Watertown Daily Times Piece: The Local Dining Experience: Where's the Consistency?

There’s an interesting pattern that emerges when one eats out as frequently and as attentively as I do. Not that I mean to imply that other folks don't eat with attention or intention, but when you take notes on every texture, flavor, temperature and color of food, plus the ins and outs of service and ambiance, it's tough not to also note these things.

Yes, part of it is the same dishes showing up on nearly every menu in the north country (ahem, chicken parmesan), but more so is how inconsistent locally owned restaurants can be.

I hear it frequently from readers: “We dined at the restaurant you reviewed favorably last week, but the hot turkey sandwich was made differently than you described, and we waited 25 minutes for our food to come,” or, “That restaurant is our favorite! It’s not possible that your meal was that bad; you don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

Mom and pop eateries, run by people who have good and bad days, have very real staffing problems and financial challenges — without the benefit of a corporate office to help regulate inconsistences in product and customer traffic. Whereas a national chain receives most of its food from a centralized corporate kitchen and reheats it according to instructions that are consistent across the country, there are a hundred variables in a locally owned restaurant. 

For customers who are spending hard-earned money to eat out, inconsistencies in service, food preparation and quality, and ambiance are hard to swallow. Disposable income isn’t always in good supply in Upstate New York households, and nights out come with expectations. A diner will not take kindly to paying for a meal that arrives cold, is delivered by a surly waiter, or falls short in quality — and is unlikely to return to any restaurant after such a negative experience. 

I spoke to a couple of local, NNY chefs to better understand their side of the story: Why is it so hard to achieve the consistency that chain restaurants maintain over time? 

Kyle Hayes, co-owner and chef at Gram’s Diner in Adams, chalks the issue up to three factors: differing culinary backgrounds of cooks on different shifts informing the way they cook the same dishes; the ability of the head chef or restaurant owner to develop a training regimen and house recipes to bring those cooks in line; and the quality of food available from the distributor on any given day.

“A prime rib might come in small and tough one week, and perfect and marbled the next,” said Mr. Hayes. “As a cook, you do your best to prepare it the same way or customize your preparation to make up for the shortcomings of the ingredients, but sometimes, it’s just tough beef.”

This was an aspect of the equation I hadn’t given much thought to, but one I found illuminating. If you think about it, as a dining public, we expect our restaurants to have salads year-round, even though at this time of year, I rarely put tomatoes or cucumbers in salads at home, because they just aren’t as tasty when they’re out of season. So why would I expect tomatoes to be of good quality in a restaurant? 

I buy the same package of boneless, skinless chicken breasts every week from the store, and some weeks the meat is tender and juicy, while others it’s tough and stringy. I know this is a reality, and yet, in a restaurant setting, I find myself intolerant of a less than stellar dish — I had never considered that chefs struggle with irregularities in raw ingredients just as much as I do at home. 

A corporate kitchen, cooking in bulk for its franchises around the country, has a percentage of product loss built into its budget that’s likely generous enough to cover such variables. If such a cook receives a crappy side of beef, he is able to chuck it — but a local restaurant running on a shoestring can’t afford to throw anything out. These local cooks have to do the best they can with the product that's delivered, no matter what.

Getting cooks with disparate backgrounds on the same page from a culinary perspective is another challenge. I doubt most local restaurateurs have been to leadership training or management school, and even fewer chefs have. Plenty of restaurant owners and head chefs do have strong points of view and the leadership skills necessary to set up kitchen procedures in order to achieve a state in which they can take a day off without compromising the food, but how do they get to that state? How many years does it take to cultivate that kind of staff and rhythm? I can't even imagine, especially with a kitchen staff that's likely to be transient due to low wages.

Andy Wehrle, chef at DiPrinzio’s Italian Market and Wood Fired Pizza in Clayton, says the hiring pool in Northern New York is absolutely a factor.

“I don’t find many people doing this for the same reasons I do. A lack of passion on the part of local cooks is a reality,” said Mr. Wehrle. 

Salary figures into it as well, he said. “Part of that is that I make the same amount as a head chef in a locally owned restaurant that I would make as an entry level cook at a national chain."

He says the younger generation is more interested in learning what it takes to run and work in a great local restaurant, however. Whether that’s due to the influence of the Food Network and celebrity chefs, or just an evolution of the marketplace, the trend is encouraging. To be sure, local bistros and cafes face a steep climb with high food prices and new laws that govern what servers must make — margins are narrow if they want keep prices low enough to compete with national chains. 

So what are we, the diners, and our local restaurateurs, to do? Should we tolerate sweeping discrepancies in the food we pay to eat? That can’t be the answer. Should local restaurant owners bankrupt themselves to deliver flawless cuisine in a designer setting at the rock-bottom prices demanded by consumers, at the cost of their own livelihoods? Certainly not. 

