5.01.2017

A Few Broken Eggs in the North Country

They say a word spoken is like an egg broken, meaning that once you spread gossip, you can't take it back. But in the food world, what's wrong with a few broken eggs? I'm just back from a weekend in Watertown, and boy, do I have news to share about restaurants in the North Country!

May we start in Chaumont, with Wise Guys? They just came in second in the state for Best Italian Resturaurants according to the readers of New York Upstate, but even more exciting, Wise Guys is ditching its old building and erecting a new, waterfront restaurant across the road. So get ready for bomb garlic knots, delectable pasta pockets and bodacious maple nut rolls with a view!


The Clubhouse, on Washington St in Watertown, has a new owner. We hear it will be closing for a while for a refresh to the interior, and opening back up as an Italian restaurant. I'm hoping they still serve breakfast!

Alert! Ryan's Lookout, in Henderson, is back open for the season! Hours are limited right now, so check its Facebook page or call ahead before you go. I had this utterly fabulous cherry coconut pie there last weekend, and I'm pretty happy about it:


Over in Henderson Harbor, Waterside is opening any day now with a new chef, a new menu, and lobster rolls! Save one for me, guys!


The Chateau, in Clayton, is now open and all reports I've heard have been positive. I tasted its parents company's, Saint Lawrence Spirits, liquors at Taste of the Town and gave the unique, flavorful gin and absinthe two thumbs up. Here's The Chateau's brunch menu:


I also ate at two old favorites over the weekend, and wanted to report out. You know I love Ives Hill, in Watertown. We had a fabulous time there with great service, terrific drinks, excellent desserts, and great salads. But I ordered the Dante's pizza, and while the crust was the same old wonderfully crispy, buttery affair, I have to say I think they've lowered the quality of the toppings. The pepperoni and mozzarella had little to no flavor and while there was supposed to be sausage on top, I found maybe two tiny crumbles of it. This left the toppings tasting insipid and watery rather than rich and spicy. I had to pour salt and pepper on it to achieve something acceptable, and that's a disappointment.


The rest of our table's meal was business as usual, and my Mom loved her turkey burger. But for $17, this pizza needs some TLC.

We had brunch the next day at Doyle's Pub in lowville, and I quite enjoyed Sue's unexpected touch of a little maple syrup in her sausage gravy:


The sweetness was surprising at first, but as I ate down through the tender biscuits, the flavor grew on me, and those eggs were impeccably fresh.

I also judged the Taste of the Town, and besides the winners, most notably Cavallario's Cucina for Best Local Taste of the Town, I very much liked the chicken corn chowder from Wise Guys, the gin at Saint Lawrence Spirits and The Crescent's Mediterranean salad, with salty kalamata olives and pasta right in the balsamic-dressed salad.



4.24.2017

The Chateau Promises Big Things for Little Clayton

You know when you first meet someone in a professional setting, and they start to say things that are the same things you believe not only in your mind, but also your heart, so much so that you begin to think of lines from Will Ferrell movies that you wouldn't ordinarily spit out in such a setting? 

"Did we just become best friends?" Indeed. So when I interviewed Christian Ives, the new executive chef of the soon-to-open The Chateau at Saint Lawrence Spirits, and he peppered his responses with words like, "fresh cut potatoes," "candied bacon buttermilk ice cream," and "truffle consommé," I struggled to maintain my composure.

The new restaurant also occupies a building I've been dying to get inside for years: Fairview Manor on Rte 12E in Clayton. It's a structure out of a fairy tale, but set against the gorgeous River rather than in the English Countryside. I cannot wait to eat there, and talking to Chef Ives about his plans for the place did little to quell my impatience.


The Chateau is tentatively set to open this coming weekend, and it's bringing a true farm-to-table concept to NNY, something that's been tried and dabbled with, but not fully realized in that area quite yet. The owners of Saint Lawrence Spirits, Jody and Doreen Garrett, already had set up in this idyllic building, and have been restoring it since 2014. Now it's ready for its big reintroduction to the dining public.

