Saturday, July 31, 2010

La Vita E Bella

Name: La Vita E Bella
Location: 1708 Vestal Parkway E, Vestal, NY 13850
Phone: (607) 748-2900
Cuisine: Italian
Price: $30+ for two

La Vita E Bella is a somewhat newer entry to an already-saturated Italian food scene, but is certainly a restaurant worth seeking out. Located on the Vestal Parkway not far from the Full Belly Deli and Lemongrass, La Vita E Bella (henceforth to be referenced by the shorter, less pretentious name "Bella") doubles as a pizzeria and a casual fine dining restaurant. I have not yet had the pizza, so this review will focus on the rest of the experience that Bella offers. My understanding is that the owner of Bella is related to the former owner of Pino's, which was located on the South Side of Binghamton and what seemed to be a local favorite of many folks before it closed for good a couple of years ago.

The restaurant actually has two entrances. The pizzeria entrance is the one to the right while the dining room entrance is to the left. I advise entering through the left entrance if you are going for dinner. Bella has probably the strangest layout I've seen in a restaurant. There are three distinct dining rooms: to the right there are booths, to the left there are some larger tables, and there is a back room with what appeared to be smaller, more intimate tables. Both times when Megan and I have been there, we've gotten seated in the exact same booth in the right-most room. This layout is most strange in the sense that the waiting area where the host/hostess stand is located is directly adjacent to the kitchen, so all food must pass through this centralized area before it reaches its destination. I don't think the layout is too conducive to efficiency, but hey, whatever works. All three dining areas are well-decorated and give off the vibe of a fancy Italian bistro.

The wait staff is professional and seemingly experienced, delivering the daily specials from memory and dressed appropriately. A suited gentleman who I believe is the owner can often be seen walking around making sure the patrons are well taken care of. On both visits to Bella, I have been very impressed with the service.

The menu consists of the usual Italian favorites like Chicken Parmigiana, Lasagna, etc. but also includes some other, less common items like Spaghetti alla Carbonara, and they usually have some interesting specials as well. Last time, I ordered the lobster ravioli with arrabiata sauce special, which was quite good, and one of the specials on our more recent visit was Spaghetti al Nero di Seppia, spaghetti with a sauce made from squid ink. Definitely an item you won't find everywhere. Bella also appears to have a decent wine list, as all Italian restaurants worth their salt should.

I ordered the Spaghetti alla Carbonara this time and Megan went with the Penne alla Vodka. Dinners at Bella include salad and bread.

The salad was, in my estimation, disappointing. Basically it was just a big mound of iceberg lettuce with a couple tomato slices, maybe some onion, and dressing on the side. I would've liked to see some Italian greens and/or olives in there, but it's hard to be too critical over salad. The bread, on the other hand, was absolutely wonderful. Extremely fresh with oil for dipping on the side, this was some of the best bread I've had around here. Very impressive.

The carbonara I ordered was very good. Not mindblowing and not something I would necessarily crave again at some point, but a really good mix of al dente pasta, egg, pecorino cheese, and pancetta. The pancetta in particular was a highlight of the dish and it could've probably used a few more bites of pancetta in there to give some more smoky flavor. Overall, I was happy with the dish and found it to be an above-average dish.

Megan's penne alla vodka was also quite good. Her immediate thought was that it was "much better than the penne vodka at Consol's" and that it was "maybe on par with the Lost Dog's." I'm not really sure about that last part, but I tried it, and it was definitely better than Consol's. Oddly enough, the Penne Vodka it reminded me of most was Megan's own. She has made the dish herself a few times and is getting to be quite good at it! Anyway, this was pretty good stuff.

We didn't get dessert on our most recent trip (too filled up!) but they do have a good looking dessert menu with different cakes, cannoli, and tiramisu. I read somewhere that the tiramisu is the stuff of legend, so I will try to save room for it on my next trip. The key words there, of course, are "on my next trip," suggesting that La Vita E Bella is certainly a restaurant deserving of return customers. It's a nice atmosphere, the service is quick and attentive, and the food is praiseworthy. I give La Vita E Bella a solid recommendation.

Grade: B+

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Mad Moose Saloon

Name: Mad Moose Saloon
Location: 53 Chenango St, Binghamton, NY 13901
(607) 723-3470
Cuisine: Southern BBQ/Wood-Fired Pizza
Price: Entrees $10-$15, pizzas about the same

Mad Moose Saloon, or "The Moose" as everyone including myself seem
s to call it, is a unique restaurant to Binghamton's dining landscape, and a place I've been to countless times over the years. The Moose first opened about five years ago as an upscale bar/lounge/nightclub with large, comfortable couches, a small dance floor, and huge projection screen TVs. Since then, it has progressively morphed into a casual dining restaurant which happens to have a humongous bar adjacent. It has been interesting to watch this progression over the years as a loyal patron who has had high hopes for The Moose from day one. This is easily one of the best-looking places in town and a really comfortable place to hang out with large groups of friends in a spacious atmosphere. Its location near the intersection of State St. and Henry St. puts it far enough away from downtown that the clientele tends to be a little older than what you'd expect a couple blocks down.

Since the Mad Moose opened for food a year or two ago, I have always been interested in trying it out, but had never actually done so until last night. I
was especially interested after I found out that the Moose had procured the services of Chef Dunster, formerly of D.C. Dunster's and Zazou across the street. Those are places I'd never been to, but had heard from many people that they were quite good and quite unique as Binghamton eateries go. Anyhow, I was meeting some friends at the Moose for a going-away party at 8:00 PM and decided to arrive an hour earlier than that to try the food. With Megan out of town for the evening, my friend Tom (also a longtime patron) came along and we gave it a shot.