As a frequent diner, I find it unacceptable to squander a night out on a subpar meal; even worse, I abhor sharing a good experience my readers, only for you to visit the same place and spend your money on a significantly weaker repast. The answer I keep coming back to, the only one that makes sense when I evaluate Mr. Hayes’ and Mr. Wehrle’s ideas and my own familiarity with local dining, comes down to money. 

What we, the dining public, needs to tolerate is not inconsistency, but higher prices. Ingredient costs have soared in recent years — my grocery bills reflect that, so why shouldn’t my dining out bills? It’s not 1996 anymore, folks, and if we want higher quality, good service and pleasant ambiance, we have to accept the realities of inflation. The days of the $9.99 steak dinner are past, especially if we'd like that dinner to taste like anything other than cardboard.

If our locally owned restaurants continue to operate with razor-thin margins, how can we expect well-trained cooks, superior ingredients, and competent service? We can’t. We must allow these owners and chefs to make enough and pay enough to employ and retain a staff that can deliver quality, or we face the collapse of local dining altogether. 

We also must accept a degree of seasonality to local menus. Week after week, I go out and see the same dishes on every menu in Jefferson, St. Lawrence, and Lewis counties: burgers, pizza, chicken parmesan, French onion soup, caesar salad, New York strip steak, fried shrimp, and grilled chicken sandwiches. I understand that not everyone wants global, gourmet cuisine, but I also recognize that when chefs are allowed to cook with seasonal ingredients, it may mean changing dishes periodically, but it also can translate to lower prices and better quality. 

If you eat at a local restaurant and have a bad experience, do share your thoughts with the owners. Believe me, with Twitter and other social media channels, the chains are getting constant feedback from their customers — our local food families can also benefit from such a dialogue. If the leadership at a local eatery is smart, they’ll take your comments and use them to improve their game. 

I’m not sure there’s any one solution to the problem of restaurant consistency in our region. What I have learned is that our food people recognize the issue and think about it just as much as we diners do. It’s time for an injection of new life to our local dining scene — whether that means more ethnic fare (I have high hopes for Watertown’s new Mexican joint), variety, and seasonality on menus that allow for flexibility or a willingness to spend more for good food made by real people — change is brewing and I’m excited to take a sip of what’s to come.


Is the Lobster Club a Social Club?

I've been meaning to catch you guys up on what's probably the best, most exciting food happening in Binghamton for a while now. And because I love you all so much, I ate there last week so I could serve up some gorgeous photos with an update on Social on State's really delicious grub.

I last reviewed Social in 2014, when it first opened, and I was impressed right away. Last summer, I returned for a lavish succession of small plates on the restaurant's small but chic patio, and I've been sending everybody looking for a recommendation in the Southern Tier there ever since. If you haven't tried Chef Jay Pisculli's seasonal, creative cuisine yet, it's time to find a parking spot on State Street in downtown Binghamton and dig in.

Once you've settled in to a table in the nightclub-esque dining room, order everything on the menu that contains lobster. That can change depending on the season and the specials, but something that's been available the last two times I've dined there is the angry lobster, and it's already poised to be my favorite entree of 2016.

This bowl of spicy lobster broth is cradling a nest of angel hair pasta, massive chunks of tender, sweet lobster, herbs and grape tomatoes. Jay makes the broth from scratch, in accordance with the prophecy, and then adds a good amount of fruity, hot chiles to make this dish "angry." I have a good feeling he finishes the dish with a sizeable knob of high quality butter, because despite the heat, you get a creamy, pleasantly fatty mouthfeel with each bite that rounds out the spice factor in a way that might make you groan out loud. While Big Hungry Melinda and I were downing this cauldron of goodness last week, I proclaimed, "Why aren't we eating this every week?" Why indeed?

Last week, the specials menu also boasted lobster BLT sliders. If these are available when you visit, don't hesitate, just order them. This is more luscious, sweet lobster, dressed in a lightly lemony housemade aioli that will drip a bit as you devour the sandwich. Ask for extra napkins. A pillowy, toasted white bun, grape tomatoes, cherrywood smoked, thick-cut bacon and julienned celery round out the flavors to provide earthiness, salt, and bright flavors. A sprinkle of baby arugula adds a peppery edge to balance the every bite. This thing was simply fabulous.

Greek salad with shrimp escabeche was beautiful on the plate and communicated loads of bright, sharp flavors from marinated feta and blood orange segments, grounded by rich kalamata olives, and sweet pea shoots, then completed, from a flavor profile point of view, really well by the briny shrimp.

