BHS Confessional: Food Service Cheaters

Readers of my weekly column in the Waterttown Daily Times, and no doubt you Big Hungries right here as well, are acquainted with my general disdain for restaurant dishes made entirely from processed items from the food service truck rather than from scratch. There are several reasons for this aversion, but the most important one is that, in 99 percent of cases, cooking that begins with fresh, whole ingredients just tastes better.

But this is a new year, and we should be honest with each other, don't you think? I have a confession: there are a few food service processed products that I quite like. 

In college, the SUNY Geneseo food service dept was very fond of serving "Brew City" fries, which are allegedly a beer battered frozen fry. In no way do these fries seem beer battered to me, mind you. There is no lightly crunchy, airy, beer-flavored coating on them. But they are crispier than conventional frozen fries, and more flavorful, too. And they remind me of tuna melts and carefree times on that campus with friends. If I have to consume a frozen French fry, this is my choice.

Also in my college days, I worked at the Chesapeake Bagel Bakery in Watertown during school breaks. We made a surprising amount of the food served there from scratch, including the bagels and the heavenly cream cheese frosting, but our soups were frozen Campbell's, mixed with water and simply heated up. The broccoli cheese was surprisingly good, and I used to love a cup of it with a pesto bagel toasted and smeared with garlic butter for my lunch during a shift. It wasn't the best broccoli cheese soup I've ever had, but the cheddar flavor in it was good, and through some alchemy of food science, the broccoli was never totally overcooked in it.

When I first moved to the Southern Tier, the guys who had previously run the Vestal Steakhouse briefly opened a really great place in the old farmhouse just over the bridge between Vestal and Endicott. They had my favorite ever version of escargot there, dressed with Gorgonzola cheese sauce instead of garlic butter and herbs. I once asked for the recipe, and they informed me that the sauce was straight from Mains Food Service. Thud. That sauce was supremely savory with just a hint of sweetness to take the edge off the umami funk of the blue cheese. It was also fabulous with a well-caramelized ribeye steak. Mm.

My final confession is available today from Art's Jug, in Watertown. I order them every time I go: Red Hook Ale Shrimp. These are pure junk food of the highest order: the beer batter on these babies is legit, with sweetness that echoes the sweetness of the shrimp, which stay juicy due to their protective batter blanket. A squeeze of lemon counters the sweet, and I can eat an entire order on my own, if allowed. They are seriously delicous. I want them right now.

Well, I feel better now that I've gotten that off my chest! Do you have any New Years food confessions to share?

Stay tuned this month for a review of a soul food spot in Binghmaton, a new online food purveyor I'm digging, and more! And as always, my Watertown Daily Times reviews continue every Sunday,a don I'll be here with you on Wednesdays. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


2015 Big Hungry Awards

Ho Ho Ho, Hungries! Santa Shelby's here to confer invisible awards on my favorite foods from around New York State. While my blog travels with me all over the world (coming in 2016: Singapore!), my home and my heart belong to Upstate New York. It's only right to take a look back at some of the best bites of the year from the family-owned eateries north of The City and congratulate them for creating excellent eats and sharing them with the masses.

Without further ado, let's talk about appetizers. I loved the baked onion at Riccardo's in Watertown, because sweet onion plus rich cream heaped onto crusty bread is pretty much my simplistic version of edible Heaven. I also adore the smoke bombs at Food and Fire BBQ in Johnson City: jalapeños stuffed with cooling cheese and wrapped in thick bacon, smoked and swiped with sweet BBQ sauce? That is an exciting and tasty bite that is a test for the taste buds. 

But my 2015 Best Appetizer, the thing I've craved ever since I first had it, is the fried mozzarella at Adams Country Club in Adams. This was not a mere mozzarella stick, people. We're talking about a plank, like big enough for a pirate to walk, of gooey, oozy, creamy melted cheese encased in flavored breadcrumbs and served with chunky, bright, herbal marinara sauce. Sometimes I just find myself daydreaming about this delicious indulgence in the middle of the day. 

After appetizers come salads, and I'm awarding two outstanding ones this year. I can do that, because it's my blog and my awards and I do what I want. Also because one of them was a one night only deal at a wine dinner, while the other should still be available if you want to go get it. The first of the two Best Salads of 2015 is the hearts of palm salad at P.S. Restaurant's Cinco de Mayo wine dinner, which was a concerto on a plate: what vegetables aspire to be. Tender, mildly acidic hearts of palm with salty lardon and crunchy greens bathed in a sweet coconut vinaigrette. It made my heart sing, and I wish Rick would add it to the regular menu!