The atmosphere at Mad Moose is unparalleled in downtown Binghamton. This is the best-looking place in town, a dimly-lit, underground location with spacious booths, high-top tables, and the biggest bar I've ever seen. The space is well-decorated. There's a clear dead-animal motif with all sorts of animal busts protruding from the walls. The atmosphere is rustic yet somehow feels a little upscale. On ambiance alone
, this has long been one of my favorite places to go in Binghamton.

We arrived shortly after 7:00 PM and got a table pretty quickly. It was unclear whether we were to seat ourselves, or be seated by a host/hostess. A hostess kind of weakly pointed toward an open table so we sat ourselves there. Five minutes later, we had menus.

The menu at The Moose is totally up my alley. They ha
ve all sorts of specialty wood-fired pizzas, ribs, pulled pork, chili, and several other items that appeal to rampant carnivores such as myself. The side dishes (from which you can choose two with the purchase of any entree) sounded equally tasty. Some options for sides include sweet potato fries with a tabasco-honey glaze, root beer baked beans, Chef Dunster's "famous" cole slaw, and mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallow sauce. With Theo's in Johnson City gone by the wayside, I didn't think I'd find sides like these again in the Triple Cities.

I decided to try the Pulled Pork Platter and opted to go with th
e baked beans and the mashed sweet potatoes for my sides. I also ordered a cup of chili as a starter. Tom decided to try the Pulled Pork Empanadas and got a bowl of the soup of the day, a spicy turkey soup. With the empanadas, Tom elected to try the aforementioned sweet potato fries.

A few minutes later, our soups arrived. I thought the chili was very good. In addition to the usual ground beef, I also detected some pulled pork in there. With beans, chopped onions, stewed tomatoes, sour cream, and jack cheese, this was some very good chili. I would've preferred it a little spicier, but that's what I say about most everything I eat. Tom found the turkey soup "pretty good" but was a little bothered by the discov
ery of a bone in the soup. Not a huge deal, but lack of attention to details such as those would become a theme of the meal. So the bone was a harbinger of mistakes to come.

After we were done with our soups, the waiting game began.
Both of us were pretty irked by the shoddy service, especially since it was now after 8:00 and the rest of our posse had arrived. We had hoped to be done eating by this point. We watched as those around us who had come in after us got their meals, and after about 40-45 minutes from the time we finished our soups, we finally got ours.

My pulled pork was awful. AWFUL. I'd say at least a third of what was on the plate was fat. The rest of it was mediocre and covered with a bland, weird barbecue sauce that reminded me of Heinz' 57. As someone who typically loooooooves pulled pork, I found this massively disappointing and a far cry from the pulled pork I had the other day at the Big Dipper BBQ in Apalachin. That was some delicious stuff....this was not. On the plus side, the sides were both excellent. I enjoyed the root beer baked beans and the mashed sweet potatoes were very good and somewhat reminiscent of the candied yams I used to order at Theo's.

For what it's worth, Tom thought his meal was "pretty good." I tried a bite of his empanadas and thought they were decent and an interesting combination of flavors...southern BBQ-meets-southwestern. The sweet potato fries did not impress me much. They looked and tasted a little bit burned and the "tabasco" portion of the tabasco-honey glaze was seemingly missing. Tom also noted that he was not impressed with the presentation of the food, in baskets instead of on plates. I tended to agree, but there were obviously other things that bothered me more.

After eating we paid the bill (by now it was almost 9:00) and headed over to the bar to join the rest of our group. Speaking of the bar, something that bothers me is that the Mad Moose serves all of their beer in Mason jars. I can understand why they could get away with serving crappy swill like Bud Light in a Mason jar, but a few weeks back they had Brooklyn Brewery's Dark Matter on tap, and it would've been nice to experience this rare bourbon-aged beer in a snifter or wine glass. But the bartenders at the Mad Moose range between unknowledgeable and just plain stupid. After all, this is the place where Megan once ordered an Amaretto Sour and was asked by the bartender, "what's in that?" A: you're the bartender, you tell me, and B: what the hell do you think's in an amaretto sour?

Within an half-hour after finishing eating, I started to get some massive stomach pains and had to leave the party early. I'll stop short of saying that my illness was caused outright by the food I had eaten, but I will say that I was fine before I got there...

I don't know that I would eat the food at Mad Moose again. I am still interested in trying the pizza, but I can't fathom that it would be a place I'd go for pizza often given the number of other quality pizza options in the area. I do know that the service was beyond slow, the pulled pork was positively disgusting, and that I have felt ill since consuming the food. At the same time, the sides were awesome, and the atmosphere that the restaurant provides is the best in the area. It truly is a fine place to hang out with friends and have some drinks in a cool atmosphere. I feel awful to give such a harsh grade to a place I've had a lot of enjoyable experiences in over the years, but as a restaurant, I did not find The Moose up to par from a food or service standpoint, and this is "Tasting Binghamton," not "Cool Places to Hang Out in Binghamton." Frankly, this grade is generous; had this been my first visit to the Mad Moose, it would have been my only visit.

Grade: C

Mad Moose Saloon on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 30, 2010

Nando's Pizza

Name: Nando's
Location: 217 Harry L Dr., Johnson City, NY 13790
Phone: (607) 798-0439
Cuisine: Pizza/Subs
Price: Around $10 for a large pizza

Nando's represents yet another entry into the Johnson City pizza mix. It's located at the corner of Harry L Drive and Academy St. I believe there are three Nando's locations that are all related: this one in JC, one on North St. in Endwell/Endicott, and a third location on Conklin Ave. on the South Side. I am pretty sure at least the Endwell and Binghamton locations are related. This is the one I'm not sure about, but how common is the name "Nando" really?

