2014 Big Hungry Shelby Awards

It's here, folks! My annual round-up of the best eats in New York State! Well, most of New York State. I didn't step foot in Manhattan or Buffalo this year. I do what I can as a part-time blogger, full-time PR professional, part-time food columnist and volunteer pageant director, but what I can isn't always as encompassing as I wish it could be.

As always, I looked back through all my BHS reviews a couple days ago, and was bowled over by the great food I was lucky enough to try in our great state this year. I know I sometimes make fun of the proliferation of chains, the near omnipresence of stalwarts like chicken parm on our menus, and the scarcity of really good ethnic food (apart from Italian) in our towns. But just try to get to the end of this best of list and deny we eat well in this little pocket of the country. 

I will remind you that I don't have actual awards to give, but heaps of praise and gratitude from my tummy are sent to each of the chefs responsible for these delicious bites. And in appreciation for the bounty of 2014 and my personal thanksgiving that I'm able to partake in such a decadent hobby, I will be donating some cash to Share Our Strength, and organization that helps needy children get some yummy in their tummies. If you'd like to help, go to nokidhungry.org and throw some sheckles their way.

So let's get down to it...while not everybody places an emphasis on this aspect of their dining out,  ambiance is important to me. There are nights a bustling, noisy, nightclub-esque dinner are just what the doctor ordered, and other days that I just won't be happy unless I can have a lobster roll on a sun-soaked patio. This year, that blissful, I am so content right now feeling came from a little place in Clayton that's grown up right before my eyes over the last couple years. 2014's Best Ambiance was found on Bella's Bistro's riverfront deck at sunset. The deck is multi-level, twinkle light-lit, and absolutely charming. 

The Best Appetizer is always a hotly contested category, and my friends over at P.S. Restaurant in Vestal nearly clinched it with Rick's fabulous wedge salad - the best I've ever had. But this year, I have to give top honors to a simple ball of burratta that stole my heart, surrounded by perfectly in-season wedges of heirloom tomatoes and packing the most heavenly, ethereal cream center a wad of mozzarella ever encountered. Congratulations to Enoteca Maria in Staten Island!

I am who I am, and I love bacon. The bacon obsession seems to be going out of vogue, to my immense sadness, but I'll cling to my pork fat for as long as the foodie gods let me. The Best Bacon of 2014 was at newbie Social on State in Binghamton. The pork belly and pineapple tapas there was sweet, salty, with crispy, rendered fatty lusciousness - there was a hint of spice in there from sweet chili sauce, and the sourness of the grilled pineapple balanced the sugars of both the fruit and meat nicely. 

Side dishes were more interesting than usual this year. Thank goodness! I loved the lemony mushroom risotto that came alongside my duck at the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel's Seaway Grille in Clayton, but I have to pick the resolutely perfect sauerkraut and mushroom pierogi at Podlasie in Endicott as 2014's Best Side. These tiny, homemade dumplings had delicate dough, mild kraut, earthy mushrooms, the perfect amount of butter and shatteringly crisp shards of bacon to garnish them. I want them right now, please. They were homey, comforting, and fantabulously delicious. If you've never had a homemade pierogi, run to this place!

Last year, I sort of lamented that I wasn't finding entrees to be as exciting as the appetizers I was finding all over the state. I'm happy to report that this year, I have three contenders in this category, and on different days, any one could be the winner. In Clayton, I adored The Codfather at Gabe's Taco Kitchen - a masterpiece of a fish taco that could rival San Diego's best. At Dasher's Corner Pub, in Homer, the Wellington sandwich rocked my world - you just don't find a lot of pate as a sandwich spread in these parts, but I wish we did! But 2014's Best Entree goes to the confit chicken with corn purée at Loft at 99. What they billed as confit chicken was really the most tender, chickeny fried chicken ever, and the corn purée they served with it last summer was stupid. Or it made me stupid when I ate it, because I loved it so much I wanted to marry it. And THEN they put a glob of honey butter on top, and they murdered me.

Desserts were sort of my lame duck this year. I had lots of good ones, but few greats. I very much liked the custard-filled donut served with hot chocolate at Dasher's Corner Pub. But taking the honors home this years for Best Dessert is the sweet, achingly sour, tender and creamy coconut cheesecake at the Colgate Inn in Hamilton. 

I've struggled with brunch lately. I want to eat it more. I wrote about it for the Watertown Daily Times, and for the blog as well. At Loft at 99, I had this amazing pasta with bacon, bechamel, and a perfect, sunny side up egg on top a few weeks ago and freaked out about how good it was. But 2014's Best Brunch is definitely to be found up in Adams at Gram's Diner. Every weekend, hoards of folks are packing it into this humble restaurant in the tiny village's downtown block to sample savory egg bakes, fruit-laden French toasts, bonnie breakfast casseroles, comfort food-influenced omelets, and a ridiculous buffalo Benedict that I particularly loved. 

After five years of blogging about everything interesting I eat, I always think I'm out of surprises. But they're still out there! At the gorgeous Seaway Grille in Clayton's new jewel, the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel, our delightful waitress brought three complimentary, homemade chocolate-covered fresh cherries sitting on tiny thrones of whipped cream to our table. They were terrific, and it was the Best Surprise ever. 

You guys, Best Restaurant is hard to choose. I love Enoteca Maria, in Staten Island, deeply. I want to eat there every time I go to NYC - forever. Having real Italian nonnas cook for you is genius, and every aspect of the two meals I had there this year were flawless. But the Best Restaurant of 2014 fed me even better, somehow. 2014's Best Restaurant is Loft at 99This little spot in Bingamton lost some clientele when they closed for a bit last year and switched owners, but they are back and totally killing it. The cocktail program is utterly superb, the specials and sides are inspired and creative, and several dishes, like a pickled watermelon, corn, tomato and bacon "salad," just knocked my socks off this year. If you haven't been there since they reopened, go. Make haste. Enjoy the blond wood interior, the jovial chef and owner, and the wonderful pisco sour they're mixing up at the bar. Go, and simply eat well. 

Loft at Ninety Nine on Urbanspoon

In the coming year, I'm looking forward to trying the new Thousand Islands Inn in Clayton, Binghamton's The Colonial, and Muddy Waters in Baldwinsville. I'll round up at least one more dinner in Corning for you, and I'll head back to the Capital Region in April with some good eats on the agenda. But for now, I'm going to stay in, mix up a batch of Tom and Jerrys, and enjoy the rest of 2014 with my family. I hope you head out over whatever vacation you're managing in the next couple of weeks and try some of these really wonderful restaurants and dishes - I promise they're worth your while! Eat local in 2015, y'all! So, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, my Hungries. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!


  1. Shelby I love the blog. I cannot wait to make it to 1000 Islands again.

    1. I'm so glad! There's great food on the horizon in TI this coming year, and I will be covering it all here!

  2. Glad you enjoyed the Pisco Sours!!! Such a lovely libation it is. Can't wait to serve you again sooner then later. :-)

  3. I don't live far from Binghamton, so three of those places now interest me. I'll have to check them out and see about the dishes you have listed here.