Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Burger Mondays

Name: Burger Mondays
Location: 23 Henry St., Binghamton, NY 13901
Phone: (607) 722-7777
Cuisine: American
Price: $30+ for two

Burger Mondays is one of the latest restaurant additions to Downtown Binghamton, joining pizza-pub Amici, the River Bistro located inside the Riverwalk Hotel, and Remlik’s as new places I have been excited to try out. Burger Mondays, taking over the former location of Zazou and D.C. Dunster’s on the corner of Henry and State, specializes in gourmet burgers and milkshakes, both of which come in various interesting-sounding forms.

The restaurant is fairly pleasing aesthetically, with a spacious dining room with about 25-30 tables and booths toward the front, and a large, separate bar in back. Tables are adorned with black linens and fancy centerpieces. On looks alone, Burger Mondays is a little on the stark side, but generally makes a good first impression.

This review’s been a long time in the making. I’ve actually had the pleasure to try Burger Mondays three times, with three different dining companions. The first time, I decided to try it out the weekend right after they opened in March with my friend Tom. What I hadn’t remembered before I got there was that it was Binghamton’s Parade Day. The restaurant was packed and they had limited the menu to only two of their burger options, the Original and the Classic. Hoping to try something a little more exotic, I was disappointed, but given how busy they were in both the restaurant and the bar area, their decision was probably for the best. On the first visit, I tried out the Classic Burger, featuring white cheddar cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion, and a house-made aioli. The first thing that struck me upon ordering was that I was not asked how I wanted the burger. I’m a medium-rare guy myself, so I was worried that it would come out overcooked. As it turned out, it was more unevenly cooked than overcooked. Part of the burger was pink, the other half was well-done. On top of that, I didn’t think it was anything to get too excited about. It was a fine burger—nothing more, nothing less. Tom echoed the same sentiment. In lieu of writing a review at that time, I decided to pay Burger Mondays another visit during a less-busy time, where I would be able to order from the full menu.

On the second visit, Megan and I came for a late-lunch on a Friday afternoon. This time around, Megan ordered the aforementioned Classic Burger, while I went with Chef Matt Jones’ namesake item, a double-stacked burger called The Jonesy, which features pork and beef patties with a chili pepper salad, pancetta, asiago cheese, and a Worcestershire reduction. I decided to be adventurous and went with the Mondays Original milkshake to complement the burger. This milkshake is made with chocolate, caramel, peanut butter, banana, and pretzel: the waitress assured me it was a good choice and I was excited to give it a try. I also ordered a bowl of the Guinness Chili as a starter.

The Chili and milkshake were the first items to arrive. The chili was pretty excellent, a thick, meaty chili (chunks of beef rather than ground beef) with robust flavor. The milkshake was a little less successful, but not bad. It was perhaps a little too thick, but the flavors came together pretty nicely. The combination of peanut butter and banana was particularly winning.

Next came the burgers. To my surprise, I did not care too much for The Jonesy. I really expected to like this one. All the advertised ingredients were there, but in my opinion, I didn’t think they went together very well; a definite case of too much going on. In particular, I felt the chili pepper flavor dominated the rest of the burger and made it difficult to discern the other flavors. Again, we were not asked how we wanted the burgers, and mine was definitely overcooked. The patties themselves were a little bland and tiny. The toasted bun had a somewhat tough, chewy consistency that I didn’t care for. For a $14 burger, I was expecting much more than this.

Megan thought her burger was pretty good, but HATED the French fries. These fries are the small, thin variety that might be sliced a little too thin for their own good. To quote Megan: “There is no chance I will ever like those fries.” As for me, I don’t find the fries to be quite as offensive as she does (they are well-fried and well-seasoned), but I’ve had better. In the end, my second trip to Burger Mondays was just OK. I believe the phrase "It's better than Tully's" crossed my lips at that juncture, but that isn't exactly high praise.

Onward to visit #3: a long-awaited meeting of blogging minds. I teamed up with local food blogger Big Hungry Shelby, who covers restaurants all around the Southern Tier, the Finger Lakes, “real” upstate (North Country), and wherever her travels lead her. She releases a new blog entry every Wednesday, and it’s always a fun read. It’s clear Shelby has a real passion for great food, and when she suggested we get together to visit Burger Mondays, I was excited to have the chance to meet her. Megan was supposed to come along, but was sidelined with a migraine headache, so it was just Shelby and me on this occasion.

This time burger-wise, I went for a safe pick: the Southern BBQ burger. This burger consists of ground pork, caramelized onions, and cole slaw, all covered in their homemade BBQ sauce. It sounded like something totally up my alley, so I was stoked to give it a try. Shelby went for the Classic on her initial visit. As a starter, I ordered a bowl of the Thai Beef soup, on special that night, while Shelby elected to try another special, mini bacon steak tacos. A root beer float for myself and a chocolate milkshake for my companion, and we were ready to feast.

The soup came first, and was pretty good. Basically, it reminded me of a combination of standard vegetable (sliced potatoes and carrots) soup combined with the crushed chili and herbal flavors of Tom Yum soup like you’d find in a Thai restaurant. It was good, and I would order it again for sure.

