Fantasy Dishes

Sometimes I peruse a menu before eating out, and wish there was a dish on it that's not on it. Anyone else? My dream dishes are always in keeping with the culinary viewpoint or style of the restaurant, but I often find myself wishing a place I'm planning to go had more pork dishes on offer, or a really wonderful duck entrée with crispy skin, or a dessert with a little bit of salt to offset the sweet.

I thought it would be fun to pose some of these to my favorite restaurants around Upstate New York, because maybe my chef friends need some inspiration! Plus, it's just fun to fantasize about food. Comment below with the dishes you wish your favorite restaurant served!

MJ's Bar and Restaurant - Owego

Fried chicken sandwich on a buttered, toasted Kaiser roll with sweet pickle chips and Cajun cream sauce. The Cajun cream sauce they make at MJ's is utterly fabulous - potently spicy and unctuous, and it would crown a fried chicken sandwich, which is a difficult menu find in these parts, like a total boss.

Gram's Diner - Adams

Tourtiere - which is a Montreal specialty - a double crusted savory pie filled with ground pork, onions, and spices. Served with buttery mashes potatoes, a pork jus, and green beans with toasted almonds and lemon zest.

China Garden - Endicott

I go to this place for lunch all the time. It's right across from my office. I am positive they do not read my blog, but it is very important to me that they begin to make a cheung fun, which is a dim sum dish of steamed rice noodles rolled and served with hot chile oil and scallions. I need this in my life on the regular. Honestly, soup dumplings and scallion pancakes would also be welcome.

Ryan's Lookout - Henderson

Ryan's makes baller shrimp. They're always super sweet and just crisp, because they toss them in rice flour before frying. So I wish they would bring me a big, fat pile of fried shrimp scampi in a skillet of sizzling garlicky, winey, butter, with slabs of toasted Italian bread to slop up all the lemony, buttery sauce once I've scarfed down all the shrimp.

Food and Fire BBQ Taphouse - Johnson City

Well, what do you know? They already make my fantasy dish: BHS's briskett poutine. And it is an awesome mouthful to behold.

Social on State - Binghamton

I love tapas, but when I'm sitting down for a small plates meal, I also want to go old school and have the Spanish tapas classic: pan con tomate. This is just fresh, raw tomato rubbed on crusty, toasted bread, then covered with either paper thin slices of jamon Iberico or Manchego cheese. Simple, but glorious.

Dell'Arco Ristorante - Endicott

I am dying for this place, which serves awesome pizza, arachini, and carbonara, to do a lunchtime porchetta sandwich with salsa verde on it. Pork belly wrapped around pork loin, seasoned with an herbaceous gremolata between the layers, roasted in a scorching hot oven, and served with a refreshing herb, oil, garlic, and lemon pesto on ciabtta? Yessssssssss please.


The Epicenter of the Thousand Islands’ Culinary Rise

When I was a girl, dining out in the Thousand Islands typically meant Alexandria Bay, and it was considered fancy. Bonnie Castle, the Riveredge, or Edgewood dining all meant dressing up – for a wedding or for dinner before prom or some such occasion. Of course, the democratization of good food and restaurants has gone a long way to making dinner with a view into something more accessible to the masses.

In 2018, Alex Bay has some catching up to do in comparison to its once-sleepy neighbor, Clayton. From the always-busy 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel, to the always-delicious Clipper, the elegant Johnston House and the new jewel DiPrinzio’s, Clayton has gotten its act together at exactly the right time. Leading that charge is The Chateau, down Route 12, with the most spectacular views, attentive service, and deliciously upscale cuisine this side of the St. Lawrence.

I’ve been dying to eat at the Chateau, and finally stomped my foot hard enough this past weekend to get my way. Why was that necessary? I think fine dining still has a mountain to climb in the Northcountry in terms of acceptance. When a menu sports words like curry, wasabi, bottarga, and sumac, many folks are intimidated by the threat of ingredients they’ve never tasted and whether they’ll be plunking down $18 for a salad they might not like. That’s not an accusation I’m casting in the direction of the diner nor The Chateau’s experienced executive chef, Christian Ives, but it’s an observation I made first hand as my party took our seats and perused the menu last Saturday night.