"Since I first met wit the Garretts, we've stayed on track with our farm-to-table concept," said Chef Ives. "We are currently stocking native Rainbow Trout in one of the many ponds at the Garrett's Lucky Star Ranch for use in the restaurant. We're also looking into...what protocols we will have to follow to be able to utilize the red deer and whitetail deer from the ranch as well."

A commitment to using not only farm-raised proteins, but local game and fish is music to my ears, but what about the rest of the menu? Ives told me that 26 craft beers will be offered at The Chateau, most from New York breweries, and that his favorite dish on the new menu is the crispy pan-fried Lake Ontario walleye with wild forest mushrooms and braised leek risotto, served with truffle consommé and wilted frisée. Now that is some delicious sounding grub, but may be challenging for more conservative north country palates. 

Chef Ives had an answer for this concern: "I've been offering menus of this caliber for years in the north country," he said. "Our brunch, lunch and dinner menus are priced in the same range as numerous local restaurants, and in some instances cheaper."

I want to drive home that point, because while a lot of local restaurants are taking all the help they can get from the food service truck, Ives and his team are crafting their food from scratch, including house made chorizo and breakfast sausages, ice creams, mozzarella, and a lobster bisque that requires 48 hours of cooking time over four days. So do your research before you assume that fine dining means a heftier check than you'll incur at a national chain.


Like fresh ground burgers made from Angus beef? Ives has got your back. Pining for a tasting menu close to home? He's planning one and will even customize it to your table. Love foie gras and don't want to go all the way to Montreal for your fix? Try The Chateau's foie pate with black pepper lavash, caramelized onion chutney and lavender scented duck egg ice cream with sauternes wine. 

I talked to Ives about consistency in his kitchen, the lack thereof something I've found to plague Upstate NY restaurants. He told me that he and his seasoned crew have worked together for years, and he will personally be on the line and tasting his cooks' food throughout service. He intends to work brunch service and lunches as well until the kitchen is running up to muster. I like that kind of commitment; it's what it takes to do it right. 


I won't be able to get up to The Chateau to try it for a few weeks, but if any of you hit it up before then, please let me know! Chef Ives and I may never have met, but if culinary kismet is a real thing, and these dishes turn out to be as delectable as they sound, I suspect we'll be fast friends. 

3.22.2017

The Fresh Prince of Washington Ave

There's a new kid on the block - the first block of Washington Ave, that is. And while I don't know if he was born or raised in West Philadelphia, I can tell you he's brought an authentic cheesesteak (Amoroso rolls and Whiz, yo), and he's in a diner called Bel Air.

We've been needing a diner close to Huron Campus, and I'm sorry, Fast Eddie's food quality is just not cutting it. Enter the Bel Air Diner, a brand new, old school diner decked out completely with classic car memorabilia and red vinyl booths. They did NOT go for a Fresh Prince motif, which seems like a misstep to me, but I guess cars are fine.


This breakfast and lunch place doesn't have its full menu cranking just yet, but they have a spiedie omelet, which is a great idea, and you know what else?


Floats, shakes and malts! Do you know how good a Coke float tastes in the middle of a nine hour workday? Like the sweet, icy siren song of too many calories and a very satisfied Shelby.

I had the fried chicken sandwich with clutch hand-cut, shoestring fries. It was simple and straightforward, though we were told more scintillating choices are coming. It was a yummy sandwich, though I will advocate for higher quality bacon until my dying day. What? It's worth it!


I also tried to order gravy for my fries, and the waitress said something about being out and Maines hadn't brought more yet, so while I'm advocating for things: house-made gravy, please! Edited to add: looks like the gravy is being taken off the menu, unless ALL the Hungries storm the castle and request gravy, so they'll make it. Can we start a movement? 

