Saratoga Springs Travel Guide

I've taken you Hungries along with me many times to Saratoga Springs - it's one of my favorite cities in Upstate New York, full of frilly boutiques, pampering spas, and loads of good food.

When Big Hungry Melinda and I went recently for a final girls' weekend before she becomes a mom, we wanted to try some new places, and I just knew, as we sipped cocktails (her's were virgin!), crunched on meringues, and tucked into beignets, a wicked blog post would come of it.

Our first night in town, a table at Salt and Char, right on Broadway, was waiting for us. This restaurant was recommended by Bobby Flay on The Best Thing I Ever Ate, and I'm never one to ignore his suggestions - it was Flay who led me to Carol's Café on Staten Island, and the inimitable Carol Frazzetta, after all.

Once again, Bobby came through. Salt and Char is a rustic/masculine steakhouse on par with those in NYC and Vegas - beef of achingly good quality, strong libations, and gracious service. While Melinda began her repast with the wedge salad, I came in guns blazing and enjoyed the surf and turf starter, which pairs bone marrow, oxtail marmalade, and jumbo garlicky shrimp. The bone marrow wasn't roasted quite long enough for my taste, and was lacking a few chunky salt crystals over the top to season it, but the oxtail stew more than made up for its shortcomings. The marmalade was unctuous, salty/fatty, and impeccably rich. The shrimp were plump, sweet, and cooked perfectly. Thumbs up.

We split the chateaubriand, a tender, juicy, thick cut of beef complimented by a mushroom demi glace and further embellished with a fresh ramp and blue cheese butter that was on special. It was sublime, the flavor of the meat deep and satisfying.

Our favorite side dish was the cheddar mashed potatoes, which were enriched with plenty of butter and cream, yet somehow not heavy. The cheddar flavor was sharp, and the creaminess countered the beef beautifully.

Creamed spinach was another standout - the mineral quality of the greens smoothed out by cream and a touch of nutmeg, in accordance with the prophecy.

The bloody mary onion rings were less successful - the breading on these was a little thick, and under-seasoned, given the dish's moniker. There was no spice on them to be found, even though there were a gorgeous presentation.

We very much enjoyed dinner at Salt and Char, including a fun key lime shortbread "taco" dessert, and I recommend it for your next visit to Saratoga. I would give it a nine on the BHS scale.

Saturday morning, Sweet Mimi's Café was in our crosshairs, an easy walk from the Hampton Inn & Suites where we were staying. Honestly, this may have been by favorite meal of the trip, despite how jam-packed and noisy the dining room was. The coffee was strong, the service was fast, and Melinda's strawberry rhubarb French toast was thick and crusty enough to battle its own overt sweetness with plain old yum. You know, the kind that makes your eyes roll back into your head a little bit?

My croquet monsieur was perfectly executed, with thick-cut salty ham and runny eggs. The grilled asparagus on the side was a surprising and smart addition. The slight bitterness of the vegetable was a stunning foil for the richness of the open-faced sandwich.

We didn't try any sweet treats from Mimi's case, but I won't make that mistake again.

That afternoon, we enjoyed several blissful hours at Complexions Spa, which borders one of the verdant parks on Broadway. I cannot recommend enough the idea of making time for a spa excursion when you're in SS. Complexions is fancy, the forest bathing massage experience I had, with Daniel as my therapist, was absolutely transformative. I was a new woman when we left this gorgeous hideaway.

Dinner that night was at Mouzon House, just a block off Broadway and less than that from our hotel. This Cajun, farm-to-table restaurant is situated in an old farmhouse decorated with colorful, large-scale art and charming wooden floors. Garden surround you, and you may forget that you're in Upstate New York while you're here, rather than in a genteel Louisiana home.

I was less enamored with the food at Mouzon House. Crawfish beignets were a bit muddy in flavor, and extremely heavy in texture. I wanted to taste the sweetness of the seafood, but the batter fought for prominence, and the spicy remoulade sauce served alongside completely obliterated the delicate flavor of crawfish completely.

Similarly with the fried chicken over jambalaya, nothing really shone. The chicken wasn't juicy or particularly well-flavored, and while the jambalaya was fresh-tasting, with good celery and okra flavors, it lacked the strong anchor of a dark roux or the spice you might want from Cajun food. I found myself setting this dish aside in favor of a few bites of Melinda's stronger - but very spicy - shrimp and grits. The flavor of this dish was running on all cylinders, though I thought it was overly sauced, such that the grits were lost in the shuffle. If you want fried chicken in Saratoga, stick to Hattie's.

