2016 Big Hungry Awards

The end of the year lists should be upon us this week from every media outlet on the planet. There are a lot of guides out there on how to attract more readers to your blog, and they all tout doing more lists, but for BHS purposes, longer form posts just make more sense. You can't really review a restaurant in a Top 10 format.

But I do have one list for you every year, and it's my own little awards show in a post: The Big Hungry Awards. Annually, I pick the best of what I ate and where I ate it in New York State the previous 12 months. I might have had a better bacon dish in Germany or Philly, but these awards are limited to New York State, as that is really the focus of my blog. So if you're looking around for somewhere really tremendous to stuff your face over the holidays, I've got you!

So here we go, let's not beat around the bush. The Best Appetizer of 2016 is probably also my favorite dish in all of the Southern Tier: the Angry Lobster at Social on State. I'm popping this into the appetizer category because Social does all small plates, although I would eat this as a main course, given that the sheer amount of wine and butter in it calorically qualifies it as a full meal. It is rich, spicy, and just a tiny bit sweet - balancing out all those flavors with huge, tender chunks of decadent lobster. I love it.

Salads are not usually my jam, as you know, but I do like to give you all a Best Salad category because plenty of you probably like them. While this salad wasn't extraordinary in and of itself, the dressing was so good, I was eating it off a spoon by the end of the course. 2016's Best Salad can be found way up in Morristown at Ella's on the Bay, and the big winner is Ella's delectable homemade ranch dressing. This stuff was thick, garlicky, and bursting with fresh herbs. Absolutely fabulous.

Hand and Foot is a relative newcomer to Corning's Gaffer District, and we absolutely loved everything we ate there for lunch last January. The fried chicken sandwich stood out, not only for its crunchy house-made pickles and expertly fried bird, but the thick-cut local bacon on it. The bacon was sweet and smoky, balancing the other flavors and textures on the sandwich handily. It was my Best Bacon dish of 2016

Side dishes, overall, were not super strong this year, but I like to recognize perfect french fries whenever I can, and The Barley Pub, in Belleville, is doing them right. These hand-cut, double-fried, well-seasoned beauties take Best Side Dish of 2016 in my book, and we will be back for more.

Well, we've had our appetizers and salad course, we better move on to the entrees. There were some excellent ones this year, but I'm giving the prize to Gilda's, in Skaneateles. This charming bistro's cozy interior, superior wine list, and small menu of pizzas and small plates won us over immediately, and that impression grew even more rosy with the hot soppressatta pizza, topped with spicy Italian salami and honey, plus pecorino cheese for a little tang. This was the Best Entree of 2016 for my taste buds, because the sweet and the heat played off one another so well, and the cheeses were high enough quality to lend their own personality to the overall flavor.

My next winner is, sadly, a restaurant that is about to say goodbye. It's a favorite of my family's, so I'm bummed to see Carol's Cafe go. But Carol, the chef at the helm of this Staten Island institution, is retiring, and more power to her! I will miss her quaint cafe stuck in the middle of that bustling island, and I will miss her absolutely singular caramel shrimp appetizer, which has won my Best Appy accolade in the past. So this year, Carol's gets my award for Best Dessert for her gorgeous, light-as-air chocolate souffle. Like Carol's Cafe itself, this dish is a masterpiece - a rare treat to find on a menu anymore, and something most chefs just aren't willing to bother with. Now that Carol is retiring, we will have one less spectacular souffle in this world, and we will be the poorer for it.

Corned beef hash is one of my favorite breakfast treats, and it's not easy to find a really good, house-made one in Upstate NY. That's why I was so enthusiastic about the excellent hash at the Highland Park Diner in Rochester over the summer. This was pretty straightforward corned beef and potatoes shredded up finely and crisped on the flat-top griddle, but some fresh parsley in the mix lifted the flavors up a bit, and there was a bit of sweetness in the beef brine that was a nice counter to the overt saltiness you typically get from all that cured meat. This dish wins my Best Breakfast award this year.

Best Ambiance was actually the first award I decided on this year, because it was the easiest to point out. The Krebs, in Skaneateles, is simply one of the most gorgeous dining experiences I've ever had, in Upstate NY or anywhere else. From the gracious front porch, framed in ferns, on which to enjoy cocktails, to the cream and dark wood interior decked out with modern, posh lighting and lots of fabric to absorb sound and render peace, this restaurant has been lovingly remodeled into the most luxurious supper club you'll find. I had a few notes on the food in my review back in September, but the ambiance and service of this five star locale were not among them.

