Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Flan Club

Name: The Flan Club
Location: 58 Henry St., Binghamton, NY 13901
Phone: (607) 205-8672
Cuisine: Latino
Attire: Casual
Price: $10-$15 per person

Edit: The Flan Club is CLOSED as of November 2010. It will be missed. I will keep this review up to preserve its legacy.

I had the pleasure of paying my inaugural visit to The Flan Club today for lunch. For those not in the know, The Flan Club is located on the corner of Chenango St. and Henry St. in downtown Binghamton, near the bus terminal. My understanding is that several small restaurants have tried their hand at this location over the years, most recently Amera's Cup O' Soup. My hope is that The Flan Club becomes a Binghamton fixture. They serve great Caribbean cuisine at reasonable prices. Of all of my recent ventures downtown for lunch, today's visit to The Flan Club was by far the most satisfying. I will be returning often.

Upon entrance you'll first notice that The Flan Club is downright tiny in size. There are only four tables in the restaurant. The atmosphere is charming enough with local artwork on the walls and colorful placemats adorning each table. It's kind of like eating in someone's dining room in a sense. When I first got there, the waitress was the only one working in the entire place. She was a very friendly older lady who served as hostess, waitress, and cook all in one. This meant that the service was a bit on the slow side. Oh no, not again. We don't want another debacle like yesterday's at the Blind Tiger Pub...

But let me explain. There's a difference between slow service and no service. Yesterday at the Blind Tiger, there were exceedingly long stretches of time where we did not even see the waitress, including a 35 minute period of no service after we had finished eating. Her idea of service was yelling across the place if we wanted our check, which I quite frankly found offensive. Today's experience at the Flan Club was the polar opposite. Though the service was slow, the waitress gave me regular updates to let me know my dish was being prepared and that she had not forgotten about me. Hence, I didn't mind waiting. Plus, as fate would have it, the wait was totally worth it. I will also note that another younger waitress/cook who I believe is the owner of the restaurant came in a little bit later toward the end of my meal and the service picked up dramatically at that point.

I started my meal with a cup of coffee. I was not expecting greatness, but sure enough, this was the best cup of coffee I've had in a Binghamton restaurant. Very strong and robust, I was thoroughly impressed. This certainly was no Folgers or Maxwell House. It's been an hour since I finished my meal and I can still taste the coffee. Nice.

For my main course I elected to go with the seasoned pork (pernil) with yellow rice (arroz con gandules) and crunchy plantains (tostones). For their lunch special you get your choice of entree and two sides for just $7.99, a very good deal given the amount of food you get. The waitress brought some plantain chips to munch on while I waited for my entree, which were tasty.

My food came out and I was immediately impressed with my plate of food. I wasn't expecting to be impressed with the presentation of the dish but it was certainly appetizing to look at. I was even happier with the taste. The pork was tender to the point where it pretty much melted in my mouth. It was very well seasoned and downright delicious. The rice and plantains were also very good and went well with the pork. This was an excellent plate of food, extremely well-prepared and certainly worth the wait.

It wouldn't be a visit to The Flan Club without sampling their namesake dessert. I ordered a slice of cheese flan. Now, I have not traditionally been a big aficionado of flan. Something about the consistency has never quite sat right with me. Is it pudding? Is it pie? Is it quiche? I reckon it's somewhere in between. Whatever the reason, I have not traditionally been a flan fan. But I was pleasantly surprised with today's offering. Nice flavor, kind of like a cheese danish with some syrupy sweetness. Call me converted. I'll gladly sample another slice on my next visit.

Another cup of delicious coffee later and I was ready to head out, though slightly rueful that I couldn't stick around and eat their entire menu. Gotta leave something for another day, I suppose!

(One note: be sure to bring cash...they do not accept credit cards at this time.)

The Flan Club has great authentic Latino cuisine at a good price in a comfortable atmosphere. It's clear that the staff cares about their patrons and about the presentation and the quality of the food they serve. This is one of the best restaurants in Binghamton.

Grade: A

The Flan Club on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Blind Tiger Pub

Name: Blind Tiger Pub
Location: 4402 Watson Blvd., Johnson City, NY 13790
Phone: (607) 729 - 8944
Cuisine: Burgers/Sandwiches/Wraps/Wings
Attire: Casual
Price: $25 for two

I hate reviews like the one I'm about to embark upon here. I don't take pleasure in slamming a restaurant no matter how bad it is. There are real people behind the scenes who work hard to keep a place afloat, and I appreciate that.

But here it is.

The Blind Tiger Pub is a Johnson City restaurant/bar that features live music several nights a week. It has a pretty decent atmosphere that includes outdoor covered seating and both an outdoor and indoor bar. Tap selection is not bad for the area. I think I saw some taps with Blue Point and Smuttynose...not too shabby for a little neighborhood bar. The food menu consists of the usual "bar and grill" type stuff--burgers, wraps, sandwiches, wings, fried appetizers--and it's not bad. What is bad--beyond bad, really--is the service. The word "abysmal" comes to mind.

Megan and I arrived at 12:25 PM on a Tuesday for lunch. Since it was a nice day, we decided to sit outside. By 12:40 PM, we had menus. We placed our drink order and our food order soon thereafter. Megan really wanted a BLT (she had been there before and had the BLT) but it was no longer on their menu, despite what their website says. She went with the Chicken Caesar Wrap instead. I opted for the Pulled Pork Sandwich myself. Both were $8.75 and came with chips and a pickle. You can add fries or other sides for a couple additional dollars. A little pricey, I thought.

The food came out in a reasonable amount of time, around 12:55.

I was pleased with the pulled pork. It had nice smoky flavor and was far better than I expected it to be. No Dinosaur BBQ or anything but very solid nonetheless. Megan was pleased with her wrap as well. I tried a few bites and was equally impressed. Very tasty, nice Caesar dressing, flavorful grilled chicken. By 1:05 we had polished off both baskets of food and were pretty well satisfied. So, you're wondering, what's the problem? Had to wait a bit for menus at the beginning of the meal, but so what?

Well, that's when the real wait began. There is nothing that Megan and I hate more than having to wait an inordinate amount of time for our check. When we're done eating, we want to pay, head out, and get on with our day. No matter how good the food is at an establishment, if the service is awful, we are not going to be inclined to return.

1:15 came. No waitress to be found. Begin glancing at watch.

1:20. No luck, yet we see her servicing other adjacent tables. Starting to get pissed off.

1:25. Nah. Seething.

1:30. Fully pissed. Waitress finally shows her face. Yells from across the deck, three tables away--"Do you guys want your check?" Man, she can't even be bothered to walk over to our table after a full 35 minutes of not checking on us, not to mention the 15 minutes it took for us to get menus. Seriously, how rude.

Ummm, yeah, I wanted it 20 minutes ago.

1:40. A full ten minutes later, the check finally arrives. $23 it is. A little steep, methinks, for two sandwiches with no sides and iced tea to drink.

Not wanting to chance another 10 minute wait, we opted to pay cash.

Ahhh, look who decided to hover around the table when money's on the line! Pretty quick to accept our money yet not provide us any actual service, huh?

Enjoy your $2 tip. Don't spend it all in one place.

Grade: D

Blind Tiger Pub on Urbanspoon

Nirchi's Pizza

Name: Nirchi's Pizza
Location: 3916 Vestal Parkway East, Vestal, NY 13850
Phone: (607) 729-5131
Cuisine: Pizza

Nirchi's is a Triple Cities institution specializing in sheet pizza. A number of area natives cite Nirchi's as their favorite pizza parlor, impressive given that there are a wide variety of options to choose from. From humble beginnings in Endicott, Nirchi's now boasts eight locations in the area. It's not an uncommon sight to see a Nirchi's sheet pizza or two at a party or some kind of catered gathering. So how is their pizza, you might ask? In my opinion, it's unique, pretty good, but not amazing.

You can order Nirchi's in three different ways: full sheets, half sheets, and round pies. Megan and I used to be rather fond of the round pies. At $9 it was cheap and tasty but sometimes unbearably greasy. The crust on the round pies is very thin and a bit on the salty side and the tomato sauce is robust with good flavor. We used to be regular customers (especially once they put a store in Johnson City which has since closed) but once we found Grande's Pizza, our days of eating Nirchi's went by the wayside.

Yesterday, I was at a catered lunch for work and sure enough, a couple of Nirchi's sheet pizzas were delivered to feed the masses. Not too hungry at the time, I had but one slice of one of their specialty pies, the Chicken Spiedie. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to sample two Binghamton delicacies at once.

