Summer Date Night 2016 Shored Up!

Summer is officially here, and gentlemen, I’m writing directly to you — I bet a waterfront, sunset-soaked date night is expected of you in the next month or so. You’ve probably already taken your lady (or your fella!) to Sackets, Clayton and the Bay, so where else can you find spectacular views, refined food and loads of ambiance? 

Look to tiny Morristown in St. Lawrence County. This diminutive village has a prime panorama of downtown Brockville, Ontario, from across the shimmering late-day waters of the river, along with Ella’s on the Bay, your new gourmet clubhouse and date night secret weapon. 

Do you want an upscale night out in a polished setting, air conditioned and overlooking the water? Ella’s has got you. Feeling more casual, craving sunshine and sandwiches? Yup, it has that too, by virtue of its waterfront deck complete with colorful umbrellas. Ella’s even has a large bar area, separated from the dining room entirely, so you can cut loose without suffering dirty looks from the next table. This place might just be your perfect summer night out. 

But enough buttering you up — I need to tell you about the food! As soon as we were settled in, we dove into the menu. It included varied and inventive appetizers, fine dining entrees, quite a few tasty-sounding sandwiches and even pizza. We chose the pan roasted Brussels sprouts ($8) to begin our dinner.

Before the sprouts arrived, our expert and jovial waitress, Rhonda, brought a round of drinks in glassware etched with the restaurant’s name. The cocktails were expertly mixed — strong but balanced. We relaxed and took a look around the attractive dining room, with its stacked river stone fireplace facing a wall of windows framed by dark-stained wood moldings and lit by modern, industrial lighting. 

The bowlful of Brussels sprouts was amply dressed in balsamic vinegar and butter, with garlic and bacon adding depth to the cabbagey funk of the vegetables. The vinegar was the star of the show, sweet and sour at the same time.

Our salad course was made special by absolutely stunning homemade ranch and honey mustard dressings. The honey mustard was sweet and hot, delectably thick over impeccable baby greens, house made croutons, cucumber slices and tomato wedges. The ranch was the most flavorful, thick version I’ve ever tasted — garlicky and well-seasoned with both herbs and salt. I would go back and order a dinner salad just for that epic, awesome ranch. I want it on fried chicken sandwich, as a dipper for fries, and to eat from a spoon. I have no shame. 

With this course came a skinny baguette of soft, light-as-air, housemade French bread served with a fresh basil oil chock full of the assertive, bright herb plus lots of fiery, finely minced garlic and shallots. I am not usually one to fill up on bread, but it was very difficult to stop cutting off thin slices of it and dunking them in that bodacious, herbaceous, addictive oil. This item, as well as the dressings, are wanton things, and may cause you (or your date) to suffer the loss of some inhibitions. You’ve been warned. 

Saturday night at Ella’s is prime rib night. The queen cut ($22), ordered medium-rare, had the most velvety texture I have ever had when eating this meat in Northern New York. Each bite succumbed after just a couple of chews, melting away into delicious beef flavor. The small cup of au jus served alongside was robustly fatty and beefy — the juices from the roasting of the rib not strenuously separated out from its fat, but allowed to mingle and imbue the sauce with a slow-cooked, well-developed depth. 

That au jus was not only a perfect accompaniment for the meat but also for stray bits of bread that somehow survived my oil-drowning attempts and gaping maw, as well as the hand-cut fries ordered with the prime rib. The fries were lightly sprinkled with kosher salt and had excellent flavor — not taken so far in the fryer that they were super crispy, but wonderful and somewhat more blond than most from-scratch french fries. 

A side of steamed, slender green beans, the vegetable of the night, still retained their bright green hue and a crunchy interior. They were yummy dunked in the jus, too. We had basically abandoned all sense of propriety during this meal, and were dunking everything in all sauces available to us. I suggest you follow suit when you visit. 

Kicked-up shrimp scampi ($25) arrived as a crown of six perfect, pink shrimp sitting atop a lily pad of a portobello mushroom with a little fresh mozzarella thrown in for creaminess. That grilled portobello was perched on a nest of angel hair pasta dressed in a Chablis and butter sauce. 
You don’t see a lot of Chablis wine used in cooking anymore; it has a citrusy finish that works nicely with the meaty earthiness of mushrooms and the sweetness of plump shellfish. 

This was a complex dish that was executed well — these are not flavors I’m used to enjoying together, and their individual personalities were both interesting and delicious as one. The only criticism I would lob at this creation is that it could have used a bit of crunchy texture — a spoonful of breadcrumbs toasted and sprinkled on top would have added even more intricacy and interest. 

Ella’s filet ($26) was crusted on the outside and well caramelized either on the grill or under the broiler. The inside was wonderfully tender, cooked as the diner had ordered, medium-well. 

