A Couple Bites of Clayton

The Rotary Club in Clayton puts on The Taste of the Town annually as a fundraiser. As this year's was at the glorious new 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel, and as my chef buddy Gabe had been making a big deal out of the bacon sauerkraut he was prepping for event on Facebook, I figured I'd better make an appearance.

My crew and I descended on the Harbor Hotel in the windy, frigid, slushy mess of a winter's day and beheld for the first time one of my Watertown Daily Times reviews framed in the lobby. In the lobby! I'm a little verklempt about it. 

We proceeded into the ballroom expecting to see all of Clayton's (and maybe some of Alex Bay's) great eateries represented. Sadly, only the Thousand Islands Inn and the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel were offering savory dishes! Nothing from Bella's Bistro, Channelside, Wood Boat Brewery, Attilio's Pizzeria, or Clipper Inn. You know how some towns roll up the sidewalks at night? I guess Clayton actually just rolls them up for the entire winter. Sad face.

Luckily, the Thousand Islands Inn brought it, via Gabe's Taco Kitchen, which I reviewed here last summer. Gabe not only brought the yum but also brought his chef buddy Andy Wehrle, from Bella's Bistro, for double the tiny taco pleasure.

Gabe's Rachael taco was overfilled with the most juicy, tender roasted white meat turkey I have ever eaten. I suspect there was confit prep going on with that poultry, and I shudder to think what that will do to my weigh-in tomorrow at Weight Watchers. Then he went right ahead and gilded that lily with a pile of tangy bacon-laced sauerkraut that avoided the sharpness commercial krauts have and stuck to  a savory, salty pop of flavor to offset the luscious turkey. A sprinkle of Swiss cheese melted into the tortilla was required, but was balanced with a final drizzle of the original 1000 Islands dressing, which was invented at the hotel. The dressing added sweetness to each bite, and a creaminess that tied together the tang and salt of the other ingredients. This taco may have only contitued three bites, but they were a concerto in my mouth.

My second favorite was a sweet offering from The Gal's Place, which is on Rt 12 in Alex Bay. Gals is a catering venture, and they were offering chocolate cupcakes with wine frosting. Yeah, you read that right. 

For all you frosting aficionados out there who also consider wine your salvation, this cupcake was invented for you. The cake avoided too much richness with a not-too-sweet cocoa flavor, and was very moist. The frosting was lightly sweet and fruity, with none of the heavy sugary flavor that regular old buttercream has. I want these for my birthday this year! You know, when I turn, uh, 27.

The host hotel was serving up little bowls of chili, which seemed like maybe a bit of an after-thought, as if the organizers realized they only had one real savory dish at the party, and begged a line cook to whip this up on the day of. I thought the chunks of carrot in the thick chili were novel, but the predominant flavor here was just dried chili powder, and I didn't taste the care and creativity I discovered at the Harbor Hotel's Seaway Grille anywhere in that bowl. 

The Scoop, in Clayton, is a favorite of our Miss TI Pageant crew. We grab coffee, ice cream, and breakfast pastries there every summer during pageant weekend next door at the Opera House, and everything is always good. I liked the thin slice of carrot cake I grabbed from their table at the event, which had fabulous spice, but my Mom really went nuts for the chocolate chip cookie she had. She liked it so much, she used another ticket to get a second cookie! I didn't dare snag a bite from her eager maw, but I assume the lady knows of which she speaks.

1000 Islands Cruet opened last year on James St in Clayton, selling olive oils of many flavors as well as fun and delicious vinegars. At Taste of the Town, I sampled their cranberry pear vinegar, and I will be buying a full bottle next time I'm up north. This light, piquant vinegar had none of the bitterness you'd associate typically with the condiment, and read more like a slightly viscous, sweet wine on the palate. It would be epic on a fruit salad. When my bread was gone, I simply drank the rest out of its diminutive cup.

At River Rat Cheese, we tried a tiny square of chocolate cheese, which had the texture of room temp mild cheddar but the flavor of fudge. Lyric Cafe brought white chocolate caramel shakes which my Dad liked but was pretty meh for me - I just tasted vanilla. We were glad we went - that taco and the wine frosting completely made my $5 worth it, but I hope more seasonal places decide to shake off hibernation and participate next year!