As you can see, the chicken spiedie pizza is what they call a "white" slice rather than a "red" slice. It has no tomato sauce and is coated with a garlic blend instead. The crust is similar to that of the round pies. It has an almost spongy quality and is a bit too salty for my liking. The garlic flavor seemed to overpower that of the spiedie topping. On a positive note, it was less of a grease fest than other Nirchi's slices I've had in the past. It wasn't bad, just not really my cup of tea.

I've heard that Nirchi's tends to vary by location, with some folks being partial to the original Endicott (Pine St.) location, and others preferring the downtown Binghamton store. It all tastes the same to me, really. I like (but do not love) Nirchi's and I recommend giving their pizza a chance. You never know, you could become one of the many who love the stuff. After all, they've been serving the Triple Cities for more than 40 years for a reason.

Grade: B-

Nirchi's Pizza on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 28, 2010

Despina's Mediterranean Taste

Hi all - Megan here to take the lead review today. While I am co-contributor to this blog, I have not been pulling my weight as I've been busy teaching. Since my class is now done, I hope to post more reviews (though probably never as many as Dan).

On a whim, Dan and I headed downtown for lunch today to Despina's Mediterranean Taste located on Court Street just a few steps away from sake tumi. I'm told that this is a new location for Despina's and it seems to serve mostly as a lunch spot as it is only opened until 6pm or so. Upon arrival, there was a sign out front that listed the specials for today, which included a soup and salad deal that seemed to be popular amongst many of the patrons who were there when we were. The place is not much to look at - sparse in decor with only a few posters of Greek landmarks and filled with either high-top tables or regular ones with silver tops. We were given menus fairly quickly by the only person who seemed to be manning the place, although it is not big and therefore probably does not need a large staff to function.

The menu is your basic greek fare - gyros, souvlaki, salads, etc. However, I was pleased to find that they offered falafels - deep fried chick peas usually served in a pita with veggies and tzatziki sauce for those not in the know. I have been a major fan of falafels since experiencing them when I lived in Paris and had the good fortune of eating some of the best falafels in the world at the famous L'as du falafels, located in the Marais just blocks from the Archives Nationales. If you are ever in Paris - please seek this spot out and get yourself a delicious and huge falafel - you will not regret it. Anyway, since I have been back stateside, I have searched high and low to find a place that offered a falafel that could even come close to meeting my high expectations. I have found a few decent ones - Aladdin's Natural Eatery in Ithaca is winning so far - but had hoped to find a good falafel closer to home. Dan chose to go with the gyro and we each got a bottle of water as they did not seem to have any drink menu at all, just a selection of cans of soda and bottles of water and maybe even powerade (I did not go up to the fridge to take a closer look, so I am only guessing from what I saw).

My falafel came out with a side that I think was some sort of cous-cous in an italian or vinagrette dressing - which was good, but a little garlicky. The falafel itself was okay - I liked the warmed pita, the cucumbers and tomatoes and tzatziki sauce (though there could have been more), but the falafel itself, while full of flavor, was too mushy for my liking and also a bit on the small side. I like my falafel with a bit of crispness on the outside. Again, you have to remember that I have had some of the best falafel ever, so I recognize that I am a tougher judge than others might be.

Dan's gyro came with a side of potato salad, which I sampled and was good. He seemed to like his gyro well enough, but like me, was not blown away by anything.

All in all, it was a good lunch experience. Most of the menu was around the six dollar mark and everything came with a side. Much more could be done with the decor to make the place feel less empty and they should consider adding a list of drink options to their menu. At the end of the day, my quest for the best falafel continues.

Grade: B-

Despina's Mediterranean Taste on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Pete's Diner

Name: Pete's Legacy Diner
Location: 2305 Vestal Road, Vestal, NY 13850
(607) 239-6021
Cuisine: Diner
Attire: Casual
Price: Less than $20 for two

Our diner tour officially got underway with our Saturday morning visit to Pete's Diner in Vestal. To date, we've also reviewed the Plaza Diner and the Spot Diner (and the Apple Dumpling Cafe, which food-wise belongs in the diner category), but we are now making a more conscious effort to visit all the area diners in order to find The Best of the Bunch.

So I guess I should talk a little bit about what my expectations are. Diners are not typically known for great food, though there are exceptions. They are known more for a comfortable atmosphere with equally comfortable, homestyle victuals, snappy waitresses who provide quick and efficient service, and low prices that are perhaps about as low as it would take you to make similar food at home.

What am I looking for? First and foremost, I want good food. It doesn't have to be amazing, but it's gotta be good enough to want to come back. I really like diners that have signature or special items in particular. For some places that may consist of Greek dishes, with others it might be certain breakfast items like corned beef hash, or even desserts. Plus they have to have a reasonable cup of coffee. Again, I do not expect gourmet coffee. As long as it's not undrinkable and watery and has some flavor, I'm OK with it.

Almost as important as the food is the atmosphere. As far as I'm concerned, the more old-timey, the better. I like the diners that make you feel like you're stepping back in time into a bygone era. I do not like diners that try to achieve that vibe in a kitschy way.

Good, quick, friendly service is also important. And the more dirt-cheap the price, the more apt I'll be to return if the food is good, so price will definitely some role in my overall assessment. But these are more secondary concerns. As always, good food is of paramount importance, and since I don't demand great food, atmosphere will take on an added significance in my diner reviews.

Anyway, enough about me and more about Pete's.

Pete's Legacy Diner, to my understanding, pays homage to a certain gentleman named Pete who at one time owned and operated several different diners in the Triple Cities. They serve breakfast and lunch and are not open past 3:00 PM, so if you're going to go, you need to go early. The fare is standard diner food: eggs/bacon/sausage/toast/home fries/pancakes/waffles/omelets for breakfast and sandwiches/burgers/soups for lunch. I looked over the menu fairly extensively and didn't really notice anything too out of the ordinary.

The place is reasonably sized with a dining room partitioned into (I think) 3 sections of about 6-8 tables apiece. The place was quite busy when we went but we got a table right away. I believe that each of the 3 sections was assigned its own waitress. A very smart setup, if I may say so, with an emphasis on efficiency. Our waitress was indeed very snappy and took good care of us. I ordered the 3 egg breakfast which came with home fries and toast. I also ordered a side of bacon and a cup of coffee.

This was a decent plate of food but nothing special. Good wheat toast and the eggs were done appropriately. I did not care for the home fries. They were lacking seasoning or something. The bacon was not good. The pieces were shriveled, greasy, and flabby. I would not order it again.

Megan got the Belgian Waffle per usual. I had a bite. Pretty good. Not the caliber of the waffles she had at Apple Dumpling Cafe last weekend, but still good.

The coffee was pretty good and met my basic expectations. Not too watered down and had some flavor.

The atmosphere was nice and quaint. It's the kind of neighborly place where a lot of the people seem to know each other. Megan said it reminded her somewhat of the Port Jervis Diner in the town where she grew up. It reminded me of some places I had eaten in my younger days as well. In my mind though, it doesn't stand up to the overall atmosphere of the Spot Diner. But it's not bad in that department.

At $13, I thought Pete's was about on par with most diner prices, but I'm looking for something cheaper and better than what they had to offer.

Overall, my experience at Pete's was a nice little Saturday morning outing. Nothing more, nothing less. It met my most basic expectations but did not exceed them in any way. I would definitely go back, but there are similar places I prefer. When the smoke clears, Pete's legacy will be but a footnote in my diner adventures.

Grade: B-

Pete's Legacy Diner on Urbanspoon


Name: saké-tumi
Location: 71 Court St., Binghamton, NY 13901
Phone: (607) 238-1771
Cuisine: Japanese/Fusion/Sushi
Attire: Casual
Price: Depends what you get. Probably $50+ for two

saké-tumi occupies the location of the former Buffy's Burritos in downtown Binghamton. They offer an eclectic menu of Asian-fusion entrees and traditional and original sushi rolls. We went for the first time last night and I enjoyed the experience. The sushi was definitely the best I've had in the Binghamton area. Granted, that is a relative statement. But I am enthusiastic about making a return visit.

