Review: Garage Taco Bar

CaptureThis latest addition to the downtown Binghamton restaurant scene is located in a former auto repair shop. Friends of mine spoke highly of the work on their cars there. I do not expect similar comments about the current occupant. The décor is supposed to have a garage theme but that is pretty much limited to the front end of an old Chevrolet on the wall behind the bar and a few dozen wheels above it. The rest of the space, filled with retro Formica-topped tables, reminds me of my high school cafeteria. In nice weather, the garage doors open onto a patio furnished with picnic tables giving the place an improvised look. And, like most restaurants today, the sound level was just below the threshold of pain.

Unless you are seated at the bar, you order your food at a counter where you are given a number to place on whatever table you choose to sit at. Presumably your meal will be delivered to you. At the bar, you order from your bartender. And then you wait…and wait…and wait. Finally, your food arrives—in one or more rectangular cardboard bowls accompanied by a plastic spork.

Since the Garage calls itself a taco bar, one would expect it to have tacos. But at 8 PM on a Tuesday evening two of the five flavors of tacos, carne asada and carnitas, were sold out leaving pollo asado, frijoles y queso, and tofurizo. Tacos are served as a “dinner” of two with a side from a modest list and your choice of salsa, all for $8.  I ordered the first two with a side of Mexican rice…and I waited…for about twenty minutes even though the place was perhaps 10% full. For a signature dish, the tacos were a huge disappointment. They were flour tortillas hard in spots, soft in others, filled, respectively with perhaps a tablespoon of finely shredded chicken with no discernable flavor and a like amount of bland cheddar with a few canned black beans. The rice was yellow and served with one cilantro leaf which I suppose made it “Mexican.” Since I like really hot food, I opted for the hot salsa. It was basically chopped habaneros with too much heat and not enough flavor. I would have asked to try the medium hot salsa had I been able to get the bartender’s attention. I passed up a couple local brews for a Mexican beer, Modelo, on draft. That was a mistake. The beer was cold enough, but sour and reminiscent of American mass-market swill.

I have in the past criticized local restaurants for overly large servings but the Garage Taco Bar is at the opposite extreme. Their dinner is barely enough to be an appetizer and rather overpriced for what you get. I would pay a bit more to have tacos worthy of being a meal. And I would really like a choice of corn or flour tortilla and perhaps of hard or soft tacos. In fairness, the Garage has only been open for a couple of weeks so perhaps in time the food will improve and be prepared in a more reasonable length of time. Meanwhile, if you have a yen for Mexican fast food I recommend Chipotle or Moe’s.

Garage Taco Bar

211 Washington Street

Binghamton, NY 13901

(607) 217-7464

Review: The Colonial

6a2779_a8fee734a75243f0877e89b0222687e2Ok, we’re all grown-ups here so let’s tell it like it is: The Colonial has all the warmth and charm of a college town dive bar. Its unrelenting hard surfaces make it very noisy but the bar chairs are comfortable and the floor is only sticky in a few spots so, all in all, it is not an uninviting place. And the clientele is friendly and accommodating—a couple of young men sitting at the bar when we arrived happily rearranged themselves to make room for the two of us.

The selection of beers on tap is varied and interesting, ranging from local microbrews to some old standbys, Yuengling and Sam Adams. To their credit they do not waste tap space on “lite” swill. I had a very pleasant blonde ale from Good Nature Farm Brewery in Hamilton, NY. Had I not wanted to stay with a low-alcohol beer I would certainly have chosen the exceptional stout which was the rotating selection from the North Brewery in Endicott, NY.

On the two occasions that my wife and I have been there, the food has been very good. The special was something I have never seen on a restaurant menu in some forty years of eating out in major cities all around the country and more than few in Europe: camel. Yes, camel, the humpy-backed beast. I might well have ordered it but the bartender did not see fit to tell us what the evening’s specials were so I had already ordered something else. Perhaps she thought that we older people would not be interested in something so exotic. I overheard her reading the specials to someone else at the bar and asked her what they were. Speaking of bartenders, while the service was pretty decent I could just hear Jon Taffer of Spike TV’s Bar Rescue fulminating when one of the bartenders checked her mobile phone behind the bar.  

During warm weather, The Colonial has a few tables on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. Before taking our places at the bar, we had requested the next table that came open there. And one did just before our food arrived. The odd jerk on a motorcycle notwithstanding, the outdoor seating was much quieter than inside. My wife had the fish and chips which she, an anglophile of long standing, declared among the best she had ever tasted. My cheesesteak was good if not quite up to South Street Philly standards. And the fries we both had were excellent.

