The Place: Mad Moose House of Barbecue & Wood-Fired Pizza, Henry Street, Binghamton (across the street from the Bus Station; mailing address is Chenango Street, but actual location’s on Henry)
The Rundown: Yesterday marked the kickoff of Binghamton Restaurant Week, a bi-annual tradition for the past five years. For 10 days in the spring and again in the fall, a collection of local restaurants offers a $10 prix fixe three-course menu for lunch, and a $20 one for dinner. Part of the proceeds are donated to charity, and it’s become a much-hyped and anticipated event among the local foodies.
Last night, some friends and I made our inaugural Restaurant Week stop at Mad Moose House of Barbecue, formerly Mad Moose Saloon. Originally a bar, they’ve since revamped their concept into a casual barbecue joint, proclaiming that they’re the “top family barbecue in Upstate New York” (a bold claim indeed, as Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Syracuse was named the best barbecue in the country by Good Morning America back in 2009).
With a statement like that, one would hope that the food would stand up to it, so I entered Mad Moose with high hopes.
The decor was about what you’d expect; lots of wood and dead animals. The shades on the accent lights were all cobalt blue, which was a fun and unexpected twist. We were seated near the entrance, and given three menus: a dinner menu, their wood-fired pizza menu (a specialty of theirs), and the Restaurant Week menu. We gave a cursory look over the other two menus before deciding to order off the Restaurant Week one. Drinks were ordered first; I got an Angry Orchard cider (as a huge hard cider fan, I’m truly loving the fact that it’s starting to be sold on tap around the area), my friend Jason opted for a root beer, and my friend Erin got a Shark Attack.
The Shark Attack is a shot; a cursory look around the internet will yield at least a dozen different recipes for the drink, none of which seemed to be what was served here. My guess is that the blue comes from blue curaçao, but I can’t speak to the other ingredients in the glass. The shark itself, though, appears to be filled with grenadine, and to prepare the shot, you squeeze the grenadine out of the shark and into the glass, like so.
We actually spent an impressive amount of time trying to decipher exactly what was in Jason’s root beer; it didn’t appear to be the standard fountain fare. We detected hints of ginger, and Jason thought it tasted like root beer and birch beer combined. We figured it was probably a craft root beer, likely sweetened with real sugar as opposed to HFCS.
All of our drinks, except the shot, were served in glasses that could only be described as “small mason jars with handles”. I for one do not understand the apparent popularity of bars serving drinks out of mason jars. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen it done, and I don’t suspect it’ll be the last. I know it’s supposed to evoke the idea of drinking moonshine, but I don’t understand why that’s a desirable thing. It feels very hipster-ish, like they’re trying too hard to be something they’re not.
Our appetizers came out fairly quickly. I opted for the Chili Bison, while the rest of our party got the Corn Fritters. General consensus were that the Corn Fritters were about what you’d expect; fried nuggets of creamed corn. The chipotle sour cream served with them didn’t appear to have a lot of flavor to it, but it apparently had just enough heat to turn off my friend Mitchell, who is not a fan of spicy food.
The chili, however, was somewhat of a disappointment. Though there was a nice hit of spice on the back end, it didn’t taste remarkably different from canned chili. I tried adding my compatriots’ leftover chipotle sour cream to it, and that helped a little (while raising the overall spice level of the dish), but it didn’t help enough for me to really enjoy it. This, unfortunately, would become an overarching theme of the rest of our meal–dishes that were okay, but needed just a little bit more to really elevate them.
Entrees came out next. Erin and I got the Porto Bella Gorgonzola Pasta [sic], Mitchell opted for the Rango’s Mix, and Jason decided to try Big Tex, a pulled pork dish.
The pasta was not a bad dish by any means; I quite enjoyed it. Erin wasn’t quite as thrilled, but our complaint was about the same–the sauce was way too heavy. It probably would have been better if crumbles of Gorgonzola were used, instead of being the main component in an alfredo. As it was, the dish really needed something to cut the richness of the sauce. The ricciutelli was a good choice of pasta, though–it held the sauce well, and is a novel enough shape to make the dish look special.
Mitchell really enjoyed his Rango’s Mix, a mixed greens salad topped with a grilled chicken breast and tortilla strips. It looked like apples and hunks of cheese were in there, as well. The salad looked vibrant, which typically denotes freshness. Though it looked good, I can’t speak as to the flavor, since I didn’t try any and Mitchell didn’t describe it much.
Big Tex, on the other hand, was all talk and no action. A surprisingly small portion given its name (though probably, as Erin pointed out, a correctly-sized one), it was also less than thrilling flavor-wise. Jason thought that the house-made barbecue sauce had too much tomato in it and not enough spice, and was overall about perfectly average for pulled pork. What should have been the real standout at a barbecue joint ended up being the biggest clunker.
Jason’s side, however, the Georgia Peach Baked Beans, were fantastic. Sweet but not overly so, with an undercurrent of smoky molasses, they were the real star of the dish and embodied the main theme of the menu–a classic barbecue staple with an unexpected twist. Out of all of the dishes we had tried, this was the only one to truly deliver on that concept. While it proves that the Mad Moose does indeed have what it takes to be a great restaurant, it also shows just how far they have to go to get there.
While I did snap pictures of the desserts, they seem to have disappeared from my phone completely, so I unfortunately can’t share them here. Three of us opted for the Chipotle Caramel Brownie, while Mitchell got Mint Chocolate-Chip ice cream. Mitchell’s ice cream was, like Big Tex, surprisingly undersized (the serving fit in a 2 oz. portion cup), while the brownies were a typical size. Hoping for a lovely Mexican-style spicy-sweet brownie, I was again disappointed. Although the brownies appeared to have been made in-house, they were, again, perfectly typical. The caramel sauce was supposed to house the chipotle, but not a one of us could really pick out the flavor of it. All of the sweetness completely drowned out any hint of the spice present in the sauce. The most we were able to detect was a very faint feeling of spice on our tongues, and only when we ate the caramel alone. Mitchell, however, said his ice cream was rather good. I think they may make some of their ice cream in-house, though I am not certain.
The Verdict: I left the Mad Moose full, but still wanting something more. I would love to see a great barbecue joint thrive in Binghamton, but based on what I had, it seems like the Mad Moose has a ways to go to get there. I will probably make a return visit to try the Wood-Fired Pizza, and their regular menu may have better dishes on it, but their Restaurant Week dishes really aren’t worth it. Which is a real shame, given that Restaurant Week is one of the best opportunities for the participating restaurants to grab new patrons.