Happy Food

I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m not sure I’ve ever really explored my concept of happy food on Big Hungry. I’ve described those completely happy moments for sure, when you lean back in your chair in a sunny dining room or on a waterfront deck, run your hand over your full tummy, sip a libation and exclaim, “I am so happy right now.” That’s always a mark of a great restaurant for me, one where ambiance, food, service and atmosphere have all come together to render me relaxed and slightly giddy with hedonistic pleasure.
But happy food is a bit different. What I consider to be happy food is something that makes you feel that giddiness and a slight high while you’re consuming it and immediately thereafter, despite your surroundings. Something that makes you feel just a little more alive, like no one on Earth is eating as well as you are in that moment, and  a little bit drunk with the privilege of devouring such decadence. For me, this high most often comes in the form of spicy food, and even more specifically, Asian food. There’s something about the way spicy is delivered in Asian cuisine that really revs me up. I’m almost always happy eating sushi, and the unique spice that comes along with wasabi, spicy mayo, and sriracha sauce brings about a particular high that my body chooses to mark with the hiccups, and that my mind equates with an inebriated bliss.
Heretofore, I’ve never tested this Asian spice soft spot with Korean food. Frankly, I just haven’t had the opportunity. I was raised in an Episcopalian household. Casseroles, Americanized Italian food and meat and potatoes were the stock in trade. If someone brought a bean dish to a church potluck, that was exotic. There was no sriracha in Mom’s pantry. As my palate has widened and middle age has begun taunting me with fine lines and decreasing metabolism, I am starting only now to discover the intricate wonders of Asian cuisine, and especially the spicy depths it so often relies upon.
My friend Jill, or Big Hungry Jill to you, is well versed in such things. So when she visited a couple weekends ago, I asked her if she would be my food Sherpa as I climbed Mt. Bi Bim Bap (psst, that’s Korean food to the uninitiated!). BHJ is good people, so she obliged, and we lunched that Saturday at Man Nam Korean Restaurant, in Vestal, right by Binghamton University. Because the culinary gods hate me, Man Nam doesn’t have a website, but here’s its Yelp page if you want to take a gander: http://www.yelp.com/biz/man-nam-korean-restaurant-vestal

As this was my first adventure with Korean food, Jill and I sussed out our order together, deciding to split an appetizer, a noodle soup, and one entrée. But before I describe the food, a few details: Man Nam isn’t fancy. The comments on Yelp are true – from a décor standpoint, this college student-centric eatery verges on shabby. So don’t choose this for date night. Also, curiously, on both visits I made there, the side dishes and appetizers hit my table before the drinks. The second time, I had to remind the waitress to bring my beverages. Thirdly, I want to go ahead and warn you, as this was my first foray into Korean food, I’m not pretending I’m an expert in this cuisine. I am a novice, and can only share with you my first impressions on a foreign gastronomy. For that reason, I’m not going to grade Man Nam on the BHS scale, but rather describe the flavors and textures as best I can, so you can evaluate if you’d like to give it a try.
Jill and I began with duk bok ki, from the appetizer menu, which was described as stir fried rice cakes with scallions, onions, carrots and cabbage in a sweet and spicy house sauce. Let’s address the rice cakes first, which are not the crunchy, airy, Styrofoam-adjacent affairs you buy when embarking on a new diet. These were small cylinders of soft rice dough, like thick pasta made with rice flour rather than semolina. They were very bland, which had its place in the heavily spiced, complex broth, but I didn’t especially care for them. I’m betting these are a comfort food thing for people raised eating them, but I could have done without their gummy texture. And I don’t think they were actually stir fried, which would have put some color on them. They seemed steamed or boiled to me. The sauce, on the other hand, had that quintessential happy food mélange of Asian flavors: spice, sweet, sour, creamy but still clean, acidic without any bite. I don’t know how they do it, but it’s wonderful. The redness could have come from tomato, but there were definitely chiles in there, and maybe some coconut milk? The spice had me hiccupping, so you know I was happy.

At the same time as the duk bok ki, our ramen and rice dish came out. This was a more familiar dish, ramen noodles and more rice cakes, this time in disc form, with onion, carrots and egg in a broth very similar to Japanese dashi, which is made from kelp and fermented fish. OK, I know fermented fish sounds gross to you hamburger-and-fries-loving Americans, but I swear, Asians do mysterious and wonderful things with dried fish, fish sauce, and fermented fish in ways that add tons of savory flavor without overt fishiness. This soup dish was plentiful and fabulous, with another kick of fiery chile and salty soy. The broth was simply addictive, and we kept stealing the bowl from each other to slurp more of it into our greedy maws.

Served before these two stunners were the traditional Korean banchan, or side dishes. The one you’ll recognize is kimchi, which is spicy fermented cabbage, in the far right of the photo. Jill got this little bowl to herself, because kimchi doesn’t do anything for me – that faint spoiled taste that comes from the fermenting process just doesn’t sit well in my palate. But I enjoyed the mung bean sprouts and pickled zucchini as nice, cooling palate cleansers for all the spice in the two starter dishes.