Shelby encouraged me to try one of the pork tacos she ordered, and who am I to turn down food? I’m glad I tried one since it was really tasty. The pork was covered with a citrusy, spicy salsa (we thought we detected grilled pineapple, but would later confirm that mango was the key ingredient). Good stuff no doubt, and a great start to the meal.

The Southern BBQ burger turned out to be a solid choice, becoming the first burger at Burger Mondays that I really liked. I was a little skeptical about the combination of grilled onion and slaw, but this time the flavors came together nicely. It was a juicy, well-cooked burger. It didn’t blow my mind, it wasn’t the best burger I’ve ever had or anything like that, but I enjoyed it and had no complaints this time around. Additionally, the fries were better this time than they were on my previous visits, but still not great.

It was great to get together with Shelby. We had a nice time conversing about all sorts of things but mainly the local restaurants in the area and I’m hopeful that she and Megan and I can get together for another meeting sometime soon. Here’s a short recap that Shelby has provided detailing her view of our experience:

“An appetizer special was ‘bacon steak tacos,’and since I'm Big Hungry Shelby, you know I was getting those. These were mini corn tortillas with braised/roasted pork belly and a potent fruit salsa on top. The salsa was the star of this dish – a punch of grilled pineapple, mango and chilies that kind of blew out my taste buds for the rest of the ingredients. There was white cheese on the bottom, but I couldn’t identify it through the explosion of citrusy heat. I loved these, though, with their savory pulled-pork-like flavor complimented by the shock of heat and tartness. For the sake of a baseline, I chose the classic burger; a bacon cheeseburger offered with an aioli, a side of house-made fries and house-made pickle spears. I was all jazzed up about the homemade pickle, but the spear I received didn’t live up to my expectations – it was a barely pickled cucumber, no more. I am not a mayonnaise fan to begin with, and then it always really bothers me when restaurants flavor up jarred mayo and call it aioli – which is actually a homemade, garlicky, mayonnaise-adjacent concoction that is delicious and unlike gloppy jarred mayo entirely – so I opted for that on the side and didn’t end up even trying it. The burger was tasty – definitely juicy, crowned with lots of sharp, white cheddar cheese on a substantial, toasted roll. It was very hearty, with the medium-thickness burger patty, bacon, generous cheese and bun, but that’s not to say it was particularly beefy, nor did the bacon pack its own punch. The whole shebang was pretty balanced, with none of the players taking the lead. This is not a bad thing; however I do personally like an aggressively beef-centric burger. My hunch is that, with food costs soaring as they are now, the leadership at Burger Mondays is having a tough time sourcing high-end product and still keeping the margins decent and the prices in check. I suspect higher quality meat would elevate this burger to something truly excellent, as all the technique was there, it was just the flavors that were a bit lacking.

Basically, I think what you’re tasting at Burger Mondays is potential. It’s new, just having opened about a month ago, and the feeling I’m getting is that Matt is back there training his people with fervor that just isn’t quite permeating the entire staff as yet. This guy was the head chef at Number 5, for pity’s sake – he knows his way around a kitchen, and clearly has a passion for food if he’s trotting a bacon steak recipe around in his back pocket to every kitchen he graces. But there are some issues at Burger Mondays that are undeniable, and I’m going to wait a bit before going back. Dan and I agreed to award a 6.5 on the BHS scale, with room for improvement that I know is achievable.”

Please be sure to check out Big Hungry Shelby’s full review here, and make sure to check out her weekly column every Wednesday!

I reckon this has been a lengthy read, but I have a lot to say about Burger Mondays. Overall, I think it’s a restaurant that has great potential, but it’s not quite there yet. It’s my belief that if the restaurant has “Burger” in the name and they are going to charge the prices they do, the burgers and fries should be out of this world. At this point, they simply aren’t. I don’t know if the issue is just general inconsistency due to being a new restaurant, ingredient quality, or something else, but my three visits have proven that the restaurant is not yet where they need to be to be considered a true dining destination. Don’t get me wrong, Burger Mondays is worth checking out. It’s a comfortable space, a fine addition to Downtown Binghamton, and the food is generally good (particularly the non-burger items, as fate would have it). My hope is that they will continue to improve, and if my most recent visit is any indication, they are well on their way to doing so.

Grade: B

Burger Mondays Bar&Grille on Urbanspoon

But wait...that's not all!

A friend and reader of the blog, Michael, also wrote a review of Burger Mondays that he'd like for us to share here. I am impressed with his review and I'm hopeful that he'll contribute to our effort more in the future. He seems to share some of the same concerns that Shelby and I had, and would rate the restaurant 2 stars on a 4-star scale. Here is Michael's review:

The moment I walked into Burger Mondays I heaved a sigh of relief. When I learned that someone had added an upscale burger-concept restaurant to downtown Binghamton’s notoriously bleak dining landscape, I resolved to give it a try, but expected the sort of schizophrenic décor one associates with an Applebee’s or Friday’s. Instead, the dining room is sparsely, even severely, decorated, leading one to believe that the brain trust responsible was reluctant to have anything distract the diner from what should always be the star of any restaurant’s show—the food.

