5.27.2015

Citrea: Confusing to Pronounce; Tasty to Try

Citrea Restaurant and Bar on Urbanspoon

Citrea Pizzeria opened back in March in Binghamton. Its location is both pro and con - situated with a front row view of the Susquehanna River, but also adjacent to some of the new student housing in Binghamton, which may provide dining companions not savored by all in the Southern Tier.

I've eaten at Citrea twice now; the first, during its opening week, on Parade Day. We came with a large group and tried every pie featured on the limited menu at the time. My favorite was the salciccia, with pepperoni and sausage, though my affection for the salted, cured meats could have been inspired by the quantities of beer I'd so far consumed that day.

Like most wood-fired, brick oven pizzerias, Citrea's crust is crunchy, with an airy, arid, chewy interior texture formed by the intense heat. It may be less moist than you're used to if your usual pie comes from a conventional oven, but the thin, toothsome base provides flavor and texture that suits Citrea's robust toppings. On that first visit, I found those toppings a bit goopy - as if the chef hadn't yet mastered the hot and cool spots in his oven. Rest assured, that minor weakness has been remedied hence.

I also enjoyed the di fungi and margherita pies on that occasion. The former, mild and woodsy, with its array of wild shrooms and milky fontina cheese, the latter, bright and straightforward, but again, a tad bit goopy for my liking.


A return visit, just a couple weeks ago, took place at brunch time, and began with bloody marys, in accordance with the prophecy. These were not overly spicy, but deeply flavored with good tomato taste and spices.


We started with French fries and crispy Brussels sprouts. The fries were major - hand cut, skin-on, double fried, and expertly seasoned with sea salt. This place is going to give Zona's a run for their money if word gets out about these garlic oil-laced, crunchy things of beauty. We loved them.


The sprouts were another item to covet - oven roasted with bacon until browned and sweet, their raw funk mellowed into submission by the wood oven. The sprinkle of nutty, salty Parmesan on top was smart - it echoed the richness of the bacon in a way that really worked. This is a terrific way to eat your vegetables!


The buongiorno pie, however, is my favorite thing at Citrea now. This is a brunch pizza, with sausage, green onions, provolone cheese and egg yolk smeared across the top by the server. The provolone and egg yolk were groaningly good together, and just before your mouth might have gone on richness overload, the scallions leant sharpness to point each bite up in the right direction.


I have to also mention the semifreddo dessert, which we liked much more than we anticipated. A frozen treat with a texture more like frozen whipped cream than custard, the addition of sweet cherries and sliced almonds gives this treat texture, variety, and complexity. I didn't get a photo, but I'll share one next time I devour this unique dish.

Sitting on the patio at Citrea is a much more enjoyable experience, for me, than dining inside. The river walk is lovely on a sunny day, and this food lends itself to casual, al fresco dining. Inside, it's a bit spare, which is wise, considering students can tend towards rowdiness, and the restaurant serves just as much as their nearest pizza joint as it does a higher end eatery - the metal tables and chairs are easy to clean and difficult to destroy, I imagine. It also can be loud, due to a lack of soft surfaces. I don't mean to look down on our student population, mind you; Hell, I've been there, and I understand all too well the siren song of good pizza after a boisterous night out.


We've had personable and knowledgeable service on both occasions we've dined there, though perhaps a wee bit less attentive than one would like if one is fond of several rounds of brunch cocktails. I award Citrea a seven on the BHS scale for above average food - actually, pretty great food - served in a casual, bright setting. I look forward to my next visit, and to trying the remaining menu items, like an intriguing burratta salad and short ribs made with chocolate.

I feel like I'm all out of rhythm with the blog, and I apologize for that, Hungries. I endeavor to get back on track, and I'm poised to bring you reviews from a recent trip to Salem, Mass. as well as a fun brunch in Syracuse and a look at Guy Fieri's Poconos Kitchen. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


5.12.2015

Recreational Dining

A lot of people I know run in 5ks and half marathons as a hobby. Some golf, or craft; others read. I never thought about eating and writing about it as my hobby, really, until this year when I began my column for the Watertown Daily Times, and Shawn marked that income as "hobby income," on my taxes. That seems like an odd hobby, but I do think that the sort of ultimate form of hobby eating comes in the form of wine dinners, beer dinners, and the like.

Big Hungry Melinda and I recently enjoyed a Cinco de Mayo-themed wine dinner at one of our favorite local haunts: P.S. Restaurant in Vestal. It was recreational dining in its highest form, a purely indulgent, fun, decadent foodie adventure. This was as far as you can get from eating to live. It was living to eat, and holy crap, were we living! 


Chef Rick Dodd and his wonderful wife Sylvana are some of my favorite food people. Our relationship goes back to my Lockheed days, when I planned high end awards dinners for the company and hired them as caterers. When they began the Southern Tier Independent Restaurants (STIR) last year and enlisted my help with social media and marketing, we found an excuse to keep even more in touch. Rick and Syl host these wine dinners a few times a year, and I was excited to join them for my first time, knowing that Rick would really go crazy with creativity in the kitchen. I wasn't disappointed.