Carrie ordered the sliders, and commented on how juicy they were for their diminutive thickness. I will try these, and the cheese steak, on future visits.


That's all I know so far, but if you visit the Bel Air Diner, report back! I'll have a full review when I've sampled more of the menu. I wish this new eatery luck! Yo Holmes, smell ya later!

Bel Air Diner Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

3.21.2017

Travel Guide: The Best of St. Pete Beach, FL

My vacation was good. You guys, it was goooooooood. I travel a lot for work plus some for pageants, so sometimes I forget that I even need actual vacations. Then I get on one and my whole being feels different. I don't just unwind, I literally decompress. My spine starts to feel as if it's a part of my body rather than an ancient torture device conceived by my office chair and a cranky customer and stored in the depths of the Tower of London. Inevitably, I ease up on my ordinarily strenuous grooming routine, and my lovely friends and family almost never run away shrieking and gesticulating through the village at the site of my hideous countenance.



We just returned from an entire, sun-soaked, blissful week in St. Pete Beach/Treasure Island, Florida. While many of the seemingly hundreds of restaurants crowding Gulf Blvd on this stretch of coastline are tourist traps, there are gems awaiting your appetite among the garish beach bars and chain seafood emporiums. I've got a few ready for your vacation planning needs.

Treasure Island

I'm a Marriott Points girl, so the Residence Inn Treasure Island, just north of St. Pete Beach, was our home base. This joint was a little pricey compared to the non-chain options on the beach, but it was also very clean, and breakfast was free! This was the view from our big balcony, and we loved that a two-mile walking trail, beachfront, began next door. (it's the snaking, twisty bit in the far left of this pic)


My culinary find for you in Treasure Island is The Floridian, a Cuban sandwich shop that's popular with locals more so than tourists. You can find it just a couple blocks from the Bilmar, towards St. Petersburg on 107th Ave. It's been around since I was wearing flowered Gap baby-doll dresses and Doc Martens in high school, and it has a killer Cuban sandwich. For less than $7 a piece, we each got half a sandwich, Cuban toast, and yellow rice with black beans. Everything was balanced, crispy, savory and fabulous. Most Cubans have so much Swiss cheese, mustard, and dill pickles that the meat gets overpowered. In both Shawn's Cuban and my puerco sandwich, the tender, juicy pig was the star and the other ingredients were in complete balance. The yellow rice and black beans were aces, savory, well-seasoned, and completely soul-soothing.

Please excuse my shoddy photography; we sat outside to gorge ourselves silly, and a shadow got me:


Look at all that food! This joint was jumping at lunchtime on a weekday, and for good reason. Make it your Cuban hook-up if you don't want to leave the beach to go into Tampa.

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

St. Pete Beach

The bulk of places to stay in the area are concentrated in St. Pete Beach, and so the dining options are plentiful as well. From our casual observations, we would stay at either the Tradewinds or Sirata resorts if we came back and wished to stay in SPB. With so much vacation goodness crammed into so few square miles, you'll probably need a hearty breakfast to build a base for your day of sun and sand. Find Beverly's La Croisette, right on Gulf Blvd. This little pink diner will be filled with townies and tourists alike, and packs its menu with inventive, decadent breakfast treats.



We liked the baked omelet, topped with high-quality Swiss cheese and served with Bev's very well-seasoned home fries.


The corned beef hash Benedict was a precious plate to behold. While the hash is not house-made, it is high quality and well-crisped on the griddle, to activate all its flavors and maximize the sinfulness of this dish. The creamy, rich hollandaise sauce worked with the salty hash and the perfectly poached eggs in concert. Those home fries, seasoned with garlic salt and paprika and griddled to a deep golden brown, were a terrific textural contrast.


As you can see from the portion sizes, no one walks away from Beverly's table hungry.