For dessert, bananas foster was good, but not great. It was made with cinnamon ice cream, an exciting prospect, but again, the flavor on this house made treat was a bit timid. French press coffees were strong and a pleasant surprise.

I would probably skip Mouzon House on a repeat trip, though if you love Cajun food, you might want to try it. Indeed, the atmosphere and service were splendid, even if the cuisine left me wanting. It is a six on the BHS scale.

Our last breakfast was at Scallions, which I've blogged here before, and which is right across the street from the hotel. This place never seems to be busy, and I'm not sure why. The food isn't a show-stopper, but it's all tasty, and the atmosphere is relaxed and bright. I like this place.

It's that time of year when we're all a little restless in the office in the sunny afternoons. Isn't it time you and your sweetheart got away? I highly recommend a long weekend in Saratoga Springs. Whether you like the horse races, unwinding at a spa, or just shopping at the many shops on Broadway - including one of my favorite independent bookstores anywhere - you can't go wrong in this charming small town. Enjoy the spa city whatever you like, but don't miss out on its considerable treats and eats. My hunger is big, but my personality is bigger!


Speak Me Fair in Death: Farewell to the Bard

Yesterday, we lost Anthony Bourdain. I won't be the first to declare him the bard of the food world, nor the last to contemplate the indelible impact the man made on the culinary landscape.

I grew up loving Jeff Smith's Frugal Gourmet, the Galloping Gourmet, and Martha Stewart on PBS, long before the Food Network hit the air waves and became something beloved and yet perverse - the era of food porn and lurid cooking competitions that tug at our latent warrior lizard brains while appealing to our base nutrient-hoarding instincts.

Anthony Bourdain had a front row seat to the entire, grandiose spectacle, and he translated it all - from the fetid walk-ins of New York City's toiling brunch commandos to the hallowed labs of El Bulli, to a sunny afternoon repast in Sardinia surrounded by loved ones, grating lofty piles of dried roe sacks onto al dente pasta.

That such a vibrant and omniscient soul should be snuffed out before its time is gutting, and I am not a person who can speak to the depression and mental health issues entangled with such a tragedy. I'm not equipped to opine on what took Tony from us - but I feel compelled to pay tribute to this man whose words were perhaps sharper than his knives - who savored consonants even more so than a wickedly hot bowl of laksa and deployed both derisive and beautiful adjectives like napalm across a rice paddy.

He was more prolific than he probably gave himself credit for, and many of us would consume his products any way we could: Kitchen Confidential, Top Chef judging, No Reservations, the Les Halles cookbook, My Last Supper, Parts Unknown, Medium Raw, The Mind of a Chef, his novels, and the Appetites cookbook. They turned us on to exotic lands and new restaurants, made stars out of chefs we never would have heard of otherwise, and made exotic flavors seem accessible. He passed around trays of disdain equally with adoration of artisanal food ways in evolutionary decline, and taught us how to experience the world without being mere tourists. He was a citizen of any corner of it where food was consumed, and he invited us along for his journey.

There are items in my pantry today that would never be part of my gastronomic lexicon if it weren't for Tony. Fregula, the toasted Sardinian pasta pearls; pho, the Vietnamese beef noodle soup; sambal, a fiery chile garlic paste; and the seemingly scary fish sauce, which elevates southeast Asian cuisine to complex heights our American palates were never meant to crave. While it was certainly his aim to open our apertures, there are legions of disciples for whom Tony's shows and books literally formed their appetites, and I'm not positive he appreciated that. Even for those who never read one of his books, the trickle-down effect of chefs and bloggers and food personalities influenced by his wisdom surely has changed what the masses eat every day in this country. His reach was pervasive though unfailingly, he remained true and real, honest about the awkwardness of his own fame and earnest about his ongoing efforts to bring world flavors and issues to the American consciousness. To make the foreign more familiar. To break down the walls between us and elevate the fellowship of the dinner table to a uniting force for good.

Today, I will eat the rest of the Bourdain-crafted chocolate bar I've been savoring for months; this week, I shall cook his recipes in homage to the legacy of flavor he leaves behind him. I don't have much wisdom to pass along in these days when we will question why he left us, but I will revel in what he leaves in his wake: almost two decades as a harsh father-figure to those of us for whom food is religion, a teacher, a guru, a prophet, an instructor. He wasn't warm or fuzzy, but he was certainly the kind of friend you want in your corner when the chips are down and you need to be whisked away to an exotic locale. He was our bard. Tony, I hope you're barefoot right now, on the deck of a tiny hut in Heaven's version of Southeast Asia, waiting for a pancake boat to stop, with a steaming bowl of something good in front on you, chasing away a slight hangover with a chile punch and your daughter by your side. I hope your are in your version of peace.