We ordered the bi bim bap in a stone bowl for our entrée, but unfortunately for us, the restaurant filled up just as we ordered this, and the back-up in the kitchen didn’t jive very well with the schedule we were on. After our appetizers arrived, about 35 minutes elapsed before we finally gave up and cashed out, telling our waiter we couldn’t wait any longer for our stone bowl. At that point, the cook came out and kind of yelled at us a little bit in broken English. This wasn’t my favorite part of the experience, but again, we couldn’t wait any longer for the rest of our meal. Dear angry chef, don’t yell at me because you’re in the weeds and I can’t wait around all day for rice and veggies. Love, Shelbs
On the bright side, I had last Friday off, and was able to go back and order the bi bim bap lunch special. I did forget to order it in the stone bowl, and I’m kind of annoyed the waitress didn’t ask me if I wanted that way. According to Jill, it’s leaps and bounds better with the crunchy rice that sizzles on the hot stone bowl and adds texture to the overall dish. My lunch special came with miso soup, which was pretty ordinary. Savory broth, little chunks of tofu, some scallion, not served particularly hot, which is, for some reason, quite common with miso soup. The bi bim bap didn’t make me nearly as happy as the rice cake dish or the ramen soup had before. It’s a generous serving of white rice topped with sections of pickled vegetables and a small serving ground beef, and crowned with a fried egg. I think when you get it in Korea, the egg is raw, but leave it to boring NYS food regulations to put the kibosh on a little bit of culinary daring.

Honestly, while this dish was filling, and I loved the runny egg yolk with the rice and beef (why is egg yolk such a magical ingredient?), the overall dish did not impress me that much. The zesty, thick, chile paste that came alongside in a squeeze bottle certainly added much-needed personality, but I prefer the complexity of Asian sauces and broths to this sort of stir-fried, self-assembled food. This was fine, serviceable, but not my “happy food.” That said, if you’re looking for a non-scary entrant into Korean gastronomy or are being dragged along to a Korean joint and have no interest in testing your taste buds, go for this dish.
I will reiterate that I’m not scoring Man Nam, because I am by no means an authority on Korean cookery. That said, I will go there again, and I’d like to work my way through more of this lengthy menu. They have a short rib dish called kai bi that I will be trying at a future date, and I’d also like to sample the famous bulgoki, which is thinly sliced beef in garlic soy sauce with onions and carrots. I just read a quote from quirky Michelle Williams that fits perfectly how I feel about trying this new food, “Maybe when you see something different for the first time, you don’t know how to categorize it. It doesn’t really fit with anything else.”
That’s pretty much how I feel about this chow, which makes me happy, but which I find so hard to describe in way that will make you also want to taste it. It’s exciting, I know that. Sampling those intermingled flavors of salty, sweet, spicy and sour gives me little frissons of pleasure that are hard to translate to the page. I think they’re something you just have to experience yourself, something only the individual can deem “happy,” or just plain “foreign.” To be sure, there are folks reading this who will say, “pizza and wings make me happy enough; I don’t need to travel outside my comfort zone to get cheap thrills from lunch.” To you, I acknowledge this reality. But there are those who find great satisfaction in experiencing new things and exotic flavors, and for them, I recommend Man Nam and restaurants like it. Or, just go out there and find the food that makes you feel that way, then come back here and tell us about it!
Join me on Twitter @BigHungryShelby for more servings of fun, and join our Big Hungry Shelby group on Facebook random thoughts and extra content. If you’d like to purchase a BHS t-shirt and wear your hunger loud and proud, tell me how to contact you in the comments, below, and we can do business. My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!   

Man NAM Korean Restaurant on Urbanspoon


Lofty Update

Just wanted to update you guys...I was balancing ye old checkbook and discovered that my waitress at http://loftat99.com/ must have decided she did a really super job waiting our table last Tuesday evening, because in addition to the cash tip Melinda and I left on the table there, she upcharged my credit card an extra $15 after I had signed the receipt. Way to help yourself out there, girlfriend.

I have written to the restuarant's owner about this, but in the meantime, if you decide to try Loft out, you may want to pay in cash. Oh, and I'm downgrading their score on the BHS scale from a 7.5 to a three. We'll see what happens if/when they resolve the error.

Edit 1/24/12: The owner, Becca, at Loft quickly and pleasantly resolved this issue, refunding my card the $15 I was overcharged. Really happy with this resolution, and am upgrading the score to a seven on the BHS scale!


99 Problems, but a Loft Ain’t One

Happy humpday, Big Hungries! How’s 2012 treating you so far? I had my Miss America viewing party over the weekend, welcoming about 10 ladies into my home for yummy treats and wine, and am happy to report that Miss New York came in second runner-up to Miss America, who is from Wisconsin! So proud of the way Kaitlin represented us out in Vegas, spreading her passion for an end to bullying in our schools, and impressing everyone with her intelligence, grace and talent. Go New York!
I’m left with a house in need of cleaning and a blog in need of a food review. And I have a good one for you this week, folks. While I was hoping to tell you about the Binghamton area’s only Korean restaurant Man Nam, we had a wee SNAFU there on Saturday that left my review incomplete. Undaunted, Melinda and I ventured out into the balmy January night yesterday to sample the wares at the new The Loft at 99, in downtown Binghamton. This sleek, contemporary space opened about two months ago on Court St., and if the scuttle at my salon is any indication, is causing a stir in the right direction.
Our first impression was good. This narrow but spacious wood-dominated space is gleaming, while still being warm and inviting. We chose to be seated in the loft area of Loft, because it seems like seats near the window might be chilly, and let’s face it: Court St? Not exactly a scenic view. But the view from the loft platform was really nice – looking out over the bar, you feel the expansiveness of the height in the restaurant.
It was a little dim for photography. Dim enough that the table of ladies next to us took out a flashlight in order to view their check. Also, there’s no salt or pepper on the tables – a sign of a confident chef who knows his flavors are there and doesn’t want his patrons messing with them. Our bottle of wine, a Chilean sauvignon blanc called Natura, was bone dry and punchy with acidity, a fantastic foil that stood up to all the zest we were about to order.
We started with two appetizers: the baked polenta cake with braised swiss chard and garlic, and grilled tenderloin caprese. Right out of the gate, we were impressed. The polenta has tremendous texture, with none of the mush so often present in restaurant polenta presentations (ahem, Moxie). The greens were mellow and the roasted whole cloves of garlic were sweet and fragrant – this was savory in excess, without the heft. The dish was so different than your typical starter, assertive in flavor but light in hand.

