ITHACA, NY -- As the cold Ithaca winter weather settles in, the questions I get from Times readers have morphed from “What’s your favorite Ithaca restaurant?” (which for professional reasons I deflect), to “When you want a good bowl of soup, where do you go?” This I answer without hesitation: “Red’s Place.” Red’s changes their offerings frequently and knows how to combine both common and unusual ingredients in perfect proportions.
During lunch several days after Thanksgiving, I ordered their then current offering, Creamy Chicken, Eggplant, and Parmesan Soup. It was amazing, with just the right amounts of veggies, spices, and dairy products. Without letting him know I was reviewing, I asked the chef if he would share with me the ingredients in this recipe and this is what I learned: chicken, eggplant, onions, tomatoes, spinach, parmesan stock, parmesan cheese, heavy cream, garlic, flour, oil, brown sugar, fresh oregano, fresh basil, salt and pepper. I’m impressed that the chefs here take so much time and make such an effort, just on the soup.
Soups are sold à la carte for $3.50 and are included as a “side” with any entrée. When I’ve ordered soups made with veggies, it’s often difficult to find the broth until you’ve finished chewing generous portions of beans, corn, squash, etc. Often, a bowl of their soup could serve as a complete light meal.
Although Red’s offers casual, comfort-type fare like burgers, sandwiches and salads, it has a unique feel about it. The menu items themselves have cutesy names like “steak your claim,” “pb & jealousy,” “please romaine calm,” “clam down,” and “curry up.” Eating out should be fun and these menu touches, which could appear corny, don’t, and actually start the experience at Red’s on a light note.
Among their entrées, they serve a variety of burgers and full-fledged meals. The Aurora Street Burger ($13.25) is an interesting version of a bacon cheeseburger with ancho-citrus flavored bacon, cheddar cheese, tomato, arugula, and a roasted garlic aioli. It’s always delivered to the table cooked as ordered on a toasted bun.
Another entrée I’ve enjoyed is Farm to Ciabatta, a vegetarian treat made with zucchini, eggplant, red pepper, red onion, fennel, fontina and arugula, in a roasted tomato aioli.
An entrée that seems to have earned some longevity on the menu is “Mushroom Lovers Melt” with five different varieties of mushrooms, herbed goat cheese, caramelized onions, and provolone on an Ithaca Bakery roll. The different textures and melded flavors are most satisfying.
Among the sandwich offerings, I like “The Plot Chickens” which features grilled chicken breast, cilantro, jalapeño cream cheese, cheddar cheese, lemon aioli, arugula, tomato, and ancho bacon on grilled ciabatta. The sandwich is hearty and offers a unique and flavorful set of complex ingredients with a generous slab of chicken.
The restaurant is decorated in a casual fashion too, with walls constructed from reclaimed wood beams from a barn, lamps made from Ball jars, and striated copper tabletops.
Another feature which helps to keep me happy is the relatively low and reasonable prices, most of which fall between $11 and $14. Adding to the value, sandwiches, burgers, and flatbreads all come with complimentary side dishes which are $3.50 if ordered separately
There’s a wonderful selection of about 10 interesting domestic and imported craft beers on tap, including a few from Ithaca, and another almost three dozen beers in bottles. Since most of the craft beers are unique and mostly unfamiliar to us, Red’s goes to the trouble of listing them with amazingly detailed and helpful descriptions. For example, Sloop Beer from Sloop Brewery in New York State, has a description with 60 words including hazy, golden, unfiltered, citrusy juice bomb, IPA, low bitterness, late hopping with a full upfront h0p flavor, etc.
I used to live in Maine and was happy to learn that Allagash beer was available, and was impressed that the bartender took the trouble to serve it with a glass imprinted with the brewery name and with a generous orange slice perched on the rim. Wines are available too but the list is short with only five whites and three reds. Wine by the glass is $7/$8 and $27-$31 by the bottle and they offer eight “signature” concoctions all at $8.
I don’t think the limited wine menu should be a problem as the kind of food — burgers, sandwiches and flatbreads — served at Red’s matches really well with beer and they sure have plenty of varieties in that category.
TIDBIT: Vegetarians, vegans, and diners uncomfortable with gluten won’t have any problems here. Red’s Place has a good selection of entrées and salads for vegetarians looking for something more special than the rather ordinary salads and soups that some restaurateurs cite as vegetarian fare.