So, the Colonial is not a place one would choose for a romantic dinner but it a great for interesting beer and surprisingly good food. Just don’t expect to have a quiet conversation there.

The Colonial

56-58 Court Street

Binghamton, NY 13901

thecolonialbing@gmail.com

Tel: (607) 238-7741

Fricassée

Some might be prompted to ask, “Fricassée of what?” but to add anything to fricassée would be redundant since, as the authoritative Larousse Gastronomique puts it, “In modern French usage, the word fricassée applies almost exclusively to a method of preparing poultry in a white sauce.” [Larousse Gastronomique, (New York: Crown Publishers, 1961), 430-431]. Most commonly in the United States it is a stew of leftover poultry with vegetables and gravy. Technically a white sauce contains milk or cream but I find that to be gilding the lily, so to speak. The easiest approach is to figure out how much leftover chicken, or turkey, you have and scale the recipe accordingly. The quantities listed below make a generous pot full that should feed at least four.

Ingredients

 

Schmaltz, olive oil, or a combination

2 tablespoons

30 ml

Onion, diced

8 ounces

250 grams

Carrot, diced

6 ounces

175 grams

Celery, diced

4 ounces

125 grams

Flour

2 tablespoons

30 ml

Chicken broth or stock

2 – 3 cups

500 – 750 ml

Tarragon leaves, dried

½ teaspoon

2½ ml

Thyme leaves, dried

1 teaspoon

5 ml

Parsley leaves, dried

1 tablespoon

15 ml

Potatoes, medium dice

12 ounces

350 grams

Peas

4 ounces

125 grams

Cooked chicken in bite-sized pieces

1 pound

500 grams

Salt and pepper

to taste

to taste

Method

Put the schmaltz or oil into a Dutch oven or large skillet over medium heat and sweat the onions, carrots, and celery for about 5 minutes or until softened but not browned. Sprinkle on the flour and stir to make a roux. Cook for about 2 minutes then add stock a bit at a time stirring until each addition comes to a boil. Continue to add stock until the gravy has a nice consistency. Stir in the herbs then add the potatoes, peas, and chicken. Add more stock if needed to just cover everything. Bring to a gentle boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes. Check to see that the potatoes are done. If the gravy is too thin, uncover, turn the heat up to medium for a few minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Review: Tranquil Bar and Bistro

 

shapeimage_2[1]Opened in 2008 by Binghamton University professor Sean Massey and his husband Loren Crouch in what had for years been an Irish bar, Tranquil Bar and Bistro bills itself as, “(a) Little French Bistro in the Heart of Binghamton” and promises “(w)onderfully creative cuisine, spectacular beverage menu, welcoming surroundings and attentive service.” And, on the whole, it delivers on that promise.

My wife and I have been there for drinks, dinner, and brunch on a number of occasions, most recently on our tenth wedding anniversary last Tuesday. We arrived a bit early for our 8PM reservation to find ourselves the only dinner patrons—not entirely surprising for that hour on a Tuesday in Binghamton. We started out at the bar with the evening’s special: $5 rail martinis. In a trice the bartender poured us two perfect gin martinis—stirred not shaken—garnished with olives. (One might be surprised at how difficult it is in the post-James Bond world to get a real martini.) So, on to our dinner.

By the time we sat down to dinner another couple had come in to the restaurant. Our server was prompt and attentive to everyone. (In my experience, service is often worse in a nearly empty dining room because wait staff are bored.) On occasions when Tranquil was more crowded the service has been equally good. After considering the daily specials we both decided to order from the menu. My wife chose the Trout Meunière and I the Steak au Poivre. Since we were having such different entrees we bypassed the impressive wine list and chose white and red Côtes du Rhônes by the glass. Our server brought us a basket of excellent warm bread—Italian bread, actually, but that is what Binghamton is famous for—with whipped honey butter. I would have preferred a bit of French baguette with unsalted butter but what we had was good. The salads were very nice plates of mixed greens in a classic French house vinaigrette garnished with cucumber slices and grape tomato halves. They were attractive, tasty, and perfectly whetted our palates for what was to come.

While preparation a la meunière is often associated with sole it works wonderfully with any small mild fish. In this case it appeared to be farm-raised rainbow trout which is sustainable and delicious. Our only compliant is that the fish was perhaps a bit overdone, either because getting thin filets done perfectly is difficult or because of the local Binghamton culture that looks askance at potentially undercooked food. (My personal opinion is that there is no such thing as undercooked fish.) The rice pilaf accompanying the trout was very good and a perfect match for the buttery sauce. About the vegetable of the day, broccolini, more later.