The first thing that struck me about saké-tumi was how empty the place was at 7:00 PM on a Friday night. Besides our group (our friends Tom and Patty joined Megan and me), there was only one other table in use at the time. The inside of the restaurant is well-decorated with a nice black, white, and red color scheme. It's definitely chic. But since it was such a nice evening, we opted for their outdoor seating. Never did I think I'd eat out in the middle of the sidewalk on Court St., but it was really rather nice. The table was set up with some plants and an umbrella to offer some shade. I would do the same again on a return visit if the weather cooperates.

The menu is diverse with lots of appetizer and nigiri sushi options, traditional sushi rolls like vegetable rolls, California roll, and Philly Roll, more adventurous "fusion" maki rolls that bring in some unique influences and flavors, and entrees. We opted to stick with the sushi, although Megan did order the gyoza appetizer, which she liked (she is not as big a sushi fan as the rest of us). I ordered two of the fusion rolls.

The first was the Naruto Roll, which consisted of crab, tempura shrimp, avocado, cream cheese, and smoked salmon wrapped in cucumber instead of rice and served in ponzu sauce. I liked this quite a bit. I loved the presentation in particular and while normally rolls of this sort have a tendency to fall apart easily, this one stayed together very nicely. The ingredients were fresh and the flavors were strong. I didn't love this roll but it's worth trying if that set of ingredients looks up your alley.

The other roll was the Kamikaze, which I split with Patty. I thought this one was the better of the two. This had assorted fish in a spicy sauce topped with tuna and avocado and a dot of sriracha. Again, the presentation of this roll was very strong. The fish had nice flavor and it was indeed spicy as advertised. The avocado gave a nice, cooling balance. I would order this one again in a heartbeat.

Tom ordered the saké-tumi roll, and the Super Crunchy roll, and I snagged a piece of each. The former was very good, with tuna, hamachi, and salmon with a spicy mayo. I didn't care too much for the Super Crunchy, but it was still alright. It could've been crunchier. Winky face.

One negative aspect to saké-tumi is the service. I did not think the waitress was particularly good, nor professional; she kind of mumbled the entire time and her attire (t-shirt, shorts, sneakers) was not consistent with the "fine dining" appearance of the restaurant nor the prices of their entrees. A place where nearly all the entrees are $20 or more should probably demand more professionalism from their employees. There was a long wait time for the food (at least a half hour), which was somewhat odd considering they were not busy. I'd assume the chef is a perfectionist who wanted to get the details of the presentation on the rolls right, and he did. So I can't really complain too much. But the moral of the story: don't come to saké-tumi if you're in a hurry.

These were relatively minor concerns though. I really enjoyed the sushi (it compares favorably with the less-adventuresome Sakura Sushi in Endicott) and I think saké-tumi is a very good addition to downtown Binghamton. I was discouraged to see so few patrons. The place is expensive, but other pricey places (P.S., Lampy's, Number 5, Moxie, etc.) do a pretty good business in the Triple Cities. Maybe sushi is more popular among the yuppie crowd (which Binghamton is comparatively lacking in) while those other restaurants are able to rely upon folks from older generations. Whatever the reasons, I am concerned about the longevity of saké-tumi. I hope they can find a way to attract more business. Improving the speed and quality of the service would be a good starting point toward achieving that goal.

Grade: B+

Sake-Tumi on Urbanspoon

Friday, June 25, 2010

Another two bite the dust

Yesterday, Theo's. Today I learn that both Tony T's in Vestal and The Director's Cut in Binghamton have closed up shop. A shame. I had planned on writing up a nice review on Tony T's. Their Italian subs were the best I'd ever had, on fresh homemade bread with a heaping portion of Italian meats and sharp provolone cheese. They still have a location in Greene, I believe, so they're still around in some capacity. I never made it to The Director's Cut, but I was interested in trying their 2.5 lb. burger challenge. Always tough to see these little restaurants fail.

Good news is that I'm headed to saké-tumi tonight. It will be my first time there, and I am expecting great things.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

R.I.P., Theo's Southern Style Cuisine

I regret to inform that Theo's Southern Style Cuisine is no more.

In its day (in Johnson City right by the arch) Theo's was an awesome place for Southern BBQ. Great ribs and chicken and amazing sides like scalloped potatoes, candied yams, baked beans, fried okra, and sweet potato fries. And that goes without mentioning the two best items on their menu, the cornbread, which was most certainly the best I've ever had, and the WINGS(!!!) which were easily the biggest and perhaps the best I've ever had. Man, I could go for a dozen Sweet & Sassy wings and a Pork BBQ sandwich with sweet potato fries right about now...

In recent years, Theo's had scaled back due to having their business seized by the IRS which forced them to move out of the JC location. Still, people demanded more delicious BBQ, and the folks at Manley's Mart on Downs Ave. gave Theo's a chance in their small gas station/convenience store to get back up and running under the name Theo's Express. I believe Theo's was there for maybe a year or two, occupying under a slightly abbreviated menu. It was mostly the same quality food delivered by the same nice folks, and all was good with the world.

But I was driving by Manley's today and noticed that the Theo's signage had been taken down. I went in and talked to the employees at Manley's who said that Theo's had indeed moved out a short time ago, and they were preparing the spot for a deli that would be moving into the location next week. I inquired as to whether Theo's would be moving someplace else, to a new location, and they didn't think so.


Guess I'll have to try out the Mad Moose's BBQ sometime soon to see if Binghamton still has a good BBQ joint in its midst...but for now, I wish the Felton family good luck in their future ventures. Very nice family and I hope to see them re-emerge on the Binghamton food scene at some point soon.

Thai Basil

Name: Thai Basil
Location: 1 Washington Ave., Endicott, NY 13760
Phone: (607) 484-0188
Cuisine: Thai
Attire: Casual
Price: Usually around $40 for two

Thai Basil is located at the corner of Washington Ave. and North St. in Endicott in what I understand used to be quite a bustling area when IBM was in its heyday. These days, there are a couple diners on the block, Los Tapatios, a Chinese restaurant, and a pizza place, but I get the sense that the entire village of Endicott is but a shadow of what it used to be. Thai Basil is a place I've been to a few times and have been extremely impressed with every time. Today I went for their lunch buffet in order to try out a bunch of their items at once. This was an excellent decision and I enjoyed the experience greatly.

Thai Basil doesn't look like much from the outside but is immediately striking upon entrance with linen tablecloths and wine glasses adorning each table. It's a relatively small place with maybe 15 tables and can get pretty crowded on the weekend (and since they don't have a great number of employees, sometimes the service can suffer a bit). I don't consider myself any kind of expert on Thai food, but Thai Basil is easily one of the best Thai restaurants I have eaten at. It's not quite as good as, say, Thai Cuisine in Ithaca, which is cited by many as one of the best anywhere. But it's pretty close.

On the lunch buffet today they had about 10-12 different things to try. Being the glutton I am, I tried a small sample of all of them. There were some dishes quite familiar to me and a few others that were not. Among the familiar choices were the Drunken Noodles with chicken and shrimp, Pad Thai, Spicy Fried Rice, and the Thai Crispy Rolls with sweet and sour sauce. The Drunken Noodles are one of my default Thai eating options. It's a combination of flat vermicelli noodles with chicken, beef, and/or shrimp mixed with various vegetables and tends to be rather spicy. It's a good mix of flavors and I have enjoyed it when I have gotten it; today was no different. Pad Thai is what Megan usually orders and is kind of the staple item on most Thai menus. It consists of rice noodles with egg, some kind of meat, crushed peanut, and bean sprouts, and is very tasty.

Today, I tried out some other items that I hadn't sampled before, and found a couple new favorites. The Panang Curry is delicious. It's a coconut-milk based curry (as most Thai curries are) with cabbage and bell pepper with (I think) lime. Totally great. The Pineapple Curry was also out today and was similar, and very good. I got a chance to try the Spicy Basil with Beef and the Cashew Chicken and both were dishes I liked and would like to try again at some point on their own. In short, I liked everything I had and cleaned two full plates by the time I was said and done.

So you might be telling yourself...I've gotta try this buffet! Well, not so fast. They do not regularly offer the buffet, and today was the very last day of it for now. Trust me, I tried to convince the waitress (who I believe is also one of the chefs, and one of the owners) that they should keep it for weekday lunch, at least once per week, but it seemed as though she was ready for the days of the buffet to be over with after a long month of daily preparation. She did promise that it would be back around the same time next year, so pencil in Thai Basil on your calendar for next June if you want to try a lot of good Thai food for a low price of $11. For now, I can say that there isn't anything on the menu that I've had that I didn't like, the wait staff is friendly and generally quick and eager to discuss any of the dishes on their menu (I should add that they will cook your food as spicy--or not--as you desire), and the ambiance is quite nice. I haven't tried the other Thai restaurants in the area yet, but Thai Basil has certainly set the bar high and will be tough to beat.

