2.27.2013

Endicott Downtown Bounty

My skin is dry, my hair is frizzy, and one of my gloves has a hole in the index finger. Is winter over yet? As we trudge through the last dregs of February, sitting upon us here in Upstate NY like cold schmutz in the bottom of a cup of coffee, it’s hard to imagine sunny days, those first wisps of warmth in the air, or crocuses peeping through the mud. But hopefully, in a few weeks, signs of spring will appear, and we will rejoice by shedding our coats on still-chilly days, and making our way out and about at lunchtime, just to feel the sunshine on our pale, worn faces.


Last week, roughly 1,000 colleagues and I moved into a new building on our Endicott campus. Well, the building isn’t actually new, but they’re gutting and remodeling the floors one-by-one, and outfitting them in sparkling, shiny cubes and offices for us. Not only is it pleasant to be in freshened work spaces, our new spot on the grounds orients us closer to Washington Avenue, with its myriad choices for lunches out. And that’s a good thing, because they haven’t provided food service in our new building as yet, and woman cannot live by vending machine alone.


Endicott’s Main Drag

Across Oak Hill Avenue, we also have the Price Chopper Plaza, which sports China Garden, Shawn’s and my Chinese restaurant of choice since I moved here in 2000. I love China Garden’s won ton soup, pork egg rolls, lo mein, and moo shu pork, while Shawn likes the general tso’s chicken made extra spicy, and Little Lisa likes the hunan beef. China Garden always manages to deliver reasonably well-flavored food that’s not too greasy, though it’s not the best Chinese food in the whole world or anything. Also in this plaza is Sushi Sakura, which has sushi that’s just OK, but a really fabulous little house green salad, with a soy/sesame dressing I could eat on its own.

Peering down Washington Ave, we get an international amalgam of mom and pop-owned eateries. I actually haven’t hit a couple of the sketchier outlets – this is still downtown Endicott, after all - but places like Los Tapatios and Original Italian Pizzeria, or OIP, for those in the know, are longtime favorites. I like Los Tapatios, but I know plenty of people who don’t, and let’s be honest with ourselves, if you’ve ever been to San Diego or Austin, this Mexican food is not cutting the jalapenos for you. But it’s close by, it’s the only one around, and they have carnitas. So I make peace with my inner snob and eat the pork. Just eat the pork! OIP, on the other hand, has become a standby staple for LL and me. My favorites are the Italian sub, which is ham and salami on a roll made from their delicious pizza dough, and the Stromboli, packed with ham, gobs of mozzarella, pepperoni, and even veggies if you ask for them, encased in that wonderful dough. It’s massive, and hangs over the edges of your plate. One other standout is the garlic knots. They’re not quite at Mama Guiseppe’s garlic knot echelon, but very delicious. Even the cheesesteaks, which are nowhere near Philly-authentic, but are gargantuan and unique, are delectable.


OIP’s splendid sammie

Also adorning the avenue is a relative newcomer since my company moved to Endicott: Baked Euphoria Café. This is the kid-sister operation to Endwell’s Baked Euphoria bakery, which is where I’ve been buying my cakes for the past few years, loving their Mexican hot chocolate cake with Kahlua crème filling. At the Café, they have sandwiches, soups, and salads, but the can’t-miss attraction is still the baked goods, which outshine everything else. They even make a maple bacon cupcake, with a little fondant piggy decoration on top. All of their cupcake and scone flavors are imaginative and well-executed. Bonnie, the owner, solicits ideas each week for new cupcakes, from their Facebook followers. I am still waiting for them to bring back the epic carrot scone I had a few months ago that combined the fine, crumbly moisture of a perfect scone with the spicy warmth of carrot cake. Having this place so close to work is dangerous, and really fun.




Further down the street, past OIP, is the former anchor of the block, which moved its location a little over a year ago: Thai Basil. The new spot is bigger, fancier, and quite attractive inside. I got take-out from there this week, and was really mad I’ve gotten talked out of having lunch there sometime in the past year (Ahem, LL). The crispy Thai rolls are as good a place to start as any, sporting the requisite thin, crispy, fried skins with no hint of grease, and crunchy, crisp cabbage and carrot innards along with the glass noodles and a good punch of white pepper. They were satisfying on their own, and even better when dipped in the sweet chile sauce served alongside.


