Ah, the holidays! The time of year we forget any pretense of healthy eating, snuggle in the warm bosom of our families, including our favorite uncles, Tom and Jerry, and spend way too much on gifts that no one will remember in three weeks. It’s also the time of year that most media outlets stop producing stories with any kind of real content, and resort to Best of 2013 lists for everything from movies to YouTube videos to news photos. Who would I be to buck this sacred holiday tradition? I don’t know if we can call me a member of the legitimate media - I feel more like a gnome who lives under a bridge made of bacon, sending out weekly missives on all my cravings - but I’ll round up my best of 2013 for you anyway, and we’ll see where we get.
As you know, I enjoy a tasty cocktail. As the years go by, I tend to drink less and less, and demand those precious few drinks be of better and better quality. I guess this is the way of aging – kind of in the same way I like my steaks rarer with each passing year, it seems. I’ll be taking down live cows in pasture by the time I’m 50. So, both my favs came out of Ithaca this year, with the runner-up being the Cerveza-rita at AGAVA. It was breathtakingly similar to my beloved beer-gar-ritas, and the Sol beer, citron and white tequilas, and fresh lime juice paired beautifully with the earthy, salty, rich flavors brought to our table. That one was yummy, but the Big Hungry Shelby Best Cocktail of 2013 Award goes to Booker’s Backyard, for their “novel” approach to mixology, and the Tequila Mockingbird. This refreshing concoction of tequila, Chambord, cranberry, lime, and ginger ale was exactly the elixir to cure what ailed me on a hot summer’s day on Booker’s idyllic patio. I still feel like Booker’s is suffering from a bit of anonymity, due to its location up on East Shore Drive, but you should be making a pilgrimage there as soon as the weather turns hospitable, because this is truly one of Ithaca’s gems.
Next up, the Best Surprise of 2013. My runner-up was the superb cabbage cream sauce at KittyHoynes in Syracuse, which tops their decadent beef and lamb meatloaf, which is then stuffed with white pork pudding. The words cabbage cream sauce do not exactly elicit hunger pangs, but they should, because this sauce is savory, round, and languid, a perfect vehicle to shovel forkfuls of that meat extravaganza into your pie hole. But even the glories of heavy cream and sweet cabbage could not beat the humble pho joint in one of the seedier sections of Binghamton. Pho 99 was my best surprise this year, and their deep, rich, yet still light (somehow) broth, scalding hot to cook the wafer thin, tender slices of brisket and white onion, bewitched me. I loved the riot of cilantro and green onion garnishing the top before I even added any bean sprouts or basil from my fixins’ plate, and I reveled in the sheer amount of fat in the stock – surely boiled for hours with loads of beef bones and marrow. There was a mouth feel and complexity to this soup that I’ve never experienced before, and all from a humble storefront that could just as well be a laundromat or a liquor store rather than a den of delicious soup. Now that I’ve refreshed my memory on this place, I need to go back. Come at me, pho!
Let’s talk about ambiance, which, next to adult beverages, may be one of the most important precursors to a fine meal. I very much like the scene at Es-ca, down in Staten Island, which is very sleek and modern, a see and be seen place, and very un-SI. We had a glorious meal there, with a terrific and funny waitress, and the setting, with its low light, contemporary, wall-mounted fireplace, and comfy chairs was optimal for a sumptuous spread. Despite that luxury, Best Ambiance of 2013 must also go to Booker’s Backyard. I can’t even tell you how many times I have tried to drag Shawn up to Ithaca for brunch or a double date with Melinda and BLD here since she and I lunched there over the summer. While you can’t see Cayuga Lake from the posh patio, you can gaze upon a diminutive pond, and that beautiful skyline unique to the Finger Lakes. The tables and chairs are well-maintained and very comfortable for outdoor furniture, and the service is quirky but friendly. Inside, the bar is rustic and built for fun, and even the restrooms are clean and decorated with the funk and humor of the rest of the joint.
Appetizers have moved from amusement to center stage for me this year. In fact, it was difficult for me to choose just three to mention here, while I struggled to come up with a favorite entrée at all. I absolutely loved the vegetable curry small plate at Feliz Wine and Tapas Bar, in Endicott. The yellow curry sauce covering the carrots, cauliflower, and broccoli of this dish was warming, savory, and comforting, and the basmati rice was perfectly cooked. At Es-ca, I loved the tuna tartare, savoring the tomato and fiery red onion in the flawless, raw tuna brunoise, and the lush avocado layer that brought roundness and creaminess to the dish. But the Best Appetizer of 2013 can actually be found at Sackets HarborBrewing Company. SHBC’s seared scallop stack is a beauty - full of color, texture, and flavor, and not too bad for your waistline, as these things go. I loved the big, beefy, U-10 scallops, seared and still creamy and rare on the inside, the woodsy, deep portabella mushroom cap, the syrupy sweet balsamic drizzle, adding acid and sugar, and most of all, the perfectly lightly fried disc of goat cheese crowning this masterpiece. The goat cheese brought tang, and that nearly sour twang needed to balance the sweetness of the red peppers and vinegar, the bitterness of the greens, the earthiness of the mushroom and pine nuts, and echoing the creaminess of the scallops. The harmony in this gorgeous plate sang on my taste buds, and in my memory.
