They Say it's My Birthday

I’ve drawn some criticism from readers for my frequent name-dropping and friend-describing here on Big Hungry. I’ve politely ignored said digs for a couple of reasons. First of all, this blog was never intended to be a food critic’s restaurant review; it’s a blog about how much I love food, and where I think you should go to get your hands on some of the best of it our state has to offer. Second, it would be odd to me to go out and eat with a bunch of cool people, be they friends or family, and tell you what they ordered and if it was good without telling you a little bit about that person. Maybe said individual is a vegetarian; maybe he loves sausage but hates bacon (sacrilege!); maybe she subsists mainly on cheese, crackers, and buffalo chicken wraps and judges all other food experiences through those filters? Whatever the predilection or preference, I want to confirm here that I have the best friends and family on the planet, a fact underscored this past week, which happened to be my birthday week!

Now, normally I cook about three to four times a week, eat out once or twice, and cobble together leftovers or whatever for the other meals. This being my birthday weekend, however, cooking was not happening. Since we hit up some places I haven’t yet discussed here, as well as some old favorites, I thought I’d just chronicle our birthday eats for the blog this week. Are you game? You should be, because we ate a lot of good stuff.

Last Thursday was my actual birthday. I’m 29, again! It was also the 10th anniversary celebration event for the anti-drug and alcohol program, KYDS Coalition, which Melinda runs. I attended the event in downtown Binghamton, ate some especially delicious cake from Wegmans, and was lucky enough to be serenaded by Coalition members after the formal festivities were over. After packing up and shipping out, Melinda and I headed across the street to Dillinger’s for a couple birthday cocktails. It is well documented that Dillinger’s is not my favorite place. Last week’s visit drove that point home, as my Patron margarita was made with a too-sweet yet too-tart mix instead of lovely triple sec and lime juice. Boo. Melinda’s date, Derek, met us at Dillinger’s and we three departed quickly thereafter for Moxie Wood Fire Grill in Conklin. Now, here’s something funny: I had planned to deride Moxie right off the top for their lack of an informative Website two years into their restaurateurship, as last week when I checked it out, all the site had up was the hours and address. But looky-looky here, they went and finally put some content up! Hurrah!

Melinda, Derek and I camped out at the bar until Shawn arrived with some cocktails that were a marked improvement over the swill at Dillinger’s. It seemed Shawn had gotten hung up at home over the task of gift wrapping. It happens. The four of us proceeded to our table, and started off the evening with the firecracker shrimp, which we have been campaigning for years to be changed to bang-bang shrimp (isn’t that name so totally better?) and an appetizer special: corn cakes with crab and tomatillo. The shrimp, one of my favorite things overall at Moxie, were sweet, spicy, crispy and creamy all at the same time. They’re fried, then tossed in a creamy cocktail sauce – with sexy results. I love these little buggers. The corn cakes were more like a grit cake, although I suppose those wouldn’t sell so well in the North, topped with fresh diced tomatillo and rich crabmeat. There may have been a tiny bit of hot chili in there. We agreed that the crab mixture could have used just a touch more mayo to bind it all together, but overall, a good dish.

We also got a round of soups – French onion for Derek, Melinda and I; and the soup de jour of steak and potato for Shawn. The French onion was good but not great, despite the talking up our waiter gave it. I don’t think that guy has ever had it at Joey’s or Number 5, where the soup transcends the space-time continuum and takes you to another dimension of delicious. The steak and potato soup, on the other hand, totally tickled my fancy. I had half expected it to be gloopy and creamy, but it was smooth, beefy and complex. A rich and satisfying starter.

Shawn ordered the ahi tuna with cucumber wasabi relish. Not being one to eat his proteins rare or even medium, he ordered it medium-well, which is overdone for me. But that said, this was tasty. It had sufficient wasabi to cut through the very thick portion of tuna, and the texture of the fish, even cooked as it was, was really nice with the crunchy diced cucumber. The menu called out a soy-ginger glaze, which I couldn’t really detect, which is a shame because a punch of ginger would have been nice. It may have been obliterated by all the wasabi, but I still liked this dish. He ordered it with a side of sweet potatoes that were maple-glazed. Shawn thought they tasted like pancakes, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I agreed. Yummy, but maybe not the best choice with the fish.