I started a new category last year called Best Surprise, and I wanted to stick with it this year. The choice was really easy - Ella's, in Morristown, again. Have you ever been up to Morristown? It's little, you guys. There is a funeral home, a tiny marina, and maybe an insurance office in this village, and then Ella's. What they are doing, from a culinary standpoint, at this restaurant is far more than they need to do to be successful, because they have a clientele of locals built in due to being the only game in town! And yet, Ella's has expertly mixed cocktails, house-made salad dressings and bread dipping oil, inventive entrees, and desserts that will force you to groan around your fork. I encouraged you all to choose Ella's for a summer date night, and I'm reinforcing that recommendation all these months later, because it's that good there. Who would have thought it?

I'm a sentimental sort of fool. I know this about myself. I'm sad to see Chef Carol retire and close up her Dongan Hills landmark in Staten Island. And so, in celebration of her decades of excellence, I am awarding Carol's Cafe Best Restaurant of 2016. We took new friends there over the summer, before learning it was closing, and I'm so glad we got a last visit in. If you read this and live downstate, there is still time - she's open until December 31st, so run, don't walk, to get your chocolate souffle, liver and onions, and caramel shrimp. Thank you, Carol, for feeding us so well all these years, and enjoy your retirement!

Well, that's about it from me until after Christmas, Hungries. Congratulations to all the big winners. Um, don't, like, watch the mail for your award or anything. These are more pay-on-the-back, bragging rights kind of accolades due to another year of budget constraints around the Big Hungry homestead. But I send thanks to these local restaurants along with my congratulations, because finding food this good in our little paradise of New York State is always a pleasure. Your hard work and dedication to feeding people well is why I blog, and it really makes a difference in our communities.

My hunger is big; my personality is bigger! This is BHS, signing off for now --


Dispatch from Arlington: Binghamton Boys Bring the Bounty

Last year, I gave a mini-review of Liberty Tavern, the Arlington, VA flagship restaurant of two brothers who hail from Binghamton - the Fedorchaks.

Last week, I was back in Arlington for work, and took some colleagues with me for dinner at Lyon Hall, the brothers' French brasserie/German beer hall. I had an exciting conversation about the meal prior to leaving town with my buddy Dan, from Food and Fire, and was pumped to sample this menu, which features food not found on your typical Upstate NY slate.

Lyon Hall, you notice right away, is a very cool spot. It's a fairly cozy space, but very chic - a dark interior with marble floors, close-set tables, and subway tile. Because the tables are so close together, you can smell everything your neighbors are eating, which is a blessing and a curse. The food here smells divine, you guys. No joke. We ordered enough for probably seven or eight people for our four-top, but the mussels and macaroni and cheese on the table next to me where so intoxicating, I briefly flirted with stealing them.

One member of our party had scouted the menu prior to arrival, and was jazzed about the butcher's block, so that was our first order of business. The foie gras torchon was my favorite thing on this board, followed closely by a dollop of truffle mustard that was luxurious but not overpowering. The pate was silky and rich, processed just as the gods intended and absolutely wonderful.

The pile of prosciutto over in the corner was aged 18 months, and was almost as buttery as duck prosciutto - savory and sweet in almost equal measure, and very tender. Thin slices of salami were not only sweet from plenty of fennel, but also just a bit spicy, like a very refined pepperoni. A small dish of wild boar rillettes caused the most consternation at our table. Less challenging than it sounds, this was basically pork pot roast covered in a layer of fat. Smear that combo on a crostini and just let the pork fat sing, man.

Next up? Pork belly, of course! A lot of times, a pork belly appetizer will employ small chunks of meat either braised or fried, but Lyon Hall is not afraid to plunk down a fat cube of the good stuff.  E crispy pork was served over a bell pepper relish with chorizo and basil, the sweetness countering the unctuous richness of the meat. My colleague is a pretty reticent guy, but he actually giggled a tiny bit when he tasted this dish. That's a resounding recommendation, in my book. 