This is yet another place I've driven by thousands of times over the years but I never bothered to stop in until yesterday. I placed an order for a large pizza (12 small slices) with half-sausage, half-cheese and opted to do take-out. The restaurant itself has probably seen better days. I would not recommend eating there, but there are some tables set up on their front porch if you choose to. All in all, I found the restaurant itself to be a little sketchy.

At any rate, I picked up the pizza (around $10) and headed home to give it a shot. What I found was some pretty decent pizza. This didn't blow me away or anything, but I definitely did like it. The sauce is the most unique aspect of this pizza. Instead of normal pizza sauce it reminded me much more of spaghetti sauce. It had nice flavor and tended to dominate each bite. So if you like saucy pizza, this is definitely a place you might want to check out. The cheese and sausage were nothing to write home about, and the New York style crust was ultra-thin but still sturdy enough to support the toppings, unlike some other slices I've had recently...

All in all, Nando's is not likely to become your favorite pizza place or anything, but I found what I had to be a solid pie and, due to location, one that I would consider getting again. For what it's worth, it tastes pretty good out of the fridge in the morning, too. I give this one a mild recommendation.

Grade: B-

Nando's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Pantheon Restaurant

Name: Pantheon Restaurant
Location: 1203 Monroe St. Ste. 1, Endicott, NY 13760
Phone: (607) 757-0275
Cuisine: American/Greek diner
Price: Around $10 per person

As part of the new "Diner Thursday" tradition that Megan and I have formed, we decided to head out to Endicott this morning and hit up the Acropolis on Washington Avenue. We got there only to find that the restaurant was closed due to vacation this week, but I had remembered another diner, the Pantheon, was just around the corner on Monroe St. So we headed across the street and had our lunch there instead.

We got to the Pantheon around noon. It's not much to look at from the outside but is pretty reasonable on the inside with a standard diner setup, including the rotating dessert case and the coffee counter. Upon entering, we were instructed to sit anywhere we wanted. Seeing as the restaurant was fairly busy at the time and all of the booths were occupied, we found a table not far from the door.

We were quickly given menus and got drinks, a Sprite for Megan and a coffee for myself. In perusing the menu I noticed that breakfast food was not an option for lunch, unlike some diners in the area. Luckily, we were both in the mood for lunch, so all was well.

I ordered a cup of the Yankee Bean soup to start out (as a Yankee hater, I wanted the Oriole Bean, but that was sadly not an option) and went with the Ham & Swiss Club for the main course. I tried for the Roast Beef club, but there were out of roast beef. No biggie. Megan opted for one of her diner faves, the Chicken Souvlaki. She ordered it "Deluxe," Pantheon-code-language for "with fries."

I tried the soup first and thought it to be pretty delicious. This was a nice ham and bean soup with a generous portion of tender ham. I would order it again.

As for the Club, it was pretty good, if perhaps a little pedestrian. The bacon was crispy and the lettuce and tomato were fresh, so I was pretty satisfied. The fries that accompanied the meal were quite good, done up in the classic diner fashion, crispy, golden, and tasty.

Megan's souvlaki (not pictured) was a definite home run and a highlight of the meal. I tried a few bites as Megan surrendered to fullness and was rather impressed. The waitress appeared to be of Greek descent, and go figure, in a place called the Pantheon, it makes sense that the Greek food would be pretty solid. On a future visit for lunch, I will definitely go with a gyro, souvlaki, or one of their other Greek specialty items.

Overall, we were pleased with our experience at the Pantheon. Service was friendly and quick and the food was uniformly good. This place is nothing amazing or out of the ordinary, but for a small neighborhood restaurant, it was quite satisfying. This is a restaurant I'd definitely visit again and would certainly recommend to others in search of a good diner lunch in Endicott.

Grade: B

Pantheon Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Best Bagels In Town

Name: Best Bagels In Town
Location: 526 Hooper Rd., Endicott, NY 13760
Phone: (607) 748-1171
Cuisine: Coffee/Bagels/Sandwiches
Price: Around $5 per person

To me, a name is a very important thing. If you're going to name your sandwich shop the Full Belly Deli, you'd better offer huge sandwiches overflowing with meat and toppings. If you're Dillinger's Celtic Pub, you should probably have bartenders who can pour a perfect Guinness from the tap (Oh, wait, they don't even have taps? Grade: F). If you're going to name your place Escape State Street, you should expect ridicule for having such a ridiculous name which doesn't even identify your establishment as a restaurant. And if you name your kids Dweezil, Diva Muffin, and Moon Unit, you're probably Frank Zappa.

So that brings me to Best Bagels In Town. If you want that name, you'd better have the goods to back it up. I decided to give it a shot.

There are actually two (and from what I understand, soon to be three) locations of Best Bagels In Town, one on Hooper Road in Endwell, one on Route 12 on the way out of Binghamton up past Northgate Plaza, and a third one that may be open on the Vestal Parkway by the end of 2010 near Vestal High School in the former Burger King location. None of these locations are ones that I personally pass by on a regular basis, but all of them are in highly-visible, well-traversed areas. A Google search reveals at least a few other bagel shops throughout the US with the same name and a similar logo. So this could be a proper chain restaurant. If so, it's definitely a small one. Upon visiting it certainly had the feel of a small, local store.