Grade: A-

Thai Basil on Urbanspoon


I'm seeking requests for places you'd like to see us review. I am willing to review just about any place within a reasonable radius of Binghamton. Ask and you are likely to receive, sometime in the not-too-distant future. Please leave a comment in this thread and I will do my best to accommodate you!

As far as "coming attractions" you can expect at some point or another, I am interested in comparing the three-headed monster of Thai restaurants in the area (Endicott's Thai Basil, Johnson City's Sabaidee, and Binghamton's Thai Thai Cuisine--all of which I've heard are "the best" in the area). I'm also planning reviews of some more lunch places downtown (The Flan Club and Despina's Mediterranean Taste have my curiosity piqued). I'll have to review Theo's Express at some point, have had enough of their eats over the years to write a review without any additional visits, though why wouldn't I want some delicious BBQ? Of course there are some nicer restaurants newer and older that I'd like to get around to reviewing (these might take some time, I'm not made of money) like Lemongrass, sake-tumi, Moxie, Number 5, Lampy's, etc.

We are also planning a "diner tour" of sorts where we review a different diner in the area every weekend. The Triple Cities are certainly not lacking in diner representation and I hope to give the scoop on which to seek out and which to avoid.

Thanks for stopping by and I look forward to hearing any requests or comments!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Curry's of India

Name: Curry's of India
Location: 45 Court St #2, Binghamton, NY 13901
Phone: (607) 722-8181
Cuisine: Indian
Attire: Casual
Price: $6 for lunch buffet per person

I finally made it to Curry's of India for the lunch buffet today. I'd tried to go a few weeks back but went on a Monday without realizing they were closed Mondays, and ended up at the Old World Deli instead. I'd been to Curry's once many, many years ago (10+) and pretty much forgot about it. Even though it's on Court St. right in the heart of downtown, it's not really all that noticeable unless you're looking for it. Anyhow, I made it today and was happy with most aspects of the meal, but not blown away.

Upon walking into Curry's I was greeted by an older woman, presumably one of the owners. There are two rows of small tables on either side of the VERY small space, and the buffet was set up toward the back of the restaurant by the kitchen. I will note that there is absolutely zero ambiance to this restaurant with very little by way of's very bare-bones in terms of presentation.

On today's buffet there was a reasonable array of foods: rice, lentils, chickpea masala, beef curry, peas and mushrooms, rice pudding, and the Indian staple bread, naan. I sampled a bit of everything and was pleased with most. The chickpea masala in particular was noteworthy and had a nice sweet, mildly spicy flavor. The beef curry was also good and kind of like an Indian version of Swedish meatballs. The rice pudding dessert didn't really do anything for me (disclaimer: I have never really cared much for rice pudding, Indian or otherwise), and the peas/mushrooms constituted an amorphous mass of slop that didn't really have much flavor.

While I liked the food, there was something notably absent from the mix: the heat! I like my Indian food spicy and the dishes at Curry's, ironically, are lacking in that department. Granted, the dishes for the buffet are probably cooked so as to appeal to the most people possible, and hence are designed not to be overly spicy. I would imagine that if you order from their main menu, you could order your entree to your specifications. For the buffet, the dishes were more sweet than spicy, which was fine, just different from my usual preference.

Curry's represents a solid lunch option in downtown Binghamton. Do not expect anything at all by way of ambiance; do expect good authentic Indian food served by a family who I sense truly takes pride in their product. For $6, the lunch buffet represents good value. Despite some minor flaws, Curry's fills the void in my dining exploits vacated when Moghul stopped doing their lunch buffet, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for an inexpensive Indian meal.

Grade: B

Currys of India on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Nezüntoz Cafe

Name: Nezüntoz Cafe
Location: 50 Pennsylvania Avenue, Binghamton, NY 13903
Phone: (607) 722-7202
Cuisine: Breakfast/Lunch sandwiches
Attire: Casual
Price: $15 for two

So after yesterday's review of the Bagel Factory and my commentary on how there was a severe lack of local bagel/coffee shops in the Binghamton area, I was gently reminded by one of my loyal readers about Nezuntoz (pronounced "Knees and Toes," in case you were wondering). You see, Nezuntoz is located on Binghamton's South Side, and half the time I don't even remember that the South Side exists. For me, that part of town usually exists simply as a shortcut way to get to downtown from Vestal. Occasionally (read: rarely) we'll stop by the Number 5 or Whole in the Wall, but my point is...we just don't get down that way too often. Nezuntoz will hopefully help give me a reason to visit this unheralded part of town a little more regularly.

I stopped by for lunch today and was immediately impressed upon walking in. I thought I was in Ithaca for a second! In fact, I thought I was in Collegetown Bagels!!! And in a sense I was, since Nezuntoz gets their bread and bagels every day from the Ithaca Bakery...yes, the very same bakery that guessed it...Collegetown Bagels! The place is reasonably sized with several small tables and would certainly be a fine place to hang out with friends and chat over coffee. I was greeted by a chipper and friendly young lady behind the counter who helped me select a sandwich.

There are many options for specialty sandwiches with all sorts of fancy names. I decided to go with The Grinch, which is allegedly one of their more popular items. The Grinch consists of Roast Beast [sic], provolone, lettuce, roasted red peppers, and horseradish sauce on multi-grain ciabatta bread.

There's half of it. I thought this sandwich was mostly excellent. One minor issue was that the horseradish sauce was a little too much on the warm side. I like things with a mayonnaise-type base to be cold. Warm mayo kind of creeps me out. All other aspects of the sandwich were right on the money. The ingredients were fresh and it had great taste. Moreover, it reminded me of sandwiches I would get years ago in Ithaca.

I got my usual cup of coffee, and was far more pleased today than I was yesterday. They had all sorts of different coffee options and I elected a dark roast with very robust flavor. Very nice.

If you haven't been to Nezuntoz yet, do yourself a favor and remedy that, because it's definitely one of the best places in town of its ilk. It has nice ambiance, quality sandwiches, good coffee, quick and friendly service, and is certainly in the same league as Ithaca's Collegetown Bagels. It might even give me a reason to head to the South Side of Binghamton more often! At any rate, Nezuntoz is head and shoulders above its fellow Binghamton sandwich-shop competitors. Highly recommended. Thanks Elise!

Grade: A-

Nezuntoz on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Bagel Factory

Name: The Bagel Factory
Location: 9 Glenwood Avenue, Binghamton, NY 13905
Phone: (607) 770-9083
Cuisine: Breakfast/Lunch sandwiches
Attire: Casual
Price: $15 for two

One thing suspiciously underrepresented on the Binghamton food scene is the bagel shop. Maybe the Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks of the world are making local coffee shops obsolete, but in my mind there's nothing like a good local place. The Bagel Factory admirably helps to fill that void.

The Bagel Factory is located on Glenwood Ave. in Binghamton, between Clinton and Main near the Price Chopper Plaza. It's worth noting that the Bagel Factory doubles as the Lickety Split Ice Cream shop, which perhaps I will try at a later date. It's a fairly typical clean deli style place that doesn't really have enough of a vibe in my opinion. In my opinion, the gold standard for places like these is Collegetown Bagels in Ithaca with its unique, quintessentially Ithacan presentation and decor. Having attended college in Ithaca, I was rather spoiled. Collegetown Bagels was a great place not only to stop by for coffee and a bite to eat, but also just to hang out and chat. I don't see The Bagel Factory occupying the same kind of niche...but Cyber Cafe West is just down the road! If I could combine Bagel Factory and Cyber Cafe into one place, I would totally do it.

There are many breakfast and lunch sandwiches to choose from at the Bagel Factory. For breakfast, you can of course order a bagel with various toppings and various flavors of cream cheese, or you can go with one of their breakfast sandwiches with any combination of egg, cheese, sausage, ham, or bacon. For lunch they have even more options. They have Boar's Head deli meat and offer a wide array of bagel sandwiches, subs, wraps, and paninis, including some specialty bagel sandwiches. Today, I went with a sandwich called the R&B Combo, which consisted of Roast Beef, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and garlic-herb cream cheese on an onion bagel and a side salad of my choice (I elected the potato salad).