The Alsatian taste was pure comfort food: onions, bacon, and creamy cheese and herbs on flatbread. It was the most simple dish to hit our table all night, but a welcome flavor break from the richness of all the meat we had just plowed through. That may sound boring, but this flatbread was far from that. Its familiar flavors, bit of crunch, and herbal cleanness were just a nice break from the meats.

On the entree list, the schnitzel called my name. The short rib flirted with me. The sausage platter asked for my number. But I went home with duck cassoulet. The promise of confit duck leg AND smoked trotter sauce with creamy white beans was just too much to bear. I was impressed when I read that the executive chef of all the Fedorchak brothers' establishments is a Voltaggio alum, and if the skill illustrated in the charcuterie platter hadn't already proven his skill, this dish sealed the deal. The sauce enrobing the crispy breast, tender leg, and beans was incredibly complex, sweet from aromatic vegetables and acidic from long-cooked wine, garlicky and rich and so good I wanted to lick the plate long after I was completely full.

The root vegetables still retained some toothsomeness, and the texture of the confit leg was tender and juicy. The wonderful sausage was coarsely ground and intensely flavored with garlic, which could have overpowered the duck, but actually worked really well with the beans and vegetables. The breast was just a hair overlooked, unfortunately, but every other component of this was a masterpiece.

A shared side of barely sautéed Savoy cabbage with herbs and shallots was bright and just barely acidic - a perfect foil for the loads of rich, fatty meats we were luxuriating in.

Desserts were less spectacular. My s'mores napolean was so overpoweringly sweet and rich, I couldn't take more than a couple bites, although the cinnamon ice cream was yummy. The graham cookie component, in particular, seemed tough and too thick for the composition.

Overall, though, our feast at Lyon Hall was pretty exhilarating. You don't get a lot of brasserie-style food here in the states, and a lot of what we had here reminded me of the better meals I've had in Germany and France, so it's hitting the notes intended. Best of all, knowing this terrific food is being created, in part, by two hometown guys gives me hope that we could support a restaurant like Lyon Hall here in the Soutern Tier someday. I give Lyon Hall a nine on the BHS scale, because after a less pig-out meal, that dessert may not have struck me as so supremely sugary, and while the duck was overlooked, my main dish was aces anyway. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Lyon Hall Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


A Binghamton Breakfast Sojourn

At this point, in my late thirties, a post-party, morning-after scavenger hunt for a really amazing breakfast is not something that happens with much frequency. There were many times in the past 20 years that finding the nearest McDonald's for a magical fountain Coke and a McMuffin, or a similar odyssey for the perfect carb-packed breakfast foods seemed as much a survival tactic as a foodie mission. But these days, the level of partying has settled down a bit, and cooler heads usually prevail.

But last weekend was an annual Christmas party with good friends, and the after party ended up at the South Side Publick House in Binghamton, which is now occupying the space South Side Yanni's used to inhabit. We parked across the street in a small strip mall lot - that strip mall houses Manni's, a little diner that I long have heard makes some of the best donuts in the Southern Tier. We could smell fried dough in the air even at that late hour, and vowed to return in the morning for a taste.

Saturday morning dawned bright and chilly, and Big Hungry Melinda and I trekked from her house to Manni's to get our fix. When we walked into the cramped cafe, it was immediately clear that we were not the only locals in the know about the the great donuts at Manni's. The line was to the door, and every seat in the place was full. As we waited to get up to the counter intending to augment our donut order with some breakfast sandwiches, we heard one of the waitresses telling a customer that it would be a full half hour for any food orders from the kitchen, they were so backed up. That a good sign that this place is legit, but we were not in the mood to wait around that long. So we quickly adapted our sandwich plans and ordered only a half dozen donuts to go.

We next scooted over to Glenwood Ave to complete the rest of our breakfast goals. The Bagel Factory also was busy - a line formed by townies and BU students gearing up for some sort of Santa-themed bar crawl - so we joined the fray. We procured breakfast sandwiches and home fries, and were on our merry way back to Melinda's house.