If you're a Southern Tier resident and a foodie, you should know about STIR. Southern Tier Independent Restaurants (STIR) was formed by a bunch of local restauranteurs who believe, as I do, that people need help to learn that the good stuff is at local restaurants, and chains are deteriorating our culinary landscape. I started my blog with the hope that I could convince a few people that a place like Remlik's is more suitable for an anniversary dinner than Red Lobster. But it's hard for these small business owners to afford the kind of marketing that national chains achieve - and that marketing works, right? We see these sizzling, gigantic platters of food on our TV late at night, and we want that. Sure, the food never actually looks like that once it's in front of us and it tastes even worse, but by then it's too late, they've got us.

STIR member restaurants pool their resources to advertise locally and hold events that increase their visibility to the community. The first of these is coming up on Sunday, March 15 at Traditions at the Glen. You can snag a STIR VIP membership card for $25 at some member restaurants, which not only grants you a spot at this event, with tastings from 20 local eateries and six cooking demos, but will also garner discounts and special offers. Basically, if you want to be a food insider in the Triple Cities, you need a card. Here are the restaurants where you can purchase the cards:

P.S. Restaurant
Food and Fire BBQ
Zona and Co Grille
Number 5
Mogul Fine Indian Cuisine
Loft at 99
A Tavolo
Tranquil Bistro
Traditions at the Glen
Galaxy Brewing Company
California Grill

But guess what? I'm a board member of STIR. As such, I have an extra card, and I would love to give a membership to someone who promises to support local restaurants and food people. So comment below before Monday, March 2 with why you love local restaurants, and you might win! I'll make sure to get your card to you before the big event so you won't miss out. And I'll see you there. Even if you don't win, please get yourself a membership! I know this group has lots of delicious things in store for our community, and a STIR VIP card is the best way for you to be a part! My hunger is big, my personality is bigger! 


Taste the Skinny

I started Weight Watchers again in January, and am finding success with it, as I do. I love that you can really eat anything you want on plan, as long as you watch your portions, work out, and save those points for indulgences.

Shawn just told me that two dishes I've made recently, both under 10 points, were so good they should be in rotation even when we aren't on plan, so I figure that means they're good enough to pass them along! 

The first is from Skinnytaste, which has been one of my favorite healthy recipe source blogs for a couple years. The author, Gina, just put out her first cookbook, and it's the bomb. Every recipe has the complete nutritional stats so you can pop it into whatever app you're using to help manage your diet plan, and on her blog, she also converts every recipe into WW points plus for you.

I made her cheesy jalapeño popper baked chicken earlier this week. Shawn and I both loved it, and I suspect I'll be making it about once a week going forward. I took him to Food and Fire for smoke bombs recently, and now I'm afraid we're locked in a popper cycle that will be difficult from which to disengage. Wanna see it? Here it go: http://www.skinnytaste.com/2012/04/cheesy-jalapeno-popper-baked-stuffed.html

These were rich, spicy without making you want to remove your head, and really satisfying for only 9 ppts.

Dinner number two I whipped up tonight. It had a fewer vegetables and more processed foods than I usually like to use in my cooking, but Shawn liked it more than the standard chicken pot pie casserole I've been making for almost 15 years, and at 8 ppts per serving, who am I to argue? It's from the Emily Bites blog, home of such delicious and inventive creations as French dip cupcakes! http://www.emilybites.com/2015/02/bubble-chicken-pot-pie-casserole.html

I found this a little simpler on my palate. For a future go-round, I may dress it up with a few more spices. But look, biscuits = good. And biscuits when you're dieting = YAY!

If you're trying to shed a few pounds before spring gets here - if it ever does (I'm not convinced), these two sites should earn bookmarks on your computer or mobile device. The Skinnytaste recipes tend to be a bit more labor intensive, though healthier, while Emily Bites is geared more towards slimmed down comfort foods. Both are helping me on my journey, and I'm so grateful. I'm 11 lbs down in five weeks, and feeling much better.

I'm heading up to the North Country this weekend to cover a few spots for my Watertown Daily Times column, and while I'm up there, intend to hit Clayton's Taste of the Town. Here are the deets:

Might I see you there? I have it on good authority that Thousand Islands Inn's Chef Gabe will be there, whipping up tacos containing bacon kraut. Sooooo yeah...I'll see you there.

