Category Archives: Restaurant reviews

Review: Uncle Tony’s

uncle tony'sLocated in the middle of the State Street college drinking zone and a stalwart of the famous (infamous?) Binghamton University commencement week Bar Crawl, Uncle Tony’s has been a local institution since 1983. In 2014 the eponymous Uncle Tony, Tony Basti, retired and turned the business over to friend and long-time employee, Bryan Whiting. Not much has changed inside but by participating in this Binghamton Restaurant Week, the new owner is signaling that he is moving up the food chain, so to speak. Being a connoisseur of bar food, I had to try it.   

When we arrived on a Wednesday a bit after lunch hour the place was neither crowded nor abandoned. A couple tables and few bar seats were occupied by business types. There appeared to be a few more Restaurant Week patrons there too, as well as a long-time weekend bar server from another local institution and the leader of a popular bar band. The bartender greeted us as soon as we sat down at the bar and took our drink order promptly. The selections on tap include the usual national swill and a nice selection of regional micro-brews. The bottled beer menu is similar and the wine selections are quite impressive. We ordered draught micro-brews that were served at the perfect temperature.

The deal with Restaurant Week is that each participant offers a limited three-course prix-fixe menu. One does not generally associate appetizers with bar food and the ones we chose were ok but not outstanding. My wife had a bowl of chili that she found a bit too salty. My Caesar salad was simply a small bowl of romaine lettuce with giant croutons and a generous helping of Caesar dressing on the side. The lettuce was nice a crisp and the dressing passable.

To me the best bar food are sandwiches and here Uncle Tony’s did not disappoint. My wife had shrimp salad on a croissant accompanied by onion rings. I had a buttermilk-breaded chicken cutlet with provolone on a roll and a side of French fries. The shrimp salad had just the right amount of mayonnaise and seasoning; the croissant fresh and flakey. The onion rings appeared to have been house-cut but were just a bit greasy. The chicken was fried to perfection: crispy without a trace of excess oil. The French fries were likewise perfectly done arriving too hot eat right away. Obviously the chef is a master of the deep-fryer as a good bar cook must be. Both servings were generous for lunch—I would not want to eat that much every day but for a treat it was great. We passed on the tiramisu-flavored gelato that was part of the prix-fixe because we were simply too full!

Service was exceptional: friendly, fast, and competent. Mr. Whiting clearly understands that the trick to building a lunch trade is to get good food out quickly. Most downtown Binghamton restaurants I have visited at lunchtime are simply too slow for someone on an hour lunch break. I do not know, yet, what the new Uncle Tony’s dinners are like but I would certainly recommend it for lunch.

Uncle Tony’s Bar and Restaurant

79 State Street

Binghamton, NY 13901

(607) 723-4488

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

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

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/

Review: River Bistro Easter Brunch

Easter Sunday brunch is an occasion to celebrate family and spring; not necessarily a gourmet feast. And that is a good thing if you went to the buffet at the River Bistro in the Doubletree Hotel in downtown Binghamton. Aside from the beautiful weather and pleasant company of in-laws the affair was pretty much a disaster.

We arrived at 1:50 for our 2 PM reservation and were made to wait in a hallway with a small herd of misbehaved children and a large Easter Bunny until 2:10 when we were ushered to our table which had not quite been set. I had to ask that cups and saucers be provided at half the places. The tables were not, as we had expected, in the pleasant bistro overlooking the Chenango River but in an adjacent windowless ballroom of bland decoration and indifferent lighting. The pastel paper balls hanging from the ceiling and branchy table pieces holding Easter eggs added to the general institutional ambiance. The tinny, teeny-boppy music only added to the din. The long rows of numbered tables reminded me of the many business luncheons I had endured during my career, including some in that very room.

The buffet was set up in the hallway running alongside the ballroom. On the one side was an omelet and waffle station, a salad bar, lunch-y entrees, and a carving station. Along the other was a typical hotel breakfast bar familiar to any frequent traveler. I started with a sampling from the latter—scrambled eggs, a rasher of bacon, a few home fries. I completed my plate with a piece of foccaia, cold roasted vegetables, and some greens from the salad bar. I have no idea what the salad dressing was because there were no labels on the bowls on offer. Everything was, in a word, lukewarm, as was the coffee served at the table. The only thing that stood out on this pass was the foccaia which was rather stale.

Undeterred I returned for a pass at the lunch items. I tried the roasted fingerling potatoes and the stuffed chicken passing on the salmon. Again, lukewarm. The potatoes were greasy and the chicken overcooked in the best tradition of rubber-chicken business meals.

By the time I was ready to sample the carving station, the roast beef was gone. The rolls were, like the foccaia, quite stale. The lamb, however, was the highpoint of the meal. The carver served me a generous portion of crispy outside meat—lukewarm, of course, but very good none the less. The accompanying pesto and thyme butter were more a distraction than anything else.

Finally, inside the cavernous ballroom was a dessert buffet featuring Doubletree’s signature macadamia-chocolate chip cookies, ice cream with various topping, and selection of cakes and brownies. I treated myself to one of the latter, which was not bad.

The one bright spot of the afternoon was the service. A small army of black-clad waiters scurried about ninja-like cheerfully serving coffee (lukewarm) and carrying away empty plates.We were there near the end of what must have been a long day, yet everyone of them was chipper and alert. Well done.

So, all in all, it was nice to see my in-laws recently returned from their winter sojourn in Florida and to enjoy the lovely spring weather. But I would certainly give the River Bistro Easter Brunch a miss next time. And I hope that no one becomes ill from the improperly held food.