It was served with smoked Gouda-smashed potatoes, prepared skin-on, which were creamy and absolutely shouting out the vaguely meaty, smoky lushness of that cheese. Smoked Gouda has so much personality, you don’t need much else going on, and it helped makes these potatoes irresistible. The smoked flavor of the cheese was especially brilliant with the steak, its own smoky, grilled notes pairing perfectly. 

The filet is offered with grilled onions and mushrooms on top, which would undoubtedly add sweetness and woodsy depth to the dish, but our diner chose not to add those. 
The portions were just right — hearty enough to fill you up and justify the price, but not so big that you were groaning with fullness and unable to consider dessert. Indeed, we had been scoping out massive slabs of strawberry cake delivered from the kitchen to tables around us and hoping there would be a slice left for us when it was time.

The dessert gods smiled down, and Rhonda secured us a piece of strawberry cream cake ($6). A bite of this layer cake was like a mouthful of wild strawberries wrapped in a fluffy cloud of sugar, or in this case, moist angel food cake with a crumb so tender, the pastry chef may very well have been trained in the heavens. Whipped cream separated the layers, and ruby red chunks of fresh strawberries were moored in the cake, tumbling free with each forkful of the fall-apart delicate dessert. The buttercream frosting wasn’t overly sweet — it wasn’t quite as tart as a cream cheese frosting, but creamier and less sugary than most.

Chocolate layer cake ($6) was perhaps more ordinary than its fruity compatriot, but no less decadent. The fudgy cake was rich with eggs, denser than the white cake, but no less moist. The chocolate buttercream spread between the layers and over the top faintly crunched with sugar crystals — a pleasant textural treat.

Morristown is a village marked by flat rock and granite outcroppings, like much of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Ella’s on the Bay smooths out some of those rougher edges, a soft spot to shelter, be pampered and revel in cuisine you wouldn’t expect to find in an ancient settlement that witnessed shipping battles in the War of 1812. Quite simply, we felt like we had unearthed a treasure few others knew about, even though the small dining room and bar were bustling that night. 
Dinner at Ella’s ran $131.76 for three, with four cocktails, one appetizer and two desserts. We enjoyed lively banter with Rhonda, gazed over the river at Canada — which is so close it feels like you might be able to reach out and touch it — and delighted in every food and libation. This is an enchanting dinner spot, and I imagine a repast on its sunny deck or in its lovely bar is, as well. I award Ella’s on the Bay a nine on the Big Hungry scale. 

The next time you want to treat your beloved to a refuge on the water, celebrate an anniversary or graduation or just get away from your normal evening haunts, consider Ella’s. She’s all set to captivate you and your significant other and tick all the boxes for your perfect summer date night. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Ella's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Bobby Flay's Favorite Restaurant in Staten Island is Ours, Too

Back in 2012, we visited Carol's Cafe, in the Dongan Hills neighborhood of Staten Island, after a really long day of Miss New York prep. Dining at this elegant yet comfortable bistro was a treat, and we've been meaning to return ever since.

This year, we brought a whole gang with us, and once again felt enveloped by the hospitality and fine fare owner Carol Frazzetta dishes up. A photo of the proprietress with Bobby Flay, prince of NYC gastronomy, hangs on the wall as you enter (it seems he's a personal friend), and this time, we sat by the front windows and enjoyed the early evening sunshine as we sipped expertly crafted cocktails and fine wine.

We started with two appetizers - first off, Carol's caramel shrimp. The shrimp are brined, then go for a swim in a complex, sweet and sharp brown sauce with fiery ginger and garlic, plus bright scallions in the mix. There's a lot of sugar in this dish, but it never becomes cloying - the sign of a chef who understands how to balance flavors like a master. Slices of crusty bread dragged through that glorious elixir were like turning the flavor dial up to 20 and ripping it off. But the plump, sweet, salty shrimp were no slouch, either. The fresh torn basil up on top made the dish, balancing the sweet, rich garlic with bright notes.

Our next starter was the BBQ duck with ginger and satay sauce; but folks, I've had satay at a million weddings and even in Amsterdam, where Indonesian food is a big deal, and I've never had satay this refined. It was light, slightly sweet and sharp from the ginger, earthy from the peanuts, and just a little spicy. Once again, the sauce was delectable, and it was impossible for us to leave any on the plate. It begged to be licked (which we did not do, but it was close).

The duck was tender and rich, with good caramelization on the outside, and the sesame seeds provided pop and texture to each bite.

I was looking for a lighter entree, so I ordered the shrimp with penne and broccoli rabe, flamed in brandy. Because broccoli rabe is so bitter, I think a touch of cream or some whole butter at the end would have helped to round out the flavor, but the sweet basil on top was ethereal and summery, and the shrimp were absolutely impeccable - sweet and clean.