The angry lobster may have been my favorite dish of the night, but the beef tenderloin was no slouch. This medium-rare slice of meaty nirvana was cooked sous vide for maximum buttery tenderness, then topped with roasted bone marrow butter to amp up the salty, fatty, decadent attributes any carnivore worth her salt demands. The horseradish-spiked potato purée underneath was rich and just barely sharp. This was a masterpiece, and rivals a steakhouse dinner any day of the week.

We rounded out our meal with two soufflés: corn and then cookie dough. I'm not going to lie, I preferred the dessert version. For me, the corn flavor was a little muddy, and the addition of corn kernels in the batter negated that lighter-than-air soufflé texture I was hoping to get from this side. Sliced almonds on top provided nice crunch, though.

A cookie dough soufflé is...not exactly a traditional soufflé either, but instead basically a bowl of unbaked cookie dough, soft and sweet and rich. It was delicious, studded with semi-sweet chips and a scoop of real vanilla ice cream to make sure you don't get any big ideas about eating healthfully. The cold ice cream/warm cookie contrast really worked for me. Hmm, now I kind of want cookie dough for dinner tonight. Super.

A lot of what we ordered last week was from the specials menu, which was on point that night, but Social's regular menu isn't asleep at the wheel. Last summer, we loved the majorly creamy macaroni and cheese, spilling out of its confines with robust, aged white cheddar flavor.

Yeah. I know. You want to eat here. Me too.

Everything that's going right at Social is really due to Chef Jay and his leadership in his kitchen. He has a marked commitment to creating the kind of food you don't find much in these parts: modern, decadent instead of just de rigeur, and hand crafted from the very best ingredients. The focus here is absolutely NOT huge portions at rock bottom prices. This is not a family restaurant. This is a spot for date night, girls night, entertaining clients and proving to them that Binghamton is not Podunk. Like Loft at 99 and Remlik's, Social on State is offering that little something different, and in this case, that touch is spectacular, decidedly urban food.

I'm going to go ahead and upgrade Social on State to a nine on the BHS scale. That nine reflects how hard this little bar and tapas place has worked to find its groove and prevail in its lane. I can't wait for you to find your favorite dish there and then tell me why you love it!

In other news, I'm excited to announce a new app (available starting today in the App Store and also whatever Android calls its App Store) called pyfl (Places Your Friends Like) that I had the opportunity to influence before its launch. I am the first Upstate New York contributor who you can friend on this social network that lets you see restaurant recommendations from people you actually know. So if you're traveling to Corning, say, you can see where I like to eat there. Look me up as Big Hungry Shelby, of course, and have fun with this new way to find great restaurants via people you trust (unlike Yelp)!

Social on State Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Not a Nail Salon

Hand + Foot Restaurant, in Corning's Gaffer District, sounds like a place you might get a glass of wine with your mani/pedi, but actually, it's a small bar and bistro with a big communal table and big flavors jammed into small plates. You should probably go.

We hit up the antique-chic eatery on a Saturday for lunch, just before the rush and promptly ordered tostones, because mashed plantains twice-fried with garlic are a great way to let morning pass into afternoon.

These decadent little discs are served with a creamy aoli sparking with heat from chiles, and a mellow garlic flavor to echo the garlic salt with which the smashed, fried plantains are seasoned.

If you've never tried fried plantains and think bananas are a strange vehicle for chile peppers and garlic, let me help: fried plantains taste much more like a less fluffy potato than a banana. The texture is chewy, with a fragile crisp from its trip to the fryer, and lots of savory flavor. They were terrific dipped in the warmly spicy sauce - a really yummy alternative to fries.

The croque pimenteau is a sandwich that's a pretty good idea if you fancy things like eggs and pimento cheese and pork. I can't imagine why you wouldn't want to drag a fork through this gorgeous, pickle-specked tableau:

The pimento cheese, a southern staple of mayonnaise, cheddar cheese, mild pimentos and cayenne, was super thick, just on the edge of spicy, and delightfully rich. Mixed in with salty, slightly sweet ham, crunchy toasted white bread, and perked up by the bright green homemade diced pickle, this sammie sang. For $10, its is a simply delicious riff on a Croque Madame.

I wouldn't kick the fried chicken sandwich out of bed, either. I mean, I don't eat a lot of fried chicken in bed anyway, but had I the opportunity, I might indulge! The chicken, in this case, was boneless breast, coated in a flour mixture robustly seasoned with black pepper, plus thick cut local bacon, sweet and smoky. Sharp cheddar provided more richness, and half inch thick slices of house-made pickle and mustard brought in opposing flavors of sweet and tang. This is a massive and satisfying comfort food staple kicked up with artisanal touches.