Dispatch from Colorado Springs: You're in Luck

During the last season of Top Chef, which took place in Colorado, a dude named Brother Luck impressed audiences and the likes of Tom Colicchio with his easy-going nature and his homey, but modern food. Rather than torture ingredients into submission, Brother was cooking rustic, accessible cuisine, and the judges ate it up.

Is it any surprise that I just had to check his restaurant out when I was in Colorado Springs recently for work? If you've been reading BHS for any length of time, you'll know the answer is no.

The restaurant is on the small side, and the decor is modern, but spare. All the better to enjoy the excellent service and absolutely wonderful food. Luck has the menu divided up into four tasting choices: the hunter, the gatherer, the fisherman, and the farmer. You can let one of those take you on a tasting journey, or mix and match the courses to create your own experience. We did the latter, and I began my meal with the stick icky Brussels.

This starter was glorious: earthy brussells sprouts caramelized and further sweetened with honey, then pointed up with orange juice. Marcona almonds added crunch and a creamy flavor to the dish.

My colleague Brandee had a gorgeous poblano cheddar soup for her appetizer. The layered flavors in the this dish unfurled across your tongue with each spoonful, with chile, aged cheese, and aromatics adding complexity and flavor.

Here's a poem I wrote: tequila shrimp and grits. Pretty, right? It tasted even better than it sounds. Plus, there was a soft cooked egg on top, so its runny yolk could meld with the roasted garlic grits and chile oil to create magic. And those charred lines on the shrimp? Caramelized seafood sweetness. Yeah. This was my favorite dish of the night. Incredibly delicious.

When my guajillo pork shank came to the table, the smell instantly transported me to my grandmother's kitchen. Not because of the guajillo chile, surely, as those were unavailable in 1980s Northern New York. But there was a dark, rich, coffee aroma wafting off the dish, which, mixed with braised pork, reminded me of my beloved grandmother, Muriel. She was a fabulous cook. I didn't know how I would feel about beans with braised pork, but these creamy Anasazi beans, in a tomato and ham hock broth, were homey and fabulous, with just a faint hint of smokey richness.

The desserts maintained the excellence established during the savory portions of our meal. Brandee's s'more was drenched tableside in chocolate ganache, to delicious effect. My stout caramel cheesecake was rich and creamy, but saved from over-sweetness by goat cheese and golden raisins. The oatmeal crust provided a pleasing textural contrast.

Our desserts took a while to arrive - the place was packed! So Steve, who had been refilling our glasses all night, but who actually is Brother's sommelier, brought us treats: truly special madeira and tawny port to complement our desserts. Both added complexity and depth to our dessert experience and chatting with Steve brought us closer to the understanding just how special this place is.

On a trip to the ladies', Brandee noticed a chef's table in the kitchen. If we're back in Co. Springs next year, we may be bringing our entire team to enjoy a night out at this Lucky table. I highly recommend this gem if you've got some time in the Springs coming up - it was the best meal of the trip, hands down.

Needing a place to stay in CS? The Broadmoor is amazing, but I have to recommend the Garden of the Gods Club and Resort, which has huge rooms with double sinks and gorgeous balconies with this view:

It is breathtaking country out here. Lots of Ubers, stunning views, arid climate, and I managed to avoid seeing any snakes during my trip. What more could a hungry ask for? My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Four by Brother Luck Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 


BIG HUNGRY Brisket Poutine is a thing and you need it

One of the most gratifying aspects of writing a food blog for eight plus years is that people think of you automatically when they want a restaurant recommendation or are traveling to a new place. Another is the friends you make in the food industry, especially if you can resist the temptation to be an overly crotchety/negative critic of the restaurants in your area.

I’ve made a bunch of chef friends and restaurateur buddies through the BHS journey, and Dan at Food & Fire BBQ Taphouse in Johnson City is one of them. A few months ago, I had an inspiration about a burnt ends poutine, and shared it with Dan when Shawn and I were in his establishment one night, in between shoving tots into our mouths as fast as we were able. He loved the idea, and we’ve been chatting back and forth about it since then, formulating a dish that would work for his kitchen and would be optimally delicious.

I’m excited to announce, it’s here. IT’S HERE, my Hungries! The burnt ends have become chopped fatty, smoked brisket, the cheese curds are fried, and I can take zero credit for the gravy, because it is Dan’s masterpiece: a beef and ale concoction that is rich and complex, so the brisket and cheese curds don’t overwhelm it. He named this magnum opus Big Hungry Brisket Poutine, because Dan is a baller, and he loves me.

