7.23.2013

Bachelorette Bacchanalia

I may or may not have mentioned to you all that my little sister Mary is getting hitched this summer, and that I will be making my tenth bridesmaiding trip down the ol’ aisle in a couple weeks. I will not comment on my thoughts about that particular state considering I’ve never starred in my own wedding day, but I will share with you guys all the fun we had during Mary’s bachelorette extravaganza a few weeks ago!



Before the rest of the bridal party joined us, Mary and I did lunch at Tin Pan Galley, in Sackets, but I’m actually going to elaborate on that at the end of the post, since it’s the most traditional, review-adjacent portion of the post today. In the mid-afternoon, we all gathered at The Point Bar at Bonnie Castle Resort for some food, drinks, and an informal shower for Mary. They put us in a quiet, riverfront corner, doors open to the water, and served an impressive spread:


As the organizer, I chose the food off Bonnie castle’s expansive catering menus, and was pleased with the level of customization Angie Cobb there enabled us to achieve. Going back-to-front, the duck confit flat breads were my favorite thing, because you know how I love the duck. This was very mild, not gamey, and super tender, matched with a bit of mild boursin cheese and a scant amount of caramelized onions on pita bread. The menu named shitakes, but if these were present, they were not plentiful, because the shredded duck meat was really the star here. I loved this creamy, rich, unique appetizer.

Next up, two for the people: pizza bites and shrimp cocktail. These were pedestrian, and rightly so. The shrimp was chilled and crisp, super fresh, and surprisingly large for the price we paid; the pizza bites had a nice sausage flavor, but were most likely a frozen, packaged product. My sister and her friends are in their mid-20s - packaged is fine for them, and these disappeared, along with the shrimp, quickly.


This antipasto platter also answered the mail for a lot of people. It’s nice to have an option with some greens that’s also lousy with cheese and meats. Everybody likes meats. Moreso than this, I liked the chicken wing bruschetta, which was a kicky little mix of French bread rounds topped with diced chicken and tomatoes, and others with a blue cheese and celery mix, all drizzled with a hot sauce and balsamic combo that was different and fun. Some of the less adventuresome members of our party felt it was too spicy, but I say: bring on the heat! But best of all was the hospitality we received from the terrific barkeeps at The Point, and it’s not too shabby to have what is essentially a private party, directly ON the River, for less than $300. I would do this again in a heartbeat.


If you can’t tell, our little area opened up directly to Bonnie Castle’s docks, and from those docks, we next boarded a chartered, private wine and cheese cruise courtesy of Jeff Garnsey’s Classic Island Cruises. Hear me now, Hungries: YOU. MUST. DO. THIS.



I don’t know how to even tell you about all the rad things jammed into this deal. For four hours, Captain Jeff cruised us around the St. Lawrence River in a classic wooden Criss Craft boat, entertaining us with stories about the islands when we wanted, but backing off and just letting us laugh and carouse when that seemed more appropriate. We gorged on Coyote Moon wines, River Rat cheese, and Croghan Bologna, and when the wine ran low, Jeff docked us in Clayton so we could use the restrooms and he could buy more for us. We saw the backside of Calumet Castle, all lit up at night, and the Thousand Islands Bridge both in the daytime and after dusk. We saw a truly breathtaking sunset, and laughed until our cheeks hurt. Jeff could not have been any more gallant, and his boat, the Muskie, could not have been more perfect for such a luxe outing.


Now how much would you guess a private, utterly custom, four-hour boat cruise, with food and wine for six raucous ladies would run? $800? $1,200? Yeah no, I paid $350 for this insanely awesome evening. I want to do it again this weekend, and next weekend, and for my birthday. We were treated like absolute royalty for less than $60 a person! That’s $14.50 per hour, per person, for enjoying The River not as a tourist on an Uncle Sam boat tour crammed with people peering at islands from far away, but in a small boat capable of getting up close, and obtaining gorgeous views like this:


If you’re not already booking your cruise, then what ARE you doing? Maybe you’re spending your entire summer on the patio at Tin Pan Galley in Sackets? If so, let’s chat. Because not only did Mary and I hit it up for lunch the day of her party, but I met my buddy Sam there for breakfast the next morning as well. My feelings about Tin Pan are complex, if you haven’t sensed that before reading through my Sackets harbor obsessions. The owner, Andy Taylor, was a member of the Sackets Chamber of Commerce when I worked there back in 1999/2000, and back then, Tin Pan was a favorite lunch spot. The had a chicken sandwich back then that I craved and ate about once a week. But more recently, I’ve had some really negative experiences with service there, and I fail to understand the hoards of people clamoring to eat in this one place, when there are other good eats to be had nearby.