Let's first talk about these donuts, which run the gamut from fruity glazed cherry cake donuts, to filled peanut butter and jelly and boston cream varieties. Did I mention they're made from scratch, in-house? I tried two powdered sugar-covered flavors: bavarian cream and vanilla angel. The fried yeast dough was airy but also toothsome enough not to collapse into a ball of sugar the instant you bite into it. So you had a slight chew giving way to a not-too-sweet, but very light yeast dough, filled with a rich, vanilla pastry cream, and coated in tons of powdered sugar, in the case of the bavarian cream flavor.

The vanilla angel donut was crafted from the same dough and sugar coating, but was filled with vanilla buttercream frosting - way too sweet for the likes of me, but for those people who only eat the frosting off pieces of cake would love this sugar bomb.

The bagels from The Bagel Factory were pretty great - the crust on the outside didn't have that sheen and slightly harder surface I associate with bagels that have been boiled before they're baked - the truly proper method for making them - but the interior was very chewy, instead of bready, and the seeds and spices on my everything bagel were plentiful and fresh.

The American cheese, bacon, and egg, were all flavorful, with the bacon cooked crispy. We plowed through these savory sandwiches with abandon, but not without pauses for the Factory's excellent potato wedge home fries, served with spicy ketchup. Melinda guessed that this concoction is just ketchup and sriracha sauce mixed together, but good golly, was it delicious on the fried, seasoned taters. It was spicy, but not overwhelmingly so, and the salt level in both this and the bacon, egg and cheese perfectly countered the sweetness from the donuts. This is breakfast heaven, you guys. I'm not suggesting that it's imperative that you run all over Binghamton to gather up this epic meal, but a stop at either of these local favorites will fix you up right after a night of partying, or a blissful winter slumber. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


BHS 2016 Holiday Gift Guide: The Precious Present

Well. It’s been a rough week, to say the least. I can barely tolerate any form of social media right now, and the fact that every single person in our congested newsfeeds and groups feels the need to have their voice heard on the state of our nation, plus the sharing of countless unsubstantiated news articles jamming every inch of every screen, is simply exhausting.

I have very strong ideas about the leadership of our country, and concerns about what the next four years will bring. But what I’m thankful for is the foundation of faith that’s taught me that if we can all ease up a bit and work positively for change in our own little sphere, the cacophony of fear and negativity do not have to become all-consuming. I think part of this faith comes from growing up in the Episcopal Church – a footing that helps me to understand that sometimes, it’s better to quiet one’s own voice in the storm of shouting, and just try to put more good out into the world. When I was a kid, I participated in a bunch of youth ministry activities through my church and its diocese, and one of the parables that meant the most in that time is also a terrific Christmas gift for any families you might know with young children: The Precious Present.

This book is short, and makes really wonderful holiday evening reading in front of the fire or next to the glowing Christmas tree. It’s not religious, but it is a parable in the order of The Gift of the Magi or similar tales. This one focuses on a man’s search for happiness as he grows up from a boy. Finding happiness within is a lesson we could probably all use right now, so think about this for any families on your list.

Looking for something tastier to give to the foodies in your life? As usual, I’ve got the hook-up. Here’s what’s dancing around in my head rather than sugar plums this year.

If the special person on your gift list loved Kitchen Confidential, meat in tube form, or any other iteration of the Anthony Bourdain food empire, you might want to go with Appetites, his first cookbook in years. This one’s on my personal list, as well, and I can’t wait to make Tony’s recipe for savory pie crust. Bring it.

Sur La Table is on my naughty list right now over an unfortunate cinnamon bun mishap, but before that happened, I secured a couple pieces from its new Jacques Pepin line. This colorful, whimsical batch of bakers, linens, bowls, and spatulas features designs painted by the French master himself, and would be perfect in any country kitchen.

Delicacies is a new line of chef-inspired jewelry that I’m craving this holiday season. Each bracelet or necklace features a charm of an ingredient – like a tiny silver pig, head of garlic, lobster, or ear of corn – set either on a thick leather band or delicate metal chain. They let you wear your favorite ingredients loud and proud for the whole world to see, but in an elegant way. Maybe an octopus for my friend Katey with a blog called The Mother Octopus? Or a tomato for the person who brings you fresh vegetables from his garden every summer? That piggy has my name on it, personally.

Have you ever seen the episode of Friends in which Chandler and Rachael steal several cheesecakes from an absent neighbor and shame-eat them in secret, and then Joey comes along with a fork right in his pocket and gleefully asks, “All right, what are we having?”

