Aunt Big Hungry Shelby

Exciting things are happening in my world this week which make writing this post less than thrilling: I’m heading to DC this afternoon for a work conference and managed to schedule a department dinner tonight at my fav, Blue Duck Tavern. Also, my sister is in the hospital right now delivering unto us my nephew. I am beside myself with life’s blessings.

But I need to give due credence to the recently passed Fall 2011 Binghamton Restaurant Week, which was cruelly delayed by September’s epic flooding and just wrapped up on November 17. This time around, I had the opportunity to dine at two participating establishments whose doors I have never before darkened, and while neither blew me away, I would be happy to eat eat at either again.

First up: The River Bistro, located inside the remodeled Riverwalk Hotel in downtown Binghamton. Big Hungry Melinda and her dashing man friend BLD joined me there on the very first night of restaurant week. While we were enthused by the new, slick décor in this space, our sweaty, nervous waiter was less well received. River Bistro’s special RW menu was a little scant compared with other restaurants, but we made do.

Our appetizer was actually off the regular menu, which we couldn’t resist because they sounded so good: house made dirty chips with spinach, roasted garlic and truffle scented aged white cheddar fondue. These were about 98 percent successful – the chips were thick-cut and crispy, although not so much that they shattered when you dipped them. And the fondue was delicious – the spinach lightened up all the sharp cheddar richness, and the roasted garlic played in time – but there was no hint of truffle anywhere in it. If the chef is using truffle oil to achieve the promised “truffle scent,” he needs to have a heavier hand.

Where for art thou, truffles?

Our starters on the RW menu included an iceberg wedge salad and tempura-fried veggies with wasabi mayo. I chose the salad, as did Melinda, and we were pleased: the lettuce was crisp, the bacon, freshly cooked, the balsamic drizzle played off the rich blue cheese dressing very well. BLD’s tempura veggies were so uninspiring-looking, I didn’t even take a bite. The portion was small and, as much as I love fried things, this didn’t look worth the calories.

Could sink the titanic

The main entrée choices were grilled skirt steak with zucchini, roasted garlic mashed potatoes and onion strings, or tomato risotto. Melinda got the risotto, which was nice, but not photogenic. It had a nice sweetness from the oven-roasting the roma tomatoes underwent, although I would have liked the consistency to be a little looser – a sticking point on season after season of Top Chef. BLD and I went for the steak, and I was really disappointed with the texture, which was just too chewy for my taste. I know skirt steak isn’t ribeye, but marinating the meat would have taken this entrée a long way, and it was a step sadly skipped. The mashed potatoes and onion strings were fantastic, and I enjoyed the dish overall, except for the years I spent chewing that steak.

The key word should be marinate, not masticate

Third course choice: chocolate pot du crème or strawberry and cream napoleon. The chocolate was the winner here, with deep, dark, cocoa flavor. I am trying to maintain a modicum of health these days, so I only enjoyed three spoonfuls, but it was so rich, that was all I needed. The napoleon, never one of my dessert favorites, was a little bland: out of season berries around too-brittle pastry squares with a pretty nondescript pastry cream.

Pot du AHEM

There is undeniably some good work going on at The River Bistro. And to be fair, RW may not be the best time to judge it, however, isn’t that the whole point of such an event – for people to get out and sample places to see if they’d like to go back? Our harried waiter did not help matters, although again, the lovely décor and peaceful ambiance went a long way. I would give The River Bistro a six on the BHS scale, and encourage the management here to indulge their chefs creativity but also maybe get them some professional development classes in really nailing world cuisine.

My second RW foray was with two co-workers both named Lisa, to Tranquil Bistro, also in Binghamton. I had read other bloggers’ insistence that Tranquil is the best restaurant in the Southern Tier, and I wanted to try it for myself. Tranquil’s RW menu was more extensive than River Bistro’s, providing more choices and more courses. Being the greedy Shelby I am, you know I appreciate that. I also like the interior of this small joint – they’re definitely going for a city vibe with a European twist. What I didn’t love was the kitchen noise – the wait staff receives the food from the kitchen in a tony pass that collides with one end of the bar, and the clattering and crashing from that area dominated the whole space.

I started my meal with the pumpkin ricotta gnocchi, and was very impressed right off the bat – the gnocchi was pillowy and soft, the mushrooms and spinach earthy and light, and the sage brown butter was a classic and apt pair. I could have eaten this as my entrée and been very satisfied, had the portion been doubled. I just would have liked to see the presentation a bit tighter – the components of the dish were a little spread out on the plate.

A scattering of flavor

Lisa’s salad stole the show, however. The warm spinach salad with roasted root vegetables, bacon, dried cherries and toasted hazelnuts in a maple balsamic vinaigrette lived up to every bit of its egregious description. Every flavor was in balance, and the overall taste on the palate was more luxurious than any salad I have ever had. This was the pinnacle of the whole meal. Incidentally, it is on the regular menu and you SHOULD go to Tranquil Bistro and get some.

Spinach good

We all went for the French onion soup for our next course, and were disappointed after the appetizer high: the soup was nearly cold. While the flavor was good, the soup itself wasn’t even hot enough to melt the cheese on the crouton, nor had each dish been finished in a salamander, as in most restaurants. Also, I found the texture to be a bit off-putting – there was almost a graininess to the broth.

All looks, no heat

We divided and conquered most of the entrée list. I had the duck sausage risotto, an over-the-top rich dish rounded out by roasted butternut squash and caramelized onions. The duck sausage was simply sublime, and really made a hearty winter statement out of a run-of-the-mill risotto dinner. I couldn’t eat even half of it, but I loved it. Again, I would have liked to see a tighter presentation, though. The sauce was all over just one half the plate, making it look sloppy.

Duck, duck, YUM

One of the Lisa’s went for the beef tenderloin with andouille sausage. The andouille in this was underwhelming – not spicy enough and lost in the rest of the dish’s flavors. But the steak was tender and well-flavored, sauced with a creamed bourbon reduction and accompanied by tender crisp veggies and mashed red potatoes. Lisa loved it, and we all agreed. The other Lisa was not so fortunate in her choice, the eggplant “steak.” I expected the eggplant to be cut thick and vertically, to maximize the meatiness and surface area for roasting. Instead, Lisa was served a small, thin horizontally-cut disk of eggplant, with maybe a half cup of bland polenta and an uninspired tomato sauce. She was starving after eating the tiny portion, and was glad the risotto and steak were up for sharing.

Messy, but not weak, sauce

The dessert course was a pick between chocolate mousse and a cream puff. Neither really knocked my socks off, but Lisa really enjoyed her chocolate mousse. I’ve heard the sticky toffee pudding is the thing to have here, and it wasn’t on the RW menu that evening.

Not worth the calories to have more than two bites

While there were moments of greatness in this meal, I would not crown Tranquil Bistro the best restaurant in the Southern Tier. I’ve had far better outings to Oaks Inn, P.S. and Tony’s. I awarded Tranquil seven out of 10 on the BHS scale, with a special commendation for that spinach salad, which is just killer. In any event, this is what Restaurant Week is all about – to try places that are new to you and figure out what to revisit. I wouldn’t shy away from a return meal at either of these places, although I would be chooiser in my ordering, to be sure.

I’m back in the Northcountry next week, Big Hungries, for a review of a beloved Watertown eatery, so join me next Wednesday morning...at which point you will have to call me Aunt Big Hungry Shelby, because my nephew will have joined us by then! My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!

Tranquil Bar/Bistro on Urbanspoon

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