The grilled tenderloin accompanying the caprese salad was terrific – tender and lightly smoky, with good beef flavor. The caprese was very straightforward, with roma tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, but the balsamic reduction smeared on the plate was done really well, syrupy and sweet. The basil pesto on the other side was fine and pretty ordinary. I confess, while creating the perfect bite of tenderloin, tomato, cheese, and two sauces made for a delicious mouthful, I was surprised at how straightforward this presentation was. From the menu description, I thought maybe the beef would be stacked with the tomato and mozz, perhaps, or maybe the tomato or cheese would be marked off on the grill along with the meat. What was nice about this interpretation was that the beef was warm while the salad was cool, which was a nice play on the palate.
The entrees were only slightly less successful. I was absolutely psyched to order the slow cooked pork shoulder with “pinch” buns and asian-style condiments, while Melinda struggled a bit before deciding on the orechietta with pesto cream sauce. My dish was impressive at first sight: a mound of pulled pork shoulder, lettuce cups, two snowy-white dim sum buns, plus a thin ginger-scallion sauce, a thick soy-tinged BBQ sauce, and a chunky mélange of picled onions and mushrooms. As it tends to be, the pork was lush and rich. The BBQ was fantastic, tangy with soy and spicy as well. The pinch buns, as the menu called them, were lumpy counterparts to what you get at dim sum palaces when you order pork buns – steamed, bland, a mere vehicle for all of the other flavors. The only downfall here was the pork itself – it was good, but not great. As a girl who went to college  in North Carolina, and counts braised pork shoulder as one of her favorite dishes to make for a crowd, I was disappointed with how stringy and greasy the meat was. It was as if the pork was undercooked a bit, left to sit in its own cooking liquid, then flat-top reheated in that fatty liquid. And for $21, a dish with a protein as inexpensive as pork shoulder should be flaw-free.

Melinda’s pasta, little ears of orechiette, was shrouded in a gentle pesto cream sauce and crowned with pine nuts and goat cheese. The artichokes in the mix were a fresh addition, and were excellent. The sundried tomatoes, a little 1997, but fine. The goat cheese was creamy, decadent and luscious, but completely overpowered the pesto, which is a bit of an issue when the dish is billed as a pesto dish. A lighter hand with the goat would balance this dish a little better. It was delicious, and worth ordering, but not exactly what she had expected.

We finished on a high note with novel and yummy desserts: buttermilk panna cotta with pistachios and pomegranate seeds, and cinnamon sugar donuts with vanilla mascarpone cheese and apple butter. The panna cotta couldn’t touch the pumpkin version I had at the culinary institute last year, but it was light, creamy and tangy with the unique flavor profile of the buttermilk. The pomegranate seeds and pistachios on the plate, as well as a smear of what might have been a sour cherry gastrique, were cool, unique accompaniments. The preserved cumquats we liked less, but for citrus lovers, this would have been a great palate cleanser for the meal.
We preferred the cinnamon donuts, wich were soft and warm, completely elevated by the thick, outstanding mascarpone cheese whipped with vanilla, and the cool apple butter. Heaping the two toppings on each bite of donut was like biting down into a fresh, glazed apple firitter, but better.
I should add I ordered a side of mashed potatoes with my entree which were superfluous, appetite-wise, but strong nonetheless. They were chunky and skin-on, replete with loads of butter and heavy cream. Very satisfactory.
Our final score was a 7.5 on the BHS scale. I would absolutely add The Loft at 99 to my list of must-eat places in Binghamton, but you need to expect somewhat trendy food for prices above what some in this area will like paying for such fare. I will add that portions were generous – you won’t leave here hungry. But while the appetizers sort of knocked our socks off with their inventiveness and assertive flavors, the entrees didn’t quite deliver the same impressive flair. The Loft is close, but a little more fine-tuning is needed before I’m going to award them a cigar. It’s a simply fabulous atmosphere, and would be tailor-made for girls nights out or office dinners on the town, but for serious foodies, there are some minor flaws.
Join me on Twitter @BigHungryShelby for all the juicy details on where I’m eating in this New Year, and sign up for our Big Hungry Shelby group on Facebook for expanded content and random thoughts. How are you liking the new digs, by the way? I hope you’re enjoying the look and feel of my new Blogspot home! My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!

Loft at Ninety Nine on Urbanspoon


Winter's Block

Let me make this clear: I don’t have writer’s block, per se. I could probably prattle on for several pages about nothing if need be, effortlessly. I have the words at my disposal. It’s food I don’t have this week, Big Hungries, or more specifically, food served at a restaurant that I can then review here. Once again, it’s January, a time to munch on lunches comprised of hummus and raw veggies, plastic sacks of green, seedless, grapes, and vegetarian miso soup with shitake mushrooms. It’s a time to stare obsessively at pictures of the Miss America contestants in Las Vegas and dream of rocking a dress that short:

I stayed in my house most of the weekend, working on silly craft projects and organizing the house, post-holidays. Oh, and getting ready for my annual Miss America party, which is this Saturday. Hence, the art project:

Something tells me on one is going to be lining up to pay for my one-of-a-kind creations anytime soon. Anyhoodle, my local pageant in the Miss America system survives on the monetary generosity of girls who like glitter, so I made this box to encourage them.
Making a rhinestone crown out of various sticker sheets from Michaels is time-consuming, so instead of getting my butt out of the house and eating so I could produce an interesting blog for you this week, I made, like chicken fingers and spaghetti over the weekend. BOR-ING!
My lack of content did get me thinking about the places I’ve been meaning to review, but still haven’t eaten at with enough frequency, or collected enough photos of, to offer a comprehensive picture yet. Places like Romalato’s, in Watertown. I have two lines written in my little BHS notebook about it, a couple of errant photos, and no real content. Another of these is Owego Original Italian, in, you guessed it, Owego. Last spring, I took two terrific pictures of a fantastic lunch there, but two items does not a review make.  I apologize, and I will get back to both of them ASAP so I can share their wonders with you.
I thought instead, this week, we could discuss mail ordering food. I know some of you out there in the blogosphere are shy about internet shopping. I consider it a necessity when you live so far afield of a major metropolitan area. As promised in my Big Hungry Awards post, yesterday I ordered some delicious green chile sauce from my friends at the Santa Fe Ole Food Company. I can’t wait to make pork chile verde later on this month!

Another favorite send-away of mine, which I’ve written to you about before is Vosges Chocolates, from which I received a large delivery Monday. Do not doubt me when I tell you that their caramel marshmallows could drive away the toughest case of Seasonal Affective Disorder an Upstate winter can conjure. The caramel actually oozes out above the homemade, soft, vanilla-infused, cloud-like marshmallow! Send some of their sinful bacon caramel toffee to a friend, and you may receive proposals of marriage and the like. I have some of this on hand as a prize for one of the games at my party this weekend, and I’m already jealous of whomever wins it.

Something that has caught my eye recently is Gilt Taste. Gilt.com is an invite-only site usually touting sample sale luxury goods of the fashion variety. But with this new site, they’re hawking gourmet foods to make you drool, including cake that comes in a jar, which has absolutely captivated me. I must have some. This site also publishes recipes from the likes of Ruth Reichel, so I’m in good company with my fascination. Check it out when you need a gift for the gourmand in your life who has everything. I bought some white cheddar and truffle oil popcorn from here last year, and enjoyed it immensely.
Another culinary cult item that has been blowing up on Twitter for the past couple months, is currently enjoying a premo locale in my refrigerator, and graced the gift baskets of two foodies on my Christmas list is Bacon Marmalade. I have stirred this sticky-sweet and salty jam into oatmeal, added it to sautéing green beans, eaten it straight up on a cracker, and smeared it onto a breakfast sandwich. In NYC, our hipster friends are eating it over ice cream. Isn’t the world MAD with decadence? The versatility of this ingenious item is its biggest asset.

Mail order chicken pot pie is next on my culinary mail order to-do list. Mindy Kaling, who moonlights as the hilarious Kelly Kapour on The Office but whose main purpose in my life is amusing me via her genius blog, The Concerns of Mindy Kaling, recommended this item last year. I hope someone orders it for me: Dean and Deluca Chicken Pot Pie. Also in my future: macarons. Not macaroons, the coconut haystacks enrobed in chocolate, but macarons, the delicate French cookies in imaginative flavors, which I wanted to buy at the Apple Pie Bakery in December, but from which Shawn dissuaded me. Never trust a boyfriend who talks you out of cookies!

OK, you guys, I just scrolled back up and looked at the picture of Miss New York, and now I feel all guilty about prattling on about my pot pie and macaron fantasies for pages and pages. I’m going to eat some grapes and adjourn this party until next week. Maybe by then, I’ll have a real topic for ya.Wah-wah. My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!    


A Cup O’ Kindness Yet

Happy New Year, Big Hungries! Like many of you, this is a week of penance for me, food-wise. I spent Monday of this week braising Swiss chard, making crockpot chili with lovely dried black beans, and cranking out healthy, whole-grain porridge to use as a base for breakfasts this week.
None of those items is particularly scintillating, I realize. But there are lots of other exciting things to chat about this week, including the fact that I am currently in the process of moving Big Hungry Shelby – including archival posts – over to Blogger/Blogspot. NNYorker.com has been a wonderful home for BHS these past two years, but I’m looking to expand my capabilities for personalization, photos, and monetization, for which Blogspot seems to be the standard. So pop on over to http://bighungryshelby.blogspot.com/ and bookmark it! I’ll still let you know about new posts via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, but you should find better quality pictures going forward, plus an easier comments process and more variety, visually. I’m looking forward to playing with this new platform and really making it my own, and I hope we can continue to develop an active community of Big Hungries in this new corner of the Blogosphere.
While we’re all busy with our cleanses, detoxes, low carb and no alcohol resolutions, I’d like to take this chance to talk about a newfound holiday obsession I’m late on the train for: Tom and Jerrys. This NNY holiday staple is an eggnog-adjacent, creamy, hot toddy. It has long been served at The Crystal in Watertown, but my Dad and I went to The Paddock Club during Christmas week for my initiation. These concoctions are made from a sugar and egg-heavy batter poured over a shot of brandy and warmed up with boiling water. The result is frothy, sweet, potent and warming – absolutely delicious. We may be past the holiday season, but I implore you to Google a recipe and mix up a bunch this weekend. Melinda and I made a batch last week and enjoyed them while watching The Help on Blu-ray. A delightful combination!

Hot toddy

In addition to learning a new cocktail over the holidays, I received some really fantastic gifts. Two are most notable in this forum: a cool, metal golfer who holds a bottle of wine for us on our bar cabinet, and a hand-decorated “Auntie Big Hungry Shelby” apron from my beautiful niece Georgia and handsome nephew Mason. Here is the holiday version of the wine holder:

Santa Booze wants to buy you a drink

…and the awesome apron, for which I thank sister-in-law Liz and sister Mary:

Seriously, how cool is that apron? I love it so much.

