time sure flies

Yesterday, the Featureless Saint and I celebrated our 12th wedding anniversary. Hard to believe. Twelve years -- and yet we are still so very young and well moisturized.

(Actually, we've been a couple longer if you consider the 3+ years we co-habitated. But, technically, this is our 12th year of legal living together.)

So far, there have only been two anniversaries we haven't celebrated. The first was the summer the Diva was born, mostly because I had just gotten off of Tower Four and three hours without crying was its own celebration. The second was last year. The Dude had just been born and the best gift we could give each other was looooong nap. Which is what we gave each other.

This year, we went to Jay's Place. We've been there before and it has always been pretty good but last night is was amazing. And I don't think it was just the occasion.

What helped, of course, was that Jay himself was behind the grill and working the Fry-o-later. My filet Oscar, which was topped with asparagus, crab and hollandaise, was perfectly cooked. The asparagus was bright green. The crab was sweet. The hollandaise seemed home-made, rather than a dry Cisco mix. I have also discovered my death row meal. It wasn't the filet itself but the perfectly cooked steak fries soaked in hollandaise and meat juice. Come to think of it, this may be what kills me.

Scott's batter-dipped fried halibut was perfect and about as big as my forearm. Both the waitress and I were certain that he couldn't finish it. Then he did. The baked potato was left untouched. But, come on, it's a baked potato.

It's even more amazing that he finished it given the starter, which was a crab au gratin -- crabmeat in a cheesy sauce over puff pastry, was snarfed by both of us in seconds. I did get dessert -- a chocolate mousse that tasted exactly like uncooked brownie batter, which is my favorite treat ever.

(There are two sorts of people in this world: those who prefer uncooked cookie dough and those who prefer uncooked brownie batter. Discuss.)

And so 12 years on, here we are, well-fed and content. Can one ask for more?

What is a mingo? And why is it blue?

It's always easier to discuss a place where you've had a mediocre-to-awful experience. There are just so many more ways of describing failure than success. While this may be a sad commentary on both the state of the English language and the culture, I lack the will to fully unpack What It All Means right now. I am now so hot and so sticky that my brain has vapor lock. Larger questions about life and all that rot will have to wait until fall.

So, my point -- and I did have one -- is that good things suck when you have to talk about them. And the food at Cooperstown's Blue Mingo Grill is very good, especially the lump crab cake appetizer and the filet with tender-but-not-mushy spinach and creamy red-skinned mashers. The Hub's baby back ribs with a fruity, spicy glaze were also hits, as was the Pie Goddess' (whose birthday we were celebrating) lobster, which I can't personally vouch for taste-wise since I am not really a lover of the lob. No matter how much melted butter you smear on it. The desserts -- cappuccino creme brulee, chocolate bread pudding and a key lime custard -- were also very, very good, even if the Hub was a little taken-aback by the bread pudding's texture, which was more crumby than bready. I thought it was delightful, personally. The only loser in the lot was the Lava Cake, which wasn't bad, really, but also wasn't good, if that makes any sense.

Also in the good column is the Blue Mingo's location and ambiance. The restaurant proper is on the edge of Lake Otsego and features a wide, wooden deck and more casual patio that encompass some fairly spectacular views. The lake breeze, fortunately, kept the temperature bearable. And, when the nights start cooling off again, the restaurant provides blankies for those who easily chill. Part of the food cost is also for the view. Which is fine by me, frankly, since both were worth the price tag.

What wasn't worth it, however, was the service. Granted, our waitress seemed to have gotten two larger parties and our four-top at the same time. And most of Cooperstown does have that lake resort vacation-y pace to it. No one seems to hurry there in the summer. I didn't expect to zip in and out -- lingering and chit-chat were also on the menu -- I also didn't expect to be there for over two hours.

And to let my inner food snob out, I also expect a server in a place like the Blue Mingo to be able to describe the food, especially since she felt compelled to describe every dish on the chalkboard menu in great, if inaccurate, detail before we could order. Our server, bless her heart, seemed like she'd never even tasted half of the things she was talking about, like "harissa" and "coulis," much less knew how to pronounce them. I'm not expecting the level of knowledge and service that one can get at a place like, say, Blackberry Farms,(where I once had the privilege to stay overnight for a Cooking Light profile that, sadly, never ran) but it did leave a bit to be desired. It's a picky nit, but when you're plunking down $200 on dinner for four, you expect a little more. I do, at least, and was left wanting.

I also, however, left deliriously full. My tummy was satisfied, even if my desire for a complete dining experience was not.

