and while I didn’t snap a pic, rest assured, they were fresh and decked out with lots of toppings – no wilted iceberg nonsense. I did grab a shot of the Caesar salad with shrimp ordered by one of our diners. I grabbed a bite, too, and it was delicious – the dressing creamy without too much saltiness, but still homemade and flavorful. I loved the big curls of parmesan cheese on top and the hefty, robustly crunchy homemade croutons sprinkled throughout. Beware, though, those of you skittish about anchovies – the little fishies come along for the ride on this one.

The chicken riggies is one of Chef Gentile’s specialties, but my dining companion was caught unawares of just how spicy this pasta dish can be. The dish of rigatoni, chicken, hot cherry peppers and bell peppers in a light tomato sauce that hails from Utica can range from tangy to five-alarm spicy. I’d put this version at about three-alarm, but when your first bite contains one of those cherry pepper slices, LOOK OUT. That said, the chicken in this dish was juicy and tender, and there was lots of it, plus sweet bell peppers to take the edge off the sauce, which was close to a Buffalo wing flavor, but less vinegary.

There’s a very mysterious menu item called Quiz Chef Gentile Risotto. You KNOW I always have to order whatever the craziest thing is, right? So, our delightful, attentive waitress Lindsey asked if I was allergic to anything or didn’t like anything. I asked for shrimp and no asparagus, and beyond that, let Chef go nuts.

He did just that, sending out two pear-shaped arancini of crab risotto set in a port wine sauce with grilled shrimp, fresh, quartered figs, and some gorgonzola cheese. Pears are typically poached in port wine and served for dessert in French preparations, so I loved this hint of whimsy. I also happen to love fried risotto balls, so the aracini were a great move. That said, the figs in the port wine sauce were a little sweet-on-sweet, for me, and all that flavor completely overpowered the delicate crab and shrimp. I could have done with just the sauce or just the fruit, but not both. But this was a very ambitious dish, and I absolutely award points for effort – I enjoyed it even with the cacophony of flavors.

After all this good food, dessert was an obligation, not an option. I ordered the raspberry cannoli cake. Have I ever covered the extent to which I adore cannoli cake? The combo of sweet cake and slightly savory mascarpone filling is just about dessert perfection, in my book. This one had tart raspberries in the mix, plus tiny chocolate chips and whipped cream frosting to lighten up the overall flavor. It was simply delicious.

The lemonade cake was decidedly sweeter, but no slouch itself. It was terrifically lemony and very moist (yeah yeah I know you hate that word). We loved it.

Every table dining at Waterside the night we visited was basically treated like royalty. For a fairly casual restaurant, the service here is friendly and very conscientious. Beyond the great food, you have a lovely view of the lake and a gorgeous dock to either park your boat or pose for pictures on after dinner – this is summer dining in Northern New York at its finest. I give Waterside Bar & Grill a nine on the BHS scale, and I can’t wait to return to try the lobster roll and the bahn mi sandwich! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger! 


Travel Guide: Denver

My opportunities for travel are most often business-related, meaning I fly into a place, take a cab to my hotel, spend the majority of my days in a conference room or convention center, then limp exhaustedly out to dinner, alone or in a large group, at the best place I can find without too much hassle.

I get to eat at really great places in this vein – don’t get me wrong – but it’s not the most relaxed way to experience a city. But recently, I went to visit Big Hungry Jill for a long weekend in her newest city, Denver. I’ve somehow never been to Colorado, and getting to see it as a tourist and in the company of a resident rather than as a business traveler was an absolute treat. Here’s where you need to eat when you go there.

Denver Biscuit Company is run and patronized by very, very cool people. They are cooler than me, and it’s probable they will be cooler than you. Ignore the intimidation factor, and order yourself a giant, bacon-topped cinnamon roll made from biscuit dough along with the spicy bloody mary. Carbs and vodka can make me feel better about almost anything, including what a dork I am.

This roll was luscious with sugary icing, just a wee bit smoky from the bacon shards decorating the top, and ooey gooey on the inside while also somehow being flaky. The biscuit dough make it less yeasty than your typical cinnamon roll, but it was still tender and buttery on the inside.

You could opt next (oh yeah, you’ll already be full. Order more food anyway – you’re on vacation!) for the biscuits and gravy or the shrimp and grits, depending on your gluttony inclinations. Both were delicious, but I’m going to give the slight edge to the biscuits and gravy because the savory, creamy gravy was well-seasoned and not too rich, but still in great supply. We found the shrimp factor and the sauce factor to be a bit lacking in the shrimp and grits.

Next up, Uno Mas Taqueria on South Pearl not only has a great back patio for Happy Hour, but free chips and salsa to go with your skinny margarita. The green one is fiery, and the red ones are excellent.