This was good, nothing too special. The bagel was maybe a little bit harder than I would've preferred but that's a minor criticism. Overall, I was pleased with both the sandwich and the potato salad. The bagel was better than what I could get at Wegman's or Dunkin' Donuts, for sure, which definitely will put the Bagel Factory on my breakfast radar going forward. The garlic-herb cream cheese was a really nice touch, with nice flavor that stepped the whole sandwich up a notch in my book.

I got a cup of coffee to drink. It was Paul de Lima coffee, the kind of stuff you often find in a hotel lobby or car dealership waiting room. It's OK stuff, but I was hoping for something a little more adventurous, like the coffee I got at the Full Belly Deli. No huge deal, but I think better coffee would certainly help bring in more customers. Again...Cyber Cafe is right down the road...

Overall, I enjoyed my trip to the Bagel Factory and I find it a quality addition to the Binghamton food scene. I'd like to see a little more ambiance that would appeal to the college crowd, but I realize A) it doubles as an ice cream shop, B) it's a newer place that is still finding its identity, and C) not every place can be Collegetown Bagels. For now, the food is good, and I look forward to stopping by for bagels and sandwiches more often in the near future.

Grade: B-

Bagel Factory on Urbanspoon

Christie's Steakhouse and Grill

Name: Christie's Steakhouse and Grill
Location: 560 Harry L Drive #2, Johnson City, NY 13790
Phone: (607) 729-3100
Cuisine: American
Attire: Casual
Price: $40+ for two for dinner

Christie's is a Johnson City establishment located right in the center of all the action. Its location diagonally opposite the Oakdale Mall makes it a pretty popular spot for lunch and dinner, particularly during the holiday season when the mall gets busy. Megan and I have stopped in for dinner quite a bit over the years, given that we pretty much have to pass right by the place to go anywhere. Overall, I am not thrilled with the food at Christie's, nor the value it provides, but there are certain aspects of the place that I really like.

If you're going to go to Christie's, I recommend going for lunch. They make a really nice sandwich and they offer a variety of soups that come with unlimited refills. Of particular note is the Cheddar Beer soup, which has become the stuff of legend among my friends and me. We have been known to call the restaurant just to find out if it's a Cheddar Beer day before making a decision to head over. It's a delicious creamy cheese soup served with oyster crackers. Doesn't sound like anything special but it is truly good. I've had the New England Clam Chowder many times over the years and have enjoyed it, ditto the Chicken and Rice; in fact, I can't recall a soup I've had there and didn't like. Actually, that's a lie: I did not care for the Cream of Asparagus that was brought to me in error (mistakes such as this have occurred on multiple visits). For sandwiches, I think their turkey sandwiches are the way to go. I recommend the turkey club, or the Rachel. Nothing to get too excited about, but good.

Dinner, on the other hand, I cannot recommend, for a variety of reasons. For starters, I find their menu to be a little limited if you are not in the mood for steak. They offer a rotisserie chicken entree that's pretty decent if you get it on a day that it's not all dried out. I've also gone with a seafood pasta dish (clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp over pasta) that sounded good in theory, but I didn't care for it at all. The best dinner I've had there was probably the rib dinner, which comes with a spicy barbecue sauce I enjoyed. As for the steaks, I have not been impressed. The times I've ordered steak it's always been too grisly or fatty and lacking in flavor. Maybe I've just been unlucky, as I have heard good thing from other folks about the steaks, but this hasn't just been a one-time thing. Additionally, I find dinner at Christie's to be way overpriced. The steak entrees jump well into the $20 range and there are only a handful of entrees on the menu that are less than $15. If I'm going to spend that kind of cash, I'd rather go someplace where I know I'm going to enjoy the food more.

One last thing I don't care for about Christie's is the ambiance. It feels too much like a chain restaurant to me. They've got the waiters who come to the table and write their name upside-down in crayon on the paper tablecloth and stuff. For whatever reason, I hate kitschy stuff like that. I don't know. I like local places that feel local, you know? This just isn't one of those places. And their outside seating is kind of a joke too. Who really wants to overlook a McDonald's parking lot while eating?

Christie's is one of those places that's tough to assign a grade to. It's a good lunch spot and I highly recommend checking out their soups (Cheddar Beer FTW!). For dinner, I am not a fan. It's overpriced and a little too chain-like for my tastes. To each his own, I suppose...

Grade: C+

Christie's Steakhouse & Grill on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Rating System Explained

In case you were wondering, this is a rough guide to my rating system.

For starters, keep in mind that I rate restaurants against others in the same general price range. Just because I gave the Apple Dumpling Cafe a B+ and P.S. Restaurant a B+ does not mean that those restaurants offer anything close to the same experience, yet I believe they do offer the same sense of satisfaction given their value.

Here it goes, in general:

A: One of the best restaurants in the area. Strong in every facet of the dining experience (service, food, atmosphere).

B: A solid restaurant worth return visits. Could suffer from minor flaws in some facets of the dining experience.

C: Take it or leave it. Some redeeming qualities but largely mediocre. Suffers from multiple flaws in food, service, and/or atmosphere. Not worth seeking out, but not awful.

D: Bad. Not worth a return visit. Complete failure in at least one facet of the dining experience. Enter at your own risk.

F: Atrocious and/or offensive. A place to which I would never return. Complete failure in all facets of the dining experience, or such egregious failure in at least one facet that I cannot bear the thought of returning (e.g.: bugs in food, overly rude and/or disrespectful service--Kilmer Brasserie, here's looking at you!). Should not be open.

Mekong Vietnamese Restaurant

Name: Mekong Vietnamese Restaurant
Location: 29 Willow Street, Johnson City, NY 13790
Phone: (607) 770-9628
Cuisine: Vietnamese
Attire: Casual
Price: $30 for two

The business district of Johnson City has never really impressed me as a hub of fine dining. Rundown diners, below-average Chinese takeouts, and mediocre pizza joints dot the landscape. But then there's Mekong, a Vietnamese restaurant that transcends its surroundings and its external ugliness to become one of my favorite places in the Village I call home.

Mekong is located on Willow Street, between Main (17C) and Grand Ave. For years I drove past the place and didn't think much of it. From the outside it looks like a dreary place and I always thought it was a crappy take-out joint. I'd had Vietnamese food a few times years ago, when I was in high school, and liked it quite a bit. In most ways I think Vietnamese is less adventuresome than other Asian cuisines. It's not overwhelmingly spicy like Indian and Thai can be and reminds me of a sweeter version of Chinese food. That is a broad generalization, but I think most people who haven't ventured into the realm of Vietnamese food would probably like it. At any rate, Megan and I decided to bite the bullet and give the place a shot. Good decision.

We couldn't believe our eyes as we walked in the restaurant and saw a nice big waiting area and a small, quaint, (dare I say) elegant dining room. Beyond one wall is a banquet room than I assume could be used for group events. The entire space was very clean and professional; the look of the place exceeded my expectations entirely. We were seated immediately (we were the only ones there at first, though a few other couples made their way in as we were eating) and we placed our order. Each of us started with a spring roll, and I ordered the Charbroiled Pork over Broken Rice while Megan went with the Sweet and Sour Chicken.

And there we have it. The spring roll was decent, but uninspired. The tangy soy-based sauce was tasty and added some flavor to the bland spring roll. Both of our entrees were excellent. The pork I ordered was cooked well and was served with a mildly spicy vinaigrette sauce which brought out the flavors in the pork. Megan's sweet and sour dish was very good, with a subtle sweetness in the sauce and tender chicken. I think both of us would order these dishes again on a return visit, though I am eager to try some of their other offerings.

Of special note regarding Mekong was the service. The waitress was very good and in overhearing her conversation with other patrons, I could tell she was enthusiastic about explaining any of the dishes on the menu for Vietnamese newbies. Our service was prompt; I think we might have been in and out of the restaurant in less than a half hour. I suppose that suggests that Mekong would be a fine place to go if you're in need of a quick dinner that's on the nice side.

Overall, Mekong lends credence to the adage that one should not judge a book by its cover. Its downtown Johnson City location combined with the fact that it looks kind of dreary from the outside led me to steer clear for a long time, but I regret not giving it a chance sooner. Mekong is indeed a low-key gem of a restaurant with fantastic service and well-prepared food. I highly recommend it.