Before we even got to the seven course meal, sangria, cheese and charcuterie platters, plus passed hors d'oevres were lavished upon us in the bar area. P.S. restaurant is in a strip mall in Vestal, and I always exhale when I enter the lovely bar, as it feels like an oasis from the bustle of the Parkway. An oasis is so much more fun with light, juicy pomegranate sangria, really good cured salumi, aged cheeses, and little appetizers like miniature cheesy chicken burritos with clean, crunchy diced cucumbers in the ranch dipping sauce. Three glasses of sangria prior to a seven course wine pairing dinner is risky, but hey, I'm a professional.



Empire Merchants North in Syracuse provided the wines for our dinner, and after we had settled in P.S.'s comfortable dining room, the company's rep Chris and Syl laid out the first four courses and what wines we'd be enjoying. Once we saw the menu, we knew we were in for an indulgent evening.

Chicken tortilla soup was the starter. The deep red contents of this bowl, topped with shredded queso fresco cheese, tasted like California - or rather, really good Mexican food I've had in SoCal. The broth had a rich tomato flavor base enhanced with a good amount if chili heat, plus garlic and cumin. The spoonful of crema helped the medicine go down, as it was slightly sweeter than sour cream, and tamed the roasted heat of the soup. Avocado chunks and that shredded white cheese were cooling to the palate, and the lime wedges provided were a smart addition, finishing each bite with bright acidity. There was finely shredded chicken suspended in the thick broth. A Pacific Rim Dry Reisling smoothed out the riot of flavors with a floral, jasmine-scented bouquet and the taste of summer peaches offset by a hint of minerality.


Next came a dish so good, I recommended that Rick put it on the menu permanently: hearts of palm salad with lardon, dates, and coconut vinaigrette. Because hearts of palm, similar in texture to artichoke hearts but less lemony, come from coconut (among other) palm trees, the sweet coconut vinaigrette made sense. There were lots of clean, sweet flavors going on in this dish, with chewy dates, crisp greens, the gentler smoothness of the hearts, and the chew of the bacon working well together. The slightly sweet dressing paired well with the dry, clean Unparalleled Sauvignon Blanc. This was a refreshing, sweet, light course that I could eat all summer.


Butter poached cod with soy, chili, yuzu and shallot sauce was served over fresh tomatoes treated with just a light smoke. With it, a Luguna Chardonnay was intensely oaky, which overpowered the fish flavor for me, although if I took a bite with the complete sauce and smoked tomatoes, the wine worked. The flavors in this dish were varied, layered, and really lovely. The fish was flaky but still juicy, garlic was there for sharpness, and the basil garnishing the dish provided a bright finish.


Lobster in a spicy tomato sauce was significantly less spicy than the soup, but deeply aromatic. It was paired with Unconditional Pinot Noir, which is what wine is really supposed to taste like. It's grapes with no sweetness; dry and juicy at the same time, sort of jammy. In the tomato sauce, I could have handled more jalapeƱo, but the basmati rice was perfect - just a hair undercooked - I wish I could get it like that at home! The lobster sauce was buttery and velvety, especially with the wine, which tasted of dark berries eaten in a forest after it rains.


Here's a spoiler: the next course was my favorite. Tamales in Dos Equis Amber beer and guajillo chili sauce, paired with Federale (I mean Federalist) Zinfandel. Tamales are real deal Mexican home cooking, meats and vegetables wrapped in masa, or cornmeal, steamed inside corn husks, then topped with chili-based salsa. This glorious masa was both sweet and savory, refined and flavorful. A lot of masas are either bland or just salty, but this was earthy, with layers of slightly sweet flavors like fresh summer corn, and thoroughly seasoned. The bold red wine was robust and juicy, balancing the light, bright tomato and sweet heat of the chilis.


Coffee glazed beef tenderloin with chocolate mole arrived at our table just at the point we started complaining about how full we were. I brought most of mine home, but tasted enough to tell the tale. The beef was peppery, rich, and tender. You would think a mole negro featuring chocolate might be sweet, and indeed, I've had some that relied too heavily on chocolate for flavor. Rick's mole sidestepped that pitfall and maintained its savory balance, bringing the bitter hints of good chocolate and the dry minerality of cocoa to the sauce of chilis, sesame seeds, herbs, and spices. Crispy onion straws on top added the only real sweetness to this deeply flavored, yet somehow light, entree. The Carnivor Cabernet Sauvignon was lightly sweet, dancing across the top of the beef flavor with deep mocha and berry notes and a silky finish. There's a little bit of muddiness in Cabernet that I always get, but that may just be me.


Cinnamon coffee is my jam, so I was all kinds of jazzed about dessert: chili ice cream, cinnamon churros, crema and macerated berries with Mexican coffee. The coffee raised all my cinnamony desires and doubled down with mild sweetness and the rich bitter acidity of really good coffee. The darkly sweet berries had a base of crema Catalana, with creamy cocoa. The chili ice cream tingled your palate without blowing it out, with some dark chocolate ganache there to provide bitter contrast to all the luciousness and pair perfectly with the coffee. The deep fried churros were crunchy delights; Melinda would have liked two of them. This dish was a happy harmony of chocolate, cinnamon, heat and sugar. Despite our bursting stomachs, we gobbled it all.