Big Tuna

Derek ordered the rack of lamb chops, which I was psyched about. Here’s why: I haven’t had lamb since I was a kid; it always smells phenomenal when it wafts by me in a restaurant, but no one I’ve ever dined with as an adult has ordered it. And you know when you don’t want to risk ordering something pricey yourself, because it’s a waste if you end up not liking it? Bingo. So as soon as Derek decided on the lamb, I was set to pounce. He gave Melinda and me a chop to share, and I loved it. Tender and fine-grained, it had a beefy flavor that wasn’t at all gamey like I had feared. Derek reported that some of it was tougher than he would have liked, but overall it was good.

Melinda got the fire-roasted, cedar-planked scallops with a side of hyphen. Just kidding. The scallops were a tad overcooked for my taste, but she was really happy with the dish. They had great flavor, though – the cedar planking isn’t just a gimmick.

I had a Delmonico steak, cooked medium, with a side of really excellent mashed potatoes. By the time the entrees arrived and I had tasted everyone else’s food, I wasn’t even hungry. LOL. But I took enough bites to be able to describe the meat to you here. It was smoky from the brick wood-fired oven, with robust beef flavor, and cooked expertly. That said, it could have been trimmed a bit better. Look, with a Delmonico or rib eye, you want the marbling. That fat is where the flavor comes from. But there’s a difference between marbling and a lot of fat and gristle around the edge of the cut – much of that could have been trimmed off, still preserving enough fat to keep the meat moist and delicious. This lack of trimming wasn’t ruinous – I very much enjoyed this steak, but it’s worth noting.

Look! Flowers for my birthday!

I’ll say at this point that Moxie is a gorgeous restaurant. It’s modern and sleek, with dim, soft lighting and the glow of candles. And that glow was enhanced when I was brought a gargantuan slice of chocolate cake for dessert! Thankfully, it is restaurant policy for the wait staff not to sing, so I was able to blow out my candle in peace and then enjoy this delectable cake with my friends. I’ve had less successful desserts at Moxie in the past, and they have totally redeemed themselves with this wonder of a chocolate torte. It was served warm, and absolutely melted in your mouth. This alone might be the reason to have your next birthday dinner at Moxie!

Overall, the table gave Moxie a 7.6 rating out of 10, a vote complicated by the presence of an engineer and a finance guy at the table. Men! Overall, the meal was fantastic, and I think there are just a couple of little details that could be corrected to make this the top dining destination in the Triple Cities.

Friday night, Melinda and I got all dolled up for a night on the town and decided to grab a bite at our favorite Friday night spot Tony’s Italian Grill in Endwell before heading out. We often order the bruschetta appetizer here, because we are both gluttons for bread and tomatoes. Usually, this is an uninspired version of the classic, but satisfying. Well, I am just getting surprised all over the place lately, because Tony’s has absolutely upgraded this starter! The classic tomato, basil and onion relish was accompanied not by plain Italian bread slices as in the past, but grilled slabs of golden, delicious bread topped with EVOO and a lovely, sweet balsamic drizzle. Brava! We switched up our usual bianco rosa pizza with a meatball pie, so that we wouldn’t be too unbearably garlicky later in the evening. I was really happy with the mix of sliced meatballs and fresh mushrooms on this traditional pie, but Melinda informed me that Consol’s is better. We’ll be needing to put that to the test soon, me thinks.