But let’s back up to the opening strains of the symphony The Chateau is waiting to play for you. As you enter Fairview Manor, this onetime nunnery will immediately set you at ease and transport you to a more genteel plane. The hearths are decorated with flowers, the 18” thick stone walls are insulated by acoustic panels to create a hushed interior, and the balcony off the main level welcomes you with a panoramic view of the river. The entire restaurant is inviting, clean, and comfortable, and a cocktail at the bar while you wait for the rest of your party to arrive will afford you with an eyeful of the international channel that makes this corner of the world so special.

Service is attentive though not overly formal. I liked that we were asked if we preferred sparkling or still water – a European traditional that’s a nice touch stateside. In addition, we were informed that our table was ours for the evening, inviting us to relax and exhale - no turn-overs expected here. The wait staff also is very patient and knowledgeable about menu questions, and willing to address diners' concerns about those more challenging ingredients. At least two of the guests in our party have more conservative palettes, and our waiter Damien was great about accommodating their requests.

Right out of the gate, the amuse bouche, or “mouth amuser,” of the evening pleased almost everyone at our table. I thought it was an absolute slam-dunk. Pork, cilantro, and an assertive punch of lime tucked into a crunchy, fried wonton garnished with fresh tomato and pickled red onion kicked off our meal with the perfect amount of mmmmmm. One person detected heat in hers, but everyone else tasted a savory dumpling packed with flavor, and were glad for it.

Another crowd pleaser were the dinner rolls, which are usually a pretty hum-drum milestone in a restaurant meal. At The Chateau, the impossibly ethereal, fluffy rolls are brushed with butter and sprinkled with parmesan, and served with a peppery olive oil infused with rosemary and other herbs and seasoned with sea salt. They were irresistible, and really delicious.

The fried green tomato and crab salad dish served as dinner for one of the more conservative of our diners, and while the sumac vinaigrette and saffron promised on the menu worried her, she ended up absolutely loving her meal. Chef Christian is a master at taking a complex suite of ingredients and balancing them perfectly to deliver flavors that are intricate but nuanced. In this dish, the creamy saltiness of the pistachios in the crust of the tomatoes gave them personality which played perfectly against the citrus punch of the lemon and the sumac dressing the jumbo lump crab salad. That acidity counterbalanced the sweetness of the shellfish, and the brightness of the microgreens on top pointed the whole thing up. It was wonderful and light, a fantastic dish if you want to hold on to summer just a moment longer.

Our other picky eater went for the sea bass, despite her concern about wasabi, curry, and crabmeat. But this dish, like the last, was a sonnet rather than slam poetry. The fish was as mild as possible, with a gorgeously moist, delicate texture. The risotto didn’t deliver a curry wallop, but rather a depth of flavor to carry the fish upon – its flowery saffron and earthy curry anchoring the subtle bass.

The beef tournedos also advertised a curry marinade, but didn’t bring with them any of the strong scent or spice of Indian food. The beef was impeccably tender, and well-seasoned, while the lobster on top was buttery and rich. A large portion of mashed potatoes alongside were earthy and creamy, and the garlic red wine reduction was silky darkness upon the tongue.

My order was the duck en croute, and I was enchanted from the first bite until the last. The lavender- duck fat glaze leant fragrance without a flowery taste, and the duck was cooked with a gorgeous blush at the center. The potato/chanterelle mushroom/blue cheese gratin that came under the duck was richness incarnate, and you have got to taste it. Duck is a sweeter meat, so to have the intense umami of the blue cheese and mushrooms with it was just delectable. A little bundle of broccolini alongside brightened up the rich plate, and a maple butter sauce under it reinforced the sweetness and was wonderful with the vegetable.

We couldn’t help but order dessert. One of them was a tableside bananas foster presentation, and you all know how much I love that. Watching the flame of the banana liqueur is such a fun sideshow gag during a meal – and the results were sweet, creamy, and just plain yummy.

Even better was a key lime pie that backed nicely off what can be an either too tart or too sweet confection. This one was extremely creamy, with the piercing citric tang of lime zest, but enough panache in the velvety topping to balance it out.

The peanut butter pie was a masterpiece of textures – lightly crisp layers along with a chewy base and a creamy filling that also somehow avoided an overly saccharine finish that claims so many chocolate and peanut butter efforts.

While we were inhaling all of this amazing food, we also had a magnificent overall experience. Damien kept the drinks fresh and treated us to extra rolls when asked, we had this beautiful view out the windows, and we felt enveloped in the warm atmosphere they’ve taken pains to create at The Chateau. The deft hands at the work in the kitchen created cuisine that was enormously satisfying, never heavy and never fussy, despite the elaborate menu descriptions.