My Dad ordered the liver with bacon and onions, and even though it was a heavier dish, it was excellent. The calves' liver was tender, rich and minerally, offset wonderfully by the sweet, sautéed onions and crunchy, salty bacon. I didn't snap a pic, but I may have to have this for myself next trip.

The last time we ate at Carol's, I somehow missed the chocolate soufflé. I am a soufflé junky. You just can't beat a dessert that captures such intense chocolate flavor in such an ethereal texture. Man oh man, eggs are miracles. This soufflé was light as a feather, and just ever so slightly under-cooked in the middle, to add creaminess to the fluffy, cocoa-rich, sweet confection. This dessert has to be ordered when you select your entrees because it must be prepped in real time, and it's totally worth it. It was the best thing I ate all weekend in Staten Island this time.

I gave Carol's Cafe a nine on the BHS scale when I reviewed it in 2012, and I'm holding firm on that assessment. Not only is every dish there inventive and carefully prepared, whether classic or innovative cuisine, but the service is just as carefully performed. Our waitress AND bartender were both attentive and knowledgeable. Our barkeep fetched Morgan one of the most delicious, smooth glasses of Malbec I've ever tasted:

It hadn't a trace of tannic weight, just the ripeness of freshly picked summer berries. If the caramel sauce was a dial turned up to 20, this was easy listening music - the Enya of wine.

These are the faces of happy, relaxed diners:

Next time you're in Staten Island, you've got to give Carol's a try! Morgan and I are going to attempt to make it to one of her cooking classes this year - I'll be sure to report back on that experience. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


Das Ist Gut: A Beer Hall Makes Good in Staten Island

Honestly, I wasn't sure Staten Island could deliver on much else, gastronomically speaking, than terrific Italian food. It seems to be the stock in trade there, and while I've had reasonably good Spanish tapas on the island, a German beer hall seemed far-fetched.

But this trip, two of our party were enthusiastic wurst freaks. So I selected Nurnberger Bierhaus for our dinner choice the first night in town. Killmeyer's is the more famous, better rated SI German emporium, but Nurnberger was on our way to the St. George Theater, so it got the nod this time.

You enter through the bar, and trust me when I tell you that our pre-pageant squad was overdressed in a way that was noticeable to all the other patrons. Nurnberger's isn't fancy, but its dining room is homey and comfortable, like sitting in your grandparents' living room in 1978.

Though the menu boasts an impressive array of authentic German beers, our thickly accented German waitress was less than enthusiastic about reporting back to us each time we tried to order one, which they were out of. I really was looking forward to a Franziskaner, so when they didn't have it, it could have been my disappointment that turned her against us. Nevertheless, her scowl was a permanent fixture of our meal at Nurnberger.

Undeterred, we finally ordered a beer they had in stock, and continued to peruse this old school, wurst-heavy menu that highlights dishes of central Germany like schnitzel, rouladen, and sauerbraten. 

They had a whole section of the menu devoted to proteins paired with, "little potato pans," or mountains of German fried potatoes with onions and bacon. Uhhhhh, OK. I'd like that, please. 

My order came with a starter salad, which was simple, but good! I liked the sweet and sour vinaigrette that came on it. The tomato wedge and cucumber slices were not plentiful, but they were perfectly fresh. 

I chose bratwurst to go with my little potato pan. For the record, there is regional cuisine in Germany, and Hamburg, which I visit for work each spring, doesn't have a lot of the wursts or roasts, but it does have potatoes with just about every meal. Germans know what to do with potatoes, you guys. They make them sing. In this dish, they were crispy, fatty, salty, and sweet. Like home fries on steroids. Like, you took a bite and then knew that your life might just be perfect after all. Like maybe the sourpuss waitress was friendly, after all. THAT is the power of well-cooked potatoes, friends.

The two bratwursts were, first of all, huge. They were well-crisped on the griddle; the natural casing split open from the heat and crackling-crunchy. The meat inside was mild, tasting like white meat pork with a little garlic. They were definitely milder than a Midwest American-style brat, braised in beer. But with those incredible potatoes, honestly, they could have given me a pile of grilled shoelaces and I would have probably been ok with it.

Mom got the sauerbraten, which I don't think I had ever had before. It was deep and rich, kind of like pot roast, but with an acidic edge - a sour note we don't specialize in in American cuisine. That vinegar kick is nice; its breaks up all the salty, earthy, meatiness in a long-cooked dish like a braise. The tender potato dumpling on the side was no slouch, either: like a magical ball of mashed potatoes that somehow stays together In a solid form, but without being gummy or gluey in any way. Dense and ethereal at the same time. Again, well done, Germany, you potato masters, you.