You should go in and order it when it’s on special because it is a massive platter of utter indulgence: hot, crispy French fries draped in shredded smoked gouda cheese, crowned with chunks of juicy beef brisket and studded with golden, fried cheese curds, then bathed in beer gravy and showered with scallions. It’s big enough to share with four to six of your closest friends, and the balance of this dish is the best part: it’s savory and just a bit salty, but never so rich that it finds the tipping point to too much.

So let me give you a piece of advice if you like to eat really yummy things: drive to Johnson City, belly up to a table at Food and Fire, order a craft beer, and dig in to my Big Hungry Brisket Poutine. Tell Dan you love it, and maybe he’ll add it to the menu permanently! We should be so lucky. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!


A Watershed in Owego

I don’t think it’s any secret that food tastes better when you eat it waterside, or it that does to me, at least. Since I first moved to the Southern Tier, in 2000, friends and I have marveled at the preponderance of riverfront property available and the comparatively scant number of restaurants situated to capitalize on those views. The Susquehanna River isn’t the most scenic waterway in New York State, but it’s here, and it’s certainly better than staring at a parking lot while you masticate.

MJ’s Bar and Restaurant opened last spring in Owego, and wonder of wonders, it’s got a view. The folks who transformed this old building did a wonderful job with the remodel. The interior is modern rustic, cozy but cool, and the whole back portion of the dining room focuses on its view of the river, with a big glass-paneled garage door that opens up in the warmer months to give everyone a sense of the outdoors.

I loved the industrial lighting and the raw-edged wood tables, and even the ladies restroom, which had a gorgeous vessel sink and a corner toilet, but being in there on a snowy day in February really made me long for nicer weather and the ability to enjoy a couple of cocktails out on MJ’s gorgeous deck.

But let’s talk about the eats, shall we? To start, the drinks are well thought out here. The beer list has a mix of domestic and international mass market varieties, plus local craft brews, while the cocktails are creative enough to be distinctive, without being so complicated and out there, you feel like you’re drinking a bowl of potpourri. The wintry take on a Moscow mule I tried had cranberry and orange to offset the richness of the ginger beer, plus a sprig of rosemary to add a heady, seasonal scent to each sip.

We started with the quesaria – which is just queso to the rest of us. In fact, I Googled the word quesaria, and it did not come up as a recognized food term, so I’m not sure how they named this dish. I can tell you it’s delicious. It’s warm cheese dip with pico de gallo mixed in, and you can add crumbled chorizo for 50 cents, which DUH. Do that. The dip was rich and flavorful, and came with plenty of crunchy tortilla chips for dipping. It was also a good portion size for the $6 price tag. My favorite part was probably the little hot sauce floater on top, which we swirled into the cheese with our chips. This dish will most likely be on our table at every future visit to MJ’s. Shawn’s only complaint is that it wasn’t served over some kind of sterno heater or something so that it stayed warm the entire time we were eating it, and I would have to second that comment. It did congeal a bit before we were done enjoying its cheesy goodness.

Shawn ordered the brisket sandwich on the advice of our friendly waiter, who we chatted with throughout our visit about football, burgers, and life. This $9 BBQ lunch was so hearty, he didn’t need dinner that night. The smoke flavor was prevalent in the tender, juicy brisket, and the slaw was both bright and spicy enough to stand up to the richness of the meat. I am also pleased to report that MJ’s hand cuts its French fries, in accordance with the prophecy, and then sprinkles them with dried oregano and a little feta cheese when they come out of the fryer. They were crunchy and delicious.

I got the torta sandwich, which is pulled pork with a little cheese, cilantro and avocado. The pork on this was delicious, but the sandwich wasn’t quite what I expected. Usually a Mexican torta sandwich will be spread with refried beans or pureed black beans, or have a chile sauce of some kind on it. This one was predominately meat, and the small amount of cheese and avocado weren’t really enough to stand up to its richness. The bun, too, was crustier than I would expect with a traditional torta – delicious, but not authentic. A torta is typically built on a fluffy bolillo roll. I would consider this more of a pulled pork sandwich with a slight Latin flair than a true torta - yummy, but not what I was expecting from the sales job the menu gave.

I switched up my carb order and tried MJ’s heavenly hash, which is a play on Cracker Barrell hash brown casserole, and loved it. The cheese on top was crispy and browned around the edges, and the shredded potatoes inside were tender and flavorful. I highly recommend this side when you visit MJ’s (you can also get this at brunch – yum!)

After all that food, dessert wasn’t an option, but some of the ones MJ’s has posted on its Facebook page have looked delicious. Overall, I would give the food here a 6 out of 10 on the BHS scale, but the ambiance and service bump that score up to a 7 with a bullet. I think they’re developing a lot of the menu items here by pure experimentation in the kitchen – which is encouraging, but a few details may still need to be dialed in.