Restaurant Review: Moxie Wood Fire Grill

Moxie Wood Fire GrillAbout a quarter of the way down its 444-mile southerly course from Cooperstown to Turkey Point, where it becomes the Chesapeake Bay, the Susquehanna River dips briefly from New York into Pennsylvania to go around Tuscarora Mountain then flows back north and west into Binghamton. Conklin Road, NY Route 7, follows the left bank of the river from the state line into the city before taking a right turn along the Chenango River and heading for Albany and Vermont. Every few years the river floods the homes and businesses that line Route 7, so it takes some moxie to locate here. But the irony is that the owners of Moxie Wood Fire Grill, Mark and Victoria Tedeschi, did not have that in mind when they chose the name a year before the 2006 flood put five feet of water into their restaurant just as they were about to have their grand opening. The Binghamton area is fortunate that they did have that moxie, though, because the region would be poorer without this wonderful place. Located a half dozen miles from downtown Binghamton Moxie is well worth the short drive.

The first thing that strikes you as you walk toward the door to Moxie is the tower of flame across from a couple of chairs to accommodate smokers. A nice touch that perhaps keeps such people from driving a few more miles into Pennsylvania where smoking in restaurants is, sadly, still permitted. Open the door and aroma of wood smoke greets you from the wood-fired grill and pizza oven along the far wall as you walk in. On the left is a cozy bar and lounge; on the right the spacious two-story dining room surrounded by a balcony under which are intimate booths. Over each booth is an unobtrusive sound absorbing panel that makes the sound level just right adding to the overall calm, relaxed ambience.

We were a bit early for our reservations—strongly recommended because the restaurant is often crowded—but the friendly hostess seated us promptly, cheerfully acquiescing to our request for a booth. Our waiter, Chris, was right there to introduce us to the Moxie and to take our drink orders. The menu is extensive with a unifying theme of wood fire cooking. Steaks, of course, are prominent but grilled fish and seafood are also featured. And, since Conklin, New York is well north of the surf-and-turf line (more about that in another post) various combinations are available. Besides having an impressive list of reasonably-priced bottles of wine, including a number from the near-by Finger Lakes, the menu offers an unusually broad selections of wines by the glass. There is also a fine selection of beers and bar drinks.

As is our wont, we started with martinis. Chris did not miss a beat when we ordered classic martinis, not the vodka abominations that pass for such these days. Minutes later he poured them at our table and took our dinner orders. Glenda had the mixed grill of beef tenderloin, diver scallops, and jumbo shrimp; I opted for the New York strip, rare—a personal favorite. Both came with a medley of roasted peppers, zucchini, and carrots. For a side Glenda chose fried polenta and I French fries. I could go into great detail but suffice it to say that everything was near perfection. The polenta was so good that I must try to recreate the recipe. My steak was juicy and bit chewy just as NY strip should be; Glenda raved about her mixed grill. The only minor complaint we had was that the salads arrived before we had finished our martinis. But those salads—mixed greens with croutons, grape tomatoes, and an inexplicable pepperoncini—were topped with outstanding house-made dressing. The roasted-onion dressing I had was especially nice. I should note that while we declined an appetizer the special of the night was grilled pork belly that sounded superb. Perhaps next time we will make a meal from the appetizer menu! The dessert list is short but elegant and well-suited to the rest of the menu. We shared a flour-free chocolate cake that was simply decadent.

I have to rate the dinner we had at Moxie among two or three best I have ever had in Binghamton. The bill for the two of us, including tax and tip but not the dessert that was kindly comped because it was our anniversary, came to about $125, pricy for Binghamton, perhaps, but more than reasonable for the quality of the food and service. If you are celebrating a special occasion, trying to impress out-of-town guest, or just in the mood for an excellent meal, you cannot go wrong at Moxie Wood Fire Grill.

Moxie Wood Fire Grill
998 Conklin Road
Conklin, NY 13748
Reservations: 607-237-0779

Burger Mondays Bar & Grille: a mini review

Last night we stopped in to Burger Mondays Bar & Grille on State Street in Binghamton. As is our wont we sat at the bar and ordered the evening’s special, a bison burger. I had mine with seasoned fries while Glenda opted for the house-made sweet potato chips. Here are my impressions:

First off, despite the art on the walls, the ambiance is that of an Irish-themed sports bar. The signs saying that one section was “reserved for Irish police and fireman” may be in jest but they are hardly welcoming. The high ceiling and hard surfaces make the space a bit uninviting and cold, something that was not helped by people holding open the outside door near the bar. Besides painting the sprinkler lines red the current owners have done little to update the interior from its previous incarnations. Still, the bar was friendly enough and felt a lot like a neighborhood guys’ tavern. Drink prices are on par for the area but the bartender was not aware of the $3 well drinks offered at the restaurant’s Facebook page.

Our food arrived promptly—a surprise in a town not known for its quick service. The burgers were cooked as ordered and were very good. My only complaint is that the bacon was rather limp and seemed to have been cooked in a microwave. Glenda really enjoyed her sweet potato chips and the seasoned fries were just to my liking—thin and very crisp. They could, however, have been improved by having the seasoning tossed with them rather than just sprinkled on top. At $15 the burger was a bit pricy, especially for a mid-week special, but I would recommend it.

All in all, Burger Mondays feels like a work in progress. The food we had was good and the service first rate. But the interior needs work.