The beer brisket sandwich is a fabulous gut buster, I think I managed just about half of it before groaning for it to be taken away. Beef brisket braised in beer is shredded, tender, juicy, and earthy - the ale imparting deep flavor to every bite. Sautéed onions still retained some of their crispness, and were seasoned with fresh dill for a grassy, herbal note that helped (along with the sweetness of the onions) to pick up what could have been a heavy dish. A lot of times, I find beer cheese to be kind of bland, but in this case, the molten sauce was sharp and delivered good beer flavor. This is a manly sandwich: meaty, cheesy, and with that floral, hoppy flavor of good craft beer sort of lingering at the back of every bite. 

There are great beers and some really fun cocktails on the menu at Hand + Foot, but we each had a soda. They have Mexican Coke there, made with real sugar, plus craft ginger and root beers that are much more flavorful than your run of the mill supermarket soft drinks. 

We loved our lunch at Hand + Foot, and I award it a seven on the BHS scale. In fact, I'm dying to return for some adult beverages and the fried rice and sausage dishes. This place is hip, serving new American food mixed with Korean and European influences, but not pretentious or stuffy. It's casual, and the communal, central table may seem odd at first, but it lends a sort of energy to the meal. 

Hand + Foot is now firmly on my must list for Corning, and though the menu may seem unapproachable at first, I would encourage you to really look through the ingredients provided for each dish - there is a lot of yum packed into these sandwiches and small plates! 

My 2016 schedule is really starting to take off - I have trips to Watertown, Verona, Philadelphia, Germany, Saratoga Springs, and Indiana cued up over the next two months. So make sure you're checking in the to Big Hungry Shelby Facebook page and following me on Instagram @BigHungryShelby so you don't miss a single bite! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Hand and Foot Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


The Cultivation of Confusion

Coltivare, in Ithaca, is resolutely one of the most gorgeous dining rooms in Upstate New York, and I say that with a fair amount of confidence. The concept of this subway-tiled, exposed brick walled, scraped wood tabled restaurant is a learning environment for the culinary students of Tompkins Cortland Community College, and last summer when I brunched there, though the food was good not great, I very much looked forward to the evolution of the menu and the kitchen as the students came up to speed.

We returned a couple weeks ago, again for brunch, and I'm still a little perplexed. The marketing is using all the right buzzwords to hook me, like "farm to bistro," and seasonal; the guys lined up behind the bar are young and mustachioed; the service is refined and cheerful. Here's the hitch: there's not a thing on the menu I really, really want to order. I love food more than almost anyone I know, and I can usually hone in on the dish I want in approximately 30 seconds - otherwise I'm agonizing between the two most interesting things and hoping my fellow diner will order the one I don't end up with so we can both taste it. At Coltivare, I couldn't decide, but it was because nothing was really all that enticing.

For the gorgeous interior, locavore sourcing, great cocktails, and ambitious concept, the food should be cravable, but for me, it's just ok.

We loved the tiny, two bite scones and moist, sweet carrot bread squares in our basket, but the banana bread was very dry and scant on flavor. The orange butter was tasty, though.

The big stuffed French toast was big and stuffed with ricotta and allegedly fruit, though I only got fruit flavor from the sauce on top. The waiter forgot to bring maple syrup when he first brought the dish, so our first few bites were dry. Once the syrup arrived, things perked up into more appropriate sweetness and texture, but this dish didn't blow either of us away. It was good. Not particularly inventive or demonstrative of culinary school technique.

I had been hoping for a hash made with brisket or short rib or pork shoulder, and that wasn't to be found on the menu, so I went for the croque Madame. For $12, it was good, thin, crusty bread, average ham and very little of it, mild Gruyere cheese that added almost no flavor to dish, and two eggs. The menu boasted bechamel sauce, which would at least speak to the students learning a French master sauce, but honestly, if it was on there, I couldn't even tell. Bechamel is a cream sauce, which may not always have assertive flavors, but if you're using it to teach, why not use it as the vehicle to jazz up the dish? Infuse it with herbs or citrus; make it a mornay and add cheese to bolster that snoozey Gruyere! Something! There was zero artistry or skill put into this dish, save possibly the pickled onions on the side, and since I wanted something to go along with it, I had to pay for a side of fries. How is a ham sandwich teaching anything to culinary students? I could make this dish with jet lag and no recipe.

The fries are good: hand cut and seasoned with coarse salt. Peace.

This is the second time we've dined here on a weekend, and the second time only two other tables were occupied on a busy Saturday morning in Ithaca. Every other restaurant near The Commons is jammed on weekends, so the empty dining room informs me that I'm not the only one being left cold by this uninspired fare.

Coltivare holds a lot of promise. I would hate to see this beautiful facility go to waste. I'm hoping the leadership here loosens the reins a bit and lets the kids unleash new ideas and some modern dishes. This menu is crying out for an infusion of the kind of food this extraordinary, modern interior deserves - and frankly, that the wonderful local products of the Finger Lakes deserve! Some creativity is all that's needed to make Coltivare a success.