I am sorry to report that the steak au poivre was less successful. For one thing, it was served with mashed potatoes, the traditional accompaniment of pommes frites being unavailable. The potatoes were fine—red potatoes with bits of skin—but I find it unbelievable that an establishment billing itself as a French bistro does not offer that most iconic of French bistro food, the French fry. Secondly, although the meat was cooked nicely rare as I requested, I found the serving too large, too thick, and not well trimmed. In fairness to the chef, we Americans tend to prefer large slabs of beef, but a French bistro would do well to consider getting French cuts of meat. I could not tell whether the steak had been cooked on a grill but the classic French preparation would have been in a very hot cast iron skillet with a bit of butter. And for my taste it could have used quite a bit more black pepper.

Now to the broccolini. I love broccolini, a smaller, crunchier version of broccoli. But what we were served was disappointing. Some of the stalks were bright green as they should be but others had the telltale grey of reheated vegetables. Yet they were still a bit underdone. A $27 entrée should not come with obviously reheated green vegetables, ever. Broccolini is a nice touch but it has to be done right and served fresh.

Our evening ended with complimentary crème brûlée, in honor of our anniversary—a nice surprise made possible by one of Glenda’s artist colleagues whose work was on display at Tranquil for the month. All in all, it was a wonderful celebration. Despite my nitpicking, which I offer as constructive criticism, we will certain be back and I urge everyone to give Tranquil Bar and Bistro a try.  

Tranquil Bar and Bistro

36 Pine Street

Binghamton, NY 13901

(607) 723-0495

Review: Jrama’s Soulfood Grille & Barbecue Pit

jramas

It is a bit difficult for me to decide how to describe Jrama’s Soulfood Grille & Barbecue Pit. For one thing, the restaurant, housed in a former fast food joint in a strip mall on Upper Front Street just north of exit 6 from northbound I-81, although it has been open for several months, still has its “soft opening” menu, suggesting that changes are likely. That menu, however, is supplemented by a variety of daily specials announced by the owner as people arrive. And arrive they do. We stopped in well after the traditional 1PM end of lunch hour and the place was packed. When we left, there was a line for service and people were still coming in. So clearly Jrama’s has found a niche.  

Jrama’s concept is to provide freshly-made, often locally-sourced food made to recipes handed down through the owner’s family. The Soul Food menu struck me as more American comfort food—mac ‘n’ cheese, fried chicken, fried cat fish, baked beans, and cornbread—as well as such favorites as collard greens and spicy cabbage. A nice selection but missing such soul food staples as chit’lins and organ meats. However, the menu does include some Jamaican dishes like candied yams and rice and peas. Today’s specials included other Jamaican favorites: ox tails and jerk chicken. In any event the line between Island cuisine and Soul Food is a bit blurry and the selection is certainly appealing.

Being something of a BBQ connoisseur, I started out with the chopped pork BBQ sandwich. It was a generous portion served on a soft roll with the traditional coleslaw. I was surprised that it was Kansas-city style: lightly smoked with a cloyingly sweet, mild sauce. My wife had the BBQ chicken leg. It had the same too-sweet sauce but was cooked to perfection on a grill in the parking lot. Frankly, I much prefer Carolina-style pulled pork with a spicy vinegar-based sauce so I do not expect to have Jrama’s BBQ again. But then, as the lines indicate, Jrama’s knows its clientele. I do expect, however, to be back to try some of the Jamaican specialties.

One word of caution if you plan to try Jrama’s on your lunch hour: like many local restaurants I have visited, they have not mastered the concept of a quick lunch. I suppose that is the price of a made-to-order menu, but it would perhaps be good if they had a lunch menu of items that can produced a bit more quickly. Still, at least on the Friday we were there, the wait did not seem to discourage anyone.

Jrama’s Soulfood Grille & Barbecue Pit

1237 Front Street, Binghamton

Open Thursday-Saturday, 12pm-10pm

Sunday, 12pm-8pm

(607)644-7272

 

Review: The Painted Pig

Painted PigThe Southern Tier of NY is not famous for its pulled pork BBQ. In fact, before the Painted Pig, I have never had decent pulled pork in the area. But here is the real thing—east Carolina style, vinegar-based BBQ but made with locally-sourced ingredients.