Now, I’m not exactly a huge fan of stark black walls—the color is neither warm, nor inviting—and the overall impression is less of a dining room than of a large retail space into which a restaurant has been shoe-horned, but I was encouraged nonetheless. Binghamton is sorely lacking in restaurants that fill the gap between corporate family eateries (like the aforementioned Applebee's) and our few high-end establishments (most notably P.S. and Moxie Grill), and it seemed like someone had resolved to challenge the Lost Dog’s seventeen year run as the undisputed champion of this category. The dining room (and the tastefully-appointed bar) give the clear impression that here, at last, was a serious attempt to provide another option for those of us looking for a nice place to take a date without first undergoing a credit check.

One glance at the menu confirmed that impression. With an array of eclectic, arguably ambitious, appetizers, and a burger menu that ranges in price from seven (the “Mondays Original) to fourteen dollars (an Ahi tuna burger, and “The Jonesy”), Burger Mondays seems determined to distance itself from more traditional purveyors of ground beef on a bun. A closer look, though, raised some concerns; of the ten burgers on the menu, only two (the Original and the “Classic”) are priced at less than eleven dollars, and of the remaining eight, many boast so many ingredients that one is left wondering what they might be hiding under drifts of seasonings and showers of sauces. The presence of other options than ground beef (the Ahi, an Italian Beef sandwich that tempted this former Chicago resident, a mushroom “burger” for vegetarians, and a pulled pork offering) demonstrate a willingness to cater to more than burger lovers, a diversity essential for a restaurant’s survival in this day and age.

Our server was attentive and personable, though, after she delivered our drinks and started taking our order, we received our second warning that all was not quite right at Burger Mondays. When I inquired as to how I should order my burger if I wanted it to arrive according to my notion of “medium rare” (a cool to warm red center) I was cautioned that I should order it “rare,” and that even then it might come out more on the “well” side. While I was grateful for this admission, I was also a little frustrated; I am fed-up with chain restaurants (and others) who refuse to cook a burger to order (unless that order is medium-well or well), hiding behind the false statement that it is “illegal” to do so. Such claims are patently untrue, and just reflect an unwillingness by restaurants to stand behind the quality of their ground beef, and a lack of faith in the ability of their kitchens to handle and store said beef properly. I want to be perfectly clear that I am making no such accusation against Burger Mondays, but one of the reasons I was so eager to dine there at all was so I could avoid such wrangling and disappointments.

We began with a calamari salad, something I was eager to sample since few local places offer much more than fried, previously-frozen calamari and marinara. I was a little put off by the numerous zesty and savory ingredients (aged balsamic, cherry peppers, roasted red peppers, feta cheese) as properly prepared calamari has a delicate flavor that can be easily overwhelmed by more robust accompaniments. As it turned out, the bold flavors of the salad were a god-send, since the calamari itself was overcooked to the point of rubbery tastelessness (imagine batter-dipped pencil erasers). It is hard to guess how the salad might have been had the calamari been rescued from the deep-fryer in time, but the balsamic was applied so liberally, and the other ingredients so bold on the palate, I suspect that, even with properly-prepared calamari, the dish would have come up short.

For our entrees my companion ordered the risotto appetizer as an entrée (from which the kitchen was gracious enough to remove the dried cranberries at her request), and I ordered the “Mediterranean,” a feta, spinach, and oregano stuffed burger, topped with olive salad and sundried tomato aioli (see what I mean about an excess of ingredients?). Of the two, the risotto proved the better, a nice creamy dish, the starch of the rice balanced nicely against pine nuts, bleu cheese, and a port reduction. Sadly, my burger lived up to my fears rather than my desires, and the caveats about temperature were well-deserved. One bite in I knew that this was nowhere close to medium rare, and that even medium was a memory dwindling in its rear-view mirror. Once I had resolved myself to that disappointment, I then had to contend with the welter of flavors competing with the beef for my attention. Much like with the calamari salad, there was just too much going on—in addition to the previously described ingredients, the meat itself was so over-seasoned as to utterly mask any taste of beef. The best thing about the entire meal turned out to be the fresh cut fries, which were hot, nicely seasoned, and delicious.

And this, ultimately, is the biggest problem with Burger Mondays. So what if the décor isn’t exactly what I might want it to be, or if they fell short on a calamari salad? After all, this is a BURGER joint, and if they get the burger right, they’ve done their job. But they didn’t do that, and, in fact, fell far short of the mark. To have the audacity to charge twelve dollars for a burger, and then fail to deliver something extraordinary, something cooked to the customer’s specifications, is a clear sign that they’ve allowed the concept to get in the way of the burger. Better they should offer the best beef, with the fewest frills, and allow the quality of the meat to speak for itself. Binghamton already has a place that does just that, a little spot on Leroy called, simply, “The Beef.”

Dinner for two (with one appetizer as an entrée, please note), with an appetizer, one drink apiece, and tip, topped fifty dollars, and for that price I should have left happy, but instead I just left full. Burger Mondays definitely deserves a second chance; they’re the new kids on the block, and should have a chance to iron out any problems, but in the process they should remind themselves that the star of any burger joint, high concept or road-side stand, is the meat.