There is no possible number to grant this boozy, fun, gorgeous meal other than a 10. It was some of the best food I've had so far this year, and hooked me forever as a wine dinner patron at P.S. It's my new hobby! 

I feel like a lot of people associate P.S. with special occasion dining and an older clientele, and yes, it's on the higher end, cost-wise, for dinner in the Southern Tier. But Rick, time and again, has delivered food to my eager maw that's inventive, global, thoughtful, and delicious. I think you might want to give P.S. Restaurant another try. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

5.06.2015

Almost There, in Endicott

Antonio's Galleria & Cafe on Urbanspoon

I work in Endicott, and have long both loved and felt disappointed by Antonio's Galleria and Cafe at the same time. As a gelato shop and bar with fun cocktails, Antonio's has been successful for a long time. But as a restaurant, I have unfortunately had some really lackluster experiences there. Recently, I heard the Little Italy spot had a new chef and a new dinner menu. I was told the food was all new and phenomenal, so Big Hungry Melinda and I met there to give it a try.

The interior of this small corner cafe is dim and cozy, with an upscale bar and a comfortable dining room decorated in warm colors, with a wine country feel to the furnishings. You have to walk by the gelato case to get to the dining room, which is a brilliant strategic maneuver - all that homemade goodness is colorful and nearly irresistible.

We started our meal with a couple really excellent St. Germaine-spiked champagne cocktails, which were lightly sweet and effervescently refreshing. Our appetizer of choice: blackened tuna bites. These morsels of rare, super fresh fish were just hot enough with Cajun spices to give a little zing. They were served with a cooling tatziki sauce, which is usually one of my favorites, but this version was thinner that my ideal, and lacking either cucumber or garlic flavor. I loved the tuna, but the sauce just didn't do it for me.


I wasn't kidding when I said it was dark in there!

The salad course was simple, but one of the better comp salads I've had lately. The spring mix was crisp and clean, with big chunks of veggies, black olives, some homemade croutons and a very light, not-too-acidic house vinaigrette made with lemon juice. It was large for a starter salad, and just a very light, yummy starter.



Unfortunately, our starters wrote checks our entrees couldn't cash. Melinda's crab risotto did not enjoy the freshness our tuna bites had. Instead of the sweet, rich flavor you want with crabmeat, there was a wiff of fishiness with each bite of the crab and arborio rice dish, which lacked any other real flavor, and was cooked much tighter than a textbook risotto should be. Risotto is meant to puddle in a dish, the cream and butter added at the end loosening up the finishing texture after all the broth is incorporated. Instead, this was cooked down into a pretty dense, dry bowl of rice. 


You can tell a lot about an Italian restaurant by its meatballs. It's almost a litmus test. I ordered the ravioli with mini meatballs because, with the caliber of the gelato here, I assumed the meatballs would be on point. Unfortunately, my ravs were undercooked and those meatballs were dry with little flavor. The savory, bright, smooth marinara was a scant saving grace, but not enough to cook the pasta surrounding the ravioli through, nor to resuscitate the small meatballs. Usually when they're made with beef and veal, you're guaranteed a tender, flavorful product, but I didn't taste any seasoning in these. Where for art thou, cheese, egg, herbs, breadcrumbs? I'm guessing these were a fresh, frozen ravioli, because I've had the bad luck of undercooking them at home before, resulting in a similar, gummy, too toothsome pasta. Al dente is good, downright dry and chewy, not so much.


Luckily, gelato saved the day! Antonio's not only uses a machine brought over from Italia, they are committed to superior, imported ingredients for this better-than-ice-cream treat. Gelato had a lower butterfat content than American ice cream, but is creamier and more dense. At Antonio's, they put real Nutella in their chocolate hazelnut variety, and real fruit I. Their gemstone colored fruit varieties. I chose mint chip for my dessert, and luxuriated in every robustly minty bite, enjoying the semi-sweet chocolate chips and appreciating the lack of saccharine sweetness. This is a grown up dessert, and you can even get their gelato incorporated into adult beverages if your after dinner needs skew boozy.


When Antonio's first opened, the paninis they served alongside the gelato were very good. A few years later, they tried pizzas, but couldn't compete with Consol's thin pie and Joey's brick oven excellence. It's such a pleasure to spend an evening in this space that I hope they can fine-tune the bumps in this menu and find their niche. I want to love it here, no holds barred. The cocktails and gelato are already winners, and my salad and tuna appetizer were quite good this visit, but those mains were just clunkers. I give Antonio's latest dinner menu a five on the BHS scale - about average once you factor in all the courses we tried. 

I've got a bunch of great write-ups headed your way in the next few weeks, Hungries. Next week, join me for an epic Mexican-themed wine dinner at P.S., in Vestal. And I'm heading to the land of the witches, Salem, Mass., next week for work, so expect a dispatch or two from there. After that, I'll share  my review of a new, fancy fishing lodge north of Syracuse that's serving up fabulous eats in the middle of nowhere. Well, unless you're a fish. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!