Saratoga Springs Travel Guide

I've taken you Hungries along with me many times to Saratoga Springs - it's one of my favorite cities in Upstate New York, full of frilly boutiques, pampering spas, and loads of good food.

When Big Hungry Melinda and I went recently for a final girls' weekend before she becomes a mom, we wanted to try some new places, and I just knew, as we sipped cocktails (her's were virgin!), crunched on meringues, and tucked into beignets, a wicked blog post would come of it.

Our first night in town, a table at Salt and Char, right on Broadway, was waiting for us. This restaurant was recommended by Bobby Flay on The Best Thing I Ever Ate, and I'm never one to ignore his suggestions - it was Flay who led me to Carol's Café on Staten Island, and the inimitable Carol Frazzetta, after all.

Once again, Bobby came through. Salt and Char is a rustic/masculine steakhouse on par with those in NYC and Vegas - beef of achingly good quality, strong libations, and gracious service. While Melinda began her repast with the wedge salad, I came in guns blazing and enjoyed the surf and turf starter, which pairs bone marrow, oxtail marmalade, and jumbo garlicky shrimp. The bone marrow wasn't roasted quite long enough for my taste, and was lacking a few chunky salt crystals over the top to season it, but the oxtail stew more than made up for its shortcomings. The marmalade was unctuous, salty/fatty, and impeccably rich. The shrimp were plump, sweet, and cooked perfectly. Thumbs up.

We split the chateaubriand, a tender, juicy, thick cut of beef complimented by a mushroom demi glace and further embellished with a fresh ramp and blue cheese butter that was on special. It was sublime, the flavor of the meat deep and satisfying.

Our favorite side dish was the cheddar mashed potatoes, which were enriched with plenty of butter and cream, yet somehow not heavy. The cheddar flavor was sharp, and the creaminess countered the beef beautifully.

Creamed spinach was another standout - the mineral quality of the greens smoothed out by cream and a touch of nutmeg, in accordance with the prophecy.

The bloody mary onion rings were less successful - the breading on these was a little thick, and under-seasoned, given the dish's moniker. There was no spice on them to be found, even though there were a gorgeous presentation.

We very much enjoyed dinner at Salt and Char, including a fun key lime shortbread "taco" dessert, and I recommend it for your next visit to Saratoga. I would give it a nine on the BHS scale.

Saturday morning, Sweet Mimi's Café was in our crosshairs, an easy walk from the Hampton Inn & Suites where we were staying. Honestly, this may have been by favorite meal of the trip, despite how jam-packed and noisy the dining room was. The coffee was strong, the service was fast, and Melinda's strawberry rhubarb French toast was thick and crusty enough to battle its own overt sweetness with plain old yum. You know, the kind that makes your eyes roll back into your head a little bit?

My croquet monsieur was perfectly executed, with thick-cut salty ham and runny eggs. The grilled asparagus on the side was a surprising and smart addition. The slight bitterness of the vegetable was a stunning foil for the richness of the open-faced sandwich.

We didn't try any sweet treats from Mimi's case, but I won't make that mistake again.

That afternoon, we enjoyed several blissful hours at Complexions Spa, which borders one of the verdant parks on Broadway. I cannot recommend enough the idea of making time for a spa excursion when you're in SS. Complexions is fancy, the forest bathing massage experience I had, with Daniel as my therapist, was absolutely transformative. I was a new woman when we left this gorgeous hideaway.

Dinner that night was at Mouzon House, just a block off Broadway and less than that from our hotel. This Cajun, farm-to-table restaurant is situated in an old farmhouse decorated with colorful, large-scale art and charming wooden floors. Garden surround you, and you may forget that you're in Upstate New York while you're here, rather than in a genteel Louisiana home.

I was less enamored with the food at Mouzon House. Crawfish beignets were a bit muddy in flavor, and extremely heavy in texture. I wanted to taste the sweetness of the seafood, but the batter fought for prominence, and the spicy remoulade sauce served alongside completely obliterated the delicate flavor of crawfish completely.

Similarly with the fried chicken over jambalaya, nothing really shone. The chicken wasn't juicy or particularly well-flavored, and while the jambalaya was fresh-tasting, with good celery and okra flavors, it lacked the strong anchor of a dark roux or the spice you might want from Cajun food. I found myself setting this dish aside in favor of a few bites of Melinda's stronger - but very spicy - shrimp and grits. The flavor of this dish was running on all cylinders, though I thought it was overly sauced, such that the grits were lost in the shuffle. If you want fried chicken in Saratoga, stick to Hattie's.