Well, if you’re the Joey in that scenario (hey, we’ve all been the Joey at least once), or you know someone who is, this next gift may be right up someone’s alley. Andrew Zimmern’s travel cutlery set cracked me up right away when I spotted it, and immediately reminded me of Joey. It even has chopsticks! And it’s only $10! This is a fun stocking stuffer for the Joey Tribbiani in your life, or anyone who frequents food trucks and hates sporks.

Staying with my buddy Andrew, he also has this cool travel toothpick holder for the dude in your life who always needs a toothpick after every meal. I know you know this person – I have one! And he’s getting this for Christmas.

This next treat will seem pricey – they are a splurge, to be sure. But if you are a person who makes bomb gift baskets of food around the holidays, need a tasty hostess gift, or have a nut lover on your list – these are the pinnacle of what cashews can be. DiBruno Brothers’ Black Lava Cashews are a tiny bit sweet, addictively salty, and 100 percent delicious. I know $12 is extravagant for only 10 oz of nuts, but please trust me when I tell you they are worth it. You will be obsessed with them and just as mad as I am that DB doesn’t sell them in a larger package online. I’m placing my holiday order this week.

You probably think you don’t like Israeli cooking. It sounds terribly exotic, doesn’t it? I’m here to tell you that most Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine is much more tame than you might imagine. The spice profiles are warming, rather than spicy-hot, and less complex and funky than Indian flavors. Israeli food is fresh-tasting, the flavors of all vegetables dialed up to 10, with loads of parsley and lemon, plus a sweet spice called sumac, and tahini, which is the sesame paste that enriches hummus. This book, from the chef at Philly’s wonderful Zahav restaurant, is a full-color riot of the vibrant foods of this country and its people. Also, the chicken soup recipe absolutely rocks. And if you have a vegetarian who loves to cook on your shopping list? Bingo.

If you've ever gone on vacation in the Southeast and had wonderful, salty ham biscuits for breakfast, then come home and wondered why you couldn't replicate the flavor, it's probably because we can't get real country ham in stores up here. Our breakfast hams are, for the most part, factory-produced, with smoke flavoring added instead of actual smoking, and curing accomplished by chemicals instead of salt and time. Broadbent's is one of the last, great smokehouses (there's also Benton's) doing it all the right way, turning out spectacular country hams, sausage, bacon, and other cured meats that are the true charcuterie of America. A great gift for a transplanted Southerner or anyone who loves country ham would be Broadbent's Bluegrass Biscuit Brunch. This assortment of biscuit mix, bacon, and country ham slices will cure what ails you, and make any breakfast lover on your list happy as a pig in....well, you know.

No Kid Hungry is an awesome charity that works to insure, well, that no kid in this country goes hungry. They work with school lunch and breakfast programs, as well as community programs to help low-income families feed their children. A really great way to help out this cause AND delight the cook or baker in your family who also has a celebrity obsession (or Nascar, or Cheftestant) is to buy them a spatula from Williams-Sonoma's very cool No Kid Hungry collection this year. 30 percent of the proceeds go to the organization, so you're doing some good while also getting your loved one a spatula designed by Jimmy Kimmel, Danica Patrick, Trisha Yearwood, Ian Garten, Michael Voltaggio, or Chrissy Tiegen. I want one!

So that’s it, kids. My list of the best of what’s around for 2016 for the foodies you need to buy for this holiday season. So bust out your credit cards and warm up your search engines. Hey, some of this stuff may even be eligible for Black Friday deals! Make that food lover in your life extra happy on Christmas morning and try these gifts! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


A Charming Pub in Bellville

My parents were seated at a table with the owners of the Barley Pub at a luncheon they attended last year. The couple said they loved my column for the Watertown Daily Times, and underscored their commitment to cooking from scratch. They invited us to come out and experience what they were doing in Belleville, with the hope I would cover it for the paper.

I never got a chance to visit before the column was canceled, but I don't like to miss out on a chance to sample from-scratch fries and other house made fare, and our Miss TI Olivia and her brother Ryan were singing at Barley Pub this past Saturday night, so we hopped in the car and trekked on down to Belleville for a really fun night out.