I decided to hit up the Endwell location and arrived around 9:00 AM on a Tuesday on my way to work. In lieu of using the drive-thru, I opted to go inside and check out the place. It's a small shop with a few tables for those who choose to eat there, but it seemed like most people get their orders to-go, as I did. The place was pretty busy when I was there and I had to wait in a short line before placing my order. A glance over the menu allowed me to notice that they offered several kinds of bagels and 8 to 10 different varieties of cream cheese (regular, spinach bacon, garlic herb, and strawberry to name a few). They also had some various breakfast sandwiches, muffins, deli sandwiches, and coffee drinks. I found the menu to be similar to Dunkin Donuts, minus the donuts, with an obvious emphasis on bagels.

I ordered a large black coffee ($1.60) and an everything bagel with garlic-herb cream cheese (approximately $2.50). $4 or so later I was out the door, back in the car where I deftly traversed the tiny parking lot, and on my way to work.

The coffee was pretty good. It had nice flavor but was a little watered down, as is usually the case for coffee in this area. It wasn't amazing but it was sufficient and above-average as local coffee peddlers go. Then it would come time for the taste test. Would this bagel stand apart from the crowd enough to be considered the best in town? The suspense was killing me.

And the answer is.....drum roll please.....

Yes! This was the best bagel I've had in the area! This tasted absolutely great and the garlic-herb cream cheese was phenomenal. Nice and crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, great onion/garlic/poppy seed flavor, an all-around perfect bagel. I appreciated that they didn't skimp on the cream cheese, too. For $2.50 this was a little pricey as bagels go, but totally worth it.

Some places earn their name, and Best Bagels In Town is one of them. I'll be back there again tomorrow.

Grade: A-

Best Bagels In Town on Urbanspoon

Big Dipper BBQ

Name: Big Dipper BBQ
Location: Route 434, Apalachin, NY 13732
Phone: (607) 625-5129
Cuisine: Barbecue (Ribs/Chicken/Pulled Pork)
Price: Less than $10 per person

Yesterday I was driving down the Vestal Parkway, heading westbound in search of lunch. I decided that the first place I encountered to my right that looked palatable would be my destination. I kept driving and driving, crossed the border into Tioga County, and wound up stopping at the Big Dipper BBQ in Apalachin. It's always been a place I'd been interested in trying, having passed it while driving on Route 17 between Binghamton and Owego countless times over the years. I am a big fan of barbecue in general, and with the recent demise of Theo's, I have been looking for something to take its place. Big Dipper is more than an adequate substitute.

I arrived at the Big Dipper around 1:30 PM and found it to be a small stand with a gigantic charcoal grill in front where several chickens were being grilled. Adjacent to the stand are a bunch of covered picnic tables for those who choose to eat there, as I did. You can also get your order to-go if you prefer. At any rate, I was greeted by the folks working the grill and placed my order with the cheerful teenage cashier. After a quick scan of the menu consisting of ribs, chicken, and pulled pork options, I opted to go with the Pulled Pork Dinner ($8.50). This consisted of a pulled pork sandwich and two sides; I went with the salt potatoes and baked beans. Other options include cole slaw, potato salad, and macaroni salad.

The first thing I noticed about the pulled pork sandwich was its massive size. This was pretty much a giant Italian sub roll stuffed to the gills with pulled pork. After eating this, I certainly wasn't hungry for the entire rest of the day. I won't say that this was the best pulled pork I've ever had, but it was delicious and very juicy barbecue. I devoured the sandwich very quickly and would eat another one in a heartbeat.

The sides were a little less spectacular, but served as an ample complement to the pulled pork. The baked beans were fairly typical and tasted like they could've been the canned variety, while the salt potatoes were a notch better. Of course, I came to the Big Dipper for the barbecue, and I was not disappointed in what I found in that regard.

The Big Dipper BBQ is certainly worth checking out. I found it to be very good barbecue with enormous portions at extremely reasonable prices. It's directly adjacent to the Big Dipper Ice Cream stand as well, so head on out to Apalachin, experience some local charm, eat some barbecue, get some ice cream for dessert, and make the 15-minute drive back to Binghamton with a smile on your face, knowing that you've just experienced one of the area's best-kept secrets.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Oakdale Pizza

Name: Oakdale Pizza
Location: 601 Harry L Dr., Johnson City, NY 13790
Phone: (607) 644-1111
Cuisine: Pizza
Price: $10+ per pie, $2.50+ per slice

I went to Oakdale Pizza for the first time a few weeks back. I had heard some good things about it, and it's located inside the Oakdale Mall, not far from where I live. I stopped in for a slice and found a bunch of different options to choose from, ranging from the standard plain cheese to pepperoni and sausage to more exotic choices like Buffalo Chicken and an interesting looking one called Chicken Bacon Ranch. I decided to go with exactly that one, the Chicken Bacon Ranch, and rarely have I hated a slice of pizza so much. Imagine cubed, breaded chicken covered in warmed-over ranch dressing with flabby bits of bacon floating around in it. Actually, don't imagine it, look at it:

I should've realized this mix was to end in utter failure before I even took a bite, but I wanted to try something a little different, so I went for it. Bad idea. I like a good white slice of pizza every now and then but this was way too garlicky and the toppings were gross. The crust was kind of brittle and the slice fell apart way too easily. It was a train wreck. I decided at the time I would spare Oakdale Pizza the bad press and come back and try a more traditional slice another day. After all, I'd heard good things.

Today was the day I decided to give Oakdale another shot. This time the plan was to go with a normal, red sauce slice with more ordinary toppings. Upon arriving I once again scanned over my options and located a pepperoni-and-sausage pie. I got a slice, paid for it, and sat down in their rather nice dining area to partake in what I hoped to be a much better experience than last time.