Next up, one of my favorite Thai dishes: drunken noodles with pork. I should state for the record that I am not an Asian food expert, and I have no idea what’s “drunken” about drunken noodles. They could call them acid trip noodles, or coke crazed noodles, or even crystal meth tweak noodles, and I would still eat them. Thai Basil’s are less overtly spicy than Thai Time’s, and less saucy as well, but no less complex or good. All the veggies were crunchy, and there were a good variety of them: green beans, mushrooms, broccoli, baby corn, carrots, onions, bell peppers, and basil. The noodles were dressed in a brown sauce packing the latent heat of Thai chiles, more white pepper, and the licorice-y flavor of fresh basil. Each bite tasted a little bit differently than the last, which is the sign of a homemade sauce, and a well-seasoned dish. The pork was very tender, with no gristle or fat, which is a pet peeve of mine in some Asian places.


The noodles are drunken, not the eater
Thai Basil’s menu also features pho, that seductive noodle soup which I will be trying soon, and duck, which, yum. And if you’re shy about Thai, they have fried rice, which I really like. It’s lighter, less greasy, with more vegetables than you get in Chinese versions. I think you’ll like it. This may have been the best lunch I’ve had in Endicott in the last year or so, save for the continuing excellence that Joey’s serving up on Oak Hill. You just can’t beat his eggplant parm or terrific sandwiches, but I will say this: the service at Thai Basil and Baked Euphoria beat Joey’s any day of the week. Joey’s one crabby dude.

The Neopolitan at Joey’s. Served with a complimentary side of snark.

Coming soon to Washington Avenue are a brew pub and this place:



…which is teasing exotic sandwiches made with house baked bread and local, organic foods on its Facebook page. I’ve been stalking it for a week already, and I haven’t seen any progress inside, but you know I’ll be on it like white on rice when they open, especially if they have the promised bahn mis and Cubans. Rumor has it Get Forked will open in March, so stay tuned for that review. Meanwhile, if you work with me on the Huron Campus, make sure to patronize our local restaurants. There’s something for every taste within just a few blocks of our buildings, and we’re nearing the season when walking at lunchtime isn’t such a drag. Get out there and eat local! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

PS: A shout out to Jill over at Paleo Pantz for helping me dream up this week’s blog topic! If you’re of the real food or crossfit or paleo persuasion, you should check out her blog. It’s full of recipes and burpees and stuff I don’t really understand, but she writes about them so well, I’m hooked.

Thai Basil on Urbanspoon

Joey's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Original Italian Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

2.20.2013

Three Birds: Duck, Duck, Crabcake?

The Miss Finger Lakes Pageant was held last weekend, and in accordance with the prophecy, our pageant team assembled and made the trek to Corning, NY, with crowns, sashes, stilettos, and appetites in tow. Rather than our usual Sorge’s dinner, we decided to try out Three Birds Restaurant this year, which also is on market Street, right in Corning’s Gaffer District. As previously, our home base of operations was the Radisson, conveniently located between the charms of Market Street and the pageant venue, at the Union Hall. They’re redone the rooms at this well-priced hotel since our last visit, giving them a more modern, clean aesthetic.

Three Birds is less than two blocks from the hotel, and maintains an elegant/eclectic aesthetic of its own. It’s warm without being cluttered, and enveloping without being too dark. Fellow diners called it intimate and relaxing, and I agreed. Our waitress was a little bossy and a little flustered by our condensed dinner timeline (we had a pageant to get to!), but redeemed herself by bringing an enormous basket of herbed white bread, both chewy and crusty, accompanied by an outrageously delicious dipping oil laced with rosemary, hot chile flakes, and parmesan cheese. The simplicity of these additions equaled more than the sum of their parts – this dipper is addictive and will make you eat way more bread than you would like.

A couple people at our table ordered appetizers, but I knew I didn’t want to eat that much on this night. I did taste Mom’s salad, and loved Three Bird’s take on balsamic vinaigrette – it was very dynamic, with a strong kick of black pepper. The salad was graced with some crumbled feta up top and a couple cherry tomatoes, but Mom said she wished there was some kalamata olive action going on there.



There are a bunch of steak choices on the menu at Three Birds, and quite a few at our table went in that direction. Joelle, sitting directly across from me, chose the teres major, which is a shoulder cut, and she topped it with béarnaise sauce after I explained to her that béarnaise, literally translated, means butter, butter, tarragon, plus a little more butter. She loved her steak, noting its tenderness and juiciness. The other steak lovers were similarly pleased, and everyone who had mashed potatoes on their plates groaned with happiness, because they were supremely creamy and well-seasoned. Unfortunately, the green beans, while crisp and buttery, were cold all around. I’m thinking these were plated first and allowed to cool before the meats were ready to be sliced and plated. A pity.