Moving right on down the street, we had our best meal of the trip at Ototo Raw Bar and Robata Grill. We enjoyed the Happy Hour menu here, as well, and really made the best of our limited time at this gorgeous respite. The very best dish was called Kinpira, lightly sautéed julienned burdock root and carrot dressed in sesame oil and soy sauce. This was simple, but absolutely wonderful – the root vegetable providing earthy texture and flavor that was kissed beautifully by the sesame oil and sweetened by the carrot.

The honey miso eggplant was clearly crafted by angels. The mixture of the earthy, salty, fermented miso flavor with the sweet honey and the slightly bitter, soft eggplant was genius.

The grilled squid was no slouch, and I dish I liked better than I expected to. I like grilled octopus and I like fried squid preparations, but I don’t wholly love either. This managed to become smoky on the grill, and was cooked perfectly so that it was tender but with just a slight crunch. The seaweed and sesame sprinkled on top and the soy and sake liquid underneath complimented the creamy flavor of the fish really well.

The grilled pork belly didn’t disappoint, either. The star of this dish was the yuzu-kosho sauce served with the lightly grilled, fatty pork. It was brightly citrusy with the punch of fermented chiles that elevated this from a bacon dish to an exotic wonder from another land. The sauce cut right through the richness of the meat and anything than can out sing pork belly is a star in my book.

After all that Happy Hour-ing, you’re going to want dim sum the next morning. We sure did. We had a procession of awesome Chinese specialties here, and I can’t possibly describe them all, except one: rolled-up rice noodles stir fried with jalapenos, soy, and garlic that knocked my socks off. I have no idea what they are called, since we picked them off a steam cart, but you have to get them in your life. And I need to learn to make them at home, because you all know Upstate NY is a dim sum wasteland.

Star Kitchen is very authentic and absolutely worth the drive out of the more touristy areas to seek it out.

A you need to know about if you’re heading to Denver is Avanti, which is unlike any other eatery I’ve ever visited. This place is essentially a co-op of different restaurants, and it is BRILLIANT. The base building has a couple bars on different levels, plus indoor and outdoor seating options (and lots of them), with vendors occupying stalls selling schawarma, burgers, sushi, pizza, pasta, and arepas.
I had to go for the arepas, and my pabellon from Quiero Arepas was massive and delectable. The mix of savory black beans, sweet plantains, rich braised beef and salty cheese was in perfect balance. I was sad not to be able to sample the pork and guacamole version, but honestly, this thing was big enough for three people. There was no way.

Avanti is also exceedingly cool in that very Denver/rich hipster way, but a little bit lower on the intimidation scale. Everyone is just doing their own thing here, and to grab a bite to eat and a drink and cop a squat outside on the deck on a nice day is pretty much Heaven. The variety keeps it interesting, too. I think this concept could be a great idea for Armory Square in Syracuse or anywhere where people want to pre-game – it provides lots of options for large groups so everyone can find something they like, and then sit all together and talk and enjoy.

One more brunch for my Hungries, because I know you love it. Maddie’s, in the Rosedale neighborhood, has a cool mix of Jewish deli foods with Mexican specialties and southern-tinged dishes. We started with a flight of pancakes. Hey! I don’t want you to read right over that – you can order a FLIGHT OF PANCAKES for the table at Maddies, like, to start your breakfast. Yeah, I know. I know! Life is amazing.

We got a trio of tiny blueberry, banana walnut, and cinnamon sugar pancakes to share between the three of us, and were pretty proud of our accomplishment. These were sweet and tender. Not as fluffy as I may would have liked, but absolutely delicious nonetheless.

For my main, I ordered Maddie’s BYOBOWL of green chile, bacon, home fries, sautéed peppers and onions, cheddar cheese and two SSU eggs with a side of challah toast. It’s going to be tough to describe how much I loved it. Should I write a sonnet? Because green chile is my jam, you guys. It’s spicy, but not too; it’s savory, but not salty. The bacon leant the salt, and the eggs and cheese brought the richness, while the vegetables rounded everything else and prevented total gut-bomb status. I want to start making myself this dish on the weekends because I am in love with it.

You can also get an Israeli breakfast with hummus, eggs, and salad at Maddie’s, and if that doesn’t sound scrumptious, I don’t know what does. Do you think they would build a second location in Endicott?

All in all, my visit to Denver was a gastronomic feat. Jill and I gallivanted around Red Rocks and green parks, we shopped and watched too many episodes of Drunk History and renewed our evergreen friendship in all the most important ways – and many of those ways are laughing over really great food. What a gorgeous city and a terrific trip! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger! 


Staten Island’s Great Napkin Twirl

If you’re traveling to Staten Island for some reason this year,  there are some new, chic shopping locations springing up in the Forgotten Borough, and no shortage of spectacular Italian food for you to sample. While the Island has its rough edges, we have been visiting for years and have always found that the excellent dining options smooth them all out – in fact, I’ve never had a bad meal on Staten Island.