Grade: B+

Mekong Vietnamese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Apple Dumpling Cafe

Name: Apple Dumpling Cafe
Location: 131 Brooks Road, Binghamton, NY 13905
Phone: (607) 729-2683
Cuisine: Breakfast/Lunch
Attire: Casual
Price: Less than $20 for two

If you think you know of every place there is to know about in the Binghamton area, think again. You probably haven't been to Apple Hills, a farm out in the middle of nowhere up by the Greater Binghamton Airport and home to the Apple Dumpling Cafe, a quaint little gem of a place that specializes in homemade, farm-fresh breakfasts and lunches. To find the Apple Dumpling Cafe, head north out of Binghamton/JC on Airport Road. Keep going...keep going....keep going until you're almost at the airport, make a right on Commercial Road (there's a convenience store and gas station on the opposite side as a landmark) and stay on Commercial for about a mile until you reach Brooks Road. Turn left and it's up a quarter mile on the left.

We arrived at 10:00 on a Sunday morning and the place was packed. I thought to myself..."hmmm, I just drove through the middle of nowhere and there's nary a parking spot and now I have to wait in line to get a table? This place must be good!" One thing you'll want to realize is that there are two distinct lines for seating. If you want to sit outside on their long veranda, stand in the outside line and wait for a table to open up. If you want to sit inside, get your name on the list with the host/hostess and wait there. This information could be more effectively communicated to first-time patrons. We were rather confused by the whole setup and kind of annoyed, as were some other patrons who were told by the host inside that there was a table for them outside, only to lose their spot in line by going out to the porch and realizing that their designated table had already been taken. They should probably devise a better seating system especially since I sense the place is pretty popular.

We ended up with a table outside after waiting for about 20 minutes and hanging out with a friendly old farm dog out on the porch. The outside seating is nice and shaded and you have a nice view of the rolling hills hovering over Binghamton. I started with a cup of coffee, which I thought was pretty good by restaurant standards. Megan ordered the Belgian waffles which came with her choice of bacon or sausage. She elected the bacon. I opted for the short stack of pancakes with a side of sausage. The meals came out quickly; in fact, once we were seated, I was impressed with the service overall. The sausage had great flavor and tasted fresh, and the pancakes followed suit. More significantly, they were huge, 10 inches wide and probably a half-inch thick. I had been tipped off that the pancakes were tasty here, and they certainly lived up to the hype. Nice and fluffy, golden-brown, not overcooked, not underdone. Great flavor and locally-produced maple syrup to top it off. They have a challenge listed on their menu available to any patron who orders the full stack of four pancakes. If you eat the entire meal you get your next full stack free. At first I thought that challenge would be easy to pull off, but about halfway through my short stack I came to realize how difficult it would be.

In the end, I really liked the Apple Dumpling Cafe. The food, service, and rural charm made up for the logistical headache of getting seated. This is exactly the kind of place I started this blog to highlight, a place that is somewhat unknown, yet delivers a quality meal with local flavor at a great price ($10 for the two of us). Next time you're considering a trip to Cracker Barrel for breakfast, think about supporting your local farmers and giving the Apple Dumpling Cafe a chance instead.

Grade: B+

Apple Dumpling Cafe on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Temporary Hiatus

As you may have noticed, Tasting Binghamton is on a brief leave of absence. I am in Kansas City for work right now. Expect to see more reviews toward the end of next week!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Old World Delicatessen

Name: Old World Delicatessen
Location: 27 Court St., Binghamton, NY 13901
Phone: (607) 722-5265
Cuisine: Deli
Attire: Casual
Price: Less than $10 per person

My first visit to the Old World Delicatessen occurred a long time ago. A fact about me, little-known to many people--even those who know me relatively well--is that I used to work in downtown Binghamton for a short period. During that time, Old World Deli was one of my favorite lunch spots. A coworker and I used to split subs from there, which made for a good, cheap lunch. In particular, we were fond of the meatball parmigiana sub.

A long period of time has gone by since and I more or less forgot about the Old World Deli. It isn't often that Megan and I drive into downtown on Court St. Today, I decided I would try out Curry's of India for their lunch buffet, which comes highly recommended by one of my loyal readers. To my chagrin, I get to Curry's only to learn that they aren't open Mondays. Hey restaurant owners: let me present a very basic equation to you. Having a website = good. You can put your hours on there, even your menu! What a novel idea.

So I look up the block and there's the Old World Deli. Feeling mildly nostalgic, I decide to give it a go. The place is a lot larger than I had remembered it, with about 15 tables lining the wall parallel to the counter where you place your order and pay. Otherwise, it's a pretty typical deli. They have a fairly basic menu with all the usual sandwich/sub options, but also have a board with specials they're offering that day, and some "signature" items. I remember getting a sandwich called the "Campus Special" there before which I believe consisted of corned beef, cole slaw, and Russian dressing. That was some tasty stuff. But since I just had a reuben for lunch yesterday, I elected to go with what I had liked so much in my younger days...the 6" meatball parm on an Italian sub roll.

It was prime lunch hour (12:30) so I had to wait in a bit of a line, but it moved quickly. More problematic is that once I got my sandwich, I had to wait for about 5 minutes at the register for the cashier to ring me out. I think one of the other patrons was given the wrong sandwich by mistake and the cashier was off sorting out the error. Not being in a rush, I didn't care too much, though if I had been working downtown on a half-hour lunch break I probably would've been annoyed. At any rate, I was finally able to pay and sat down to enjoy the sub. Would it be as good as I remembered it?

Indeed it was. The meatballs had a very nice flavor and the cheese was perfectly melted on top. The bread was quite tasty as well, though I prefer the bread I got at the Full Belly Deli in Vestal a couple weeks back. For only a 6" sub I found it to be quite filling, way more filling than the 8" sub I got at the Full Belly. And for less than $5, I found it to be an excellent value.

Old World Deli isn't going to blow you away, but it's a good, inexpensive option for lunch in the heart of downtown Binghamton. I give it a solid recommendation, and hopefully I'll make it back there again before another five years goes by.

Grade: B

Old World Delicatessen on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Plaza Diner

Name: Plaza Diner
Location: 3605 Vestal Parkway East, Vestal, NY 13850
Phone: (607) 770-0012
Cuisine: American Diner
Attire: Casual
Price: $20 for two

We are on a quest to find the Binghamton area's best diner. We have liked The Spot on Upper Front St. for years because the food is consistently good, cheap, and its location makes it among the easiest for us to get to. Lately we've decided to branch out and try some other options. I'd heard good things about the Plaza Diner on the Vestal Parkway. I have to admit, I was skeptical. I remember when the place was Hooters, after all. But we decided to give it a shot today for lunch. I certainly didn't leave hungry, but was not amazed. Ah well, the quest lives on another day...

Yup, the Plaza Diner takes over the location vacated by Hooters on the Vestal Parkway. It's a good, convenient location not far from the Binghamton University campus. The restaurant is fairly big and has two dining areas, one to the right as you walk in the entrance, and one in another room straight ahead. When we went (12:30 PM on a Sunday) the place was packed to the gills and a bit on the hectic/noisy side. A far cry from the relaxed atmosphere of the Spot Diner, I thought to myself, which manages to be busy but somehow not seem busy. So the ambiance really didn't do anything for me.

The first thing I noticed on the menu was that I couldn't order breakfast!!! 12:30 on a Sunday and I can't get breakfast? Surely you jest. Part of the reason I like diners is that I can often order breakfast whenever I want it. I've gone to The Spot for dinner before and ordered pancakes. Sometimes you have a fever, and the only prescription is more pancakes, you know? Plus, breakfast tends to be cheaper, and if you haven't noticed, I've been eating out a lot lately. Gotta start saving those pennies where I can. Oh well. I ordered the reuben sandwich which came with fries and a bowl of soup. I opted for the French Onion.

This was some pretty good French Onion soup. Cheese was appropriately gooey and the broth was tasty. I have to think it would be pretty tough to screw up French Onion and the Plaza Diner certainly didn't.

The reuben came out shortly thereafter. This thing was massive!

Had to eat this with a fork and knife, it was that difficult to maneuver. Fries were good but the reuben was kind of mediocre. Too much sauerkraut resulted in the sandwich being so soggy I couldn't even pick it up. The pastrami was a little on the tough side. The sauerkraut was pretty good though, had a nice apple-ish sweetness to it. But at the end of the meal my exact reaction was "eh." Average diner fare, nothing more, nothing less.