For dessert, bananas foster was good, but not great. It was made with cinnamon ice cream, an exciting prospect, but again, the flavor on this house made treat was a bit timid. French press coffees were strong and a pleasant surprise.

I would probably skip Mouzon House on a repeat trip, though if you love Cajun food, you might want to try it. Indeed, the atmosphere and service were splendid, even if the cuisine left me wanting. It is a six on the BHS scale.

Our last breakfast was at Scallions, which I've blogged here before, and which is right across the street from the hotel. This place never seems to be busy, and I'm not sure why. The food isn't a show-stopper, but it's all tasty, and the atmosphere is relaxed and bright. I like this place.

It's that time of year when we're all a little restless in the office in the sunny afternoons. Isn't it time you and your sweetheart got away? I highly recommend a long weekend in Saratoga Springs. Whether you like the horse races, unwinding at a spa, or just shopping at the many shops on Broadway - including one of my favorite independent bookstores anywhere - you can't go wrong in this charming small town. Enjoy the spa city whatever you like, but don't miss out on its considerable treats and eats. My hunger is big, but my personality is bigger!


Speak Me Fair in Death: Farewell to the Bard

Yesterday, we lost Anthony Bourdain. I won't be the first to declare him the bard of the food world, nor the last to contemplate the indelible impact the man made on the culinary landscape.

I grew up loving Jeff Smith's Frugal Gourmet, the Galloping Gourmet, and Martha Stewart on PBS, long before the Food Network hit the air waves and became something beloved and yet perverse - the era of food porn and lurid cooking competitions that tug at our latent warrior lizard brains while appealing to our base nutrient-hoarding instincts.

Anthony Bourdain had a front row seat to the entire, grandiose spectacle, and he translated it all - from the fetid walk-ins of New York City's toiling brunch commandos to the hallowed labs of El Bulli, to a sunny afternoon repast in Sardinia surrounded by loved ones, grating lofty piles of dried roe sacks onto al dente pasta.

That such a vibrant and omniscient soul should be snuffed out before its time is gutting, and I am not a person who can speak to the depression and mental health issues entangled with such a tragedy. I'm not equipped to opine on what took Tony from us - but I feel compelled to pay tribute to this man whose words were perhaps sharper than his knives - who savored consonants even more so than a wickedly hot bowl of laksa and deployed both derisive and beautiful adjectives like napalm across a rice paddy.

He was more prolific than he probably gave himself credit for, and many of us would consume his products any way we could: Kitchen Confidential, Top Chef judging, No Reservations, the Les Halles cookbook, My Last Supper, Parts Unknown, Medium Raw, The Mind of a Chef, his novels, and the Appetites cookbook. They turned us on to exotic lands and new restaurants, made stars out of chefs we never would have heard of otherwise, and made exotic flavors seem accessible. He passed around trays of disdain equally with adoration of artisanal food ways in evolutionary decline, and taught us how to experience the world without being mere tourists. He was a citizen of any corner of it where food was consumed, and he invited us along for his journey.

There are items in my pantry today that would never be part of my gastronomic lexicon if it weren't for Tony. Fregula, the toasted Sardinian pasta pearls; pho, the Vietnamese beef noodle soup; sambal, a fiery chile garlic paste; and the seemingly scary fish sauce, which elevates southeast Asian cuisine to complex heights our American palates were never meant to crave. While it was certainly his aim to open our apertures, there are legions of disciples for whom Tony's shows and books literally formed their appetites, and I'm not positive he appreciated that. Even for those who never read one of his books, the trickle-down effect of chefs and bloggers and food personalities influenced by his wisdom surely has changed what the masses eat every day in this country. His reach was pervasive though unfailingly, he remained true and real, honest about the awkwardness of his own fame and earnest about his ongoing efforts to bring world flavors and issues to the American consciousness. To make the foreign more familiar. To break down the walls between us and elevate the fellowship of the dinner table to a uniting force for good.

Today, I will eat the rest of the Bourdain-crafted chocolate bar I've been savoring for months; this week, I shall cook his recipes in homage to the legacy of flavor he leaves behind him. I don't have much wisdom to pass along in these days when we will question why he left us, but I will revel in what he leaves in his wake: almost two decades as a harsh father-figure to those of us for whom food is religion, a teacher, a guru, a prophet, an instructor. He wasn't warm or fuzzy, but he was certainly the kind of friend you want in your corner when the chips are down and you need to be whisked away to an exotic locale. He was our bard. Tony, I hope you're barefoot right now, on the deck of a tiny hut in Heaven's version of Southeast Asia, waiting for a pancake boat to stop, with a steaming bowl of something good in front on you, chasing away a slight hangover with a chile punch and your daughter by your side. I hope your are in your version of peace.