Many thanks to Shelby and Michael for their contributions to this post, and happy dining to all you readers out there!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

South Side Yanni's

Name: South Side Yanni's
Location: 1200 Vestal Ave., Binghamton, NY 13903
Phone: (607) 723-1403
Cuisine: Pub food/American/Greek
Price: Inexpensive. Less than $20 for two.

South Side Yanni's is an institution on Binghamton's (you guessed it) South Side, serving its role as a neighborhood bar & grill for many years. I'm always skeptical about places like these since I'm always worried the emphasis will be more on the "bar" than the "grill," and I'm notoriously picky when it comes to bars. Plus, it's the South Side, not an area of town I get to very often. Additionally, the place looks a little sketchy from the exterior. All of these factors contributed to my being a little less than enthusiastic about giving Yanni's a shot.

A friend of ours who lives on the South Side has been championing the Yanni's cause for a couple of years now and when we were trying to coordinate an outing this past weekend, he suggested Yanni's. I hoped that the place would help to brighten our mood on a dismal, rainy Saturday, but had doubts as to whether they could deliver the goods.

I was astonished by what we found upon entering the place. First, I was surprised at how spacious it was. The bar takes up the right side of the place when you enter, but there's a relatively large dining room off to the left. Wooden tables and chairs and wood-paneled walls give the restaurant an old-fashioned, homey vibe. On looks alone, I immediately liked Yanni's and found it to be a comfortable place to hang out.

The menu features standard bar fare (fried appetizers, wings, burgers, sandwiches) with some Greek options as well (gyro, souvlaki, Greek salad, and a Greek Burger covered with tzatziki sauce and feta cheese). Our friend encouraged us to try the wings, which he claimed were the area's best, and so I started with a dozen hot garlic wings, and ordered the aforementioned Greek Burger for my entree with a side of fries. Megan went with the old pub food standby, a cheeseburger with fries.

The wings were first to arrive, and sure enough, they were the best I've had in the area, narrowly surpassing those of Kelly's in Endicott. They were a little smaller than those you find at Kelly's, but were less fatty and had much more flavor.

My Greek Burger was perfectly cooked to order (medium-rare) and had a great charbroiled taste. I'd never really considered tzatziki sauce as a possible burger condiment, but I thought it worked very well. With diced tomato and onion on top, this was an excellent burger and I'd order it again in a heartbeat. Megan was equally pleased with her burger, and both of us enjoyed the fries. Overall, this was a winner of a meal.

A couple minor drawbacks to Yanni's: they are sticklers when it comes to splitting checks (they don't do it), so be cognizant of that if you're going with a large party. Also, the beer selection features the usual standard macro (Bud/Miller/Coors/Yuengling) options, so if you like something snootier, this is not the place to find it.

I'm told that Yanni's offers specials each night of the week (ranging from meatloaf to chicken & biscuits to prime rib) that are quite good, so I'll be sure to check them out and will report back if I find anything particularly tasty.

Where I grew up in the Harrisburg, PA area, there's a bar & grill a little off the beaten path called the Eagle Hotel. It was a little rundown shack of a restaurant, positively nothing to look at from the exterior, but there was a line out the door to get a seat just about every night of the week because the food was excellent (especially the wings--to date, the best I've ever had by a mile). South Side Yanni's reminds me of the Eagle Hotel in a number of ways. It's a comfortable place that serves good food at completely reasonable prices. It's no surprise to me that Yanni's has become an area institution: of the local bar & grill places I've tried, Yanni's is the best of the lot.

Grade: A-

South Side Yanni's on Urbanspoon

Rolando's Diner

Name: Rolando's Diner
Location: 140 Court St., Binghamton, NY 13901
Phone: (607) 723-9058
Cuisine: Diner
Price: Dirt cheap. Less than $15 for two.

I feel like I'm doing this a lot lately, but sorry, readers, for taking so long between reviews. Life gets in the way sometimes, but fortunately we haven't stopped trying new places in and around the Binghamton area and you can expect some new reviews over the next few days.

Today we finally made it down to Rolando's Diner, a mainstay in Downtown Binghamton since 1971 that is well known for its simple charm and low prices. As diner fans, we were hopeful that Rolando's could deliver a quality breakfast, and off we went to check it out.

Rolando's is located on Court St. in a nice, central location. There's plenty of metered parking located out front and we had no trouble finding a spot. The inside of the restaurant features the classic diner layout of some booths lining both sides of the restaurant with a coffee counter along the left side toward the back. I'd imagine the place has not changed much since it opened forty years ago. Which, in my opinion, is not a bad thing.

When we arrived around 11:15 I was hopeful that I could still order breakfast. I was a little discouraged to find that each table had only lunch menus, but when a waitress came by she asked us if we wanted breakfast menus. Big win. A quick glance at the menu showed the usual wide variety of eggs, bacon, sausage, corned beef hash, omelets, and pancakes in various combinations. We each ordered a cup of coffee, and Megan ordered two eggs with bacon and homefries with toast ($4). I decided to be an absolute glutton and got three pancakes, two eggs over-easy, home fries, sausage, and coffee included for $6.15. A ridiculously good value, I thought, and it would give me a chance to try out the bulk of the breakfast menu at a low price. Plus, I was really hungry. A win-win situation if there ever was one.

