New Year, New Traditions

Alex & Ika Cooperstown, NY 1 January 2011
eat: White Bean Soup, Clams & Chorizo, Hanger Steak, Rack of Lamb, Fried Fingerlings, Chocolate Chocolate Port Thing, BST, Sweet Potato Fries
sip: Albariño and Sangiovese (dinner) and Bloody Marys/Mimosas (brunch)

I've always lived in big cities that brim with more dining options than my belly can withstand. Even if I crammed in five meals a day, I wouldn't even put a dent in my extensive "Where I Want To Eat" lists, especially since new spots open daily and old restaurants are revealed through word of mouth. Consequently, it's rare that I return to a place often, even though I'd love to work my way through a menu, revisit favorite dishes, and taste a chef's wizardry in multiple forms. However, last weekend, on a jaunt to Cooperstown over New Year's weekend, I unexpectedly got my wish. My date, and fellow gourmand, Erik, had planned dinner at Alex & Ika's, a restaurant touted throughout the Finger Lakes Region. After a stellar meal of delicious, unpretentious dishes, we awoke the next morning searching for brunch. Since it was off-season, many places were closed, so we wavered between trying a questionable cafe or returning to Alex & Ika's. Luckily, we chose the latter and through two back-to-back meals, we got to truly experience this local gem's charm.

Thanks to its small-town location, Alex & Ika's has a laid-back, comfortable vibe. Inside, the restaurant feels like home; more a living room, than a dining room, the space features an old-fashioned wood stove, a wall of mismatched mirrors, photos, tchotchkes, and Christmas lights behind the bar. Familiar, classic rock tunes hum in the background. The menu offers a range of choices, whether you're in the mood for a simple burger or Star Anise Duck. After whetting our whistle at the quirky, bowling alley lane bar--a dirty martini for me and Lagavulin neat for Eric--we sit down for dinner.

The soup du jour is so jam-packed with ingredients that we are worried it might fall prey to the "too much of a good thing" cliche that can ruin a dish. However, the White Bean, Roast Garlic, Mushrooms, Bacon AND Pesto all harmonize in a tasty soup. It is reminiscent of chowder, both in it's creaminess and chunky quality. Plus, the mushrooms are as tender as clams or scallops.

Baby Clams & Spanish Chorizo That winning--and wholly un-kosher--pairing of seafood and pork is high on my favorite food couplings. Though teeny in size, these briny clams and cubes of salty pork pack a big wallop of flavor. Be sure to ask for extra bread to sop up the addictive butter, chardonnay, thyme and rosemary broth.

Hanger Steak Garlic Braised Crimini Mushrooms The steak arrives picture-perfect, medium-rare with mushrooms moist from red wine. The tarragon mustard cream is an original, tangy accompaniment; how refreshing to see tarragon used in a non-chicken setting. The Fried Fingerling Potatoes are the ne plus ultra of potatoes. I hate to admit that I agree with the overly-perky Rachel Ray, who has touted them as some of the best frites she's ever had. They are boiled, smashed, then fried, maintaining their potato shape while keeping the crispyness of a good fry. The dipping sauce, Chipotle Aioli, is equally good with the steak.

A gorgeous Char Grilled Rack of Lamb appears with the ribs crossed coquettishly atop a medley of delicious sides. Tomatoes, sweet from slow-roasting, are a welcome reminder of the bounty of summer. In addition, there are succulent artichoke hearts and creamy saffron porcini risotto. If that's not enough, a drizzle of white truffle oil completes the decadent dish.

Chocolate Chocolate Port Thing Is it a cake? Is it a sponge? The thing in question is an intensely chocolate cake; each nook and cranny has been impregnated with port, producing a cake so moist it would leave a wet spot in it’s wake. A pool of bourbon crème anglaise is a creamy bath for the ebony cake.

The next morning our dinner waitress welcomes us back. Since only a dozen hours had passed between our evening departure and noon arrival, it almost felt like we were old friends of the waitstaff and could have slept over on one of the banquettes. Sadly, they don’t do brunch at Alex & Ika’s, so I opt for the next best thing, a sandwich with brunch’s Very Important Meat - bacon. The BST--apple wood smoked bacon, sautéed spinach, roast tomato, and honey mustard on ciabatta - is quite possibly the best BLT I’ve ever had. Why? First - there is an insane amount of bacon ensuring each bite is porkilicious. Next, those sugary, roast tomatoes from last night's lamb are back again. Instead of the usual mayo --which I loathe -- a honey mustard adds the requisite moisture BLT’s require, but with an added tangy sweetness . Lastly, while a slice of white toast would disintegrate with all these ingredients, a hefty, doughy ciabatta bread holds it all in.

My stellar hangar steak makes a return appearance in Erik’s steak sandwich. Served with spinach, shallots, and walnut basil pesto on fresh ciabatta bread, it’s a meaty marvel. The accompanying sweet potato fries are also superlative - that’s two for two on tasty tubers. Again, the skins are crispy and caramelized while the inside is fluffy soft.
While it is technically lunch, one of brunches central ingredients, cocktails, are thankfully available. Erik’s mimosa has a mere hint of OJ rather than the usual half juice/half bubbly ratio and my Bloody Mary hit’s the spot, especially with a briny treat of a caperberry garnish.

While I'm not normally one to make New Year's Resolutions, the rewarding repeat performance at Alex & Ika's has definitely inspired me to break my dining mold. After all, eating out isn't just about trying the next new thing or checking off lists, but about building community, supporting local restaurants, and reproducing the delight of a familiar, home-cooked meal.