On first bite, I knew my hopes were dashed. I did not care for the tasteless, crispy thin crust. The sauce had a bitter, acidic taste that I didn't like. The cheese and toppings were OK but overall, this was a well-below-average NY style slice. Even worse, the crust started to fall apart randomly like some kind of weird jigsaw puzzle about two bites in. A few more bites later, the entire thing fell apart, making this simple slice of pizza rather cumbersome to eat. Bah.

On the plus side, the dining area at Oakdale Pizza is nice and clean with sports memorabilia on the walls and a flat-screen TV to provide a little entertainment, and the service has been efficient on both visits. I wanted to like this place, especially since it's so close to home for me, but frankly, the pizza really wasn't any better the second time around. There will not be a third time.

Grade: C-

Oakdale Pizza on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 26, 2010

Moon Star Chinese Restaurant

Name: Moon Star Chinese Restaurant
Location: 3600 George F Hwy., Endicott, NY 13760
Phone: (607) 754-6778
Cuisine: Chinese
Price: Less than $15 for two for lunch, less than $30 for two for dinner

For the longest time I thought the area's Chinese restaurants were truly abysmal. We'd gotten take-out a few times from several different places and couldn't find a place we liked. If we were really in the mood to go out for Chinese we'd settle for a buffet, where we could usually find at least a couple passable items. My opinion changed the day we found Endwell's Moon Star. Of those I've been to, Moon Star is the best Chinese restaurant in the Triple Cities.

Moon Star is located in a small strip mall near the intersection of 17C (George F Hwy) and Hooper Road in Endwell. It's an odd location and probably not what I would consider the most ideal of spots for a restaurant, but it suffices. The restaurant does not look like anything special from the outside, but it's nice and clean inside. Unlike with most Chinese restaurants, I advise eating at the restaurant in lieu of getting take-out. The take-out isn't bad but there's a measurable difference in quality between eating in and taking out. I have typically been impressed with the presentation of the dishes when eating there as well, and the fried noodles served at the beginning of the meal are homemade, delicious, and far superior to the packaged noodles you get at most Chinese places.

The most intriguing thing about Moon Star is that they have literally two distinct menus that you can order from. They have the typical "Americanized" Chinese food menu that includes all the sorts of things you find at every other Chinese place (General Tso's Chicken, Sweet & Sour, Triple Delight, Chicken w/ Garlic Sauce, etc...), but also a menu of "authentic Chinese" dishes including items served in a hot pot, scallion pancakes, tripe, and a personal favorite of mine, the Mongolian Beef.

I've been there a number of times and have ordered items from both menus. I find the items on the "American" side are very good, for those not wanting to deviate from the Chinese food they know and love. I am a sucker for General Tso's Chicken and this is easily among the best I've had. The spicy, tangy sauce is perfect and it's always served with fresh-cut broccoli. Megan likes the Chicken with Broccoli, which I have sampled, and liked, a number of times. Another dish I like is the Chicken with Garlic Sauce. The sauce is delicious and the vegetables in the dish are always fresh. I have to admit, I have not delved deeply into the alternate menu, but I thought the Mongolian Beef was superb and probably the best I've had of that dish. Items on the regular menu tend to range between $8 and $12 while the alternate menu might run a dollar or two more on average.

Today, I opted not to follow my own advice of eating there and instead went for take-out. Their Lunch Special for $5.25 represents fantastic value. You get an entree (30 different choices including most "usual favorites"), your choice of white or pork fried rice, and your choice of soup (egg drop/wonton/hot & sour) or an egg roll. This is a ton of food and definitely enough to feed you for an entire day. I got my usual standby, the General Tso's, with pork fried rice and wonton soup.

The soup was alright but the wontons were a little overdone. The rice was good and appeared to be freshly-made, while the General Tso's was great, just as I had remembered it to be.

To those who have lost hope in finding a good Chinese restaurant in the Triple Cities, and to those who settle for subpar buffets, consider making a trip to Moon Star in Endwell. This is good Chinese food with a whole menu full of authentic choices, with a pleasant, low-key ambiance and consistently excellent service. Between Moon Star and Foliage in Johnson City, the Triple Cities aren't so bad off when it comes to Chinese dining options after all.

Grade: B+

Moon Star Chinese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Park Diner

Name: Park Diner
Location: 119 Conklin Ave., Binghamton, NY 13903
Phone: (607) 722-9840
Cuisine: Diner
Price: $20 for two

Since we did not get to sample another area diner on Thursday, Dan and I decided to venture today to the Park Diner - one that I was excited about given its location. Although Binghamton has riverfront areas, it seems that few businesses make use of it. The Park Diner, located on the South Side, uses the Susquehanna to its distinct advantage allowing for really beautiful views of both the river and downtown Bingo. Thus, I was looking forward to the ambiance of the diner at the very least.

We made our way to the Park Diner around 11am this morning and were lucky to find a parking spot in the small lot adjacent to the diner. We were greeted immediately by the hostess and were able to choose between table or booth seating. We went with booth as we normally do. Although we were not sitting right by the floor to ceiling windows and although it was raining, I was still very pleased with the views that the diner offered. There is a dam located right near the diner, so you get to see a little waterfall effect along with scenic views of downtown.

The menu is not very big for a diner and only had one page of breakfast options. The usual egg and pancake fare was accounted for along with a steak and eggs special. I was disappointed that there were not more options or specials and also that the prices seemed a bit higher than most of the area diners - two eggs with home fries and toast for $5.95. I think the inflation of price has to do with the slightly higher class atmosphere that the Park Diner is trying to offer. For instance, the wait staff is dressed in button down white shirts, slacks, and pink ties. All the plates and cups were very nice looking (no chips) and matched. So in that respect, it is a more upscale diner experience.