At lunch on Friday, I had the pulled pork sandwich. It was piled generously with meat and topped with house-made BBQ sauce. The owner gladly provided a small cup of Texas Pete’s hot sauce, telling me that he too preferred it hotter but that he had to tone it down for the delicate palates of upstate NY. My only quibbles are that the roll was a bit over-toasted and that there was no coleslaw on the sandwich as is traditional in BBQ-eating country. The side of fresh arugula and a dill pickle spear that tasted locally made rounded out a satisfying lunch.

My wife, who does not eat wheat, ordered the pulled pork nachos. Wow! The $10 order was more than enough for two. It consisted of a big pile of multi-colored tortilla chips with lots of pulled pork topped with melted NY state cheese and generous dollops of sour cream and house-made guacamole. Next time we might well share an order for lunch.

If pulled pork is not to your liking, the Painted Pig offers a variety of other sandwiches and an impressive selection of salads.

Currently beverages are limited to soft drinks and raspberry iced tea. Personally, I think that the absence of unsweetened ice tea was taking the Southern theme a bit far. Depending on the time of day, you can always pick up a growler of beer at the nearby Binghamton Brewing Company to have with your meal.

Besides the food, the Painted Pig is sort of an art gallery with work by local artists displayed on the walls. On some evenings they feature local musicians. This is a place worth a visit.

 

The Painted Pig

258 Main St

Johnson City, NY 13790

 (607) 296-3799

Dirty Duck Wild Rice

Duck and wild rice have always seemed to me to go especially well together. Together they evoke northern skies and pristine lakes; visions of Lake Wobegon perhaps. Dirty rice, on the other hand, is a classic Cajun dish from the bayous of Louisiana, land of steel-grey humid skies and murky swamp water. So what brings the two together? Duck liver. Dirty rice is so called because of the brownish tinge it gets from being cooked with chopped liver, usually pork or chicken. Applying the technique of making dirty rice to wild rice and duck liver is, when you think about it, almost painfully obvious.

Wild rice is not, in fact, a rice at all but the seed of an aquatic grass of the genus Zizania, species of which are native to North America and to China. Bought in tiny boxes in the supermarket it is ridiculously expensive but one can buy it online for a reasonable price and for even less if you have a local Trader Joe’s.

I generally mix wild rice with brown basmati rice both because of the cost and because by itself wild is, well, a bit grassy. If you don’t have brown basmati rice any other long grain brown or white rice will work perfectly well in this recipe. Duck stock is not mandatory but if you have a duck liver you probably have the rest of the duck so you might as well make a batch. For convenience, I prepare the ingredients in a non-stick frying pan then put everything into an electric rice cooker. One can just as well build up the recipe in a pan with a tightly fitting lid and cook over very low heat.

Ingredients

 

Wild rice

100 grams

½  cup

Brown basmati rice

100 grams

½ cup

Onion

1 small

1 small

Bell pepper

½ medium

½ medium

Celery

1 stalk

1 stalk

Duck fat or butter

15 milliliters

1 Tablespoon

Duck liver

1

1

Duck stock

500 milliliters

2 cups

Salt and pepper

To taste

To taste

 

Method

Soak the wild and basmati rice separately in cold water for a half hour or so.

Dice the onion, pepper, and celery making the traditional Cajun “holy trinity.” Chop up the duck liver. Warm the duck stock.

Melt the duck fat or butter in a frying pan over medium-low heat and sweat the trinity until soft but not browned. Add the duck liver and sauté until lightly browned. Drain the basmati rice and add to the pan. Turn the heat up a bit and toss for a few minutes.

Put the contents of the frying pan into a rice cooker along with the drained wild rice. Pour over the duck stock, season with salt and pepper, and cook until done, 40 minutes or so.

Red Gravy

Anyone who has watched “The Sopranos” knows that many Italian Americans of Sicilian extraction call tomato sauce red gravy. Not surprisingly, everyone seems to have their own favorite recipe. Far too many contain little besides tomatoes and are too sweet for my taste. My version starts out with a generous amount of sofritto, the Italian equivalent of the French mirepoix. You will notice that the recipe below is vague on quantities. That is because a good gravy is a work of art that requires the personal touch of its creator. As a general rule the sofritto should be about half onion with the other vegetables making up the other half and there should be about twice as much tomato as sofritto. If you use mushrooms, aim for about half as much as of the sofritto. Check the amount of herbs right after pureeing. Add the sugar and salt at the very end. 

