Review: Number 5

The Place: Number 5 Restaurant, 33 S. Washington Street, Binghamton

The Rundown: Ah, Binghamton Restaurant Week…one of the perks of being a Bingo foodie! There’d been a bit of a twist with the dinner menus this time around, however. Though it used to be that all dinner participants had their menu price set at $20, they’ve softened that restriction. There are now three different tiered prices, depending on how upscale the establishment is: $25 for top-tier (Remlik’s, Tranquil, et al), $20 for mid-tier (Burger Mondays, Lost Dog, et al) and $16.50 for lower-tier (Gallagher’s). I imagine the skyrocketing food costs over the past year have something to do with this, though I’ve noticed that especially with the high-end restaurants, there’s also been a lot of other restrictions that the establishments are placing on the menus themselves. None of the restaurants have to participate (Mad Moose was absent from the list this time around, though I imagine it was purely a financial decision and this had little to do with it), and it makes me sad to see that people are pulling shenanigans that are hurting the restaurants and, by proxy, the event.

Like last time, I kicked off this past Restaurant Week at dinner with friends. My pals April, Will, and Kenny (formerly known as the GastronAmigos) went with me to Number 5, a local landmark and one of the oldest and most well-known fine dining establishments in the area.

Though I’ve lived in the Binghamton area all my life, I’d never gotten a chance to go to Number 5. For whatever reason, no one I knew that had been there had liked the place. Every time I’d put it up as an option, it’d get dismissed. Despite this, I’d still always wanted to go, largely because I began to suspect that it was the prices that were off-putting, and not the food.

If there’s one thing I know about fine dining, it’s that it isn’t cheap, and Number 5 is no exception to the rule. Fortunately, one of the best things about Restaurant Week is that even someone on a budget can get a chance to enjoy a meal that’d normally be far out of their price range.

Another thing about fine dining, however, is that high-end restaurants tend to lack transparency. Recipes are closely guarded, and those who inquire as to the ingredients are treated with scorn and derision. Not only that, those with food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances are also treated with derision, in many cases outright accused of lying. While it is true that some unscrupulous diners will, in fact, say that they’re allergic to an ingredient they simply do not like, it is always better to play it safe instead of second-guessing the customer. The incidence of conditions such as celiac disease and food allergies in general have seen a rapid increase over the past decade, and while the food industry as a whole has taken steps to ensure diners are able to enjoy a meal without worry, high-end restaurants tend to be stubborn holdouts.

The inclusion of someone with severe food allergies in our party provided us with another test for Number 5–how would they respond to her questions and needs? Would they be accommodating, or would they stonewall?

Number 5’s Restaurant Week menu was full of dishes not on the regular menu, excepting one or two items.  All of us opted to order off of the Restaurant Week menu; Will chose the French Onion Soup and Peppered Sushi-Grade Tuna; Kenny also chose the French Onion Soup as a starter, but opted for the Chicken Piccata entree; April went with the Watermelon Salad and Braised Short Ribs; and I chose the Coquilles St. Jacques and Bacon-Wrapped Salmon. All of us except for April went with the Pumpkin Bread Pudding for dessert; she chose the Root Beer Float, as that was probably the safest option for her. Each entree also came with a choice of side; all of us went for the Redskin Smashed Potatoes.

We were given a small loaf of bread to split, and two types of whipped butter–plain, or honey & bleu cheese. The bread (which we were told later was a Sourdough Rye from local bakery Felix Roma) was served warm, as was the plate that the butter was on. The bread was good, but very crusty and a bit of a pain to cut. The honey & bleu cheese butter, though also delicious, was flavored a bit unevenly. I don’t think any of us were able to find a piece of bleu cheese until the third or fourth piece of bread.

The above photo should also clue you in that the lighting here is very, very dim. I stopped trying to take pictures past the appetizers because there was no way to do so without drawing a lot of attention to myself. The area in which we were seated was also very, very noisy–it was hard to hear yourself over the other patrons talking. All of us were surprised that there wasn’t more sound dampening given the carpeted floor and the heavy drapes on the walls.

The French Onion Soup is a specialty at Number 5, and Will and Kenny both enjoyed it immensely. Kenny, however, wished that the onions were cut a bit smaller, as he got a few very large petals in his bowl.