Bad service also haunted Mary and I during our Saturday lunch, which I was informed by the hostess when I called for a reservation, could not even begin at noon – the generally accepted lunch time here in the Americas – due to the fact that they would be changing over from the breakfast menu at that time. She said we could order at 12:15, which seemed odd, but acceptable. In reality, we waited until about 25 past the hour to order, and the maple syrup spill on our table took three requests made to two different wait staffers to address. I do not understand why this kind of service is condoned by the line of people I see standing to get in this place every weekend in the summer. Yes, the patio is enchanting, and the food is above average – but honestly, great brunch food is now cooking at the Hops Spot, and both Ryan’s and the Brew Pub are serving great dinners.

I do like to take pictures of my sister chomping on a tasty burger, I admit

Anyhoodle – Mary had the TPG Prime burger. It was juicy and large, and the brioche bun is always a good, rich, buttery choice for a beefy, salty burger. It was a good base upon which to build a day of drinking and boating, and she loved it. Those fries were brew city-style, crunchy and golden yummy.


I went for the ahi tuna tacos, as raw or rare fish has totally been my jam this summer. I very much liked the just-seared tuna, which was fresh and tender,and the asian slaw was crunchy and refreshing, but both the sriracha aioli and wasabi guacamole were lacking in sriracha/wasabi heat. Crank it up, guys. If I order a dish with two kinds of heat, I’m ready to taste them!


I also enjoyed the four onion and garlic soup. I don’t think it was particularly garlicky, nor was it the best French onion soup I’ve ever had, but it was chock full of oozy, caramelized, sweet onions, and the cheese on top was broiled to gooey perfection and added the right amount of salt to the dish.



The next morning, Sam and I did indeed wait in line for the privilege of a garden table at the most popular breakfast spot in the North Country. Frankly, I’m not sure it was worth it. Due to the previous day’s partying, I was hungry enough to order a massive platter, but nothing on it was particularly outstanding. At least our service was better than the inattentive, vague, snotty-ness of the previous day.


I chose the sausage poblano gravy and biscuits, with a couple eggs over easy and home fries – a heavy dish, again, without much of the kick I’d expected from a dish billing chiles right up front. Not that poblano chiles are particularly noted for their off-the-charts heat – I find the large green chile peppers a bit more smoky with a mild, pleasant heat – but I expected a more savory, spicy delivery from the gravy instead of an almost overwhelmingly creaminess. Mostly, this dish was heavy, which satisfied my post-party hunger, but not so much my foodie cravings.

I will not deny that TPG sets a lovely scene, but I promise I am not exercising any sort of sour grapes when I wonder why it enjoys season after season of crowds and endless, almost dogged enthusiasm from its fans. I wish Andy well, and I quite like most of the food there, but to wait in line for food on par with a lot of other great New York eateries continues to befuddle me. I award Tin Pan a seven on the BHS scale – above average, but nothing amazing to see here, folks. I’d much rather cruise the St. Lawrence in one of Jeff Garnsey’s fabulous boats, thank you very much. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

Tin Pan Galley on Urbanspoon

7.16.2013

A Sackets Revisit

In February 2012, I reviewed the Sackets Harbor Brewing Company on BHS with a not very positive spin. As much affection and warm memory I had for the spot, at the time, I could only give it a four on the BHS, scale, due to a frigid dining room, sloppy plates, and under-seasoned dishes. Just a few months later, I was contacted by one of two new owners, requesting that I return for check out the changes they’d made to the menu and décor. I usually shy away from revisit posts, because I don’t want to give you guys a lot of repeat content. However, with new owners, and my personal affinity for Sackets, I decided to make an exception, and my parents and I returned last month for a waterfront dinner on a gorgeous evening.


I was sort of bummed right off the bat that the Brew Pub’s outdoor seating section was closed, but it’s for good reason: a huge new lakefront deck is under construction, and will hopefully open this month. Inside, the dining room doesn’t actually seem to have changed much since our last visit, but it is clean and bright.


Our waiter, a relative of famed former SHBC chef Karen Cornish, was very helpful, and bragged a bit about the house made dill hummus that came with the yeasty, chewy bread. A creative accompaniment to a traditional starter loaf, the hummus was citrusy, garlicky, and bright with fresh dill punch – my favorite part was the addition of a little pickle juice for kick. I may have to start adding this condiment to my hummus at home.