Ingredients

Onion

 

Carrot

 

Bell pepper

 

Celery (optional)

 

Garlic

 

Mushrooms (optional)

 

Olive oil

 

Diced canned tomatoes

 

Dry red wine

 

Dried thyme

 

Dried oregano

 

Dried parsley

 

Dried basil

 

Crushed red pepper flakes

 

Black pepper

 

Sugar (optional)

 

Salt

 

Method

Peel the onion and carrot then dice all of the vegetables. Sometimes I get lazy and just throw them all into the food processor and pulse it a few times. Mince the garlic and coarsely chop the mushrooms.

Warm the olive oil over low heat in a suitable sauce pan.  Sweat the sofritto and garlic, covered, until soft but not browned, stirring from time to time. This should take about 15 minutes. Add the mushrooms, raise the heat a little and sauté until they give up their liquid.

Stir in the tomatoes, a cup or so of wine, the dried herbs, and red pepper flakes. Simmer, partially covered, over medium low heat until the tomatoes are well cooked, about 30 minutes.

Off heat use a stick blender to puree the sauce. If you do not have a stick blender you can do this in a food processor or blender but let the sauce cool a bit before doing so.

Taste the sauce and adjust the herbs as needed. Bring it back to a simmer and let it thicken for about a half hour. Season to taste with sugar and salt.

Duck Rillettes

Rillettes are a coarse meat spread similar to the cretons popular in Québec. Most modern recipes call for them to be made from duck legs confit but I suspect that their origin was more modest, as a way to use up the last bits of meat left over from the stock pot. I simply cannot imagine a farm wife throwing away all that meat. I added the duck liver as well, giving the result a bit more of a paté flavor.  

Unlike a usual recipe, I am not specifying quantities of ingredients. The amount of meat will depend on how big your duck was and the flavoring is matter of judgment. A typical duck should yield about two cups of rillettes.

Ingredients

Duck fat or olive oil

Minced onion

Duck liver, coarsely chopped

Duck meat picked from bones and neck used to make stock

Giblets used in the stock

Ground cloves

Ground cinnamon

Dried thyme leaves

Dried savoy leaves

Heavy cream (36%)

Salt and pepper

 

Method

Gently sauté the onion in a bit of duck fat or olive oil. When softened, add the chopped liver and cook until done. Set aside to cool a bit.

If needed, coarsely chop the meat pickings and giblets. Place in a food processor along with the liver and onions. Add the spices and herbs. Pulse once or twice to combine. Add some cream, season with salt and pepper, then pulse a few more times to yield a coarse paste.

Serve on crostini or French bread.

Review: Social on State

Although Social on State is billed as a tapas restaurant, do not go there looking for traditional Spanish snacks. The extensive menu of small plates intended for sharing consists mostly of familiar American and continental fare. The variety is inventive and impressive ranging from mac and cheese to shaved Brussels sprouts. Some, like chicken osso buco, are a bit fanciful (I was not even aware that chicken had shanks). Having just come from some rather heavy grazing at a nearby art opening we only sampled two of the 31 dishes on offer. The thin, spiral cut house fries could have been a bit crispier but the three sauces that came with themroasted garlic aioli, beer barbeque, and Sriracha bleu cheese—compensated well. The lamb lollipops, Frenched lambchops, were wonderful if cooked a bit beyond the medium rare we ordered. The beet balsamic puree they were served on made a beautiful plate but lacked much in the way of vinegar flavor. As is de rigueur in stylish restaurants these days, Social on State has a lengthy menu of hipster martinis. The Hot and Dirty with Sriracha and olive brine was, if not exactly a classic martini, interesting. Paying homage to the recent explosion of craft brewing in upstate New York, the bar features a rotating selection of a dozen beers from three regional breweries: this month featuring four each from Cortland, Horseheads, and Upstate. The space is pleasant and quiet with a comfortable bar and ample seating. I could have done without the ubiquitous large screen TV showing a basketball game but I suppose that simply reflects my general disinterest in sports. A temporary outside foyer somewhat reduces the cold blast when the door opens but on an evening of single-digit temperatures one is well advised to sit away from the front. Prices are a bit steep for Binghamton—small plates ranged from $5 to $15 with most on the high side of $10. Martinis at $8 were at the going rate. Still, on a frigid Thursday evening the place was well populated and on weekends is often hard to get into. It is difficult to predict how long downtown Binghamton’s dining renaissance will last, but Social on State is certainly a welcome addition.

http://socialonstate.com/

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