I don't really know if I can recommend the Plaza Diner or not. If you're in the area and in the mood for diner food, I guess I'd recommend it instead of Friendly's or IHOP. Otherwise, I wasn't overly impressed. I'd go again, but am not in a rush to do so. Perhaps next time I'll go for breakfast. I guess that means I'm going to have to go early. *sigh*

Grade: C

Plaza Diner on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Oaks Inn

Name: Oaks Inn
Location: 122 Oak Hill Ave., Endicott, NY 13760
Phone: (607) 748-2764
Cuisine: Italian
Attire: Casual, maybe slightly more upscale than average
Price: $40 - $80 for two

So today was my 30th birthday, and I'd been hearing great things about a little place out in Endicott down the street from Consol's called the Oaks Inn. Now usually I'm the kind of guy who wants something familiar, something I know I'm going to like when it comes to special occasions such as these. But I decided to bite the bullet and try something new and figured a trip to Oaks Inn was in order. I had extremely high expectations for the place when I walked in the door and up the flight of stairs that lead to the restaurant. I am glad to report that Oaks Inn successfully exceeded my expectations in every possible way. My meal tonight was The Best I have ever had in the Binghamton area. It goes without saying that we will be returning regularly for future visits.

Oaks Inn is located a block north of Watson Blvd. on Oak Hill Ave. in the Little Italy neighborhood of Endicott. An old-timey sign points to its entrance. Parking is a little tough to come by. There's a small lot adjacent to the restaurant which had no available parking, so we had to park up the street a fair distance. Upon entering the building you have to walk up a flight of stairs to get to the restaurant. It's kind of like the Number 5 in Binghamton in that regard, where the main dining area is also upstairs. Once entering the second floor there's a bar straight ahead that looks like a relic from a bygone era. The place reminded me of the sort of place you'd see in The Godfather or The Sopranos, very old-fashioned and traditional with wood paneling on the walls. We had called a couple days prior for reservations and were seated immediately upon arriving, where our table was already prepared with ice water in the glasses and a basket of fresh Italian bread, served with olive oil and parmesan cheese. This provided a good start to the meal.

We ordered wine and the shrimp scampi appetizer, which was truly phenomenal. I think next time we go, Megan will be ordering the shrimp scampi for her entree, she absolutely loved it, as did I.

There it is, shrimp smothered in butter and garlic. These shrimp are not all that dissimilar from the scampi at the yet-to-be-reviewed Lampy's, but I think I prefer these. Garlicky excellence.

Dinner came with salad and a side of pasta (you can get the homemade pasta for just an additional dollar). The salad was good, I enjoyed the house Italian dressing. Blah blah, enough about salad. Best to move on to the main course.

I ordered the Chicken Saltimbocca.

This was an excellent decision. This dish consisted of chicken covered with cheese and wrapped in prosciutto in a buttery wine sauce with mushrooms. I was blown away by how perfect it was. I do not believe it could have been any better. I am really at a loss for words to express how good it was. This picture really doesn't do it full justice. I highly recommend this dish, to say the least, and the side of homemade angel-hair pasta was excellent. I really enjoyed the pasta and the red sauce. It is the closest to the pasta and sauce I used to get at Visaggio's growing up in the Harrisburg, PA area, which I have long-considered the gold standard of great Italian food and which, for a time, was regularly ranked among the top Italian restaurants in the country. In fact, Oaks Inn reminded me of a more quaint, less mannered Visaggio's. That won't mean anything to most who read this, but if you're ever in the Harrisburg area, check out Visaggio' won't be disappointed.

Megan ordered her default dish, the Chicken Parmigiana. She wanted to compare it to the Chicken Parm she got last weekend at Cacciatore's.

I tried it and thought it compared favorably, it was excellent. Megan said she would have a hard time choosing between the two, perhaps preferring the red sauce at Cacciatore's. As you can see, they give you a pretty massive portion that will be feeding us again for another meal over the weekend. Definitely an added bonus.

After the meal I got an Irish Coffee, which I enjoyed, and we split the Peanut Butter Pie. It was served frozen with whipped cream and was excellent.

Yet another excellent addition to the meal and certainly a dessert I would order again.

Based on this experience, Oaks Inn immediately vaults to the very top of my list of area restaurants. The place has a really authentic feel to it that adds to its charm. The waitress was enthusiastic and attentive and did a great job. The food was fantastic from the very first bite to the very last. As a bonus, the price is extremely reasonable and the portions are enormous. It's rare for a place to live up to such high expectations, but Oaks Inn certainly did and then some. For all the talk of Consol's being the best Italian restaurant in the Southern Tier, it's really kind of funny that it's not even the best on its own street. Frankly, it's a joke by comparison.

Grade: A+

Oaks Inn on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Moghul Fine Indian Cuisine & Tapas Bar

Name: Moghul Fine Indian Cuisine & Tapas Bar
Location: 4700 Vestal Parkway East, Vestal, NY 13850
Phone: (607) 729-2266
Cuisine: Indian
Attire: Casual to Business Casual
Price: $50+ for dinner for two

Moghul is located in University Plaza on the Vestal Parkway, in the same strip mall where Mediterranean Gyro is located. I have been to Moghul many times over the past few years, sometimes for lunch, sometimes for dinner, and yet other times to sit at the bar after work on Friday and have a drink, or two, or ten. All things considered, I'd say that Moghul stands among my favorite places to go in the area.

After entering Moghul you'll notice the bar off to the left and the dining room to the right. It's really an excellent layout because it's pretty much two different experiences depending on whether you are there to go to the bar or there to eat a more formal lunch or dinner. I used to love going there for lunch when they had a lunch buffet. It gave me the opportunity to try all sorts of Indian foods that I never would have tried otherwise. Plus, it was only about $10, so it represented really good value. About a year ago they decided to discontinue the lunch buffet. I would imagine it resulted in a lot of wasted food and I perceived that it wasn't a popular lunch spot for many people. Binghamtonians and their shoddy palates be damned! It would be really awesome if they got the buffet back up and running because it really was excellent.

The menu is pretty diverse and has all sorts of traditional Indian appetizers, soups, and entrees. I've had the vegetable and chicken pakoras and found them to be pretty tasty. The mulligatawny (lentil soup) is good and has a nice kick to it. An added bonus is that it comes complimentary with every entree.

Doesn't look like much (nor does most Indian food, really) but it's always a nice start to the meal.

Back in the days of the buffet I was able to try all sorts of yummy stuff. Some I liked quite a bit (Paneer Tikka Masala, Tandoori Chicken, Chicken Saag, Rogan Josh), others I did not care for too much (Matter Mushroom, Gobi Lezeez). These days, with the buffet no longer in existence, I usually stick with the same two entrees, the Chicken Tikka Masala or the Chicken Vindaloo. For those uninitiated to the charms of Indian cuisine, Chicken Tikka Masala consists of chicken which has been roasted in a clay oven topped with a tomato curry sauce. It's simultaneously sweet and spicy and is delicious. It can be VERY spicy, but the staff at Moghul is excellent at giving it to you however you want it. If you like it really spicy, you can get it that way, and if you prefer it mild with barely any spice, you can get it that way too.

That's what it looks like. Again, not much to look at, but this is easily one of my favorite five things to eat in the Southern Tier. It's served with basmati rice, and I highly recommend getting a side order of naan (bread) to eat it with. Vindaloo is somewhat similar but contains potatoes and a vinegar-based sauce. It too can be extremely spicy, even spicier than the Tikka Masala. Lucky for me, I happen to like it that way! Both of these entrees are excellent. I highly recommend that if you have little to no experience with Indian food that you give the Tikka Masala a shot. It just may convert you.

It's probably worth talking a little bit about the bar at Moghul. Draft beer is really cheap but they are plagued by having a pretty bad selection. The best you can do is either the Magic Hat #9 or the Sam Adams Seasonal, but most things are around $3. On Friday they have a happy hour special where they bring out some kind of free appetizer that you can try while having some drinks. It's usually pretty good and you can't go wrong with trying some free Indian food. The bar has a pretty relaxed atmosphere and is devoid of fratty undergrads, which is always a plus. It's a nice place to end the work week and get the weekend underway.

Moghul can be a little on the expensive side for the food (probably too expensive), so be prepared to drop some coin, but it's mostly worth it. The service is always top-notch and the servers are extremely knowledgeable on all the dishes and will do their best to ensure they are made to your specifications. I've always enjoyed what I've had to eat there and it's a cool place to hang out on a Friday night, certainly superior to Tully's, which is right around the corner. I really wish they still had the lunch buffet, but I can't complain too much. I still really need to try some of the other Indian restaurants in the area, but if you like Indian food, I think you will find Moghul to be quite good. If you are uninitiated to the world of Indian cuisine, Moghul would be an fine place to remedy that.