Dad and I began the meal by sharing an appetizer special that evening – seared tuna with watermelon and feta salad. I am mad about the watermelon and feta combo this time of year, as it qualifies as salad with no pesky lettuce to get in the way. For me, the tuna in this dish could have been raw. With seared tuna, I’m always a little put off by the texture difference and slight chewiness of the cooked edges. But that salad was summer incarnate – delightful, cooling, slightly salty and utterly refreshing with the watery sweetness of the watermelon. I would have balanced the salad with more robust chunks of feta, and the balsamic was just a touch odd in the dish. I would have gone with a rice wine or champagne vinegar so as not to compete with the delicacy of the fruit, but I loved the bite and crunch of the red onion in it. I could eat this alone for dinner on a really hot night, and be pleased with it.


Mom went simple, as usual, but unusually, she was not happy with her wedge salad. Part of this we have to put on her, as she swapped out the blue cheese dressing that ordinarily comes on the salad for balsamic dressing, and then didn’t like it – it was waaay too acidic for her, and there was a huge amount of it on the wedge, blowing out all the other flavors. That said, when it first arrived, it looked more like a culinary carnival than a salad, and we had high hopes. We doctored the almost straight vinegar with some olive oil and sugar Jim brought to us, but by then, Mom’s palate had been completely overwhelmed by all the strong acidity, and she was kind of over it. My advice – if you’re in the mood for a composed salad like a wedge, stick with the dressing the chef has predetermined for it.


Dad went for the steak – although unfortunately, I didn’t write down what cut, and as I write this up, the restaurant’s online menu isn’t actually showing its entrees for whatever reason. It was topped with fried onions that I wished they had let fry for one more minute – they were a touch blond for me. The meat itself was divine, with great, beefy flavor, and was cooked perfectly to medium well, as ordered. And unlike our last visit, this steak was well seasoned with salt and pepper. The garlic mashed potatoes on the side were a little gluey in consistency, probably mashed in a mixer instead of by hand so the starches over processed, but very garlicky and savory. Overall, Dad was happy with his plate, and I’m betting the inconsistencies were due to the chef working the grill station while less experienced line cooks prepared the onions and the potatoes. Chef clearly knows what he’s doing, but he may need to be more strict with his staff and crack the whip a bit.


I ordered an appetizer as my entrée, and it’s a repeat dish from our last review: the scallop stack. I won’t keep you in suspense, it was terrific: a trio of creamy, seared scallops atop a Portobello mushroom cap, dolloped with tangy goat cheese, and drizzled with rich basil pesto and mellow balsamic vinegar. The twangy creaminess of the panko-crusted, fried, goat cheese disc makes the dish, and I even loved the lefy greens served underneath, which formed a fresh base for all the earthy, strong flavors topping them.



After Mom’s dinner disappointment, she wanted dessert. I wasn’t about to argue with her compelling argument, so we chose the house made peach cobbler, and were rewarded with an absolute homerun. Not just sweet, this fruit compote was complex with spices, and the baked cobbler portion was decidedly savory, buttery, with a whisper of salt and more homey pie spices. We loved it.


So ladies and gentlemen, Sackets Harbor Brewing Company is back in business, with gusto. While our meal wasn’t perfect, it was really fun and pleasant. In fact, besides Mom’s balsamic snafu, the only other ding in the evening was the large table right behind ours, who had chosen to bring their unruly, creaming toddler to this fine dining restaurant, and chose not to remove him or comfort him in any way through his repeated tantrums. Folks, babysitters and Cracker Barrel exist for a reason. If your child can’t sit through an adult dinner, don’t inflict that upon him, or upon your fellow diners!

My parents and I awarded SHBC a seven on the BHS scale – well above average and above its former score. I think the new deck will be a huge boon to business, and that a tiny bit more attention to detail in the kitchen would push this place into nine territory, which it certainly was in the early part of the decade. Well done, new owners, you have a winner on your hands – keep working, and we’ll keep eating! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

PS: My Miss TI girls did so well this past weekend at Miss New York! Congratulations to Lonna McCary on her Kenn Berry Spirit Award, to Joelle Leek for being voted Favorite Contestant and placing fifth runner-up in the Oustanding Teen Pageant, and to Vern and Julia for their precious, priceless stage debut! Check out Lonna, in the back in the navy blue gown, proudly cheering on Joelle before her Top 6 announcement!


7.02.2013

Your Next Date Night

One of my favorite parts of being a food blogger is that people now come to me and ask me where they should eat out. I may not have a high falutin’, monetized, Pioneer Woman-level corner of the blogoverse here, and neither do I have any formal culinary training, but if friends, family, and colleagues are seeking my advice on food, I’m a happy girl. I have colleagues stop me in the ladies’ room at work all the time and ask me what new places I’ve eaten, and I’m tickled pink when mamasan tells me someone stopped her in Target to mention how much they love Big Hungry. It gives me a little frisson like I’m the real deal – like Bourdain or Fieri. So first and foremost: thanks for reading, y’all!