In other news, if you’re looking to get yourself a little post-Christmas gift, consider the lunch crock, from Crock-Pot. You take your lunch to work in it, plug it in in the morning, and your food is warm by noontime! I received mine right before Christmas, but used it for the first time this week, and my chili was piping hot at 11:30 yesterday! Moreover, you can leave the plastic warming crock at work, and just carry the insert to and from home – so convenient. I wholeheartedly endorse this product, and I’m sure Crock-pot Corporation has never heard of a Big Hungry anything.

A hot crock o’ lunch

Now that a new year and a new blogging home are upon us, I’m excited to get back into the swing of things with restaurant reviews and travel recommendations. Over the break, my parents and I celebrated Mom’s retirement with dinner at Fireside in Black River. Oh boy, have things gone downhill there since I last reviewed it! Gone were the delightful popovers and strawberry butter and in their place were an undercooked baked potato alongside a tough, lukewarm, prime rib not even served with au jus. Neither of my parents enjoyed their meals, either, and despite our complaints, no money was taken off our bill. We had dessert there the month prior with family friends and I didn’t care for that, either, but wasn’t going to mention it here since we hadn’t sampled a full meal. Well, now I have, and I’m comfortable sharing that it’s off my list of good places in Watertown, at least until I hear they’ve staffed up with a real executive chef.
So welcome back, my friends. Enjoy these first few days of the new year. Start an exercise regime; go on that austerity budget; enjoy using up your gift cards! Pop on over to Blogspot and let me know what you think of the new digs, please. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter (@BigHungryShelby) and join our Big Hungry Shelby group on Facebook! My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!    


Big Hungry Awards 2011

The stockings have been hung by the chimney with care. At night, visions of sugarplums dance in our heads. That’s right, girls and boys, it’s the holiday season. Make sure the overdraft protection is in place on your checking account and your house is stocked with scotch tape. Around these parts, the shopping is finished and the cards have been sent out. I gave up baking cookies long ago, because there’s no need to inflict that misery on people at Christmastime. So that means my idle hands are the playthings of the second annual Big Hungry Awards! Gird your loins, peeps, because something yummy this way comes.
Again, I will remind you that while I am happy to hand out accolades, I have not as yet figured out the monetization (is that a word?) of Big Hungry Shelby, and therefore, there is no actual award. Restaurateurs: I will give you a hug next time I stop in your establishment.

First up, as with any great meal: Best Appetizer. Just recently, you may have read my post about Shawn’s and my trip to the Culinary Institute of America. It was a dream-like day, in which I spontaneously pronounced my love for Shawn at several intervals, did a lot of gasping and running to things which were exciting to me, and ingested many times over the USDA’s caloric recommendation for a human my size. There were many, many items that tickled my taste buds that glorious day, but one of the best was the pumpkin flan appetizer at the campus’ Italian restaurant Caterina de’ Medici. The flan itself was unparalleled in texture – airy but still dense with fresh squash flavor, and the little canels of goat cheese served on the side were hands-down the freshest, creamiest examples of goat cheese I have ever tasted. I would eat this every day, which is a good indicator of a fabulous dish.

Goat cheese so snowy white, it barely shows up against the plate

The next award is for Best Bacon. You knew this was coming, didn’t you? Now, this would go, hands-down to the Blue Duck Tavern’s pork belly dish I had in Washington, DC in October, except that I feel like granting BHS awards to non-New York restaurants counters the whole mission of the blog. I’m really here to highlight local New York businesses, not gallivant all over God’s creation and point out all the places you can’t go. That’s why this is instead going to the house-cured pork belly dish, again at the Culinary Institute, at the Apple Pie Bakery Café. Talk about a bowl of something good! A base of coarse ground Anson Mills white grits, topped with savory chunks of braised pork belly (bacon’s less salty older brother), a perfectly over-easy egg, and a house made chile sauce to kick all that luxurious fat in the behind. I moaned when I took the first bite…and the last.

This dish lives only a couple hours from me. I need to visit it more often?

There was only one choice for Best Dessert of 2011. Over the summer, my parents and I were lucky to score a gorgeous table at a pretty little restaurant in Clayton, Bella’s Bistro. The kitchen there was led by the talented Gabe Aubertine and his sous chef Andy Wehrle, a team committed to bringing Top Chef-quality food to the Northcountry. Mark my words, folks, one or both of these rapscallions will end up with a James Beard Award in the next few years. Anyway, they made me the vegan nightmare, a mash-up of maple ice cream, chocolate-covered bacon strips, and churro-style crispy pastry batons that scarred me for life as far as desserts are concerned. It was epic, and it was delicious. Unfortunately, I don’t believe Gabe will be returning to Bella’s for another season, but stay tuned for his next move. You better believe I will be following it.

The name of this dish just cracks me up

Best Cocktail is something I had over the summer, but never had a chance to really share with you, Big Hungries. You know I’m a fan of all things at the Sheldrake Point Vineyards, in Ovid, NY, including the winery’s lovely restaurant, Simply Red Bistro. Over the summer, I introduced this enclave of good wine and good food to Big Hungry Lindsay’s friends when I hosted her bachelorette party here in the Southern Tier. Several of the ladies ordered the lavender lemonade – sans alcohol – and I could not believe how scrumptious it was. Unlike lavender-scented bath items, which are what I assumed this drink would taste and smell like, the lavender hints served to add an herbal, ethereal quality to the tart lemonade. It would have been simply fabulous with a splash of vodka, sitting outside on the patio, enjoying sunset over the Cayuga Lake.