I struggled mightily with what to order – stuck between the duck and the carne asada and shrimp with smoked-paprika risotto. I settled on the duck, because I just don’t get enough duck in my life, and was very pleased with the pesto rub on it, though the menu’s promise of a roasted tomato béarnaise wasn’t something I even noticed. If you’re going to sauce me, really sauce me, man. Like, make it a verb, not a noun! Roasted tomato béarnaise sounds a lot more incredible than it was in this case. It was fine, but didn’t make the dish or anything. Anyhoodle, the duck was cooked perfectly (for me) medium, tender as can be, and quite savory from the pesto, and I also loved the mashed potatoes even though that’s not necessarily the starch I would serve with duck. My green beans were cold, like the rest.



Mamasan order the crab cake appetizer as her entrée. You know how that woman loves to pull this switcheroo – Lonna did it too, going for the ahi tuna special, and our waitress was less than pleased. Mom’s cake was excellent, with a very crunchified exterior, and an earthy corn base. Was there as much crab in this as I like in a crab cake? Not really, but it was delicious, nonetheless. The remoulade served on top was homemade, and she liked it, though she wished it had come on the side. It’s worth noting that, had the entrée list provided a crab cake option, Mom would have ordered it, but Three Birds’ only offered shrimp and scallop shellfish entrees, and well, sometimes you feel crabby.


There were also salmon and tuna dishes present at our table, but I didn’t sample them. Both got thumbs up, although I think Lonna’s tuna was rarer than she meant to order it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing to me, since I like mine raw, but she wasn’t thrilled. Despite the cold beans and the odd waitress, the lovely atmosphere and mostly pretty great food at Three Birds elicited high scores all around. I would definitely eat there again, if only because I’m dying to try that carne asada dish, and I should note that you can get your steak adorned with shrimp, scallops, lobster or gorgonzola for an upcharge. There are desserts as well, but we ran out of time and had to get to the pageant!



Lovely ladies
 I’m awarding Three Birds Restaurant an eight on the BHS scale. It’s above average but not quite truly excellent. That said, if you went whole hog and got appetizers, dessert, cocktails and the works, maybe it would be more impressive. Of Corning’s offerings, I’m definitely scaling it on the higher end of the spectrum, and I recommend you try it next time you’re in this darling small town in the Finger Lakes region of NYS. Another good place to hit up, if you’re of the younger female persuasion, is the delightful Posh Boutique, just down Market St. This little store is staffed with friendly, trendy hipsters and packed with even lovelier frocks, jewelry and separates. We took our teen titleholder, Joelle, there for some pageant shopping, and had a wonderful time chatting up the charming attendents. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

Three Birds Restaurant on Urbanspoon

2.13.2013

Virtual Joy

We’ve once again reached the point of winter at which consuming carbohydrates has actually become a hobby for me. I don’t know about you, but February just gets me every time. I’m sick and tired of donning a coat each time I go outside, I’m craving sunshine, and every afternoon, rather than work out or clean my sty ahem house, or do anything remotely healthy or productive, I eat bread or candy bars or pasta because it seems like the best option for me. I don’t do this at any other time of year, and I hate it. But it’s February, the weather is crap, and I just need to ride it out. March will be better.


While I’m sitting around binging, I’m not out and about all over New York State cultivating restaurant reviews for you. Again, winter is a cruel mistress, and travel is about as unappealing this time of year as cardio. So Big Hungry Melinda gave me a great idea for this week’s blog: a roundup of my favorite food and recipe sites on the interwebs these days. Her suggestion got me thinking about how very often we now turn to Google rather than The Joy of Cooking when we’re casting about for something to cook. I still love my cookbooks and recipe boxes, and pulling out a recipe card my Grandma scribbled out more than 50 years ago always makes me feel good. But increasingly, I, too, refer to some beloved blogs and sites for recipes, and other sites for fun food news and commentary. Here’s a look at my favorites tab:

Iowa Girl Eats


I discovered the Iowa Girl through a recipe on Pinterest for one of the most delicious salads ever: superfood salad. The combination of pomegranate arils, corn, orange, and cilantro in this salad kicked my tastebuds in the behind, and Kristin’s easy-going manner and consistently delicious-looking photos has kept me reading. Iowa Girl also brought cake balls into our lives, which Melinda made for my Miss America party this year, and now must make forevermore.



Huffington Post Food


Arianna Huffington is not generally the first person I think of when ruminating on good food, food writing, or eating, but HuffPost Food has become one of my favorite sites for food news and commentary. Sometimes silly, sometimes scary, always informative, with subjects ranging from genetically modified foods peddled to our children to serious reviews of fast food joints, HuffPost Food always surprises, and there’s usually some good food porn, too.