I give The Chateau at Saint Lawrence Spirits a 10 on the BHS scale. I almost never do that, but there really was no way our experience could have been improved – it was delightful. It was one of those evenings that causes you to linger as you step out of the building towards the parking lot, reluctant to bid farewell to friends or to let the spell break. And that’s the real magic of this place – you are lulled by the flavors Ives and his team weave together into a meal here, compounded by excellent wines and cocktails and set to the rhythm of the St. Lawrence River. It’s a heady composition, and it’s one you should add to your list. For a place with castles perched on islands and sailboats decorating every splendid sunset, we're a bit short on magic. This isn't your mother's Thousand Islands, but you should make sure to make it yours.


Satisfy Your CRAVEings in The Cape

I honestly didn't expect to be writing you a post on Cape Vincent. I've been attending the French Festival parade in The Cape for years with my Miss Thousand Islands contestants, and the food scene there has always seemed...meager. There's the cute coffee shop, the fabulous pottery shop, Chateau, and the general store, but the restaurants were, for years, more bars than eateries.

Last year, CRAVE opened right on E. Broadway in the heart of this gorgeous waterfront village, and I'm fairly certain the entire hamlet's resident rejoiced. I had to go for myself and check it out.

CRAVE's website boasts comfort food and crafty cocktails. When we visited, I wasn't presented a cocktail menu, but we enjoyed some comforting foods that were on the creative side, and for that, we rejoiced as well. I started my meal with a Caesar salad replete with homemade dressing and bowtie pasta. The dressing was on the milder side, with neither a pronounced anchovy nor parmesan flavor, but there was plenty of the grated cheese on top to compensate for that salty, nutty flavor. The pasta mixed in with the romaine lettuce leant a chewy texture to the salad, though the croutons were a little stale.

Even before the salad came, our table was graced with a little plate of focaccia squares accompanied by a small dish of garlic oil and one of roasted garlic. They explained the delicious scent of garlic that we could smell as soon as we parked outside the building. The bread was airy and moist, and the roasted garlic smeared on top made this a savory/sweet starter.

One of the fish choices on deck the night we visited was tuna, which we tried blackened, with cole slaw and sweet potato fries. The tuna was cooked just to order (medium rare), and the blackening spice served some assertive salinity and heat. The sweet potato fries and cooling slaw were actually perfecgt foils for the spicy fish, and I have to tell you: the portion size was huge. The entrée was $15, and that piece of fish was flawlessly textured and probably a full six ounces, cooked.

The chicken curry is, simply, a work of art. Okay, okay. It actually looks like a hot mess in the bowl, I admit that, but if you put a bite in your mouth, you will taste the symphony hiding in the chaos. The coconut curry sauce was rich and complex, the veggies were crisp-tender, and the chicken was juicy and tender. I would order this dish again in a heartbeat.

The veal osso bucco arrived with a pleasing shank bone stick out of the bowl. You guys know how I love caveman food. There were plenty of baby carrots in the rich "sangria" demi glace sauce, but I did feel that the sauce could have used a hit of acid right before service, with a sprinkle of sea salt over the meat. It was tender, delicious, but just a hair on the flat side, with all the sweetness of the carrots in there.

I predict that the key lime pie at CRAVE will be a famous dish throughout the Northcountry by the end of this summer. First of all, again, the portion is gigantic. It's almost a whole pie! The graham cracker crust is thick and sweet, the lime filling is tart enough to just pucker your mouth, and there's tons of whipped cream on top and served around the plate. You have got to get your hands on this dessert.

The chocolate soufflé was no slouch, either. Deep and dark, this flourless cake was still light, and not too sweet. There was richness to it without heaviness, which is the mark of a skilled pastry chef.

I will warn you that the charming front dining room at CRAVE is sunny and casually elegant, but also extremely noisy when the restaurant is busy. There are almost no soft surfaces in the room to absorb sound, so if you have trouble with background noise, you may want to sit out on the back deck. Other than that fact, we thoroughly enjoyed our dinner at this new darling of the TI region, and we intend to return for more good eats.

I give CRAVE an eight on the BHS scale, and I hope you can make the drive up to Cape Vincent to try it out yourself this summer! Who woulda thunk it - great food, right in The Cape? My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!


