If you have ever lived near a city with at least a dozen restaurants chances are you have seen promotions for a Restaurant Week. These are popular events that downtown alliances all across the country host to encourage locals and visitors to enjoy a meal out on the town. It usually takes the form of special Prixe Fixe menus featuring a multi-course meal designed with a moderate budget in mind, but the tab still ends up between $30 and $40 per person. Ithaca used to host such an event, but both our restaurants and the Downtown Ithaca Alliance – the organizer – began to find that participation was dwindling. So in 2015 they took the basic concept of an event designed to spotlight local restaurants and encourage a meal out when folks might otherwise be inclined to stay in and transformed it into…
Bite of Ithaca: 6 Days and Nights of Culinary Adventure and Exploration! During the last week of June Bite of Ithaca returned for its third year of what the Ithaca Journal called “food exploration at its finest”! Each of the 23 participating restaurants created a special menu of 1 – 6 “bites” which were offered for $5.00 each. Some were smaller portions of regular menu items, some were “sips”, and others were created especially for Bite of Ithaca! In this way patrons could try out a new restaurant or stop in for a quick bite without the pressure (and price tag) or a full meal.
Since we here at Ithaca is Foodies Culinary Tours are all about exploring new cuisine we knew we had to join in on the fun. So from June 26 through July 1st we took ourselves from restaurant to restaurant, stopping in to try a bite (or two or three) before moving on to our next spot – sort of a self-guided food crawl! Keep reading for our Top 5 Bites from Bite of Ithaca!
5: Corn Fritters from Luna Inspired Street Food
Street food is certainly a hot culinary topic right now. What used to be considered cheap and uninventive fare is now being heralded as flavorful food at a reasonable price – and rightfully so! Street vendors, carts, and trucks from have been serving up ready-to-eat food for centuries, and different regions are often known for their specific street style cuisine. Luna Inspired Street Food takes dishes from across the globe and serves them in a casual atmosphere at each of their three locations.
For Bite of Ithaca they offered up three $5 options from their already reasonably-priced menu, and Seth was so enthusiastic about the Mexican Corn Fritters that snagged a spot on our Top 5.
Fritters are a classic street food item which are rather underrated, but we love their versatility and easy preparation. What makes them so versatile? Well, a fritter is essentially an egg and flour batter which is fried in small balls. Before frying, however, the ingredient du jour is mixed in: vegetables, fruit, seafood, and meat are all fair game! The result is a crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside fritter!
Now, the ingredient that is mixed into the batter can be in large chunks or it can be ground. In this case, Luna added whole corn kernels and chunks of sweet pepper to a seasoned breading and served the whole dish with chipotle orange aioli! We loved that these fritters were bite-sized (so we didn’t need a fork!) and the batter was loose and light so they weren’t too dense. Luna serves up full size orders of these babies for $8.29 any day of the week.
4: Maryland Crab Wontons from Bandwagon Brewpub
Sometimes the most popular foods are the simplest foods. Wontons are a type of dumpling found in Chinese cuisine which consist of a flour “wrapper” with a meat filling. The wrapper can be folded a few different ways to create different shapes, and wontons can be boiled, steamed, deep-fried, or pan fried!
While it stands to reason that each region of China would have its own variation, other countries also feature their own unique interpretations. One such example in American Chinese cuisine are wontons filled with crab and cream cheese, fried, and served with soy sauce. (They are also known as Crab Rangoon.) I was so enamored by Bandwagon’s version that while walking between restaurants that same night I overheard someone discussing the wontons as a possible next Bite and I just had to stop and recommend them.
What we really loved about these crab wontons was that the wrapper was thin, hot, and crispy, but not hard and thick as sometimes happens when wontons are fried. The filling was perfectly creamy and the soy sauce based dipping sauce complemented all the flavors well. Now unfortunately the crab wontons aren’t on the regular menu, but Bandwagon does offer potato and cheddar stuffed wontons with a chive sour cream filling for $8.45. The flavor profile will clearly be quite different but we’re still interested to come back and give them a taste!
3: Prig Pow Hoi from Mia Tapas Bar & Restaurant
Our visit to Mia was very exciting because two of their three Bites featured seafood, which we both love. While enjoying our Bites with friends we ended up chatting about the prawns and scallops on our plates.
Prawns are a small crustacean very similar to – but slightly larger than – shrimp. They are much more popular in the U.K., while the U.S. favors the shrimp instead.