Ain’t no Countrytime

Next up, the award for Best Ambiance….struggling with this one a bit. I’ve had many moments in the past calendar year where I leaned back, cocktail or wine in hand, and muttered, “I am so happy right now,” which is my usual barometer for good ambiance. At Forno Bistro in Saratoga Springs, I drunk in the beautiful surroundings with a kind of sophisticated appreciation. Seated on the patio at South Fin Grill in Staten Island, watching a newly-married bride and groom lead their loved ones down the beach, I hadn’t a care in the world. And at Café Mira, in Adams, I admired the pressed tin ceiling, beautiful balconied seating area and warm fireplace. We had terrific service at all three, but I’m going to have to award this one to Forno Bistro. Everywhere you look there is a feast for the eyes, we were fawned and fussed over from the moment we arrived, including chats with the chef and owner, and the food didn’t let down its end of the bargain at any juncture.

So happy…at Forno

September was a rough month. I turned 34 (seriously, how can that even be true?), my place of work and entire community were flooded, it was a lot. But the Best Surprise of 2011 also brightened my door, in the form of a birthday box of goodies from Big Hungry Laura in Albuquerque, NM. The best thing in that surprise box of sauces and salsa was Green Chile Sauce from Santa Fe Ole Food Company. In New Mexico, they put chile sauce – either red or green – on just about everything. Eggs, tacos, burritos, soups, stews, beans and greens all come covered, smothered, graced and laced with these magical elixirs. When traveling in New Mexico, just about anything you order, the waitress will ask you, “red or green?” If you’re cool, you answer “green,” if you’re a heat-seeker, you answer “red,” and if you’re really, really hip, “Christmas,” will net you a plate featuring both boisterous sauces. To best utilize your green chile sauce, get yourself a pork butt, cut it into a 1- 2 inch dice (discarding any overly fatty bits, but you want some fat), sear it off over high heat in canola oil, then drain off your fat, pour in the entire jar of sauce and braise at barely a simmer for a couple hours. You will get insane chile verde pork for tacos, burritos, juevos rancheros, migas, or any other Mexican delicacy you can image. It’s killer.

It’s less green that you think it will be

Hand in hand with the best surprise comes the Best Blogger Perk of 2011. From time to time, companies send me goodies to review. While I make no promises to gush about such things, I’ve found that mostly, these goodies really are good. This fall, one such package arrived from O’Kroft Family Foods, out in Texas. An assortment of Willie B’s Texas Salsa was inside, and I’ve found the fresco variety to be everything I like in a good jarred salsa. That is, bright, fresh flavors mimicking a homemade pico de gallo, with cilantro, lime and tons of good tomatoes. If you like to dance with the devil in the pale moonlight, the haberno salsa is for you. I made a recent batch of my Triplett Dip (queso fundido) with this, and set the mouths of everyone within a five mile radius en fuego. I just wish the salsa verde had been included. I may have to order a jar.

Best Entrée of 2011 is another nail-biter. It’s so hard to pick just one! Everything from the DeAngelo pasta purses at Wise Guys Pizza and Pasta in Chaumont to the harvest dog and poutine at the Hops Spot in Sackets delighted me. I’ve toyed with awarding this honor (heh) to either Forno Bistro, for the spectacular braised lamb shank and polenta, or to Café Mira for the osso bucco made with so much care and finesse. But then, what about the braised oxtail at the CIA? Name one braised wonder, and I feel bad for the other two, when really, all three were sublime. So I’m moving in a different direction, embracing my “everything delicious, no pretense” philosophy, and naming Dinosaur BBQ’s Pork Sket sandwich platter, with their sonnet-worthy, rich, macaroni and cheese and terrific collards. Honorable mention to their dirty rice, which I have a special place for in my heart. This sandwich has everything you want from a great BBQ joint: succulent pulled pork, smoky beef brisket, cool, crisp, cole slaw, melty cheddar cheese and zingy, pickled jalapenos. Oh great, now I’ve drooled on my keyboard. I’m blaming the dinosaurs. OMG, and I most forgot: homemade pickles! Can I marry a plate of food?

Uh-oh. Now I need to eat this again. God, these awards are FILLED with culinary landmines!

And the award you’ve been waiting for, naturally, Best Restaurant of 2011. Last year, this coveted title was given to the Ithaca Ale House, which remains a favorite. This year, again, I was a little stumped. That’s why I started writing this post last week! But I’ve given it a lot of thought – probably more than it deserves, given the fact we’re talking an imaginary award here – and my Big Hungry Shelby Best Restaurant of 2011 is an overall award to the Culinary Institute of America. In all my travels this year, no other place so captured me, delighted me, filled me with yummy food and a warm feeling. From the gorgeous campus roamed by neophytes in chef whites, overlooking the breathtaking Hudson River Valley, to the vast array of fun, fancy grey, pink and black salts all along the waiting line at Apple Pie Bakery Café, to the theme-appropriate farm sinks in the ladies room at Caterina de Medici, every moment there is pure pleasure. If you’re looking for a quick getaway from existence as you know it, I beg you to schedule a weekend here and avail yourself of the fabulous on-campus eateries. We ate way too much that entire day (and drank too much, too), but a little gluttony makes you feel alive!

Cheers! Now let’s eat.
And so we wrap up another year of eating, Big Hungry-style. It’s shocking to me that another year has gone by, and that some of you nice people still read all my blathering about food. Thanks for sticking with me! In 2012, I’m moving the whole shebang over to Blogspot.com, so that I can bring you better quality pictures and a little more flexibility in my layout, so I hope you’ll follow me there. Don’t worry, I’ll still post things on NNYorker.com, and you’ll see me pop up here and there…especially on Twitter (@BigHungryShelby) and Facebook (join our Big Hungry Shelby group today!).