April liked the Watermelon Salad, but had an issue with the texture of it. She felt that the texture of the watermelon and the cheese were too similar, and that it prevented the two ingredients from working harmoniously together. Either a softer cheese (like feta) or a more ripe watermelon would bring the salad back into balance. She also felt that the salad was a bit too salty. Other than that, however, she felt that the flavors worked well together, for the most part.

I also liked my Coquilles St. Jacques, but the scallops were cooked a bit unevenly. Some were cooked to perfection, others were slightly overdone, though not so much that they were inedible. In addition, a couple of the scallops were still a bit gritty, and needed to have been rinsed better before cooking. The flavors in the dish were very good, however, and I thought that the creaminess of the cheese and the sherry worked well together.

While waiting for the entrees, Will (who I believe was the only one in our party who’d been there before) told us a little bit about how Number 5 handles the pacing of the dishes. Apparently, all personnel, front and back of the house alike, are trained to get the dishes out on a specific timetable over the course of an hour-and-a-half or so (rather than the standard hour that most other restaurants seem to follow). This is supposedly so that the diner has ample time to enjoy their meal, but it seems like it would also have the added effect of forcing the servers themselves to slow down so that they focus on giving the best possible service, rather than flipping tables as quickly as possible so they can get more tips through sheer volume. It’d also prevent logjams in the kitchen by making sure the line has enough time to get the dishes out, especially if something causes them to get “in the weeds” (ie; forces production to not keep up with demand, so that the kitchen gets backlogged).

…Yeah, I don’t work in the industry or anything. 😉

Anyway, on with the review!

April’s Short Ribs were probably the largest portion out of all of our dishes. The accompanying Truffle-Mushroom Jus had a sweet undercurrent to it, which we speculated might have been due to the addition of clarified butter. April was pleased with her entree, but was even more pleased that she ended up getting a double order of the Redskin Smashed Potatoes due to her choice (one was a part of the entree; the other was her side choice). Everyone who ordered the potatoes (in other words, all of us) liked them quite a bit, though I’m fairly sure I added more than a touch of butter and pepper to mine (I season my potatoes like nobody’s business, so this is an individual quirk of mine and not any fault of Number 5’s).

Speaking of pepper, Will’s Sushi-Grade Tuna was loaded with it. He felt that the pepper crust was far too overpowering, and obscured the natural saltiness of the tuna. It was, however, cooked exactly to his specifications, which he appreciated.

While, like Will’s entree, my Bacon-Wrapped Salmon was cooked perfectly (due in no small part to the outer layer of bacon sealing in the juices), I felt that it really needed a bit more seasoning, either in the form of cracked-pepper crusted bacon strips, or added to the filet before it was wrapped at all. I did enjoy my dish, but while I do indeed love me some scallops, I felt they were an unnecessary addition here. However, I would have liked more of the Peach Gastrique as an accent. I felt that what little I did get as plate decoration really matched well with the flavor of the entree, and I was a little disappointed when I ran out.

Kenny also seemed to enjoy his Chicken Piccata. Though he noted that the lemon flavor of the sauce was rather tart, he was able to taste all of the dish’s ingredients, and the chicken itself was perfectly tender.

Our dessert, the Pumpkin Bread Pudding, unfortunately ended up being a bit of a letdown. While those of us who had it thought that the flavors were somewhat uneven, that wasn’t the biggest issue that the dish had. It was rather on the dry side, and badly needed something like crème fraîche or ice cream as an accent or counterpoint.

April’s Root Beer Float, on the other hand, seemed to be just about perfect. Served in a goblet, it was just the right size for her. Though she was convinced that they had used a special craft root beer to make it, we found out from the server that it was simply Barq’s, which I think they have on tap.

The Verdict: It’s clear that the staff at Number 5, both in the kitchen and the front of the house, are well-trained. The service is excellent, they responded well to all of our special requests, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve been to a place where all of the meat dishes were cooked absolutely perfectly. Seasoning seems to be a bit of a sticky wicket for the kitchen, however, so be aware. Fine dining is as much about the experience as it is the food, though, and on that note, it’s easy to see why Number 5 is well-regarded in that aspect. They’re obviously not an “everyday” kind of restaurant, but you should try to get out there at least once if you’re in the area.

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