You know I love bacon, and every year I choose the best example of it in all of Upstate New York. But this year, I actually haven’t had a ton of it. I don’t know how that happened. I loved the pork steak at Kitty Hoynes, but it couldn’t stack up against the pork belly appetizer Galaxy is dishing out, which I just reviewed last week. And so, Best Bacon of 2013 goes to Galaxy Brewing Company, in Binghamton, for their crispy pork belly. From the whole grain ale mustard, to the earthy, grounding celery root puree, and the sparky, cooling apple and fennel slaw tarted up with apple cider vinaigrette, this entire dish is perfect and memorable. And best of all, it’s right here in Binghamton!
As I said before, it has not been a big year of entrees for BHS. I’ve gotten in the habit of ordering two appetizers instead, preferring the more adventuresome flavors and variety I find on the starter menu to the traditional protein and two sides you find cocking up the main course load. So I’m going non-traditional here as well and awarding Best Entrée of 2013 to the Big Pig Mac at Booker’s Backyard. This isn’t exactly on their entrée list, but I assure you, it’s a hearty enough portion to satisfy, and the mixture of creamy, sharp macaroni and cheese, sweet, luscious pulled pork, and salty, crisp bacon were enough to have me eating with utter abandon. Also, look at this photo. That is some food porn, right there; you can’t deny it.
The side dish race was too close to call. It was a battle royale between Binghamton and Ithaca, Zona and Co. versus AGAVA, and I simply cannot choose. Sister loves her carbs, y’all. Best Side Dish of 2013 is Zona’s French fries AND AGAVA’s black beans and rice. I refuse to choose; it would be like choosing a favorite child. You can’t make me. Zona’s fries are hands down the best in the area, hand cut, perfectly seasoned, just crispy without being crunchy; AGAVA’s black beans and rice is maddening, because I cannot coax that much flavor out of beans at home. The waitress there told me they were seasoned with garlic and onions, and I declare her a liar – there had to be unicorn fat or something in that briny, deep, addictive bean liquor. I crave it, and wonder why I haven’t been back for more.
Dessert was a tough one as well this year, as truth be told, the two best were both in Washington, DC, at Central and Woodward Table, where I had the angelic lemon tart and revolutionary pear and blue cheese tart, respectively. At Central, the fried, shredded wheat bird’s nest of tiny eggs made of lemon curd and sugary cream were mid-blowing, while at Woodward Table, The blue cheese ice cream paired with flaky, buttery pastry, salted sweet caramel, and earthy, caramelized, toasty roasted pears into a sensation I’ve never before experienced. When dessert is this exciting, it’s hard to choose from among the more mundane offerings I’ve sampled closer to home. But I have a rule to stick to New York restaurants for my awards, and so the Best Dessert of 2013 prize goes to Max’s Es-ca in Staten Island, where the fried ice cream was coated in a thin membrane of banana bread and drizzled with caramel. It was almost overwhelmingly sweet, but inventive and satisfying. If you like ice cream desserts and you groove on banana, try this one.
My categories this year haven’t captured all of my favorite eats, and somehow, I’ve neglected to mention standouts Pete’s Restaurant and Riccardo’s, in Watertown, and Sach’s Tee House in Binghamton, which I love. All three are places I want to go back to, and offer tons of fabulous eats, even if any one dish is hard to pinpoint as truly unique and exemplary. But I have to crown a Best Restaurant, too. This is a little different from favorite restaurant, which I would award these days to Zone and Co. in Binghamton. I love the casual food there, because every dish has assertive flavor and individual attention. I’m nearly addicted to both the cheesesteak and shrimp po boy sandwiches at Zona, and I adore dining al fresco there in the summertime. But my favorite restaurant is not the same as a Best Restaurant, which really needs to hit all the marks of greatness – good atmosphere, great food, a fun and inventive drink menu, and excellent service. The service at Zona varies widely depending on who’s waiting on you, and the interior is so tiny, it can be aggressively loud and more of a bar than a great dinner spot. With that, I am awarding Best Restaurant of 2013 to Booker’s Backyard, in Ithaca, a place I have only been once, but am doing my best to get back to. Seriously, you guys need to try it, too. From the eclectic interior décor to the romantic patio, from the killer mac and cheese to the (be still my heart) lobster rolls, Booker’s is laying it down, you guys. I am serious, this is a place you’ve gotta try. In fact, you have a few days off in the coming week or two, right? Well drive to Ithaca and test it out, and then report back in the comments so our friends can share in the glory. Booker’s is a hidden gem, nestled on the shores of Cayuga Lake and absolutely churning out great food and good times. I can’t wait to sample their tri-tip and shrooms on a return visit, not to mention the French onion soup, which I’m sure is to die for. Won’t you join me?
Well, that wraps up the Big Hungry Awards for 2013, my hungries. I hope my awards made your tummy rumble and your mouth water, and that you hit up one of these great, locally owned mom-and-pop shops over your holiday break from work to sample some of the wonderful food that can be found in New York State. You know my mission is convince Upstate New Yorkers that there’s more to dining than Olive Garden and Red Lobster, to give your hard-earned money to real people who care about and want to serve you real food, born of imagination and passion. Have a delicious holiday, and may your New Year be festive and champagne-soaked! I’ll see you back here soon with reviews of Skewed Brewing in Watertown, and the new Food and Fire, in Johnson City. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!