Skinnytaste


I probably should use this site more than I do, judging by how my skirt is fitting today. Gina from Skinnytaste re-imagines comfort food and international dishes with a keen eye for slimming down the classics. I like that she does pasta recipes and lots of Mexican braised meats in healthier iterations, like the chicken ropa vieja.

Good. Food. Stories


This is a cool one-stop shop in food journalism. I’m particularly attracted to the neighborhood guides, the Eating My Words feature, which develops recipes based on what characters in books like to eat, and pretty much all of Danielle Oteri’s writing, which is predominantly on Italian food and culture.

Gilt Taste


If you follow me on social media, you know that in addition to my predilections for bacon, pageants, and aviation, I like to shop, specifically for clothes. That particular pasttime led me to Gilt a few years ago when my colleague Lauren sent me an invitation to the sample sale mecca. Shortly thereafter, the site launched Gilt Taste, which in addition to being the purveyor of truly drool-worthy gourmet delectables, also provides really wonderful food writing. Some of it is even authored by former Gourmet Magazine editrix Ruth Reichl, though I’ve just read she’s no longer contributing. There are recipes (like duck and dumplings. Drool), thought pieces on topical matters in the culinary world, and series on plating and technique from the kinds of folks Top Chef invites to guest judge. The photography is top-notch, and this is not a site to visit if you don’t want your cravings piqued.

Besides my old standbys of FoodNetwork.com and Pioneer Woman Cooks, these are my favorites lately among the pantheon of online food sites. If you know of a great one I’m missing, please post it in the comments, below! I’m headed to Corning this week for the Miss Finger Lakes Pageant, so I’ll have a review from the Crystal City served up fresh next Wednesday, plus I’m working on a new installment of The Blather with a Vestal, NY chef right now, so look for that in the near future. Meantime, have a Happy Valentine’s Day, and try not to eat too many carbs:) My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

2.06.2013

Opa!

There’s a thin line to tread as a food blogger who chiefly reviews restaurants, and it’s one I probably haven’t laid down here before. On one side, you need to preserve your anonymity a bit, or else the restaurant is going to treat you differently and the service and food won’t be honest, therefore skewing your post. On the other, you want to spread the word about your blog, engage chefs and restaurateurs in social media, and support local business via online media. I ran into this dichotomy this week with a new restaurant in Endicott, NY called The Greek Key. The owners have made all the right moves for an eatery so recently opened, namely, establishing a website, Twitter handle, Facebook page and Urbanspoon entry right away. This online presence helped me research The Greek Key in advance, but I also fell into the trap of basically announcing myself to them and giving away my identity when I finally ate there. It’s my own fault; waiting in the parking lot for Melinda to arrive Monday evening, I checked myself in via Urbanspoon, and once I brandished a small notebook and a camera, the jig was up, and the waitress was on us like white on rice.


Greek Key is occupying the space most recently inhabited by Hurricane Rylies, but has brightened up the interior quite a bit, giving the timbered décor a Greek taverna feel, with cobalt blue accents and whitewashed walls. It’s been frigid lately in Upstate NY, and we were feeling a bit drafty and chilly when we first entered, but someone cranked up the heat and it was toasty and hospitable as the meal progressed. The décor still feels a bit sparse, which may be owing to the recent renovation. I think it needs to be lived in and roughed up a bit before it feels comfortable here. Most of the usual suspects in Greek cuisine are present on GK’s lunch and dinner menu, with the exception of a lamb dish. Lamb is such an important protein to the Greek diet that I was surprised not to see it featured here. I know lamb is not nearly as popular in the US as it is overseas, but it’s so delicious, a braised lamb shank or even a really tasty lamb burger would undoubtedly sell here.


You only get one shot at this photo. Opa!

We started with the saganaki, which I was thrilled to see on the menu. Flaming cheese is entertainment and deliciousness rolled into one sizzle platter. Melinda had never had this delicacy before, and in case you haven’t either, it’s made with Kasseri, which is kind of a salty, dense mozzarella-flavored sheep’s milk cheese. It can also be made with haloumi cheese, another dense, stringy, sheep’s milk variety. The theater of this dish comes when the waitress brings the square of cheese tableside, nestled in its double-handled platter, douses it with a shot of Ouzo which she then lights on fire and puts out with a squeeze of lemon. The resulting cheese is melty, gooey, salty, citrusy, and boozy. Those are all very good words. You scoop up a bit of the cheese and mash it on a piece of bread, and you have a fine appetizer, indeed. Saganaki may sound Japanese, but the shout of “Opa!” when the Ouzo is lit reads Greek in every way.