The Colonial, in Binghamton, is finally open, and I promise I will get there as soon as I can and report out, OK? This frigid weather, as usual this time of year, has kind of been sidelining my gallivanting lately. But it can't last forever, right? Please let me be right. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


Seasonal Affective New World Order (SANWO)

I am announcing a grand social experiment! It shall commence each February right around the time we Northerners think to ourselves, "if it snows one more time, I am never leaving the house again, ever," or, "I give up on making myself presentable; I just want to be warm."

So here's the plan: we all buy as many Italian dinner rolls (or your favorite bread) as we can - like the amount you would order if you were hosting a graduation party - and get several bricks of good Kerrygold butter. We dress in stretchy pants and sweatshirts and we amass cuddly blankets. Then we climb onto our couches, remote in hand, and we don't leave until the sun is shining and the grass is showing.

I don't want to go to work, I don't want to prepare meals, I don't want to talk to people unless it's to complain about the weather. I want the pretty people on the TV to entertain me and I want to consume a metric ton of bread and butter and I want naps and limited interaction with three dimensional humans and/or donning of cold weather gear and battling of the elements. This, my friends, is the SANWO.

If you would like to eschew leaving your house until spring and join me on my quest for simple carbohydrates, a sedentary lifestyle, and really good butter, you don't have to interact with me in any way! Just take a leave of absence from work, don thy pants of yoga, and snuggle up. It's what all the cool kids are doing. This month's SANWO newsletter will cover the very best rolls and European butter and have a guide to daytime's most mindless TV. 

Engaging in the experiment with your mate is optional, but be advised that fellow humans CAN provide warmth and ultimate snuggling comfort, if they agree to limit conversation. But they may also eat your rolls and butter. Be advised. 

See you in the spring!


I Eat the Best Things

I'm all kinds of caught up lately in the Food Network's new show Best Thing Ever, as well as its original food porn series The Best Thing I Ever Ate and Cooking Channel's Unique Eats. For the same reason I like reading about food, I like watching these singular, perfect dishes on the screen. It feels indulgent with zero caloric repercussions.

So I thought I would start doing a few Best Things posts here and there, to kind of take you guys back to really outstanding dishes at some of the places I've been in the past. This week, let's start with Mexican food, shall we? It's cold out, and spicy food seems apt.

At Jose Andreas' Oyamel, in downtown Washington, DC, I made a whole big deal out of the margarita with salt foam, which was refreshing and sinful, mind you. But I'm not sure I fawned duly over the diminutive but excellent suckling pig confit taco with tomatillo salsa. Naturally, the pork was exceedingly luscious and tender, on account of being cooked in its own fat. But I also was really impressed with the salsa, because I often find tomatillos to be a little too on the acidic side, and this bright green, citrusy sauce was very well balanced. This taco amounted to about three bites, but they were bites of perfection.

In Austin, Maria's Taco Express is a good place for a good time. The express in the name is no joke, either: the food here comes quickly, and the beer comes in a bucket. You order inside and grab a seat on the deck to listen to some great, live music and chow down on scratch made Meixcan made by a lady from Venezuela. The carne guisada tacos here were served on homemade tortillas filled with chipotle-sauced tender beef. Even the rice on the side was well-seasoned, perfectly cooked, and full of personality. 

Surprisingly, the best Mexican sides I've ever had we're not in California or Texas, but Ithaca. I swear! Agava, near Cornell, is churning out uncommonly good Mexican chow for Upstate NY (along with he trademark Ithaca 'tude). My favorites were the street corn on the cob, roasted in the wood-burning oven, sprinkled with cayenne, squirted with lime, and then given a coating of cotija cheese crumbles. Corn prepared in this style has a cult following on Instagram, and for good reason - it is not your childhood's corn on the cob (unless you grew up in Mexico City). It's sweet and charred from the oven, spicy, sharp, and salty from the cheese and then fresh and lightened up by a shower of cilantro at the end. Frankly, the word masterpiece comes to mind. Or the word glutton. Whichever.

The other best thing I had at Agava was a dish that's usually a throwaway item at most Mex joints: black beans. At Agava, they were salty, spiced, deep, annnnnnd beany? Yeah, they were beany. Deal with it. I asked my waitress how they were prepared and she said with onions and garlic, then turned on her heels and walked away. She was a liar. They were most definitely boiled in unicorn tears and flavored with shavings from a norwall's horn. Obviously.