I Like Books So Much, I Wrote One

When I started this blog in 2010, I remember it feeling like an enormous jumping off from my comfort zone. I was putting myself out there in a way my public relations career and all its accompanying writing never had – my name would be attached to every word I published, and with that comes responsibility. I have taken that seriously, and I hope my food writing, both here and for my column in the Watertown Daily Times, has reflected the weight of that over the last eight years.

Despite hundreds of blog posts, I never thought I had a book in me. People have asked me about a cookbook periodically over the years, but recipe generation is not my strong suite. Then, last summer, a thread on Facebook about conspiracy theories got my mind racing. What if there really was a bunker underneath the Denver Airport? Who would inhabit this bunker? Who would choose those inhabitants? What would life be like down there?

It was something I couldn’t put aside once the wheels began to turn. Before I knew it, I had two main characters and the beginning of a plot hastily scrawled in the pages of a blank journal, with scraps of dialogue saved as notes in my phone. By December, I had a first draft. It happened out of the blue, and then suddenly, I had written a book! It’s called The Curated, and I hope that you all will get to read it someday.

The book is not about food, which people who know me from Big Hungry tend to be shocked to hear. It really is a novel about a survival bunker under the Denver Airport, the people who live in it after worldwide floods ravage the Earth, and the group who selected these particular inhabitants for its population.

Of course, there is a chef in the bunker. His name is Bobby Guerrero, and in addition to teaching my main characters how to make carnitas and apple cinnamon ice cream, he wears a series of funny t-shirts throughout the book and is just generally a super friend and a guide to my main characters.

I’m now just about done polishing my manuscript and am beginning the long process of querying literary agents in the quest to get it published. Have you heard stories about how hard this is? Most authors get around 80 rejections before signing with an agent, and then you begin pitching the book to publishers, which means more rejection. I have six rejections so far from the 16 agents I’ve queried. Every rejection stings, even though I know they are normal and part of the callus you need to build as a writer.

It's a slow process. You have to do your research to find an agent who handles your genre of book and is looking for either the subject matter or style of story you’re telling. Then you follow them on Twitter, so you can appeal to them in the right voice in your query letter, hoping you’re not sucking up too much, but also that your letter markets your book to them properly, and that your first few pages are scintillating enough to convince them to request your full manuscript.

It’s like asking 100 people to be your friend, knowing full well the overwhelming majority of them will say, “No thanks, you’re just not what I’m looking for.” All the while, you’re obsessively polishing both your pitch letter and your manuscript so that if and when you get the nod from someone, you won’t full-on panic that it’s not good enough to send.

So if you’ve been wondering why I’ve cut back so much on posting about restaurants around Upstate New York and the rest of the country, now you know. I’ve poured 75,000 words into The Curated, and it's tapped me out when it comes to describing even the tastiest treats from around our state. I’m not abandoning blogging, but I’ve really found something I’m passionate about in this novel writing game, and I hope, if I ever do get a book deal, you’ll read it and love it! 

If you'd like to keep up on my journey as I seek a book deal, make sure you're following me @BigHungryShelby on both Instagram and Twitter. It turns out Twitter is really where it's at in terms of agents and publishers, so I'm sharing much of the process there, and trying to grown my following to show agents that I can handle marketing a book when the time comes. I appreciate your engagement on the blog, and I hope you'll be interested enough in The Curated to come along for the ride!


The Weck Diaries

I've brought you many posts from Staten Island over the years, where the Miss New York Pageant was held. Most of you probably know that I have volunteered for a long time with the Miss America Organization, serving as the executive director of Miss Thousand Islands. Traveling for pageants is one of the ways I have been able to see so much of New York State and bring so many exceptional restaurants to life through Big Hungry Shelby these past eight years.

This year, Miss New York moved to Buffalo, and was held at the beautiful Shea's Performing Arts Center downtown. The venue switch was a perfect opportunity for the Miss New York Class of 2018 queens to visit Niagara Falls and Oishei's Children's Hospital, and for me to sample some of the best eats the Queen City has to offer.

In accordance with the prophecy, we first went to Anchor Bar. Yes, yes, it's a tourist restaurant, but how can one judge other wings before one has had the original? The place is both smaller than I had imagined it to be, but also much easier to access and with better service. I expected hoards of tourists, but we were shown to our table straight away on a Thursday at lunchtime.

The wings were classic - straight Frank's Red Hot sauce with a hefty dose of melted butter. We split 20 of the large wings, medium-hot, crispy but saucy. They were very nearly identical to the ones Shawn and I make at home, served with lots of crunchy celery, creamy blue cheese and ranch dressings on the side.