Diver scallops are not a specific variety of scallop (as I had initially thought) but rather a descriptor referring to the way in which the scallops have been harvested. Scallops are typically harvested by dredging the bottom of the ocean using a large grate; the haul is then brought to the deck of the fishing boat and the scallops are shucked right away, either into cold water so they keep longer (but which diminishes the flavor and toughens the meat) or into a container without water so the flavor is preserved (but which means they have a shorter shelf-life. These are Wet and Dry scallops, respectively. Diver scallops, however, are harvested by hand by divers. As you may imagine, this process is much less harmful for the environment but also much more time consuming. The result are delicious, sustainable, (and more expensive) scallops.
Mia’s Prig Pow Hoi featured Diver scallops and prawns in a roasted chili sauce with fresh Thai basil as a garnish. The sauce was very flavorful, slightly sweet, and not too spicy, which complemented the seafood well. Once the scallops and prawns were gone we made sure to scoop up every last bit of sauce – it was too good to leave behind! Normally this dish is prepared with just scallops, but when Mia’s scaled the appetizer down for Bite of Ithaca they substituted some prawns to keep it at the right price point – since Diver scallops are so pricy. With that being said, we enjoyed both! Prig Pow Hoi can be found on the Tapas menu for $12.
2: Smoked Faroe Island Salmon Arancini from Coltivare
Traditional Sicilian arancini are made by forming risotto into a ball with mozarella cheese at the center. (The name “arancini” means “little oranges”, a clear reference to their size and shape!) The balls are then dipped in flour, egg, and breadcrumbs, and then deep fried. Of course, as we’re beginning to notice, foods that include a filling are constantly being re-imagined with different ingredients cooked inside – a common Arancini interpretation is adding peas and tomato sauce to the mozzarella.
For Bite of Ithaca Coltivare took their popular Faroe Island Salmon (one of their consistent best sellers) and tucked it inside the arancini, which was then served with ramp pesto and topped with crackling mushrooms! Risotto has a wonderful creamy consistency which is an excellent contrast to the deep fried breading, and both flavors were mild enough to allow the salmon to shine through.
The other element worth noting was the ramp pesto which was a clever use of a seasonal ingredient. Ramps are a species of wild onion (also known as ramsons or wild leeks) which grow across eastern North America and are harvested during the spring. This season we noticed a number of restaurants incorporating ramps into their menus from ramp ravioli to ramp compound butter. Pesto is most commonly made with basil, but the substitution of ramps gave the pesto an earthy flavor; the pesto was a nice sauce into which dip our arancini.
Unfortunately Coltivare devised this dish just for Bite of Ithaca, but we’re hoping that they’ll come around and put a variation of it on their regular menu sooner or later!
1: Bacon Wrapped Medjool Dates from The Rook
Now to select some of the Bites on this list we waited until the week was over and then compared notes on our tastings. But the moment that we bite into The Rook’s stuffed dates we knew immediately that they would make the cut.
Dates are the fruit of the date palm and have been a staple food in the Middle East for thousands of years. They have a sweet, rich flavor and a grainy yet juicy texture which complements meat, cheese, and nuts quite well. Medjool dates are considered to be the ‘king of dates’ and are known for their honey-like sweetness.
The Rook stuffed their Medjool dates with Chevre and Marcona Almonds, then wrapped them in bacon. Chevre refers to french cheese made from goat’s milk which has a stronger flavor and a creamier texture than cheese made from cow’s milk. Marcona Almonds are a gourmet almond which are known for their sweet taste and soft consistency. And bacon, well, I’m sure we’ve all heard someone swear that bacon goes with everything.
The combination of all these elements resulted in an exciting flavor profile: each bite included sweet dates, smokey bacon, and the simultaneous crunch of almonds and creaminess of chevre. The bite was a little overpriced, so we upgraded to the regular appetizer which features 3 dates for $6.00. We’re glad to know this is a regular menu item because we will most certainly be back for another round!
By the end of the week, after several evenings of bites and sips, we had begun to recognize some of the same faces out and about to explore Bite of Ithaca. It became such fun to compare notes, and we brought along friends on a few occasions – because food is always better with company. Fortunately, these establishments serve delicious dishes year round any many have extensive appetizer menus, so you can curate your own Bite of Ithaca sampler any day of the week!