Dan and I both went with cheese omelets - his was feta, mine was american - with wheat toast and home fries and of course our requisite coffees. All of our food came out fast - like five minutes from the time we ordered.

The presentation was very nice - the omelet was neat and well cooked. My toast was done the way I like it and the home fries were fine, but rather basic - I liked the ones at Danny's better. Nothing outstanding - nothing I could not have done myself at home. The coffee was good - I did like that it was more neatly presented than at some of the other diners where it had spilled into the saucer. All told, breakfast was good - but at a cost of $20 dollars with tax and tip, I felt that it was a bit pricey for the simple meals we got. Especially given that at Danny's, we got the same things and bacon and sausage for $10.

In sum, the Park Diner had the ambiance and the atmosphere that I hoped for. It was a pleasant dining experience, the service was swift and the food was good. However, I would have liked to see a more extensive breakfast menu, especially for a diner, and I do think it is a bit pricey for breakfast. I would probably go again for lunch - they had a larger selection and I am willing to pay a bit more for a nice lunch plate.

Grade: B-

Park Diner on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 23, 2010

Margarita's Cantina

Name: Margarita's Cantina
Location: 1166 Upper Front St., Binghamton, NY 13905
Phone: (607) 772-0722
Cuisine: Mexican
Price: Around $25-$30 for two

Binghamton is a city with relatively few local options for Mexican food. There's Los Tapatios in both Vestal and Endicott, Delgado's in Johnson City, and the subject of today's review, Margarita's on Upper Front St. Margarita's is located almost exactly at the intersection of Route 11 (Front St.) and I-81, next to Sam the Beer Man. As a regular patron of Sam's I have often wondered about Margarita's but never bothered to give it a chance until tonight. What I found was a quaint little eatery with excellent service; the food was good, but not extraordinary.

Upon arriving at Margarita's we were greeted immediately and told we could sit anywhere we liked. After a quick scan of the small dining room, we opted for a booth and were quickly presented with menus and a basket of chips, and were instructed that we could pick any of their homemade salsas to go with the chips. There were three choices, a mild pico de gallo, a medium verde, and a hot salsa with a somewhat smoky flavor which I believe contained chipotle peppers. Naturally we opted to try all three. The pico de gallo was very good and extremely fresh, with a balance of tomato, onion, and lime. The verde was a little spicier but not too hot. It was good, but I preferred the other two. The hot sauce was my favorite of the three. Great level of spiciness with, like I said, a bit of a smoky sweetness to it. This was different from any salsa I am accustomed to, and I enjoyed it very much. So much so that I asked for another basket of chips after we voraciously polished off the first one, just so I could keep eating the salsa.

When it came time to order, I opted for carnitas, a marinaded, slow-roasted shredded pork dish that is a personal favorite of mine when it comes to Mexican cuisine. At Margarita's, it's served with lettuce, sour cream, guacamole, rice, and black beans with some flour tortillas on the side. I was enthusiastic about this dish. As it turned out, I found it to be alright, but not amazing. The pork was a hair on the bland side, less juicy and less seasoned relative to other carnitas dishes I've had in the past. That said, it was not bad at all, and I happily devoured every last bite. Megan ordered a burrito and had a similar reaction. She liked it well enough (well enough indeed to take the portion she couldn't finish home with us) but it didn't blow her away.

What did impress both of us most about Margarita's was the service. From the moment we walked into the restaurant until the minute we left, we felt very well taken care of. The waitress was truly exceptional. She was friendly without an ounce of artifice and offered quick service without hovering over us too much. We could tell she genuinely cared about whether we enjoyed the experience or not. Upon paying our bill, they even gave us some coupons to use for our next visit. I can say that the service we received tonight at Margarita's was easily among the best we've had at any area restaurant.

Obviously, we found Margarita's to be most impressive from a customer service standpoint. The food is definitely passable Mexican fare (the salsa being the highlight), and the atmosphere is low-key and mildly festive. I prefer the food at Los Tapatios for now, but the excellent service ensures that we'll be making a return trip to Margarita's at some point in the near future.

Grade: B

Margaritias Cantina on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Rossi's Pizza

Name: Rossi's Pizza
Location: 143 Harry L Dr., Johnson City, NY 13790
Phone: (607) 777-1313
Cuisine: Pizza
Price: Around $10 for a half sheet, $18 for a whole sheet pizza

Aside from spiedies, City Chicken, and Greek diners, another culinary delight that Binghamton is noted for is sheet pizza. Rectangular in shape and with thicker crust than standard New York style slices, sheet pizza seems to be most popular in a belt that includes Western and Central New York, Connecticut, and parts of Ohio. The phenomenon may well stretch much further than that, but those seem to be the places where the usual round pizza often takes a backseat to the rectangle. I know I had never heard of sheet pizza until I arrived at college in nearby Ithaca.

The most popular place for sheet pizza in the Southern Tier is Nirchi's, which I've already reviewed. Nirchi's pizza can be very good, but has a tendency to be a little inconsistent. Sometimes it's too greasy to be that enjoyable, sometimes it seems a little undercooked. When it's good, it's great. And the white pizza, with garlic instead of tomato sauce, can be really good for a change of pace. Sheet pizza is popular in part because one pizza can feed a lot of people for not a lot of money. For less than $20, you can feed 8-10 people with a Nirchi's sheet. Nirchi's popularity has resulted (whether directly or indirectly) in a good number of like-minded sheet pizza places sprouting up in the area. One such place is Rossi's, located on Harry L Drive in Johnson City.