It's worth noting something the Food Network shows on Anchor Bar don't tell you - there's a whole menu here, from pizza to sandwiches and every fried appetizer imaginable. My mom had a turkey sandwich on rye with a house made potato salad she absolutely raved about - the potatoes in it mostly mashed, to give it a fluffy, creamy texture. So if you're not a wing lover, but someone in your group is, you can still find good eats at Anchor Bar.

The next day, it was Gabriel's Gate, a cool old row house in the Allentown neighborhood, for lunch. Gabe's, as our Buffalo guides Kristina and Pat call it, is known for French onion soup and poutine, but it was too hot for soup on the day we visited, and Kristina is dairy free. She and I split an order of fries and gravy, which was pretty damn tasty. While the fries were standard freezer fare, the gravy was rich and beefy - very yummy.

The beef on weck - Buffalo's favorite sandwich and a regional dish somewhat overshadowed by the more-famous wings - at Gabe's is something really special. The beef on said sandwich was uncommonly tender, juicy and shaved, with just a blush of pink rareness. The salt on top of the kimmelweck roll was coarse, and there was just enough caraway seed joining it to add earthy complexity without overpowering the meat flavor. A little cup of horseradish was served alongside. It was fabulous.

The wings at Gabe's are less greasy than Anchor Bar's, and I believe there's a bit more going on in the sauce besides just Frank's and butter. Perhaps a little vinegar and just maybe some pepper? I'm not sure, but I can tell you they are delicious, and what many people consider to be Buffalo's best.

We popped over to Elmwood street to shop that afternoon and had excellent iced coffee at The Spot, which is another favorite of our hosts. I really wish we had more really good coffee shops in the Southern Tier - The Spot made me crave great coffee from a independent shop.

For real deal, classic beef on weck, you need to hit up Schwabl's, in West Seneca. I loved everything about this tiny tavern, from the fact that they had Tom and Jerry's right on the menu (!), to the pickled beets and housemade, thick dill spears served with every meal. The beef on weck here was hand-carved, with thick, rare slices of juicy roast beef. The salt on the roll was finer grained than the one at Gabe's, and the caraway seeds fewer. It was a chewier, heartier sandwich, and the acidic, sweet/tart, wonderful German potato salad served with it was so delicious I don't even know how to describe it - I can only explain my jealousy. I want the recipe!

My parents split a turkey sandwich and Kristina enjoyed a ham sandwich, and these meats were house-roasted and hand-carved as well. Everything here was simply done but old school and high quality. It was one of my favorite meals of the trip, and I would not miss Schwabl's on any visit to Buffalo.

Our big dinner out was at Toutant, right downtown. This is newer than the Buffalo institutions we visited, but if they keep up food like this, it will be around a long time. As long as you don't mind climbing stairs - the dining rooms are up them.

Toutant boasts Southern cuisine, and the pork hush puppies and biscuits with blackberry jam (house made, of course) that began our meal certainly proved right off the bat that someone in the kitchen had real roots in the South.

I'm pretty sure the biscuits were made with lard, you guys. They were ridiculously yummy, and the jam served alongside was bursting with fruit and black pepper - totally delicious. We didn't even need butter.

Do you like muffaletta sandwiches? If you're smart, you do. The one at Toutant is especially decadent, served on fluffy garlic focaccia, with melted cheese and olive salad.

My oysters Rockefeller were lighter than most iterations, the gorgeous, sweet shellfish just barely cooked. The topping was just breadcrumbs and herbs with a little butter, and it was complimentary to the seafood rather than overpowering.

A side dish of collard greens were cooked perfectly, with a peppery, acidic liquor that perfectly countered some of the richer dishes we had ordered, while a tiny cast iron skillet of candied yams were literally like candy - deliciously sweet and soft, with a bruleed marshmallow topping.

Even my mom's shrimp salad with house ranch was something special, the dressing creamy and herbaceous, and the shrimp sweet, with fresh bacon bits topping the colorful dish.

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that we ate impeccably in Buffalo. A lot of people think of it as a food town solely based on wings, but if you don't include awesome pickles, tart pickled beets, delicious potato salad, and achingly good biscuits in your visit, plus the venerable beef on weck, you're really missing out. It's no wonder they call it the Queen City - I certainly ate like a queen all weekend! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!