Service was really quick and no-nonsense; our breakfasts arrived in less than 10 minutes. And sure enough, both of us were really pleased with what we got. Megan is tough to please in the bacon department, but it was exactly how she wanted it here. The only complaint she had was that the toast was a little crispier than she would've liked, but overall, she said she liked Rolando's about as much as Danny's Diner (one of her favorite area diners).

As for me, I had no complaints with my breakfast at all. It was exactly what I wanted. The pancakes were golden, fluffy, and most importantly, tasty. The syrup served with the pancakes was the crappy corn syrup variety, but hey, for the price, I'm not expecting real maple. The eggs were cooked exactly to order, the sausage was really tasty, and the home fries were among the best I've had in the area.

If there's one disappointing thing about Rolando's, it's that we didn't visit sooner. Its combination of low-key charm, dirt-cheap prices, huge portions, and tasty food really won me over. This is one of the best diners in Binghamton, and if you are a fan of diner fare in general, Rolando's is pretty much a must-visit.

Grade: A-

Rolando's Diner on Urbanspoon

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Brothers 2

Name: Brothers 2 Restaurant
Location: 2901 Watson Blvd., Endwell, NY 13760
Phone: (607) 785-5550
Cuisine: Pizza/Italian
Price: Varies, probably anywhere from $15-30 for two

Brothers 2 has been an area institution since 1970, founded by Italian brothers Domenico and Luigi Mata. They are well known for their banquet catering, in addition to their restaurant/bar/pizzeria on Watson Blvd. in Endwell. We recently bought a new car and as part of the deal we were given a coupon for a free pizza at Brothers 2. Pretty cool, we thought, since we were planning on going there soon anyway to try out the pizza since we'd heard some good things about it. The coupon provided incentive to stop by.

We'd driven past Brothers 2 a billion times but I really had no idea what to expect it to be like on the inside. As it turns out, the restaurant has a bar in the front, some booth seating to the left of the bar, and a larger dining area toward the back. It's a huge space and an old fashioned looking place that reminded me vaguely of Sharkey's in Binghamton. When we went, it was late on a Tuesday night and the restaurant was mostly dead. We used the coupon to order a half cheese, half pepperoni pizza and had high hopes it would live up to its reputation.

Indeed, it did. Both of us were instant fans of this pizza, with its thin-yet-flavorful crust and sweet sauce winning us over with every bite. It reminded me of a much superior version of the kind of pie you get at Cosmo's in Johnson City, another stalwart area pizza merchant. It's certainly different from our other favorites in the area like Grande's, Rossi's, or Joey's, but we enjoyed it.

It should be noted that pizza is but one of many things that Brothers 2 serves. They have a full menu of Italian dinners, subs and sandwiches, and some seafood options. I can't speculate as to the quality of the rest of their menu, but I'd be interested in trying it out sometime. One item that interests me in particular is their Pork BBQ sandwich, an item they consider a specialty.

Even though our waitress knew we were using a coupon and hence would probably not be spending a lot of money, I was very impressed with the service we received, which added to our enjoyment of the experience. According to the waitress, the best time to come to Brothers 2 is either Friday or Saturday night, because that's when their best pizza chef is on duty. Certainly I am willing to check it out at that time, but for now I was completely satisfied with the pizza we got on this particular cold Tuesday night, and I am glad to add Brothers 2 to our regular pizza rotation.

Grade: B+

Brothers 2 Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Corbin's Cafe

Name: Corbin's Cafe
Location: 115 Nanticoke Ave., Endicott, NY 13760
Phone: (607) 757-2678
Cuisine: Breakfast/Lunch
Price: Around $20 for two

Before I begin, apologies to our loyal readers for taking so long between reviews. It's been over a month since the last one. Sometimes the day job gets in the way of writing...but it hasn't stopped us from eating and trying out some new places around the area. New to us, at least.

Corbin's Cafe can be found in West Endicott, near the intersection of Nanticoke and Main. I really hadn't heard too much about Corbin's before heading over to check it out, so I didn't have much of an idea what to expect. We arrived on a rainy Saturday morning around 11:00 AM and the place was bustling. It's a small restaurant with about 10-12 tables of various sizes scattered around its small dining room. Since they were busy, it took us a few minutes to get seated, but eventually we were seated at a small table near the front of the space.

The menu at Corbin's seems to be going for a slightly more upscale diner vibe. They offer various breakfast items, including some specialty omelet choices and Eggs Benedict, as well as sandwiches and wraps for those wishing to go the lunch route. Ever the breakfast fan, I decided to go with their special that day, a Mexican omelet served with home fries and toast. Megan tried out lunch, opting for a Turkey Bacon Ranch wrap with a side of slaw.

I really enjoyed my omelet, admiring it not only for the taste but also for the presentation. The omelet included seasoned ground beef, cheese, salsa, sour cream, and a little cilantro and was perfectly cooked and very tasty. I'd have to say this was one of the finer omelets I've had around town. The rest of the plate was just OK. The home fries were not my favorite and were perhaps a little overdone in spots, while the toast was soggy and soft rather than crispy like I prefer. However, it was still very good tasting bread, even if calling it "toast" might be a slight misnomer.