So I’m proactively giving you your next great dining adventure, if you live in the Southern half of the state: Booker’s Backyard, just outside of Ithaca and along the Eastern shore of Cayuga Lake, makes a perfect wine tour lunch break, date night al fresco hideaway, or birthday dinner treat. It’s not fancy, but its outdoor patio is magical, its bar is cool, and its décor is modern country. I think this place would make for a great rehearsal dinner restaurant, and for Melinda and me, it was absolute perfection for a hearty lunch after a breathtakingly gorgeous, early summer morning hike of Buttermilk Falls.



You may want to begin your meal with a cocktail. Especially if you just completed a hike during which you somehow ended going uphill during the second half rather than the first! Luckily, Booker’s has a fun cocktail menu with drinks named after some literary greats, as well as lots of beer and wine. We chose the Tequila Mockingbird, which was fabulously refreshing in the heat of the day. The ginger ale and Chambord brought the sweet, while the tequila and lime brought the tart – a delectable balance of naughty and nice.


In case your appetizer, fried pickles, doesn’t come out quickly enough, assume the position:




But have no fear, because despite the penchant restaurants above the Mason Dixon Line have for frying up dill pickle spears, Booker’s Backyard is frying up chips. Well done, guys! These could have been even crispier fried for my particular taste, but the dill flavor and snap of pickle juice inside were aces, and you know my ranch tooth was loving dipping those little suckers!



In case you haven’t checked out Booker’s menu yet, let me call to your attention the entire section of mac and cheeses. You can get lobster mac, chili mac, or sausage mac. Or, you can be truly outstanding, and order the smoked cheddar and fontina-bathed pasta topped with a giant dollop of BBQ pulled pork and crispy bacon. I don’t want to tell you what to do or anything, but yeah, you should eat this. If there’s anything bothering you…maybe the Syria crisis, your lack of overdraft protection, an ingrown toenail, or a weird sound your car keeps making – I assure you, this bowl of saucey, carb-laden goodness will fix it. Now, if you’ve read BHS for any length of time, you know I can be a harsh critic of macaroni and cheese, because the one I make is pretty fly. This dish, which we owe to my favorite Founding Father, Old Tommy Jeff, must be made with good quality, aged cheese, and the sauce must be kicked up with some spice. Booker’s uses four cheese, white pepper and garlic salt in their mornay, and then combines it with sweet, lush pulled pork. The bites you get with the bacon are saltier, and the bites with the pork alone are sweeter, and the whole works is sauced generously enough not to gum up completely and become a congealed mess by your third bite. It is simply divine, which you will realize as soon as you gaze upon it:


It was a foregone conclusion that Melinda would get the lobster roll. It similarly foretold that she would not finish said roll, after fried pickles and mac and cheese as starters. But that doesn’t detract a bit from how good this sandwich was! In fact, it was to die for. The celery and lemon in the lobster salad lightened it up without distracting from the lobstery, buttery goodness you want from this summertime indulgence. And the mayo wasn’t too gloppy, which is my educated term for heavy. To boot, the bun was just slightly crisp, and buttery-light. Scrumptious.


In hindsight, after having the pulled pork on the mac and cheese, I should have chosen something else for my entrée. But you guys know what a sucker I am for the porcine picks on a menu! So the Dr. Pepper and chipotle pulled pork was delicious, but a little bit samey to what I’d already put down. The pork was a little sweet for me in this setting (after all, I was raised on Carolina vinegar-based BBQ), though I liked the crunch of the red cabbage horseradish slaw. Again, the bun was fabulous, with a slight, brittle crispness and terrific lightness.


The gentleman who seated us, who may very well have been the owner, indicated to Melinda and me that the restaurant is relatively new and had met with some food criticism in the beginning, but I think that’s well behind them now. Between the idyllic patio with umbrella tables and a charming pond, and the fun, casual, tasty fare, I think Booker’s will catch on fast. We scored it a nine out of 10 on the scientific, world-renowned BHS Scale, and we are dying to bring Shawn and BLD back for a double date.



So the next time you’re looking for a daytime getaway for a tipple and a taste, a romantic yet gut-busting date night dinner, or a special occasion meal worthy of tossing aside your bikini body challenge, think Booker’s Backyard, just north of Ithaca, and let me know what you think of the joint! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

PS: Oh. My. God. I almost forgot to bestow upon you this photo, which could alone possibly convince me never to diet again:



Booker's Backyard on Urbanspoon