For now, I’m going to take a couple weeks off for the holidays. No need to blog about Christmas or New Years. You know there will be bacon, and gravy, and hopefully some really good cookies. What else do you need to know, right? If you find a new place I simply must check out, share it in the comments, below, or on the Facebook page. I’d be happy to follow your recommendations into the new year. See you in 2012…something yummy this way comes!

A Breakfast Odyssey

Picture it: a cold, sunny Sunday morning, just after Thanksgiving. My parents and I hop in the car, hungry, looking for a blog-worthy breakfast. We drive over to Adams Center, hoping to knosh at The Depot, only to find that former gem shuttered once again. Hopeful, we stop into Pearl’s Pastry Shoppe, right next to Café Mira on Main St., but they don’t serve full breakfast. Back in the car again, Mom recalls hearing about somewhere that might be good in Sandy Creek, and we venture on, but she can’t remember the name, and a drive through the main drag reveals nowhere promising. Finally, peaked and cranky, we roll into Pulaski, and the journey darkens when Dad chooses Ponderosa and neither Mom nor I have the cognizance to object.

Love this tagline

There is a very good reason that most of you reading this won’t have eaten at a Ponderosa since childhood. That reason being: they don’t serve actual food there. The breakfast buffet was almost unspeakably disgusting. The eggs were powdered, the bacon precooked and packaged, the fruit, canned, and the syrup, made with corn, not maple. I think you know I’m happy to while away calories on junk as long as that junk is grounded in real food, but this was inedible. I’m ashamed to admit I wasted several plates of “food” just trying to find something I could eat more than one bite of before getting completely grossed out. Even the coffee was terrible. Yet the place was packed – a sad commentary on our society, as Pulaski used to have several good breakfasts joints and now seems to only sport this grease shack and Dunkin Donuts, across the street. As Americans, we need to stop accepting processed food-adjacent crap and demand better food, whole food, real food.

Luckily, at Pearl’s Pastry Shoppe (God, I love the extra “pe” on the end of that word), we had been wise enough stock up on donuts, brownies and other treats, so after my one-bite sampling of the safer looking Ponderosa offerings that still left me ravenous, I was able to enjoy a maple bacon donut. That’s right. At a tiny bakery in Adams, NY, someone is embracing the hog and making maple bacon donuts. Guess what else? They’re selling individual slices of bacon, enrobed in lovely milk chocolate. For those of you who still wrinkle your nose at this delicacy and haven’t been initiated into the sacred sisterhood of bacon chocolate, hold back the judgment and give it a try. Trust Big Hungry, she wouldn’t lead you astray. As for the donut, it was sweet with mapley goodness and just touched with a few savory bacon bits on top. The texture wasn’t perfect – I like a yeast-based donut to collapse completely once in your mouth and dissolve into fried, sugary nirvana – but after the swill at Ponderosa, it was manna.

An assortment of joy

Something really special offered at Pearl’s is the homemade English muffin. If you read my post earlier this fall about London and the beautiful English muffins I saw at Borough Market there, then you know I was excited when I spied these babies, sitting taller and prouder than any supermarket variety:

Get a load of these nooks and crannies

The following weekend, as I was up north again to meet my gorgeous, dribbling, giggling, baby nephew, Dad was determined to make up the Ponderosa malfeasance with an epic meal. Enter: Tug Hill Vineyards, which has been cranking out what is probably the Northcountry’s finest Sunday brunch for some time now. And I’m sorry I’m letting you know about it so late in the year, because this coming Sunday is the last one they’re doing until Spring. You know what that means, Big Hungries…call now to reserve your seat for this weekend! I mean, just look at how gorg this place is:

Tug Hill Vineyards

Bar area

This buffet-style brunch makes Ponderosa’s monstrosity seem like filling for a barnyard trough. Choices ranged from gorgeous herbed scrambled eggs and broccoli quiche (made with real eggs), to minted fruit and garden salads, to chocolate mousse cake. Particular stand outs on the Sunday we visited were the baked ham, sweet and tender and studded with orange zest for extra zing, blackberry-stuffed French toast made with French bread, so the pieces were small enough to not overwhelm the tummy, and a light sprinkling of granola up top to add some texture, and butternut squash soup topped with buttery, crunchy croutons to give it some personality.

My first (not last) plate of food – I did more than sample a bite of each

The caramelized onion macaroni and cheese was tasty – the onion flavor was good and added a quirkiness to the overall taste – but the cheese wasn’t assertive enough to make my favorite list. I like a really sharp cheddar in my mac, and that tang was lacking here. Similarly, I was unimpressed with the mashed turnips, which needed the zip of a few parsnips or more spices to lift them out of blahsville. What I did love were the garlic mashed potatoes with the excellent, rich, savory sauce of the salisbury steak. The roasted garlic flavor sung, and although the steak was a bit greasy, the beefy essence was full-on satisfaction paired with the creamy-textured potatoes.

Turnips love parsnips, and cheese loves aging

The use of citrus was evident in the chef’s wheelhouse – I detected notes of it in the light and deliciously-frosted yet lacking in strong cinnamon-sugar flavor sticky buns, and the lovely hollandaise, which topped a make-it-yourself eggs benny station I (of course) bastardized with bacon. The ham was the best of the citrusy offerings, but the subtle hints detected in the other dishes lent a nice continuity to the meal.