Megan did not care for her meal very much at all. She commented that her wrap was quite bland and was lacking in the promised ingredients, namely the bacon and the ranch. There was so little bacon in the wrap that at first, she thought they had forgotten to put it in, and not enough ranch dressing to provide much flavor. She did like the slaw, and ended up dipping her bland wrap into the slaw to infuse it with a little more flavor. In the end, I don't think Megan would be too enthusiastic about a return trip to Corbin's.

Service was about average for the area, and I'd say the atmosphere was a little cramped, but somewhat charming. They had some weird, vaguely operatic music playing that was rather loud and intrusive as well. I think Corbin's is a fine spot for a good breakfast in Endicott, but it is not without some flaws. I would definitely go again, and would give a mild recommendation to check it out for yourself.

Grade: B-

Corbin's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Fuji San Japanese Restaurant

Name: Fuji San Japanese Restaurant
Location: 4105 Vestal Pkwy E., Vestal, NY 13850
Phone: (607) 797-9888
Cuisine: Japanese (Sushi/Hibachi/Traditional)
Price: Depends what you order. Consistent with other Japanese restaurants in the area.

Scattered around the Triple Cities are a few different Japanese restaurants. There's Kampai, located in Vestal, best known for their entertaining tableside hibachi dinners. There's sake-tumi in downtown Binghamton, with an expansive menu of sushi rolls and Asian-fusion entrees in a comfortable-yet-upscale atmosphere. Sakura in Endicott is a somewhat bare-bones operation offering some traditional entrees, but with an emphasis on sushi, while the Tokyo Sushi Buffet on Upper Front St. has a wide selection of all-you-can-eat sushi for a low price. And then there's Fuji San, located across the street from Binghamton University inside Quality Inn. A weird place for a restaurant of this sort to be located, no doubt. It's somewhat shocking that until last weekend, we had never been to Fuji San. After attending a basketball game at BU, we decided to try out the sushi at Fuji San for a postgame snack. We hoped it would deliver more satisfaction than our beloved Bearcats were able to muster that night.

Fuji San is a much larger restaurant on the inside than I expected it would be. There are a couple hibachi tables toward the front, a sushi bar straight ahead, and a larger dining room back and to the left. It's a pretty nice place, casual enough that you can wear jeans, but nice enough that you could go there for a special occasion. Only the carpet is a major tip-off that you're inside a hotel. At any rate, we elected to sit near the sushi bar and placed our order for a gyoza appetizer, a Spider Roll (soft shell crab, cucumber, avocado, spicy mayo) for me, and a Boston Roll (cucumber, avocado, masago) for Megan.

The gyoza appetizer was pretty delicious. For those not in the know, gyoza are Japanese potstickers, usually with some kind of beef or vegetable filling. These were beef gyoza with a little bit of green onion thrown in, served with a soy ginger dipping sauce that was really good. I would definitely get these again.

The sushi was next to arrive. I will say that generally speaking, sushi in this area cannot compare with what you might find in New York City or other large cities. So if you are used to eating sushi in the City, my guess is that you will find the sushi in Binghamton to be of lower quality. That said, I thought this stuff was pretty good. The rolls were well-presented and stayed together very well. I felt the quality of the seafood was good. In fact, I think all of the sushi places in Binghamton offer a very similar experience, quality-wise. What separates some from the others is decor, presentation, and service, and Fuji San is among the best in all three areas. The service was top-notch, very quick and polite from the moment we walked in until the moment we left. All in all, we were left quite impressed with what Fuji San had to offer.

I look forward to trying out Fuji San for hibachi sometime, but I would definitely go back for sushi again too. It's a clean restaurant with a nice, relaxed atmosphere, the service is great, and the food is at least on par with the other Japanese places in the area. If you are a Binghamton University student reading this review, also note that Fuji San delivers to campus, a definite plus on those ridiculously cold days where you don't want to step outside. Overall, I give Fuji San a solid recommendation.

Grade: B+

Fuji San Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Frank's Diner

Name: Frank's Diner
Location: 428 Court St., Binghamton, NY 13904
Phone: (607) 238-1900
Cuisine: American Diner
Price: Around $20 for two

When putting together a Google Map of all of the area restaurants we've reviewed, I noted that one area of town that our blogging exploits have mostly ignored up to this point has been Binghamton's East Side. For whatever reason, we rarely find ourselves over there. Perhaps our distaste for East Side's Cortese Restaurant has led to some subconscious bias. Seeking to remedy the situation, we plan to visit each of the diners on Court St. in the near future. We started with a trip out to Frank's Diner, one of East Side's newer establishments.

Even though Frank's is somewhat new, it takes over the location vacated by the Robin's Nest, one of Binghamton's most popular diners. It's my understanding that Frank, the owner, is a longtime restauranteur in the area, and he appeared to be patrolling the grounds during our visit.

I would classify Frank's as a "family restaurant" variety of diner. It's a reasonably sized place with probably 15-20 tables scattered throughout its dining room. It was evident that the chairs, tables, and floors were newer and cleaner than at most area diners. We went around 12:30 PM on a Saturday, and decided to try both breakfast and lunch. I was in the mood for breakfast food, while Megan ordered from the lunch menu. The breakfast menu was fairly typical, with several egg combos, pancakes, and omelets, but what caught my eye was the offering of several versions of frittata, a quiche-like dish. My mother used to make an egg, bacon, and cheese frittata for special occasions and I always enjoyed it, so I was excited to try out Frank's. I decided to try out the Italian Sausage frittata. Megan was in the mood for a burger and fries, so she went with a Bacon Cheeseburger.

