2012 Big Hungry Awards

Let nothing you dismay, for the 2012 Big Hungries are nigh! This is my third annual conferment of honors upon Upstate New York’s culinary bounty. Or, to put it more realistically, one woman patting some local chefs on the back for good deeds done in regards to the peoples’ stomachs. Rejoice, for delicious delicacies lie here! It also marks what is most likely my last post for the year. But don’t worry, as long as you’re hanging out with the cool kids in the Big Hungry Shelby group on Facebook or following me @BigHungryShelby on Twitter, you’ll still be able to keep up with scrumptious eats and treats throughout the holidays.

Now, I did a somewhat ridiculous amount of traveling this year. I just looked back at this year’s posts, and was shocked at how few upstate NY restaurants I reviewed, and what a plethora of yummies I blogged about from points south, east and west. This makes my awards tough, because I had some mighty fine grub outside the confines of our great state, and while I implore you to get out there and sample the wares of DC, Austin, Amsterdam, and New Hampshire, they are technically beyond the scope of what I’ve set out to do here, and should be frozen out from these honors. I may be forced to make an exception, but here goes:

Appetizers have totally been my jam this year. I’ve eaten in two tapas restaurants, ordered small plates as my dinner countless times, and generally been more enthusiastic by the creations lurking on starter menus than their big plate counterparts. Pino Bianco’s bean dip at Turning Stone Resort & Casino was fabulous, the caramel shrimp at Carol’s Café was a wonder, and Bandwagon Brew Pub, in Ithaca, served up fried potato and cheese wontons that sang like sirens perched along rocky cliffs. Even the new Thai Time, in Binghamton, has those wicked curry puffs that were surprisingly, addictively, tasty. But the Best Appetizer of 2012 is actually found just a few blocks away, at Loft at 99 in Binghamton. The baked polenta shone where so many of its cornmeal comrades haven’t: it was soulful and crusty, hearty and healthy. The braised chard it’s served with is earthy and warming, and the dusting of parmigiano on top crowns the works with its nutty, salty depth.

2012 Best Appetizer: Loft at 99 Baked Polenta

Let’s not kid each other, you and me. We’ve been friends too long. I love bacon, and I know you do, too. Bacon is the answer to many serious afflictions affecting our planet, and probably even the fiscal cliff. Who could forget the pile of salty, fatty slices placed atop the potato pancakes at Creekview Restaurant in Buffalo? Nor the sneakily terrific bacon pizza at Beso in Staten Island? Both graced my palate and made me grin, but neither could compare to 2012 Best Bacon winner Bistro Elephant in Syracuse, with its steaky bacon appetizer. Niman Ranch organic bacon, stewed, served with tamarind, garlic, and chile sauce and delightful, tiny, slightyly-sweet, fried Asian buns. This appetizer was the perfect way to enjoy bacon in a perfectly classy way: bao-style. C’est manifique.

2012 Best Bacon: Bistro Elephant’s Steaky Bacon
It’s been a year for cocktails over wine. I have no idea why this tectonic shift occurred, but I can tell you that, arriving at a restaurant, I have been more eager lately to peruse the bar menu than the wine list. If I wasn’t shutting out non-New York restaurants in my awards, this would go hands-down to Founding Famers bone, that delightful bourbon and bacon confection I devoured in July, or even Tattooed Mom’s Mexican lunchbox, in Philly. But alas, I live here, I blog here, and lately, I’ve been loving Remlik’s concoctions in Binghamton. I don’t always like some of the food at Remlik’s. Some is pretty good, but a lot of it is lazy, given the prices and the gorgeous surroundings you get when you dine in the Kilmer Building. But I love their cocktails. Just last week I had 2012’s Best Cocktail: eggnog with bourbon. Yeah, that’s right. Simple, warming, sweet, and seasonal. For some knuckleheaded reason, I did not take a picture – but I did love it.

Ambiance is such a tricky factor for a restaurant. There are lots of good eats to be found where ambiance is a word unpronounceable to most of the clientele! I include it in my reviews because there are absolutely nights when my friends and I will choose atmosphere over food. When you want a quiet night out or a good place to party, environment can make all the difference. At Creekview Restaurant in Buffalo, I loved the sight of the rushing creek we had from our table, and Loft at 99 is currently sitting as my favorite locale in Binghamton. But 2012’s Best Ambiance award is a no-brainer: Mirbeau Inn and Spa in Skaneateles. I mean, the gardens were designed to look like Monet paintings, for crying out loud. This place is not really establishing a level playing field with joints in Watertown or Buffalo. We took my Mom to Mirbeau for Mother’s Day brunch, and while the food was a bit less than spectacular, the setting hit the mark.