Dad’s festive plate

The dessert assortment was not one to miss. I tried both the pumpkin praline pie and the vanilla bean custard. The pie was light and spiced appropriately for the season, but the crust was a little mushy. This is excusable – I can’t imagine the preparation involved in the small kitchen here for this brunch set-up each week, and I’m sure the pie was made at least the day before – but a graham cracker crust would have held up better. The custard? Well, it was stunning. This creamy, dreamy wonder was dotted with vanilla beans painstakingly scraped from their pods – no wonder the pie succumbed to a soggy crust, all the attention was paid to the pods!

Dessert Bonanza

Brunch at Tug Hill Vineyards completely erased the scars left by Ponderosa’s ugly dark mark the week beforehand. Our waitress was friendly and went out of her way to ensure we had a pleasant meal, the décor was homey yet elegant (I would have liked to sit closer to the fire, although the sunlight through the window was nice for my pictures), and the coffee was excellent. While brunches are soon over for the season, this space is available for private parties, so you should try to get yourself invited to something planned here. Start being nice to everyone you know from Lowville now! We awarded this outstanding repast an 8.5 on the BHS scale, and will be back in the spring with more folks to enjoy its offerings.

I should finish up by letting you know that Pearl’s is taking custom orders for pies, rolls, breads, cheesecakes and rum balls through December 23. Call them now to reserve your sweet treats for the holidays. And remember to stop by next week for the second annual BHS Awards! I’m so stressed already; thinking about making a choice on a favorite appetizer of 2011 is going to make me break a sweat. My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!

Tug Hill Vineyards on Urbanspoon

Italian Food is the Antidote to Holiday Feasts...Unless You're Italian?

As my parents and I struggled to recover from the feasting of Thanksgiving a couple weeks back, we searched our brains for somewhere…different…to eat in Watertown. Ordinarily, Italian food would seem same old, same old, but after several days of butternut squash, roasted meats, pies, pumpkin crunch and gravy, anything including red sauce seemed fresh and novel. Enter: Cavallario’s Cucina, that Watertown stalwart that’s a lot hipper than you might think.

I am always impressed by the interior design at Cavallario’s. It’s so attractive, with none of that leftover from the sixties red vinyl booth and checked tablecloth nonsense so embraced at other establishments of its ilk. All the different dining areas at Cavallario’s are contemporary, with fun prints of fat Italian waiters, wrought iron details and rich colors. The fresh herb centerpiece on the table didn’t hurt, either.

These almost fooled me into thinking it’s summer! Eh, not quite.

Our waitress tempted us with the promise of a house-made lemon garlic romano dressing for our salads, and we all bit. That promise was fulfilled with crunchy romaine, tomatoes that again, defied the season with their sweetness, cucumbers, bell pepper and the lip-smacking dressing, which was tart with lemon but rounded out by a balanced hit of cheese. Our only other starter, complimentary bread (it wasn’t an appetizer kind of night, but I’m sure that pesto artichoke brie is dynamite) was outstanding. Adorned with fresh parsley and gobs of garlic butter, the bread was fine textured but not crumbly, due to a substantially crunchy exterior. It absolutely melted in my mouth, and it was challenge to keep myself to two pieces.

Who baked you, little wonder?

As I said, I had overloaded on rich holiday foods the previous day, and was feeling the will of my recent eggplant obsession tugging at my tummy, so I went with a special: seared tuna with eggplant caponata. The first taste was gorgeous: bright, peppery olive oil right up front, then the earthy, almost bitter eggplant, followed by perfectly fresh tuna left rare in the middle. The leeks and excellent quality kalamata, pit-in; olives in the caponata brought up the rest of the flavor profile like champs. If I had one small complaint, it would be that while the flavor on the fish was excellent and it was cooked well, the piece was so thick, it ended up being stringy towards the middle where it was more rare. In a thinner piece of fish, this wouldn’t have been a problem, but with this hunka tuna, it was a little challenging.

Big tuna

Dad ordered the braciole, which is a thin steak rolled up, usually with breadcrumbs, cheese and herbs. This was an old favorite at Giovanni’s, and these days I love to order it at Oak’s Inn in Endicott. Cavallario’s is stuffed with mushrooms and feta, a cool twist, and served over capellini, in a pomodoro sauce. This was luscious. While not as tender as other iterations I’ve enjoyed, the pomodoro sauce was enriched with the flavor of the meat and cheese, and the feta lent a pungent, salty note to the sweet sauce and earthy mushrooms. A successful dish, indeed.

Pronounced: Bra-zhool

Mom, of course, is our simple food lover, and went with the linguine and pomodoro sauce. The linguine was al dente and the sauce as a good, earthy, chunky tomato sauce. The meatballs that came with this entrée were super tender and well-seasoned. They sure beat any meatball I’ve ever made. Maybe being of Romanian and German descent does not a master meatballer make?

Simple pasta, simple sauce

We could not have been happier with the change-up this meal offered to our holiday weekend, or with the laid-back but still classy atmosphere dinner here afforded us. I give Cavallario’s Cucina a 7.5 on the BHS scale. While my fish and Dad’s beef could have been more tender, the flavors were all there and popping, the service was top notch, and the cuisine was just outside the norm enough to be really refreshing. If you’re in town to do some holiday shopping in the next few weeks, stop by CC for dinner and test it for yourself. Don’t miss the dressing.

I’m mapping out my posts for the rest of the year. Ahhhh! I can’t believe it’s so close! My BHS Awards will be happening soon, and I have a great brunch recommendation in NNY for you to try. If you’re craving more BHS, drop in on our Facebook group or follow me on Twitter @BigHungryShelby. My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!

PS: My nephew is here! Behold, my precious:

He is one of the best things ever. Like seriously, right up there with bacon, green chile sauce, pork belly, Sephora, little blue boxes and naps. I am smitten.

Cavallario's Cucina on Urbanspoon