For dinner Megan and I got a half-sheet (12 reasonably sized slices) with half sausage, half plain cheese. Upon ordering I was instructed the order would be ready in 20 minutes. Sure enough, when I arrived at Rossi's exactly 20 minutes later, it was ready to go. I should note that they also deliver. The restaurant itself is a nice, clean pizza parlor with a few tables for those who decide to eat there. When I arrived, nearly all the tables were taken, and for that matter, there weren't many available parking spots in the parking lot. I took this as a good sign. I paid $11 for the pizza and was on my merry way.

I thought this was a good looking pizza. Nice bubbling cheese, a thick, symmetric crust, and an even distribution of toppings. Sure enough, the taste matched the look. This pizza had a nice cheese-to-sauce ratio, a sweet, salty, somewhat doughy crust that I found reminiscent of Nirchi's but perhaps a little thicker, and a generous portion of sausage. The crust is really what drives this pizza, and all of this region's sheet pizza really. It's unique, and words don't really do it justice. This wasn't amazing pizza, but I found it to be on par with an average Nirchi's sheet and perhaps even a slight notch above. Megan liked it as well and said she'd definitely be up for having it again.

I have heard that Rossi's also makes a good sub, and seeing as we live in Johnson City, often pass through that section of town, and are in search of an awesome local sub shop, I'll definitely try out a sub sometime in the not too distant future and give a report on that. Until then, I find Rossi's to be an above-average addition to a busy pizza landscape in the Triple Cities, and would recommend it to anyone interested in trying a good, representative example of a Central NY staple.

Grade: B

Rossi's Pizza on Urbanspoon

Mario's Pizza

Name: Mario's Pizza
Location: 4700 Vestal Pkwy E Ste 36, Vestal, NY 13850
Phone: (607) 798-9444
Cuisine: Pizza/Italian
Price: $5-$10 per person

Mario's can be found in University Plaza on the Vestal Parkway, hiding out back behind Moghul and Tully's. If there was ever an ideal place for a pizza parlor, this is it. They've got a built in clientele of college students living within aroma-wafting range and seem to be pretty popular among the students. The restaurant itself is nice and big and new with flat-screen televisions gracing the walls. As area pizza places go, this is one of the better looking ones.

I have had Mario's a number of times over the years. It's close to the University, where I work, and we've ordered pizza from Mario's on several occasions. I have to admit, I have always found the pizza to be very average. There are a bunch of people who seem to swear by this stuff. My friend Tom doesn't like anything except for sashimi-grade raw fish and the snootiest of beers, and yet he considers Mario's his "go-to" pizza place. Surely there must be something I'm missing here. Yesterday, I decided to get down to business with a taste test.

I got to Mario's around 1:30 and ordered two slices, one pepperoni and one sausage (each $2.50ish per slice) and quickly commenced eating. I started with the pepperoni slice. Tasting notes as follows:

Bite #1: Hmmm, this crust is crunchy. Crunchier than I would like. For a NY slice, this doesn't fold very easily.

Bite #2: Sauce is standard tomato, a little on the sweet side. Cheese is pretty good and not too thick. Still not digging crust.

Bite #3: Pepperoni is somewhat funky tasting. This crust is thin yet has air bubbles all through it. No wonder it's as brittle as a saltine.

Bite #4: Cheese and sauce and even the pepperoni are fine. I just can't get into this crust.

Bite #5: How far is Grande's and can I make it there and back before my next worldly obligation?

Et cetera. You get the point. Not a bad slice of pizza but the crust was not to my liking. The crust was too airy and cracker-like, toppings were average at best. Meh.

On to the sausage. Now this one I liked quite a bit more. This was foldable and the crust definitely had more flavor. Cheese and sauce were the same as the first, not bad. Sausage was the rabbit turd variety. You know what I mean. The little dots of sausage instead of the bigger chunks. I usually don't prefer that style but it was pretty good, and they certainly don't skimp on the toppings. This was a better slice than the first for sure, but certainly no better than average.

At the end of the day, I'm left with the same opinion I had coming in, still wondering what people see in this place. There are dozens of pizza places in this town. Maybe a hundred. Maybe more. Some are very good. Some are unique. Some are both. Mario's is neither. I can see this place being an awesome hangout spot, and the za is probably pretty boss at 3:00 AM after you've successfully escaped State Street. (Yeah, I'm not going to let that one die anytime soon.) To this guy's taste buds, however, Mario's fails to register among the town's elite pizza parlors. Go to Grande's once and you'll never get Mario's again. Unless you're Tom. ;)

Grade: C

Mario's Pizza on Urbanspoon

Taj Restaurant

Name: Taj Restaurant
Location: 59 Main St., Binghamton, NY 13905
Phone: (607) 723-6454
Cuisine: Indian/American
Price: About $10 per person

Taj is located on Main St. on Binghamton's West Side, near Binghamton High School and not far from downtown. It represents the third and final installment in my tour of local Indian restaurants. The first I reviewed, Moghul, I found to have great ambiance and very good food, but regretted that they decided to stop their lunch buffet. My second Indian stop was at Curry's of India, which had virtually no ambiance but good food, and I thought their $6 lunch buffet represented great value. I thought the food at Curry's could benefit from more spice. I have been curious about Taj for awhile now, having read some very good things about it and I had heard they, like Curry's, had a lunch buffet that was pretty good. Today, I went to check it out.