Grade: B+

Moghul Fine Indian Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Consol's Family Kitchen

Name: Consol's Family Kitchen
Location: 101 Oak Hill Ave., Endicott, NY 13760
Phone: (607) 754-7437
Cuisine: Italian
Attire: Casual
Price: Entrees range from $7-$20. Usually $40 total for two.

Consol's Family Kitchen is considered the veritable mecca of great Italian cuisine by many in the Greater Binghamton area. They have a long tradition of excellence dating to the area's heyday of the 1940's. Its location in the Little Italy neighborhood of Endicott at the corner of Watson Blvd. and Oak Hill Ave. provides an authentic, neighborhood feel. Its loyal patrons defend the place enthusiastically. It's certainly one of the most popular places in the area. It has been busy every time we've gone. A shame, then, that it's so tragically average.

Consol's has an odd layout. Upon entrance there's a (too) small waiting area with a bar adjacent on the right. To the left there are three distinct dining areas. One thing that sticks in my memory most about Consol's is the lighting. It's too yellow, too bright or something. I'm not crazy about the ambiance, especially considering other Italian places in the area that have a much more relaxed and refined feel like Cacciatore's and Tony's. The Christmas-style lights strewn from the ceiling in the dining room closest to the kitchen border on tacky. In truth though, I'm not an interior decorator by any stretch and I really don't care as long as I get amazing food put in front of me. So let's turn to the food.

The menu at Consol's has many choices. You can get regular, round pizza or one of their specialties, the grilled pizza. They have many pasta options with homemade pasta in addition to some specialty pasta items. They also have entrees with various meat options (chicken, veal, the usual). It's really very much like you'd expect most Italian menus to look, with the grilled pizza being a somewhat unfamiliar option.

I've been to Consol's about five times and tried a few different items, as has Megan. The first time I went, I got the Italian Trio, which is a sampler of their manicotti, chicken parmigiana, and homemade spaghetti. I thought the manicotti was very good and is something I would definitely get again. The chicken parm didn't really do anything for me. The chicken was a little dried out and I didn't care for the breading. The spaghetti was, well, spaghetti. Some places where they offer homemade pasta, you really can tell the difference between the homemade and the store-bought. At Consol's I really couldn't tell much of a difference.

Another time, I got the lasagna. It was pretty decent but nothing that had me clamoring for more. Megan got the Rigatoni with Vodka Sauce, a personal favorite dish of mine, and it was not good at all. Too many tomatoes and very watery. At that point we kind of swore the place off. Why head out to the far corner of Endicott when there are places we prefer that are significantly closer?

Lately, we've gone back a couple more times. Each of those times I opted to try the grilled pizza. They offer it in four different varieties: margarita, grilled sausage, artichoke hearts, and prosciutto. Last night, I went with the grilled sausage.

There it is. Zoom in and get a good look at that bad boy. This pizza is among the most unique I've ever had. Very thin crust, grilled to give it a somewhat smoky, robust flavor, with sausage, tomato sauce, roasted red peppers, parmesan cheese, and mozzarella. It's sliced horizontally and vertically so it doesn't have the usual triangular slices. I really like the taste of this pizza. After the first couple slices I was more intrigued than impressed, not knowing quite what to make of it, but by the time I got halfway through it I was pretty hooked. But I do have a couple of criticisms. Look at this pizza very closely and you will see there are puddles of grease on top. This causes the parts toward the middle of the pizza to get very soggy, which combined with the thinness of the crust means that this pizza is prone to falling apart too easily. Also, the toppings are not spread entirely evenly meaning that some of the smaller pieces toward the outside had next to no toppings at all. Minor criticisms all things considered. On my next trip to Consol's, whenever that may be, I am inclined to go with this pizza again.

Megan ordered the Chicken Sofia, which consisted of breaded chicken cutlet and rigatoni topped with a garlic cream sauce and broccoli. Allegedly, this is a quite popular item among the clientele. She didn't really care for it too much. I tried a bite and was equally unimpressed. Our friend (and loyal blog reader) Jaime came along for dinner as well and ordered the Linguine Alfredo. Her two-word review was that it was "passable Italian." Not exactly what I would call a ringing endorsement.

My advice as far as Consol's goes is to try the Grilled Pizza. It's unlike anything you've probably ever had before and this is one of the only places you'll get a chance to sample it. Plus, it's really quite good, albeit Greasy with a capital G. As for the rest of the menu, I think Megan and I have tried to give it a very fair shake, but we're really not impressed too much. We know how much some people love the place, but we don't see why. Perhaps Consol's is past its prime, and is getting by on tradition now? Perhaps we just haven't found the item(s) on the menu yet that we're destined to love? Whatever the reason, for now I have no choice but to award a somewhat mediocre rating. Flame away...

Grade: B-

Consol Family Kitchen Incorporated on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Mediterranean Gyro

Name: Mediterranean Gyro
Location: 4700 Vestal Parkway East, Vestal, NY 13850
Phone: (607) 729-2001
Cuisine: Greek
Attire: Casual
Price: $20 for two

Mediterranean Gyro is a new restaurant located in University Plaza on the Vestal Parkway, in the same plaza with Mario's Pizza, Tully's, and Moghul. Megan and I went there a few months ago, right after they opened. We liked the food but were appalled by the AWFUL service. It took us about 20 minutes just to get our bill and the waitress was terrible. Megan swore the place off, saying she'd never go back. Well, today I went on a solo mission to see if matters had improved any. Not only had the place improved, it is a restaurant I will be regularly frequenting for lunch in the future. Maybe I can convince my wife to give it another try...

The place looks like an old-school Greek diner on the inside, with an open-air kitchen, a few seats available at the counter, and booths and tables comprising the rest of the place. It reminds me of the classic sorts of places like these you might find in Brooklyn or Queens. As soon as I walked in, I was seated promptly and within two minutes had a drink on my table and had placed my order. The waitress was very friendly and eager to explain the menu if I had any questions. I didn't, but she explained to me what avgolemono was anyway. In case you're wondering, it's the Greek lemon and rice soup that comes complimentary with all platters. The pork souvlaki platter I ordered came with the aforementioned avgolemono, a Greek salad--feta cheese and kalamata olives and all, and your choice of french fries or lemon potato addition to, of course, the souvlaki with a few pita slices and tzatziki. If you don't want a platter, you can get just the souvlaki sandwich if you prefer, in addition to many other traditional Greek foods like gyros.

Out came the soup first. Tasty stuff, this was, although nothing really separates it from any other chicken & rice soup aside from a hint of lemon and a little more thickness to the broth. Still, it was a good start to the meal and compared favorably to other avgolemono I've had in the past.

Onto the salad. This featured the usual greens, tomato, cucumber, onions, olives, peppers, and feta cheese. They give you olive oil and vinegar on the side to doctor it up as you wish.

There it is. I don't know, how much can one really say about a salad. I guess I can say the veggies were fresh and that I would've liked more than just the one olive and one chunk of feta cheese in there, but whatever. I didn't come to eat salad. So onward to the main course....

Ah yes, the souvlaki plate. The meat was really tasty and the tzatziki sauce was just about perfect. Waaaaaay better than the runny stuff that tastes like paint thinner that you get at Whole in the Wall. I would've like the pita slices to be a little bigger, maybe, but that's a minor criticism. One slightly more major criticism was that I found a wood splinter from the skewer in my food whilst taking a bite. That probably shouldn't have happened, but it didn't detract much from my enjoyment of the meal. Maybe the best part of the plate was the lemon potato wedges, which were very well-seasoned and totally better than any french fries would've been.

Oh wait, but it gets better...FREE BAKLAVA FOR DESSERT!!! Was it Tolkien who said "cellar door" was the best two-word phrase in the English language? I contend "free baklava" has to be high up there on the list!

Man, I didn't even order this and suddenly it was sitting in front of me. Must be my lucky day! VERY sweet/syrupy baklava so if you like it that way, I highly recommend getting it. Or they may just bring it to you to try free of charge. Winner winner souvlaki dinner!

Overall, Mediterranean Gyro redeemed itself pretty much completely after the debacle of our first visit. The service was quite excellent this time and I got all that food for a mere $10. The food was very good, nothing extraordinary, but solid nonetheless. So, Megan, willing to give it another go?

Grade: B+

Mediterranean Gyro on Urbanspoon
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