The second launched my new obsession with Caesar salads. The other Best Salad of 2015 is the Caesar salad with shrimp at 1844 House up in Potsdam. The execution of this salad was flawless: ribbons of tender, young romaine and tiny cubes of crouton perfectly enrobed in the most luxurious blend of egg yolk, Parmesan cheese, anchovy and extra virgin olive oil I have ever tasted. I'm now making my own version at home, but I'm struggling to find the balance this dressing achieved. It was surrounded by succulent, garlic-infused shrimp, which I find to be the perfect accompaniment to this cold, rich salad.

You guys know I have a thing for bacon. Maybe that's an understatement, but please stop judging me. It's not nice! I loved the bacon braised collard greens that came with my fried chicken at the Tailwater Resort, near Pulaski, but the 2015 Best Bacon was at Maestro's in Saratoga Springs. Maestro's pork belly with barley risotto and crispy fried onions was unctuous, savory, earthy and utterly luxurious. 

Tailwater is the bridesmaid again in the race for best side dish. That place's onion rings were the bomb, and you should make your way to Altmar ASAP for a plate of them. But the winner of Best Side Dish of 2015 is the roasted Brussels sprouts from Citrea in Binghamton, because not only did I love them, I hear from other people all the time that they do as well. These sprouts are nutty, caramelized so that all their sweetness develops fully, and just salty enough to counter the sugary woodsiness brought out in the brick oven. They are a must-order at Citrea, and could make even a vegetable-hater into a Brussls sprout aficionado.

One of the best entrees I had in 2015 was of course at Hattie's in Saratoga Springs. Hattie's fried chicken is crunchy, well-seasoned, juicy, and just spicy enough to keep things interesting. But the Best Entree of 2015 was found at Tony R's Steakhouse in Corning. Not only was the Delmonico steak at Tony's mouth-wateringly juicy, perfectly seasoned and exceptionally flavoful, but this restaurant brought together service and ambiance at an equal level. Everything we ate at Tony R's was terrific, but that steak was phenomenal.

I had several contenders for best dessert, all from the north country. At Mullins Family Restaurant in Governeur, the maple walnut bread pudding was light and sweet, moist and creamy. At The Clipper Inn in Clayton, the oatmeal cake sat briefly in its puddle of hazelnut cream sauce before I inhaled its savory, sweet, earthy entirety. But 2015's Best Dessert was absolutely the blueberry goat cheese pie at Pete's Trattoria in Watertown. It was tangy, a lot less sweet than most desserts, and it simply blew my mind. I didn't get a photo of it, unfortunately, so we'll just have to gaze at that yummy oatmeal cake. 😍

Sometimes I get complaints from the readers of my Sunday column in the Watertown Daily Times that I review breakfast places too often. I don't expect the masses to remember that I don't live up there, so when I am in town, I have to capitalize on my time and eat every meal out. I wish food writing could be my full time job, but I'm just not there yet! But because of all those reviews, I have eaten a LOT of good breakfasts/brunches this year. I wanted to give the best brunch award to The Kitchen, because our brunch there in August was simply extraordinary, but it's closed due to some hiccups with permits and the like, so I kind of feel awarding it is futile for you all, despite the excellence of the cinnamon buns, hangover soup, banana pancakes and brisket hash there. But my affection for the 2015 Best Breakfast is just as deep: it's the Nu Pier in Sackets Harbor. This unassuming roadhouse has been on the scene for decades, but right now, it's breakfast game is on fire. Go to the Nu Pier for the fluffiest, most tender and flavorful pancakes around and stay for the slamming corned beef hash, made with chunks of delightfully briny corned beef and herbed, griddled potatoes. 

I always like to award a best surprise, because face it: sometimes local restaurants change our minds for the better. Once in awhile, a place you thought was just OK will come out with a dish that knocks your socks off, or you'll be dragged to a place you had written off, only to be pleasantly impressed by your meal. That was the case with my Best Surprise of 2015, Lampy's in Endicott. I had three bad experiences with service and food at Lampy's years ago and had simply taken it off my list of places to dine. But a work dinner was planned there recently, and everything, from having two servers, to fantastic, spicy, garlicky pickles made by our waiter, to the absolutely flawless braised lamb shank over earthy, nutty Parmesan risotto that I had as my main, was great. I stand corrected, and I'm back to liking Lampy's! 