Saganaki, post-flambé

Melinda announced right away that she intended to order the chicken souvlaki, my usual Greek go-to, which was cool, because it freed me up to choose something else. The thing I love about a chicken souvlaki platter in Greek diners is that you hit all the great things about Greek food: pita, grilled meat marinated in citrusy, oregano-laced vinaigrette, Greek salad with feta, and fries with tzatziki. The tzatziki is key, and ties it all together. The yogurt-based sauce incorporates cucumber, garlic, and either mint or dill, providing a cooling, creamy compliment to the feta and all the other ingredients. So Greek Key’s version of souvlaki had one flaw for me: it forced Melinda to choose between fries and salad. Granted, for the $9 price tag, I’m not saying she didn’t get enough food. But for me, souvlaki needs to have both the salad component and the fries with the tzatziki, or it’s just not living up to its own potential. This version had no tomato, kalamata black olives, or even feta to go with the chicken and pita, so while Melinda said the chicken was juicy and flavorful, I was disappointed.


This plate needs some color



The pita was ready for its close-up
 I considered choosing the Greek Key platter so I could evaluate the spanakopita (spinach pie), mousaka (eggplant casserole), and Pastitsio (Greek lasagna) for you, but it also featured dolamdes, or stuffed grape leaves, which I just plain don’t like, so I followed my stomach and ordered the Greek Key burger. I love a Greek burger, because feta and tzatziki are just as complimentary to beef as they are to fries. This one was topped with both griddled feta (a delectable touch) and kalamata tapenade. The unique tapenade surprise absolutely made the dish and anchored it in earthy, umami, funky flavors. The burger itself was clearly hand-formed and cooked perfectly to my designated “medium,” making it a juice factory. And it wasn’t too big, either - bigger than a fast-food disc ‘o beef, but thinner than a Fudrucker’s monster, and juicier than either. The thick slice of raw, white onion on top added a punch of heat to balance out all that richness. I would have liked a slice of tomato as well, to add some freshness, and will request this in the future. In any event, it was divine.

See the browned feta? Genius.

We both chose the so-called Greek fries to go with our sandwiches. They were really good, hand-cut, and twice-fried. I have some notes, though. While the salt, pepper and oregano topping was nice, it needed a little more salt, for my taste (surprise, surprise), and you know it’s nearly impossible to properly salt fries once they’ve hit the table – that needs to happen seconds after they leave the fryer. Also, if I were calling something “Greek fries,” I would just envision some feta sprinkled over the top, and maybe even some diced tomato. As they were, the only thing differentiating these from regular, homemade fries was the oregano, which I don’t think is enough to make them “Greek.” They were good, but not particularly special.



From both plates, I was really missing the freshness aspect inherent in most Greek dishes by virtue of the presence of Greek salad. Again, probably because I mostly eat Greek food in diners, the salad is ubiquitous, and now, like Pavlov’s dog, I need it. I need lettuce, tomato, cucumber, olives, and feta in a vinaigrette on my plate, or I’m just not 100% satisfied. Next time, for $2.50, I’ll order a side salad and shut up about it, I promise.

For dessert, we had to go for the baklava. You’ve had this, right? Layers of phyllo dough and walnuts, soaked in honey? So often, the honey and nuts create an almost unbearable richness such that this delicacy must be served up in tiny portions to be edible. However, Greek Key is serving up one of the best versions I’ve ever tasted: the top layer of phyllo is actually crispy, there’s a hint of spice in the nut mixture you don’t usually get, possibly a wee bit of cinnamon or maybe clove, and the honey is actually watered down, which sounds gross, but is actually brilliant. It allows you to take more than one bite without grunting, “Ugh, I’m SO FULL!”


Overall, we left the Greek Key fat and happy, which is all anyone can really ask for from dinner, correct? As stated, I would have liked to see more vegetables included on the plate without having to choose between that or fries. I need both fried things and green things to be truly happy in this life. And our waitress and the owner/chef were a tad too attentive to our table, but I’m sure this is because I had been pinned as a blogger from the outset – you shouldn’t have any such issue. But overall, The Greek Key is delivering high quality, low fuss food at rock-bottom prices in a part of the Southern Tier where there just aren’t enough places to eat. I mean, I’m counting this location as West Corners, since it’s west of Main St., and I consider this my ‘hood. We gave Greek Key a seven on the BHS scale – above average, but with room to grow. When you check it out, try one of the casserole classics, cover them in the comments below, and I’ll be sure to update you when I go back! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

PS: Hey, did you know you can share this post with your friends on Le Book de Face, Twitter, and other social media platforms? That’s right, just below this text, there’s a little row of app logos that will allow you to share my content with your social network. Pick one click it, and let all your friends know just how delicious Big Hungries can be. Something yummy this way comes.

Greek Key Restaurant and Bar on Urbanspoon