(An aside: the ever perky Rachael Ray visited Cooperstown and the Blue Mingo Grill for her $40 a Day series. Also on tap was Brooks' BBQ, which does a mean chicken, but hasn't quite got a consistent pork mojo. The episode in question will be reruning soon. Mark your calendars for June 28. If you are the sort who'd care, that is.)

because I can

One of the most irritating things about moving to a new town is finding great places to eat. Every place has at least one -- but it always takes forever to find it, especially if your local newspaper doesn't run reviews of local establishments. Two years (ish) ago, we moved to Oneonta, NY, which is near Cooperstown, which is where the Baseball Hall of Fame is. Oneonta, home to both a SUNY campus and Hartwick college, is a happening little place in its own right and is full of neat little shops, a nifty downtown, a thriving Farmer's Market and walkable neighborhoods. Also here is, for what it's worth, the Soccer Hall of Fame. No, I've not been.

We do have a local newspaper. (Disclaimer: I worked for them last summer and currently write for them.) Like all papers, it has things that work well and things that do not. Given how wee (in terms of numbers, not spirit) the editorial staff is, it is amazing that it is as good as it is. But one thing it doesn't have is restaurant reviews. I did pitch a column dedicated to the same when we first moved here. It was shot down for a variety of reasons, all of which are very sound. The most resounding of which is that restaurant reviews tend to piss off advertisers, which I know firsthand from my days at the Pulse. Any review, it seemed, no matter how stunning, always caused the restaurant in question to pull its ads. And if we reviewed a non-advertising place, they always vowed to never, ever advertise with us. While it would be nice to say that that sort of thing doesn't play into editorial decisions, it does. Welcome to the world.

(An aside: a German restaurant in Knoxville pulled its ads because, in an otherwise gleamingly positive review, I called the food "beige." I did not assign a value judgment to the word beige, nor imply that beige is in anyway less desirable, just that German food, generally, is beige. People are weird.)

I have, however, been bemoaning the lack of solid info about local eateries that a newcomer could make decisions from. And it dawned on me in the shower this morning -- why not just do it myself? After all, the blog has no advertisers, no overhead, no payroll and no mercy. It also has virtually no readers, so the repercussions will be few. If nothing else, it will give me something to look at in my dotage, to remind myself that I used to do things that didn't involve knitting toilet paper roll covers.

And if I can save one person from a bad meal or steer them to a better one, then my work here will be done. Which doesn't mean I'll shut up, of course, just that I'll be finally able to sleep the blissful sleep of the righteous.

Today's entry: Renee's Crossing. (In theory, I've set up a category called "Oneonta-area eats". If you click on the link at the bottom of the post, you should be able to call all of these reviews up. We'll see how this works in practice.)

The best thing that Renee's Crossing has going for it is its location. The restaurant itself is in an old train dining car that is now set up on a bluff overlooking the still-functional freight tracks. The car is a quant throwback, complete with luxuriously upholstered seats and old-fashioned luggage on the racks. During the meal, we (the Hub and I, with our equally foodie friends, the Grillmaster and the Pie Goddess) got to watch a train thread its way through the valley, which is just greening up. Spring comes late, here.

Sad to say, however, that the ambience (and the company, natch) were the best part of the meal. The service was dreadful. While our waitress was well-intentioned and eager to please, she didn't really seem to know what she was doing. Little things -- like refilling water glasses and clearing empty plates -- added up. She was cheerful, certainly, and would do anything (well, not anything) that you asked of her. But you always had to ask for crazy stuff like butter and the check.

But inexperienced service wouldn't be a dealbreaker if the food were good. It wasn't. It wasn't awful, certainly, but at $14-$20 per entree, my expectations were higher than, say, what they would be at Applebee's. Frankly, Applebee's is much, much tastier. My crab cakes were dry and bland, and no amount of remoulade or lemon could bring out much flavor. The Hub's seafood platter, while covered with various fruits of the sea, was unevenly cooked and not seasoned much at all. The Pie Goddess' shrimp scampi lacked garlic and the twice-baked potato required a good tablespoon of added butter to make it edible. The Grillmaster's steak, however, was cooked to perfection and my sweet bourbon mashed potatoes [which should be more properly called "bourbon mashed sweet potatoes," fyi] were lovely.

Desserts -- a chocolate mousse concoction and apple pie a la mode -- were clearly made off premises a couple of days earlier and the pie, at least, tasted of refrigerator. We would have been much better served to drive to the nearby Pie in the Sky (which I unhesitatingly recommend for ice cream) for a scoop or two of their fresh, homemade treats. Live, learn.

Part of me wonders if the whole experience was so very eh because it was a Wednesday evening and the B-team was working. But that same part of me gets a little pissed at the suggestion. We were still paying Saturday prices and should expect Saturday food and service, yes?

So the question that should be answered at the end of any restaurant review: Will we go back. In a word, no. Not even on a weekend. Not even in a box. Not even with a fox. It wasn't bad, really, just not worth the money and time.

Questions? Suggestions? Please comment...