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! 


  1. I should have read this post AFTER a meal. Now I'm salivating.

    Great picks and guide!

  2. Try writing it - I was ravenous!