A Rather Grand Comeback in Ithaca

About two years ago, an errant truck smashed through the wall of Simeon's on the Commons, in Ithaca, leaving destruction in its path. A few weeks ago, this stalwart of The Commons reopened, with a fresh, airy interior that's modern and classic at the same time - transom windows shining onto elaborately trimmed Wedgewood blue walls, and a marble bar with a two story mirror at its back.

I had never eaten at Simeon's first incarnation, so Big Hungry Melinda and I chose it for brunch before a much-needed spa visit to August Moon Spa this past weekend. We began our repast, as we often do, with particularly delicious cocktails.

This pear, coconut rum and lime concoction tasted like a tropical vacation enjoyed in a colonial mansion. A sweet, light beverage to kick off a weekend brunch.

To counter the lightness of the drink, we ordered the house made chips with fondue sauce, which were crispy and earthy, topped with a mild cheese sauce not quite as distinctive as real Swiss fondue, but tasty nonetheless. The chopped scallions on top added a sharp bite to all the rich cheese. This dish is one you'll want to scarf down quickly, however - as the cheese cooled, it coagulated into a lumpy mess and made the potatoes soggy as well. 

Melinda chose the shrimp roll as her entree, a light mix of chopped, poached shrimp, tomato and green onion, Bibb lettuce and cilantro mayo on a baguette. It was messy, the bits of seafood and vegetables tumbling off the roll with each bite, because while the shrimp was lightly dressed with the mayonnaise, the vegetables were not. But it was also fresh and light - a little easy on overall flavors, but a nice, summery sandwich.

I headed in the breakfast direction with the biscuits and gravy, to which I added a couple over-easy eggs. After ordering, the table next to us received biscuits, and I fretted I had made the wrong choice, because the biscuits looked a bit wan and not particularly well risen. While these definitely weren't top notch southern biscuits, made with lard and Lily White flour and brushed generously with salted butter like the biscuits of my dreams, I needed have worried overall. This was a savory, hearty dish, and though the biscuits themselves weren't the pinnacle, the sausage gravy had great flavor, and the runny egg yolks bathed the whole works in the requisite yellow richness to seal the deal.

You can see the black pepper in the gravy, right? Pepper seems like such an ordinary ingredient, but in creamy gravies, this simple spice can man the difference between blandness and success. Someone in Simeon's kitchen may have a little too much enthusiasm for scallions, but I liked them here, as I had on the chips: they served almost like a squeeze of lemon - a bright punch to point the dish up. The creamy gravy was seasoned well, and contained lots of crumbled breakfast sausage. I wouldn't say the sausage had tremendous flavor in and of itself, but it worked with the cream and the pepper to hit all the requisite biscuits and gravy high points.

We were too full for dessert this time around, but very much enjoyed our first visit to this newly redone Ithaca institution. I will be back to try the raw bar, for sure! Meantime, I give Simeon's on the Commons a seven on the BHS scale, for its absolutely gorgeous ambiance and simple, but well prepared food. This is a solid restart for The Commons' grande dame. I hope you try it out! 


Honey Pie and Hot Gossip

It's been a minute since I've had a big meal out at a place that's new (or new to me), so I haven't had a full review to plan for the blog. But I have been enjoying my break from paid reviewing by revisiting some old favorites and really enjoying dining again. It's kind of nice not to always be working when I'm eating!

One new-to-me spot I visited back in September was Gilda's, in Skaneateles. This place has been on my list for a couple years now, and it was lovely to finally bust inside her door and grab a seat at the bar with my friends to enjoy some day drinks and snacks. 

Even though Gilda's doesn't enjoy the stunning view of Skaneateles' busier, lakeside eatery Blue Water Grill, it makes up for it with a more relaxing, pristine interior, and much more fined food and service. 

We began our repast with prosecco and some lovely speck and arugula crostini.

This very simple starter was topped with grana padano cheese - mild and nutty, plus a little savory/sweet basil pesto. The speck (cured pork, like Spanish prosciutto) was salty and tender, sweet enough to stand up to the bitter greens. This was a satisfying small plate, and paired well with the dry sparkling wine.