So tell me where your favorite Mexican dishes can be found! I need new places to hit in 2015, and I'm looking for inspiration! Is there a chimichanga that chimi'd your socks off? Nachos that rocked your world? Sound off in the comments! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


Watertown Daily Times Review: Kicking it New School at Adams Country Club

I remember dinners out with my grandparents at Tomacy’s, in Adams, when I was a kid. They were huge golf nuts, members at the Watertown Golf Club at Thompson Park, and I think dinner at the club – or any club – held an appeal for them that was more indicative of their glory days in the 60s and 70s, rather than the neon 80s of my childhood.

Even then, the flagstone floor and planters serving as room dividers seemed dated; by the time I attended a wedding there in the early aughts, I remember wondering that a renovation hadn’t yet updated the space, but I did feel a bit of nostalgic affection for all that flagstone.

Well Tomacy’s is now The Adams Country Club, and it has traded the 70s den feel for a warm, welcoming interior with some of ye olde flagstone still in residence, but everything else fresh and bright. The two spacious dining rooms and a big central bar are all framed by huge windows to let in the view of one of the prettiest, greenest nine hole courses around.
The joint was jumping on the night our group visited, the families around us stuffing their faces merrily and getting just a bit raucous – which with the low ceilings made it a little loud, but fun. We just reconfigured ourselves so we could hear on another a little better, ordered a round of drinks, and joined right into the party.

Adams’ CC is billing itself as an Italian steakhouse, which I find an intriguing concept, as I don’t necessarily think “steak” when I think of Italian food. The menu is a good mix of north country standards and some more creative dishes, though I hear the new chef/owner, Michael, is going to continue to evolve the offerings into the next year. And I get the steakhouse moniker, as the menu is offering several cuts of beef with steakhouse-style sides rendered with Italian flavors. Cool idea.

A brilliant idea is the basket of focaccia brought to each table with a cup of bright green herbed oil for dipping. The bread is light, airy – less greasy than a lot of focaccia can tend to be, and bursting with the lively sharpness of fresh garlic and herbs when you dip a slice in that gorgeous oil. This is a mouthful of warm Tuscany in the middle of a long Northern New York winter.

I have to tell you first about the mozzarella fritti ($7.99), because I am a hedonist and I do not believe in saving the best in any way. Guys, these are not some dinky sticks of fried cheese. Order this, and your waitress will bring you huge slabs of creamy, oozy mozzarella, breaded in the finest crispy shell of breadcrumbs and ready to dunk in a homey, deep, slow-cooked marinara. You know how a fat kid loves cake? Yeah well, Big Hungries love this appetizer, which has probably ruined me for all other mozzarella sticks.
Does the phrase buttery wine sauce elicit the same mouthwatering response for you as it does for me? Then you should order the artichoke French ($8.99). You’ll receive a vast number of tender, lemony artichoke hearts just lightly battered with egg and then baked in this gooey, mildly citrusy, but mostly rich and buttery sauce that is utterly delectable.

If you’re a dinner ninja (I am), you’ll scoop one these onto a slice of that fluffy foccacio bread, and then you’ll groan so loudly, they’ll hear you out in the bar. This is miles beyond the dinners I ate here with grandma and grandpa all those years ago.

Tuscan onion soup ($4.99) is laced with pancetta and a load of thyme. The Tuscan comes in the form of cippolini onions, which are tiny, flattened out, really sweet yellow babies that cost roughly three times what your ordinary Spanish cooking onions would.
The stock was also good and beefy – I would wager it was started with short ribs, which are quite fatty. The resultant broth was on the greasy side, but really well flavored. We guessed there may have even been a splash of beer in the mix. Rather than one disc of bread, you get several large crostini under the blanket of browned, crunchy cheese. The broth received mixed reactions at our table; I liked it, but I don’t know that it goes in my Top Five of onion soups.

The salad course at ACC is served family style, which I always like. Family style service invites a conviviality that works well in this kind of setting, and the Italian dressing in the big bowl of salad here was mild and light, while the salad was packed with grape tomatoes, cucumbers and black olives. I would have welcomed some roasted red peppers and gorgonzola cheese in there to further drive home the Italian flavors and dress up this course, but that’s not to say it wasn’t tasty as is.

At this point, dirty dishes started to pile up a bit on our table, and there was some lag time before our entrees came. But there were several really large parties in the dining rooms that night, and I’m betting that happened to be a crucial point in service for both, backing up the kitchen and requiring all hands on deck. As soon as our entrees did arrive, our cheerful waitress was back in fine form, friendly, helpful and attentive.