They have what they’re calling a pho-nomenal sandwich on the menu, which I assume is supposed to be a play on a bahn mi (the Vietnamese cult sandwich of French bread, pate, pork and pickled vegetables), but theirs has something on it called awesome sauce, which probably is not pate. I don’t mind twists on classics, to be sure, but it does leave me wondering where the chefs here are getting their naming conventions, since pho is a soup. Unless the sandwich is supposed to echo the soup rather than a bahn mi? But then it would most likely be made with beef rather than pork – you know what? I can’t unravel this mystery. I’m just going to have to eat it instead.

What else do I plan on eating my next visit? Sopes, street tacos, stuffed mushrooms and cheeseteak, please and thank you. And the brunch menu looks insane – the biscuits and gravy are calling me like a siren, to crash upon the Susquehanna’s rocky shores. Won’t you join me?


Sophisticated Dining Has Come to Clayton

Our little Clayton, NY is kind of on fire, you guys. Not only is The Chateau knocking it out over on Route 12E, but right on the water on Riverside Dr. in the village is the newly unveiled DiPrinzio's Kitchen, welcoming diners to a modern setting you might expect in Skaneateles or Saratoga, but almost never around these parts.

Inside, it's bright and airy, with light wood floors, dark wood tables, two walls of windows, and a bar stocked with St. Lawrence Spirits. Basically, River Heaven. You have got to go!

We began our feast with the arancini, which are Italian rice balls, stuffed with cheese, breaded, and deep fried. These babies are a big deal downstate, especially in Staten Island, but I haven't seen them much on Northcountry menus. This is cause for celebration, my Hungries.

The Milanese style risotto is tinted a glorious yellow from saffron, formed around a small cube of (I believe) mozzarella cheese - enough cheese to have a pull when you cut the ball in half, but not so much that the cheese gushes out all over the place when you bite into it. It's classy! No gushing!

They were served in a shallow pool of bright tomato sauce blanketed in a dusting of grated parmesan. Delicious.

Focaccia! Not the standout of the meal, but perfectly passable - airy but also smacking of olive oil flavor and just a little oregano.

We split a Caesar salad of which I didn't get a pic, but which was just about perfect. The Caesar dressing, which can sometimes be too salty or two lemony, was light and well-balanced. It just lightly dressed the romaine lettuce, and shavings of parmesan cheese finished it off beautifully.

We liked that the pizzas were small enough to order several, but still big enough to share. The crust had well-developed flavor and texture - thin, but not so crispy that you miss the chew factor. The spicy pepperoni was offset well by that bright, acidic red sauce.

Gnudi is pronounced like nudie, but it's not quite so risqué. These fluffy gnocchi cousins are made with ricotta cheese and served tre colore, or in a sauce trio of tomato, basil pesto, and alfredo. The pesto stole the show completely, with robust pine nut and parmesan cheese flavors anchored by the floral herb.

We liked the fettuccine alfredo less. The pasta was fresh and delicate, which was a check in the plus column, but the sauce was SO light, it carried almost no flavor at all. There was very little sauce dressing the pasta, and whereas so many other dishes were well-balanced, this one tasted like it was mostly cream with very little cheese. It lacked cheese, salt, and maybe some pepper - mostly, it needed personality. It was the one downfall of our meal.

Carrot cake sheltering under a thick sheath of cream cheese icing completely redeemed the weak pasta dish. This layer cake was moist, with plump raisins and good carrot flavor - not too sweet or overly spiced. The cream cheese icing was equally tart and sweet, and complimented the cake deliciously.

DiPrinzio's makes their cannoli shells fresh, in-house, and fills them to order, to ensure a crunchy product. Need I saw more? Our diners loves them so much, the picture came out blurry.

I am very impressed in DiPrinzio's, especially for a brand new restaurant, and legit excited to eat there when The River is alive and kicking, and the restaurant's waterfront deck is open. The food here isn't perfect yet - sometimes that comes later - but most of our dishes were very well executed, and we enjoyed our meal tremendously.  The service was a little haphazard as well - we had to flag down our server a couple times as she was catering more to regulars - but when she was at our table, she was enthusiastic (though her mangled pronunciation of the word prosciutto will live infamously in our memories for a good while) and friendly.

I give DiPrinzio's Kitchen a seven on the BHS scale, but I'm betting you I revise that score with time as the team finds their rhythm, and The River's beauty elevates the gorgeous interior to even greater heights. You better get your table before the season starts - I'm betting the wait for a table come May will be kind of lengthy. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

PS: They have Taco Tuesdays!!