Fried pickles are a good time, you know? These had one of the most solid, crunchy coatings of any spears I've ever had in a restaurant, but not at the expense of a crisp, cool dill pickle. We got both a cooling each dressing and a kicked up, slightly spicy thousand island dipping sauce alongside. Switching between the two was the way to go. I don't know if you can tell this from the picture, below, but there was dried dill running through the breading, and there were five big spears in our portion.

I'd been craving chicken wings for a couple weeks. A place that calls itself a pub seems like a pretty good spot to fulfill that craving, no? Dad and I split an order of medium, bone-in wings. I feel like medium is the litmus test for a good wing - mild have no zip, typically, and hot can be too spicy to really tell if the chicken is good. These were real deal, with a perfect butter-to-hot sauce ratio and a non-greasy hit of vinegar and spice.

The wings weren't too saucy, but they were both crispy AND meaty. This was good quality chicken. We were also pleased with the handful of crisp, fresh celery and double dipping sauces we were given. So many places are skimping on those little extras nowadays due to rising food costs, but it's those accoutrements that can be all the difference, even with bar food.

A side salad did the job well. Pristinely fresh vegetables? Check. Lots of ingredients other than lettuce? Check. Peppery balsamic vinaigrette? Check. It wasn't the most remarkable salad ever, but it did tick off some important pros.

I felt similarly about the pizza, which is only available on Friday and Saturday nights. It had a lot of tasty attributes: sweet, flavorful sauce, chewy, well-developed crust, and lots of toppings. For me, though, there was too much sauce on the pie, and the whole shebang was a little blond. The cheese was mostly snowy white, rather than brown and bubbly. Because of that too-short cooking time, the toppings didn't have enough cook time to caramelize, so the thin-sliced pepperoni and canned mushrooms couldn't live up to their full flavor potential. The pizza was good, but it wasn't great.

Shrimp basket! Plump shrimp are there, but you know what else? HOUSE CUT FRIES. They were well seasoned, creamy inside, and crunchy outside. The Holy Grail of fries, right there in Belleville. They were delicious.

May I also draw your attention to the number of shrimp? Seven big ones with slaw and fries for $10.50. This isn't remarkably modern or unique cuisine, but everything we tried was tasty and hearty.

That statement rings true for the rib-eye steak. Perfectly cooked baked potato and a cooked-to-order, glistening slab of beef arrived, with a side of sautéed vegetables. The steak wasn't particularly thick, nor the highest grade of aged steak you can get. But it was a good sized portion, cooked properly, well seasoned, and $16.99. 

One of the things I liked the most about this pub is the bright, open atmosphere it has. Many Irish pub settings are dark, the wood trim dominating the space such that one feels closed in. This is not an issue at the Barley Pub. I will say, as someone will some hearing challenges, with live music, the space becomes very loud. I struggled to hear our friends when Ryan and Olivia were playing, because there's little in the open room to suck up sound. So keep that in mind if you're visiting on a weekend. 

We loved our night out at the Barley Pub in Bellville. For its hearty, house-crafted food, excellent service (our waitress, Tara, was a treat), and a really good time, I award this road house a seven on the BHS scale. I hope you check it out. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Barley Pub Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


A Plan Comes Together

I have a new hobby. It's not very entertaining, unless you're obsessed with food, looking to get back in the kitchen after a summer of convenience foods and eating out, and/or looking to spur conversations about dinner in your household. If any of those things appeal to you, maybe you need to get this hobby in your life.

It's called meal planning. How unsexy is that? It sounds so boring, throw-back, like something the poor housewives of the 1950s were forced to do. It sounds like a chore your grandmother wrestled with, all, "WhatEVER am I going to feed the family this week?"

I've never been one to plan out an entire week of meals. Instead, I would go to the store and buy what looked good, then fly by the seat of my pants each evening, making whatever I felt like eating in the moment. But I'm older and wiser now. Oh, and I'm also older and marginally more exhausted at the end of the day. That means knowing exactly what I'm going to make when I get home is comforting. Not having to call a play while I'm already on the field, cold and hungry, is a good thing.

The other perk is spending an hour or two over the weekend combing Pinterest, magazines, and cookbooks for recipe ideas. As I said before, I'm obsessed with food, so luxuriating in the process of selecting our dinners for the week, mixing cuisines and proteins, is kind of cool. Oh, and then I get to fantasize all week about whatever I'm making Thursday night. Is that weird?