This dish was served with a little side bowl of braised red cabbage, again, imbued with a little edge of acidity to challenge the sweetness of the vegetable. It was cooked down, but still retained a tiny bit of crispness so that you didn't get that icky cabbage-soup, flabby texture that overcooked cabbage has.

Morgan, our resident wienermaster, ordered two plump weisswurstteller sausages with two massive pretzels. This dish was hilarious looking and I can't believe it was on the menu like that: two white wieners and two big, chewy, brown pretzels. This is stoner food at its finest. Are these Germans secretly...Jamaican? Or maybe from German by the way of Colorado? 

The veal sausages were steamed, nice and juicy, not crisped like my wursts. The pretzels were dense and chewy, with just about the perfect amount of salt on top to flavor the whole dish. Morgan absolutely loved it.

We had to rush out to make our show, so dessert wasn't on the menu for us this trip, but I can say that we liked the food enough at Nurnberger Bierhaus to get over the astounding degree to which our waitress seemed to wish to be anywhere else on planet rather than waiting on us. I give Nurnberger Bierhaus a six on the BHS scale - above average, if a little bit rough around the edges. At least four of those points are for potatoes alone.

Go for the beer - stay for the carbs. Hmm, that could actually be Germany's new tourism tagline. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Nurnberger Bierhaus Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Staten Island Pizza Tour Part 2

Way back in May 2014, I returned from the Miss New York Pageant in Staten Island with tales of fantastic pizza to tell. I promised to further tell the tale upon subsequent trips, but via a combination of forces, this past weekend was that next visit.

Of course, we were back for pageant time again, and of course, I want you to hear about our fabulous Miss TI before I tell you about the food.

Miss Thousand Islands 2016 Kristina Blackstock is a stunner. A graduate of SUNY Potadam soon to attend nursing school, she is an accomplished singer, fantastic baker, sometime runner, and she might possibly love accessories as much as I do. Out of 30 contestants at Miss New York, she finished third runner-up, a nearly impossible feat for a first timer. It would be tough to be any prouder of this girl than I already am.

Photo: Joe Whiteko

On Sunday, before we packed it on in to the gorgeous St. George Theater to watch Kristina compete against 30 other young women who haven't eaten carbs in six months in the swimwear competition, we hit up Lee's Tavern for lunch. It really is sweet to be on the volunteer side of pageants. When I wrote my first SI pizza profile two years ago, native Staten Islander and Miss NY 2015 Jamie Lynn Macchia told me I had it all wrong, that Lee's had the best pizza on the island. And so, as Jamie was giving up her crown Sunday, we felt it was apt to follow her recommendation.

Miss New York knows her 'za 

We followed GPS to Lee's Tavern, because it's on a little, hidden side street somewhere between the Island's boardwalk and fancy Dongan Hills neighborhood. There's no sign outside, so we drove by once and had to loop around before Mom spotted the pizza boxes in the windows, stacked floor to ceiling. You know a joint is legit when it doesn't even have a sign, but is still cranking with business at 12:30 on a Sunday.

There were lots of tempting items on the bar's simple menu, most tantalizing, a roasted pork sub that I will absolutely be back for in the future. The tavern was dark and cool, with TVs displaying a variety of sports, a softball team of beefy guys drinking beers and swapping stories at the bar, and a brisk take-out business keeping the barkeep busy. We told him we had been sent by Jamie, and received excellent service. We also noted that he kept each take-out customer updated on the status of their order to help them manage their time, all while keeping the dudes at the bar well lubricated. With beer, not, like, with anything gross.

But most importantly, we received personal, thin cut, blistered pizzas.

The crust was just on the chewy side of cracker-thin, topped with a sweetly bright, raw tomato sauce weighed down with neither too much garlic nor any tomato paste. I chose a sausage and mushroom pie, and enjoyed the mild Italian sausage's richness with the fresh mushrooms' woodsy earthiness. The blistering and light charring around the circumference of the pie indicated a screaming hot oven and lent each bite crunchy texture and a smoky, savory flavor. 

The crust was thick enough to have a little chew as you progressed inward towards the center, but thin enough to absorb some of the flavors of the tomato sauce and cheese. This was an utterly delicious pie, all the flavors in balance, everything perked up even more with a scant sprinkle of hot pepper flakes.

My teen, Brianna, ordered pepperoni on her personal pie, and I stole a piece, noting that rather than flimsy pre-cut slices from a package, the spiced sausage had been hand cut, so that each small disc curled a bit and became a tiny cup for a little fat and flavor. Yum. These guys are doing it right.

Lee's Tavern certainly deserves its spot in the pantheon of terrific Staten Island pizza places - if on locals-only, signless street cred alone. But with a classic but spotless interior, friendly service, and spot-on pizza, it's more than just cool. Lee's Tavern may just be the best pizza on the island. Stay tuned to future tour installments to find out! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Lee's Tavern Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato