Chef’s Best - The Cellar Restaurant & Bar on the River
Growing up, Owego, New York, was the town we passed through while riding in the “wayback” of our Ford LTD County Squire on the way to visit relatives near Newark Valley.
It was the point in the trip where we turned off Route 17 and our arms got a break from trying to get the big rigs to blow their horns as we passed.
It also started what felt like the longest 15 miles to the farmhouse where aunts, uncles and cousins were gathered for whatever holiday du jour we were celebrating.
For me, Owego has never been a destination, but more of a pass-through. Luckily, that changed this week as “Chef’s Best” -- or Google as it turns out -- brought me to the little hamlet nestled along the Susquehanna River.
The concept of “Chef’s Best” is simple. Find a restaurant and ask the chef to make their best appetizer, entrée, and wine pairing. I have no say in the meal. My role is to eat and tell you what I think. My wife, Marisa joins me for these adventures. Truth be told, she is the one with the Culinary Degree, mine came courtesy of 20-plus years watching the Food Network.
As I am not super familiar with Tioga County, I searched the Web, which is how I found The Cellar Restaurant & Bar on the River on Front Street in downtown Owego.
This dinner had an added benefit as it allowed me the opportunity to explore the town and learn a little more about this passthrough from my childhood.
The entry into the Courthouse Square is unique – a 90-degree turn left or right will take you down Front Street, but we opted for the quick jog to the right and back straight, onto Court Street, just past the Tioga County Historic Courthouse.
This is the Owego I remember; quiet and unassuming. In contrast Lake Street, just off the square, offers a collection of unique shops, with storefronts housed in wonderfully preserved and revitalized buildings. Full of life and opportunity, it is the kind of a street that invites window-shopping and slow strolling.
We started at the north end, in the overflowing Early Owego Antique Center, housed in a former Newberry’s store. Walking south past gift shops and a few other restaurants, we grabbed a craft beer at The Farmhouse Brewery before crossing Front Street and landing at The Cellar’s doorstep for dinner.
Overcoming adversity is a constant theme for the Town of Owego, and The Cellar Restaurant & Bar stands as a testament to that fact. The Cellar is housed in a Greek Revival building, rebuilt after fire destroyed all shops in what was then known as “Riverow” in 1949.
Flooding besieged the location multiple times in the 2000s and again in 2011. Bob and Sandy Layman purchased the restaurant in 2003 and immediately learned how to survive and thrive at the location. They bought the building after the third flood in 2006, moving the restaurant above ground, but keeping the traditional Cellar namesake.
The couple worked at the Cellar for years before making the decision to buy it. Sandy Layman was a server for 11 years while her husband worked as a part-time chef, an experience he refers to as “learning to start playing with food.”
Bob Layman started cooking while earning a degree in sociology from the State University of New York at Cortland and then never stopped. He has worked in a variety of fine dining restaurants, even honed his short-order skills at an IHOP. His talents are now on full display with a broad menu and creative daily specials at The Cellar.
We were greeted with a smile and escorted us to the first booth in the Riverside Dining Room. It was close to a lively bar and busy kitchen, but still quiet enough to enjoy what would be an amazing meal and great conversation with Sandy Layman.
She pointed us in the direction of a 2018 Pinot Noir from Estancia Vineyards in Monterey County, California, as the wine for our meal. “It goes with just about everything,” she said knowing they were still deciding the fate of the rest of my menu. The wine had subtle stone fruit notes, was soft and pleasant, but not over-powering.
What I did not realize at the time was their selections for me would be based, in part, on what my wife ordered. They wanted to make sure I had their best -- which was not just one dish – and knew that my tasting would not be limited to my own plate.
For her appetizer, Marisa ordered the daily special, Pottage Soup, a butternut squash and potato soup that was rich in flavor and velvety in texture. This “poor man’s soup” is fulfilling with subtle sweetness but is only offered on rare occasions.
My appetizer – the Chef’s Best – is a restaurant signature, Reuben Balls with homemade Guinness mustard. This is bar food elevated to new heights, kind of like a palm-sized Rueben sandwich. There are great texture contrasts between the house-smoked pastrami with sauerkraut and the crispy breaded coating. What set this over the top for me was the Guinness mustard, stone ground with zero grit and just enough of the bite I like from mustard.
“We don’t just run down to the store for mustard,” Layman said. “This is one week in the making.” Before moving to the entrees, the salad course needs to be mentioned. While often an overlooked part of the meal consisting of random greens and a vinaigrette, at The Cellar, it is yet another highlight of the overall mean. Marisa chose the House Salad, while I was presented with the Caesar. Both were hand-crafted, made to order and complimented by an order of bread and Bob Layman’s herbed olive oil.
Sandy Layman’s years of working the front of the house and paying attention to how guests progress through a meal were evident in the timing of our service. The courses flowed into each other without us every feeling rushed or having to wait for the next dish.
On to the main course.
Marisa chose the Seafood Platter which included prosciutto wrapped shrimp and gnocchi, pan seared scallops with a jalapeño cream sauce, and a seafood cake with lemon aioli. The gnocchi’s rice-paper-thin, crispy coating from butter basting yielded to delicate, pillowy centers that will make you swear off any grocery store freezer gnocchi. The jalapeño cream had just enough zing to balance the sweetness of the scallops while the seafood cake featured the crab and shrimp perfectly.
On a call prior to our visit, Bob Layman asked about my food preferences. While I did not want to say anything to influence his choices, I did want to be honest about my ordering habits. “Typically, if I was going to go to a restaurant, I would just order what I think is fancy, something I wouldn’t make at home,” I said to Layman. “So that is usually a filet mignon. My hope with Chef’s Best is to experience things I would normally not order myself.”
I think he took that as a challenge as I was presented with a Petite Surf and Turf featuring a 4-ounce Gillette Filet Mignon with Smoked Salmon, served with root vegetable mash and green beans.
I know my way around a restaurant filet, but this was no ordinary piece of beef. The filet was well-seasoned with a perfect sear served at a perfect medium rare, topped with a blue cheese peppercorn butter which was offset by the freshness of a red pepper pesto bed.
It has been ten days since our visit to The Cellar and I am taken back to that meal, eating that superb steak, with each word I write.
And while meat might have been my star, the surf part of the dish was also one to remember. The smoked salmon filet was cool, flaky, and full of flavor; impressing my wife, the New Jersey smoked salmon expert. One taste took her back to childhood days visiting delis in New York City for bagels and lox.
When you go out to eat, you want to be wowed. You want an experience, not just a meal. Bob and Sandy Layman provided an amazing culinary adventure. It is one that I anticipate repeating.
I encourage you to jump in your station wagon and enjoy everything Owego has to offer including a meal at The Cellar Restaurant and Bar on the River.
When you dine just ask for the Chef’s Best!
About The Cellar Restaurant and Bar on the River
Address: 196 Front St, Owego, NY 13827
Phone: (607) 687-2016