2012 Best Ambiance: Mirbeau Inn and Spa
  As I mentioned previously, entrees have not been high on my list this year. The allure of a variety of small plates has won out in my positive dining experiences, to be sure, though there were high points. Amici’s pizzas have to technically be included in this category, and I absolutely love the pancetta and roasted peppers offered on their rustica pie. I can’t ignore the fabulous osso bucco at Pino Bianco, nor the noodles at Thai Time. But I did have a really unexpected showstopper back in April at Carol’s Café, in Staten Island. The 2012 Best Entrée was Carol’s beef stroganoff, an inelegant but finger-lickin’ take on Russian comfort food. This amalgamation of melted onions, tender, juicy filet, browned butter noodles and deep, rich gravy warmed the cockles of my stone cold heart, Big Hungries. Sure, you’ll have to go to Staten Island to eat there, a quite daunting task in this post-Sandy era, but this one dish makes the journey worth it.

2012 Best Entrée: Beef Stroganoff at Carol’s Café
 The Best Surprise of 2012 came on that harrowing, hungover morning in April, at the Bandwagon Brew Pub in Ithaca. It came not as our appetizer, nor even our entrée, but as the condiment to our burgers: divine, smoky beer mustard. I am left wanton by this silly yellow thing. I am somehow less for having eaten it once and not since. Where for art thou, beer mustard?

2012 Best Surprise: Bandwagon’s Beer Mustard

Last year, I didn’t have a Best Brunch. It must not have been a brunchy year? This year, we enjoyed brunch at Mirbeau, we skipped one at SI’s South Fin Grill, and adored one at Betty’s, in Buffalo. But now that the Hops Spot, in Sackets, is serving up Sunday brunch, it’s the clear winner of 2012 Best Brunch. We loved the beer donuts, citrusy sausage, bacon cheddar bread, and snickerdoodle mini muffins. With both the Hops Spot and Tug Hill Vineyards serving up such proper brunches in the Northcountry, I’m surprised Tin Pan still has those long lines snaking down S. Main St.

2012 Best Brunch: The Hops Spot
 It wasn’t really a year of epic desserts. I kind of feel like cocktails outweighed desserts in my tally book in 2012. That said, I had some great ones in Philly and Charleston. The Best Dessert in NYS was undoubtedly the chocolate chip pie at ChannelSide in Clayton. I suspect this place is closed for the season right now, but I wouldn’t mind another bite of this underbaked cookie in pie form right about now. It was simple, classic, not at all haute, and completely scrumptious.

2012 Best Dessert: Chocolate Chip Pie at ChannelSide
The Best Restaurant mantle is always a hard one to bestow. If I wasn’t putting NY limits on myself, I’m thinking Zahav and Founding Farmers would be engaged right now in a duel to the death for the title. Zahav, in Philadelphia, is the restaurant I most often wish I could eat at on any given night. Its roasted pomegranate lamb shoulder calls to me, and its double roasted eggplant ensnares me in a delicious trap. But the New York guidelines are there for a reason: I want to bolster New York State small business with BHS, and I intend to hold true. This year, when Hurricane Sandy so marred our home, I award Beso Restaurant, in Staten Island, as 2012 Best Restaurant. The meal we had there in June was fun and good – not the best tapas ever, but each dish was solid – and the ambiance was lovely, but it is this restaurant’s staff’s actions in the days following Sandy that have won the prize. Beso is less than two blocks from the Staten Island Ferry terminal, so I have no doubt they experienced some storm surge damage of their own, but immediately after the coast was clear and the storm passed, the cooks and servers of Beso were serving free meals to rescue workers and flood victims in Staten Island. The restaurant’s Facebook page and website were a beacon to the tempest tossed, and they took their job of serving others in the most literal way. Thank you, food friends, for coming to the aid of your neighbors. Well done.

2012 Best Restaurant: Beso Spanish Cuisine

This post has grown long, the year has grown late, and the hem of my dress is unraveling (What? Your clothes don't quit working when you've blogged too long?). Such is life. Tidings of comfort and joy to you, my Hungries. I’ll be back in the new year with many more treats to share. Congratulations to all the recipients of Big Hungry Awards for 2012. No, I don’t have actual awards to give you. I’m a blogger, not a sultan. But I hope Santa brings you your heart’s desire on Christmas Eve, be it bacon, a Lexus with a big, red bow on top, or a partridge in a pear tree. Happy Holidays! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

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  1. Did you see Zahav on Bourdain's show recently?

  2. No, I haven't been able to catch the Philly ep yet! I've been checking every day when I get home for a rerun. It's not On Demand either.

  3. I'm so happy that two of my favorites made your list! Congrats on a great BHS year. I look forward to your adventures in 2012. Lisadam

    1. Have you been to SI since the storm, LLCJ?