So, we're there, Hungries. At the end of the post and the end of the year, so I guess it's time to award the best restaurant. Like the other categories, I mulled over a couple really wonderful options for this award. Isn't that a positive dilemma? Eating in Upstate New York means such a variety of fabulous food, it's actually difficult to pick the best! The Kitchen may very well have been my choice were it still open - I was extremely impressed by the ambiance and world class cuisine served there. Let's give it an honorable mention.

We also ate very well in Saratoga Springs in April, and several of those meals could have won. But my Best Restaurant of 2015 must go to Tony R's Steakhouse in Corning. Eating at this restaurant was an utterly transformative experience - this place could easily be successful in a number of world metropolises, but instead it's right on tiny Corning's main drag. The interior is plush, darkened, and sleek; the service is attentive and knowledgable, but not stuffy or pretentious; the food is...well, it's very, very good while still being entirely accessible to an Upstate crowd. The cuisine at Tony's isn't fancy, but the quality of ingredients is exceedingly high and the techniques used in preparation are on par with top restaurants in New York and LA. We're going back there next month for another epic meal, and I can't wait!

So that's it, kids. The best of what's around, at least as far as this big mouth is concerned. I'm going to take a little break now from blogging, to enjoy the holidays with friends and family, and maybe revisits some of these awesome restaurants! Congratulations to all the winners, and thanks to every reader who has stuck around all year to see what I've been up to in my culinary tavels. May tidings of comfort and joy come to you, Hungries! Happy Holidays! 

As ever, my personality is big; my hunger is bigger! 


Watertown Daily Times Review: Colleen's Cherry Tree Inn

I’m a sucker for a happy ending. What Gen X girl isn’t? Unlike our jaded millennials and our pragmatic boomers, we ’70s and ’80s kids absolutely consumed fairy tales, from a mermaid filled with longing for a life on land to an intergalactic princess rescued by a maverick with a really fast spaceship.
I am no less susceptible to stories like the one at Colleen’s Cherry Tree Inn in Henderson, bought in August by longtime managers Colleen and Michael Bellinger, a married couple who met while working there in high school. Awwww! I just had to try the place out for myself, and see if Colleen’s happy ending also ended with a good breakfast.
The Cherry Tree Inn has been wrapped up in welcoming red siding with a fun sign outside that’s shaped like an Instagram post, perfect for patrons to snap a pic and give the restaurant a bit of free advertising when they share it on social media. Inside, the adorable space is much bigger than it looks from the parking lot.

A bustling crowd of casually dressed families and couples were tucking into big plates under the wood-paneled, vaulted ceiling on the Sunday morning we visited.
Our waitress, Deb, knew her menu well and offered expert advice on the finer points of breakfast potatoes, while providing us with frequent coffee refills. Deb is quick, good-natured and clearly a veteran — we liked her immediately.
A ham, American cheese and onion omelet ($7.26) was cooked through perfectly without the egg getting tough. The ham and onions stuffed inside were plentiful but didn’t overpower the flavor of the eggs. A blanket of gooey, white, mild cheese kept its savory colleagues snug as a bug in a rug.

Oatbread toast had heft and chew with a touch of sweetness, which was nice with all the savory flavors going on in this dish.
Home fries, included with the omelet, were well seasoned and griddled brown, with good onion flavor and wonderful, crunchy/chewy texture.
Colleen’s features two kinds of breakfast spuds, so we also ordered a side of country potatoes (show in pancake photo, below), a frozen food supplier’s diced potato product finished in the deep fryer. The cook at the Cherry Tree took care to season them well and not over-fry them. These are an entirely different creature from the griddled, sliced home fries — more lightly crispy than crunchy, with fluffy potato insides and more flavor from salt than from onions.
French toast was made with thick white bread dredged in an eggy, rather than milky, batter, so that the insides were airy but still luscious. Usually, powdered sugar on French toast is overkill, but this generous, snowy sprinkle added to the overall flavor. The batter wasn’t too sweet to begin with, so the sugary flourish at the end perfectly balanced each bite and worked with the syrup to achieve a harmonious bite.

A side of bacon cooked crispy was more porky than salty or smoky. I know we’re prone to waxing poetic about salted, cured meats in this column, so I’ll leave you with: We liked it.

Pancakes were plate-sized and nearly half an inch thick. These fluffy behemoths were highly absorbent, so real maple syrup would have added tremendously to this dish, but alas, we were served the imitation stuff. Insert sad noises here. The syrup kept absorbing completely into the cakes, leaving me tempted to pile on more butter instead. These hotcakes had a lot of promise and wonderful texture, but the flavor of the fake syrup soaking into the vast surface area of the flapjacks deterred from the overall dish.