I almost forgot the other bonus: Shawn, heretofore an unwilling participant in dinner decisions, has, in the fridge-posting of my weekly plan, become suddenly much more active in the supper story. Our fridge is stainless steel, and basically acts as the white board for our house. We keep shopping lists and to do lists there, and now, our meal plan. This has let him in on the process in a way that me texting him at work, "what do you want for dinner?" never quite accomplished. The first week I posted a plan, he asked me every night if it was time for kielbasa vegetable bake yet.

In days past, I would buy a package of boneless, skinless chicken breasts without a plan of how to use them, then get lazy on a Tuesday night, too hungry and tired to think straight, and sauté them up with dried spices, served with a boxed rice mix and frozen vegetables. That's a fine meal, but doesn't chicken pot pie ragu with egg noodles sound better? Yup!

I'd love to hear your take on this new hobby of mine. Do you meal plan? For you, what are the advantages of this seemingly unglamorous chore? If you're a member of the Big Hungry Shelby group on Facebook, you've seen my meal plans the last few weeks. Have you tried any of the recipes for yourself? Sound off in the comments and let us know your tips and tricks! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!


A Rather Grand Comeback in Ithaca

About two years ago, an errant truck smashed through the wall of Simeon's on the Commons, in Ithaca, leaving destruction in its path. A few weeks ago, this stalwart of The Commons reopened, with a fresh, airy interior that's modern and classic at the same time - transom windows shining onto elaborately trimmed Wedgewood blue walls, and a marble bar with a two story mirror at its back.

I had never eaten at Simeon's first incarnation, so Big Hungry Melinda and I chose it for brunch before a much-needed spa visit to August Moon Spa this past weekend. We began our repast, as we often do, with particularly delicious cocktails.

This pear, coconut rum and lime concoction tasted like a tropical vacation enjoyed in a colonial mansion. A sweet, light beverage to kick off a weekend brunch.

To counter the lightness of the drink, we ordered the house made chips with fondue sauce, which were crispy and earthy, topped with a mild cheese sauce not quite as distinctive as real Swiss fondue, but tasty nonetheless. The chopped scallions on top added a sharp bite to all the rich cheese. This dish is one you'll want to scarf down quickly, however - as the cheese cooled, it coagulated into a lumpy mess and made the potatoes soggy as well. 

Melinda chose the shrimp roll as her entree, a light mix of chopped, poached shrimp, tomato and green onion, Bibb lettuce and cilantro mayo on a baguette. It was messy, the bits of seafood and vegetables tumbling off the roll with each bite, because while the shrimp was lightly dressed with the mayonnaise, the vegetables were not. But it was also fresh and light - a little easy on overall flavors, but a nice, summery sandwich.

I headed in the breakfast direction with the biscuits and gravy, to which I added a couple over-easy eggs. After ordering, the table next to us received biscuits, and I fretted I had made the wrong choice, because the biscuits looked a bit wan and not particularly well risen. While these definitely weren't top notch southern biscuits, made with lard and Lily White flour and brushed generously with salted butter like the biscuits of my dreams, I needed have worried overall. This was a savory, hearty dish, and though the biscuits themselves weren't the pinnacle, the sausage gravy had great flavor, and the runny egg yolks bathed the whole works in the requisite yellow richness to seal the deal.

You can see the black pepper in the gravy, right? Pepper seems like such an ordinary ingredient, but in creamy gravies, this simple spice can man the difference between blandness and success. Someone in Simeon's kitchen may have a little too much enthusiasm for scallions, but I liked them here, as I had on the chips: they served almost like a squeeze of lemon - a bright punch to point the dish up. The creamy gravy was seasoned well, and contained lots of crumbled breakfast sausage. I wouldn't say the sausage had tremendous flavor in and of itself, but it worked with the cream and the pepper to hit all the requisite biscuits and gravy high points.

We were too full for dessert this time around, but very much enjoyed our first visit to this newly redone Ithaca institution. I will be back to try the raw bar, for sure! Meantime, I give Simeon's on the Commons a seven on the BHS scale, for its absolutely gorgeous ambiance and simple, but well prepared food. This is a solid restart for The Commons' grande dame. I hope you try it out!