Where to start on the frittata....hmmm... Let's just say, I don't think whoever made the dish I was served had any idea whatsoever what a frittata is. Frittata is a self-contained food like an omelet or quiche. What I was served was a scramble, not a frittata. There were scrambled eggs, sausage, onions, peppers, and home fries, all of which were quite tasty elements. I enjoyed my breakfast quite a lot, but to call it a "frittata" would be completely inaccurate. Not a huge deal since the food was good, but be forewarned.

Megan seemed to enjoy her burger well enough. In her words, it was "passable," yet nothing to get too excited about. On a better note, I tried some of her fries and they were pretty delicious, the crispy, golden-brown variety. Solid.

In the end, my opinion of Frank's is that it's pretty much middle of the road as diners go. Certainly it's one of the cleanest ones in the area, service was fast, and it's the kind of diner where you never have to ask for a coffee refill. The food was satisfying, but I reckon that I was mildly peeved that I didn't really get what I ordered. If we lived in the area, I could see us making Frank's a somewhat regular stop in our dining rotation, but it's not a place we're likely to go out of our way to visit again.

Grade: B-

Charlie's City Bagels

Name: Charlie's City Bagels
Location: 135 Washington Ave., Endicott, NY 13760
Phone: (607) 748-8888
Cuisine: Bagels/Coffee/Diner
Price: Inexpensive. $5 or so per person.

A fan of the blog recommended that we make a trip out to Charlie's Bagels on Washington Avenue in Endicott, so on the way to work last week, I decided to pay them a visit. As someone with a fondness for small bagel/coffee shops in general, I have a few small demands of places of this ilk. The bagels should be fresh and have a dense, doughy interior, and the coffee should be strong enough to jolt me awake. As a guy who drinks 4-6 cups of coffee per day, I have grown to be somewhat picky in this regard. In this area, I have found Best Bagels In Town, ironically enough, to be the best bagel option, with Java Joe's and The Bagel Factory riding a close second, with Java Joe's excellent coffee garnering bonus points. But I am always interested in trying new places like this.

Charlie's is around the corner from Union-Endicott High School and has street parking available in front and a large lot around back. From the street it looks like a very small shop, so I was surprised to find out that it's really more of a diner. It's a long, narrow restaurant with about a dozen or so large booths lining both sides of the space with the counter at the very back. Photographs and memorabilia line the walls to give Charlie's a distinctly old-fashioned feel.

I quickly scanned the list of about a dozen bagel flavors before deciding on my default, an Everything bagel, toasted, with regular cream cheese. I also went with a cup of regular coffee. It should be noted that Charlie's also offers some usual diner fare (eggs/bacon/etc.) on their menu: it is not strictly a bagel shop.

I'd have to say the bagel I had was quite good. A slightly sweet, malty, crunchy exterior gave way to a soft interior. It was a little saltier than other "everything" bagels I've had in the area, which I do not consider a bad gave the bagel a more pronounced flavor. Overall, I think I still prefer Best Bagels, but Charlie's is a contender.

The coffee was another story. Weak and watery, and there's no way that it was "regular" coffee either, with a faint taste of hazelnut seeping through. Do keep in mind, though, that I am overly picky about my coffee. But even by usual diner standards, Charlie's comes in below average in the coffee department.

In the end, I'm glad I made the trip out to Endicott to try out Charlie's City Bagels. It's a nice space, service was quick and efficient, and the bagel I had was one of the best I've had in the area. I can't say this is a place I'll make a regular destination, nor is there anything particularly amazing or memorable about it, but if you are looking for a solid bagel shop in the western part of the Tri-Cities area, Charlie's is one of your best bets.

Grade: B-

Charlie's City Bagels on Urbanspoon

Park Bench Delicatessen

Name: Park Bench Delicatessen
Location: 100 Park Ave., Binghamton, NY 13903
Phone: (607) 231-8452
Cuisine: Sandwiches/Subs
Price: Around $5 per person

Always in search of good lunch options, I headed to the Park Bench Delicatessen on Binghamton's South Side without having any idea what to expect. There doesn't seem to be much information on the internet regarding the small shop on Park Avenue. So with an empty stomach and an open mind, off I went to check it out.

Externally, the Park Bench appears rundown and has probably seen better days. I was hoping that the inside would show an improvement. It did not. The store consists of two small booths if you want to eat there, and the rest of the space is taken up by a long deli counter with various hunks of Thumann's brand meat on display. To be frank, the place kind of creeped me out. There was a weird, oily odor (perhaps kerosene) permeating the store, and it looked to be in need of a thorough scrubbing. The deli meats on display looked kind of gross and no regard for presentation was shown. There did not appear to be any kind of menu to order from. And perhaps most problematic, when I walked in the store, there was literally nobody there. I stood at the counter for several minutes before a woman emerged from a back room. She was on the phone, clearly in a heated argument with someone, and motioned to me to wait before going back into the back room again. A couple more minutes later, she re-emerged and I was able to place an order. I elected to try out a roast beef sub with lettuce, tomato, mayo, and Swiss cheese to-go. A few minutes and $5.00 later, I was out the door, sub in hand. Hopefully the sandwich would surpass my dwindling expectations.