I arrived at Taj and found it to have a somewhat rundown, mildly dirty atmosphere. Not exactly the most appetizing of places to eat, but as always, I come for the food first and foremost. After all, Curry's didn't exactly wow me with ambiance or pristine cleanliness, but I liked it well enough. What bugged me is that despite signage declaring that the "buffet (is) served every day," the buffet was not going on at this time. So that was a bummer. In lieu of the buffet I decided to do take out and began a thorough scan of the menu. And what a weird menu it is, with American cuisine like burgers and Greek favorites like gyros tossed in amongst the usual curry dishes that comprise the bulk of the menu.

At any rate, I think the owner mistook my perusal of the menu for being a novice to Indian cuisine and he was quick on the trigger to offer a suggestion. He recommended that I try the Chicken Biryani, and promised that I would love it. Sounded good to me, so I decided to give it a shot. A short 10-minute wait later, and my order was ready. The owner gave me three different sauces to try with the biryani: a yogurt sauce similar to tzatziki, a mildly spicy tomato-based sauce, and a spicy chili paste. He recommended I try the various sauces with the Biryani, in that order. I found his customer service to be good-natured and efficient, if perhaps a bit unintentionally patronizing. Before leaving I asked when the buffet would be going on again, and he replied that once the Binghamton University fall semester starts up, they'll probably start it up. So much for "every day."

$10 later, I headed home to give this Indian meal a try. As it turned out, I really did not care for it. The chicken in the dish was mostly fat and bones, with very few bites yielding any actual meat. What was there was not particularly tasty. That leaves the rice, which looked and tasted like it had been sitting around awhile. It had some good seasoning to it: I could pick out the flavors of cardamom, coriander, mint, and caraway. But it was all stuck together and dried out. The sauces were just OK. The yogurt sauce was very similar to Greek tzatziki (it very well may have been). The tomato sauce was my favorite of the three, and I ended up dumping it on the rice to give it some extra flavor. It had the subtle spiciness that I have grown to associate with Indian cuisine. The chili paste was OK, I guess, but I didn't think it was a very good match for the dish I ordered. To each his own, I reckon.

I do not recommend a trip to Taj. The restaurant has little atmosphere and borders on filthy. I did not care for the food, nor its preparation, a shame especially given that I have enjoyed practically every Indian meal I've ever had before this one. I also didn't think that it really represented good value, and I didn't appreciate the false advertising of a buffet when they did not offer one. I did think the customer service was good, but even that rubbed me the wrong way a little bit. Head the extra quarter mile over the bridge into downtown and hit up Curry's of India if you're looking for inexpensive Indian food, or if you have a few extra dollars head out the Vestal Parkway and try Moghul, home to one of the area's best restaurant atmospheres. It's perfectly possible that I caught Taj on a bad day, but I wouldn't expect a future visit to yield anything much better.

Grade: D

Taj Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Man Nam Korean Restaurant

Name: Man Nam Korean Restaurant
Location: 4010 Vestal Pkwy E, Vestal, NY 13850
Phone: (607) 770-0073
Cuisine: Korean/Sushi
Price: Around $10-$15 per person or more

Man Nam represents my first foray into Korean food, so take this review with a grain of salt. I don't know "bad" Korean food from "good" Korean food, nor can I speak to the authenticity of the dishes: I just know what tastes good to me. Keep that in mind for this one.

Man Nam is located on the Vestal Parkway at the former location of Port-O-Bagel, in the same building as KFC. It's a pretty good location since it's within short walking distance of the Binghamton University campus. The dining room is split into two portions. There are some smaller tables in the dining room to your right as you enter the restaurant, and a few larger tables straight ahead. It doesn't have what I would call great ambiance, but it's decent enough.

I first visited Man Nam about a year ago for dinner with a group of friends. On the recommendation of a friend, I ordered the Spicy Bulgogi. I found this beef dish to be just OK. It was a bit on the fatty, chewy side and something about the flavors seemed a little off to me. Granted, it was my first time in a Korean restaurant, so I had really no idea what it was supposed to taste like. I guess I liked the experience well enough, but it wasn't a place I'd have particularly missed if I never made it back.

Today, I decided to give Man Nam another chance, this time for lunch. I had heard about a lunch option they had called the Lunch Box Special which provided the opportunity to try a few different items for only $9. I went with this choice and opted to do take-out in lieu of eating there.

The Lunch Box I ordered consisted of miso soup, noodles, beef fried rice, teriyaki beef, various pickled vegetables (kimchi), and tempura veggies and shrimp. This was a huge amount of food, but it gave me the opportunity to try out a few different things and get a real sense of how I felt about Korean cooking.

For the most part, I thought the meal was very good. It started on a bit of a sour note with the miso soup, which I thought was bland and tasteless compared with similar (Japanese) soups I've had before. I elected not to eat the entire bowl, a rarity for me. The tempura vegetables and shrimp were tasty, if perhaps a bit too amorphous to the point where I couldn't tell what was an onion and what was a carrot. I think some things may have gotten fused in transit. I enjoyed the kimchi offerings, what I gather to be a staple of most Korean meals. The real winners were the fried rice, the cellophane noodles, and the teriyaki beef, all of which had nice flavor. In particular, the teriyaki beef was not at all fatty or tough like I had remembered the bulgogi. For only $9, I found the Lunch Box to represent solid value, given the amount of food it contained.

I am glad I gave Man Nam another chance. I enjoyed the food to the point where I can wholeheartedly recommend the Lunch Box to anyone interested in sampling Man Nam's offerings: just skip the soup. I am still not to the point where I can say that Korean cuisine is among my favorites, but I definitely have a deeper appreciation and fondness for it than I did a couple hours ago. As the only Korean restaurant in the Triple Cities, Man Nam is a place well worth seeking out.

Grade: B

Man NAM Korean Restaurant on Urbanspoon
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