Welcome to Garlic Soup, I mean, 2011!

Happy New Year, Big Hungries! Welcome back from those halcyon weeks of champagne, cookies, canapés and Christmas presents! My holiday break was spent visiting family, celebrating my brother’s marriage to his wonderful bride, and playing with all the new kitchen gadgets Shawn bestowed upon me. Seriously, he gave me this Ninja food processor/blender thingie that’s pretty fabulous. I’m not sure yet how I’ll manage to, say, drizzle in EVOO for pesto since the motor mechanism sits on top of the chopping bowl, but the experimentation continues…

Oddly, holidays are always sort of devoid of my usual culinary shenanigans. On Christmas Eve this year, my parents and I dragged our tired butts to Red Lobster after wrapping presents all afternoon at Borders to benefit the Miss Thousand Islands Pageant. On Christmas Day, my dinner consisted of three mini-meatballs on dinner rolls, a few chilled shrimp and some cheese and crackers. For New Year’s Eve, we basked in the glory of love at my brother’s rehearsal dinner while dining at the Best Western Carriage House. All of these were fine and dandy in the moment, but they don’t exactly leave me with tons to write about, Big Hungry-wise.

Adorable brother and his breathtaking bride, currently on honeymoon in St. Lucia. Jerks!

So I’m reaching back into the archives to a dinner with Lindsay in October, right before she moved to DC. We were making the rounds to all our favorite local (Southern Tier) joints, and Consol’s Family Kitchen, in Endicott’s Little Italy neighborhood, made the cut. If you live in the greater Binghamton area or have reason to pass through with any frequency, Consol’s is a good candidate for your short list of reliable restaurants. It’s homey, inexpensive, and always packed, which is how you know it’s good!

One of the dishes that just blows my mind at Consol’s is a special that they serve quite often: garlic soup. That’s right, garlic soup. I’m aware that this sounds disgusting from both a gustatory and halitosis-inducing standpoint. And honestly, I’m not sure how this little wonder is made. The garlic isn’t exactly roasted, but it is mellow; the soup base isn’t exactly creamy, but neither is it brothy. My best guess is that the garlic is sort of poached in chicken broth and mashed, and then the soup is thickened with bread crumbs, which is a classic old world Italian preparation not often seen in this country. But let me tell you, the result is resplendent: sweet and pungent, salty and rich. Plus, garlic is so good for you! Don’t miss this if it’s on the menu when you visit Consol’s.

My next favorite starter is from the restaurant’s meager appetizer list. The list contains exactly two offerings: grilled portabella mushroom and antipasto salad. Normally, in a place with pasta as good as Consol’s, I would advise you to skip this section and move along to the main attraction. But don’t be fooled by the Consol family’s modest description. The grilled portabella mushroom is really a platter of grilled shrooms, sautéed spinach, roasted red peppers and feta cheese, swimming in a delicious balsamic vinaigrette. It’s a solid starter to share, but I also like to order this as an entrée during those times when I’m attempting to keep the eating under control…such as…you know…the New Year. The firm mushrooms are smoky and meaty, the peppers are silky and sweet, and the spinach, feta and balsamic all combine together into the best savory/salty/cheesy bruschetta topping you will ever find for the miniature rounds of bread they serve with your meal.

Grilled portabella mushroom doesn’t even begin to adequately describe this gorgeous plate

The two best entrees on the menu, hands down, are the chicken sofia and the vodka rigatoni. The chicken sofia is unlike anything I’ve ever had in a restaurant: rich garlic cream sauce, which is thinner than alfredo but still stands up as the star of the dish, with chicken cutlets, broccoli, roasted red peppers and rigatoni. Delicious. The vodka sauce at Consol’s is the best in the area when it’s done right. I will admit that there are some inconsistent nights here, and I’ve ordered this and actually been disappointed before. But when it’s good, which it usually is, it’s fantastic. Crowned with slivers of prosciutto, fresh basil and garlic, rich and satisfying and more flavorful than even the vodka sauce I make at home. This is fine dining-quality food at a lower price point than you can eat at most chain restaurants nowadays.

And of course, I cannot dismiss the piece de resistance at Consol’s: the chocolate cake. As far as I know, it’s the only dessert they serve. At least, it’s the only one they need on the menu, as it is the alpha and omega of chocolate cakes. And what’s crazy is that it’s a simple, no-nonsense sheet cake with white frosting! No drizzles on the plate! No layers of ganache and mousse! No fancy shapes or coconut tuille garnishes! Nope, at Consol’s, they bring you a gigantic slab of sheet cake, and after your first bite, you fall at their knees and weep in thanksgiving. Trust me. It is the best chocolate cake I have ever had, and I do have some experience in this field.

I will also add that when Lindsay and I ate there in October, we split a huge carafe of pinot grigio for only $15. Yeah, that’s right. Fifteen bucks. How’s that for value? We also had a nice sausage vegetable soup that night as the garlic soup was not actually available. It was delicious; hearty without being heavy. The broth had good depth of flavor and the chunks of vegetables and ground sausage were totally yummy. I piled it high with parmesan and was a very happy camper despite the lack of precious garlic potage.

So that’s my recap of Consol’s for you. Nothing Earth-shattering, but just a really good, budget-friendly place. They have good pizza, good prices and a pleasant atmosphere. Stay tuned this year as I venture out to new areas of our great state to bring you tales of deliciousness and indulgence. On deck in the coming months: Corning, Fulton County, Parish and more from Ithaca, because I just can’t get enough. Where would you like to see me go in 2011? Do you have a new favorite restaurant locally or just a road trip away? Let me know, and I’ll try to get there! And remember, we have a nice little community developing at Big Hungry Shelby on Facebook and at BigHungryShelby on Twitter, so you can join me there for additional recipe ideas and fun food facts! Mostly, I hope you enjoy yourself in 2011 and make this your best year yet. I know I’m trying!

My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

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