The hot sopressata pizza was my favorite thing at Gilda's, and I've thought about it ever since. Along with paper-thin slices of the spiced salami, sweet tomato sauce, salty, aged mozzarella (with much more flavor than either the fresh, watery stuff or the drier, more solid bricks you make lasagna with), chile flakes, a little funky pecorino cheese were in play, plus honey. The honey made all the difference on this thin, seemingly simple but explosively flavorful, pie. It played with the sausage, sometimes letting spicy heat touch your tongue, but other bites cloaking that fire in its languid sweetness.

The thin crust was flavorful, but not a major player in the taste profile when it faced these boisterous toppings. Maybe pizzerias with inferior dough should think about spicy salami and honey as a CYA tactic.

Pancetta and fresh tomato topped the pizza special of the day, which we all split as well. It was good, but the flavors were much less complex than in the sopressata pie, which I preferred. With the fresh tomato plus tomato sauce, the overall taste her was fresh and light, the cured bacon kind of anchoring everything with its earthy salinity.

We didn't sample enough dishes at Gilda's to render a score, but if it helps, I will surely be back - and I have gossip! The people who own Gilda's are opening a Mexican restaurant soon on he main drag in Asian, and Thom Felicia, interior decorator extraordinaire from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (remember him?), who lives on the lake, is collaborating!! Yeah, that's right, this is a double exclamation point occurrence. BHS loves Mexican food and fabulous design!

Gilda's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

We grabbed dinner a few weeks back at Mr. Bigg's new location, downtown in Watertown. The space is lovely, and Eddy has clearly worked really hard to warm up the space and create some ambiance. I fear he's struggling, though, in this larger spot and without the built-in traffic the mall provided. While Eddy's flavors were still on point in the fried chicken and stew chicken we ordered - that spicy, savory stew chicken sauce is ridiculously good - the chicken itself was scrawny, tough, without much meat on the legs, which were the only parts we were served beside one very small wing. Look, I'm all about peasant food, but there has to be enough meat to make a meal, and neither of these plates had that.

The jerk pork, as well, was very tough. Again, the flavors were all spot-on, but the meats were probably a lower quality than one would prefer. I'm guessing that's to help make ends meet, and that's a shame. Starting with top notch ingredients is the first step in restaurant success.

I hate to report this, but the rice with my stew chicken was also majorly overcooked - all flabby and blown-out. Look, I have affection for Eddy, and I want him to do well. But I also can't recommend you eat there if the food isn't on point. It's a real conundrum. I'm hoping it sorts itself out, because I'd hate to see Mr. Bigg's cuisine disappear from the city.

Last weekend, after putting on the Miss Thousand Islands' Outstanding Tren Pageant at LaFargeville Central Scool, we hauled our tired cookies into Shuler's, on Watertown's Northside, for some grub from their comfort food menu. I had fretted earlier this year that maybe this palace of gravy and carbohydrates might not be faring all that well, but on this Saturday night, the joint was hopping.

Fried cheese curds? Check! These golden nuggets of blessed junk food were pleasantly salty, wonderfully chewy, and absolutely decadent dunked in the bright, sweet tomato sauce.

I also enjoyed Shuler's gooey, rich French onion soup. Behold, the cheesy goodness:

Need I say more? My chicken and biscuits were spot on, too, but much less photogenic. Rest assured, this classic Watertown family restaurant has still got all the goods when you need warm, filling, flavorful American food without a hint of complexity, fusion, or international influence. Just the basics, done right. Oh, and they've completed their makeover since I was there last - the dining room is refreshed and brightened up. So much nicer than the seventies den it once was!

In other gossip:

- Binghamton's The Night Kitchen has closed, and before I could make it there to sample its southern fair. Count me bummed.
- STIR's Fall Tasting Party is this Sunday at Traditions at the Glen. You should go!
- More sad news: Treasure Ice Cream and Cafe, in Endwell, has also closed. I haven't talked to its owner, Sue, yet to find out what happened, but you know my conclusion: we have to patronize our local restaurants! These small businesses are where all the good stuff is, and they are so vital to our local economy. Just say no to chains, people. Please unchain your tastebuds and give mom and pop restaurants top billing when you're choosing where to eat!

My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


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


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