The next day, Melinda and I had planned to drive up to the Finger Lakes for a late lunch at Simply Red Bistro at the Sheldrake Vineyards, followed by a couple other winery stops. We charted our course for Cayuga Lake, but found upon arrival that the Sheldrake was having a banner day so congested, they weren’t even seating any more diners in the restaurant until dinner time. Bummer. So, we hurried through a crowded tasting there and then another at Lucas, before retreating to Ithaca and settling in at the Ithaca Ale House on Aurora Street. I’ve recommended this unassuming spot to you before, and I’m doing it again. This is a bar, serving lots of microbrews and catering to the college crowd, but it’s so much more! Yes, the menu is replete with bar food staples: burgers, sammies, appys and fried delights. But behold what I am about to spring on you: I just had the BEST French dip sandwich EVER at this joint. EVER! Let that sink in, then get in your car and beeline for the Ale House.

We started our meal with powerfully spicy bloody marys. Not the most nuanced or sophisticated bloody I’ve ever had, but a strong showing, with a topping of banana peppers and Absolut Pepar bringing her home. We ordered the guacamole brie melt as a starter, and were not disappointed. These were fantastic: a shard of baguette topped with a mild guacamole spread, a thick slice of brie cheese and a sundried tomato sliver, with a smear of ancho chili aioli to dip them in. YUM. The sundried tomato was the kicker here, adding a punch of sweetness to the creamy richness of the cheese and avocado.

I love brie, and brie loves me

And then, I had the BEST FRENCH DIP SANDWICH IN THE WORLD. OK, ok. I haven’t had one in France, nor at its birthplace, that Philipe’s place out in LA. But I order this pretty much whenever I see it on the menu, folks. I am a sucker for a little dish of au jus. It’s like gravy’s younger, saltier, more flexible cousin! Here are the faults usually accompanying a substandard dip: tough, chewy roast beef; flavorless cheese; too soft roll; skimpy portion of overly-salted, otherwise flavorless jus. The wizards at the Ithaca Ale House, however, have far more up their sleeves than these pitfalls. The prime rib roast beef was tender, the cheese was high quality, the French bread was sufficiently chewy and crusty, and the crock of au jus was beefy, complex like only a homemade stock can be, and plentiful. Oh god, I was in heaven. My mouth is watering in salty remembrance:

The Holy Grail of French Dips

Melinda ordered the buffalo chicken spring rolls, which we’ve split there before. They are spicy and fried and delicious, just like you’d expect. A valiant and formidable choice, but no match for the French Dip Glory that I experienced. SO, we decided to up the ante even further, in a move that has changed my life forever. As in, it might just be worth giving up the ghost and surrendering to stretchy pants and Type II Diabetes for this next dish: Deep Fried Oreos.

I can’t even believe we ordered these. They are naughty. They are bad. They are an abomination of cholesterol and fat – and They. Are. Delicious. I actually swore when I took my first bite. I mean, I swear a lot, let’s be honest, but not usually in a helpless, ohmygodIcan’tbelievehowgoodthistastes kind of way. Let’s just call this dessert Expletive-deleted Fried Nuggets of Splendor, shall we?

That little cup in the middle is hot chocolate dipping sauce – because these weren’t decadent enough on their own?

Melinda and I didn’t vote on a number rating for the Ithaca Ale House, but we did wax poetic about how the Nuggets had ruined us for all other foods, and I did stare desperately into the open kitchen, trying to spot the architect of culinary destruction who had orchestrated this catastrophe. It just looked like a bunch of young cooks back there. I don’t know what happened. This dessert was the equivalent of a food lobotomy. I’m not kidding. You have to have them. You HAVE TO.

And so, my friends, we wrap up another crazy birthday weekend. I came, I saw, I ate everything in my path. As usual. Maybe this year, now that I’ve had the Nuggets of Splendor, I will become a virtuous healthy vegan? Even in the unlikelihood of that eventuality, you should try both Moxie and Ithaca Ale House. They are very different, but both worth experiencing for different culinary reasons. And if you’re heading to Tony’s soon, try the bruschetta again – I think you’ll like the new version as we did. Most importantly, keep on shunning those corporate eateries in favor of locally owned and run operations. Your taste buds, and your karma, will thank you. And check back next Wednesday for more Big Hungry Shelby: My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Ithaca Ale House on Urbanspoon

Moxie Grill on Urbanspoon

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