Beverly's La Croisette Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

We also had a very good dinner at Snapper's Sea Grill, which is on Gulf Blvd like everything else - a spot much more tuned to tourists, but don't let that scare you away. Even though the outdoor seating is right on the busy boulevard, the atmosphere is upscale and the service is refined. Even in the February night air, we were toasty warm thanks to outdoor heaters and torches all around the deck. Our crab-stuffed portobello mushroom appetizer with its cheesy, ultra-rich chipotle topping was subtly spicy and smoky - delicious.


We loved the huge starter salads with their pungent and creamy garlic dressing, topped with a shower of crunchy tortilla strips.


The wasabi-crusted seared tuna was absolutely delicious. Shawn ordered it cooked a bit further than I would have, but it was still flavorful and impeccably fresh-tasting. My seafood-stuffed grouper was Florida on a plate - the quintessential seafood dish. The crab and shrimp in the stuffing provided sweetness while the grouper had the fatty taste of the sea, and the champagne sauce on top mellowed and melded all the flavors together with a refined finish. The potatoes wrapped in puff pastry added richness and heft to the dish.


This dinner was on the pricier end of our dining experiences on the trip - about $100 for one app, two entrees, and probably four drinks - but the more finessed approach to food at Snapper's was a welcome departure from the fish shack experience so plentiful in this area.

Pass-A-Grille

A little more south and you hit Pass-A-Grille, a charming,Key West-esque enclave where the Gulf and the bay are parted by the thinnest strip of land clogged with beautiful old houses and tiny, mom and pop hotels. You'll hear a lot about The Hurricane here, for food and sunset views, but we found the food there very junky and the inside of the restaurant rather dirty and run-down.

Catch your sunset instead at Paradise Grill, a beachfront, outdoor venue with the best seats on the island for sunset views and this sweet tradition:


The food here is simple bar food, but done with care; the Coronas are icy; and the nightly ceremony of ringing the bell in thanks for another day in paradise is met with joy by natives and visitors alike. They stop serving once that sun has dipped below the water, so grab quesadillas, wings, and buffalo shrimp from the counter and a picnic table of your own to celebrate this glory every night:



St. Petersburg 

Early in our week, we took a tour with Eat St. Pete through the Grand Central District of the city. This neighborhood was once filled with gas stations and garages, but is transforming into an edgy strip of cool restaurants and bars. Our standouts from the tour were Casita Taqueria, which we visited again on our way to the airport, it was so good.


I don't think you can go wrong with any choice on this menu of small street tacos. We particularly loved the carnitas and the chicken tinga.


In all cases, the corn tortillas were very fresh, the proteins succulent and well-seasoned but never salty, while the toppings were balanced and bright. We had fish tacos at several other beach joints during the week that featured cheddar cheese, which is much too heavy for the delicate flavor of fish, but at Casita, the proteins and add-ones were always in harmony. 



URBAN Comfort is one of a group of comfort food eateries run by the same folks, but this one has shuffleboard courts and fried chicken, so it's the one I'm recommending.


Once again, outdoor seating is the mode here; peppery fried chicken is king. The biscuits are very nearly perfect. They are brushed with butter before baking, in accordance with the prophecy, but just a hair tougher than a perfect Southern biscuit crafted with Lily White flour in the style of the old masters. The mashed potatoes we tried were buttery and earthy - a solid base for the juicy, crunchy chicken, with an orange-tinged, savory gravy on top that was buttery, as well. 


I would have liked to get back to URBAN Comfort for some more of their down-home eats and casual atmosphere, but we ran out of time.

So that's my recap and round-up of the best of the beach - or at least, St. Pete Beach. We loved that each municipality had its own personality. Treasure Island had more old school, mom-and-pop hotels while SPB was more commercialized. The tiny boutiques in Pass-A-Grille charmed us, while the restaurants in St. Petersburg were out to impress with progressive, inventive cuisine. This whole area was unlike any other part of Florida I've visited - truly coastal, less spring break-y than I thought, and definitely so much more than its old nickname: God's Waiting Room.