Recently, I visited Patrizia’s, on Amboy Road in SI’s Eltingville neighborhood, and my impression of the Island’s superiority in Italian restaurants was reinforced. This strip mall outlet of the Brooklyn-based, family-owned mini-chain was bursting at the seams already at 6 p.m. on a Saturday, and by the time we left, there were probably 25 more families just waiting for a table. It’s tough to inspire a fan base like that in today’s crowded restaurant market, but our dinner at Patrizia’s proved to be waiting-in-line-worthy.

You’re most likely going to notice two big components of having a good time at Patrizia’s before your first course even arrives at your table. First of all, this restaurant has maybe the coolest, most raucous birthday procedure ever. At least nine times during our meal, a loud birthday song came over the speakers in the dining room, and patrons twirled their napkins in the air at just about every table as the wait staff sung along to the guest of honor. It was incredibly fun and fostered a familial atmosphere in the room. When a patron at a neighboring table thwacked me in the head with his napkin, I even hugged him. Second, that wait staff is almost entirely comprised of charming young men straight from Italy. They speak Italian and have charming accents, and if that doesn’t set the scene for authentic continental fare, I don’t know what does.

As one of the members of our party was a vegetarian, we started our meal with the buffalo mozzarella with caponata and cherry tomatoes. But before that dish even came, we received a big basket of crusty bread with wonderful, seasoned dipping oil and a family style salad made with mixed greens plus red onion, carrots, tomatoes, and cucumbers so vibrant they may have been rendered in Technicolor. Passing that salad around the table immediately underscored the family feel – what a smart way to have every table feeling the love straight away.

The demi-lunes of buffalo mozzarella on our appetizer plate were achingly fresh and milky, while the caponata – a mix of roasted and marinated red bell peppers, onions, zucchini, and eggplant – was sugary sweet and velvety. Fresh cherry tomatoes tossed with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper completed the plate and added a different note of both sweetness and acidity. This was a big platter of treats, too, not some skimpy, three slices of cheese and a quarter cup of veg affair. There was plenty of stunning food for all five of us.

After another rousing rendition of the birthday song, our entrees arrived. Among the standouts were the house made potato gnocchi with pesto. Gnocchi are often described as pillows, but these really were ethereal and lighter than air – soft puffs of earthy potato enrobed in a verdant green sauce smacking of fresh basil and anchored by the nuttiness of good parmigiana cheese. Of the dishes we ordered, this one may have been the most simple, but the vegetarian of our group found it ticked all her boxes for a successful dish.

On special the night we dined at Patrizia’s was a squid ink linguine with seafood and olives in a light red sauce. This gorgeous dish was colorful, soulful, and jam-packed with massive shrimp and smaller clams. The seafood was perfectly cooked and bursting with the salinity of the sea, while the tomatoes were bright and acidic and the black and green olives provided earthy flavors. The pasta, house made with squid ink, was jet black and while not fishy at all, underscored the oceanic notes of the dish.

Spaghetti all’ amatriciana is a simple Roman dish comprised of a sauce made with tomatoes, onions, and bacon. I’ve made this sauce myself, which is both hearty and light, as the tomato base tends to be rendered with fresh tomatoes rather than a long-cooked, paste-enriched gravy. This was hands down the best version of it I’ve ever tasted. The sweetness of the onions, the saltiness of the pancetta, and the sweet/sharp flavor of fresh tomatoes all mingled perfectly in the chunky sauce to bathe the al dente spaghetti in huge flavor that hit every taste bud with a punch. I would order this dish time and time again.

We just had to segue straight into the dessert portion of our evening. Our two favorites were the zabaglione, a creamy, cold ice-cream-like dish of custard flavored with marsala wine and topped with raspberry sauce. The zabaglione was light in texture but rich in flavor, and not too sweet – a perfect ending to a decadent meal.

The panna cotta was also very light, but this one was topped with chocolate sauce and powdered sugar. We loved its silken texture and creamy finish on the palate, and it wasn’t too sweet, either – just perfectly balanced between milky and sugary without going overboard into toothache territory.

One of the most spectacular attributes about all our food at Patrizia’s was the visual feast every single dish provided in addition to its taste. The colors were vibrant and alive on each plate – this is no standard red sauce joint. The other commendation was the atmosphere, which was almost electric in feel, but still, somehow, relaxing. Many trendier, big city restaurants have turned the lights way down and the music way up to achieve a night club-esque feel in the name of ambiance, but here, it’s all about family. The dining room was bright and open, and between the birthday celebrations erupting every few minutes and the jovial disposition of every single member of the wait staff who visited our table (there were at least five throughout the meal), we felt welcome. There isn’t much hospitality left in the hospitality business these days, but Patrizia’s, in Staten Island, is serving it up in spades.