A colleague with a fishing camp in Sackets told me the Cherry Tree Inn has long been a favorite with his family and that he loves the breakfast specials on the weekends. To be sure, it was tough for us to ignore the more creative treats available on the specials menu the morning we dined there. One of my editor’s few rules is that I be sure to review dishes that are available when readers stop by, so we avoided the yummy-sounding waffles and omelets — but I may have to drop by off the clock to sample these items.
My favorite thing about breakfast at this busy, efficient eatery was watching diners from one table go over to another to greet and hug friends — the morning we visited, it was clear this was a locals’ choice hangout, and that convivial, hospitable atmosphere permeates even to newbies like us.

Our breakfast totaled $36.70 for generous portions for three diners. I award Colleen’s Cherry Tree Inn a seven on the Big Hungry scale: well above average despite some deductions for food distributor potatoes and fake syrup.
A recent Times article on Colleen’s revealed that a new menu is being unveiled soon, so I’m likely to revisit this cheery locale near Lake Ontario for another taste of this couple’s happy ending. When a fairy tale wraps up with a wonderful meal, it makes for a great story.
Cherry Tree Inn Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Dispatch from New Hampshire and Massachusetts

A very quick trip to New England the week before last was filled with work, but also some pretty good food.

At Surf, on Nashua, NH's bustling, charming Main St., my colleagues were pleased with the seafood sandwiches and tacos while I received my fatty tuna (toro) fix with the cozy restaurant's ultimate tuna roll. 

Toro is the bacon of tuna. Ok, not really, as it's not cured or smoked; but it comes from the belly of the fish, and shares bacon's luscious, unctuous qualities. This massive roll employed the sweet toro with crunchy cucumber, sharp wasabi mayo, the pop of tobiko (fish eggs), and clean-tasting micro greens to very pleasing effect.

The garlic shrimp small plate was much different - lightly garlicky shrimp with a cake of firm, grilled yellow polenta, fresh rosemary, tomatoes roasted until almost dried in sweet balsamic vinegar, and a white wine butter sauce. This dish was savory, with lots of good umami flavors, and very homey.

We sat in the bar for our dinner at Surf, and even there, the atmosphere was good. I'd love to return with reservations in order to sit in the dining room and enjoy. Our waitress had good recommendations and thought of everything to make our dinner memorable and delicious - a seven on the BHS scale!

Surf Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The next day, we stopped in Worcester, Massachusetts for lunch on the way back to New York. Often, an en route stop such as this means crappy fast food, but thanks to Zomato, my go-to resource for good food in strange locales, we found the Flying Rhino Cafe, on Shrewsbury St. This bright, colorful space became a new favorite for my two colleagues and me.

Like fried pickles? Me too. Typically in the North, you get dill spears, breaded with panko crumbs and fried, but these were thin, delicately dilled pickle chips, crusted in cornmeal and flour and then flash fried. The resulting fried pickles were crunchy, mild and absolutely addictive - because the breading and pickle were in balance, rather than a thick spear coated in a few breadcrumbs, I found these superior to most versions. Totally yummy.

We also tried the buffalo chicken wontons, which were basically pierogies stuffed with chicken wing dip ingredients: shredded white meat chicken, cream cheese and hot sauce. Can you say yum! I can. Yum.

I went for the Shorty's sandwich: shredded beef short rib with goat cheese, care elites onions, arugula and pickled tomato on brioche. So it had the salty, fatty, utterly tender meat and soft, sweet onions dancing with tangy, creamy cheese, the peppery bite of arugula and lightly pickled, acidic freshness of the tomatoes on a thick, buttery roll. Served with a pile of crispy Parmesan fries kissed ever so slightly with truffle oil, this was a decadent dish that was somehow refined for all its sloppy glory. I loved it. 

We did find the dining room a little loud at the Rhino - two tables very close to us were rather rowdy for lunchtime, but the noise didn't detract from the food one bit. I would gladly return here for the cafe's delightfully vivid decor and equally quirky spins on American cuisine. This place rates an eight on ye olde BHS scale.

Flying Rhino Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

This was a very quick jaunt up to New England, and usually, this kind of hectic trip would mean rushed, junky meals a thruway stops. I'm so happy my colleagues had the patience to let me guide us to some new, fun spots to try out, and that both turned out to be so good. We'll be back to Surf and Flying Rhino on future trips for sure! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!