Scampi served over angel hair pasta ($19.99) was a carbohydrate lover’s dream, supremely creamy and delicately seasoned. The shrimp were succulent and plentiful up on top, and all I could think while tasting it was that if you had just been dumped, this would be perfect comfort food! It wasn’t overly garlicky, just buttery, and there was a metric ton of pasta coated in the glorious scampi sauce.
Sirloin al forno ($17.99) was served sliced, but every single one was cooked perfectly as ordered and still juicy, dusted with parmesan and well-seasoned. The green beans alongside were also perfectly crisp-tender and fresh, not frozen. And the French fries were hand cut! You know how strict I am about fries, and these lived up to my standards.

The sides at Adams Country Club are top notch. Again, I would have really grooved on these as a kid, but I’ll gladly take them now. Macaroni and cheese ($4.99) was baked with a crusty cheese top and plenty gooey, just how you want it. I noted that I prefer a sharper cheddar in my mac, but my fellow diners shushed me and kept on plowing through it.

The twice baked potato ($4.99) was excellence in potato form. You could taste the creamy sour cream and generous amount of butter mingling with the fluffy, earthy potato filling, and the top had that same browned, crusty cheese top as the mac and the soup. There should be a cult based on browned, crusty cheese.

Chicken alla zucca ($17.99) was one of the more interesting and inventive dishes on the menu. The chicken was pounded thin and pan seared with just the lightest coating of flour. The two breast cutlets were smothered in a pile of al dente pumpkin ravioli, with some dried cranberries, diced pancetta, walnuts and fresh sage all coated in just a small amount of nutty, sweet browned butter.
The ratios were right on in this complex dish, because too much of any one of the sweet ingredients could have pushed this into dessert territory – which would make the chicken a little bit weird. Instead, it was properly seasoned with salt and pepper, and the sauce, pumpkin and cranberries were all used with restraint. I loved it.

Haddock ($15.99) was ordered E.V.O. and lemon style – you can pick your prep for each of the four kinds of seafood offered – and roasted. It was very light and not overcooked, dressed simply with lemon and parsley. Fish is not my favorite unless it’s raw, but this was good.
The sirloin tips were served in a garlic sauce with sliced baby bella (brown) mushrooms and onions. The meat in this dish was tender, but the entrée as a whole was probably the weakest we ordered. I felt like the sauce was a little muddy and lacked the complexity and depth we found with most of the other sauces that hit our table. It needed a little wine or some other kind of acid to kind of wake it up, you feel?

We all shared a trifecta of desserts. My favorite, flat out, was the brownie sundae ($5). I wrote on my notes that it was insane, and I’m standing by that gut reaction. The brownie base of this behemoth was legit – fudgy, deeply chocolaty and homemade, first of all. Then they topped it with vanilla ice cream and some dark chocolate sauce, then jammed a couple of handfuls of crumbled up Oreos on top, just to prove that they were cool. Well done, guys. My favorite part was how deep both the brownie and the sauce were, but with none of the bitterness dark chocolate usually lends.
I didn’t much care for the cheesecake topped with strawberry sauce ($4), which was overly dense for me, but the tiramisu ($6.50) had great, mousse-like texture and robust coffee flavor.

Dinner for five with two appetizers, three desserts and a couple adult beverages came to $155.62, and yes, these entrees are a bit higher in price than your standard family restaurant in the North Country, but what you’re getting for your money is not standard, nor are the portion sizes.

I award Adams Country Club an eight on the Big Hungry scale, for the quality of the ingredients, the effort in the kitchen to make each dish special, and the fun but still relaxing atmosphere. Chef Michael Jeschawitz came out to greet a few of the tables, including ours, and was personable and seemingly eager to please his customers – I like to see that.

This is not a meal that will absolutely knock you off your rocker with cutting edge cuisine, but it is a really wonderful, kind of different place to bring friends and family and have a well prepared meal with just enough twists and turns to tantalize your taste buds. I will say, the bathrooms were chilly, so bring a sweater, young lady! But mostly, bring your appetite. Order starters, order sides, and enjoy, because between live music in the bar and plenty of yum in the kitchen, La Bella Fonte isn’t your grandma’s dinner at the club.
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