The sub was OK, average at best. I liked the sub roll itself, noting that the Park Bench gets their rolls from nearby DiRienzo's Bakery (another place I need to stop by at some point). The roast beef was relatively thickly-sliced and not bad, but I got the sense that the lettuce and tomato were not the freshest and the mayo was a little warm (I ate the sub within 5 minutes of receiving it on a very cold day, so there's little chance that the mayo warmed up in transit). The lettuce was browning a bit and the tomato was mushy. Overall, this sub was OK, I guess. But it left me regretting that I hadn't stopped by nearby Nezuntoz instead.

As you can surmise by my second paragraph, I was extremely unimpressed with the Park Bench Deli. I love little neighborhood places like this ordinarily, but the combination of poor customer service and a sketchy, odd-smelling store did not sit right with me. My sense is that the Park Bench stays in business by serving a small set of loyal, regular customers. I will not be one of them.

Grade: D

Park Bench Delicatessen on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 21, 2011

China Lake

Name: China Lake
Location: 3215 E Main St., Endicott, NY 13760
Phone: (607) 748-2133
Cuisine: Chinese (American and Authentic)
Price: Around $10 per person

Endwell's China Lake represents one of at least two Chinese restaurants in the Binghamton area that offer not only the standard Americanized Chinese take-out that most folks in this country are acquainted with, but also a special menu of more "authentic" Chinese cuisine. The other, Moon Star (also in Endwell, about a quarter mile up the road from China Lake), has long been a favorite of mine. It's been my "go-to" Chinese place since I first went there a few years back. Lately, I've had somewhat of a renewed interest in the area's Chinese restaurants. I heard China Lake was one of the best from friends, from various blurbs around the internet, and from loyal readers of this blog, and today we went to try it out.

China Lake is located in a small strip mall in Endwell on 17C, just before the North St. split. There's a tiny, awkward parking lot in front of the restaurant. Upon entering China Lake you'll notice there is hardly any ambiance to be had. The place has about 8 tables. There are a few 4-seaters along the left side, but most of the tables are for larger parties of 8 or more. The restaurant is slightly on the dingy side and has little by way of decoration to spruce it up. One gets the sense that China Lake works best as a take-out place. They also deliver (not sure to how wide a radius).

We took a seat and were given menus, noodles, and a homemade duck sauce. Since it was lunch time when we were there, we ordered from the lunch menu, which had two components. First was a list of Lunch Specials featuring an entree with soup of your choice (wonton, egg drop, hot & sour), from which Megan ordered the Chicken with Broccoli with wonton soup. On the flip side was the authentic Chinese menu, with several interesting looking choices (some easily more adventurous than I was willing to go on this day). From the special menu, I ordered the Barbecued Beef and also opted for some wonton soup.

The soup came first and I thought it was pretty good, maybe the best of the wonton soups I've had in this area. The wontons themselves were smaller, tighter pouches than what you get at many other places, but had very nice flavor. This is a soup I would definitely order again.

Next came the entrees. Megan liked the Chicken with Broccoli quite a lot, preferring it to the same dish at Moon Star (and any other Chinese we've had in the area for that matter). I had a couple bites and it wasn't bad. But not nearly as good as my entree.

I really enjoyed my Barbecued Beef entree a lot. This featured beef stir-fried in a somewhat spicy garlic sauce with green onions served over a bed of Chinese cabbage. Completely delicious, and something I would order again in a heartbeat. If I had to be a little bit critical of the dish, I'd say it was very oily. From the above picture, you can literally see it swimming in oil. This didn't bother me, nor detract from my enjoyment of the dish, but I get the sense that some people might be a little turned off by that aspect. Fortune cookies and fresh orange slices followed to complete the meal.

Service at China Lake was provided by friendly, if a bit gruff, older Chinese lady. I'd have to say the service was a bit spotty, as it took about 15 minutes for us to get drinks (just water and tea), and there was an extended wait for our check because the restaurant staff decided it was their time to eat. All this means is that China Lake has not supplanted Moon Star as my "dining-out" Chinese restaurant. I thought China Lake's food was probably the best Chinese I've had in the area, but I plan to enjoy exclusively it as take-out in the future. For what it's worth, Megan shares the exact same opinion. She enjoyed the food quite a bit, but to quote her: "There's no way I'll ever eat there again." If you choose to dine in, consider yourself warned.

China Lake is a very good, if somewhat flawed, Chinese restaurant. No doubt the menu is more expansive and unique than most others around, and most importantly, we found the food to be extremely tasty. Ambiance and service definitely knock the place down a peg in our eyes, an area in which the restaurant pales in comparison to the nearby Moon Star. But if all that matters is the food, I would have to conclude China Lake is the best restaurant of its ilk that you'll find in the Triple Cities.

Grade: B+

China Lake Restaurant on Urbanspoon
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